Giving It Away
One Woman's Dispossession Obsession
Camping. It seemed like a straightforward plan: Throw a tent and a few essentials in the van, enjoy a summer week in the woods. Get away from it all. Riiiiiight.
I should have known better--simply going to the grocery store with two kids under the age of 5 requires more advance planning, timing, and equipment than MacArthur employed taking the Philippines. Extrapolate to a week in a remote Pennsylvania state park, and we're talking a substantial payload. It's impossible to get away from it all when you have to take half of it with you. Thus we had estimated two hours to pack, load, and leave.
It took much less time than that to realize we were in serious trouble: We couldn't find the tent.
And not only the tent. The list of things we could not locate was long and wide. We own not one but two mountain pie makers, but could I find either of them? Nope. On the day we were leaving for our week in the woods, I raced around like a crazy person from house to garage to storage room and back again, unable to find anything I wanted. And the reason I couldn't find the damned pie makers (or the tent, or the baby's swim float, or any of a half-dozen other crucial camping items) was that there was all this other stuff, everywhere. Objects of every use and description, totally disorganized, piled in crazy heaps, shoved into every corner. STUFF.
It was to the point where we literally could not walk into our own garage; the wall of stuff began just inside the door, and we were afraid to open the overhead car doors lest all the junk stacked in front of them should tumble out. Thus, in order to merely enter the garage to search for camping gear, we first needed to dismantle a path into the interior. It was kind of stunning, really: We had achieved complete and utter craplock.
Like many Americans, we don't use our garage to park our cars; instead, it's a repository for our overflow possessions. We had been cramming all kinds of excess belongings in there, ultimately filling it wall to wall. Also full was the 1,000-square-foot space that was my studio before motherhood ate my photography career, and the 120-square-foot shed built specifically to house things (garden tools, the lawn mower) that would normally reside in the jam-packed garage. Add to all that the 2,700 square footprint of our house and we have a total of 4,420 square feet of room, or just over 1,100 square feet--the size of an average two-bedroom, two-bath apartment--for each member of our family.
Yet, somehow, even with all that space, it no longer seems like we own our stuff but, instead, our stuff owns us.
This wasn't the first sign of trouble in consumer paradise. Even before our craplock epiphany I had been feeling increasingly restive about the sheer amount of stuff cluttering up our house. We own probably the average amount of stuff for a four-person middle-class American family, and, I don't know, maybe it's not the stuff itself, it's just where you put it. But our belongings were oppressing me. Everywhere I looked there was something that needed to be picked up or put away or cleaned or otherwise dealt with, and I was just plain tired of dealing with all of it. I'd been feeling this way for a while but, other than muttering under my breath whilst stuff-wrangling, had not actually done anything about it. I realized my husband, Alan, was on the same page when he stood there beholding the sight of our overstuffed garage with new eyes and said, in a tone of wonder, "Maybe we should just burn the mother down."
Clearly something drastic did need to be done, and during our week away (after finally extracting most of our camping gear, though we never did find the tent) I pondered the options. Drag it all to the dump? Unconscionable. Giant yard sale? Against our community's covenant rules. Call one of those 1-800 junk haulers? Ridiculous to pay someone to haul away perfectly good gear. Rent a storage locker? Hmmm.
Initially that one appealed. After all, we'd be in good company: Nearly one in 10 American households now rents additional storage, and the Self Storage Association estimates that in 2007 there is a total 2.2 billion square feet of self-storage in the United States, or 79 square miles--more than three times the size of Manhattan. That, brags the association's web site, is "6.86 sq. ft. of self storage space for every man, woman, and child in the nation; thus it is physically possible that every American could stand--all at the same time--under the total canopy of self storage roofing."
Well. It's hardly a two-bed, two-bath apartment's worth of space per citizen, but even so an appalling statistic. Consider further that the self-storage industry is exploding, adding literally thousands of new facilities each year to accommodate shop-happy Americans--although it took 25 years to build the first 1 billion square feet of self-storage space, the second billion popped up in just eight (1998-2005). Clearly our family is not the only one suffering from a surfeit of stuff. Ultimately, though, I realized that if we rented a new home for our garage-load of gear, we'd be paying $70-plus a month merely to clear the ground for even more stuff to accumulate. There had to be a better way.
There was one obvious, simple truth I kept coming back to: If our excess stuff is all sitting in untouched piles in our garage, then clearly we don't use it. So why do we even have it? Time to go. Bye-bye. Sayonara, stuff.
On June 26, I began giving it all away.
