Saturday, December 8, 2007

Stuff It

Like all of us, well, more than many, I've been struggling with organization lately. Trying to keep the flow in our house efficient and pleasant...trying to keep our newly walking child from braining himself on the 18,000 items that are lying on the floor, trying to effectively store stuff from kid one for kid two, trying to keep the hand-me-down cycle well-oiled but not poised to fall on my head when I open the linen closet, and trying to figure out what to get everyone for Christmas (um, more stuff?!).

In that vein, thought you'd enjoy the following:

There's this perfect Gift Guide -- for the 3 and under set. You'll get a chuckle out of it, I promise.

This is an interesting look at how environmentally responsive (paper-wise) the companies inundating us with holiday catalogues are... Victoria's Secret gets a thumbs up and Sears gets a hilarious scolding for being naughty....

The Story of Stuff is a 30 minute (ok, kinda long, and mostly a reminder of what you already know about consumerism, but I liked it) short about trying to change the paradigm of the rape-the-earth, pollute, purchase, chuck out/pollute the earth more, buy more stuff trajectory. It's a simple line-drawing cartoon backing up a woman who's spent 20 years tracking trash. She ends up with exhorting us to try to close the loop, to re-value thrift and conservation, stewardship, to make a sustainable cycle. Did you know that 99% of the stuff people buy in this country ends up thrown out within 6 months? Wowza.

Annie Leonard, the narrator of The Story of Stuff, notes that there was a concerted effort by post-WW2 government officials and companies to spur consumer spending by weaving spending into our personal rituals and rhythms. (Remember Bush telling everyone to spend more after 9/11? It's our response to crisis, our response to celebrating....)

I think this is a fascinating dilemma. Of course it's silly that saying you love your family has come to mean buying them stuff that pollutes the planet that we have no space for. And we all do have lots of stuff, more than any other people on earth (we all know that an American's carbon footprint is gargantuan). So in the absolute, yes, we all have too much.

And yet there are still a few things on your secret wish list, aren't there? They might be expensive or frivolous or silly. But we all know that giving -- or getting -- compact fluorescent bulbs, while utilitarian, ain't gonna win any all-time gift awards. My mom laughed uproariously when I suggested she could get us rechargeable batteries, sigh. And I know more than one person who's been offended when told what to want (ie when they've been given a gift to a charity they didn't choose, or told that they wouldn't be invited to exchange gifts at all anymore for whatever valid reasons).

I think part of this gift-giving dilemma is rooted in the age-old divide between the list-makers and the "surprise me" folks. You know the deal, some people really like gift certificates! You can pick out what you want. They are practical, utilitarian. List makers don't end up with bric a brac that's going to take up prime real estate in already too-small houses. Then there are the creative givers, who often despise the exchange of wampum as defeating the spirit of the endeavor. You know, if you really knew me and loved me you would take notes all year long and I wouldn't have to tell you my secret would fulfill it. While the list-makers can rightfully point to the efficiency of their method, and the enviro folks can validly point to the insanity of our level of consumption, there's an emotional component to gift-giving and nurturing that we'll all have to wrestle with on our own in order to get this beast under control.

I think for me, gifting aka consuming may be a little like eating at the top of the food chain: something I want to do consciously, with awareness of the costs and drawbacks involved. Buying secondhand, reusing and regifting are all great options, as is buying exactly what someone wants -- even if it's at a premium -- so that they won't be replacing that item anytime soon. I think the long-standing tradition of going with what the receiver would most want is my right choice.

'Cause that is, of course, what the gifting spirit is all about, and perhaps the stuff, as well. Trying to nurture each other, to sustain and build relationships. And we don't all have time and creativity in spades... and some circumstances don't warrant a hand-written copy of a favorite Neruda poem. Or a compact fluorescent bulb for that matter. Some of my relationships would benefit more from hanging out for a weekend and actually spending time remembering what we love about each other. Gifts may just be a substitute for the time we all lack.... Which is why, when grasping for ways to connect, we should open our minds to the full range of options available (some of which don't involve buying stuff at all, some which do) as we try for that smile of surprise, of happiness, that spark of recognition that we get each other.


Mrs. G. said...

This is an excellent post. I do what I can, but I know it's not enough. I wrap in inside out brown grocery bags, and I try to buy gifts that support family businesses...with a special emphasis on moms working at home while they raise children. One of my top five goals for this coming year, it to really analyze what I can do to leave a lighter (much lighter) footprint. I welcome any resources you might send my way. It's time for me to walk the walk and not just (sort of) talk the talk. Most of my fantasy gifts are just that--fantasies.

MamaBird said...

Thanks, Mrs. G! Glad you stopped by. I have really been enjoying Treehugger's series lately profiling real people and the choices they're making to be green (here's one -- Of course, all of these people are way greener than me. I just learned recently that serious environmentalists use shades of green to tag how enviro you are (the darker the greener). I am pretty much lime green. These folks are forest....

Susannah said...

Here's a low-tech gift I would never have thought of before blogs came into my life: A bag of rocks!

It was featured on GeekDad last week:

Mary Beth said...

Very interesting thoughts. I struggle with gift giving and getting so much every year. I don't want to give useless stuff that is not the person's taste. Usually we end up giving hand made and consumable. For getting, I am a list maker and am thrilled beyond belief to get something that I actually wanted.