Accepting Others’ Clutter

January 30, 2011

A few days ago, Mary asked whether we have stopped buying solely to become pickier about what stuff we bring into our lives or whether we hoped to create for ourselves a small cooperative economy. In fact, for me, gratitude for my personal borrowing/lending/giving community was one of the most significant by-products of my no-buying experience in 2009.

Channing and I are lucky enough to have family nearby that we can turn to when we encounter a problem. When I began telecommuting in January 2009, I brought home a printer/scanner/copier from the office and needed a place to put it. Channing’s mom offered me a small red table she wasn’t using. We like the table so much, we kept it during the move. It now holds my sewing machine, a small box of craft supplies, and a basket of fabric. Likewise, when our toaster broke that February, my parents supplied me with an old but still functional toaster they had stored in the attic. This toaster also survived the move; I used it earlier this week.

So, to answer Mary’s questions, yes, I probably would take an open box of aluminum foil or parchment paper if a friend had one to spare. I might also accept a few sheets of construction paper.* In fact, a few people have already offered me these items, but I haven’t taken advantage of their kindness—primarily because I haven’t yet missed anything I’ve run out of.

Giving purpose to others’ clutter could turn out to be an essential component of this experiment. It is a positive way to share the waste-not-want-not mentality and extend my borrowing/lending/giving community beyond family. Lucky for me, Helene has created the building blocks for this extended community with our Voluntary Simplicity group. While I don’t anticipate needing to ask for a lot of help, I am grateful to have a group I’d feel comfortable turning to for support, material or otherwise.

*I’m not sure I want to go down that road again, though. I gave a bunch of craft supplies to a summer camp via Freecycle when we moved. Construction paper and markers made up the bulk of those supplies. I find that both have a tendency to take over an inordinate amount of drawer space. Plus, I’m currently trying to avoid bringing anything else into our home office, which since Thanksgiving has deteriorated to junk room status.



The Meaning of Simplicity

January 26, 2011

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” —Hans Hofmann

Our enthusiastic mentor, Helene, has organized a discussion group to support Melissa and me during our six-month break from shopping. The eight of us will meet monthly to talk about readings from the Northwest Earth Institute’s Voluntary Simplicity course book and any problems (or triumphs!) we NSEers encounter along the way. Our first meeting was on Sunday; the topic of discussion was the meaning of simplicity.

Each of us in the group has spent time over the years paring down and organizing our possessions, but decluttering physical surroundings is only one aspect of voluntary simplicity—and, for us, it isn’t the most difficult or pressing aspect. What several of us are struggling with is reclaiming our time and establishing priorities. Life in Northern Virginia is cluttered with opportunities. There are service and political organizations of all stripes, sports leagues, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, galleries, libraries, and parks—all before you cross the Potomac into D.C., where a whole host of other events and attractions awaits.

Henry David Thoreau escaped to Walden to eliminate these distractions, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” We in the group either do not want to move to the woods or don’t have the means to do so. For us, slowing down, setting priorities, and living consciously will involve negotiating the hustle and bustle of an ever-growing metropolitan area.

This negotiation can, of course, be tough. On top of the wealth of opportunity in this area, the pace of life here is ramped up. Driving anywhere in the car is stressful, never mind the “get out of my way” mentality you encounter once you arrive at the store or the office. Courtesy and community are the first casualties when so many folks are short on time.

Add to this the numerous conveniences we partake in to free up some of that time: buying bottles of water, eating fast food, choosing the car over walking, biking, or public transportation, to name only a few examples. These quick and easy options are not simple, though, because they create unnecessary waste. To practice voluntary simplicity, we will have to be more aware of this waste and start making choices that better align with our values. (We will also have to realize that these choices may initially seem counterintuitive to our friends, family, and colleagues, and that is OK.)

The words that kept coming up during our discussion on Sunday were “deliberate” and “intentional.” We are not forsaking beauty or art or opportunity or even luxury. We are embracing all elements of life in a deliberate way—“sucking all the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau put it. Making an intentional choice—to walk to the store, cook from scratch, read a book, or help a neighbor, for example—is a positive action. The pleasure of simplicity will come from choosing what we want to do and then experiencing it.

Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, and Melissa for their contributions to this post.

Waste Not, Want Not

January 20, 2011

I have been trying harder not to squander my disposable possessions since the infamous aluminum foil incident of New Year’s Eve. This morning I cut my remaining cotton rounds in half so that I can continue to use them into February (while I hunt down a reusable “soft pad” for applying my witch hazel, per the bottle’s instructions). Also, Channing and I have wordlessly agreed to take out the garbage every other week to extend our supply of trash bags (which, for the record, he considers a necessity).

I find, though, that I have been most concerned with not wasting the one item I can buy: food.

I generally plan meals around the previous week’s leftover ingredients, but between feeding my marathon habit and an addiction to smitten kitchen, my frugality flew right out the window over the last six months of 2010.

