A Trip to the Hardware Store

Finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

loppers 53117                                             My new pair of bypass loppers*

Remarkably, I bought several things at the hardware store yesterday.

You may ask, what’s so remarkable about that? Why write an entire blog post about a trip to the hardware store?

There are several reasons I found it remarkable, and you might too.

Before the 1,000 things projects, buying a bunch of stuff at the hardware store was as unremarkable for me as it would be for most people, but doing the 1,000 things projects made me much more aware about buying stuff. It changed the default setting on my buying habits from “yes, if” (as in “yes, buy it if I want it”) to “no, unless” (as in “no need to buy something unless I really need it”). This zero-based budgeting approach to buying most consumer items has become habitual for me.

So I haven’t been buying much stuff, period. In fact, this is only the second time this calendar year that I went to a store and bought non-consumable items (that is, things other than groceries, restaurant meals, gas and car repairs, fitness classes, massages, and various miscellaneous items). In February, I bought several sets of bed sheets to replace ones which had worn out. This time, I bought stuff for yard work: work gloves, masks, yard waste bags, and a pair of “bypass loppers.” The main reason for buying this stuff was to make it easier to clear out the invasive bamboo in my back yard (and the reason for that is another, longer story for a future post) and to tackle the poison ivy and other vines that are stressing the black cherry tree in my vacant lot next door.

So it was remarkable that this trip to the hardware store was remarkable for me; it was out of the ordinary instead of being ordinary like it used to be. I noticed the difference and appreciated it.

The second reason this trip was remarkable was that I bought the pair of bypass loppers* even though I already owned a pair. The old pair was seizing up and difficult to use on the thicker bamboo stalks I’ve been cutting down. I could have taken the loppers to the hardware store and asked them to sharpen and fix them, but I didn’t want to wait that long. Still, I asked myself if I was being wasteful somehow or if buying a new pair was really necessary, and I surprised myself a little by deciding to buy them. I think this was because I’d been focused more on the “No” part of the “No, unless” formula; I’d been saying “no” to buying new stuff a lot more than I had in the past. When I bought the bed sheets, the “unless” part was a little clearer; there, the decision was basically “no, don’t buy these new bed sheets — unless you want to stop sleeping on bed sheets with holes in them.” Well, in that case…  For the bypass loopers, it was “no — unless you want to make the task of cutting down bamboo easier, faster, and less frustrating.” Sometimes, as in this case, “unless” makes more sense.

The third reason this trip to the hardware store was remarkable was that my decision to buy the new pair of loppers became easier once I decided I would give the old pair away; they still worked fine, and someone else could sharpen and fix them if they wanted. This  is another big change for me: being comfortable with simply giving stuff away when I didn’t want or need it anymore instead of saving it up Just in Case I might need it Some Day. So I noticed and appreciated this too, that my willingness and ability to generate gratitude by giving stuff away had notched up a level.

Buying stuff thoughtfully instead of being mindless about the process, taking the time to appreciate something when I do buy it, and making sure that stuff circulates through my house instead of simply accumulating there, is all pretty mundane stuff. But the real takeaway from my trip to the hardware store, besides the things I bought, is that finding the remarkable in the unremarkable is like finding treasure hidden in plain sight, right under my nose.

So, time to go cut some more bamboo and put that old pair of loppers on Freecycle. Anyone need some bamboo stalks?

*Of course, it was also remarkable that I was learning what these things were called for the first time in my life…


Tool Cull

Taking me to the finish line…

tools that remain 316
(tools that I kept after my tool cull {#2921-3005; Freecycled})

The tool cull took me to the finish line in my third 1,000 things project. It’s worth a post of its own for that reason alone, but there are some other good reasons for telling you about it.

How it came about: I was getting down to the wire in terms of meeting my goal of getting rid of 3,000 things by February 25th. I eventually let go of reaching that deadline on time, but before giving that up, I thought of a few strategies that might help me get there sooner, even if not on time. One of those strategies was to identify groups of large numbers of things that would help me get rid of a lot of things quickly. One of them I used extensively: going through my home office with the goal of getting my documents truly, finally, organized. This worked quite well for me, and I only have a few more folders to cull through, and lots of space in my file cabinet.

