Six-Month Re-Up

June 30, 2011

Inspired by a trip to Mint Condition in Old Town Alexandria this weekend, I have decided to go whole hog: I’m opting in for six more months of not buying anything new.* For one thing, I’m convinced there is enough lightly used stuff out there to fill nearly all of my shopping needs (with the possible exception of underroos). For another, the obstacles that the second half of the year will throw at me—namely, the wedding, my birthday, and the Christmas season—just might make the lessons of the No Stuff Experiment sink in a little deeper.

I’ll confess up front that I anticipate having to make a few exceptions:

1. Wedding stuff: I found a perfect white linen dress at Mint Condition, so hooray! No new wedding dress for me. However, Channing and I do still plan to buy wedding bands (brand new from Brilliant Earth) and I’m also considering decorating the buffet and bars at the party with cut flowers, which I’d like to pick myself at a local farm. All the other stuff at the party (we’ve started calling it the “unity celebration”—makes me laugh every time) will either be a rental or food, so I’m expecting rings and flowers to be the extent of my wedding-related cheats. Well, except for . . .

2. Gifts: Much to my chagrin, I’m going to have to relax my rules on gifts. As many times as I politely request that people not buy us anything, I can’t control the generous whims of our friends and family. Channing and I will probably have to accept a few new material goods into our homes come August. We will do so graciously.

3. Trash bags: Ugh. Channing bought kitchen trash bags a couple of days ago. I didn’t stop him because, frankly, I have not had the time to think up a mutually agreeable alternative. (Is it just me, or are time and convenience the biggest obstacles to living in an environmentally responsible manner?) We use reusable bags whenever we head to the store—grocery or otherwise—so we don’t generally have on hand paper or plastic bags large enough for the kitchen receptacle. Regardless, the damage is done; the bags have been purchased. We started the year with fewer than twenty bags, and we ran out the last week of June. Not too shabby. I figure we can make this recent purchase last equally long, and maybe I’ll come up with a nonplastic or repurposed alternative in the meantime.

Other than these three exceptions, the rules will remain the same: no new unessential stuff. I’m doing just fine without the aluminum foil, parchment paper, freezer bags, and cotton balls. And, I have a new Northern Virginia consignment shop circuit and charitable friends and family to rely on if I find myself needing clothes, shoes, or kitchenware. (My wish list, by the way, has dwindled to only two items: (1) a bike jersey with pockets or a little saddle bag and (2) fingerless bike gloves. If you know anyone looking to unload these items, please send them my way.)

I also have about a dozen ideas for posts bouncing around my noggin and a couple interested guest writers. So, here’s to six more stuff-free months—and a more lively blog in the coming weeks!

*And you all thought this was going to be a wrap-up post. Ha!

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Channing and I headed to the courthouse on Monday this week to get our marriage license. We are now legally obligated to get hitched in the next sixty days. Hooray!

The plan is to get married in a small ceremony in early August and have a party for all our family and friends the following weekend. August is coming up quick, so with Melissa and Helene’s permission, a couple weeks ago I bent the rules a tad by buying party invitations.

I didn’t make the decision to violate the rules (yet again) lightly. Channing and I even toyed with the idea of sending an Evite to party guests in order to avoid the numerous environmental costs of shipping paper via the U.S. mail. But, the thing is, we love invitations by mail. Whenever we throw a party, we send homemade invites to all our potential guests. Unfortunately, Channing’s family is gigantic (relative to mine, anyway), and I didn’t have enough card stock on hand to make wedding invites by hand. So, remembering the plantable Christmas card Nan gave me last December, I began a search for eco-friendly invitations embedded with seeds.

My search led me to a company called Botanical PaperWorks, which sells a variety of paper products made from postconsumer paper waste and wildflower, herb, or vegetable seeds.* They have several attractive wedding invitation designs, nearly all of which were perfect for us, given the venue of our party (the local nature center). Once our guests have marked the pertinent details of the event on their calendars, they can plant the invitation and watch a variety of wildflowers grow. Oh, and we have asked them all to RSVP by e-mail, which should cut our wedding’s carbon footprint a bit.

I don’t anticipate having to buy anything else for the wedding during these last few days of the Experiment—that is, I don’t anticipate buying anything new. I am hoping to find a vintage white dress to wear to both the ceremony and the party (and whenever I want thereafter). I finally started looking for this dress last weekend while I was in Maryland checking out a master’s program at the Tai Sophia Institute. I visited three consignment shops and came up with nothing—well, except the realization that there are consignment shops nearby with a pretty great selection of lightly worn everyday clothes. That’ll be good to know next time I want to replenish my wardrobe.

