Operation Hoik: A Farewell to Stuff

We’ve been getting rid of a lot of Stuff, lately.

So much Stuff, in fact, that it requires a capital letter to write about it — and explains, in part, my hiatus from writing this blog.

I’d love to tell you that my latest purge was inspired by something grand like re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but no…lately I’ve been feeling like we have too much clutter in our home, that we are struggling to keep our house in order.

As any introvert could tell you (if they were actually speaking to other human beings that day), the thought of escaping to the woods near Walden Pond to live in silence and solitude definitely has its appeal.  But in this era of massive population growth and urban sprawl, it’s hard to find anywhere that could be described as silent or solitary…except Antarctica, maybe…and the climate there is not quite as hospitable as it is here in Sydney…

That said, Thoreau’s words have been rattling around in my head a lot lately:

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Not so much the bits about fronting the essential facts of life and learning what it had to teach, because having kids around gets you to do those things on a daily basis (and without needing to retreat to an isolated cabin and risk being mistaken for the next Unabomber).

No, the bit that has been reverberating in my brain has been I wished to live deliberately.

Because I do want that. And I want my children to understand what it means, too.

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The Bloke and I have been talking a lot lately about how basic items of food are starting to cost more than other…Stuff. (Yep, there’s that word again.) It seems it’s becoming cheaper to buy a bunch of kitchen gadgets or a pile of kids’ clothes than it is to get groceries. And it feels like we’re being encouraged to buy things — any things — faster than we can say “credit card debt”.

Inadvertently, and more than a little haphazardly, as the…ahem…shall we say “eventful” year that was 2016 rolled slowly but surely into 2017, I found myself borrowing a copy of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (though, to be truthful, I dipped in and out of that one) and being drawn into watching movies like Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. As January approached, it felt like there was something about the transition from one year to the next that required me to take a different approach this time around, particularly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day in the US, when I strenously avoided any kind of news coverage — despite the fact that American politics has little impact on me personally.

Except that maybe American politics do impact on me, and on my family, despite the fact that we are living quietly here in the Antipodes…not least because I suspect that the election of Donald Trump, along with Brexit and any number of other things that reared their heads last year, has thrown into sharp relief the differences between the haves and the have-nots across the globe. Obviously, the situation (both internationally and domestically) is far more complicated than that — and even to describe the dichotomy in such terms is, at best, reductive and, at worst, risks deliberately misunderstanding the precursory events of the past decades.

But, that said, I can’t ignore the overriding sense I have in response to all of this political…Stuff …that something has to be done, and done differently. And the following words from Juliet Schor (who I first saw on the Minimalism movie) probably go further than most to summing up my current feeling about the state of the planet:

I agree that justice requires a vastly more equal society, in terms of income and wealth. The question is whether we should also aim for a society in which our relationship to consuming changes, a society in which we consume differently.

So that’s what we’ve been doing: consuming differently.

As a family, we’ve been discarding and donating, clearing and cleaning, reusing and recycling, simplifying and stripping back, and — perhaps, most importantly — letting go. All four of us have been part of Operation Hoik, our plan to get ourselves and our home back on track and living more mindfully and meaningfully.

thoreau-2The Stuff in our lives is disappearing and, in its place, we’ve found the space to discuss what we really need, what we really want out of life. We’re making deliberate choices, and have snapped out of the trap of mindless consumerism.

It’s not going to fix the geopolitical problems of our age, change who is governing a foreign country, or stop a war.

But attempting to live deliberately does invite us to be more thoughtful, more considered, and — hopefully — more compassionate. And I think that I, and my family, and possibly the whole world, could do with a whole lot more of that in 2017.

And with that in mind, even though it is belatedly, I wish you a truly Happy New Year.

BJx

 

Scavengers

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An unusual sight greeted me when I opened the bedroom curtains early one morning this week: a small boy was being pushed down the street, perched Raja-like on top of a monstrous cane lounge – we’re talking at least a two and a half seater, here people – which was, in turn, balanced precariously on a wheelbarrow.  Now, we’re a pretty open-minded bunch in our neighbourhood.  We don’t usually bat an eyelid at some of the crazier stunts people pull, particularly if they’re done outdoors; in fact, we generally go out of our way to celebrate them.  In my pre-breakfast, non-caffeinated state, however, the sheer spectacle of this young child grinning triumphantly atop his ramshackle rickshaw made me look twice.