It was an elegantly simple plan: clear out our house and garage of things we don't use or need by just giving away an object a day. Alan was down with the plan, so long as I consulted him before giving away any of his stuff, but also counseled restraint. I was all for committing to a full 365 days of giveaway, but he suggested 30 days as an initial test run. He's often right about this sort of thing, so I agreed.
Day One: seriously easy. I bagged up two grocery sacks full of plastic bowls plus a batch of more or less corresponding lids and delivered them to our next-door neighbor Andy, who makes big batches of salsa to give away. We are trying to get rid of the plastic in our kitchen, and this was a whole big wad of it gone in one fell swoop. I walked back to our house dusting my hands victoriously, if superfluously, and feeling quite pleased with my little project.
Day Two: It's time to Freecycle! Many people use the name as a verb, but officially Freecycle is an online community dedicated to connecting people with free stuff other people want to get rid of, with the goal of keeping useful objects out of the landfill. To use Freecycle you join the closest regional group (there are 42 in Maryland alone; find Baltimore's here) and post offers stating what you've got to give. If someone's interested, he or she e-mails you; then you pick a winner and arrange a pickup. There's a little more to it than that, but you get the gist.
I'm an old Freecycle hand, having off-loaded lots of stuff via the Baltimore group--although clearly not as fast as we accumulated more. Unfortunately, day two was action packed and I basically forgot about posting a Freecycle offer until I was nearly asleep for the night. Just shy of midnight I jolted awake with the realization that I still needed to give something, anything, away, and got back up and paced through the house. The things that presented themselves all seemed so . . . paltry. Why would anyone want used plastic baby dishes? A single teddy bear? A bag of baby clothes sounded better, but there were only four things in there. Not worth the drive for someone to come pick it up. Hey, at least my paltry possibilities were better than the one I had spotted on Baltimore Freecycle the day before--someone in Parkville offering, and I quote, "A Lot of Dirt."
The problem I faced during that bleary-eyed march through our House Stuffed Full of Stuff was that everything I came across seemed too useful to let go, too necessary to part with. Sure, we have never once used that food dehydrator in the seven years I have lived here, but you never know. Eventually I realized that midnight had come and gone and with it my deadline to give an item away in that particular 24-hour period. I gave up and went to back to bed, where I lay bugged beyond reason that I'd screwed up such a straightforward endeavor on the second day.
I kept telling myself that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but since this little endeavor is sort of all about consistency, an uncomfortable whiff of botchery lingered in my mental airspace. That is until my mom, probably just to get me to shut up already, reminded me about the box of decaffeinated tea I had given her that day. OK, so it was hardly one of the bête-noir belongings clogging our closets and our lives, and I gave it to my mom. But I'd bought it by mistake and would never use it, and it had been reproaching me every time I opened that particular kitchen cabinet, and I was relieved that it's gone. So it counts.
After this initial stumble, I really did manage to give away--or at least offer, since some of my offerings had no takers--something every day since, although sometimes it was literally at the 11th hour. Since frankly most of the stuff I divested was not that interesting, let's just hit the highlights.
Day Three: I woke up with ideas for several expropriation candidates and a renewed sense of excitement over getting rid of stuff. First to go on Freecycle: a Fisher-Price toy tool bench. We bought it for my son Jack at a yard sale five years ago before he was even out of the hatch, two bucks. Reason for dispossessing: have upgraded to bigger, nicer toy tool bench with even more gadgets. Getting it out of the loft in my studio opened a small but highly gratifying patch of floor space.
Four people requested the tool bench and it went to proud grandpa Leslie Smith, who wished me "success on your project of being generous."
I totally do not think of it that way. I consider the people coming to take away our stuff to be doing us a favor.
Day seven: Ahhh, at last we were getting to the good stuff. Today's offering was a box full of wooden blocks and various small toys emptied from a toy storage shelf I bought at a yard sale last summer, exactly the sort of miscellany that torments me. Depending on who's been playing where, preschooler or husband, I am forever going about our house picking up mysterious plastic bits that are probably essential to the function of some expensive children's toy or mysterious pieces of hardware that are probably essential to the function of one of our home appliances. Both make me nuts.
Interesting fact: The average American child receives 70 toys each year.
Day Eight: I had been feeling fairly blank about this Early American quilt rack. It had ended up at our house by mistake when we cleared out my grandmother's apartment after her death earlier this spring, lumped in with some other furniture I inherited. It's not like some family heirloom dating from Colonial times or anything. I think Gram bought it from a catalog to display the afghans she crocheted. It hunkered in a corner of my studio for several months, and every time I saw it I would think, Got to get rid of that.
