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).

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[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.

convictions & table legs & making do

So, funny story.

Yesterday, I was vacuuming the rug underneath our dining room table. As I was vacuuming, I gently lifted the corner of the table and pulled it three or four inches towards me in order to get to the crumbs hidden beside the table leg. Then I pushed it back the other direction, vacuumed again, and put the table back in its original position.

This morning, I was roused out of bed by Jonathan hollering “E!” and the crying of our one-year-old. I ran downstairs, expecting an emergency. I saw that J’s hot tea was spilled on the floor but couldn’t figure out what was actually wrong. He was just sitting at the table, as far as I could tell. (I was kind of dazed and still sleepy.) “What happened?” I began to ask, as J said, “The table leg fell off!” And then I realized he wasn’t picking up our crying child because he was literally holding the table top in place to keep anything else from falling off of it, and the table leg was indeed lying on the floor.

Rewind.

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Yard Sales, Lost Houses, & When Zucchini Bread Is What You’ve Got

My neighbor Ashley and I organized a multi-family yard sale back in April, which took place in my yard, since it’s on a corner and is pretty spacious. Folks from church stopped by, folks we didn’t know stopped by, and our neighbors stopped by. An old man picked through my VHS collection because he thought it was an incredible deal that I was selling 4 for 25 cents each or 10 for $1. (Think about it.) I sold three giant boxes of books for dirt cheap to a woman whose son has a brain disease and reads voraciously all day. I let three shy little daughters of a non-English speaking mom into my house to use the bathroom. I learned that people are more likely to buy furniture–even old, icky furniture that we picked up years ago alongside the road (and blogged about it)–if you put a $3 price on it, rather than Free. For real.

I have been on a less-is-more trajectory for some time now, and it felt good to go through our house and ask honestly whether we needed particular items. The answer to “Could we make due without this?” is nearly always yes, by the way. In fact, sometimes I think I’d be happiest living in one of those 348 square feet apartments from the IKEA showroom.

And then sometimes I don’t.

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Turning Inward, Turning Outward, & Staring into the Abyss

Giving things up for Lent isn’t easy. But even more difficult is what comes next.

When we give things up, we get a little bit lighter. Just like when we get rid of physical clutter–on the shelf under the coffee table, perhaps, or the bottom of your closet–we feel more sane. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

Our stuff and our schedules and our own feelings of importance bog us down most of the year. And then Lent comes along and we try to  break free.

We free up our time when we cut out something that is a time-suck for us (Facebook, television, snacking mindlessly); we free up our bodies when we recognize our dependence on caffeine, tobacco, sugar, or even those convenient, processed foods that seem to make our lives easier; and we free up our souls when we cut out something that distracts us (any of the aforementioned things as well as clutter in the house, too many meetings and scurrying about, working 60-hour weeks, endless to-do lists hanging over our heads).

If we can get free from the things that are hindering our time, our bodies, and our souls, we become aware of something.

Something difficult.

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