"How I failed and succeeded at the 100 Things Challenge"

First Reading:

The Journal Entry I didn’t write for Jan. 17, 2011

I exit the office of my therapist on this gloomy, bone-chilling day, and an unexpected tropism causes me to cross Main Street to Thorn’s Market and stop at the newish coffee place for a decaf cappuccino.  This is odd, because I have been boycotting this place, Rao’s, since it opened and put a family owned and run establishment out of business.

But soon enough I’m standing in line salivating and someone taps me on the shoulder  and says, “Excuse me, but can I buy your coffee for you?”  This is very strange.  I mean, what are the odds that the first time I decide to buy something here, someone else offers to pay for it?  So I say, “Sure, but only if you sit down and talk to me while I drink it.  And since you’re buying,  I’ll have a croissant too.”

Turns out there are three of us: There’s David, and it’s his 51st birthday.  He’s celebrating it by doing 51 nice things for people, myself included.  There’s me, and there’s a Gazette reporter, who is following David around today to get the story.  It’s a story about giving.

This little episode is a HUGE coincidence,  because I’ve been devoting a lot of time to thinking about giving. I’ve very recently decided to take the 100 Things Challenge, something I read about in the NY Times, a grass-roots, minimalist movement through which folks are paring down, sorting out and giving away their superfluous STUFF.  Very Zen.  I describe the project to David and he loves it.  The reporter writes down something I say.  “Sometimes, I think that when we don’t know how to conjugate the verb to be, we settle for conjugating the verb to have.”  David and I agree that the getting of things will never satisfy our need for wholeness and meaning and only muck up our lives with their clutter and the cost of their consumption.   We also agree that we are living during hard times.  Hard times require us to help others, to give when we can.

He gives me a poem by Mary Oliver and some good advice on determining which of my things can be categorized as collections, since the word collection is a singular noun.  That way, my music, my books, my socks and underwear count as only four things.  It’s a good start.

David and I exchange our ideas about giving for another 45 minutes, until we are turning into a miniature “My Dinner With Andre” right there in in the middle of Thorns.  We suddenly realize that David must get on with his mission.

David and the reporter go on their way, and I’m putting my coffee cup in the wash bin when I notice that our minister, Janet Bush, is picking up her lunch.  I ask if she’s walking back to the UU because I’m on my way home, and I want to walk with her  “The most astonishing thing just happened,” I tell her.  Ten minutes later, as I’m walking away from her, Janet calls after me, “Sounds like a summer service to me.”

SECOND READING, 100 Things: How I took the Challenge

The person who started the 100 Things Challenge is Dave Bruno.  He wrote a book,  "The 100 Things Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul"  He’s also got a website and a blog (Who Doesn’t?).  I read around in some of this stuff and discovered that the people who succeed at it put a very personal stamp on how they do it.  They don’t just hire someone with a truck to load up their stuff and take it away. They give intentionally. And they have a plan. I planned to work on the things I had way too much of: clothing, shoes, boots and jewelry.

I decided to speak to some friends about my plan, because I know that when you tell a bunch of people you’re going to do something, they tend to check in on you from time to time to see how it’s going.

My friend James said, “Kate, you are just about as likely to succeed in the 100 Things Challenge as you are to become a Buddhist nun.” I countered that with one of my favorite Lee Hawkins aphorisms: “Just because a thing seems improbable, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

My friend Gail proposed the number 3 as the number of things that constitute a collection. I think she wanted me to keep most of my stuff.  My friend Katie was a gracious giftee.  Of course, Jan Nettler had a unique response.  “Oh no.  Here comes Kate.  I hope she’s not going to try to give me one of her things!”

Anyway, I made up my rules as I went along, and one of them had to do with giving the right things to the right people.  Right now I am content to know that there’s a whole flock--minus two--of folk art sheep cavorting across the mantle at the home of my physical therapist.  I busted up the turtle gang big time.  All but four of them  have scattered to the winds in a related UU story.

I asked for help. A staff member at the Survival Center  identified people my size who really needed winter clothing, shoes, boots and coats.  Ask my husband Bob how many bags of clothing he took with him when he went there to work his shifts.   He won’t remember.  He usually had some things in his car, too. One day he happened to have a pair of warm boots to give to a woman who eats lunch at the MANNA soup kitchen.  His eyes teared up when he told me about the woman and how grateful she was.

