Sunday, February 1, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not

I've started taking a personal essay writing class at Grub Street called "Six Weeks, Six Essays." I'm trying to discipline myself into writing within a word count. I'm posting the first draft of an assignment that's due tomorrow (1000 words). The topic is "love." As I go over what I wrote, looking for typos and things to cut, I see that there are elements of mindfulness in my husband's world view, too.

“That’s the dish sponge you’re using. Use the counter sponge.”

I looked at Mike, my boyfriend of less than a year, a question bubble hanging in the air between us.

“The dish sponge becomes the counter sponge, and the counter sponge becomes the floor sponge.” he said, as if explaining a simple math problem, “And then the floor sponge becomes the toilet sponge.”

A brief ewww escaped my lips. I would have thrown the sponge away after a couple of months, or whenever the scrubby side was used up. But it was his apartment I had moved into, so it would be wise for me to observe the native tribe’s customs and rituals.

“Oh, yes, the hierarchy of sponges,” his ex-girlfriend would say later, shaking her head, “Good luck with that.”

I knew from a mutual friend that I was in for a bumpy ride with Mike, but I also instinctively knew that he would be a faithful, loving partner. He had been the first to say “I love you,” he wrote haikus about us, he skipped work to take me to the doctor when I had a health scare. After bad luck dating a string of New York men, I had found my best friend.

So when my roommate of four years moved out, I broached the topic of moving in with Mike. We’d been together for just eight months, but we were idealistic enough to give it a shot. I had never lived with a boyfriend before, but I was only mildly nervous about what I might discover.

It would only take about a week of living together before I’d learn the truth. In addition to sponges, he rarely threw anything away. If he did, he’d make a big show of it: “Look, Jenn,” he’d say, calling me into the room to observe him pitching a stretched-out rubber band into the trash can. When we were first dating we always ended the night at my apartment. I thought he might be hiding something at home, like a crazy wife in the attic. But it turned out he wanted to move all his boxes into a storage locker so I wouldn’t find out that he was a packrat. Better I learn that after I was in over my head in love.

For me, throwing things away was a cleansing ritual, like a two-day fast to rid the body of toxins. I threw out lipstick, half-used bottles of body lotion, skirts that I was tired of looking at, day-old salad. I didn’t feel any guilt about this—I had been doing it since I was twelve, and decided two plastic garbage bags filled with my toys and clothes had to go because I was about to embark on my new, sophisticated life in junior high school.

In a typical purging session, I once cleared off the top of Mike’s dresser. It was heaped with old mail and coins and other everyday debris. I was surprised when he could name everything I had thrown out. The only thing I could discard under the radar were subscription cards, and after a while the thrill of that wore off. It started to sink in what I was up against, and I knew that if we ever bought a piece of furniture together I’d better really like it because I was going to be living with it for a very long time.

When it came to food, if I didn’t want to watch him scrape the slime off of an old carrot in order to chop it into that night’s salad, I would have to avoid buying too many carrots. It took me a while to get the hang of this because I loved making big grocery trips and filling the refrigerator with fresh food. It was like living with a parent who insisted you clean your plate before getting up from the table. My mother, having been raised by a woman who insisted she finish her tripe, let me off easy every time. So as an adult, if something had even a whiff of being old, I threw it away. Mike had been influenced by a grandmother who lived through the Great Depression. If he got to it first, he’d eat around the mold.

“This is like my religion,” he confided, “I’m careful about how many resources I use up in this life. Americans just throw everything away so they can buy more stuff.” This was before Al Gore’s movie, before going green was the theme in Barney’s window display. Mike was also fond of the idea of wabi-sabi, a Japanese phrase meaning “beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” I would come to appreciate this when facing him at the breakfast table with my hair sticking up on one side and wearing my smudged glasses. There were some benefits to him not wanting to throw anything away—at least I knew I was safe.

Mike and I are married now, and I’m careful to respect his “religion” while defending my right to not eat anything that’s sprouting a second life. He tries to respect my wishes by not salvaging my pink socks with the hole in the toe from the trash. His waste-not-want-not lifestyle has been handy during our current recession. I’ve had four of my shoes re-heeled at the cobbler instead of rushing to Macy’s, and I’ve collected clothes I would have thrown away and sold them for cash at a consignment shop.

Mike’s latest endeavor is worm composting. At first I protested, but when confronted with the bin, I realized you couldn’t see or smell the creepy-crawlies. He keeps them out on the deck so there’s no chance of them slinking into our bed at night.

The benefit of having the worms is now Mike feeds all our old produce to them, and they create a rich soil that he then uses for his tomato plants. It’s kind of nice to be that close to the cycle of life, and I love tossing my discarded food into the compost pail.


Kissiah said...

I love it!

MJ in MA said...

Great essay Jenn!!

Catherine Arnold said...

Yeah, this is a terrific essay, Jenn. Great details, including this:
"wabi-sabi...“beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” I would come to appreciate this when facing him at the breakfast table with my hair sticking up on one side and wearing my smudged glasses. There were some benefits to him not wanting to throw anything away—at least I knew I was safe."

I like it a lot. Are you sending these essays out? It's exciting that you're going to get published--it's inevitable. Nice timely one, here. Good to hear your tales!

Oh, and good to hear the worm composter doesn't smell ;-)--I'm thinking of getting one too. Every time I peel apples, I think, what a waste not to be composting!