Along the road that runs between our home and the technical college where I teach is a “recycle shop,” an establishment, not uncommon in these parts, in which patrons can buy and sell all manner of used items. The name of this particular one, when translated to English, is “Dream Balloon.” It gives me a chuckle when I drive by, as it is one of the more run-down versions I’ve seen. To be very blunt, it looks more like a junkyard than a store. In addition to the huge placard that announces the shop name, there is a smattering of signage around the perimeter, beckoning to potential customers: “Your useless item could be someone’s necessity!” and “We buy anything, we sell anything.” The boys and I pass by this shop on the way to their swimming lessons every week, and the other day Minori noticed and read “recycle shop” for the first time. He asked what that meant, and I explained as best I could. He took another glance back and asked, incredulous, “And people want to buy that stuff?” You couldn’t fault the kid his observation. Along the side of the building facing the street the proprietors have seen fit to pile broken pieces of furniture and random appliances, held in place by a rusty wire fence. Dream Balloon, indeed.
I have never set foot in Dream Balloon, but I have sold my wares at several such businesses. My goal is not to make money; these places give you a pittance for your items, if they take them at all. I just want to unload my stuff without having to trash it. Sadly, I have found it difficult here to give items charitably. With the exception of clothing drop-off boxes, I do not have the equivalent of a Salvation Army to simply donate to. Sure, toys have gone to the pre-school and the church, books have gone to the library. But here in Iwaki I have not had the joy of scheduling a pick-up with Purple Heart online and having them whisk away all the boxes I stack on the front porch. This is something I did on a bi-monthly basis at my parents’ place last year.
You see, I adore getting rid of stuff. I relish it, I revel in it. Too many things lying around actually feel like a drag on my soul, what Dave Eggers calls “the slow suffocation of accumulation.” I cannot relax in a cluttered environment. I always feel lighter — physically, psychically, spiritually — after I have cleared surfaces and removed the disused. This is not some kind of moral superiority, it just happens to be one of the more obsessive leanings of my nature. And I am not an ascetic, as I do appreciate and crave quality in food, clothing, lodgings, and the like. But my zeal to purge has led to regret on more than one occasion. I have felt this acutely with respect to textbooks from college and grad school. The paper for Dr. O’Grady’s Syntax would have written itself had I kept that file on the Spanish preterite, otherwise remembered as Dr. Borger-Reese’s Spanish 302 instrument of torture. My roommate and classmate in Hawaii, Sumittra, checked and double-checked to make sure I didn’t want to hold onto my phonetics book. Confident that the International Phonetic Alphabet was permanently lodged in my brain, I urged her to keep the materials for her ongoing doctoral studies. Gone, all in the name of a lighter suitcase for crossing oceans.
The end of the calendar year in Japan is traditionally a time of oosouji, or what I would term spring cleaning, at home, school, and the workplace. While I am drawn to the idea of welcoming the new year with sparkling floors and emptied closets, I have yet to be organized enough to pull it off. In any case, the season brings with it a flurry of magazine features and TV talk show spots on the virtues of baking soda as a cleaning workhouse and tips for parting with all that you don’t need. The latter topic was covered extensively in the December issue of a cooking magazine Jo purchased for me. The editors split household items into categories and assigned each some “barriers to letting go,” such as “It has sentimental value” or “I might use it someday.” I skimmed over the pages gleefully, feeling most were dragons I’d already slayed, and then some.
The crux of the challenge for me continues to be in the disposal. What cannot be sold to a secondhand shop or otherwise given away must be pitched via the city recycling program. And what a program it is. Remember: densely populated, highly consumer-oriented island nation. Landfills, thank goodness, really aren’t an option, although people have been known to abandon their TV’s and refrigerators in the mountains. But in general this has become the land of recycle or else. The new year brings with it the garbage collection calendar from city hall. It is a color-coded wonder, counterintuitively pleasing to the eye. Trucks are on the move at least three days a week collecting one of nine different kinds of trash. Some of those groups are further subdivided and must be disposed of according to the rules printed on the back of the calendar. For example, the paper group includes newspapers, cardboard, magazines, and milk cartons, and each of these must be stacked and tied with twine separately. Most other things must be put in city-sanctioned clear plastic bags, which are approximately 20 inches wide and 28 inches tall. Imagine all the stuff that might not fit in one of those, and you are left with a rather sizable remnant that falls into the Large Item category. These gems require a registered pick-up and incur a disposal fee.
I do not complain, for I am thrilled that the government has taken this bull by the horns and made the system so transparent. And having to think this much before throwing away anything is a good thing. That notwithstanding, I do wish for one of those huge black Hefty bags every once in awhile. Full disclosure: I am married to a packrat, and our offspring seem to have inherited the gene. There was one “barrier to letting go” from the aforementioned article that did resonate: “It belongs to someone else.” I confess I have donated or pitched things without my husband’s or sons’ permission. Sometimes it has gone unnoticed, other times there has been anguish over the loss of said item. In recent years I have tried to resist the impulse to purge and be more respectful of their ownership. I surely am not without emotional ties, albeit irrational in cases, to material objects. Perhaps the funny sign at Dream Balloon conveys a truth: my trash, your treasure.
In 2013 I want to be a better steward, managing what I possess with wisdom, not waste. To give away our overflow with care, not haste. A continual paring down, not for cleanliness’ sake as much as to teach our children the joy of simplicity and the pure gratitude it brings. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?, asked the prophet Isaiah. I don’t want another Christmas shopping hangover; all those shiny objects lose their luster in the wink of an eye. Lofty goals, to be sure. But to say it can’t be done? Well, that’s just rubbish.