Anything that had a designer label went to the Urban Exchange consignment store on Main Street, and when items were sold, I picked up the money and made a donation to the Help Fund Frog to get the maximum Karmic blow-back.

I gave things to friends.  I gave a lot of beaded jewelry that was made by a secretary where I used to work.  She made earrings and necklaces and bracelets for craft fairs to augment her income after her husband lost his job, and the secretaries and I were in a conspiracy to support her. Loretta will never know that all her jewelry became Bingo prizes.

I found that I had a whole lot of sentimental things that I had been given by people I loved who are no longer alive, but as I was agonizing about parting with some of these, I had an epiphany: I didn’t need the things in order to remember the people.  So I’ve been giving these things to people I have come to know and love since I hopped out of my hamster wheel, retired, moved to Northampton and showed up here.

Lots of sort of neutral STUFF, knick-knacks and things with no useful function went to Goodwill.  I hope the dancing frogs found a good home.  I still have some things earmarked but not yet given.  Janet already told me that if it’s in a box, labeled and ready to go, I get to call it gone.

I did fairly well, but I didn’t meet the Challenge.  I don’t have 100 personal possessions, but I have probably less than a third of what I once had, and a lot of people benefitted.  Also it’s a good thing that my personal stuff is no longer insinuating itself into space that should belong equally to my partner.

Did I regain my soul, as our friend Dave Bruno says he did?  I don’t know:  I haven’t even settled the question of a soul to begin with.

I think I have gained a REALLY IMPORTANT understanding of where to put the boarder line for me between Enough and Abundance.   I have become far more grateful for the abundance in my life of wonderful experiences and people and the Cocker Spaniel who has been with us for the past year, another living and loving creature.

So how can I call the Challenge anything but a success?  I feel lighter.  I feel that I am better living my faith and that my house is in order.

Third Reading: Reflections on STUFF

I think I took the Challenge because it was something I COULD do, something to counteract my grieving for the oil in the Gulf, the 11 million people starving in Africa, for a decade of war on terror, for the fact that corporations are people and for the massive toxic assault on the inter-connected web everywhere.  A year ago I felt like I was drowning in STUFF, all of it stashed in all the wrong places. And this exercise in lightening up allowed my little light to shine for awhile like David’s did on his 51st birthday. He and I acted locally, and it was good.

It’s just SOOooooo simple to pack a shopping bag of clothes for people who need them, or to sell a bunch of old and unloved gold jewelry and make a needed donation to the Help Fund Frog.  I recommend it.

How did Americans become such consumers?  We had help.  Consider the words of Victor Lebow, an economic advisor to President Eisenhower:

“ Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption...We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.”  Kind of makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

So the United States did that and we now have only 4 percent of the forests that were here when the pilgrims arrived.  We also have more than 100,000 synthetic, toxic chemicals, and... SIX MONTHS post sale, only about 1 percent of the stuff we buy is NOT already trashed.

I was watching something on TV recently, and during the commercial break there was a back to school ad, something designed to make kids want the “must have” jeans for fall.  I wondered how kids with unemployed or under-employed parents will feel when they can’t have these must haves, and I hope that no middle school student humiliates them because they don’t.

My 100 Things Challenge will have to continue for a few months.  The dust might just start to settle in our storage space some time after the Partnership Church Committee TAG Sale, and I have an astonishing amount of homework to do before I bring one more piece of STUFF into my home.  I need to consider the cost to the planet and whether or not the thing was made by workers who are paid fair, living wages. I think our stereo and some other things will grow old along with us--or at least until someone makes our CDs obsolete and we have no choice.

There might be a few of you who are wondering what I did keep and why I kept the things I did.  That’s another story for another time.  But I will say that there are a  number of things in my possession that have absolutely no intrinsic value.  I gave away an antique chinese jar, and kept a bottle of stones from Fire Island.  I found out what’s important to me.  And I found that giving and gratitude go hand in hand.  One leads to the other.  If we have abundance from which to give, we feel grateful.  And that leads to more giving.  It’s simple, but it’s powerful.

This concludes my report to you on an interesting failure in  the pursuit of minimalism and a successful redefining of myself as a UU, someone who can pursue happiness even without the benefits of a Nordstrom card.  Consider it my Coming of Age credo. I am a late bloomer.