Stuff, Community, & 31 Pairs of Shoes

I’ve been thinking a lot about “stuff” since November, back when I mentioned that I had come across the 100 Thing Challenge. Life was crazy at the time, but even then I knew that I was in need of some serious thought about getting rid of stuff. Here’s what I wrote:

Our stuff really gets in the way, in the way of community, in the way of emotional health, in the way of life. Not because it is stuff that we don’t need (though we certainly don’t need it all), but because it is OUR stuff, and we like to surround ourselves with us.

I decided about a month ago that I was going to unload. By half.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like my stuff. I pride myself on being frugal and not throwing things away, on still wearing clothing and shoes I had in high school, on primarily buying things on sale.

Did you catch the verb in that last sentence? I pride myself…

That’s a sure sign there’s a problem here.

So half of it was going to go. Some of it offered to friends, some of it donated, some of it recycled (scraps of material are being turned into pillow stuffing, for instance), but it was not going to hang around and weigh my life down.

I decided to start with shoes. Check this out:

That, my friends, is my bed. It is a king-sized bed, and it is covered with shoes. My shoes. Thirty pairs. Add to that the pair I was wearing when I took this picture, and you’ll get 31. Thirty-one pairs of shoes.

And even though this includes three pairs of slippers, winter boots, old sneakers, flip-flops, and gosh, the shoes I got married in seven years ago, I’m still embarrassed about it, quite frankly.

But it’s a good first step.

Goodbye, shoes. I’d say I’ll miss you but, the truth is, I probably won’t.

It’s just stuff.

having no more than we can love

As we lean into the third week of Advent, let’s think about the stuff with which we surround ourselves, our attachment to that stuff, what it says about us, and what Advent’s call to preparation and peace might mean in that context.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Driving downtown in Nearest Big City recently, I found myself behind a shiny gold Lexus with this license plate: THX GOD. (Apologies to you if this is your license plate and I have now outed you.) I was indignant and offended and upset and frustrated and, okay, a bit self-righteous about it all, too. Maybe it’s the “X” there that bothered me, making it not “Thank God” (which is still somewhat questionable) but “Thanks, God,” as if God’s job here on earth is to reward us with fancy cars when we do what we’re supposed to do. (In case you weren’t sure, that’s not the case.)

Because I’m on an anti-consumerism and anti-capitalist kick, this story and my reaction to it won’t surprise you. I am sensible enough to say that I was being uncharitable (this person may very well give away more to charity each year than J’s and my combined income), but I do feel rather strongly that God doesn’t reward us with Lexuses, and to say otherwise, I will offer, is not reading the Gospels very closely.

Still, is a Lexus any different than stuff that I cling to? What is most important to me? What do I think of as a “reward” from God? Maybe I don’t tend to speak in those terms, but I am not sure my heart (or yours) is in a much different place than “THX GOD for all the awesome things that prove I’m doing exactly what you want me to be doing.” We’d never say that, would we? Of course not. We’re better than that. More humble and all that jazz.

On that note, here’s some food for thought, sent to me as “an advent thought” from J last week.

“It is crucial to have no more than we can love, for without love the claim to having becomes void. Loveless having, possessing in the purest sense, remains illegitimate, a theft.”  — Erezim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, quoted in Norm Wirzba’s The Paradise of God (Oxford, 2003).

[This post originally appeared on December 5, 2010.]

Elizabeth [not so] Plain & Tall

My brother is approaching a milestone birthday next week (happy birthday, SS2!), so in honor of him, I’m quoting him without his permission. Nice, right? Truth is, I’ve been meaning to blog about the topic of being “plain” since August, which is when I got the following e-mail (I’ve hyperlinked the blog posts he’s talking about, in case they don’t ring a bell):

“I was thinking… you mentioned a couple times in your blog about people in plain clothes, both at the auction and also referring to lack of closet space because people back in the day had only two outfits. Often when we talk about this idea of community, the idea of living a simple lifestyle would go hand in hand.  How much more simple would life be if we didn’t worry as much about what we wore or how we looked.  To me the idea of dressing plain, simplifying our wardrobe, is very appealing. It also can be considered a ‘community identifier’– you can tell a person is part of an Amish/Mennonite/etc. community by their plain clothes.” — SS2, my older brother

First of all, for those of you not from central Pennsylvania or areas where subcultures of people wear “plain clothes”: such a term can mean a lot of different things. Well, actually, it always means the same thing, I’d say, just to varying degrees. Even among the Amish, there are assorted levels of plain-ness, but the main thing I want to drive home here is that to use the term “plain” is not to be insulting. It’s a particular way of dressing that does, as my brother points out, identify a community as well as have cultural/ethical significance to the wearer. One of the things it is “about” is not drawing attention to the individual in the clothes. It’s the antithesis of fancy, but also the antithesis of individual. It makes it a lot harder to live in a world of “look at me and all the cool stuff I have,” a world of “look how different that other person over there is from me.” The other practical thing here is that plain clothes are rather interchangeable–so there’s no reason to have an excess of clothing… an excess of clothing. An excess.