And then I did. Anne Ducastel claimed it from Freecycle to display a quilt her mother made. As I was retrieving it for her I mentioned that it had been my grandmother's, and Anne looked faintly startled. "Are you sure you want to let this go?" she asked. And you know, for a minute I really didn't. For a minute I felt so sad, so far gone from last summer when I was extremely pregnant and while visiting Gram would end up lying down on her bed to rest, and she would pull her favorite purple and white afghan from that stand to cover me in the fiercely air-conditioned room. For a minute it seemed essential that the quilt rack go right back into my studio, that I retain a physical piece of those days. But only for a minute, and then the unbearable sadness ebbed. I didn't need it; my dear, salty-tongued cranky grandmother isn't in some faux-antique quilt rack. I am quite sure she's actually in the worn decks of playing cards I salvaged from her kitchen drawer, the ones she used to win nearly every single time we played rummy during the past three decades. Those I will keep.
The quilt rack episode did render me more cognizant of the emotional freight our belongings carry. Most of our stuff lives with us because we picked it out, bought or made or otherwise acquired it, expending thought and effort in the choosing and getting. When I rashly vowed to give away an object a day for a year, I was feeling completely overwhelmed by all the stuff stuffing our house and just wanted it all to go away. But actually selecting items for expropriation is not at all easy, it turns out.
In the process of triaging our household belongings, I've come to realize there are four basic categories of stuff. This early in the game I've been dealing mostly with Category 1, the low-hanging fruit--items you look at and wonder, Why is this even here? Giving that shit away is dead easy, but since I regularly have given that shit away, there's not much of it around. Category 2 is stuff not currently in use but that is potentially handy, like the aforementioned food dehydrator (which, now that we're harvesting buckets of tomatoes, I'm very glad I did not give away). Things in this category can still go, it's just harder to relinquish them. Then there's Category 3, everyday essentials we are unlikely to part with, things like clothing or electronics. At the top is Category 4: the few, precious things you'd grab while fleeing if the house was on fire.
The point of this whole endeavor is to pare down our belongings so that they fall mainly into those last two categories. This means I spend at least part of every day looking speculatively around our house, questioning the essentialness of any object that catches my eye. It is a very useful exercise, one I'd never thought to do before even as stuff piled up. Since my main problem may be a too-liberal definition of "essential," I'm helped by a fabulous new vocabulary word discovered while perusing the thesaurus for synonyms for "stuff": impedimenta, "objects . . . that impede or encumber." Impedimenta is useful both as a concept--a criterion for whether something stays or goes--and as a way to refer to this heretofore unnamed project.
What it doesn't help with, alas, is the ineffable fact that not everything we own fits neatly into those categories. There are things that I know to not be useful, don't believe are beautiful, and have no sentimental attachment to, yet I want to keep them anyway. Like the clear plastic box containing six teeny, tiny plastic hippies, each in their own sealed compartment. It's utterly useless, but it cracks me up every time I look at it. Alan has some of those oddball belongings, too, which I found out by trying to earmark a few of them for Impedimenta, The Project.
Day Nine: Wow, open the door to a little quilt rack sentimentality and it plows on through like some tearjerking freight train. I stumbled on today's giveaway while straightening up Jack's room. It's like some big crazy room-sized plastic salad in there most days, dinosaurs jumbled together with play food and wooden blocks and the toy knights he calls his adventure guys, all served on a bed of about 7 bazillion Matchbox cars. I was doing my best to reunite all the various toy pieces with their sundered kin when I opened an unmarked box and found all of my younger son Cole's newborn clothes. The discovery literally floored me: I suddenly just sat flat on the floor looking at the contents through a haze of tears, all organizational momentum gone.
I don't know why I was so undone. I honestly thought I had given all the early infant stuff away months ago to some friends with an even newer baby, but apparently some things had been too special to let go. The tiny little cowboy shirt, the duckie suit that he wore home from the hospital, the unbelievably wee huaraches . . . maybe it's that he's so big and competent now, lurching around like a miniature drunken sailor, all aware and opinionated (if incomprehensibly so). He recently turned 1 and is just barely a baby anymore, and I am sad for the days he was a curled-up little peanut in footie sleepers. Although at the time I was desperate for those chaotic, sleep-deprived new baby months to end, that day in Jack's room I would have given anything to go back.
But, motherhood being what it is, time for tearful reverie was limited. Cole woke up from his nap just then and began calling out in his native Urdu for someone to come get the baby, already, and so I quickly folded the clothes into a grocery sack. I gave them to a woman I know for her 5-day-old son. All except the duckie suit.
