The Peddler’s Post

I used to buy my home decor items from a big box store, usually with a 20% coupon in hand. I’ve never fussed much over decor, so this worked fine and it helped fill our walls and shelves. At one point I had the same dining room print of giant fruit as three other people I knew, which seemed odd. But it was a great price and I’m a lazy shopper, so there it stayed. Then we started traveling, and it was great to pick up things here and there to replace the items purchased with the coupons. Away went the big box decor, and now many of these items are in storage for the apartments we will help our college kids furnish when they are out on their own. Although I somehow think both kids would prefer a blank wall to giant fruit.

So now, we have original paintings from China, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. We have wall hangings from Russia and Colombia, vases from South Korea, carvings from Ghana, and an incredible painting above our fireplace from the U.S. – done by the artist C.S. Tomlin who also happened to be my kids’ art instructor in elementary school. We didn’t travel far for that one, but it’s my favorite.

I also used to purchase much of my  jewelry and purses from a big box store. I’m not a designer bag person, so this was fine and there is nothing quite like the smell of imitation leather. Then, I began to receive pieces of jewelry that rendered my “costume” jewelry to the junk drawer: a butterfly necklace given to me by cousins in honor of my mother, a pair of earrings my best friend purchased on a trip to Peru, a necklace Kyle bought for me on Alison’s birthland trip to China. I decided that these pieces trumped anything purchased at Target, so I reduced my jewelry inventory. Every piece of jewelry I wear has meaning, and I like that.

So why should you care about my home decor, jewelry, and purses? Two reasons:

First, I sincerely believe that life is too short and we should spend far less time shopping. Okay, I come at that with a bias because I hate shopping. But I also know that I’ve spent too much money on things that had little meaning simply to fill up spaces, when it would have been better to have a few things with great meaning. I’m working on that. Recently I purged a lot of that crap I bought over the years and it felt wonderfully freeing. And I did it knowing that I would not replace these items. If I’m going to have things surround me, then I want those things to have beautiful stories behind them that can be shared and remembered. We have two paintings from China that we purchased in 2001 from an artist who kept all his work under a bed in his apartment. When we told him we were interested in buying a piece of art, his wife scurried to the adjoining room and got down on her hands and knees and began pulling out stacks of his paintings.

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I look at those pieces every day and remember the province where my daughter was born. That’s meaningful.

The second reason I’m telling you about our house decor, jewelry, and purses, is because I have officially become a peddler of goods. Meaningful goods. Specifically, home decor, jewelry, and purses. Honestly, this is not my personality. I’m a horrible salesperson. I hate asking people to buy things because I know that I tend to run from people who ask me to buy things. I now notice those people who begin to back away from me when I start talking about how the Krobo bead bracelets help resource a school computer lab in Ghana, and the bags help support a seamstress apprentice in Ghana. They smile politely and I know what’s going through their mind: “Please don’t ask me to buy something from you.” So because we have this blog relationship-thing between us and you can click off this post at any moment during the sales pitch, you’re in the driver’s seat. But here goes:

You can buy silk string art pieces that were created by a street artist in Kumasi, Ghana named Emmanuel Tettah. I know him. He’s a good guy and he’s going to give half of the proceeds to Africana Children’s Education Fund (click here to see what we do.) If you purchase a piece of string art, I can provide you with endless stories of life-change that is happening for women and children in Ghana, and you can look at your piece of art every day and know that it has meaning.

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You can purchase Krobo bead bracelets with beads made in Ghana from recycled glass (bottles, jars). The creation of these beads is a long process and no two beads are exactly alike, which I love. Can’t find that in the big box store (or the jewelry store). Every penny of the purchase goes straight to help us continue building the computer lab for SDA School in Ankaase, Ghana. This village school had no access to computers, which does not prepare students for success. So we’re building a computer lab because receiving a quality education moves people up and out of poverty, in case you hadn’t heard. More about the lab here.

