Over the last couple of weeks, during my daily dog run, I made a point of picking up the prettiest pine cones that dotted my path – I have this unshaped idea I will spray them gold and silver and use them for a still vague Christmas table decoration. During the same walks, I also often come across what my neighbors leave on the side of the road, hopefully to be picked up by some interested soul. It’s a very American habit – and a noble one at that – to dispose of no longer wanted household items or furniture by leaving them for someone else to give them a second life.
After dragging home two wicker chairs, cleaning them and painting them, a few days ago I stopped to inspect a brass table lamp – who was I kidding? the DIY gene passed me by at birth and the likelihood I would ever replace the electrical cord and the lampshade was so minimal, I had the good sense of walking away. My idea of repurposing is using one object in a different capacity than was intended, without any tweaking, gluing, painting or hammering required. I lack the patience and the interest, I suppose. But I do cling on to the childish notion that objects have a life and a soul of sort, a soul that often prevents me from terminating their lives way past their expiration date.
Ambivalence can be my master: on one hand, I despise clutter to an extent that my house is obsessively neat and I have even gone through the (unsolicited) trouble of reorganizing other people’s living spaces, especially kitchens. On the other, I can live with semi-functional objects because I feel sorry about discarding them, if they and I have a history together: the wooden spoon with the shaved handle; the toilet in the guest bathroom that doesn’t flush properly; the wobbly chair with the colorful cushion; the chipped measuring cup that still measures after all and on and on.
Until last week. Two neon lights came crashing down in the laundry room in the middle of the night, prompting me to think a giant bird had collided with a window (why a giant bird would be flying in the middle of the night belies my fervent imagination). After picking up a sea of glass, I looked around me, and made a list of anything in my house that needed replacing or updating.
Why was I making do with half-assed things? What does that say about me, and the way I feel about my space? Since then, I have methodically disposed of things that were half-broken or started the fixing process for those that could be rescued. I noticed that some objects didn’t need replacing: I have two other measuring cups in addition to the chipped one. More plates I will ever use in one setting. More mugs than even a Mad Hatter tea party would prompt me to fill. Ten years in this house and so much stuff. Neatly organized, no doubt, but still stuff.
And I know I am not alone. While catering a dinner for a client a few weeks ago, I was rummaging through her kitchen looking for a ladle, and I came across an unwarranted quantity of same objects, of gizmos that probably never see the light of day – every drawer packed to the gilt. And here we are, entering the season of gift-giving. Everywhere I look, there are e-mails, newspaper and magazine pages filled with stocking filler ideas, gifts for her and him, gifts for $25 and for $250.
I certainly don’t need anything (well, maybe an iPhone upgrade would be nice – see? that’s advertising for you). So, this holiday season, please don’t give me anything. I mean it. Invite me for lunch if you would like to show your appreciation for my company. Write me a personal note expressing why you think I am such a good friend. If you believe I am such a valued customer, maybe offer me a discount because I really do not need another tote bag. If you value me as an employee, slip a bonus in that envelope.
I will take some homemade jam or cookies. But no more stuff.
Other than indulging children with shiny packages under the tree, there shouldn’t be anything for me or any other sensible adult who is not in need. And there are so many of them. This year, the money I would otherwise spend on random gifts will go to Edite in Mozambique, who is trying to build herself a house, and to Feeding America – in my rich and mighty country, 1 in 6 people experiences hunger, at some point in their lives. These are often hard-working adults, children and seniors who simply cannot make ends meet and are forced to go without food for several meals, or even days. So, while I carve my ham, arrange the pine cones I picked up in the street and harbor no expectations as to what is under the tree for me, I hope my small contribution will have made someone else’s week a little bit brighter.
And as to the people we love and we want to reward with tangible gifts from the heart from time to time, we don’t have to use Christmas as an excuse and feed the marketing machine (not to mention our anxiety level). What’s wrong with January 12?