This year, I’m back on track, making good use of the surplus in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. I decided to hold off on buying another bottle of olive oil to force myself to make a dent in the eight other kinds of fat in the house: salted and unsalted butter, plus flax, toasted sesame, peanut, white truffle, grapeseed, and coconut oils. I threw leftover sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and cashews into an impromptu wild rice salad, and I pulled cooked red kidney beans, garbanzos, and shelled edamame out of the freezer for a bean salad. I used a combination of olive and flax oils in both dressings. The rest of the mushrooms and some leftover arugula went into omelets, which I served with cheesy garlic bread (to prevent eventual waste of a fresh French loaf and some farmer’s market Gouda).

What really needed some attention, though, was the freezer, which has been bursting at the seams with the loot from December’s Polyface buying club drop (the last delivery before the farm’s three-month winter hiatus). Among the items I’m currently storing for winter meat nights are one eleven-pound turkey, two beef roasts, an eight-ounce filet mignon, pork chops, a pound of bacon, two or three chicken carcasses (for stock)—and ten pounds of cow bones. Not one pound. Not two pounds. Ten pounds. It’s like I have an entire cow skeleton—ball-and-socket joints included—in the freezer.

Needless to say, I had to make beef stock, and on Monday I used one of three bags of bones to do just that. On Tuesday I used most of the stock to make Julia Child’s onion soup recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (The rest will go in the freezer until I come up with another use for it. Any suggestions?) I don’t think I’ve ever in my life eaten an entire serving of French onion soup before Tuesday. Limp onions floating in a bowl of broth has never really appealed to me, notwithstanding the promise of a saturated crouton and cheese. Happily for me, dinner turned out to be delicious and did not make me smell like onion for days on end (as was the case with this tasty number), so of course, in the spirit of wasting nothing, we are having leftovers tonight.

p.s. Saw an article in the New York Times this morning about the environmental and health hazards of fireplaces. Channing has now decided to convert ours into “a very large candelabra.”


January 18, 2011

Around the time that we gave up buying in 2009, Channing and I realized our four-bedroom townhouse was not just too big for two people, it was downright burdensome. It turns out downsizing and decluttering go hand in hand with such experiments. When you opt not to buy anything new, you end up reevaluating the worth of what you already have.

The burdensome house had been built in 1968, making it a charming remnant of early Reston. On our initial walk-through, we had been wooed by the built-in bookshelves, wood floors, his and hers offices, and space for a garden out back. What we didn’t factor in when we signed the lease was the time it takes to clean 2,300 square feet (some corners of which had been accumulating dust for forty years) and to maintain a front and backyard (however modest). We were childless and in our twenties. We had better things to do than clean house and attempt to conquer unruly weeds.

Of course, we didn’t get around to house hunting until a year or so after the first round of not buying anything ended, and even then we were looking primarily at three-bedroom townhouses. We wanted to downsize but were afraid to give up the space we had become accustomed to. That we even bothered to look at the two-bedroom condo we eventually leased was kind of a fluke. Channing had tacked it on the list of properties to check out solely because I had lived in the neighborhood before and he thought it would be fun to visit old haunts. And so, thanks to a kitchen full of three-year-old appliances, new carpets, and some pretty lake views, we opted to cut our square footage in half.

In the month leading up to the big move, we started to Freecycle like crazy. To date we have unloaded an entire apartment’s worth of furniture, including 1 full-size bed and mattress, 2 dressers, 2 or 3 bookshelves, 1 comfy chair, 2 desks, 1 armoire, 1 blue couch, 1 TV, 4 kitchen stools, and 1 dining room table with 4 chairs. Once I realized the kitchen had been designed for aesthetics and not functionality or storage, I gave away our second set of dishes, a set of glasses, several mugs, a tea kettle, and a fondue pot. We made four sizable material donations to charity, including seven boxes of books. We gave our entire combined CD collection to my dad (after putting most of the music in our shared iTunes library). We recycled our DVD cases and put the discs in the folders that had once housed those CDs. We generally streamlined our lives.

Still, now six months into our lease, we are not living like paupers. We could not even be considered minimalists. We each have our own bathroom (plus a half bath for guests). We have overflowing bookshelves in the living room, kitchen, and dining room. I have countless sweaters in my closet. Between us we have one desktop computer, a laptop, two iPads, and three iPods. We get (and enjoy) HBO. According to the Center for Sustainable Economy, if everyone in the world lived the way we do, we would need 4.62 earths. (You can calculate your ecological footprint here.)

Yet, with this one move we have reduced our utilities expenses by more than 60% and our household’s carbon emissions by about 42%. (To estimate our carbon emissions, I used EPA’s carbon calculator.) Environmentally speaking, it seems we have made a good choice.