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And the bags. Before I tell you about these amazing bags, you should know that we are sold out but we’ll be bringing more back in June. To get you excited about what’s coming, here’s the story: My college roommate and dear friend, Steffani, designed these bags. When we parted ways after college, she went on to Tulane University and got an M.F.A. in Costume Design, then she went to Hollywood and designed clothes for movie stars and television shows (big names like Debra Winger and Third Rock from the Sun). I brag about her because she’s brilliant and talented. She is the only person I’ve ever known who sat on the floor of a college dorm and stitched clothes on a sewing machine. When I asked her to design a bag for our seamstresses in Ghana to stitch, she did it in about three weeks and sent us a prototype bag, instructions, and a pattern to take with us to Ghana. Since it is an original pattern, she even let us name the bag. I carry my Ankaase Bag every day and can’t imagine carrying anything else. When I look at it, I remember those apprentices at the seamstress shop on that red dirt village road, sitting outside with their hand crank sewing machines stitching these bags. I’ve never seen anything more amazing.

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You can learn more about how these bags help our seamstress apprentices here.

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So there it is, the peddler’s blog post. If I didn’t believe deeply in the meaning of these items, I wouldn’t have burdened you with 1,158 words about them (bless all of you who stuck with me to the end).

So here is where you can shop differently. And with meaning. So I give you permission to go shopping!

Follow the Clothes, Part Two: The Purge

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It’s been closet-cleaning season at the Tresch house this week. To begin with, last Tuesday I filled two huge bags with clothes and hauled them to Goodwill, which lends itself to an amazing story, but be patient. Then, last night I went to that pesky book study again that I love/hate. This week we are examining ALL our possessions to see just how tied to them we really are. Of course, I already knew my answer: too much. Not only do we discuss our personal issues with possessions, but we talk about what Jesus has to say about all this stuff-love. Ouch. And then, as if that weren’t enough, we are supposed to come up with a plan for what exactly we’re going to do about each week’s excess. This week, three of us decided to purge 30 items a day. And yes, I willingly signed up for this.

So, here it is, Day One. And what did I decide to purge? Clothes, of course. Honestly, the purging thing is kind of addictive, but you must be careful that you don’t get on such a roll that you start giving away things that you might need (want). I’ve learned this lesson before, and my mother used to chide me for being too “eager to evict.” So I am going to be careful and particular with what goes into my 30-things-a-day pile. Especially particular.

I’m bothered by the idea that we’re giving away clothes that people in developing countries are paying for. My friend Brian did make some good points in the comments section of last week’s post, but I still tried to choose clothing that won’t add to the giant cubes that are making their way to Latin America and Africa. I really want to concentrate on what we (as developed countries) can do to encourage and sustain growth in the market sector of these (developing) countries. That seems fair, right?

But not easy.

I chose 30 pieces of clothing that were good quality and that I hope will be enjoyed by someone else. But here is what I realized as I purged: I must give careful thought to what I purchase at the outset, so that I avoid the cycle of buying cheap sale items on a whim that I don’t really care to keep. This is my problem, and maybe it’s yours. Ladies, do you shop at Target and find great deals you simply can’t pass up? Do you buy several of one type of clothing in various colors because it fits? Do you hit the sale racks at 80 percent off and not even try on the clothes because they are such a bargain? If so, chances are those clothes rarely stay in your closet longer than a year. Or if they do, you don’t wear them because you didn’t give your purchase careful thought and consideration. Do you know where your clothes were made? Some countries have lousy labor practices and the person who stitched your adorable tunic might work 14 hour days with conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

So while I am committed to purging my clothes and getting educated about where they end up, I’m also going to make a promise to myself  that I will stop being ignorant about the process of purchasing clothes. I will find manufacturing companies that treat their employees well, and I will start by spending some time on the Free2Work website.

But as long as I still have this closet full of clothing, I will continue to purge. Maybe great stories like this one will come out it:

Last week, we lost one of our seamstress apprentices in our ACEF Women’s Sustainability Program, and we needed to replace her with another apprentice so that we didn’t interrupt sponsorship. Unfortunately, we needed $100 to pay for the new apprentice’s entry fee. This all transpired on Friday morning, the same day I took my two overstuffed bags of donated clothing to a good home. The good folks who sort clothing there were going through the donations, and they came across a pair of jeans that was in one of my bags. I was volunteering there on Friday, and one of them came out holding up my jeans.

“Are these yours?” Jonalyn asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Guess what we found in them?” she asked, and held up what was in the back pocket.

Two $50 bills.

Folks, this does not happen to me. I almost never find a stray dollar in any of my pockets because I am cheap, cheap, cheap. And so $100 in a pocket of my jeans simply does not compute. But this morning it made perfect sense. And if I had not been doing that pesky book study, I would have never cleaned out my closet. And because those jeans are a size I will not wear again, I would have never had occasion to look in the pocket.

