Meditation on Stuff

Michael Leunig

God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.

from A Common Prayer by Michael Leunig

I have always liked buying second hand - there is a little thrill of expectancy going into a junk shop or an op shop - you just never know what you might find. But while I enjoyed it, second hand shopping was just a hobby. I began trying to shop like this in earnest two years ago, when I started to feel too much disconnect between my values (a beautiful, clean planet for everyone, fair trade, equality) and the way that the stuff that I bought was produced. At first, I found the uncertainty of second hand shopping a little bit daunting. Then I started my year of Buying Nothing New which has turned into the-rest-of-my-life-of-mostly-buying-nothing-new. I still find the uncertainty of buying second hand daunting. Buying second hand involves not knowing when or where I will find what I want, it involves transactions with actual people. It means people give me stuff, which is wonderful, but I also find it hard to accept that, although I am getting better at the ebb and flow of the tide of 'things' coming in and out of my life. Sometimes I still do buy new things. Last year I bought a thermal cooker, a tea strainer, a spiraliser, several books, some plants, some fair trade organic underwear, some timber and a doormat. This year I will buy a solar hot water system, some PV panels and a rainwater tank. I already bought some paint last week as well, and school shoes and socks for my daughter. It takes a lot more angst these days to buy new things than it does to buy second hand. It seems abundantly clear that we treat the earth and each other so appallingly in order to get all this stuff, which turns out to be mostly inessential. If we do need to buy stuff, and sometimes we do, then let it be well-made enough to last a very long time, bought from someone local, and let's respect our stuff, which literally costs the earth.

This is a little collection of thoughts I have been working through on uncertainty, and the leap of faith that accompanies any venture into the unknown. Even the slight unknown of shopping outside the box:

There is a spiritual element to how we acquire the things that we need. If we go to a store to buy a particular widget, we generally come out of the store with that particular widget (and often a few extras as well..). There is very little unknown in this scenario. We are in control.

If we are buying second hand, or hunting for stuff that has been thrown away, or working out how we can make stuff ourselves, we are actually taking a little leap into the dark. There is an unknown space where we might land. To me this appears to require faith - in the universe, in the help of the community, in ourselves, that we can do this thing. Buying second hand might mean mooching around the tip shop trying out solutions for size in our heads. It might mean asking a friend for help in making something work. Collecting free stuff from freecyle or receiving it from friends or friends of friends means making social connections and all of this entails examining the way we view relationships and obligations and gifts.

We all live in a connected web of relationships, but when we buy stuff from stores, we have an illusion of independence and control. In reality, when we do that we are dependent on people far away who are giving up their dignity, health, and sometimes their lives to labour away in mines, out in the fields among pesticides, or underpaid on the factory floor in order that we can buy a cheap widget.

When we make awkward social contact with someone we may not know who is giving something away that they don't want and that we do want - well, it feels a little like we are dependent, but in truth, it is taking nothing from that other person, and we are receiving so little compared to the invisible transaction that happens when we buy stuff from the store. In fact, it can be a wonderful gift to another person for you to receive something freely given. When I was moving from a large to a small house, I was pathetically grateful to anyone who would come and take anything away from me so I didn't have to think about it any more! I heaved sighs of relief as furniture left the premises on its way to a good home.

Giving stuff a new lease of life, making new stuff from old stuff, accepting gifts from friends and strangers - all of this takes creativity and faith. It builds relationships. Buying widgets from the store builds walls between us and our neighbours, hurts people we don't know, and stifles our souls.

I am already a little way along the road of exploring the serendipity of acquiring things that I want and need without visiting the big box store. I want to make that more of a part of my life. Having said that, uncertainty is difficult! Control, even if it is an illusion, is hard to cede. Accepting and embracing the unexpected is a bit frightening. But also a bit magical.


Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Lovely stuff! Some things you can't - or perhaps shouldn't buy second hand eg: Solar PV panels and other associated complex stuff. The reason for me writing that chunk of advice is because if you were say geeky enough (and it is geek central here!) to install it yourself then purchasing second hand would be an appropriate thing to do. However, if someone else is going to install it for you, then I reckon new is the way to go. Hope that helps you as a guide.

I am so massively excited too about an arrangement which I'd be working on for a long while and has now come to full fruition - and you wrote about that sort of thing too. I now have a working arrangement - although it is still early days, with a cafe in Melbourne for their used coffee grounds. I've known them for over a decade and it is a real pleasure to help them with their waste and it goes to such good use here.

Oh, with the vanilla extract it only took a few weeks before the vanilla flavour was infused throughout the vodka. The liquid turns a darker colour too. You have to ensure that the lid is not too tightly on the jar because the extract appears to off gas (probably the alcohol) and I keep the jar in a cool and dark cupboard. But certainly it seems to have lasted for well over a year so it is fantastic value. The other trick is to ensure that the vanilla beans are cut small enough so that they sit completely in the liquid where they will sink and no part of the vanilla bean is in contact with the air.