The other large number of things I used to get to 3,000 was my set of tools. I knew I had an excess of tools which I would be more likely to find and use if I actually knew what I had and where they were. This became the “toolbox project”  with the goal of going through my toolboxes, creating two sets of tools to keep in two toolboxes (one for me, one for my son), and disposing of the rest. I knew I had a lot of extra tools of some types — wrenches and small screwdrivers for example. I didn’t really know if my son wanted a toolbox, but I figured it would be there if and when he wanted it, and if not, it would be easy to give away to someone else.

Another motivation for doing it this way was remembering my Dad’s tool collection. He had seven toolboxes — no, actually I can’t tell you how many toolboxes he had. There were at least seven toolboxes filled with tools, along with a voluminous amount of tools that weren’t in toolboxes. Then there were the numerous toolboxes filled with something else: the toolboxes filled with pennies, all rolled up and organized and labeled by year; and the toolboxes filled with all sorts of other things that I don’t remember now and really don’t care to try. I only have two toolboxes plus various other tools, but I’m still young relative to my dad when he passed away. Maybe he only had as many tools as I do now when he was my age. Maybe he got started down the path of tool hoarding with a collection of my size. Better to cut this off now while it’s still manageable. That alone justified for me the OCD overtones of going through every tool and sorting them out.

And so I did. I emptied my two toolboxes and collected all the others I could find, laid out all the tools where I could see them, and grouped the tools loosely by type. Then I started identifying the tools I wanted, starting with easy ones like hammers and screwdrivers. I took one of each (including variants, like a traditional hammer, mallet hammer, etc.); if I had two of something, the second one went into my son’s toolbox; anything left over stayed in a third pile. I also kept a separate toolbox for myself which I had taken from my dad’s collection and kept because it has a well-organized array of tools (socket wrench set, a few screwdrivers, toolbit disk, and a few other items) that wouldn’t all fit in my toolbox.

Even after filling two toolboxes, a fairly useful collection of leftover tools remained: a couple of hammers, various screwdrivers, pliers, and a wide assortment of wrenches, including an almost complete socket wrench set. Some things were new or almost new, like a set of open-ended wrenches. Some things were older or even a little messy like the socket wrench set, but they were still useful. I also decided to give away a couple of ‘vintage’ tools — an old Yankee screwdriver, a small metal plumber’s wrench — to add value in a different way: maybe the recipient would appreciate them more than I would.

Ironically, I gave away a toolbox during my first 1,000 things project (#599) about 17 months ago which I thought I didn’t need at the time. It turns out I could have used it now, but I didn’t feel any sense of regret at not having kept it.  This is a good thing and worth noting, so I’ll remind myself again here: getting rid of that toolbox was more rewarding to me than keeping it, even though I had to go get another one.  The notion of “you might need it someday” is often a myth, and keeping something can be more of a burden than getting another one. (More about that in a later post.) I thought about going to a thrift store to buy a cheap toolbox, but I decided to buy a new one at the local hardware store instead; it cost about $18, which with the time cost savings was probably a bit cheaper than driving to the nearest thrift store. I’d planned to replace one of my old toolboxes with this new one, but after trying out the new toolbox, I decided I actually like my old ones a little better — one is metal; the other is a plastic toolbox from the old Hechinger’s home improvement store, so it’s an antique of sorts 😉 .

Then I filled the new toolbox with the culled tools, along with a bag which included a funnel and boxes of various fasteners (nails, screws, etc.) and put it on Freecycle. As you might expect, this was a very popular offering, and I found a recipient quickly. I even got a response from someone  who didn’t want the tools but simply wanted to acknowledge my generosity:

“Hi neighbor, Very generous tool freecycling you have got going there! I am not really in need but I thought I would let you know I think that is a pretty cool gift.”

So in this way the tool cull was a highly fitting end to my third 1,000 things project because the tool cull had it all:  stories, inner voices, possession, treasure, gratitude, curation, thoughtfulness, and of course completing the cycle on several levels.