And now, Francisca, our new apprentice in Ghana, has started her apprenticeship and is on her way to a new life. By the way, she is 17, has lost both her parents, and lives in a one-room dwelling with her grandmother and five siblings. I think she needed that mysterious $100 way more than I did.

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So I’m thinking that there is a lesson here. has something to teach me as my friends and I work our way through this study: Give it the crap away. You’ll be fine without it.

Well, I’m not going to purge it all, but I am unloading 30 items a day for one week. And I’m expecting more great stories as I continue to unload my excess.

Follow the Clothes, Part One

I’ve been wanting to write about clothes for a while, but it’s come to the surface thanks to Tuesday nights.

On Tuesdays, I go to a book study where some friends and I talk about the excess in our lives (food, possessions, media…clothes) and how we can fight against our Western culture’s message that we always need more. This week we talked about clothes and we were given the simple – albeit painful – assignment of counting the clothes in our closet. Ugh. I shall not expose the number, but I will tell you that after completing the assignment, I immediately began a purge session which resulted in four bags of clothing that I will take to Goodwill on Friday. Great, right? Yes, mostly. But it’s complicated.

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For about a year, I have greatly reduced the amount of clothing I purchase – to the tune of only about three pieces each season of new, purchased clothing (including shoes). Don’t you dare be a bit impressed because before I went on this clothes-buying sabbatical, I had accumulated a ridiculously large wardrobe. Ridiculously. Large. So I had room to purge. But honestly, my purging this week was really just trimming the fat. It was mostly the rejects that I stuffed into the bags – old t-shirts, some ragged jeans that don’t fit, boots that have seen better days. Some of these items will go on the racks at the Clothing Center. And the rest?

When you put your clothes in bags to carry to the big donation centers, you’re assuming that your items will be passed on to someone in need in your community. But everyone else is stuffing their clothing into bags too, and so the donation centers are absolutely inundated. Most of what they receive they don’t keep. A large Salvation Army donation processing center (which has smaller feeder locations) can process an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year. Only a tiny fraction of these end up at the donation store and upon their arrival have about one month to sell before they are pulled. And here is where it gets interesting. Those unwanted clothes (twice rejected) along with other items that never make the store in the first place, are pushed into a compressor that squeezes out neat cubes of secondhand clothing that weigh a half of ton each. Then those cubes are stacked high. One main distribution center for Salvation Army builds a wall made of 18 tons, or 36 bales of unwanted clothing every three days. And that’s just one location in one city. Use your imagination to picture how walls of cast-off clothing are being built in donation centers across the country.

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From there, where do these cubes travel? In case you didn’t know it, there are over a thousand textile processors that recycle clothes in a variety of ways. They come to the rescue of the donation centers like Goodwill and Salvation Army and take the junk off their hands and pay, oh, maybe three cents a pound. Yes, the waters of charity and tax write-offs get a little murky here, but don’t think about that. We’ll just continue our story. According to New York Times reporter George Packer, in his classic piece: “How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back”, at many textile recycling companies, there are four export classifications: “Premium” goes to Asia and Latin America; Africa A (the clothes that have lost some brightness) goes to the better-off African countries like Kenya; Africa B (clothes with a stain or small hole) goes to the continent’s disaster areas such as DRC or Angola. Oh, and then there’s the Wiper Rag classification where they transform our clothing into cleaning cloths. To sell. After the clothes have been designated, they travel…again. Most of them go here:

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Packer writes,

If you’ve ever left a bag of clothes outside the Salvation Army or given to a local church drive, chances are that you’ve dressed an African.

Trade vendors wait at airports to sort through our stuff so they can haul it to local markets and make a buck. And what’s so bad about that? Nothing, until you begin to peel back the layers.Yes, people in the Global South are able to purchase our used clothing cheaper in the market than they would from say, a local textile manufacturer or a local seamstress. The local textile manufacturing industry in Africa is on life-support. In Ghana, there were over 20 textile firms that employed more than 25,000 people in the last two decades. Now the country has only four textile factories employing less than 3,000 Ghanaians. Is there a cause and effect going on here? Honestly, I don’t know, but I have a guess. And although local seamstresses make a decent living stitching the beautiful wax fabric dresses, skirts, and shirts that are still popular traditional clothing, they are always competing with the second-hand market vendors. If you could buy your little girl a pair of cheap studded jeans and a t-shirt that says “Flirt” on it for a fraction of the cost of a traditional wax fabric dress, maybe you’d take that option.