Channing and I agree that the pros of this move far outweigh the cons. It would be nice to have a guest room again, and Channing occasionally misses his office (aka man cave). But we do not miss the old neighborhood or any of that old stuff, and we have plans to continue downshifting and decluttering over the course of the year. We are rethinking our subscriptions to the Washington Post and various magazines. Channing is anxious to donate more books to the library. We are reevaluating our affinity for premium cable programming. And, much to my mother’s chagrin, I’m even considering selling my car. Given the right set of circumstances and enough motivation, we may become minimalists yet.

No Gifts, Please

January 12, 2011

One of the rules for the No Stuff Experiment is we will not accept gifts of new material goods. You are welcome to bake us sweets, or take us to dinner, or tailor a shirt from the consignment shop so it’s just our size, or otherwise shower us with love and affection, but please, don’t give us stuff. If we wanted new stuff, we wouldn’t be doing this experiment.

This rule has become a small point of contention between Channing (who went three months without buying anything in 2009 but who is not participating in the experiment this time around) and me. When I announced that we were out of aluminum foil, Channing said, “I can just buy some for you.” No, no, no!

Accepting gifts would simply ruin the point of the experiment, which is, more or less, to determine what is necessary and what is extraneous. How will I know whether I can live happily without aluminum foil if I don’t try living without aluminum foil? Further, if someone, anyone, buys a brand new replacement item for me from the big box store down the street, a certain amount of energy, time, and resources will go into that purchase—energy, time, and resources that I would prefer to save for another, more necessary use.

So, this weekend we ran out of firewood. We keep the heat at a reasonable 68 degrees, but in the downstairs living area of our condo, it is quite chilly (for two people who have spent all their lives in Virginia). We put on layers and wrap ourselves in blankets, but nothing warms the living room like a nice, toasty fire (in the fireplace, of course).

But, is a fire essential? Absolutely not. Like I said, we have central heating, plenty of t-shirts and sweaters for layering, and several comfy blankets. No matter how many hours we spend in front of the tube for Streep-athon 2011 (8 days, 12 Meryl Streep movies), we will not develop frostbite—or even be especially uncomfortable.

And, can Channing buy firewood for a fire I will benefit from as much as he will? I don’t think so. After a couple sit-downs on the subject, Channing seems willing to humor me. My arguments have at least made him more receptive to the idea of taking my dad up on his offer of free firewood—which needs to be split—by us. (If Channing can drag his bum away from Meryl long enough to wield an ax outside in the cold, I will be taking pictures and they will appear on this blog.)

Reading List

January 4, 2011

In an effort to make this blog at least moderately informative, I am planning to do some research. First on my reading list is Not Buying It: My Year without Shopping by Judith Levine (which I found in the local library). Ms. Levine and her partner embarked on their no-buying project in 2004. They gave up almost all buying—not just new stuff, but also (nonstuff) entertainment, services, and used stuff. They went so far as to cut out meals in restaurants and movie rentals.

That said, like me, they started out the experiment with plenty—so in the grand scheme, “going without” wasn’t going without much. Between them Ms. Levine and her partner had two houses, one apartment, two cars, a truck, and what sounds to me like more than enough skiing equipment. (For sake of comparison, I have one condo, one car, one fancy new road bike, and enough running clothes and gear to run four or five times a week, any week of the year.) I am only three chapters into Not Buying It and not sure what conclusions Ms. Levine reached by the end of her effort, but just skimming the reviews on Amazon makes me want to reevaluate the worth of most of the items in my home.

In any case, with research in mind, I’ve created an NSE reading list. You’ll notice that it is very short at the moment. Dozens of books about American consumerism and living simply are out there, and so I’ve included on this list only books that I’ve already read or that have been recommended to me. This is a living list, folks, so please pass along your own recommendations.

On New Year’s Eve, about twenty minutes before our guests arrived, I used the last six inches of my roll of aluminum foil. I was in the midst of preparing a five-course Italian feast and opted not to run out to the store to replenish my supplies. Needless to say, I have deemed aluminum foil a nonessential item and will be living without it for the next six months. OK, full disclosure: under the sink I have a couple small pieces of foil, including those last six inches, that have been washed and are available for reuse, but none are large enough to cover a 9×9- or 13×9-inch baking pan. Will I have to forgo lasagna and gratins?

I suffered a second casualty this morning when I pulled my citrus juicer out of the dishwasher and discovered it had cracked (but not yet split) nearly in half. We received a huge box of oranges as a Christmas gift this year, and my boyfriend-o, Channing, has been working double-duty using the juicer to crank out fresh orange juice for weekend brunches. Depending on how upset he is when he discovers the problem (he is presently asleep), we may have look for a used one on Freecycle.

Aluminum foil and juicer aside, the first day of the experiment went exceptionally well: I learned that Bernice and her husband, Dave, have decided to join us, at least for a month, and our friend Ed is interested in trying out the experiment as well. Ed seemed to lose a little of his eagerness, though, when I told him I was not planning to purchase any tissues for six months. (I use handkerchiefs and don’t purchase a lot of tissues anyway.) In any case, looks like we may have some guest posts in the future!