Where am I now, and where am I going next? Good questions — reflections on that in my next posts…

Inner Voices Redux: Strong as Ever…

The inner voices don’t go away — they just get stronger and more insistent…

xmas tree 3rd gr ca1820
(#1820: art work, 1962; recycled — also see narrative details below)

During my first 1000 things project, one of the first things I discovered was the presence of inner voices: an internal dialogue between me and my things which I encountered whenever I dealt with them. I learned that these inner voices were the most subtle but perhaps also most powerful attachment, and so I learned to listen to them and try to understand what they were saying.

They often took the form of scripts or mantras which I’m sure you’ll recognize (and indeed many of you have told me you’ve heard these same ones), such as:

  • “It might be worth something; I can’t just throw it out”
  • “I paid a lot for that; I can’t just give it away”
  • “My son [child, relative] might want that some day”
  • “This was my favorite [x] when I was a kid”
  • “I might want to look through those (papers, pictures, drawings, etc.) some day”
  • “This was so-and-so’s favorite [y]”

These inner voices also embodied certain larger themes for internalized rules about how to deal with my stuff, themes like “Just in Case,” “Get Maximum Value,” or “Some Day.”

Now that I’m well into my third and final 1000 things project, I’ve learned a deeper truth about them, which is this: The inner voices don’t go away. Not for me, at least. You might think that, after having gotten rid of so many things, I would have learned to manage the inner voices better or subdue them more effectively. But no. If anything, they are at least as loud as ever.

This phenomenon in itself is not new; I had previously noticed that my inner voices were stronger and more insistent when I dealt with things that had deeper attachments to me. But I’m finding that it’s more common now, probably because I’ve gotten rid of most of the easy things to get rid of, and the ones that remain have a stronger claim on me.

In particular, mementos require more attention and more difficult decisions. I’d already started this process in the 2nd thousand things project with many of my own mementos; I’ve disassembled trophies (e.g., #1750, 1774-75), thrown out moldy baseball caps (#1682-86), and disposed of a lot of old school papers (e.g. #1697-98, 1804-05). This process has continued in the third 1000 things project with certificates (e.g., #2042), art work (e.g., #2043 below), and high school handbooks (#2051, 2052).

js artwork date unknown 2043
(#2043: art work, date unknown (middle school?); recycled)

The process involved a fair amount of time discovering, reminiscing, and deciding, and parting was sometimes not that easy. I expect it will be even more difficult when I go through other remaining mementos such as photographs, some of my son’s stuff, and some of Martha’s remaining stuff.

In some cases, encountering these objects evoked instant strong memories of something I may have remembered now and then over the years, for instance Little League and Teener League baseball team pictures (#1836, which was a bit moldy; I have kept the others for now).

indians bball team pic 1836
(#1836: Little League team picture, ca. 1965 ; trashed)

In other cases, the memento evoked a long-forgotten memory, for example the faux stained glass X-mas tree I made out of tissue paper in third grade (#1820). (For me, third grade seemed to be a big art year.) In still other cases, I had no recollection of the object, and seeing it did not evoke any memory for me, for instance a letter I wrote to my mom in second grade (#1830) asking her to make sure I got enough sleep so that I could do well on exams the next day.

js note to mom 462 ca1830
(#1830: letter to my mother, 1962 ; recycled)

There were also some new inner voices, or at least some which I had not paid any attention to previously. For instance, I recently got rid of some comic books. Most of them were in decent shape but certainly not in mint condition; they’re mainly Archie, Jughead comics from the 1960s (only 12 cents!). I listened to the inner voices and followed their guidance for awhile. They could be worth something. Maybe one of them could be worth a lot of money. So I looked on eBay — eh, not so much. Maybe someone else will value them. So I visited a local comic book store while out doing some errands nearby (I’ve learned from the previous projects that they weren’t worth a separate trip!). Not interested; ‘try this other local store, or there’s a place in Waldorf’… So I called the local store; not interested either, ‘but there’s a place in Falls Church that might take them; or there are a couple of places online…’ Falls Church? Waldorf?? Online? Now we’re talking entirely too much time and effort; if two comic book stores won’t take them, then maybe I should just — Still, It would be a shame just to throw them out. The inner voices are strong and insistent. So I went on Freecycle — any comic book collectors out there? Turns out there were plenty who were interested in them, and they found a good home, with my efforts producing a little more gratitude in the world in the process.

