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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Wedding Wrap-Up, Part 1

September 14, 2011

Exceptions (Or, One Month of Justifying Purchases with “It’s for the Wedding”; Or, Enjoying an Influx of Generosity)

Aside from the occasional rain shower on party day, Wedding Weekend 2011 went off without a hitch. The ceremony was short, sweet, and included a surprise guest—Channing’s brother Chip (we thought he was flying in from Austin later that evening). Our first dinner as newlyweds, at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm four hours after the ceremony, was pretty darn amazing. On Friday we had brunch with Channing’s family, caught up on some in-theater movie viewing, and attended a cookout with my family. And then, of course, there was the party—but I’ll cover that in part 2.

First, the exceptions: I’ve already confessed to buying the wedding band and the invitations. I’m hoping to avoid buying thank-you cards. Channing claims he has “seventeen thousand” notecards lying around here somewhere. If he doesn’t, I think we’ll create our own thank-you postcards with the card stock I have among my crafting supplies.

Despite my new aunt-in-law’s generous offer of fresh lilies and black-eyed Susans from her garden, I ended up buying a few organic bouquets from Potomac Vegetable Farms. Actually, Channing bought my wedding-day bouquet from the PVF farm stand when he went to pick up our CSA share for the week, and I picked up flowers for the party at the PVF booth at the Reston farmers market on Saturday morning. Talk about convenient! Plus, my cousin Paige, an expert florist, did our flower arranging, using vases my parents had stored in their garage.

Among the unexpected exceptions were a pair of bridal flip-flops, a gift from my friend Nan. My witness, Sarah, took some great photos of Channing and me on our wedding day, and I had a couple shots printed to display at the party (in frames from my personal collection). I bought four bottles of citronella spray to help party guests fend off mosquitoes (my dad also rented fans for this purpose). And, last but certainly not least (on the guilt-o-meter, I mean), I purchased some makeup.

Makeup! I wear very little makeup, and in December, when Helene, Melissa, and I met to set the rules for the Experiment, I was adamant about not including makeup on the essential toiletries list. But then, after receiving some generous gift certificates from the new in-laws, I found myself in the Red Door Spa for a facial. After the facial, I was offered a complimentary makeup refresher, during which their in-house makeup expert convinced me (with very little prodding, I might add) to buy some eye shadow along with some “primer” for my eyelids. Who knew they had such a thing? I’m such a sucker.

Then there were the gifts. As I’ve mentioned before, Channing and I decided not to register, even though people had us convinced that not registering would prompt a deluge of unwanted stuff from our well-meaning wedding guests. Happily for me, these people were wrong. In fact, very few of our wedding gifts fell into the “stuff” category. I received some (awesome) bike gear and the greatest pair of sunglasses ever, and together Channing and I accepted a few household items, like a photo album and a glass cake stand and dome. Oh, we also received a super sleek and handy compost pail, which is going to cut down our food waste so much that I hate to even list it among the “stuff.” And that’s pretty much it.

In the “redeemable for stuff” category, we received a couple gift cards for Target and Crate and Barrel. I figured we could just hold off on using them until 2012, maybe after we’ve moved into whatever house we end up purchasing. Channing disagreed. He ran out to Target without me a couple Fridays ago because he thought we desperately needed a copy of It’s Complicated on DVD for the home library. (It turns out he was right—we’ve already watched it twice.)

The majority of the gifts we received were generous donations to the Kimmelhorn Townhouse Fund (thank you!). Some folks gave food or beverage gifts, donations in our names to charitable organizations, and movie theater passes. And, lastly, there were the homemade gems: a homegrown garlic bulb (yum!), a photo on canvas, and a mini antique chest of drawers filled with date ideas, quotes, and cash for our first year of marriage. I love the creativity.

We’re pretty lucky to have such loving, caring, munificent friends and family. I certainly did not expect this outpouring of generosity. I was actually naive enough to think people would forgo the gift-giving custom; I did, after all, tell more than one guest that I wasn’t interested in gifts. To be frank, I was overwhelmed—in a good way, of course. And I appreciate everyone coming here to celebrate with us so very much. More about the celebration—and the food, bev, and venue in particular—to come on Friday.

Finally, for the record, despite the abovementioned brazen violations of the original rules of the No Stuff Experiment and despite my husband’s best efforts to dissuade me, I have been sticking to my guns since August 7. For Mom’s birthday last month, the two of us went to the movies and out for ice cream cones. I sated my back-to-school clothes shopping urge with an impromptu stop at a new consignment shop in Fairfax. I’ve become so dependent on the surprise and excitement of my weekly CSA share that I braved flooded parking lots and highways and three hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in an attempt to reach the farm last Thursday (the farm, by the way, is about five miles from my house and office). I’m still commuting on foot and by bike as often as possible, and since the wedding, I’ve been appreciating the quiet and fun that just happen when my mind and schedule are open.

