The joy of less
From the January, 2011 issue
My house is getting lighter. Any day now it may lift from its foundations and float away.
For a couple of years I have been working on what I call "Project Attic." My goal is to get rid of everything that I don't expect to use, or that I don't love for itself. The project is motivated partly by my dislike of clutter and partly by dismay at watching a friend who was gripped by a hoarding compulsion. While I don't subscribe to the practices of feng shui, I have adopted its notion that one's surroundings influence one's mind and spirit.
But just clearing it out isn't enough-I want everything to go to its highest and best use. So I recycle things that can't be reused, like old newspapers and odd bits of scrap metal, while directing everything else to someone who can use it. The best outcome is when the item is used for its original purpose, but next best is that it can be "repurposed." This takes a lot more ingenuity and effort than you might think.
The first obvious step is to have a garage sale. After two of these, yielding about $40 and ending with hauling half our stuff back to the attic, my husband revolted. Now items of any real value go to Treasure Mart for sale, and the rest are donated. Clothing and household items are sought after by local thrift shops. Books and DVDs go to the Friends of the Library. My city councilman, a Kiwanis member, did a special pickup to take the braided rugs my mother-in-law made. The ReUse Center on South Industrial is choosy about what it takes but did agree to pick up an old library table, as long as the move didn't involve stairs. So my husband and I (both past sixty-five) lugged the heavy antique oak table up the narrow basement stairs and into the garage, from where two big muscular young guys gently picked it
up and stowed it in their truck.
We used to be stamp collectors and had many boxes of used stamps, some of them unsorted. These had little commercial value, but the Ann Arbor Stamp Club gladly took them for their young collectors project. Scientific equipment that I had purchased for consulting work was accepted by the agricultural science program in the Saline schools.
A special problem was the yards-thick stack of paper files I had accumulated through twenty years of civic activism. Of course they could simply be recycled, but many were valuable archives. I gave many files to my successor on the county board of commissioners, and others to friends who had a special interest in a particular issue. That still left me with some significant documents with historical interest, such as the 1996 report recommending a city income tax. The Bentley Library accepts such documents, though I was warned that they will recycle anything that does not fit their needs. I haven't donated anything there yet, but the Clements Library took some early twentieth-century family photographs.
Thrift shops accept many household items, but I'm troubled that I can't know whether they will really be reused or just discarded. So I have come to prefer more directed donations. One of my greatest finds was a young artist who uses old fabrics and found items in her work. She relieved me of several decades' accumulation of ties and scarves, art supplies, cigar boxes, frames, and oddments like antique knobs. As a bonus, a couple of years ago I was featured in a radio spot on WUOM about reuse for art's sake. I am the reuse center among my friends for canning jars, but I couldn't use every jar of every size. So I was delighted to find that the honey man on Fifth Street will take Mason jars, and I have also redistributed the wealth to other friends who are just discovering canning.
For matching my surplus with another's need, nothing beats Freecycle ( freecycle.org). You sign up online, then send emails listing either "Wanted" or "Offered" items, and other members respond. If a good match is found, the address is provided, and the transfer is made via a porch pickup without any human interaction. I have posted offers and responded to very specified "wants" such as a hand-cranked pasta machine or the fruit leather inserts for a food dehydrator.
Freecycle can be almost addictive because responses come so quickly. Really good stuff goes fast. The first response to my offer of assorted knitting needles appeared within seconds of my posting it, and there were five more within the next half hour. I have offered everything from an old faded bedspread to unused paint and watched it disappear painlessly.
Meanwhile, there is more space, not just in my attic, but in my closets and drawers and basement and garden shed and garage. Friends comment on the "serenity" of my living space. I was startled by Jennifer Guerra's description on WUOM. She said that I have "only the essentials ... a table, some chairs, a sideboard. Maybe a vase with fresh cut flowers from her garden." That sounds bleak, but really, it's not-just peaceful.
I'll keep on hunting for the highest and best destinations for my goods. If I can keep my house from floating away.
[Originally published in January, 2011.]