That Stewardship Season

We got a gentle reminder that the fall stewardship campaign is underway from the pulpit, and our “commitment card” already arrived in the mail. This year there are some collateral materials ‘Stories to Tell & Gifts to Share’ and this week’s theme is “Graceful Living”, and asks “Do I acquire, regard, manage and spend my money in ways that reflect trust in God’s grace?”

The worksheet asks that each question is considered separately – Acquire doesn’t seem to cause any heartburn, I suppose I am not at the highest end of the humanitarian scale (doctor, pastor, teacher) but not at the lowest either (pimp, dictator, hired killer).

Regard can be a struggle – to constantly remind myself that everything I have is given by God’s grace, each breath, each sunrise, each day of work, each person I encounter, each task, each reward.

Likewise Manage can be a challenge, be responsible with money so that we do not burden others, to provide for ourselves and the church, our neighbors and those in need. Things like staying within a budget, paying off debts, saving for retirement and avoiding unnecessary expenses are axiomatic.

Spend is where the rubber hits the road. For after the reasonably righteous acquisition, the mindful regard of and careful management of the money entrusted to us, it would seem natural that the last step, what to spend it on, would logically be in accord with trust in God’s grace ~ except it isn’t.

Material temptations require no explanation. But there are other, more complex and alluring occasions of sin, that on the surface appear like good and generous uses of available cash, but when the shiny skin is pierced the underlying motive is less than admirable. Money can be used to do for someone what they should do for themselves, crippling their independence and creating an imbalance in relationships. It can be used to purchase influence and control, at the expense of respect and integrity.

I am going to try to blog about these questions as much as possible during this stewardship season, and would welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Of course we will keep the discourse civil, but that doesn’t mean don’t express your thoughts and feelings.



It ain’t easy being clean, and green

Last week I was watching an episode of the sitcom “The Middle” (Patricia Heaton, formerly of “Everybody loves Raymond”, essentially reprises that role as Frankie, married mom of 3 kids in Indiana). In this episode, the family has gone on a weekend vacation and their neighbor, who has taken their mail into the house, calls to tell them their house was ransacked and robbed. They come home to the police in their living room, and it dawns on them that their normal, “Hoarders”-caliber clutter and disorder looks to more objective eyes like the house had been turned upside down by burglars. Frankie snaps into action, and they cannot rest until the house has been thoroughly de-cluttered (to comic effect, of course) while Frankie spouts Oprah-isms and yells “Be ruthless!” when her daughter gets verklempt at the idea of throwing away the box her first high chair came in.

I thought for a moment about the greater-than-normal chaos that has erupted in our home recently – our very old dog had surgery, and has required an exhausting level of care, which after work and the other demands of life left us with no energy to do things like laundry or load the dishwasher, and even taking out the trash was an afterthought. And then I thought, who am I kidding? Sick dog or no, I feel like I am on Crap Patrol every day, I don’t have that peaceful feeling that comes from knowing whether you have, say scotch tape (because you keep it in a specified place, so you can tell when it’s depleted) before it’s time to wrap a gift while you’re late for a party.

Taking advice from the organizing sages, I decided to start small to build momentum – just organize one drawer. This happened to be the one where I believe the scotch tape should be kept – the “junk drawer” in the kitchen. I went to the Container Store and purchased little mesh drawer organizers (credit to the issue of “O” magazine that showed this). I shudder to write this, because my desk at work is so clean and devoid of stuff it should be in a magazine – but it literally took me an afternoon to organize that junk drawer, and when I was done perhaps 1/3 of what was originally in it went back in. The rest was either evidently garbage, or recyclable things like dead batteries, but a lot was hardware of unknown origin (what on earth do we ever use all those sizes of cup hooks for?) and being frugal I just couldn’t throw it away. But I don’t have a place for it, either, so now there is a very clean drawer with a pile of sorted hardware on the counter next to it. Arrrghhh!!!!

But at least I have that drawer (and another one in the desk, I had purchased extra drawer organizers so I attacked my drawer of sewing supplies). And we do have that momentum, that de-cluttering mojo, going strong. Or at least, I do. My better half has not caught then zen calm of being able to find his clothes in the closet (because I hung them up in plain sight, finding space after purging the tattered khakis he never wears). He does not yet see that I also put us on a hanger standard – we now use “swivel” hangers in the closets (no need to buy any, we had plenty after I weeded them from the white plastic tube hangers) and how nice and California Closet-like it looks.