I stumbled across the 100 Thing Challenge yesterday, and I’m still trying to figure out what it’s going to mean for me in rural America and for me here at Texas Schmexas. You should probably go over there and read about it for yourself before continuing.

It made me–me, the gal who swears she already lives pretty simply–open up my closet, take one look at the pile of shoes on the floor and count them. Twenty pairs. And some of my shoes haven’t been unpacked from the move in June. (In my defense, the reason I have so many is because I don’t throw things away–some of the flip-flops I have had for over ten years; my wool clogs are more than 13 years old; my Birks are 15 years old… but still, woman, you’ve got over two dozen pairs of shoes!) I have five belts hanging from my closet doorknob, one of which has never been worn. It still has the plastic hook from Marshall’s on it. I have at least a dozen pairs of jeans. Sure, some of them are from high school, just like a lot of my favorite T-shirts are second-hand scores from the 1990s. But I’ve got a lot of stuff, lots of baggage, even if it is old, loved, and falling apart.

I really like the connection my brother makes to being “plain”–that is, living simply–and being in community. Our stuff really gets in the way, in the way of community, in the way of emotional health, in the way of life. Not because it is stuff that we don’t need (though we certainly don’t need it all), but because it is OUR stuff, and we like to surround ourselves with us.

Like I said, I’m not sure where this is headed, but stay tuned. I’m headed somewhere.

My brother’s a pretty smart guy.

Buy More Stuff? Great Idea.

Occasionally I will turn on NPR when driving home from work. It helps me pretend that I’m cultured and informed and that I care about what’s going on in the world. Last week, on Wednesday, I decided I should turn it on to hear about the various elections that had occurred the day before. (You’ll notice that I avoided blogging about elections because I am sure what I have to say would only upset some of my constituents, I mean, readers, on both sides of the political spectrum).

After an election update, the news turned to the economy. What I heard made me so angry, I began to fume. I fume rather well. And I turned off the radio. I was still fuming when I got home, and so I spent some time preaching to the choir (that is, J) while we made dinner together.

Did you know that Americans should spend more money? Our government (and a lot of people who know WAY more about economics than I do) really thinks so. In fact, as we find ourselves in the middle of a recession that can arguably be said to be prompted by living beyond our means—heck, maybe even just living beyond our “needs”–we’re being told that the best thing we can do is spend more money. In fact, the powers that be are doing all in their power to keep the interest rates down so that we can spend more money. Buy even more stuff we don’t need. As we are losing jobs, let’s spend more money. As we are looking into the eyes of homeless people on our streets, let’s go buy another pair of jeans at Express or a pair of winter boots at LL Bean. As we look into our grocery carts full of prepackaged and processed foods that are leading to the demise of the small family farm, let’s head on over to Fallmart and buy some more Great Values.

Buy more stuff? That sounds spectacular.

And what’s more, say you decide that you will do your part to help out the economy. Say that our economy suddenly gets “turned around” or “back on track” (notice the quotation marks). Then I’ll be proven wrong and we can go back to our worry-free lives and our good jobs and our safe neighborhoods. Nope. Sadly, that won’t get us off the hook either. When our economy is thriving, when we’re buying and consuming more stuff, we’re exploiting more people around the globe, regardless of how it looks from Wall Street.

Sound like a great idea?

Hooray! We have jobs and more pairs of flip-flops than we could wear out in a lifetime! Who cares about where the rubber came from to make those flip-flops? Or the wars and violence that went into the fuel economy to get them to our big box stores? Or how many children spent back-breaking (near slave) labor bringing them into our Targets and Eddie Bauers and Old Navys?

I’m not trying to be a sky-is-falling Chicken Little here, but our system is broken, people.

And yet (there’s always “and yet”), and yet, we as Christians are quick to make capitalism a “Christian” system, or at least to act that way. Why is that? Why do we talk like this? Why do we think that rich people have been blessed by God more than poor people? There is nothing Christian about violence, exploitation, or consumerism, and that’s what is just under the surface of our current system. (Sometimes it’s barely “under the surface” at all.) There is nothing Christian about it.

Yes, I realize that this is complicated and messy and really hard to wrap our brains around, but let me tell you straight up that I will not back down on this point one bit.

Our souls are at risk, and most of us don’t even know it.

Stuff, What I’d Miss, and a Good Rule of Thumb

[It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here at Texas Schmexas, but in case you’ve forgotten what this is all about, the first two posts about the whole fifteen-hundred-pounds thing are here and here.]

So, fifteen-hundred pounds.

