At some point yesterday I noticed something. Of the twenty or so women standing in my kitchen, not one of them appeared to be looking at the floor.
Some were stirring milk into their coffee. Some were helping themselves to the blueberry muffins I'd made the night before. Some were hugging old friends; some were introducing themselves to new friends. The clamor of cheerful energetic morning conversation rang in my ears: talk of summer plans, of the school year just wrapping up, of meetings recently attended and tennis games played.
But no one was looking at the floor.
So at least for that moment, I could stop worrying about the fact that the imaginary timer on my party-preparation minutes had run out just before I was able to take out the vacuum.
Two hours earlier, vacuuming had seemed like the most critical task in the world to me. I had twenty women (and one man) coming over to my house for the annual school library volunteers appreciation coffee. And as always, there was a generous scattering of sesame seeds under the breakfast counter where Tim eats his bagel every morning, not to mention a little dirt I'd tracked in from the deck after watering the herbs that morning, not to mention a few little shreds from a spiral notebook Holly had been tearing homework pages out of before she left for school.
But the fact that no one seemed to notice my omission of vacuuming reminded me once again of something I never seem quite able to remember when the responsibility of entertaining is starting to feel like a burden sure to outweigh any fun I might potentially have at the event: no one goes to a party to judge your housekeeping.
More specifically, I've come to realize in recent years, they're just happy that you're hosting and that they're invited.
It's what author Gretchen Rubin might call one of the Secrets of Adulthood, one of those little eye-opener nuggets that takes most of us years to discover, but once we do, it gives us a whole new perspective on our world.
It wasn't as if I'd been a slouch about getting ready for this party. I'd brewed coffee, washed strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, baked muffins and coffee cakes and cranberry bread, cleaned the bathroom, put out seltzer and ice. I'd even put a small sign out on the common driveway helping people to find our house, which can be something of a feat for anyone who hasn't been here before.
In short, I'd focused on the things that common sense tells me really matter to a guest. Good food; strong coffee; friends; conversation. Clean dishware probably matters, and a generally sanitary look to the kitchen. I'd been at a get-together not too long ago where there were tufts of dog hair scattered across the living room furniture; I admit that bothered me a little bit.
But not having vacuumed yesterday morning before my party? It just really didn't look to me like anyone noticed, or particularly cared if they did.
So if I had to distill this into a Secret of Adulthood, the way Gretchen Rubin does for some of her basic tenets in The Happiness Project, it might be this: guests care far more about food, drink and conversation than the level of housekeeping you've done to get ready for a party.
A little bit later, my friend Jean snapped a photo of me talking to our guest of honor, the retiring school librarian. I was self-conscious as I always am when having my picture taken, sure that my outfit would look silly, my hair frizzy, the background cluttered with items I hadn't remembered to put away.
But later in the afternoon, Jean emailed me the photo, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't see frizzy or frumpy or messy. I just saw myself, smiling and talking and looking happy.
All of it serves to remind me that I might sometimes have a tendency to worry too much about appearances: that of my house, and that of myself. In Jean's snapshot, I looked nice enough, and to my guests, my house seemed like a fine place for a party, even if the floor hadn't been vacuumed.
It's so easy to be self-critical, and sometimes it's a constructive stance to take, but other times not. Sometimes the best tack to take is just to enjoy your party. Eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may vacuum. But only if you really want to.