One Man’s Trash is Another Woman’s Art?

     It’s funny how sometimes you meet someone and there is an instant rapport, something about that person that just speaks to the heart.  It was that way for me when I met Kate.  We met at Goodwin Forest while I was fulfilling part of my outreach committment for the UConn Master Gardener program.  Kate was volunteering her time as Goodwin is a personal favorite for her.  And she loves to garden!  She also has another incredible hobby, one that has inspired me to put to creative use any and all discarded items–whenever and wherever possible. 

     Kate recycles garbage into works of art.  Not just her own garbage; Kate makes frequent field trips to the local landfill.  She has a unique gift of being able to look at some discarded item and envisioning it as something else. 

     Our first day working together at Goodwin, president of Friends of Goodwin and fellow Master Gardener alumni, Lynn Warren, kept mentioning Kate’s special garden.  We were working on the new fairy walk, constructing fairy houses using all natural materials: pine cones & needles, fallen logs, stones, etc. and it was evident both Lynn and Kate have a love for the fairies.  I suddenly sensed some kindred spirits.  Building fairy houses along this new woodland path was the whole reason I signed up to do my outreach at Goodwin.  I have always had a love for the fairies and for years, I built antique dollhouse miniatures; building fairy houses was volunteer work that didn’t feel a bit like work at all.  Little did I know the treat I would be given later that same day.  After listening to my new friends’ banter back and forth, I became intrigued and finally asked about it.  Kate offered to show it to me.  When we were finished with our volunteer work for the day, the invitation was extended and I followed Kate home.

     Lynn wasn’t kidding.  Kate’s garden was like stepping into another world, a world full of peace, tranquility and, best of all, fun! 

     Unlike the outreach program, Kate’s fairy garden has some “unnatural” materials: colored glass bottles upended with multi-colored “globes” glued to their bottoms (the globes were a bargain find at The Christmas Tree Shop); rusted out pieces to an old tractor became a metal flamingo and an enormous tractor rim became the entrance to the fairy realm. 

     As Kate showed me her whimsical world, she explained that she built her fairy trail while teaching third grade.  Later, she invited her students to a party where they had to complete a quest and navigate through fairyland.  It was a child’s fantasy come to life–even for those children age 44 or so–with each display revealing something new and enchanting.  I could just imagine the joy on the faces of those lucky students who got to participate in this quest.  What I loved most about it was Kate’s warm and welcoming personality.  She has such an incredible sense of fun and adventure, such a clever imagination, that you can’t help but rediscover the little kid in yourself.  No doubt her students fell under her spell as well.  I’m sure she made the whole experience something they will never forget.

      This big kid won’t forget it either…even if I didn’t participate in the party.  Kate has truly inspired me.  Suddenly, the broken pitchfork becomes an arbor for the fairies; some logs stacked on end become the foundation for a fairy castle; an old mirror imbedded in some mulch, a fairy lake. 

     And as I type this essay, another idea comes to me.  For so many years now my writing has stayed on the shelf, all but lost to writer’s block.  Since being invited to play both at Goodwin and Kate’s magickal menagerie, I’m writing again.  Could it be my own quest through fairyland has broken the spell?  Or the blessing from a truly gifted teacher, one whose students were truly blessed to learn so much about the value of using one’s imagination.  We need more Kates in the world.

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The Tightwad Gazette

No, I’m not planning to plaguerize another author’s work.  I’m planning to extol the virtues of it and, perhaps, even critique it a bit…

The Tightwad Gazette was published quarterly from 1991 thru 1996 by author Amy Dacyczyn.  I never read it in the ’90’s when it was in its heyday.  I saw a book version of it in The Countryside & Small Stock Journal bookstore-all 6 years condensed in a soft-bound book thicker than the Brooklyn, CT phonebook–and ordered a copy of it.  I love it!  It is making such a profound change in the way I view money, spending and thrift that I thank God daily for bringing it into my life.

In many ways, The Tightwad Gazette reminds me of my maternal grandmother.  She and my grandfather raised 11 children on just his salary.  My grandfather drove tractor trailer across country and was a police officer with the Warwick Police Reserves in Rhode Island for 40 years.  My grandmother was a stay-at-home mother from the 1940’s through the early 1970’s when the youngest children reached their teen years.  My grandmother saved and reused everything.  I remember rows of sandwich bags drying in the dish strainer; one cupboard dedicated to washed and saved margarine/cool whip/sour cream tubs; pieces of aluminum foil washed and draped over the side of the dish strainer to dry; bread wrappers used in place of sandwich bags for storage.  She also used a pressure cooker; darned socks; mended clothing; saved kids clothing for the next generation–her own or, later, grandchildren who came along while her youngest were barely out of diapers (my youngest uncle would have been 49 years old this November; I will be 45; I have two cousins older than me at age 46 and another turning 45 in June, 6 months before my birthday in November).  As an adult, I have sporadically used many of these same money-saving practices.