Children across the continent wear our cast-offs. While these clothes may be a good deal for struggling families in developing countries in the short-run, this is not a viable solution for the long-term economy of a continent. Developing countries need to have a healthy textile manufacturing industry to employ people and lower the cost of goods – not a steady stream of our cheap giveaway clothes hauled over in bales to sell at the local market. Most of the time, Africans assume the clothing was sold in the first place. When they hear it was given away, they bristle and wonder why they are having to pay for it.

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It’s an unfair business filled with some shady business dealings on the back end, and the people who shop the secondhand goods at the market are paying money they barely have for clothes that we were content to throw out. Something about it reminds me that the world can be a very unjust place for those with few resources and a lack of options. So how can one person like me possibly make a difference in a sea of 2.5 billion pounds of donated clothing? I can’t. But I can make a difference in my own sea of clothing. I’ve listed a few good options for places you might consider taking your cast-off clothing. For now, I think it’s good for you and I to at least think about where our unwanted clothing will most likely end up.

Is there something we can do about this on the front end? I’ll give you a hint what’s coming in the next post with this shocking statistic: Americans spent roughly $340 billion on clothing last year – about 25 percent of the global market. I’ve purged. And I still have a closet full of clothes – most of which I have purchased “on sale.” This just might be the best moment of my fashion-less statement life.

Before the Madness Begins

Three days before Halloween someone in our neighborhood put up their Christmas lights, which was far more frightening than any ghoul or goblin that roamed the streets on October 31st. And a few weeks after Halloween we went to a department store to buy Kyle some “business casual” pants and were accosted by snowflake streamers and serenaded by Let it Snow. Is there anything else that needs to be said about how we should gear down our holiday madness? It seems that around this time of year there are countless articles, posts, news reports, and regular folks like me lamenting about how we have taken this too far.

So, in the spirit of it all, I’m going add to the word count and write about gearing down for the holidays because every year I need to hear it. I get swept up in all the hype and over-the-top expectations. I actually believe that: I should send out the most creative Christmas card (with the perfect family photo); I should have Christmas décor in every room and it should different and better than last year; I should buy gifts that make people weep and shout for joy; I should make it the best Christmas ever for every single person in my family – and perhaps in my extended family. One year, I even bought Christmas bedding from top to bottom for the out-of-town family that was coming in so that they would be literally wrapped up in holiday while they were nestled all snug in their beds. Nothing wrong with any of these things, but I’ve determined for myself that I can’t – and shouldn’t – do them all.

Everyone who dares to snarl at how over-marketed and under-enjoyed the holidays have become runs the risks of being branded a Scrooge. So be it. I’ve wasted a lot of time, money, and energy turning what should be a beautiful celebration into a stressful production. I’ve had too many holidays that left me with the feeling that I had completely missed the point. Since I’m trying to learn what it means to live simply, think of this post as a conversation. Tell me what you’re doing to simplify the holidays. And quid pro quo – I’ll go ahead and give you my list:

  • At the very top of my list is this: I am going to enjoy Thanksgiving all weekend, so don’t expect me to join in any Christmas hype before Monday, November 26. I want to spend the weekend being grateful for what I have. I don’t do that nearly enough during the year, and so when there is holiday that is specifically designed for that purpose, I’m taking it.
  • I will carefully choose my social engagements this holiday season. I do not have to attend every holiday gathering. All the parties, open houses, dinners and white elephant exchanges will go on without me. I have a few will-not-miss events that I have chosen carefully. I want these to add to the spirit of the season, not drain it out of me.
  •  My kids will not get piles of presents they did not ask for. Each of them will be given a list of a) one thing they want, b) one thing they need c) one thing they will give. This last one involves a $50 handout from us that they are then required to give to the charity of their choice. If that little list sounds unfair, I can only tell you that after almost 23 years of parenting I’ve learned that it is not my job to make my children happy, but to teach them – as best I can – how to take their eyes off themselves so that they can learn how to be happy. Besides, they have grandparents. They’ll be fine.
  • I will do my best not to join in the crazy holiday shopping. Last year I wrote about how to shop differently and I’m going to do my best to carry forward with that. It’s not always easy. I tend to procrastinate (a fabulous way to complicate your life, by the way) and find myself at the Big Box getting a last-minute generic gift. If you see me there, don’t judge; just know that I did, indeed, procrastinate which took me on an unfortunate detour. It’s a journey folks. We learn as we go.