The reason it is so expensive is because youths who are possibly brighter (maybe?) than all of us combined together, worked out that the extract was a cheap source of alcohol and as such the price of the extract has risen to discourage consumption. Of course if you are using the vanilla extract to bake with as I do, this becomes a problem.

Anonymous said…
We may not see the relationships and the connections between stuff and people and the earth but, as to write, they are there. Most people choose to ignore them. And ignore the impact of their acquisition of stuff on the earth.

My problem with second hand is often the smell. I can't stand staying long in most second hand clothes stores because of the smell.
Jo said…
Lynda, you have been on my mind lately. I am so glad to see you here, and hope all is well with you and yours xx

Chris, i promise, cross my heart, to buy new solar panels, but i am glad you belong to the Geek Club and have the know-how to cobble stuff together. The world needs lots of amateur enthusiasts to come up with new and thrifty ways of doing things..

Thanks for the vanilla essence info, now we all have an excellent excuse to go and buy some vodka.

Lucinda, there are fun alternatives to buy nice second hand clothes. My town has a quarterly market where people rent a stall and sell off all their frocks. You can get some very nice things that way, the sort of posh clothes that normally get sold on ebay. I have never bought clothes from ebay because I need to try them on. But, anyway, if Launceston has this type of market, surely Sydney does too!

Also, all of our local op shops have little 'boutiques' in town, where they send their nicest clothes, set out more like a fashion boutique. I like these because the selection is much smaller, and therefore easier for me, the anti-shopper, to cope with. And they don't seem to have much of an 'op-shop' smell.

Also, bear in mind that new clothes can be be chock full of nasty chemicals:

The smell of second-hand clothes is somewhat reassuring - it means all the formaldehyde has been washed out..
Anonymous said…
Another thoughtful post Jo. Between your post and Wendy's, I have started Sunday full of idealistic fervour.
Unknown said…
Definitely food for thought, Jo. I am working on my spending habits, and a reminder that there are costs beyond the money we spend is helpful.
Lucinda, all the secondhand shops around here seem to smell of Omo, or something of that nature. The first thing I do with anything I buy is launder it with my own soap mix. I agree with Jo, the chemicals on new clothes are scary!
Jo said…
Specks, I loved Wendy's post too! Hope your idealism lasted all the way until Monday..

Hazel, honestly, I find buying almost anything really hard now, as I wonder who made it, and under what conditions..
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo
I'm glad to hear someone else feels the thrill of shopping in thrift stores, I liken it to a treasure hunt.Sometimes you get a treasure and many times you get a pair of socks:)
I have found that if you let it be known that you are a thrifter(I just made up a name for us folk)people will give you stuff, for example I hate buying bras, I am a large size, I can never find what I need in a thrift store and the price for new is going up and the quality is going down; a friend whispered to me last week that she had 2 bras she bought and did I want them as they didn't fit. Of course I took them and they fit great...success!!!
I notice this a lot...people give me things, I always take, gratefully and donate what I won't use.
I also offer stuff to friends....mostly fabric,patterns or notions and the saying is "what goes around, comes around"

Lucindasans...I also have a problem with the smell at thrift stores I found it was the fabric softener, I have to rewash and air on the clothes line

heather said…
I HATE shopping. The big box stores make me nauseous, for all the reasons you cite. I also hate thrift shopping though- I get instantly overwhelmed by the jumble, the seemingly random pricing, the extra investment of time required because you don't know if you will find what you need in one trip or it will take you three tries... My good response is to decide that I really don't need whatever it is anyways. My bad response (I hesitate to confess it even here) is to turn to possibly the worst ethical shopping choice of all- the online behemoth- Amazon. I know, I know, please don't shun me. I am committed to reform. I have to have more jeans for garden work; my last pair is wearing through in unmentionable places, and patching just won't do because of the places. So I commit here, in front of all, to shop for jeans at the thrift stores this month. I don't expect to feel any thrill of the unexpected, but less guilt would be welcome.

And speaking of less guilt, I do love giving things away. It feels wonderful to pass something I don't need onto someone who can put it to use. One of my highest aspirations is to be useful, and I'm with Kon-Marie in believing that things want to be useful too. Maybe that's the source of my overwhelm in thrift stores- all the voices of the things for sale, calling out, "Pick me! Take me home and put me to use!"

OK, possibly the cold medicine is making me a bit silly, and I should stop writing and go to sleep now.
--Heather in CA
Jo said…
Marieann, I admit to also swapping bras with friends and daughters:)

Heather, I am with you on the difficulty of shopping in ANY store, especially for jeans. The one thing that makes me sad about not buying new is that every two years or so I used to go to my favourite jeans store and buy another 2 pairs of the same size and fit jeans that I had bought two years before.. it was great. But now, yes, the hunt. It's funny, I find some op shops are better than others for different things. I have a favourite kitchenware shop, one with the best book selection, and there is also one that always has the best selection of jeans! But yes, it is a dreadful chore. I'd even rather clean the bathroom..

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