Let’s just say that it’s not very much. Instead of focusing in on just how much, let’s rephrase this in terms of one of those annoying ice-breaker questions you never get asked in real life: If your house were burning down, what would you want to grab before heading out the door?

After making sure your loved ones were safe first, of course.

In other words, what are you attached to? What would you really miss if you didn’t have it any more? What do you consider irreplaceable?

If I were packing only 1500 pounds of stuff, like my brother, or downsizing to live in 450 square feet, like my friend Rebekah, I think I’d try take my favorite cookbooks, my hand-me-down Pyrex bowls, my coffee grinder, and Grandma Wise’s green dishes. I’d be sure to bring my laptop, my Kindle, my vintage seventies leather jacket, and my slippers. I’d probably pack our board games, a hammer and nails, and a drill. Our nativity, probably. And lots of baby stuff that makes my life easier–a Pack&Play, food grinder, lots of footy pajamas. I might even pack the cloth diapers. I’m guessing I’d come up with a host of other seeming must-haves when faced with decision time.

But those aren’t things I’m really attached to–I just like ’em. I’d be kind of sad to have to replace some of them. The jacket. The dishes. The bowls. My More-with-Less with all the hand-written notes in it.

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Americans, Our Stuff, and how much is 1,500 pounds anyway?

Americans have got a lot of stuff.

You’ve probably noticed.

Even if your own garage isn’t ridiculously full or if you’re like us and don’t have the luxury of a garage, you’ve probably driven by your neighbors’ homes when their garage doors were open and seen the piles and piles of stuff. Boxes. Shelving units. Bins piled so high or so haphazardly–or both–that no car will ever see the inside of that garage.

In fact, there’s pretty much an entire industry built up around trying to help people organize all of their excess stuff. Stores that sell only storage containers. Magazines about simplifying. I’ll confess, even I get tempted to freshen up my closet spaces when I walk through those aisles at Fallmart.

But clearly we’re not very good at it.

We like our stuff. We like the stuff we use. We like the stuff we don’t use. We keep things for potential future uses that we think we can envision but we never make time for. We keep clothing that doesn’t fit us anymore because we really believe we’ll lose weight. We keep old appliances we might fix some day. We keep stuff just because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of going through it. (Surely not I, said the disciple…)

Did you know that one in ten households in the US rents a storage unit?

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Spreading our @#!% Around (Part 2)

The same warnings as yesterday apply to today’s post. Also keep in mind that I said the talk being reprinted below was originally given to college students as a means of raising awareness about the Fair Trade movement. Here our speaker explains more of the details of the Fair Trade movement and encourages us to support systems that promote economic justice, rather than injustice. Considering that today is Black Friday, one of the most nauseating days of the year as far as I’m concerned, may we all have ears to hear.

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Holiday Guest Post: Spreading our @#!% Around

In honor of that amazing American holiday we celebrate today–the day we reimagine our nation’s history to be one of generosity and mutual exchange, the day we eat too much, take long naps, and then eat some more, the day each year we force even the youngest among us to recount something for which they are thankful before they can take a seat at the table–in honor of that day, I’m serving up a little dose of guilt to dollop on your pumpkin pie. (Shocker, I know.) So if you don’t want to feel a little bit guilty, you should just shut your laptop right now.

For those of you still reading, there’s one more warning that the following post needs stamped on it. It’s for mature audiences only. By that I mean that the writer uses some strong language. He grew up on a farm and, well, calls a spade a spade. Today’s essay is adapted from a talk originally delivered to college students on our local campus last Friday, in an attempt to raise awareness about the Fair Trade movement. (Check out the Resources page here at Texas Schmexas if you don’t know what “fair trade” means.)

So there’s one word that the writer uses a few times–it rhymes with “quit”–for emphasis. I decided not to change his word choice because it wasn’t as effective without it. If you are bothered by strong language, don’t keep reading. I’m serious about that. As a result of the strong language, I am requiring those of you receiving this via e-mail or from the Schmexas homepage to “click to read more” in order to continue.

So here we go.

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Grocery Stores: The Antitheses of Community?

I found myself at Fall-Mart on Saturday morning, standing in line at the cash register because only three lanes were open. That there would be a line on a Saturday morning I should have expected, and I shouldn’t have been so grumpy about it. I called J and left him a voicemail to say in my best frustrated voice, “Now I understand why Broger advertises We get you in and out in a hurry. Remind me of this next time I say I’m going to Fall-Mart. GRRR.” Then I hung up.

You see, when I go to the grocery store, I prefer self-checkout. And Broger lets you do self-checkout for full carts of groceries. They have a special line just for people like me! Additionally, I try to go the store at off times, especially avoiding Wednesdays, senior citizen discount day. I don’t like waiting my turn to squeeze my cart down the aisle. I know this makes me sound bratty, but it’s true.

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