One Man’s Trash

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“After 40 it’s patch, patch, patch.”

Seen on a T-shirt

“After 60, it’s pitch, pitch, pitch.”

Sally Daab Armstrong

Downsizing! It seems that I’m at it again!

My recent return to Vermont found me in a condo one-third smaller than the one I left in Michigan. Sorting, tossing, and recycling have been a necessity. It’s impossible to retain everything I brought with me, but another round of jettisoning the treasures and minutiae of my life has not been easy.

I was raised on the 1950s black and white Westerns…movies, and television shows…Gun Smoke, Ponderosa, and every Sunday night…Wagon Train. I was both distressed and curiously intrigued when inevitably, it became necessary to lighten the load and leave something along the trail. I’m not sure why but I found the jarring clang of a piano tossed from the back of a Conestoga or the crash of a crate of heirloom china being unceremoniously flung over the side especially heartbreaking. How did those people decide what to toss and what to keep? It’s hard to let go of things that connect us to other times and places, but in the end, they are just things. The memories and connections remain; it’s just “the stuff” that we lose.

Then again, couldn’t they keep just one of Grandma’s teacups? Maybe tucked into a flour sack? I suppose that’s what makes this task so challenging for me. I can only do it in stages. I keep the “just one thing” for now, but in a few months…as the purge continues…I might decide that it is indeed just a cup, not the memory, and I can set it free.

The famous Japanese lifestyle coach Marie Kondo says we should eliminate excess clutter and put away all the things from the past that no longer contribute to our lives. Thank each item in the Goodwill box for the joy it brought us or the comfort it provided, and then…as they sing in the Disney movie…let it go. I still have much more than I need in this tiny condo, but I’m getting better at bidding adieu to things that, at one time or another, I thought I couldn’t live without.

“Have gratitude for the things you’re discarding. By giving gratitude, you’re giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”

Marie kondo

I’ve made many trips to Goodwill and The Restore and joined a local Buy-Nothing group. Everything offered in the group is free to whoever can use it. The next owner will continue to breathe life into my rejects, creating new histories instead of sending them to the landfill.

Free Pile #1

Knowing how difficult it is to reduce the inventory, I find it very curious…puzzling even…that I involuntarily slow down for anything along the road with a Free Sign. Who knows what sidewalk gold awaits me? Within split seconds, I’ve designed a new seat for the chair with the broken caning, and I’ve chosen a paint color that would add charm and delight, making it a lovely addition to my front porch. Then I remember…I don’t have a front porch, and I don’t need more stuff…especially broken, discarded stuff.

That doesn’t seem to stop me. I keep looking. I keep imaging.

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” 

Gloria Steinem

Maybe I could repair the sagging shelves of the bookcase, repurpose the metal plantstand, or mend the flannel shirt. I wasn’t looking for another book to add to those next to my bed waiting to be read, but the cover is so shiny, and the title is intriguing. Could I successfully incorporate these finds into my life? This entire reaction generally lasts but a few seconds at best. Thankfully, my better angels take over, and I don’t come home with something new which would be destined for my giveaway box.

Free Pile #2

Buying second-hand, frequenting flea markets, looking for bargains, and hunting for treasure is nothing new and not certainly not unique to me. Perhaps this practice is one of the remaining vestiges of our days as Hunter-Gatherers. We don’t search for bargains and treasures out of greed, although there is an element of saving money and making the most advantageous transaction. It is more a matter of imagining our world just a wee bit differently. What would it be like to possess something new and unexpected? Could our world be different? Improved?

Maybe that’s true of ideas and thoughts as well. We keep what works, what gives us clarity and meaning. We’re open to new thoughts and imagine incorporating them into our lives but then, often as not, we drive on…leaving them in the grass at the edge of the road…without employing them or making them our own.

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 

Thomas merton

When I was a teenager, we often passed a rather ramshackle building on our way to the city. It always appeared ready to collapse. Held together with spit and a promise, it was filled to overflowing with all kinds of fascinating and enticing bits of wood and metal…Sleazeman’s Junk Emporium. It was a dilapidated, rundown collection of…well…junk, but the name was so clever and inviting. This memory reminds me to be careful what I bring into my house or into my thinking, for that matter. Sometimes what appears to be gratis is a costly problem with a jazzy name…the couch with fleas, the appliance with the wrong cord, or conclusions without basis in facts.

Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.

Albert einstein

And so…I slow down, look, and imagine even as the purging, shuffling, and reducing continues.

Special Delivery

WARNING: Be very careful accepting any parcel post from me in the next few weeks. You may be an unsuspecting participant in my downsizing adventure. I imagine how any number of my cast-offs…I mean treasures…could change your life.

Spot, The-Other-One, and the Feathered Coxswain

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese
The Wild Geese Are Heading Home Again….. Photo credit Pixabay

There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese.  Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.

I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.

“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte

Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day, we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other.  We were always sure to be home for supper, and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up, we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek.  The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty, and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.

The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping, with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months, it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat, although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber-soled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead? 

A Box of Possibility and Imagination

In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.  

This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise, the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.

“Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field

In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again, moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready,” they honk. “Prepare,” they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.

There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.

Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees, where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese, too, it seems.

My Friend Spot. Names for the tiny patch of white hairs on his back.

Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book Frederick by Lio Lionni.  It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.

So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.

Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.

How are you restocking your pantry?

Making Memories at the Corn Maze.
Masks removed only for the photo and when social distancing within the rows of corn stalks.