A No Stuff Christmas

December 9, 2011

I started avoiding the shopping mall at Christmas three years ago, shortly after completing my first Voluntary Simplicity group in the summer of 2008. I had always enjoyed the mall during the holidays—the hustle and bustle, the seasonal décor, the shoppers’ enthusiasm—but buying a bunch of stuff from chain retail outlets no longer seemed to jibe with my values. Plus, that summer I had acquired my very own sewing machine and two good pattern books. It was time to put my skills as a seamstress to use.

I’ve made many, many Christmas gifts in the years since—lap quilts, aprons, smocks, coasters, scarves, shawls, handbags—but as rewarding as it is to shape raw fabric or a ball of yarn into something useful, taking on a bunch of craft projects at the end of the year can make December extremely stressful. So this year, with Channing’s support, I’ve devised a different strategy:

1.   Give experiences. This Christmas everyone on my “shopping” list is getting a gift card for some experience or another: a meal at a good restaurant, a day at the spa, or a museum membership, for example. All but two of the cards/certificates I’ve bought are for small businesses (even the little guys allow you to buy gift cards on their websites or over the phone). Not only does this approach avoid cluttering a loved one’s home, but it also saves me a boatload on postage and time. I finished my shopping a week ago having made no trips to the mall or the post office. What’s more, for the first time in our six Christmases together, Channing and I have pooled our resources: we’re giving nearly everyone on our mutual list one gift from the two of us—meaning we’ve been able to give folks tours, trips, meals, and memberships that we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. I have to say I’m pretty stoked about some of the gifts we dreamed up this season—maybe because I would take a nice restaurant meal or a guided tour of anything over a new pair of jeans any day (I just hope our family feels the same way!).

2.   Bake cookies. Without those trips to the mall and post office, I’ve freed up my time for baking. And nothing puts me in the holiday spirit quite like cranking up the Christmas tunes, pulling out my stand mixer, and making an organized mess of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. I tend to overdo it with the holiday cookies—I’m currently six batches into a fourteen-cookie dance card—but I know baking isn’t everyone’s thing. May I suggest, though, that you schedule some time to bake with family and friends this year. Baking cookies with my mom every Christmas is a ritual I don’t plan to give up anytime soon. Not only is cooking with Mom fun, but we also end up with plenty of extras for giving away as impromptu gifts for colleagues, party hosts, and neighbors.

3.   Host a party (or two). No time like the holidays to schedule QT with friends and family. Since Channing and I will be out of town on Christmas Day (see item 4), we have planned special celebrations with our families over the next two weeks. Unlike the usual Christmastime festivities, these dinners will be quiet affairs, during which we can actually enjoy one another’s company without the usual gift-exchange hullabaloo. Plus, next weekend we’re hosting friends who live locally for a big festive dinner. We’ve opted out of Christmas cards this year (because I’m not buying cards or supplies to make cards), so we thought a party would be a great alternative way to spread holiday cheer to our nearest and dearest. To prepare for the dinner, I plan to spend several hours in the kitchen, but if cooking isn’t your thing, you can still invite friends and family over for a merry catered meal or wholesome potluck.

4. Take a Christmas vacation. Channing has been talking about spending Christmas out of town for at least two years, and now, using our honeymoon as an excuse, we’re going for it. On December 22, we’re flying to Nice to spend the holidays in the French Riviera. Sure, traveling overseas is not the simplest option for avoiding holiday-season insanity. It’s expensive. It requires a lot of planning. Jetting across the Atlantic is not exactly environmentally friendly. But the trip has forced us to reconsider how we give gifts (see item 1) and what is most important to us this time of year (see item 3)—lessons we hope to recall when we plan for future Christmases.

At thirty-one, I have not spent a Christmas away from my family until now. Pretty crazy. But breaking traditions every once in a while is a good thing, I think (especially when palm trees are involved, right?). In addition to prompting us to reevaluate how we celebrate, I’m hoping this trip will provide some perspective—so that in the coming years we don’t become complacent or take for granted this annual occasion for feasting and family time.

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Cultivating Resiliency

September 21, 2011

A couple weeks ago Bernice, one of the women in our Voluntary Simplicity group, passed along an idea for a new group: the resilience circle. Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good, and his team developed the concept of the resilience circle—or common security club—in response to the economic crash of 2008. Since 2009 circles have sprouted in more than twenty-five cities across the United States using the resources posted on the Resilience Circle Network’s website.

