RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Making Everything Valuable

Sarah and Janet had just come out of the bank after a meeting and were sitting in the park de-compressing when Janet raised her eyes to the second story of the building across the street and saw a new sign. “Psychic readings,” and a phone number.

“Well,” she said, “there’s something we haven’t tried.”

And they laughed.

Because, honestly, their small-town business is hanging on, and some day it will be profitable. They’re not Tribune Company, moving into bankruptcy protection, and they’re not GM, or Lehman Brothers, or Merrill Lynch, or the government of Iceland.

But business is probably booming for psychics, and that’s just a reflection of the disease of the times. It’s a perfect time for a new approach, and, with the new year approaching, it’s a time for resolutions.

Maybe you tried “lose ten pounds, exercise more.” Or maybe you got on the bandwagon with the “small changes” gurus who encouraged us to think small: Walk to work one day a week, or skip coffee in the afternoons. Those little changes were supposed to build, but that’s so last- century. This year, it’s time for a resolution that can really make a change.

Something like my neighbor, Lucy, tried in 2008. “Make everything valuable,” was Lucy’s resolution.

She had intended to just make her own stuff valuable, meaning that when she went to the store and bought something in a plastic bag she’d use it over and over until it was in shreds, then she would recycle it. But, pretty soon, Lucy saw value everywhere. She picked up plastic flower pots from a landscaping site and took them to the greenhouse at the high school. Then, she drove past a bunch of duplexes and noticed that when people move—like when they take a job in a new place—they leave a lot of stuff. A LOT!

“It was the stuffed bear that got to me,” she said, remembering two tiny eyes peeking out of a black garbage bag. “I thought there was a kid that could love it.” She took it to the Good Will store and, after that, when she saw piles of discarded stuff, she’d stop. “I just take the low-hanging fruit,” she says, “I don’t even touch stuff that looks icky.” Here are a few things she’s found:

• A new computer and printer, complete with instructions.

• An old, but working, sewing machine.

• An antique lamp.

• Decals used in the production of artists’ ceramics.

• Boxes of art supplies—brushes, cleaners, paints, and canvasses.

• Ladders of all sizes.

• A washing machine.

• Wooden closet doors.

Lucy’s resolution means that people she knows get things they can use. She kept the computer, and who wouldn’t, but the recipient of the sewing machine could hardly believe her luck. The decals went to an art facility for handicapped people and the ladders are stacked up by Lucy’s house as loaners. “Every couple of weeks, somebody stops by and borrows one, and then they bring it back,” she said.

The doors are re-born on my farm as shelves in our harvest house. We have a saying around here, when we need something. “It will come to us.” And it does.

Lucy doesn’t know what her resolution will be this year. She considered, “Make every person valuable,” but who knows where that would lead. She thought about opening a second-hand store, or getting into E-Bay, but she’s not really an entrepreneur. Maybe, she says, she’ll take art lessons.

Finding value in discarded stuff is more important than ever. Nick Paumgarten, writing in The New Yorker, imagines walking around the city and seeing empty store fronts and giant empty pits where builders dreamed of putting skyscrapers. “The clothes in our closets today will be the ones we’re wearing when we’re old,” he writes, wistfully. We imagine him in last-year’s knickers and hat, walking to work embarrassed on the sleety streets. Here’s a resolution for Nick: Learn to sew on buttons.

The cities, which increasingly seem like bubbles in parallel universes, where developers are part of an international market, with international financing and international corporate tenants, will have a hard time recovering from these market crashes. Here in Middle America, our local banks and businesses haven’t felt the troubles as keenly. Yes, business is off, and we’ve just learned that Anheuser-Busch, now called A-B InBev after its buyout by a German firm, is firing people, even though, let’s face it, the cheap beer business will boom if layoffs keep coming.

In 2009, small towns and rural areas might finally get the toe-hold we’ve been waiting for because consumers might realize that if they’ve been buying local, and preserving food in-season, they have some insulation from the grocery store prices.

So, it’s time to learn to sew on buttons, to cook, and to make everything valuable.

And, yes, the clothes in our closets will do just fine.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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