Feb 7, 2010

exiting the cycle

When we moved in to our apartment, we didn't own much. Or rather, we owned a lot, but not enough. It was sort of depressing, actually. We had boxes of clothes, books and music, school papers, art supplies and projects, sentimental odds and ends, and electronics that filled a large sedan - but no pots or pans, cutlery, plates or bowls, bed, mattress, couch, chairs, table, kitchen tools, shelves, bedding, dressers, towels, sheets, lamps... In short, we had almost none of the items required to live on our own. It made me feel rather guilty at first, owning so many boxes of books of THINGS and still needing more. In fact, for our first few days in our apartment, we sat on the hardwood floor and read books, ate peanut butter sandwiches made elsewhere, and purchased only one thing: a roll of toilet paper. And for the first few months, every time I walked out of the kitchen and left the stove, pans and tools unused, I felt terrible - a whole room full of useful things was being wasted. No two people need a kitchen entirely to themselves.

You see, coming from co-op life, we had shared almost everything for 4 years. Every chair, pan, and screwdriver was used nearly constantly by a community of 30 people. This made a lot of sense. We had everything we needed, and despite every item being shared, there was rarely a shortage of anything. Something about not personally owning so many possessions was freeing - I could easily account for everything I owned, and if necessary, I could pick it all up at once. Keeping track of possessions is actually stressful, and we had been free from that stress.

But it's not possible to live in a student co-op forever, and so we had to move on. With both of us headed for full-time graduate school, we needed a way to live that was relatively easy and convenient, so extreme living situations were out of the question. But neither were we enthusiastic about jumping in to the consumer world. We knew we were about to buy a lot of things - more things than either of us had ever bought or even owned. It was unavoidable, even as we did our best to look for second-hand goods, especially given our personal standards for construction materials (no formaldehyde, no pressed wood, no toxic stains or varnishes, etc) We were wary of joining the ranks of people who buy what is cheapest and most convenient, throw things away when they inevitably break, and buy new and better things as consumer culture dictates as soon as they are able. It looked like a trap, and we didn't want to get caught. We wanted a better way.

So we agonized over what to buy. We created spreadsheets and webpages. Whiteboards and scraps of paper were covered with ideas. We consulted relatives and friends. We searched the internet for weeks. In the end, we came up with a list of purchases that we thought would be sufficient, comfortable, and ethical. In our final spreadsheet, every item was accompanied by an explanation of why we needed it and how we would acquire it, even things like kitchen knives and sheets. A few items were given to us as gifts. Many we bought second hand from other people in the Boston area. For the rest, we found small retailers specializing in ethically and/or organically produced goods. Many were in the Northeast, and some were even within Boston. We didn't buy any "starter" items - only things we hoped to be able to keep forever. Although not everybody has the luxury of being able to make such purchases, it is far less expensive than one might think, when you carefully consider which purchases are actually necessary.

To some extent, the shock of owning so many things has worn off over the last several months. I no longer feel guilty when I leave the kitchen unused. But sometimes, I try to call that feeling back... even though we tried our best to make long-lasting, ethical choices, it's all too easy to get used to owning so many things, and I *know* it isn't necessary. Someday, I hope we'll be able to share more of our things, generate more of our own energy, and live more lightly in all ways.

1 comment:

Mel said...

Your spreadsheet is brilliant - would you mind posting it on your blog sometime? Down the road, when I head towards the settling-in direction myself, I'd love to be able to refer to it, because what you did is almost exactly what I'd like to do.