So, I haven’t had luck in brick-and-mortar stores yet (I’m planning to visit another three in Virginia this coming weekend), but I have found a couple of possibilities on Etsy. Not only does Etsy offer a pretty amazing selection of vintage dresses, it also hosts a few vendors who make clothes from repurposed fabric. It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet. I have my eye on this one dress in particular, but it’s made to order and I’m not sure the vendor can finish and ship it in my six-week timeframe. Better, earth-wise, to find something off-the-rack at a store nearby (or in a friend’s closet) anyway, right?

Once July rolls around, and the Experiment is officially over, Channing and I will be purchasing wedding bands. (The wedding band purchase is actually the primary reason I wanted to wait until August to get married.) This week I found an ethical jewelry vendor online: Brilliant Earth. All of their wedding bands are made with recycled metals and conflict-free stones. I have to say I’m pretty jazzed about this find.

Other than the invitations, the dress, and the ring, I don’t anticipate having to purchase anything for the wedding outside of the No Stuff Experiment’s parameters (stay tuned for the lowdown on our fabulous caterer, though). And, we are asking our family and friends not to give us gifts—our kitchen is well stocked with appliances already, we have plenty of linens, and honestly, our condo is so small, we couldn’t fit much else in it anyway. (To appease the insistent gift-givers, we have set up a registry. The only item on it is help with a down payment on our first home—mostly because I have not yet figured out how to register for sparkling wine or donations to charity.)

*Is it buying something new if the product is made from waste?

Fear and Decluttering

June 9, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1 1/2

Leigh Glenn was one of the “Not Buying It” participants in early 2009. This is a guest post about her efforts to pare down paper and other things.

Binders and stacks of periodicals—Handwoven, ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) News, and Ecologist—dot the floor of a room that I’ve converted into an office/craft room. As I Freecycle the back issues, I’ve come to realize that I’m a “ninfomaniac”: Acquiring information turns me on, makes me feel warm and safe. I’ve spent more than 20 years denying that my paper tiger ever needing taming—or ever could be tamed. Only recently have I recognized that my home environment influences how I feel and how I view the world. This and a desire to live free of clutter have prompted me to take stock—of all the paper and, more importantly, of how I’ve gotten here.

More than a decade ago, when I used to subscribe to the Post, I didn’t have time to read much during the week, so I let the newspapers stack up. I’d spend Sundays reading through the previous week’s, or even the previous month’s, trying to “get caught up.” I remember ending Sundays and looking to the workweek ahead feeling drained. Still, I never suspected that feeling compelled to acquire information had anything to do with the energy loss. Nor did I suspect that I had a problem.

I may not be a hoarder like those on TV, but the underlying tendencies are the same. Acquiring and letting go are simply two sides of the same coin—one seems to help allay fears around lacking something or depriving oneself, the other seems to trigger such fears. Info acquisition has made me feel smart, and where I haven’t felt smart, I’ve rested on the fact that at least I had the information I needed—somewhere, if only I could find it!

What else? Take the Handwovens or the ALBC News. In the past, I’d dream of weaving something great as well as having enough land to help conserve some particular domestic breed of animal—Dexter cattle or Karakul sheep. But my loom gathers dust and I don’t have the money for land. Still, parting with these makes me feel a sort of loss, a giving up of dreams. As with fears around feeling stupid, I can linger in that space if I choose, but I choose not to. I’ve begun to cultivate a faith that, as I give these up, I’m making more room to activate new dreams, new knowledge, or old dreams I’ve yet to realize. And therein lies the major fear: that I’m somehow so inept, so lacking in tenacity, that I cannot develop a goal, make a plan to work it, and make a dream come true. Clutter-free space and the ability to develop a goal go hand in hand. The clutter makes me feel as though I never get anywhere on anything because of the “unfinished business” reminders scattered everywhere. It’s time to cut losses and welcome gains.

That may be the deeper spiritual significance of endeavors like “Not Buying It” or the “No Stuff Experiment.” If clutter is just another word for “unused stuff,” the very process of decluttering helps me by getting rid of the useless. And once I’ve done that, I can focus on those activities I truly enjoy and want in my life.