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?

Exception to the Rules

April 22, 2011

When do I make an exception to NSE rules?

When the stuff comes with the promise of lifelong companionship.

This weekend, diamond ring in hand, Channing asked me to marry him, and despite his flagrant violation of my no-gifts pledge,* I said yes, ring and all.

The ring is pretty and sparkly, and I love it. Still, I feel conflicted—but not about breaking the rules. I read chapter 1 of The Story of Stuff only a few weeks ago and learned all about the processes of extracting rocks and metals from the earth. The gold mined for my ring—just my one little ring—likely created twenty tons of hazardous waste. And the diamond was likely mined in an open pit—that is, a huge swath of land cleared of trees and inhabitants and layers of earth until the ore is exposed. Processing the ore involved enormous amounts of water and chemicals, as well as workers potentially laboring under oppressive conditions.

The bit of good news about the diamond is Channing bought it from a company that actually has ethical sourcing information on its website. The company, Blue Nile, adheres to the Kimberley Process, an international initiative to stop the flow of rough diamonds used by rebel groups to finance wars against legitimate governments in places such as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The bad news is the Kimberley Process, which has been around for eleven years, is probably not 100 percent effective, especially when it comes to cracking down on human rights abuses at diamond mines. Also, the Kimberley Process certification system is flawed. Several of the initiative’s African member-states have weak internal controls and cannot accurately track the origin of their diamonds. Yet those diamonds may enter circulation with conflict-free certification.

I talked to Channing about all this on Wednesday and asked him what to write. He said, “Write that you’re conflicted, but you’re going to keep it.” Well, of course I’ll keep it. It is the most meaningful thing I own. Channing spent a lot of time picking out the rock and the setting and arranging covert deliveries and pickups. I’ve never been so surprised by a gift in my life. A week later, I am still in shock. The ring is special to me, and I will treasure it. (And, by the way, I’m pretty darn excited about getting married to this guy. He is the most accepting and generous person I know, and he never fails to amuse me.)

I’m telling myself that my diamond came from one of the conflict-free countries that supplies Blue Nile—maybe Australia or Canada—so that I worry only about the environmental damage it caused. Also, I will definitely make careful decisions about jewelry in the future. We do have the issue of wedding bands to confront.

On that note, let me say we’ve already started brainstorming a “low-stuff” wedding celebration: consignment shop wedding (sun)dress, locally grown food, no registry, no gifts, etc. I should have a lot to write about in the next few months.

*Shortly after he presented the ring, Channing said something like, “It isn’t an heirloom and I didn’t get it at a pawn shop, so you have definitely broken the rules.”

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.

Getting Creative

April 8, 2011

When the group of us did this experiment for three months in 2009, one of the participants shared a story about how she avoided buying a new personal calendar for the year. She created her own—using a spiral notebook she had on hand, some printed calendar templates, and a gluestick.

At the time, I didn’t have any similar stories to share—expanding one’s wardrobe by hemming pants and reaffixing buttons isn’t particularly creative. But in the last month or so, I’ve encountered a couple obstacles that required improvisation.

First was that knit-in-the-round project I mentioned in an earlier post. Like I said, it was my first knit-in-the-round—a handbag—and so I didn’t have any stitch markers (for those who don’t knit, these are little plastic rings that mark the beginning of rounds or where a stitch change is needed in a row). I put off the project for several weeks—it was supposed to be a Christmas present and was already well overdue. I thought I would eventually ask a knitting friend to borrow a handful of markers (I needed four). But when I kept forgetting to ask, I realized I had to just dive in and figure it out as I went. I considered using safety pins, but the needles I was using were too big, and the pins wouldn’t fit around them. At the end of my first row in the round and desperate for a solution, I reread the description of stitch markers in my copy of The Chicks with Sticks Guide to Knitting: “…they basically serve the same purpose as tying a string around your finger to remind you to do something.” Hello, lightbulb! I could tie scraps of yarn in contrasting colors around my needles to mark the corners of the bag pattern. This simple solution worked just fine, and the bag came out beautifully.

