Too much of a muchness

Too much of anything, even something that has value, becomes trash. It’s a sad fact I’ve learned from years of house clean-out gigs. Where the people had either died, or had had to move to nursing homes etc.

At one house we found boxes and boxes of brand-new stuff still in the box. Actually that happens all the time, but this one time particularly tugged at my heart because it was a lot of writing supplies and art supplies. Maybe the people had been teachers or something. As often happens with such gigs, our work team was free to take any stuff that was not wanted/needed by the client, but we just didn’t have the time and resources to distribute it all. So we left so much behind.

Brand new, shrink-wrapped, perfectly good stuff, nestled there along the decaying piles of clothes, rusting canned goods, boot-top-high piles of rat-shredded insulation.

One of our team, Goddess bless him, did take a bunch of the stuff back to his apartment, and for a while he had quite the excellent weekly yard sale there. I was so thrilled and grateful to him, that I sometimes actually went to his little table he’d set up in the driveway and bought stuff from him, if it was something I needed. Ironic, that: buying stuff that had been part of our group pay. But it’s a funny world we inhabit!

Inevitably, some of the respectable citizens’ brigade of the neighborhood frowned upon the yard sale, and we feared that they might call code to shut it down. (Because yard sales, as other activities, are beneficial when coming from a respectable single-family home but extremely shady and unseemly when coming from an apartment or other multi-family unit.)

But somehow the yard sale, our little “free commerce zone,” ended up persisting for a while. I cheered it on every second with every fiber of my anarchist soul. (Same as I cheer on the mysteriously tolerated pocket of RV parking that sometimes is overlooked during big festival weeks. Or the various home-based kitchens that popped up during the height of the pandemic and some never quite went away.)

The excess stuff in our “first world” environment is a thing that’s been discussed extensively. And by now, most of us middle-aged people are aware of the need to not accumulate a lot of stuff, and winnow down what excess we have accumulated — if nothing else in order to not burden our families with a huge house cleanout if we die before they do. (If you haven’t already, check out “Swedish death cleaning.”)

The fact is that modern industrial society is set up to produce more stuff than is needed. And the surplus just keeps growing. Piles and piles of clothing in the Atacama desert can be viewed from space, I hear.

I have the DIY thrift recycled version of this excess-stuff disease. Most of the stuff I have has been diverted from the waste stream, as in somebody was throwing it away and I gave it a second chance at life. But still, the guilt is intense and the sheer weight and volume of all the stuff gets to me.

Yesterday while I was looking for a tube of glue that I never ended up finding, I kept running into boxes and boxes of various types of craft supplies. I would open a box and as I lifted the lid, it would seem to vomit forth its contents as if the contents were under pressure, be they beads, fabrics, thread, yarn, whatever. And there would be nothing I could easily find to let go off or use or get rid of. I felt flashes of despair and self-loathing

It felt like that Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia where the task just keeps multiplying.

This is strictly personal, not meant to tell anyone else what they should do. But for me, it’s a huge sign that I have not been doing enough creative activity, and the flow of stuff in my life is very stuck.

Yesterday I finally sat myself down on my studio floor and pieced together a scarf out of a bunch of scraps. I knew it would turn out my version of cute and stunning, and it did. It didn’t solve my bursting boxes, but it did tame things down a little. And gave me something useful that I am now enjoying.

I also found a flat little piece of smooth cedar that had been sitting around for a while, and painted a “welcome home” sign which I hung inside the entry hall to the housemates’ quarters. And fashioned a few other decorative things out of old odds and ends. And put them in their new locations.

Of course, I could just solve the glut by taking boxes and boxes of stuff and sticking them out at the curb. Some people would be happy to get a few treasures, and then the rest would go on to landfill. But it’s become very clear to me, as an artist, that this is not what I am supposed to do. I actually feel resistance of from the stuff when I try to do that.

It’s clear that I’m supposed to use these things; make things out of them. And either give the finished items away, sell them, share them somehow.

There’s a very risk-averse thing in our society, where creativity is associated with extreme anxiety. Not everyone, obviously. I know a lot of artists who are constantly creating. But I know a lot of others who are stuck, as I get stuck sometimes. There’s no standard remedy but I would say one of my remedies is to just sit my butt down like I did yesterday, and just, finally, make something for gosh sake.

It’s about the flow, not so much about the volume.

You might not think it, but sometimes, there’s even so much surplus food that people can’t use it all. One of the things that have been floating around the neighborhood in too much quantity lately is these one-pound bags of shelled nuts. Premium nuts. Bags and bags of them.

