Category Archives: Story of Stuff

Simplify, simplify …

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.  ~  Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever felt, as I have, a strangely wonderful sense of liberation when you pack for a trip?  Limiting yourself to only what will fit into a suitcase or backpack really makes you think about what you really need to carry with you while you’re away from your familiar environment.  For me, it usually turns out to be surprisingly little!  And that always makes me surprisingly happy.

Seventeen years ago, I enrolled in a month-long yoga teacher training (YTT, as we call it) at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.  The main building at Kripalu used to be a Jesuit monastery so the rooms are cell-like (though windowed) and the bathroom is down the hall.  Unless I wanted to spring for a big increase in my tuition to upgrade to a single room (I didn’t), I would be sharing this space with another student and all our stuff.  For.  Four.  Weeks.  Yes, I was assured, there was laundry on premises and a large sliding drawer under each bed, but room for hangers, fugetaboutit.  We would have, my roommate and I, two drawers each of a very small four-drawer chest.

Since March is cold in the Berkshires and I knew I would want to get outdoors, I wondered where I would find space for the jackets, sweaters, warm socks, hats, gloves, and a pair of boots I planned on bringing.  Yikes!  True, we would be spending most of our time in class (in fact, we didn’t get a day off or visitors for two weeks) so I knew I would need to bundle up and get outside to avoid cabin fever.

Summer camp with the ample footlocker for little more than shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits was nothing like this.  So, there I was, age 57, fronting the fact, in my best Thoreauvian guise, that I had too much stuff. I had only to spread it all out on the bed to realize that half of it wasn’t going anywhere but back in the closet or chest.  I got a quick, necessary lesson in the art of layering for warmth. Fortunately, yoga clothing doesn’t crush — I wear it outside of class even now for this reason — and is eminently packable and quickly washed and dried.  And as meditation master instructor, Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, the laundry.

DSC01587When I remember how much better I was able to focus on my yoga training when I didn’t have a lot of choices about what to wear (and no hairdryer or makeup), not to mention all the time I saved for more worthy activities, it takes my breath away.  Even as a couple who enjoys our comforts, we’re hardly shopaholics.  Our kids know better than to give us stuff without a lot of careful thought, so when they do, it is almost always an in-the-moment treat like a terrific assortment of special teas.  Birthday or holiday gifts tend to be certificates for a massage or to an interesting restaurant. When you realize how full of redundant things your life is, a fun exercise is how much stuff you can pack into donation bags for the Vietnam Veterans of America who come right to your door to pick them up.  Even so, in moments of mindfulness, we know we’re living a far from simple life.  We travel; we have a huge library of books; we’ve failed the 100-mile food challenge.  We like our AC, our Internet access, our smartphones.

From a planetary perspective. I believe simplicity is a vastly unrated strategy for dealing with the materialism that we Americans have adopted as a lifestyle and are so busily exporting elsewhere.  Or even worse, creating working condition we would never endure domestically, in distant factories that churn out so-called ‘cheap’ clothes and the stuff that clutters our homes.  The mantra, “recycle, repair and reuse,” is merely the choice we’re left with when we couldn’t resist buying whatever it was in the first place.  And the three R’s are no match for the wanting that comes naturally to us as humans, but is sharpened to a fever pitch by, well, the endless pitch.  This isn’t news to you, but here’s an example: a moment ago, I wanted to find the name of a book I have stored on my Kindle app in my phone.  So I click on it, and up pops this message:

Stay Connected.  By enabling notifications, we’ll occasionally send relevant book recommendations, tips, and other updates to help you get more out of reading.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I am on a 30-day trial because I need (or want?) to refresh the music playlists for my yoga classes.  When I’ve accomplished that, we’ll part company.  No wonder The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo soared to best-seller heights, despite the truly terrible writing (or translation, perhaps).  In the middle of a Joseph Goldstein talk on You Tube, he asks the audience how many could resist pouring through a catalog because, surely, there must be something here I want. Embarrassed laughter.