Day 11: One of the unintended side effects of Impedimenta is how it exposes our family's otherwise private home life, inadvertently showcased via what we're giving away. It's just soooo temptingly easy to give stuff away on Freecycle--post an offer and, zhing! someone comes to take away your unwanted stuff--that it's easy to forget the ramifications of 6,000 (and counting) members viewing your offerings. I felt embarrassed by today's giveaway, Baby Einstein VHS tapes, because it's a public admission that My Baby Watches TV.
Before Jack was born, I had sworn publicly and often that no child of mine was ever going to spend one single precious early childhood moment in front of the tube. After a few sleepless months with a newborn, however, the idea of letting him watch 20 minutes of colorful toys twirling to synthesizer Mozart so I could, I don't know, take a fricking shower suddenly didn't seem like such a bad thing. So watch he did, and I've always felt bad about exposing his impressionable infant mind to the boob tube. Now I've reformed and poor Cole does not get to watch Baby Einstein. Maybe it's unfair, but he seems OK with it so far. I'll ask him. That is if I can draw his wide-eyed attention away from the sight of an anvil dropping onto Wile E. Coyote's head on the Looney Tunes Jack now prefers.
Day 15: Posted our kiddie pool on my mom's group, and it went in a flash. It's going to be above 90 degrees every day this week, so I can see why.
Am I depriving my own children of cool, watery fun just so I can continue to get rid of stuff? Oh, my, no no no. I am getting rid of this pool because we got a bigger one. Which might seem to kind of defeat the entire purpose of this little exercise. I mean, if every time an object gets escorted from the premises I, this family's chief procurer, merely replace it with another, possibly even larger, version, then why bother?
The answer is, because I'm really not. Halfway through our 30-day experiment, I am starting to seriously rearrange my mental furniture vis-à-vis our stuff. Assessing our household's sizable assets (sizable as in volume, not value--it seems most of our crap really is crap) has caused me to lose all desire to acquire more. Prior to looking at all we own with an eye to potentially giving it away, I thought our family was actually on the minimalist side of stuff ownership--as minimalist as you can be with two small children, anyway. We pride ourselves in staying off the retail grid as much as possible, which means that we primarily outfit ourselves via thrift stores, yard sales, and, occasionally, Freecycle.
Even so, we appear to have ended up with a garage full of items we don't much use; I am beginning to suspect that maybe stuff just naturally expands to fill the space you have to hold it. And so it was that two weeks into Impedimenta (and three weeks after my pre-camping craplock epiphany) we finally got around to attacking the garage.
It was sort of enjoyable, in a we-don't-get-out-much kind of way, and took a lot less time than anticipated. And now (insert celestial angel singing here) the miraculous has come to pass: Our garage is clean and reasonably organized. You can even park cars in it.
The only downside to the whole thing is that out of a packed-to-the-rafters garage, we found almost nothing to give away.
The main body of crap was truly crap--obvious refuse like moldy sheetrock and splintered lumber. Then there was six months' worth of recycling, paper and blue bags galore. After all this went to the landfill/recycling center, we emerged from our newly shipshape garage with only a scant handful of potential impedimenta. Aside from the discovery that we have somehow accumulated 13 coolers in various sizes, the great garage clear-out of '07 was no big deal. Besides 12 free-to-a-good-home coolers, we ended up with only a small decorative table and a large-ish box of gardening stuff to give away. That's it. It turns out our craplock was not so much too much crap as the sheer disorganization of said crap. Once all the junk in the garage was organized, all of a sudden most of it wasn't junk anymore. It really is stuff we do or will (now that we can actually find it) use. I'm still sort of stunned.
Given the state of our garage, I had assumed we were as guilty of material overconsumption as our fellow Americans who, in an increasingly inner-directed, gratification-oriented culture, seem to use shopping as recreation and even therapy, trying to fill emotional or spiritual needs with material goods. After all, only roughly 25 percent of Americans go to church any given Sunday. The rest of us are probably out shopping. As an indication of our national priorities, consider that there are now twice as many shopping center as high schools in this country, while in each of the eight years prior to 2005 more Americans declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college. We are the world's most profligate consumers: Since 1950, Americans have consumed more resources than everyone who lived on Earth before then.
I'll spare you the sermon about how the average North American consumes 30 times more than a person from India. It's just that this project of giving up what we've already got has started me thinking about what we get. It profoundly disturbs me that the health of our economy depends so desperately on all of us consuming more and more (keep shopping or the terrorists win!) while 80 percent of manufactured items we purchase are discarded after a single use. Having become much more intimately acquainted with the bountiful stuff I already have, my desire to shop for more is almost nil. Nowadays I often find myself repeating a mantra my grandmother taught me, one she herself followed faithfully: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."