So, what are resilience circles? They are groups of ten to twenty people with a threefold purpose: (1) to learn about the global economy and what caused the recession; (2) to build relationships based on mutual respect and aid; and (3) to promote social action and local policy that will provide long-term economic security for community members. The Resilience Circle Network has designed a seven-session curriculum to start groups on their way. During these first few meetings, participants learn about and discuss topics such as sources of economic security, debt and overconsumption, the concept of mutual aid, the influence of ecological crises on the consumer economy, the power of corporations, and the efficacy of social action. The network website suggests readings by the likes of Juliet Schor and David Korten and homework assignments that include watching The Story of Stuff, talking to relatives who survived tough economic times, and digging up recipes to share.

The beauty of the resilience circle, though, is not in the highfalutin Web-learnin’ of economic and political theory. Rather it is the emphasis on mutual aid and the fostering of a supportive community. The curriculum for the first seven group meetings includes and encourages practical application of ideas discussed in the readings. The best example of this is Activity 2 in Session 5: offerings of gifts and needs. One by one, participants explain what they can offer to the group (e.g., expertise in sewing, tomatoes from their garden, organizing services) and what they need (e.g., school supplies, cooking lessons, a knitting circle). Everyone is encouraged to make connections and start exchanging.

Are you having trouble getting enough food for the family on the table seven nights a week? Your resilience circle can organize bulk food purchases to reduce individual expenses, or members can share responsibility for making weekday meals for the group. Does your bathtub need caulking? Do you need to weatherize your home? Your resilience circle can probably help. And, in fact, resilience circles across the country have thought up some pretty special ideas. One group hired two teachers to create a low-cost summer day camp for the members’ kids. Another helped a member launch her own business as a professional organizer.

The resilience circle concept relies on a handful of assumptions. You can find a complete list on the website; I’d like to dwell for a moment on just one: “There is tremendous untapped creativity, energy, and talent in our communities. We have the tools we need to make a transition to a new economy: the knowledge, technology, and guiding examples.” The efficiency of this idea—that we can use an existing surplus of creativity, energy, and talent, plus knowledge and technology we already have, to solve our present problems—is what makes resilience circles so appealing to me. You can see this efficiency in the offerings of gifts and needs activity, in the cost savings in the bulk buying example, and in the brilliant summer camp idea.

And, if I’m interpreting this assumption correctly, the folks behind the Resilience Circle Network believe the best way to tap into available talent, energy, and knowledge is to talk to your neighbors.  Why aren’t we doing this already?*

OK, OK. I know building a community of support is tougher than it sounds. For one thing, Americans are generally opposed to asking for help. For another, we want compensation for our offerings. The no-buying group I was part of in 2009, for example, struggled with the concept of doing favors for one another without direct payment of an equivalent good or service. I think many of us were afraid not only that we’d be taken advantage of but also that we wouldn’t know when to say no to requests for help. The Resilience Circle Network provides information about establishing time banks or local currency to address these worries, but perhaps it is more important to begin the group by building a foundation of respect and trust (and, in fact, many of the activities in the initial sessions are geared toward creating these bonds). It is also important, of course, to remember that a support group should be a blessing, a convenience, not a full-time job.

*Some communities are actually founded on this concept. Would a reader who lives in Blueberry Hill like to write a guest post on the benefits of cohousing? Jim? Helene? Bernice?

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 Kindness of Friends

April 15, 2011

If you recall, in January I wrote a couple posts about taking donations. The rules of the No Stuff Experiment are we won’t accept gifts of new items, but we will take surplus, clutter, or used items off others’ hands. In the intervening months, several folks have offered me their unwanted stuff, and I’d say I’ve made a decent haul.

Mary was the first to approach me with an offering: two sheets of red construction paper. With this paper, Channing and I made darling Valentines for each other. We wore them while enjoying a dinner of bœuf bourguignon (Julia’s recipe, made with part of my first batch of beef stock) and watching Love Happens, starring Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston (don’t let the idiotic but hopeful title fool you—this movie is a real downer).