Speaking of process, the process of dealing with these mementos is helping me develop my own process for getting rid of things more quickly and effectively (at least in the long run!). More on that in my next post…

Thoughts on Doing a 3rd (& final!) 1000 things project

(Just!?!) one more time…

2070 corkscrew honeymoon
(#2070: part of a corkscrew (other part missing); recycled 10/30/15)

As noted in my previous post on this topic, the total number of items in my 2nd 1000 things project carried me well past the 2,000 mark, which has started me on another 1000 things project. To be honest, this decision falls somewhere between a plan and a rounding error. My last haul to Goodwill put me at 2,037; with such a great start, how could I not keep going and count 963 more?

If the logic of that escapes you, well, let’s just say it’s not entirely logical to me either. Clearly there’s something deeper at work here which on some level is worth my knowing. But I do have my limits, so I’m calling this 1000 things project the 3rd and final one for a few reasons:

– I’m starting to get a little tired of counting at this point. The phrase “blessings beyond counting” has been recurring in my mind lately, and I’ve been playing with its possible dual meanings: ‘blessings that result from reaching numerical targets’ and ‘the blessing of finally being free from the need (desire? compulsion?) to count.’ The longer I keep counting, the louder the voice which says “are you crazy? OCD? obsessed with counting? weird?” [etc.]  Writing about it and sharing my thoughts with others has the same effect. I find myself wondering if I’m somehow revealing some deep secretive part of myself, at once aware of this in the abstract but blind to what’s actually being revealed. At any rate, I don’t want counting to become counting for counting’s sake. I’d also like to avoid the same OCD trap that seemed to afflict several of the authors whose books I read over the summer.

– At the same time, I’m curious about just how many more things I’ll need to get rid of to reach my stated goal of living in a dwelling where everything I own has identifiable purpose or value. Will 3,000 get me there or within sight of it? Only one way to find out…

– The notion of forcing the issue seemed appealing to me lately. I’ve derived this notion from watching the experiences of several people I know who have moved or are in the process of preparing to move, whether a downsize or a move to a faraway location.  The appeal of forcing the issue is to speed up the process; it makes getting rid of things a high priority, and thus it’s easier to get rid of a lot of them relatively quickly. When my older sister recently moved, for instance, she told me that she got rid of about one-third of their things over a several-month period. Then there’s the extreme, “natural disasters” version which I encountered recently at a conference, where I heard three different stories from colleagues about losing home possessions from a fire (in which they lost almost everything), flood (of a basement, but lots and lots of things had to be thrown out), and lightning (they had to throw out about 25 bags of clothing, and all of their remaining clothing had to be dry cleaned).

Despite this appeal, having to move usually means not having the time to be maximally, or even satisfyingly, thoughtful about each thing you own. I don’t want to abandon being thoughtful about the process, so I really don’t want to force the issue — but I don’t want another project to drag on for another nine or ten months either.

As a result, for this project I intend to focus on how to accelerate the process without forcing it — get rid of stuff more systematically and quickly, yet thoughtfully.  I intend to apply what I’ve learned from my first two 1000 things projects, including my readings and learning from the stories and experiences of others (which includes many of you who’ve told me such great stories and shared such wonderful tips!), toward developing and testing out one or more specific processes for doing this. I’ve already started identifying some of the steps and testing them out, trying to learn as I go. (More on this in later posts.)

This 3rd and final 1000 things project also appears to have several other important characteristics:

Awareness of (almost) everything I own. Now and then, I still rediscover a stash of forgotten things, most recently the stack of music, song, and lesson books stashed inside the piano bench. While this briefly makes me wonder if this will ever stop happening, I really have just about run out of such places. While I can’t tell you what’s in every single box or bin yet, and there may be a few more surprises left to rediscover, there is no area of my house that remains unexamined. For me, this awareness of all my things is a major milestone towards being able to identify their purpose and value. Which brings me to the next step:

What does “identifiable purpose or value” really mean anyway? — I’ve treated this goal as if I know what it means — that I’ll recognize it when I see it, that I can define it in concrete terms, and that I’ll be able to tell you and others when I’ve reached it. But I’m starting to realize that this goal may not be quite as clear as I’ve been treating it. So there may be some interesting surprises and insights in store for me here.