Before the madness begins, I hope tomorrow is a quiet day of reflecting on all that we have been given and then lifting up our lists with a humble prayer of gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

You Get What You Have

Days pass. Seasons change. The wardrobe must be updated.

This has been my quiet and private mantra for years. The coming of fall (or spring) calls for a freshening up of the wardrobe, or at least of a few new items. Absolutely nothing wrong with this, except that the few become the many. I start with a commitment: only one bottom, one top, and one pair of shoes. Ha. It never turns out that way. The problem with shopping at a place like Target, Kohl’s, or TJMaxx is the quantity of great bargains that are in close proximity to the one item I have come to purchase. If the sweater is a great buy, then so is the blouse, the leggings, the jeans, and the (surprise!) bag. It would be silly, the self whispers seductively, to pass up these items that are such good quality and priced so reasonably. And…I LIKE them. Really. A lot. So I leave with my allotment of new wardrobe items plus enough for three years to come. It happens this way every year, so I’m stocked on clothing for the next decade. However,  I have an arguably good reason for my excessive wardrobe updating (self whispers again).

I’m hard to fit.

Seriously. When I find a pair of pants that flatter both my hips and my short stature, or a top that doesn’t make me look frumpy, or a pair of shoes that lift me to exactly the right height (5 feet 4 inches), I grab them because I’m afraid I  may not find something so very cute that fits so exactly right. The problem is, I find lots of pants and tops that fit just fine, and many shoes that fit my height requirements. So I buy them, which probably blows my carefully crafted justification right out of the water.

Several things have converged over the past few months which have forced me to come to terms with my shopping habits:

1) A house that we own in another town is still on the market, and the reserve fund that we pay the mortgage from is dwindling.

2) I made some new friends and they live out of their car and in homeless shelters.

3) I hear stories from another new friend of mothers in Ghana who have had to relinquish their children to an orphanage because they cannot feed them.

4) I read  Radicala book that evoked alternate desires in me to either throw it across the room or give a copy to everyone I have ever met. Still deciding.

Perhaps, I thought several weeks ago, I should shop from my own closet this season. In other words, what I get is what I already have. I’m coming to terms with the reality that I have enough. Scratch that. It’s quite possible that I have more than enough.

Last night was a test. I did some birthday shopping for my daughter and walked into Kohl’s. It doesn’t matter which door you enter, you are immediately hit with incredibly appealing clothing from the junior department. This is an intentional ambush. I am years beyond wearing anything from the junior department, but some of these items still cause me to stop suddenly upon entering the store. Sometimes, I try them on. And sometimes, against my better judgement, I buy them even if I don’t need them.

But there was this dress thing. So cute. It could have been worn with leggings and boots, or tights and shoes with a certain heel height (which of course I own). The print was a blend of funky and ethnic, but also understated. This was a piece of clothing that could have been worn any number of places (versatile), it was on sale (justifiable), exactly the right length (rare), and it was right in front of me (nail in the coffin). I stopped. The whispers began: 40 percent off. Stylish but not flashy. We found a renter for the house that is sucking our reserve fund. I can grab it quickly and continue the birthday shopping. It’s a little something for me.

I walked over to the rack and pulled the plastic hanger toward me. I checked the back of the dress thing to make sure there weren’t any surprises. I held it up to my body to confirm that it was, indeed, an absolutely perfect length. I was about to walk over to the mirror to get a better look, but I stopped. With the hanger still in front of my face so that the shoulders of the dress were lined up with my own shoulders (thus confirming that perfect length), I remembered.

I did this last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

There will always be another perfect dress thing. And I will always be able to come up with justifications for buying it. It’s not just dress things; it’s shoes, bags, home decor,  kitchen gadgets, Apple products. I will have to make this decision every day, every week, every month. We live in a culture where the whispers for just a few more things are actually shouts that resound in a thousand different ways. I’m constantly being told what I need. And I will be forced to continually decide whether or not I will listen.

I lowered the hanger and slid it back on the metal rod. I left the store without the perfect dress thing that was the exact right length, just my style, and 40 percent off. I drove home to my comfortable, well-furnished house that is complete with a stocked kitchen, clean running water, central heat and air, and a closet stuffed with clothes.

I have enough.

I have more than enough.