Wanting (aka craving) is one of the instinctive responses our ancestors needed because their survival depended on getting enough of what was often difficult to get, or in short supply.  In times of crisis, humans often resort to these behaviors, witness the fights breaking out in the refugee encampments or when potable water is delivered to a rural area in the developing world.  Advertising appeals to that primitive part of our brain by creating desire or manufactured need. Voluntary simplicity suggests that we don’t have to be slaves to wanting, that we can override these behaviors, and learn — as the great UU Minister, Forrest Church, put it, “to want what we have.”  As our planet struggles to absorb the end result of our rampant materialism, this sounds like very sound and timely advice.

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The Story of (Old) Stuff

Five years ago, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff launched a movement to “build a more healthy and just planet” by calling attention in an accessible, charming way to how thoughtlessly we acquire, dispose of, and waste stuff, and what this means in the Big Picture. Today, it has 750,000 loyal followers, including me, and three other animated videos of equal power and ingenuity.

I have my own story about stuff and it is largely about appreciating what I already own, a riff on the great UU Minister, the late Forrest Church’s admonition: Learn to want what you have.

Maybe because I am something of an antique myself, I really love my old stuff. I’m not referring to furniture and bric-a-brac I inherited, although I can get emotional about my parents’ circa 1965 Danish Modern chairs with the marks of wear and original covers that now grace my living room. By ‘old stuff,’ I mean things like the t-shirt and straw hat (pictured below), both in my life for about a quarter of a century, each with a little history of its own that makes it precious to me. Old friends, you might say.

tshirt mendocinoThe pink t-shirt I bought for about $5 on a down-market shopping expedition with a fashion- and bargain-conscious younger friend in California. Her idea of a great find was something like my t-shirt that she could pair up with her designer jeans and other pricey London fashions. In the 1990’s, it was still possible to find t-shirts made in the U.S.A., as was this one. Colors were basic, too. Pink, as opposed to Shell or Blossom, so familiar to clothing catalogues stuffed with stuff made in China today.  And, although it was a modest outlay even for the decade (equivalent to about $9 today), my t-shirt was made to last, holding its classic shape while becoming softer and more comfortable through the years. Nowadays, I wear it for exercise or as a pajama top, paired with another much-loved relic from my closet you can probably imagine without a photo. I doubt the label Mendocino on a clothing line is around anymore. But it always makes me nostalgic for California wine country and a more upbeat future for the world’s eighth largest economy.  (Today, Made in America clothing is a short list.)

Greek Straw HatFor an outing to MacArthur State Park Beach this past weekend, I wore the straw hat that lives in my vehicle waiting for just such an occasion. Circa 1990, it was purchased for a trip to Greece, to keep the Aegean sun off my face while we sailed around the islands for a week with a group of friends. My favorite island was car-free Hydra, and I wonder what our lives would have been like had we decided to jump ship. A favorite memory was the expression of disbelief on the face of Nico, our Greek captain, when we tried to explain to him what a home mortgage was. My best buddy, Susan, threaded a length of pink grosgrain through a couple of holes punched in the brim so the hat would stay on my head (same ribbon, still works). The hat is in many photos of my trip, with my then dark hair poking out around the brim. I keep my beloved straw hat going by mending little tears or holes with a fabric glue, and if the day arrives that there is more glue than hat left, I shall mount it on the wall.

Annie Leonard has returned to Green Peace International as executive director and I expect we’ll be seeing more of what she is sensational at: breaking down important facts into compelling animated stories anyone can understand. If you haven’t seen her explain the difference between “More” – that is, the endless growth paradigm some economists are stuck in, despite the finite limits of the planet – and “Better” – an economy that works for everyone and stops destroying the environment – don’t wait another minute (I’m almost done here for now, anyway).

Although Green Peace is best known for pulling stunts to embarrass corporations into changing course, Annie remains optimistic about what can be accomplished with a little bit of honey: “Corporations can apply their ingenuity to environmental progress, not destruction, and we will keep working with a broad network of supporters and allied movements to push them to do the right thing.”

We could all let them know what we think of their stuff and what it took to get us to buy it in the first place, and what it really costs and who it hurts to bring it to our shopping outlet, by not buying it.  “Shopping” in your own closet means learning to reuse, repurpose, repair, re-love what you already posses. It is one small, potent step anyone can take immediately. Besides, you’ll never know what treasures could be waiting there for you unless you look.