Tougher decisions about getting rid of stuff. I’ve gotten rid of most of the easy stuff by now, which means that the decisions about individual items are getting tougher. The corkscrew cover (#2070) pictured above was missing the actual corkscrew, but it was a somewhat tougher decision since the Cartwright Hotel was one of the first places Martha and I stayed on our honeymoon to Northern California 26 years ago. (Still, I don’t need the actual thing now that I have the picture and the reminder now.) Even relatively easy ones like the old high school student handbook below, with its explicit instructions for disposal (read the notes in red) still required a momentary stroll down memory lane.

(#2051: CVHS student handbook, 1971-72; recycled 10/27/15)

This reality directly opposes my intent to get rid of things more quickly, but it does feed into my being more systematic and still thoughtful about it. The resulting conflicts are already interesting: I’m starting to hear newer inner voices, and the familiar ones are becoming louder and more stubborn; the embedded stories are more numerous and compelling; the attachments are stronger and often more deeply buried; and I’ll need to up my game in the curation and gratitude departments.

Curiously, the one area where I feel things getting easier is with “completing the cycle”: I don’t feel any urge to fill the newly emerging spaces in my home with things; instead, I feel stronger, cleaner, and leaner every day as another small pocket or space is emptied.

Overall, though, it will be interesting to see how the conflict between tougher decisions and more effective disposal plays out as I move forward.

More blog entries and writing in (near) real time. Up to now, I’ve been playing catch up most of the time with my chronicling of the 1000 things projects. There was no chronicling for the first project since I had no intention at the time of doing so; most of my chronicling during the 2nd project was about the first project, with the exception of a new stories and the book reviews, which were only a couple of months after I read them. I still have a lot of catching up to do with the second project, but I will be making more of an effort to chronicle in (near) real time what happens in this third (& final!) project.  Starting with my next post…

Book Review: The Live-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

magic tidying up graphic

Some good advice and tips (five stars); OCD method (one star); worth the read overall (four stars).

The first book I read and will review is the most popular one: the best seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. As the book’s title makes clear, its main idea is that tidying up your home will change your life. As author Marie Kondo puts it:

…when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do…once you have experienced what it’s like to have a truly ordered house, you’ll feel your whole world brighten. Never again will you revert to clutter. This is what I call the magic of tidying.

If this “magic” sounds to you more like a self-help approach (tidy up your house, tidy up your life), then join the club. Indeed, the author describes her book as “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person.” She further asserts that the only way to acquire the right mind-set is to acquire the “right technique” — in this case, her method, which she calls the KonMari method.

So, here’s some quick advice for getting value from the book: ignore the method (unless you’re really into that sort of thing); instead, cull the book for specific tips and advice that resonate with you. I found that the book has a number of good tips and advice for me, for example:

  • It’s especially useful to recognize that we can needlessly hold on to things which have outlived their purpose, and it’s not hard to imagine how getting rid of them will help someone move on in some way.
  • I liked the notion of identifying objects that have completed their role in your life, and saying thank you and letting them go with gratitude. The letting go part matches my experience of finding gratitude from my first 1000 things project, and I like the notion of acknowledging a thing’s contribution and have started doing that in my current (2nd) 1000 things project. I’ve found it works for me particularly well with getting rid of books which have completed their role in my life.
  • Focusing on choosing what we want to keep rather than what we want to get rid of is another useful insight.
  • Mementos and other items of sentimental value require a lot of emotional effort, so it is best to start a decluttering project with some other type of item.
  • Although the notion of collecting everything in each category at one time is a stupid strategy in my experience, I could see the value of using this as an occasional strategy for certain types of items.
  • Paying a little more mindful attention to how we treat our things and our relationship with them is also good advice, although Tidying Up goes a little overboard at times by attributing almost mystical qualities to things, for example asserting that they “share the desire to be of use to you” [Kindle location 2076]

These and other specific tips and advice made Tidying Up worth the read.  The KonMari method itself is a different matter. Kondo’s prescriptive, insistent approach made me suspicious and skeptical right off the bat, and it quickly got worse. Unsubstantiated assertions like “most people would prefer to live in a clean and tidy space” and “anyone who experiences this process, no matter who they are, will vow never to revert to clutter again” were grating rather than encouraging or inspiring.  Kondo has an annoying habit of posing a rhetorical question when she wants to elicit agreement, for instance: “Don’t you think it is unnatural for us to possess things that don’t bring us joy or things that we don’t really need?” (Um, no — actually, it’s all too natural…)

The particulars of the KonMari method were even more unappealing: “sort by category, not by location;” “Tidy up in one shot, rather than little by little.” Following the correct order of categories is even more important: clothes, then books, papers, komono (“miscellany”), then things of sentimental value. She also recommends dividing clothing into specific subcategories (tops, bottoms, “clothes that should be hung,” socks, etc.) “to increase efficiency.”