But he also doesn’t see the piles of tattered clothes in sacks (hey, who knew the Salvation Army will take ripped and stained clothes for textile recycling? Keeps them out of the landfill and they earn $$ to fund their programs). There are no pixies that whisk away the agreed-upon donations. So the decisions get made, which is the hard part, but the execution is still a bit slow, so the clutter….is still with us.

And I’m again embarrassed to confess, I have rescued a thing or two from the piles. Just a sundress that I made in 1990, which I plan to remake into a halter dress (when I am finished with the other projects…) and a suit, which may go back in the donations group again. It’s from 2004. It’s brown. My hair has turned silver in the last 7 years and brown is not my color anymore. Okay, okay. The suit goes! “Be ruthless!”

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

I have been thinking a lot about the mantra of the green revolution, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Reducing consumption of resources is crucial, because the second two steps only forestall the endgame. For example, a reusable water bottle instead of a plastic water bottle eliminates the embodied energy spent manufacturing the plastic water bottle and avoids creating a thing that although it might be reused a few times (I understand this is actually unsanitary), it is only 30% likely to be recycled in the US. Even if it is recycled, there is energy required to collect and transport said water bottle to the recycling facility and energy required to transform in into something else. No free lunch, no “get out of jail free” card with recycling.

Of course, we cannot avoid the consumption of everything, so we must try to reuse as the second step. I have been in the horns of this dilemma with things that are no longer suitable for their original purpose but can’t really be re-used unless aggressively transformed. Take my husband’s jeans. He has worn the knees out of about five pairs, and my first reaction was to try to cut them off and make jeans shorts (a/k/a “jorts”) but since we do not live in a warm climate and shorts are infrequently worn to begin with, and I am told jorts simply look wrong without a mullet hairstyle, which my husband cannot effect due to hair loss – well, jorts are out as a reuse solution. What to do?

I saw this pattern to make reusable grocery totes out of old jeans and thought, now there’s a win-win solution! So I took the five pairs of jeans and cut them into the appropriate pieces. Then I started sewing them together (using an old mechanical sewing machine, not my good Viking) and it was a lot of work. I started thinking, I haven’t even finished one bag, and this is not how I want to spend my time. So now I had piles of cut up jeans parts and not a shred of will to continue with this project. I neatly piled the project materials to the side to contemplate.

Then, I got hooked on this TV show called “Hoarders” where very troubled people (and sometimes their family members) are unable to part with stuff, much of it really trash, and live trapped amid dangerous, depressing, infested, unnecessary piles of crap. And I looked at that pile of denim scraps and thought, “This is how it starts”. My next thought was “denim is cotton – it will decompose, or compost”. Into the trash they went. I still felt guilty and unsettled about this.

Then I started reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin (on my NOOK! No paper to recycle!) and her first chapter is about how clearing clutter leads to much happiness. I decided to attack a plastic bag full of mismatched and/or holey socks that had been sitting in the closet waiting for someone, someday, to dump them out and make a decision. My husband and I got our coffee and with our pets looking on curiously, sorted the socks, gaining back over a dozen useful pairs that we probably would have purchased replacements for (Reduce! Reuse!). But, of course there were still the ‘orphans’ and the severely shredded socks that had to be disposed of. I told my husband, they are cotton, they are wool, they may have a bit of latex rubber in them, they will decompose! Out they went (in compostable paper bags).

Being green and clutter free is like dieting, just a series of moment by moment, day by day decisions, what to do and what not to do, that can sometimes be overwhelming. And sometimes it seems like the path of least resistance is, well, weak, or wrong. Not necessarily – even if we don’t get it right every time, at least if we do the right thing most of the time, that is progress.

S.A.B.L.E. (Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy)

My fellow knitter (and Lutheran) Kris coined the phrase “SABLE Syndrome” to describe some in our circle who have (or must have, since we have not seen the inside of their homes) enough yarn to stock several LYSs.  Kris is an extraordinarily productive knitter. She had all her 2010 Christmas gifts knit up and – am not making this up – was working on her 2011 gifts – this year.  She buys yarn and turns it into beautiful things, frequently to give to someone else, and very quickly.  Kris and I are of like mind on many things,  planners by nature, not given to impulsive recklessness like these out-of-control gals who shall remain nameless.  Kris has helpfully suggested to some that are burdened with Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy that there should be an executor of their fiber estate named, or at the very least a special visitation where the knitters can come and select something from the stash of the departed.