I say “sporadically” because I have often struggled with something that Amy discusses in her newsletter: such frugal practices equate poverty and shame.

My mother is the fourth eldest in her family.  She, too, incorporated frugality into her daily life.  It never bothered me as a young child because I didn’t know any better.  But, as I grew older and into my teens, frugality became a source of pain from the ridicule of my classmates.  Of course, despite Mom’s frugality, we were always in tight financial straits.  My step-father’s work paving driveways and parking lots was seasonal; he was also accident-prone.  And he was the type often lauded in The Tightwad Gazette who spent–and overspent–during the working season instead of scrimping and saving for leaner times.  He also liked to drink.  Mom often had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet because the money simply wasn’t there.  Eventually, Mom would re-enter the workforce and become the family breadwinner but, my high school years were probably the worst.  I had hand-me-down T-shirts from my youngest aunts.  They were in good shape but the names “Debbie” and “Cheryl” were ironed onto the back of them; removing it didn’t work because the fabric underneath the iron-ons hadn’t faded at the same rate as the rest of the shirt so everyone knew they were hand-me-downs and the teasing began.  One year I had to wear a pair of my step-father’s sneakers, 2 sizes too big with newspaper stuffed in the toe.  Often, because I was so tall, my pants and sleeves were high-watered.  I went to school with a young man who worked at the local convenience store who thought it was high-hilarity to spread it about one day that I paid for purchases there with food stamps (back in the early-80’s it was not necessary to have an ID for food stamps…).  I think that had the biggest effect on me.  That’s when I began to feel ashamed that we lived so frugally, when I really began to feel “poor”.

And, in many ways, we were.  Though Mom stretched and saved as much as she could, there were lean times where dinner would be a couple of slices of toast with white (or pan) gravy drizzled over the top.  White flour products are never the most healthy; I’m sure we sheared a few years off of our lives with this “diet” but it was all we had.  We used powdered milk and instant potatoes–both food “staples” that Amy Dacyczyn applauds in her newsletter; my first and only real criticism of her suggestions as both are extremely unhealthy choices in that the process required to dry milk or potatoes seriously denatures the food (i.e. strips it of any nutritional value and may even increase risk of cancer from eating them; obviously, this is one Tightwad practice I am not planning to incorporate…).  Our pets often went without food for a few days because we simply couldn’t afford to buy more.  And we always had lots of litters of puppies and kittens because spaying and neutering also couldn’t be afforded.  We were lucky because our apartment had a fireplace and there was a chimney in another room with a “hole” for hooking up a woodstove.  (This was a “row” house in the inner-city…).  And we were fortunate in having a neighbor who allowed us to store wood in his garage as he wasn’t using the space.  But things were still tight–too tight.

I learned good frugal practices and, in the case of spending when there was abundance, bad money practices.  And I see how they’ve manifested in my adult life.  Because we spent more when my step-father had work, I grew to associate certain things with poverty and certain things with wealth.  Orange juice was a wealthy beverage because, when Steve was without work for the season, orange juice was passed over at the market for orange-flavored Kool-aid or Tang.  When I first moved out on my own, I always kept a carton of orange juice in the fridge because it was a symbol that I was doing well.  Silly, I know, but that’s the way I viewed it.  I would save margarine bowls then, in a fit of rage, toss them all because I wasn’t that poor that “I couldn’t go out and buy “real” storage containers”.

Reading The Tightwad Gazette has brought about a radical transformation in this.  In many ways, reading it has been healing, forcing me to confront issues in my childhood and teen years that I have always shied away from.  Suddenly, I’m viewing frugality as fun rather than drudgery or something shameful.  I’m proud of what I’ve learned and re-learned from The Tightwad Gazette, proud of how successfully I’ve incorporated so many of its teachings in my life.  I’m also proud that it was my mother and both grandmothers who taught me many of these strategies.  Although my paternal grandmother’s life was a little easier financially, she always kept a larder well-stocked with canned and dry goods, baked from scratch, darned socks to make them last longer, washed many of my grandfather’s shirts by hand on an old scrub board and line-dried most of her clothes–my guess is these were simply practices she grew up with in the early-1900’s but also necessities learned and re-learned during the Great Depression.

I’m learning to place a real value on what I earn and to really stop and think about a purchase before I make it.  Do I fall “off the wagon” once in awhile?  Of course.  But I am definitely making a difference.  And, the nice thing about it is that it’s also a more eco-friendly way to live.  For every baggie or piece of aluminum foil I wash and save, that’s one less that winds up in the landfill.  Every time I go to dispose of something, I stop and think, “Can I use this for something else?”.  This also saves money as Brooklyn, CT charges $2.00 per bag for their seafoam green trash bags and you cannot use any other bag at the landfill (I shudder to think what it costs to have actual trash pick-up service…).  I have very little to deposit at the landfill these days.  And, in keeping with my homesteading beliefs, I am going to quote author John Seymour from “The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it”: the garbage man should never have to call (Seymour, 2009).  That’s become my motto…and my mission.  And I purpose it all to God.