Three cheers for community!

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much” – Helen Keller

There is great power in community; my own life experience bears witness to this truth. In fact, to thrive as humans we need to be part of a community, or better yet, part of many circles of connection. We can definitely do more together than we can alone, everything from sharing collective wisdom to sharing resources (such as tools and equipment), to gathering for meals, to supporting others in time of trial and pain, and celebrating with folks when good things happen. We are not built to function in isolation, even the most painfully introverted among us need connection to thrive.

Yesterday, I received a HUGE surprise in the mail from some friends I made about a dozen years ago when I signed up for a Yahoo! Group called The Compact (more about the surprise in a minute). You can read about The Compact here and here, but in a nutshell it is a diverse group of folks who covenant together to avoid excess consumption and make do with used, bartered, shared, and thrifted purchases, or do without. There are exceptions in the group’s guidelines for what may/should be purchased new: supporting local craftspeople and artists is good stewardship while used undies are not so much of a thing. Sharing and redistributing goods is encouraged (think freecycle.org, trashnothing.com, and various freebie groups on Facebook, for example), as is shopping at thrift stores, resale stores, etc.

I joined The Compact while serving my first parish in North Dakota. A funny thing happened while I was learning some amazing frugal tips and meeting folks who live all over the United States; I started forming relationships. Some I’ve lost touch with (still wonder what happened to L in Alabama), one died (rest easy, G), while others I still communicate with via Facebook. I get to see wonderful photos of E’s beloved pups, hear about K’s amazing grassroots hunger non-profit, see photos of J’s new victorian house and hear about her writing, appreciate P’s activism and advocacy, marvel at another K’s fabulous thrifting scores, and admire beautiful needlework projects by L and L and S. Through it all, I’ve been able to “virtually” celebrate graduations, anniversaries, weddings, military enlistments, new homes, sobriety anniversaries, jobs, grandchildren, and beloved pets, as well as grieve painful losses, pray for healing, and laugh at memes and jokes.

Yes, there are compelling arguments that social media relationships aren’t “real” relationships for a whole host of reasons, but when it comes to my Compact connections, I would argue otherwise. Some of us have never met in person (others have been luckier due to geographic proximity), but we share a common interest and nurture friendship from that foundation. Now, back to that surprise…

Several of my Compact friends have been following my cancer journey with encouragement, prayers, good intentions, and comments. It means so much and gives me a boost of strength and hope that feels equally as strong as the Abraxane chemotherapy I receive. Yesterday in the mail, I received two packages with this lovely note: “Sharron, your Compact Family is thinking of you and we love you. From K.E.” In those packages were an Amazon gift card and two of the coolest ice tea/smoothie spoons I have ever seen. One has engraved in its bowl “A spoonful of strength” and the other one says “Get well spoon.” Plus, two spoons make a Compact-worthy musical instrument! I sat on the sofa and cried happy tears at this tangible witness to caring friendship and support.

Yes, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from The Compact and my circle of friends from that group is that although I need so very little, I am so grateful for these relationships that enrich life and illustrate so perfectly the power of community and circles of connection. Thank you, friends, for thinking of me. Whether you call it synchronicity, karma, or divine intervention, your kind and beautiful gift arrived on a difficult day and made it oh so much better. I am grateful. Three cheers for community–in all its forms!

Not-So-Retail Therapy

Most folks who know me well are aware that I do not take much pleasure in shopping–especially the kind of retail shopping that involves plunking down major cash outlays for transitory and often cheaply made consumer goods. In short, I just about have to be dragged to a shopping mall.

That said, I can understand how shopping can be classed as “retail therapy.” There’s the thrill finding that seemingly perfect item to fill a need, or more likely, a want in a person’s life. I’ve been there and done that and have come to find the outcome severely lacking.

Now I practice “not-so-retail” therapy. Let me explain. As a member of The Compact, I avoid buying new items that contribute to an ever-growing waste stream and violate principles of justice and equity that I hold important.

My latest “not-so-retail” therapy sessions involved Goodwill, Staples, and Dollar Tree. Here’s the story.

I’ve been looking for a basic black wool winter coat since moving back north of the Mason/Dixon line (great match for clergy clothes), so I stopped in at my local Goodwill to check out what might be available. Sure enough I found a gorgeous classic style from a New York custom tailor for $12. Awesome! Then I found a pair of black Ann Taylor dress pants that fit perfectly for $4. Nice! Finally, I found a name brand long mock turtle sweater/dress that is perfect for tights or skinny jeans and boots for $3. Score! To make it even better, the nice lady at the cash register took an additional $2 off  the price of the pants because they were missing a button. Wow!

So for $17 I got three wonderful articles of clothing that are useful, in great condition, and didn’t put anything new into the consumer stream. Plus, these items helped me to get closer to my black/white and shots of bright color basic wardrobe that I’ve been aiming for as clothes wear out. My deal is that when three things come in three things go out, so three summer shirts went bye-bye.

A few days later, after considerable research (assisted by my more tech-savvy spouse), I headed over to Staples armed with a 20% off coupon to purchase a new projector for the congregation I serve. I came out with a fine model that has everything we need along with a set of nice speakers (40% off) for a total ticket of considerably under $500. Being a good steward of the congregation’s money is important. Could I have found one used? Possibly. In this case, I decided to make the purchase new to balance value, need, and time constraints.

Finally, the lure of The Dollar Tree next to Staples was too much to resist, and $13 and change later I emerged with 10 cans of Muir Glen organic diced tomatoes, two jars of an upstate New York regional pasta sauce (great ingredient list), and a box of organic peanut butter chip granola bars. I couldn’t have been happier had you set me loose in Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving with a $1000 gift card.

You probably understand the search for a good value on the projector, but you may be shaking your head and wondering how I can get so excited about dollar store diced tomatoes and secondhand clothing. It is, after all, counter to everything our culture tries to sell us about what it means to be a consumer. That’s the point. I no longer need to be told, sold, or “guilted” into consuming beyond my needs.

As part of a culture that takes way more than its share of the world’s resources, I feel a responsibility to weigh each purchase carefully. I prefer to buy local or regional brands (often dumped at dollar or outlet stores) to avoid supporting agri-giants. I buy used clothing whenever possible and try to avoid big box stores in favor of locally owned businesses.

It’s a constant effort to be an un-consumer in a consumer culture, and I fail miserably from time to time. But I believe it is the effort and thought that count. If all of us would simply begin to weigh our purchases more carefully in terms of justice, environmental impact, and impact on the local economy and our neighbors, I think we’d see a huge difference. At least that’s my hope, prayer, and dream. In the meantime, I’m content to engage in not-so-retail therapy whenever I must consume. Sure is a lot easier on the bank account, too!

How about you? What are your tips for being a more thoughtful consumer? Do you engage in no-so-retail therapy, too?

Photos by sylar_major,  informiorium, TAKA@P.P.R.S., and TownePost Network. Thanks!