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day 22: freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

February 23, 2011

One of my first jobs was at an underfunded domestic violence shelter (is there such thing as an over-funded domestic violence shelter?). My primary job responsibility was as a counselor, but my many “other duties as assigned” included cleaning the staff bathroom, taking out the agency’s garbage, and sorting through donations people brought to the shelter’s on-site thrift shop.  The thrift store served the dual purpose of providing needed clothing and household supplies to women and children when they entered and exited the shelter and raising money for our woefully underfunded operation.

I think you would be shocked if you saw some of the donations people heaped on our doorstep.  Torn and stained clothing, broken microwaves, Barbies missing limbs…  so often, more than half of a donation pile met its maker in the dumpster.  My initial reaction to these garbage donations was that they were disrespectful.  “Do people think these women and kids deserve their broken crap?”  I’d think, “Do they really think we can sell it?”

In subsequent years, I have yielded a bit on this topic.  Perhaps those donating their limbless dolls and ten year-old CPUs genuinely thought that our non-profit shelter housed a team of industrious worker elves, primed and ready to repair their broken and otherwise worthless junk before foisting it on appreciative families.  Perhaps they loved their things so much that they couldn’t see their flaws.

When preparing donations, I often struggle:  are these jeans too worn to be shared?  should they go to the rag bag?  the landfill?  I think about the workers sorting my donations and wonder if they shake their heads and groan at my ineptitude.

Inept or not, I keep a “to donate” bag in my closet for our family’s outgrown clothes and underused toys.  When the bag fills up, it leaves the house.  Not once have I regretted having given away that bag, but I have often regretted buying things that end up there (I guess those gray skinny jeans seemed like a good idea at the time).

On day 22, I methodically sorted through every piece in that bag before bringing it to be donated.  One of my sons’ shirts ended up in the rag bag, I will confess, but the rest of it went.  Being intentional about my donation, as well as the donation itself, was my gift.

Small Notebook is a blog my indomitable friend Meg recommended to me a couple of years ago.  In it, Rachel chronicles her efforts to create a simple, peaceful, clutter-free life for her family.  Yesterday’s post, titled “Loosen the Grip of More Stuff,” spoke to me.  She writes about how she and her college friends used to imagine their futures.  “No one of us ever said, `I hope I have a big house full of things that I bought just because they were on sale’…  No one said, ‘I hope my future kids have so many toys that they can’t pick them up because it’s just so hard.'”  Rather, like most of us, she and her friends dreamed of passion, art, travel, and wholeness.

In the end, things always break, burn, disintegrate.

Just ask these guys, serving time at an end-of-the-line prison in Alabama.  Did you hear this story on NPR a couple of weeks ago?  If you didn’t, listen to it — I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I did.  The questions it raises are substantial:

When you’ve got nothing else in the world, when you can’t justify or excuse or hide behind figurative or literal stuff, who are you?  When forced to (freed to?) stare yourself down in silence, whom do you find?

When it all burns down, who do I want to be?

Here’s to a day full of laughter, passion, art, and wholeness.  Thank you, again, for showing up.

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