If you dig into the cycle of production and discarding of items at all, it becomes pretty clear that we all have a problem. This is not a healthy thing, as individuals or as a society. It has become a sickness, one that is not making anyone happy. In an age of superabundance, when you'd think we'd all be happy because we have not only our needs but most of our wants met, people are severely depressed in increasingly large numbers. There are many causes of depression that I won't get into here, but one of them is definitely the fact that we are too tied to our stuff and the work and the money it takes to get all of that stuff.
So instead of buying new, or even used, I've been trying to see what's out there that people would otherwise discard. I joined my local Buy Nothing Group and another local sharing group as the first steps. People are posting things every single day, either searching for or getting rid of.
What struck me the most was just how much junk people have. Useful items--small appliances, kitchen tools, soaps and bath products, furniture, pet care items, clothes, even food--get posted frequently. But overshadowing those items are things like costume jewelry, novelties given as gifts, wine glass charms, etc. Things that, if we're honest, none of us actually needs. Things we don't really think about or want in our lives. There's a reason they go up on Buy Nothing after a while. And how many more people have these items that just sit unused in a closet somewhere? How many go to charity shops, or straight to the dump?
How many resources have been wasted, how much money has been wasted, on stuff that was made solely to be garbage?
So while I've been getting some items that I need, I've been very particular about what I'm willing to get. Most of what I've received has been from a specific ask that I made--such as winter boots for the Munchkin. Only a few times have I said I was interested in something that was posted by others. Most notably, bricks from a chimney that was taken down and some old paving blocks. I'll use them in the garden next summer when we re-do it, the bricks to make an herb spiral and the paving blocks to re-do two small beds that are currently made out of rotting lumber.
|Free planter boxes that|
the previous owners of
our house left for us.
But if you think that the sharing groups are the only source of free stuff, you would be very wrong. People put stuff out curbside with "free" signs frequently. There's the Craigslist "free" section. People are constantly getting rid of perfectly serviceable and useful items if you ask around.
Over the summer, my office moved to a new location. With the new location, the people in charge went a little crazy. Nearly everything was new for the new office. New furniture! New silverware! And as it turned out, new appliances.
When we moved into our house we knew that we'd need to get a new fridge. The one the previous owners left was an early 90s model and quite the energy hog. Plus, the design was terrible. It's a side-by-side that was very narrow so food was always getting shoved to the back, forgotten and moldy. We hated it.
When the office manager mentioned that the office was getting a new fridge for the new location, I asked what was happening to the old fridge. "Old" meaning that it was 3 years old, a fancy stainless steel one with the fridge on top and freezer on the bottom. The office manager offered it to me right then, as long as I could pick it up myself, and I happily accepted.
We also took the microwave and the toaster oven. And I'm still kicking myself for not taking one or two of the bookshelves. It was a crazy free-for-all, with people claiming a bunch of stuff that wasn't being moved to the new office. So much of it, though, still went to the landfill. The night we went to get the appliances I saw a homeless man digging through the dumpster. He pulled out a few of the things that I had been the one to throw away earlier that day because I had no idea what else to do with them. That, I do not hesitate to tell you, made me feel very ashamed.
As for the old fridge, I sort of thought that we could turn it into an ice box on the porch for winter but HusbandX nixed that idea. I tried giving it away through various means but no one would take it, not even for free. So I finally paid the city to haul it away after living with two fridges in our kitchen (one unplugged) for about a month.
Not just abundance, overabundance
The final source for free stuff in our lives is one that I'm hesitant to bring up. My brothers and I have been cleaning out our parents' house for a while now. My mom moved at the end of summer into a care facility, which has been a wonderful thing. She's so close now, and less stressed out. She lives with other people like herself--the facility is only for memory care--so no one thinks that she's strange. She's found a community and, in general, is quite happy.
But. This has left us, her kids, with the task of cleaning out her house. I know, absolutely know, that my parents would never have willingly left this task to us. Especially not in this way. But we don't get to choose how we die, so here we all are.
The reason I hesitated to bring this one up is because I don't think of my parents' house as a source of free stuff. Cleaning it out has been a mixed bag of an exhausting, burdensome chore, a source of stress and anxiety, a look into family history, and a source of hilarity. We've found the most bizarre collection of items, some of which surely weren't meant to be saved and others of which we'll never know why they were saved. A caftan-like garment made out of an old sheet? (The only thing I could think of was that it was, at some point, used as a shepherd's robe in some nativity play.) The world's creepiest old porcelain doll? What great-grandparent did that originally belong to? And why was my dad's briefcase from the 80s inexplicably stuffed with nothing but pennies and shoved in the attic?
|I wasn't kidding about the briefcase of pennies.|
I found an old journal of mine that made me laugh until I cried, just from reading the first page. It just complains, in a whiny way, that my older brothers were being so mean to me. When I read some of it to one of said brothers he asked, "1996? ...Yeah, that sounds about right."
