Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Making Do Without

Some years ago in California I volunteered as a mentor. Once a week, after my college classes, I would spend an hour with about twelve children, the latter half of the time being devoted to games and prizes.
It happened on a particular day that one of the treats was a skipping rope with a digital counter. The winning child danced excitedly as I pulled her surprise from a box. She raced away to a corner to test out the rope.
She returned within one minute, her lower lip stuck out in a pout.
"It's broken," she wailed.
I examined the thing. True enough, the digital counter was not counting. The token gift had most likely cost less than a dollar to buy so one couldn't expect marvels from it. I sighed.
"It's not really broken, though," I endeavoured to make her feel better.
"You can still skip."
"Can I have a different prize?"
"There aren't any more, I'm sorry."
"But it's broken."
"It isn't. You can still use it. After all, it's a skipping rope!"
Not to mention entirely free for you, I thought wryly.
"It IS broken. It's not working."
"Can you skip with it? If you can, then you don't need a different one."
"I can't skip. The counter is broken."

Now pardon me if I came across as mean spirited in any way but I cannot bear the sort of thinking that makes a person discard an item for its superficial faults.
We're so awfully quick to toss an item aside that we forget its original purpose might be functioning still. People, for example, discard cell phones for having last season's colour or the fact that there is a new one on the market with greater number of instant messaging icons. The phone itself might work beautifully, but no, it committed the crime of being less aesthetic, so let us make it walk the plank!
For me, something has to be extremely broken indeed before it gets consigned to the dumpster and even then, both my Spouse and myself leave it outside the skip so that anybody who wants to give it one last chance may do so.
The skipping rope issue continued for a few minutes, until I ended it by firmly stating how years ago there were no digital counters on skipping ropes and yet they worked wonderfully. I am positive that I sounded a hundred years old to her ears.
She was not a bit impressed.
Oh, how I wish I had known Melvin Martin Riley Smith back then!

Melvin Martin Riley Smith, by David McCord

Melvin Martin Riley Smith
Made do without what we do with.
For instance, did he have a kite?
He didn't, but he had the right
Amount of string to make one fly
And lots and lots and lots of sky.

He also had the right attitude. The first time I read that, I admit I was filled with a deep shame.
Shame for the way I lived my life and how much 'stuff' was actually in it; for the forfeiture of a simpler way of existing; and for the loss of imagination in a world that so desperately needs it. The heartbreaking image of a person flying a bit of string into the big blue sky and finding happiness in that act was sufficient to make me want to change.
This inspiring character 'made do without what we do with.' My Spouse and I sat down and asked ourselves what we 'do with.' We came up with a frighteningly long list. We were not simple living people at all! Honestly, we had considered ourselves good people, not wasteful and not materialistic. In asking ourselves to name what we need and use, along with what we keep for decorative or sentimental value, was an eye opening and jaw dropping experience. The truth: we were not who we had thought. That did not make us bad people, of course- merely not as well able to make do as we had considered.
Oftentimes somebody else's words can change your life, one way or another. David McCord's lines are achingly wistful but full of hope and possibility when you look a degree deeper. We now use this poem as a metaphor for how to be better people.
Some other time I will muse about exactly how we reduced and condensed and kept cutting down and are still doing so, all the time, little by little.
Primarily because we tried not to be wasteful- everything we set aside could be useful one day, including broken saucepan lids, crushed boxes and shoelaces- we ended up hoarding a horrendous amount of possessions. There comes a time, however, when one absolutely has to let go. If it seems a contradiction to suggest throwing out broken or unused things while at the same time promoting imaginative ways to use bedraggled items, remember that a house will only hold so much stuff. If it gets buried in mile-high heaps then it probably is not serving a sufficient purpose anyhow. Let another person discover a use for it if months or years have gone by and you did not find one yourself.
Our ideal home is one that has exactly what we need, and scarcely much more than that. Our target is to make sure, though, that what we need can be easily accounted for, that when we have reached a point where we can call ourselves simple people, we will never have to go through this again, nor throw anything out save for daily rubbish.

I did not, in the end, convince that child to be satisfied with what she had. To her, a broken digital counter made for a broken skipping rope and that was that. There was a time when children knew how to get joy out of little things.
I would like to think that when Melvin Martin Riley Smith finished flying his kite that day, he used the string to skip all the way home.

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