As a knitter, I aspire to be as organized and productive as Kris. I planned to spend  2009 working my way through Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac (not in the order of the book exactly, but to complete 12 projects in a year). Then my Dad needed to undergo a stem cell transplant (which has successfully put his lymphoma in remission, thanks be to God) and suddenly my priorities shifted dramatically.  Somewhere around that time I exhausted my regulatory resources, the part of my brain that used to say  “I do not need any more yarn” when confronted with an impossibly soft lace weight cashmere (spun by women in a cooperative in Tajikestan, the purchase of which will help support their tiny struggling remote village – okay, not a good example, that skein had me at “Tajikestan”).  Everywhere I travel, I bought yarn. I bought “TeDdy’s Wool” yarn in Arab East Jerusalem that truthfully is basically Plymouth Encore – 75% Acrylic, 25% Wool – something I never would have touched in the US – but I was moved by the Arab shopkeeper who just inherited the store from his deceased father and clearly didn’t know knitting needles from crochet hooks but had a family to support (interestingly, in London I saw the same stuff you can get in the States and evidently was not sufficiently moved to make a purchase at Loop in Islington).

Perhaps this the manifestation of the hormone imbalance I must surely be experiencing, although I have experienced none of the signal events of impending menopause.  Instead of hot flashes or mood swings I fret when I go past our LYS and it looks too empty, so I go in and comb the store for something I don’t already own, rationalizing irrationally that if I don’t get such and such book or needles now I will surely come back later and find the opportunity is lost forever.

I was on Ravelry after a lengthy hiatus and started to organize the “stash” section of my page. Then I was so overwhelmed and embarrassed by the size of my stash I had to stop.  There are most certainly bigger fiber collections, but it is just too much for me. I have gotten to the point of trying to figure out how many years of projects I have, versus how many years I have left. And how many of those years, realistically, will be spent knitting up my stash, or will they be filled and shaped by the unexpected and sometimes unwelcome intrusions of life?

Or maybe it’s that now that life seems shorter, and more precious, I am trying to extend it with these yarns purchases. After all, I can’t die yet – I have too many projects to start…and finish.

Stewardship of Stuff

I am walking around virtual piles of clothes and bags of shoes. I can’t believe that all of this stuff actually was in the closets at one point, because it can’t be fit back in. In this revealing seasonal purge, I am again flabbergasted at all the stuff we have.
It is especially stupefying because despite having so many pairs of shoes, it seems that I do not have the right ones for my outfit on any given day, and resort to a few pairs that will make do without ever attaining the fashion statement I long for.
I also have fallen into the trap of buying essentially the same thing – just went spring shopping and came home with a pair of open-toe metallic pewter pumps with a 3” heel. I already own a two pairs of silvery metallic high heeled shoes, one of which have never actually been worn. If I were in the same line of work as say, Vanna White, it might be prudent to have three pairs. Note to self: no more of these.
In years past I gave a lot of things to the church thrift shop, and I should continue to do that. A couple of years ago I thought I would do one of my brother’s girlfriends a favor and gave her “right of first refusal” on some of the nicer things, before they were donated. Lately I have been trying to seek out friends of similar size or taste to see if they want anything.
But let’s be honest…unless something is never worn, very gently used, or someone has truly coveted it for a long time, I’m not doing anyone any favors here. Most of my stuff is just that – my worn, stretched out, shiny, pilled, fading, needs-mending-or-alterations stuff. If I don’t want it, who really does?
Where does the disposition of said stuff – not good enough to wear, too good to be trash – fit into my role as a steward of all the resources that are given to me? This is the dilemma staring me in the face – like the 8-year-old boots, re-heeled several times, worn in five countries, now the leather upper is cracked and odiferous. I visualize them in a landfill and fret. Would they break down, like compost?
Clothes are a little easier. Some things are logically rags in their next life – t-shirts, etc. But jeans? Khaki pants? If I were in Appalachia perhaps I could figure out a way to make rag rugs or pot holders out of the fabric strips. I read somewhere that some clothing donations are bundled up and sold to Third World countries where they repurpose the material. These are so ragged I would be afraid to donate them even if I were confident that’s what would happen.
Wherever I can, I am fixing stuff and keeping it. My Nike hiking boots that my husband bought we when we were dating 16 years ago need a new EVA mid-sole. I found a company on line (in Canada, no less) that does this type of repair. My raincoat from Loehmann’s in New York has a virtually shredded lining, but the shell is intact.
I wonder if there is a class I can take to learn that rag-rug craft?