We've taken what useful items we could. We likely won't have to buy dish towels for many, many years. Some kitchen implements my parents had were far nicer than ours and will last much longer. We have bath towels and furniture and sheets.
But most of what we've gotten to use has been sentimental. The Munchkin and Little Miss Sunshine get their great-great grandfather's childhood bedroom furniture. The kids' clothing is useful, but it's not utility that I'm thinking of when I see one of my kids in a sweater my mom knitted for one of us. My dad's old woolen bathrobe is functional, yes, but wearing it makes me think of all the times I saw him wearing it as I was growing up, all the old Christmas morning pictures in which he's wearing it. It won't bring my dad back, but it can keep him close, keep his memory alive and present in my mind.
There's plenty of stuff that we're taking in, however, that we have no idea what to do with. A couple of dresses from, I think, the 20s? They're so fragile that they can't be worn, but they obviously had meaning for whoever saved them. And they are beautiful, but...?? Many items we did not take, even though they might well be valuable or have family history attached to them. What would we do with my grandmother's teacup collection? Or the heirloom silver?
This has been yet another thing that throws in my face how much junk most of us have. Cleaning out the house my parents lived in for 25 years has been a monumental task purely because so much of what they kept was useful at one time, but is no longer. My mom's college textbooks? Those got recycled. No one wants 40-year-old biology books, and for good reason. They're in the Library of Congress and that's good enough.
|A bouncy ball that had been chewed on by one of our|
old dogs. I'm assuming this was saved by accident?
Businesses are very fond of giving away items to employees that have the company name stamped on them. But what the heck is a stainless steel bowl good for that has a company name stamped on it, even if it is a Paul Revere replica? ...We're now using that as a dog food bowl. Sorry, Mom and Dad!
Since HusbandX and I are at the point in our lives that we're getting stuff like this from our own companies, it's making me think much harder about it all. My kids will not care about a plaque I might get for five years of service. I wish I could change corporate culture at least to the point that more meaningful gifts are given out, or less permanent ones. Flowers and charitable donations, as my company does for births and deaths in employee families, seems like a much better way to honor someone than a plaque or bowl with the company's name all over it.
One of my new goals in life is to pass down next to nothing to my children that isn't useful or sentimental for them. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to ensure that we are good stewards of what is in our house. This is a process, not a one-time thing like spring cleaning. We try to limit what comes into our house--which is much harder said than done when children are involved. Everyone wants to get them stuff. New toys! New stuffed animals! Fancy dress clothes! I was scraping my mind earlier trying to remember if we'd ever bought either of our kids a toy in their entire lives. I finally remembered that we bought some blocks for the Munchkin's 4th birthday. But that's it. In five years of having children we've only ever bought one toy. So why do we have four bins of toys? Because it's really hard, if not impossible, to say no when someone is being generous and wants to give your kid a gift. How ungrateful! But at the same time, we have toys in our house that rarely, if ever, get played with. I'm still trying to figure out how to work through this problem without major tantrums and without offending anyone.
The grownup stuff and the baby stuff is easier. I've been not only getting things through Buy Nothing, I've also been giving them away. Almost as soon as something is identified as being of no further use to us, it's been posted for others to take. In some cases, things have been set aside for friends. I've had a few friends trying for babies so I've kept the clothes from Little Miss Sunshine in case anyone has a girl. If not, those will also go the Buy Nothing route or to a homeless shelter for families.
We're still under a mountain of Stuff. We're not minimalists, and we even still have boxes to go through from our move. Some items are just difficult to know what to do with. But we're working through it, and these projects have made me by turns thankful for our abundance and disgusted by the overabundance. We could do without so many of our things, even many of the useful ones could be gotten by without, that it makes me cringe when I think of all the people out there who are scraping by without much of anything at all. Can we be ethical people when we allow there to be such disparity in terms of wealth and material abundance? I didn't expect all of these questions to be raised within myself when I started on this journey, and I don't have the answers. What I do know, now, is how much less I need than what we're taught we should have.