Are you thinking what I’m thinking yet? That’s right — OCD.  At first I felt a little uncharitable and judgmental for thinking that, but then Tidying Up gets even worse — prescriptions for how to arrange your clothes by color, how to store them in shoeboxes (vertical storage = good; horizontal storage = bad), and for goodness sakes don’t roll your socks into a ball!

Besides the OCD overtones of the KonMari method itself, the book contains several shortcomings and inconsistencies which diminish its value. The most annoying one pertains to how Tidying Up treats things themselves. At times, Kondo takes a mystical, almost ceremonial approach to getting rid of things, for instance when she exhorts us to “make your parting a ceremony to launch them on a new journey.” This viewpoint is inconsistent with how things are treated at other places in the book: as garbage to be gotten rid of if it fails to bring joy to you. She advises against “dumping things indiscriminately” [1989] but also asserts that “the moment you start focusing on how to choose what to throw away, you have actually veered significantly off course” [495]. Sorry, but if you simply throw something away, it becomes trash, not some mystical energy form. Thus the KonMari method precludes the notion of being thoughtful about the decision process; instead, it encourages thoughtlessness about the discarding process and is thus irresponsible.

Using “joy” as the nearly singular criterion for keeping something also seems very naive. I will never find joy from my carbon monoxide detector, but I certainly find purpose in it. While the method appears to allow for keeping things based on need, it’s not at all clear how this happens; it’s as if she believes her method itself will enable its users to magically realize what they need and discard everything else.

In part, this is because Tidying Up also focuses almost exclusively on the discard or outflow side of things. Kondo asserts that the KonMari method will eventually lead to what she calls the “just-right click point,” after which satisfaction “envelops your whole being,” “you’ll find that the amount you own never increases,” and your clutter problems will be solved forever.  Conversely, Tidying Up seems to assume that we are incapable of curbing our desires; for instance, if we only clean up one area or a little at a time, it will have no effect: “Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever,” and “within a few days you notice that your room is becoming cluttered again.”

Very little of this matches my own experience with my 1000 things projects. Maybe some people need this level of direction, but all in all, Tidying Up is far too prescriptive and overbearing for me, which is fine since I’m apparently not the target audience, which appears to be single women living in small apartments. Kondo admits that her book isn’t for everyone — unless, of course, you happen to read it:

…there are many people in the world who really don’t care if they can’t put their house in order. Such people, however, would never pick up this book. You, on the other hand, have been led by fate to read it, and that means you probably have a strong desire to change your current situation, to reset your life, to improve your lifestyle, to gain happiness, to shine.

Such lofty ambitions make more sense toward the end of the book when Kondo discloses the origins of her tidy tendencies: as a painfully shy girl who discovered her true calling (though she didn’t realize it until later in adulthood) when her elementary school teacher asked the class who wanted to be responsible for organizing and tidying the classroom, and she was the only one who raised her hand. Even as Kondo discovered that tidying was her professional destiny, she seems to remain oblivious that other people will have their own paths, even those who decide to read her book.

Read Tidying Up as a culling exercise, and you too will likely find many good and helpful tips. Maybe the KonMari method will also connect you with your inner light; as for me, it is far too obsessive, compulsive, and ultimately disordered…

Turning Thoughtfulness into Gratitude

How to turn your things into a valuable, badly needed resource…

step2 storage bin

#600: Step2 plastic toy storage bin — Freecycled October 2014

Here’s another reason for getting rid of things thoughtfully: gratitude.

The world could use a lot more gratitude. Surely if there is one thing we can agree on in our contentious, polarized society, it’s that there is a shortage of gratitude. Imagine if there were hidden, largely undiscovered reservoirs of gratitude just waiting to be released, easy to find and use.