Dreams, reality, and mortality

Into every life come moments when you realize a path has been permanently closed to you – in fact the option may have been irretrievably lost some time before, but the acknowledgement still hits like a brick hurled into the chest. This week the Winter Olympics started in Vancouver, BC and I have finally, deeply realized that at 50, I will not fulfill my fantasy of gliding across the ice in a frothy confection of Spandex and wowing the international crowd with my grace and agility. The XXII Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, will likely go on without me in 2014.

In the 1972 Games, the gymnast Olga Korbut captured my imagination and despite that fact that at 12 I was already 5′-8″, perhaps a foot taller than the Soviet wunderkind, I was determined to be an outstanding gymnast. Truthfully, I was pretty decent for my size. I could do most maneuvers except for back handsprings. I can’t to this day figure out how I did aerial cartwheels, but I did. Then one November day, the pommel horse was my undoing. I was attempting a pretty standard vault in gym class at school, and since all of my classmates were smaller at that age, a springboard had been placed in front of the horse, which I did not need and launched me so high, I barely grazed the equipment with my palms as I flipped over it – soaring past the rear mat and landing in perfect form, arms up and toes pointed – on the terrazzo gym floor, breaking my right foot.

Fast forward to the 1976 Winter Olympics – now Dorothy Hamill is America’s skating sweetheart. I am 5′-10″, with size 10 feet than mean a hard time renting white ladies skates at the ice rink at the local mall (the opening of which coincided with the figure skating craze that Dorothy started) and sometimes have to wear the black men’s skates. I once had my own skates, size 8-1/2, but when I grew out of them it was difficult to get new ones. In those days many women ordered size 10 shoes from catalogs, unless you were willing to pay full boat at Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott. Despite my determination, and in part because the foot I broke in pursuit of gymnastics glory has never been stable enough for me to balance on it, I was less able to become a decent figure skater. I did, however, faithfully copy Dorothy’s bob haircut, even the color.

Every time the Winter Olympics roll around I would watch the skaters, and wonder if there’s still time – if I quit my job, hired a really good coach who had some incredible faith in my latent talent, practiced every day – could I make it to that level? Even when Tonya Harding’s ex-husband bashed Nancy Kerrigan’s knee, and the sport seemed to be populated with contenders from the Jerry Springer realm, I clung to my little fantasy.

I am an optimist by nature. Once I read a letter in an advice column, it may have been to Ann Landers, where the writer agonized about going to medical school because given the 10 years it would take to finish training, he or she would be 45 years old before they became a doctor. The columnist’s response, “How old will you be in ten years if you don’t become a doctor?” I often thought about that advice when contemplating embarking on something. It’s never too late, do what you really want to do.

And while I try to come to terms with letting go of my little dreams, along comes someone like Susan Boyle, the Scottish lass whose life took a decidedly upward turn after she opened her mouth to sing on “Britain’s Got Talent”. Of course, she knew she could sing. It has already been established that I cannot skate very well. In fact, I fell on the ice – just walking – last winter and felt the pain in my tailbone until May when I finally succumbed to getting an x-ray. When I ponder all of the irreparable damage I could do to myself whilst figure skating, this is a dream that should be viewed through the rear view mirror of life.

During a planning session at work last week, the meeting leader asked us to contribute an item about our personal and professional goals for 2010. The professional ones are easy to formulate, they follow a trajectory that I have been on for most of my career. It was the personal ones, when I wrote them down, I could not bring myself to share with the predominantly 30-something group. Some were just so inwardly focused that they would take too long to explain. Others, though, made me face who I am, at this season of life, like “monitor my sodium and cholesterol”. This earthly vessel is fragile. On the bright side, I am still working with OEM parts (my younger hubby has replacement ligaments from the departed). But other than my fellow travelers, who wants to hear that? It’s like my Dad is in the habit of telling people he is 76 and has all of his teeth. No one but his peers get the significance.

But…acknowledging our mortality and human fragility is not the same as giving up. It’s still very cold here. There is an outdoor ice rink two blocks away. Size 10 ladies skates are easy to come by. I’ll take my husband and can fall on him if I slip – he is so over the stigma of replacement parts…