Whenever I need something, instead of shopping, I go gleaning — scouting out our local second-hand stores. Surprisingly often, I find a new (to me) flower pot, slip-jaw wrench or glass pie pan for a fraction of the cost of buying something brand new.
Over time, I’ve filled my closets and cupboards with what others no longer wanted and furnished my home with second-hand treasures.
Serendipity is another delight of second-hand shopping. Upcoming birthdays and friends’ interests always are in the back of my mind when I’m garage sale-ing or scanning the crannies of second-hand shops: Jane is pleased when she unwraps a sparkling blown-glass hummingbird that evokes the time we spotted an impossibly tiny nest together. I can tell Jill that I pictured just the spot on her mantle for a pair of candle holders of the ruby glass she collects. The appearance of a perfect gift fills me with a special sense of magic.
Trolling through second-hand shops exercises my creative imagination in unexpected ways. What could I do with the silk of this beautiful sari? Can this trunk be transformed into a table? I’m continually inspired by the one-of-a-kind-ness of each offering.
An especially good find provides more than the thrill of victory every bargain hunter knows: It reminds me that my wants and needs can be met without adding more damage to Mother Earth. When it’s second-hand, the raw materials already have been extracted, the energy required for manufacturing already has been used and the off-gassing already done. It’s also deeply satisfying to have it both ways: to fulfill my needs and wants without fully participating in the excesses of our material culture.
While looking for a little chest of drawers for my bedroom, something suddenly shifted: Why try to neaten up heaps of stuff instead of getting rid of what I didn’t really need? It made no sense to store what wasn’t being used. Storing things away simply had become a habit, a way to avoid spending some mindful minutes deciding if something was worth keeping.
A teacher recounted how he’d been instructed to go home and rid it of every unfinished project as a way to free his emotional and spiritual energy for more constructive purposes. Although he lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in New York, doing a thorough job required more than a month, he reported. But that process of clearing out changed his life forever.
De-cluttering, downsizing or good old-fashioned spring cleaning made sense. Yet there was no way for a born recycler like me simply to toss that perfectly good fleece vest or a virtually new turkey roaster, unused now that most of my friends and family are vegetarian.
Online sites like 2good2toss, Freecycle and Craigslist let you de-clutter, item by item. Serenity House and thrift shops take jumbles of donations to be resold.
But I’ve been drawn to another option, a way of sharing without trading or bartering or cash.
Gifting taps into the natural generosity that’s in each of our hearts. In cash-poor West Africa, gifting economies have been part of the culture for thousands of years. In Mali, dama, an informal women’s economy, provides security and support by giving freely and trusting that you will be given to as well — whether you need bus fare or help after childbirth.
The world is filled with cultures that value sharing without record keeping or attempts to measure equivalencies. Ancient traditions like potlatch, which go to the idea of “paying it forward,” tap a basic need to share with one another.
Perhaps the latest incarnations of the gifting economy are the Really, Really Free gatherings. In communities from California to Australia, people gather to celebrate spontaneous sharing at regular events or ones announced by e-mail. Hard-pressed social service agencies sometimes send clients to augment what the agencies can provide.
Interested? Learn how to get started at www.reallyreallyfree.org.
An afternoon of conviviality and conversation is far more rewarding than schlepping stuff to a charity drop-off or a newly rented storage unit.
Having fun while getting to know people better is free.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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