Given that nuts, especially premium, shelled ones, routinely retail for $15 a pound or more, one wouldn’t think that there would be bags and bags of shelled walnuts and shelled almonds in surplus. However, the churches and other nodes of the nonprofit “food aid distribution complex” have some uniquely funky economics, or else they represent a deeper truth than what we can usually see at the food stores, but in any case, people have been known to accumulate 5 or 10 of these one-pound bags of almonds or walnuts and they can’t even give them away, so they often end up by the curbside with someone’s trash when a person gets evicted or whatever.

A neighbor and I thought we might make sugared/spiced nuts and try selling them at the farmers’ market. But we quickly learned that it would take so much labor that even the electricity for the stove would probably negate any economic return for our efforts.

A few years back, there seem to be a run of several shipments of bagged salad, which included a little plastic container of dressing and a little bag of cranberries and nuts. I was in the habit of going to the church at the end of the day to get the rotting produce to feed to my garden, and when there would be actual edible food left over that would otherwise get thrown away, I would sometimes grab some of that as well. One time I picked up one of the bags of salad only to find that someone else had had the same idea; they had beat me to it. I felt some weird solidarity there like, oh, my fellow discerning pursuer of calories and rejecter of rotting lettuce! (I wonder when the food packagers will figure out that plastic is really bad for lettuce and other greens. I’ve never seen a bag of that stuff that wasn’t at least partially rotted. But especially back then, when I was sometimes skipping meals to make the rent, I was willing to paw through a few bags of slimy “boutique salad greens” for those little mini bags of nuts and cranberries!)

I was torn between feeling sad that someone else was that hungry, and feeling thrilled that other people had the same level of keen appreciation for a resource at the margins.

By the way, I never signed up for the official food distribution roster, because I figured that since I had voluntarily dropped out of the so-called white-collar middle-class, I had forfeited any right to take resources meant for low-income households who did not have my same level of choice in the matter.

But back to the secret mini bags of dried cranberries and chopped nuts: Back then, if someone had told me there would one day suddenly appear on the neighborhood food economy a glut of one-pound bags of perfect, whole, shell-free nuts the same way that there had at one point been seemingly endless truckloads of canned green beans that no one could give away, I would’ve laughed or cried or both.

BTW I still have a bunch of notebooks left over from that one house cleanout gig. I’ve gone through several, which I used for taking notes at meetings and webinars, or writing my seemingly endless novels in progress. But I still have a bunch left that I just noticed in a drawer not long ago. The angels, ancestors, and goddesses are nudging me to please use them or find other homes for them. Same with all my other stuff, regardless of whether I purchased it new or — as is much more often the case — diverted it from the waste stream.

It’s a worthy effort. I always remind myself of my dear cousin Jim Kay, who was not only a great artist but also an environmentalist, activist, and great mentor of young people. He worked right up until age 87, when he died a few months after learning that there was no funding that year for a community youth art/performance program that he had been leading for years. Anytime I neglect my art, or start acting spoiled about my studio, I always remind myself of Cousin Jim and what a blessing he was to so many people, including myself, always encouraging our creative endeavors.

I also think of one of my aunts, Sally Eklund, a quilter of some renown. She was even on a TV show once. When she passed, her eldest child, my cousin, offered us our pick among some 60 quilts that were left in her collection. Almost all of them or handstitched by needle and thread, rather than machine-stitched. As a fellow artist, I can appreciate someone having inventory that was not yet sold. But knowing my aunt, she probably had given away more than a few of her amazing creations. And would’ve been happy to give them rather than leaving them behind. It’s just that most people probably already had linen closets overflowing with blankets and quilts, albeit not of a one-of-a-kind handmade caliber. I now have about five of her beautiful quilts, and they are part of my plan for my house to always be able to accommodate up to 11 people. Maybe more. And when I say people, I am thinking of refugees. Political refugees, climate refugees, whatever. My aunt would definitely be on board with that. (Hey, I figure that if my house could accommodate 11 leisure guests for bike week — which it did, almost the minute I signed the closing papers in March 2018 — it should certainly be able to accommodate at least the same number of people in emergency circumstances.)

The plates and cookware are certainly there for a large number of guests. Beautiful, durable stuff, almost none of it purchased new by me, but rather inherited — or in some cases purchased from yard sales or thrift shops.

Same with napkins, towels, and of course blankets.

You can see pics of my new scarf here.


Scarf I made yesterday from old scraps of fabric. I hand-stitch with needle and thread, but it’s pretty quick since I use a very large stitch, which has various advantages, including allowing me to stitch up things pretty quickly even without a machine.

(I have a machine but not the skills to keep it properly tuned. No matter how many old user manuals I download (which there are surprising amount available considering that the machine was made in the early 1900s; it belonged to my grandmother and was the machine I learned on), I don’t seem to be able to keep the proper stitch tension. Which is fine, really, because I have always had a natural attraction to the most basic and portable technologies. To indicate the priority of sewing in my life: My bug-out bag for evac on foot includes multiple needles and thread, let me just say!)