Shortly after the construction paper donation, I received a (reusable) grocery bag full of surplus yarn from my friend Laurin. I taught myself to knit in 2010 (it was my new year’s resolution), and by the end of the year, aside from yarn needed for two overdue Christmas projects, I had only two or three balls of a very funky mohair in my yarn stash. I was pretty bummed about having to give up my new hobby until I could buy more supplies—and I made my dismay known to Laurin when we saw each other in January. She took the hint graciously, and by mid-March my yarn basket was filled to the brim. Scarfs for everyone this Christmas!

Not two weeks later, I received a garbage bag full of unwanted fabric from Channing’s mom. What a surprise! In the bag were several yards of medium and heavyweight cotton, including a fabulous red giraffe print (oh, the possibilities). What I couldn’t use I donated to the Virginia Green Baggers, a group in this area that makes cloth shopping bags and gives them away for free.* As thrilled as I was to have a bunch of new fabric, I was nearly as excited about the extra garbage bag. We have started averaging about three weeks between trips to the dumpster—trying to make our box of trash bags last. Now we have a little more wiggle room.

The most recent donation was more of a loan. I started playing ultimate frisbee again this spring, and my team wanted to show some spirit by purchasing and wearing matching bright pink knee-high socks during the games. I let the captain (who is actually the guy who taught me how to play ultimate in college twelve years ago) know that I had taken a pledge not to buy anything new for six months and politely declined to join the sock order. But, as luck would have it, his fiancée had a pair of these bright pink socks that she was willing to give me for the season. Now, I know it sounds gross to borrow someone’s socks, but they have been washed (and, I assume, properly sterilized), so I will be wearing them the next time I play. If I get some kind of foot fungus, you can say, “I told you so.”

I am grateful to have been on the receiving end of so much generosity, and at some point I’m sure I will repay my four benefactors directly. In the meantime, though, I have paid it forward. I gave my sister a pair of old running pants, which she wore last weekend in her first half marathon. I gave away some CDs, two grocery bags of plastic food storage containers, a set of pots and pans, two glass baking pans, assorted kitchen utensils, and my 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style to some happy Freecyclers. Plus, in February Channing and I made a big donation of clothes, shoes, and other odds and ends to charity. It’s just good karma. Let the giving continue.

*Full disclosure: I sew for this group, and it is special. We borrowed the idea from the Green Bag Lady in Tennessee (with permission, of course). We use only fabric we receive by donation—usually from folks with a fabric surplus but sometimes from people who want to see their old (clean) sheets and curtains and pillowcases repurposed. No money exchanges hands. We’re all volunteers, we accept donations of fabric only, and we’ll give anyone a bag for free, as long as they sign a pledge to use the bag instead of paper or plastic.

This month I joined my first CSA. For twenty-four weeks, beginning in June, I will receive a share of the harvest from Potomac Vegetable Farms and three other organic farms in the area that PVF collaborates with. I am particularly excited because a portion of my share will actually be grown in Fairfax County, only a handful of miles from my house—anyone familiar with this area knows that farmland is hard to come by around here.

Fairfax isn’t the only area in the country where farmland is dwindling. Between 1982 and 2007, more than 23 million acres of U.S. farmland were lost to development, and farmers make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population. More and more of our food supply is coming from overseas (most notably, from China). Between 1993 and 2007, U.S. consumption of imported fresh fruits and vegetables doubled; by 2007, more than 20% of the fresh vegetables Americans consumed were imported.

CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is one locavore effort to combat this trend. The concept originated in Japan and Switzerland in the 1960s and ’70s as a means to increase food security, promote organic farming, and keep food dollars in the local community. The European model migrated to New England in the mid-1980s and has since spread across the United States. Most sources I found counted more than 1,400 CSAs in the country; Local Harvest lists more than 4,000.

CSAs take different forms and offer a variety of products, from fruits and vegetables to meat, eggs, bread, cheese, milk, and even ice cream. Typically, members of a community pay a farmer (or group of farmers or producers) a flat rate for a share of the year’s harvest. Payment is usually made before the growing season so that it can be used to cover the costs of farm operation, including seed, equipment, and employee salaries. Clearly this is a benefit for the farm. As farmer Jeff Poppen puts it, “When a group of people cover the farm’s annual budget, as in CSA, the farmer is able to put all his or her attention into developing the farm’s unique possibilities.” Plus, the farmer is allowed some financial cushion, even if crops are spoiled by weather or disease.