At first I thought I wasn’t the only one being slowed down by this strange sight, as a cyclist rode up the road far more sedately than is usual for these parts, looking slowly from side to side like a spectator at a tennis match.  A super slow-motion tennis match, though.  You must remember, I had not yet had that first, sacred, life-restoring cup of tea that morning (I am one of those people who probably needs a mug like this).  But after staring blankly out the window a while longer and eventually noticing the piles of rubbish scattered up and down the nature strip, the reason for all the odd behaviour I had witnessed finally dawned on me: it was Council clean up day.

I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with Council clean up.  There is a part of me — the organised, fastidious, list-ticking part of me — that adores Council clean up.  Relishes it.  Cannot wait to declutter the house and yard of anything broken down, outgrown, or simply incongruous.  This part of me actually gets excited when, once every six months or so, the leaflet arrives in the letterbox advising when bulky goods may be left out for collection by the local Council.  Or by the wheelbarrow-owning fathers of small boys who spy a decent-sized lounge in a neighbouring street and think, “That’s it!  The perfect couch for the back deck/man cave/mother-in-law’s new nursing home…”

And that’s right about the point when the other part of me begins to emerge.  The part that worries about where all this stuff is going to be put.  The part that threatens to have an anxiety attack when combinations of words like “mindless accumulation” and “conspicuous consumption” and “built-in obsolescence” are mentioned.  The part that gets more than a little concerned when even the kids’ eyes begin to glaze over as we drive along, eyeing the endless piles of busted vacuum cleaners, rusty laundry airers, plastic tricycles, high chairs, mattresses, snow skis, lamp shades and broken bookshelves, aiming to spot a prize in the midst of all that trash.

You know it’s true.  Council clean up turns us all into Scavengers.

I don’t mean the professional Scavenger types, who creak in from parts unknown driving their cage-backed utes and trucks piled high with scrap metal salvaged from the suburban hordes to be sold off in places equally obscure.  No, I’m talking about ordinary folks, supposedly normal people, who suddenly feel compelled to drive slowly down streets they would normally pass through without so much as a sideways glance, trawling for more stuff.  I know that I’m guilty of it — especially if The Bloke is at the wheel.  I can almost feel his blood pressure rise as I ask him to “just slow down a bit, for a minute,” as we pass a particularly spectacular pile of…whatever it is.  I have definitely seen his fingers tighten on the steering wheel at hearing such a request, and I’m pretty sure that one time I even heard him grinding his teeth.

And why not?

Because this is where we come to the core of the problem, the beating heart of my bipolar response to the biannual dumping/scavenging spree. I am grateful that my local Council makes the effort to provide a Resource Recovery Centre (formerly known and used as a tip), and that nearby government buildings such as a recently renovated Community Art Space were transformed using reclaimed materials.  I am also thankful, for the sake of my sanity and a (hopefully) cleaner, tidier and safer home, that the same Council provides bulky goods clean ups twice a year, and encourages residents to have garage sales ahead of those collections to reduce waste.  I even feel indebted to the Scavengers who pick through whatever we put out on the nature strip, and was more than a little relieved when this time they took away more than half of what we had discarded there.

But my mind truly boggles at the thought of how quickly our remaining pile of stuff, when combined with everyone else’s pile of stuff, adds up.  And it really bothers me that everything that is collected goes straight into landfill faster than you can say “Ikea flat-packed furniture”.  It’s what makes me teach my kids how to separate rubbish from recycling, and to donate toys to charity every year before their birthdays and Christmas.  It’s also part of what gets climate scientists like these, who really know what’s going on, even more worried than I am — and, in my view, justifiably so.

I know I’m far from perfect, that I could do much better in the environmental stakes than I am doing right now.

But I am learning to tame my inner Scavenger.

And I am also becoming increasingly aware that we don’t just have to stop destroying our planet because it’s where we keep all our stuff — it’s because it’s where we all live.