I’ve fallen in love with simplicity. Since discovering minimalism, I’ve been really questioning what I do and don’t need. But some of my most meaningful discoveries have been made out of necessity.
I grew up in a very low-income family, but we still had the typical labour-saving devices. Dishwasher, tumble dryer, microwave, electric kettle, toaster. Then, in my second year of uni, I moved into a house where none of these were provided.
At first, I dreaded the thought of washing up by hand every day. I’d barely ever had to do it! But I soon realised it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was a good way of practicing mindfulness, since my hands were occupied but my mind wasn’t.
To begin with, drying laundry was a nightmare. It was still damp even after three days of hanging up indoors, and often developed an unpleasant smell. Eventually, I learnt to only wash clothes on dry days and hang them outside instead. I even started to enjoy hanging clothes on the line – it was somehow therapeutic. Being an environmentally-conscious person, it felt good to be saving electricity.
For the short periods we were without a toaster and kettle, I enjoyed boiling water in a pan to make tea, and making toast on the grill. It was nice not to have so many appliances cluttering up the kitchen. Things took a little longer, but it didn’t matter. It was sometimes nice to slow down and not always be rushing.
My parents gave me an old microwave which had been lying around in the shed, but I found myself using it less and less. Most things tasted better when cooked on the hob or in the oven. I began to dream of a simple kitchen with only the essential devices.
I also began to wonder why we feel we need all these appliances in the first place. The answer, I suppose, is that our lives have become increasingly busy. We’re always in a rush, and we don’t have time to wait around. We’ve also become accustomed to convenience, and soon become impatient if things take too long.
These days, the cost of living is so high that a couple living alone will probably both have to work. Previously, of course, one would have a job whilst the other would take care of the house. This must be one reason why labour-saving devices became so popular. In a way, I think this is a shame. A huge proportion of people feel their jobs are meaningless or unsatisfying. With many modern jobs, it’s hard to see how they benefit anyone. Housework, on the other hand, always feels useful; it would be nice if it was recognised as real work. However, I don’t think it’s a great idea for one person to earn all the money and another to do all the housework. To me, it seems better to split both tasks so no-one becomes resentful.
Do labour-saving devices detach us from our work?
When I left uni and suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, I noticed something strange. After loading my clothes into the washing machine, I’d be hit with an odd sense of detachment. It was as if I was disconnected from the process of washing my clothes, because the machine was doing it for me. It felt wrong when I came back later and my clothes were almost magically clean. And when I used my parents’ dishwasher, it felt like cheating! Sometimes the dishwasher and washing machine would both be going, and I’d be sitting around without much to do. This seemed silly.
I really crave work that directly benefits myself and those around me. It brings me great inner peace to sit at the table with my mum, peeling apples the neighbour has brought us from his orchard. It’s the same when I go blackberry-picking, or cook a meal for my family. It’s work, but the benefits are so clear that it doesn’t feel like it.
For this reason, I really admire self-sufficient communities. Everyone chips in, whether it’s to produce food and energy, repair things or build homes. Money doesn’t change hands, because it doesn’t need to. I sometimes think the devices intended to make our lives easier actually make things more complicated.
Of course, I am generalising a lot here. Some people have meaningful jobs which they love and wouldn’t change for the world. And I don’t think machines and labour-saving devices are evil. In reality, I would probably tire of washing clothes by hand very quickly! But I do think there’s a middle ground. I’ve written before about the manual washing machine I used on a permaculture farm in North Wales. Turning the handle just 120 times was enough to wash our clothes. It felt good to be doing at least some of the work myself, and of course it helped the environment too. It’s worth noting that many appliances, especially small ones like kettles and toasters, are very power-hungry. We might save considerable energy by doing without them.
This brings to mind the Rayburn in my childhood home. It heated the house and the water, but also functioned as a stove. We turned up in the evenings to cook, and boiled an old-fashioned kettle on it at the same time. This meant we could boil water for tea without using any extra fuel. We could also toast bread on the hotplate. When it was cold, we all gathered around the Rayburn. And it did an excellent job of drying laundry, along with wet shoes and coats. Essentially, it could be a boiler, oven, heater, toaster and tumble dryer all in one – simplicity itself, and extremely durable. Looking back, we could definitely have done without most of our appliances.
Finding balance is important. I think some gadgets, like food processors, are exceptionally useful. And I’m going to keep using my (second-hand) laptop and phone. But I will also strive to keep my life as simple as I reasonably can, because I know that’s what brings me happiness. What about you?