Day 21: The overriding rule of Impedimenta thus far has been "no backsies." Several times I've suffered intense giver's remorse in between offering and then actually relinquishing an item, but each time I've gritted my teeth and let go. I suppose, however, it was inevitable that eventually I would offer something and then have to back out.
Jack has this toy truck that doubles as a carrier for Matchbox cars, and we've been stumbling over it for months, only ever touching it to move it the heck out of the way. I arranged to give it to an acquaintance with a little boy close to Jack's age; to forestall any drama when they came over to get it, I stashed it in a closet. No problem, he doesn't even notice its absence. Then we go to the demolition derby and Jack comes home all amped to play demolition derby with his Matchbox cars, and then all of a sudden this truck is crucial for carrying away the "wrecked" demolition cars like we saw at the derby and he's tearing apart his room looking for it, nearly in tears, and so I get it back out and give it to him.
The dilemma was, I had no way of knowing how long the demolition-derby craze might last; could be days, could be much longer. Would I need to back out of the offer entirely or just postpone it? Fortunately, the mom I'd promised it to was very understanding and cheerfully accepted another, different Matchbox carrier that we also haven't used in a long time.
It was about this time, two-thirds of the way through our 30 days of disappropriation, that I kind of hit the wall. It wasn't the culling out of things to give away that was the problem, it was the giving itself: I was spending hours each day writing Freecycle posts, fielding e-mails, selecting recipients, corresponding with the recipients to arrange a pickup time, and then hanging around the house waiting for them to come. (Do not get me started on the no-shows). In short, it had become a no-fun unpaid part-time job with not even weekends off and was really starting to wear on me.
As was the nagging feeling that, though most of the folks I'd given stuff to were happy to have it, they didn't direly need it. The people who came to claim our excess stuff all seemed pretty much like me: reasonably comfortable, financially. You can argue that libraries have free internet access and so technically even those of limited means can use Freecycle, but realistically you need to own both a computer and a car to effectively benefit. The car thing bothered me, too--I felt like all those daily, individual trips made to our house accrued to our carbon footprint, which we're actively working to reduce.
I was looking for another way to give it all away, specifically to have our stuff move more efficiently from us to people in genuine need. I shop thrift stores often enough to know that they're probably not a great way to achieve this: The Goodwill near us appears to throw away at least as much donated stuff as it puts out on the floor (the Goodwill brass might try to deny it, but the Dumpster don't lie), plus I resent that thrifts are increasingly abandoning the city in favor of higher-income suburban areas. Then a friend hipped me to Essex's Young Parent Support Center.
This is exactly how I like to see my tax dollars in action: a county-run resource center helping socioeconomically precarious families with day care, parenting classes, job training, and myriad other services that benefit people who might otherwise have a hard time keeping it together. A woman who regularly volunteers there lives nearby and can deliver donations. Click!
The new Impedimenta paradigm resulted in the invention of the InvisiBoxT: When the day's expropriated item is something that the center can use, anything from clothing to housewares to toys, I stash it in a giant box and there it stays until pickup day. No backsies. The InvisiBox has greatly simplified this whole project and ultimately reignited my enthusiasm for it.
Freecycle, however, still has a place in the process, because even though most of the stuff I'm looking to get rid of is house- or kid-related, there are still oddball things that the center can't use but I'm sure someone else can. Things like, for instance, bamboo.
Day 25: It's interesting that of all my Freecycle offers the one with the least actual monetary value created the most interest. Perhaps because, while not illegal, my offer was potentially immoral--environmentally speaking, anyway. I had literally dozens of responses to my post offering bamboo plants we had cut down. Apparently most read only as far as "free bamboo"--all but three of those who contacted me wanted to come dig it up for their own yards, because you can't buy bamboo: It's a terribly invasive nonnative species, which is why we were cutting it down.
Day 30: Perhaps it's particularly fitting that we wrapped up the initial 30 days of clearing our craplock by offering a toilet. It was a very nice toilet, true: a Kohler low-flow with compressed air flush assist. Sitting on that baby was a little like launching the space shuttle: 3, 2, 1 blastoff! We, however, had installed a new, less dramatic toilet and the old one had to, um, go. And through the magic of Freecycle it went that same day.
Meanwhile, Impedimenta rolls on, flushing our home and our lives of excess belongings. We're at day 65 and counting. Anybody need a cooler?
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