One of my favourite things in my apartment is a floating shelf full of mason jars by my back door.  It holds jars of all shapes and sizes, some new, some very old, each filled with grains or beans or another dried staple. The shelves are like five tiny skylines, and when the golden hour sun shines in through the back window, they all seem to glow.

There is not much that inspires envy in our modest apartment, but that secondhand shelf laden with secondhand jars is frequently admired. I find all the shapes and colours and textures pleasing, but more than that, it’s a literal corner of my life where who I am approaches who I want to be. Looking at it, one might think, “I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient,” though those three things happen much more infrequently than I’d like.

These jars of food also give a sense of plenty and abundance, which is something I so longed for growing up in a house where the kitchen was restocked daily, yes, but only with what was strictly necessary for the meals ahead. We ate mostly store-prepared or frozen foods; I’m not sure when I first saw my first dried lentil, but it was certainly as an adult. In my first years on my own, I took pride in my full fridge, my bursting pantry. I could make anything, have anything, I would be spoiled for choice. I wanted my adulthood to be apparent in how much I had.

I still have that instinct: despite trying to live with less, I am a maximalist at heart, and acquisition is one of the driving forces of our capitalist society. And yet over the years I’ve come to realize that the pantry and the fridge don’t always have to bursting. If you have three kinds of vegetables, it’s easy for one to go limp or mouldy. Flours can get infested and go off. Even having three kinds of nuts on your shelf could be asking for trouble: nuts oxidize and can go rancid sooner than you think. Someone I follow took this to the extreme: she had one jar for grains, one for beans, etc, and when that was empty, she’d refill it with something new. That’s a bit austere for me (I was actually shocked when I read it), but the message is good: we don’t need to have everything all the time.

In fact, not having everything not only makes less waste, it makes me a more confident cook, less beholden to a recipe. Why buy broccoli when there’s a garden full of kale? Do I really need ricotta, or will this cottage cheese do? When my partner and I started meal planning, I could buy just what we needed. Now we throw almost nothing out, and less digging is required to find the next ingredient. (As a bonus, those who live with men will find incidences of them “not being able to find something” satisfyingly drop.)

These days, my jar shelf is a little less full, with room to regrow green onions or set some seeds to dry, and I am a little bit closer to those aspirational thoughts: I am a zero-waste person, I am organized, I am self-sufficient. My maturity is signalled not from having accumulated more, but from having the wisdom to hold myself back, to make do.  Plus, with the jars used more often, they don’t gather dust, and they shine that much more in the golden-hour glow.

Use It Up

I have a mug I painted at a pottery studio in my university town in 2006. My painting skills were adequate but art it is not, and now it’s got a few chips in it, but it’s still usable. My partner occasionally grumbles about the number of mugs in the cupboard, and I’ve recently thinned their ranks. I’d get rid of this one, but I don’t think anyone really wants it. So, what to do? I can’t bring myself to throw it out, because it still functions as a mug, and that hardened, glazed clay isn’t breaking down for a long time. (Consider: pottery shards are how we learn about civilizations thousands of years ago.) I’m a bit haunted by this lately: envisioning the things I throw out in a landfill for millennia.

I’ve been thinking more about the responsibility of taking on stuff, what should be a lifetime commitment, a sort marriage to a mug. I’m grateful to avenues like Freecycle, Bunz, the Really Really Really Free Market, and the good old Curbside Economy, which all have helped me rehome quite a few things that I can’t use anymore. But it’s another reason to pause before getting something new.

Lately I’ve been getting some satisfaction from using things up: the old pens with some ink left,* the lotion that’s tough to get out of the bottle, the half-bottle of hotel shampoo. I’ve been drinking a backlog of random teas. Sometimes things last days, weeks even, longer. I’m going on about three months of daily tea drinking, just using up odds and ends. It’s oddly satisfying in a war-effort kind of way. And it was a part of the Patchett piece that really resonated for me. Don’t a lot people have five lip balms if we looked for a minute? Or a bunch of lotion that is maybe not our first choice but perfectly fine? Aren’t most things we have, in fact, totally and completely fine?

I had some time off over the holiday, and found myself turning to the Bunz app more as I cleaned out closets or tried to unload unwanted gifts. Uncharacteristically for me, I ended up posting a lot of smaller items, making trades with a value of only a few dollars. Normally, I’d think deals that small weren’t worth the time, since people can be flaky, arranging meetups annoying. But interestingly I’ve found that people have been less flaky about the smaller trades. Could be coincidence, or it could be that these are the people who believe in the philosophy the most. Or, perhaps, for whom trading is economically necessary. Most of the trades have been “true trades,” which is to say stuff someone had already instead of bought just to trade with me, so I’ve ended up with an odd medley of things: a couple of enamel pins, a stick of deodorant, some assorted teas. I’m finding it kind of charming. I’m helping other people use things up.

I haven’t moved from my one-bedroom apartment in over eight years, and I am occasionally astonished at the stockpiles of stuff I have in rarely used cupboards and corners. The economic insecurity of my twenties + eco principles that make me loathe to discard anything usable make for a lot of stuff I forget I ever had. At Christmas, I found the perfect gift from my dad in the depths of the closet I call Narnia. Recently I was on the hunt for an old journal and unearthed a shocking volume of unused stuff: greeting cards, blank journals, pens, notepads, picture frames, and on an on. Some of those things date back about twenty years, because I’m a saver through and through and I didn’t want to use up anything nice. But now I have a notepad I was given by my uncle and his wife when they went to Australia around 2000, which is absurd. And while I want the things I own to last, enough hoarding of single-use items (and clearly I don’t need to buy paper products, for, oh, years). Time to use things up or give them to someone who will.

But my mug is starting to grow on me again. It’s a reminder of a different time in my life, of how I still find painting soothing even though I hardly ever do it and I’m not good at it. It’s a reminder that stuff should be a commitment, and that, maybe, what we need most is just to look on the things we have a little more love.


*Once empty, these are going to Staples to get recycled. I’m going to try not to buy any more pens for the foreseeable future because I am pen rich, but the new ones will be ones with replaceable cartridges.