I have a long way to go. But the feeling of being swamped with stuff—coupled with an unsteady income—has spurred me to stop buying all but necessities, such as food, food-related items, or those things that will deepen my knowledge of human health and ecology. The process of trying to pare down has proven to me, time and again, that it’s far too easy to bring things in and often very difficult to push them out. Better not to buy in the first place—or at least to have multiple “stops” built into the process.

 

On Sunday, May 22, we had our last Voluntary Simplicity discussion.* The topic of our reading for the month was “Living Simply on Earth”—or, how to incorporate the concepts we discussed in previous sessions (simplicity, conscientious consumption, meaningful work, and time management) into our daily lives and why we should do so.

An excerpt from Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community set the tone for the chapter and resonated with many of us. In the essay, Berry wrote that government and corporate policy will not be enough to address the problems of global warming and environmental degradation. Each of us will have to take personal responsibility for our use of resources. We regular folks are a large part of the problem. “There are not enough rich and powerful people to consume the whole world,” Berry wrote; “for that, the rich and powerful need the help of countless ordinary people.”

Perhaps Berry’s essay resonated with me because he more or less validated the No Stuff Experiment. Over the last five months I’ve had many a “what does it all mean” moment. Has the Experiment been worth it? Have I learned anything meaningful? Berry wrote, “We are almost entirely dependent upon an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant.” One thing I have found myself falling back on when I have these moments of uncertainty is the research (however superficial) I’ve done to expose the mysteries of our economy and to determine how my choices impact the world around me. The lessons I’ve learned in this process have changed not only my spending habits but my living habits as well. Among the other changes I intend to make when I venture back into the world of the shopping is what Berry describes as limiting “economic geography” to minimize environmental impact, that is, buying locally sourced and crafted goods in order to keep our money in our community as long as possible. As controversial as this shift en masse may be, particularly for executives at Wal-Mart or the New York Stock Exchange or for the governors at the Federal Reserve, my own limited, independent study suggests it makes some good sense. But I digress…

At the VS meeting we talked about places that evoked either a feeling of community or a particularly vivid memory for us, places we could associate with collective responsibility. Not long ago, Sally visited a small-town newspaper shop. The smells of newsprint, tobacco, and mint in the air there transported her to her childhood home in New Jersey and specifically reminded her of the Sundays she spent with her family. Bernice recalled the borough where she lived in Pittsburgh as a child. Everything she needed was within a three-block radius from her home, and she and her family knew their neighbors and the local shop owners. In this close-knit neighborhood, she felt like she was at the center of the universe, in a place where she belonged. Nan talked about the neighborhood where she lived in California, home to a florist who dispensed flowers gratis to persistent children. Helene and Judy find a sense of community at Blueberry Hill, the cohousing development where they live. In each of these places, several principles of simple living are at work: deliberate consumption; conservation; time well spent on family, friends, and good work; and finding pleasure in daily life.

The last reading of the chapter, “Every Day Ought to Be Earth Day” by Ann Lovejoy, emphasized that last principle: finding pleasure in daily life. Lovejoy wrote, “It is vital to our wholeness and well-being that we do something that restores us and brings us joy every day.” The attention paid to relaxing, feeling gratitude, and enjoying life is what most appeals to me about voluntary simplicity. Plus, when I make an effort to live deliberately, I find it’s a lot easier to uncover the happiness tucked away in various corners of my life—happiness like my last morning swim before the triathlon this weekend, or spending lunch outside on the most perfect day of spring thus far, or sliding a whole chicken, slathered in butter and stuffed with dill, in the oven. Yum.

*That is, we had our last discussion of a specific chapter in the NWEI Voluntary Simplicity book. We’re meeting again in June for a potluck.

Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Nan, and Sally for their ideas and memories.

The Joys of Cycling

June 1, 2011

In December, as a late birthday present to myself, I bought an entry-level road bike. I had been meaning to buy a bike for years and had been setting aside money for this purchase for several months—all so that I could eventually become a bike commuter and maybe participate in a triathlon or two.

I took my new bike out for a joyride once in December and quickly realized that there’s not much joy to be found in cycling in thirty-degree temperatures. My gloves were too thin, my tights were too thin, and I should’ve worn at least two pairs of socks. I planned to layer up and get out on the bike again before winter ended, but alas, the weather just got colder, the roads got icier, and my enthusiasm for cycling went down the tubes.