CSA members also reap numerous benefits from this arrangement: access to fresh, local, and often organic produce, exposure to a wide variety of vegetables, and a direct relationship with a farmer, to name only a few. In the past I’ve found these same benefits shopping at the farmers market, and of course, a backyard garden or community garden plot would do the trick (unfortunately, I have neither). What has finally won me over to the PVF CSA, though, is the challenge of it. You never know what’ll be included in your weekly share and in what quantity. Planning good, diverse meals around an abundance of zucchini or eggplant or lettuce will flex my creative cooking muscles.

The other factor that weighed heavily for me was cost. The upfront cost to join a CSA is sizeable, but I’m anticipating a 40 percent savings in my food expenses for those twenty-four weeks (10 percent savings if I factor in the CSA cost). Of course, my current food expenses are significant: about 14 percent of my income. Americans spend on average slightly less than 10 percent of their income on food, a smaller percentage than any other people in history. So, even though I will be spending less than usual on food this summer and fall, I will still be spending (proportionally) more than the average American. By this measure, supporting sustainable agriculture is expensive.*

But, like many before me, I’d argue that not supporting good food and good farmers is even more costly. Conventional, monocrop farming causes loss of biodiversity and poisons our soil, air, and water. Processed and pesticide-laden food jeopardizes our health. Imported meat and produce threaten U.S. food security and cause other, more immediate problems (like the food-borne illness outbreaks so often in the news these days). So, if you haven’t already, please look into CSAs or other alternative food sources near you (for starters, try Local Harvest and Eat Wild), or if you have the means, plant a garden, raise chickens, or keep bees.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996).
  • Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981).
  • Farmland by the Numbers,” American Farmland Trust: Farmland Protection, 2009.
  • Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
  • The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy,” Food and Water Watch, December 11, 2008.
  • Michael Pollan, “The Food Movement, Rising,” New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010.
  • Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
  • Jeff Poppen, “Community Supported Agriculture and Associative Economics,” Biodynamics, Spring 2008.
  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

*But it doesn’t have to be. Many organizations are making fresh, organic, local food available to low-income families. To cite just one example, last summer I harvested corn at a USDA farm in Maryland for Food for Others, an organization that distributes free food to people in need in northern Virginia.

The Compact

February 5, 2011

While reading for our next Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a link for the Compact, a group that embarked on an experiment nearly identical to ours in San Francisco in 2006. I had heard of the Compact before, but I hadn’t seen the blog (which you can find here). Like us, the Compacters were motivated to reduce their impact on the environment by eliminating unnecessary consumption of stuff. Thanks to significant media coverage of their twelve-month effort, offshoots of the Compact have surfaced all over the world (including in the D.C. metro area).

The rules of the Compact were slightly different from ours in that they allowed purchases of socks, underwear, plants and fresh-cut flowers (from local businesses only), and digital music. They also allowed purchases from local artisans (in moderation), primarily as gifts. A couple of us NSEers, knowing we had elected not to allow the purchase of new clothing of any kind during the experiment, replenished our underwear drawers in December. Regarding the plants, I’m a little bummed about not being able to join the flower CSA this summer, but I figure I know enough gardeners to track down some free seedlings, if I decide to attempt another shady deck garden in the spring. We are still debating a digital media exception, and I’ll share that story in another post.

I love the local artisan exception, though, and it made sense for the Compact, given the primary goal of the project: “To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc.” Active participation in a more sustainable local economy also ties in well with the environmental and cooperative motivations of our own experiment. Yet, I’m not suggesting we amend our rules to allow the purchase of hand-knit scarves or artisan ceramics. This is the No Stuff Experiment, after all. Our primary goals are to discern our needs from our wants, to reduce clutter in our lives, and to make personal choices that correlate with our environmentalist values.

With regard to what we can buy, though, thinking locally is key—or at least it has been important to me. Despite the plentiful big box and chain stores out here in the suburbs, we also have a good number of locally owned businesses, and even in the winter, we have opportunities to support local food artisans, like the pasta, bread, cheese, pickle, sausage, and wine vendors at the Fall Church farmers market. I have had no trouble avoiding chain restaurants (so far Channing has managed to keep his Chili’s cravings at bay), and tonight we’re planning a trip to an independently owned movie theater in Fairfax for a double feature of Best Picture nominees.

So, while it’s a bummer to learn I’m not the first to blog about not buying new stuff, it is exciting to find we are participants in a bona fide, if loosely organized global movement of folks not just buying locally but totally rethinking their participation in consumer culture. How inspiring!

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.