May 5, 2003

The Perpetual Garage Sale Giveaway

By Mary C. Michelfelder

I grew up with the old adage if one is good, two is better. Im not exactly sure where that slogan came from, but in last January, when I took the ToDo Institute Distance Learning Course Simplifying Your Life, I realized that I have applied that philosophy to my household reality for years. The end result, I discovered, was that my family was inundated with material goods I now refer to as "clutter." I took the course with the hope that the assignments would help me get organized. One of the assignments suggested we pick an area to organize such as a drawer or a cupboard. Additionally, Janet Luhrs, in her wonderful book, The Simple Living Guide, (it came with the course materials) put forth the idea that the end goal of organizing a drawer was that you could see everything in that drawer with just a glance. I started with a drawer in my kitchen. It was there I discovered that over the years I had accumulated more than was my fair share of the world's goods. I found three carrot peelers, four serving forks, twelve knives, and three tea strainers -- and that was just the beginning. Then I moved to a shelf in my pantry where I found nine vases, four thermoses, three extra large salad bowls, and a case of plastic picnic utensils. I felt amazed, and appropriately guilty. So I went to work paring down the clutter to items we actually use.

Very quickly, I encountered a problem: What to do with all the items we no longer needed. It was January in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. No church was having a tag sale, the area thrift shops only took clothing (of which I gave them eight full garbage bags), no non-profit was having a fund raiser, and it was too wintry for a garage sale. As I was doing Naikan reflection one day, an idea came to me. Why not hold a garage sale where I work. I work in a school with about fifty other employees. Surely they might be able to put some of these items to good use. So I got a big box and sent everyone the following note:

Dear Staff,
There's something new in the Teacher's Lunch Room. For the next five weeks I will be holding: Mary Michelfelder's Perpetual Garage Sale. You'll see a large box near the bookcase. Take anything you want from it... no charge. I don't care what you do with it. You can keep the items, give them as gifts, use them as dart boards, anything (as long as I don't have to have them "cluttering up" my house.)

The next day I brought a large box to school, attached a copy of the note to it, and filled it with the items I had removed from the one kitchen drawer and the one pantry shelf. That night I cleared the "clutter" from another drawer and another shelf. The next day, I brought those items to school and added them to what was left in the Perpetual Garage Sale box. When I was ready to go home, I stopped by the box just to see if any items had been taken. The box was empty -- the Perpetual Garage Sale was catching on! That night I really went to work. I cleaned two drawers and two shelves. The "clutter" I removed filled two boxes. As I carried the two boxes into work the next morning, several staff members met me at the door asking, "What do you have for the Garage Sale today?" It was at that moment I knew I'd stumbled on an idea that worked. I had a way to find good homes for all the "stuff" I no longer needed. My guilt began to fade. What I didn't know was that this was just the beginning of the story.

Over the weeks I found there were many unexpected benefits from my Perpetual Garage Sale concept. First of all it was great fun. Everyday I arrived at school with a box or two of things my family no longer needed. I would be greeted by several eager staff members consciously waiting for me to get there. Throughout the day, colleagues stopped me to thank me for particular items and to tell me how they were using them. It's amazing that such a simple strategy as holding a Perpetual Garage Sale allowed me to get to know my coworkers better. I learned more about them in a personal sense and made a few important discoveries. For example, I discovered that one woman lived in the apartment below my daughter. I learned who had a sense of humor when one coworker took the 35 year old wet suit I'd put in the box and wore it over her clothes just to make us all laugh. Another staff member took the Stetson cowboy hats my husband and I bought on our honeymoon to use as Halloween costumes next year. Sometimes, I would save certain items and offer them on the sly to a particular coworker that might be a match for my "pre-loved" object. Everyday, I found myself filled with appreciation and gratitude.

As the Perpetual Garage Sale was winding down, several coworkers asked me if they could continue the idea. They felt inspired to clean out at their houses. It sounded like a great idea, so I changed the note on the box to just say Perpetual Garage Sale and left my name off. From February through June, staff brought their no longer needed items in and put them in the box. Every few days I would check the box and bag up any items not taken. By then I had discovered that the Salvation Army, located about an hour away, would take the leftover items. All in all, it was a wonderful experience. I got rid of 25 boxes of clutter and enjoyed every minute of it. I got to know my coworkers in new ways, and my house feels more settled and spacious. In fact, in late January, a member of the meditation group that meets at my house remarked, "Your house looks different -- clean." I didn't think anyone but me would notice.

I do plan to take the Simplifying Your Life course again next January. This time I think I'll tackle paperwork clutter. I'll let you know how that goes!

Mary Michelfelder is an elementary School Counselor in Lake Placid, NY. She is currently working through the ToDo Institute's Certification program and wishes to acknowledge gratefully the support of her school district administrators, her family, and the staff at the ToDo Instititute.

Posted on May 5, 2003 6:45 PM
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