I encountered another obstacle when I visited my fabric pile to find material for an apron I wanted to make for a friend for her birthday. I discovered that, although I have a ton of fabric in a variety of styles, colors, and patterns, I don’t have much of any one thing. I thumbed through my pattern books until I found what was basically the smallest possible apron (that wasn’t for kids, anyway). The pattern called for one yard of fabric, but after examining the pattern pieces I decided I could do it with less. I dug up two coordinating fat quarters that screamed “birthday girl” to me and (as Tim Gunn might say) made it work—by eliminating a couple frivolous aspects of the design. Oh, I also had to make do with the thread I had on hand, which didn’t quite match (but brought an extra touch of whimsy to the thing). In my unbiased opinion, the finished apron was perfect, and the great thing about it is, although it’s small, it has one huge pocket, which should come in handy for my friend, mother of a small kiddo and pie baker extraordinaire.

With only three (or maybe nine—who’s with me?) months to go, I’m starting to think about life after the experiment. I’m hoping to make a habit of looking for these kinds of simple solutions before I go out on a whim and purchase what seems like a necessity. Becoming a more conscientious consumer is what the No Stuff Experiment is about, after all. Why buy something new when I already have what I need at my fingertips? Finding purpose (or re-purpose) for the scraps, the trash, and the clutter has so far been the most fulfilling aspect of this endeavor for me.

Bye-Bye, Valentine’s Bouquet

February 17, 2011

This Monday was the first Valentine’s Day in five years that I did not receive a bouquet of red roses. (And thank goodness—I’d prefer not to write another confession!) I have been dropping hints about the unhealthy side effects of cut flowers to Channing since we started dating, but until this year he opted to ignore me—and because I’m such a sucker for presents, I didn’t put my foot down.

To tell the truth, though, whenever I see a florist’s bouquet, I can’t help but think of the scenes in Maria Full of Grace of Maria removing thorns from roses in the Colombian greenhouse (you know—before she decides to become a drug mule). From what I’ve read about floriculture in the last few days, those scenes are fairly accurate: Colombian women and girls of all ages, low wages, long hours, lots of protective gear.

The protective gear is necessary because a huge assortment of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are sprayed on the flowers to keep them free of bugs and looking fresh during their long haul to U.S. markets. In fact, because flowers are not edible, when they reach the United States, they are inspected only for insects and other pests, not for chemical residues. So, there is not only incentive to douse the blooms in chemicals, but there is also leeway to use chemicals that are banned or severely restricted in the States.

Exposure to these chemicals, which include neurotoxins, immune and endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens, poses a significant health risk to floriculture workers. A couple different studies of the cut-flower industry have suggested that workers exposed to pesticides have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births, and babies with congenital defects. Other studies have shown that more than 60 percent of all workers suffer headaches, nausea, blurred vision, or fatigue, and that exposure to organophosphates increases their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

In addition, when these toxins find their way into surface and groundwater via runoff, they become a problem for the community at large. Given that as much as three gallons of water are necessary to produce a single rose bloom, waterways near floriculture operations are not only polluted, they are also severely depleted. This is the case in Bogotá, where streams, springs, and wetlands are disappearing.

The good news is a number of alternatives to conventionally grown flowers are becoming available. Fair Trade, VeriFlora, and Rainforest Alliance labels indicate flowers that were grown and harvested according to certain standards of sustainability and equity. (You can find out exactly what those standards are by visiting the programs’ websites.) If you can’t find an organic or otherwise certified bouquet in your local grocery store or florist, you can buy one online at Organic Bouquet. Or, if you’re looking for something grown locally, check out the options in your neighborhood on Local Harvest.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will be forgoing fresh-cut flowers these six months. Lucky for me, though, I bought some pretty dried lilacs at the farmers market back in November, and they are still as lovely as ever. Those of you who grow flowers in the summer months might consider prolonging your enjoyment of the blooms by drying a few for the winter.

Finally, if you’re interested in doing some additional reading on this topic, here are a few informative articles:

  1. Sheryl Eisenberg, “Putting the Bloom Back,” This Green Life, March 2005.
  2. Roger Harris, “Think That Your Gift Is Pesticide-Free? Give Organic Flowers and It Will Be,” NaturalNews, May 10, 2008.
  3. John McQuaid, “The Secrets Behind Your Flowers,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2011.
  4. Amy Stewart, “Pick Your Poison,” New York Times, May 14, 2006.
  5. David Tenenbaum, “Would a Rose Not Smell as Sweet?Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 5 (May 2002).
  6. Ginger Thompson, “Behind Roses’ Beauty, Poor and Ill Workers,” New York Times, February 13, 2003.
  7. Joby Warrick, “Pesticides and Cut Flowers,” National Wildlife Federation Green Living Archives, June 1, 2000.