Well, it turns out there are: just look in your basement…or attic…or garage — anywhere you’ve got lots of stuff you’re not using, you don’t need, and someone else might use.

That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from the 1000 things project: our things are vast deposits of untapped gratitude. I was sitting on a gold mine of good will, a Prudhoe Bay of positive energy to give to the world. Or at least it felt that way every time I overcame my resistance to giving away a (formerly) useful or expensive thing I owned.

I realized abstractly that people would be grateful to receive things I gave away, but I didn’t expect any more than polite expressions of gratitude. I was focused on getting rid of things, not on receiving anything from that process. So it was a bit of a surprise when people said more than simple polite thank-yous — nothing elaborate, just taking the time to say a few words of appreciation, or how they would use the thing and why they were grateful to have it. It was even more of a surprise when I started feeling gratified about giving things away, rather than simply being relieved to be rid of them.

The experience of creating gratitude made it a lot easier for me to give away things I didn’t need anymore — at least sometimes.  It certainly wasn’t automatic; I often had to go through the process of confronting various mantras about holding on to certain things:  A relative might be able to use it. It’s probably worth something. I should get some money for it. But gradually, I started to learn that I got more satisfaction from giving some things away than I ever would have gotten from any money I would have received.

In the process, I also learned an even more powerful truth: giving things away created new stories, based on generosity and gratitude.  The process of giving the thing away was the story sometimes; other times, it was hearing the story about a new attachment, a new role this thing was going to play in someone else’s life.  At a basic level, the story was simple: thing gets used instead of sitting in my house doing nothing and benefiting no one. Usually the stories were a little more substantive than that. For example, here’s an email I got from someone who took an old golf push and pull cart (#29; freecycled May 2014).

“Thanks so much. Just last weekend I played golf with my son and I was telling him that if I’m going to start using a cart, I need to get one rather than rent it. This is just what I was thinking of.”

It was gratifying to think of this golf cart being released as a tool for a father and son to spend time together. This in turn echoed the cart being a connection between my son and me in a different way: we never played golf together (I hadn’t golfed for ages and had no plans to do so), but I’d let him cannibalize the cart for a couple of school projects — the wheels were particularly valuable, and I remember it feeling liberating at the time to re-purpose the cart to a more engaging use.  Afterwards, though, I had a piece of junk on my hands unless I fixed it; but I was able to find the parts and put it back together except for a couple of screws at the wheels — not perfect but good enough to give away.

The plastic toy storage bin in the picture above (#600) was another gratifying example, in part because I resisted getting rid of it for some time. The bin was durable and weather resistant, so it had spent a long time outside on our front porch holding various toys until I eventually realized I could consolidate those toys into another bin. Then I thought maybe my niece and her family could use it for some of their young daughter’s toys.  Slowly it dawned on me that it was not worth it to transport an old, somewhat dirty bin 150 miles when they could buy a new clean one cheaply and easily where they lived.  One by one, the mantras fell away, and I finally got the gumption to put it on Freecycle. I’d put it on the front porch with a sign as was my custom, and a couple came over to pick it up while I happened to be home. I was aware of their presence but didn’t see a need to greet them, until I noticed that they seemed to be there for a longer time than usual. So I went out to see what was going on and discovered that they were having problems putting the bin in their mid-size car.  They’d tried squeezing it into the back seat with no success, so I tried to help. The bin was too big for the trunk even after we unloaded it; I tried squeezing the bin into the back seat several times with equal lack of success. They were clearly looking forward to having the bin to use to store garden tools and supplies outside, but they were about ready to give up. Finally I noticed that the bin would fit fine in the back of my car and asked them how far away they lived. When they said about 20 minutes away, I offered to put the bin in my car and drive it over to their house for them. At first they demurred, but eventually they agreed, so I followed them over to their house, unloaded the bin, received their thanks, and returned home.

From a time value perspective, this was a lot of time to spend (one could say wasted) on this thing.  But from a gratitude perspective, it was well worth it.

Of course, getting something from giving to others, whether it’s time, energy, attention, or things, is timelessly human and nothing new.  Nonetheless, you too might find that giving away something is more rewarding than you might think.