Until April, that is. Shortly after I ran the half marathon with my sister, I realized the triathlon I had registered for in January was now only six short weeks away. If I wanted to survive the twelve-mile bike course, I needed to log some time on the saddle. I started by doing a couple rides on my own on a bike trail about a mile from my house, the W&OD (for Washington and Old Dominion—it takes its name from the railroad line that used to follow the same route). Even though I felt more comfortable on my bike with each ride, I decided to enlist the help of someone with a few more years of cycling experience under her belt, i.e., Melissa, who, if you recall, is also participating in the No Stuff Experiment. Melissa has taken me out on a few rides now, including my longest ride to date—a thirty-three-mile roundtrip from Ashburn to Purcellville. During our rides, she has imparted some invaluable knowledge. For one thing, she showed me how to safely stop and start cycling at intersections (the key is to get your butt off the bike seat—who knew?).

I’m still a novice cyclist to be sure, but this weekend I achieved the primary goal of my bike ownership: I became a bike commuter. I rode my bike to the office on Friday (for only the second time), and after work I rode to my credit union and then to the Reston Association’s office to get summer pool passes for Channing and me. On Sunday I rode to the library and the grocery store to pick up as many items as would fit in my backpack. And on Monday I rode to my parents’ house for a Memorial Day cookout.

I discovered that riding a bike in 90-degree heat does make for some unsightly sweat stains if you’re not wearing appropriate clothing, but thanks to the inevitable breeze, cycling is just as comfortable temperature-wise as sitting in a car on a hot summer day. In fact, it’s a heck of a lot more fun. When I arrived at the library on Sunday only to find it closed for the holiday, I wasn’t nearly as upset as I would’ve been had I drove there because it wasn’t a wasted trip. By the time I got home, I had burned about five hundred calories and I had watched a big black snake (a northern black racer?) wiggle across the bike trail. (It was only the second adult snake I’ve seen in the “wild” in my life, and although it was probably harmless, it would’ve scared me to death had I not been a safe distance off the ground on my bicycle.)

I managed to run nearly all of my errands this weekend using the W&OD and a couple other major trails in the area. If the reading I did over the weekend is any indication, Reston has a better bike infrastructure than many towns in the United States. In addition to a big chunk of the W&OD, which runs nearly forty-five miles from Arlington to Purcellville, Reston has an extensive pedestrian path network, which cyclists can also use. I find these paths extremely convenient for avoiding heavy vehicular traffic and left-hand turns on the road. (Of course, Reston’s bike infrastructure is far from perfect. Riding on the pedestrian paths can be just as treacherous as riding in the street when too many folks are out running or walking their dogs.) Another plus for cyclists in Reston is the prevalence of bicycle parking. This weekend I found a bike rack at all of my destinations but one (my credit union, in Herndon).

Not every community is so lucky to have bike trails and designated bike lanes, and this lack of infrastructure is perhaps the biggest obstacle for bike commuters. But cycling has so many benefits that it’s worth giving it a try in your community nonetheless. The first that spring to mind are the health benefits, which include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, stroke, and type-2 diabetes, less anxiety, and increased muscle mass and physical fitness. Cycling has several obvious environmental benefits as well, not the least of which is energy efficiency. A car emits about a pound of CO2 for every mile is it driven. A bike, on the other hand, releases no emissions, and runs on the energy of the cyclist (energy derived from the food he or she eats) rather than on fossil fuels.

Less obvious are the economic benefits, both for the cyclist and for the community. The average American spends more than $8,000 per year on car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, registration fees, taxes, parking, and tools and repairs—the necessities of car ownership. Bike ownership costs a small fraction of that sum. Most of the money you spend on your car—to pay big auto companies, big insurance companies, and big gas companies—leaves your community to pad the pockets of corporate executives. The cycling economy is often more localized, with independent bike stores that build, sell, maintain, and repair bikes aplenty.

Finally, a few tips for other novices like me: First, be sure to plan your route in advance, keeping traffic volume and patterns in mind. I try to plan bike trips at times when traffic is light, and I choose routes that avoid left-hand turns. Second, when you’re out on the road, obey all traffic signs and signals, as you would were you driving a car. This is the law in Virginia, and it’s just plain safer. Oh, and when you’re stopped at a red light, make sure the cars around you know you’re there. Don’t stop in a driver’s blind spot. Third, always wear a helmet. Duh.

May was Bike Month, so you can find a ton of recent news stories about cycling and bike safety via a quick Internet search. Your local cycling club probably also has a website with safety tips and route maps. If you’re interested in reading more about the bicycle economy, I’d recommend Elly Blue’s Bikenomics series in Grist.