12/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Scavenging as a Virtue

I have learned to be cheap. You could call me frugal but the truth is I am cheap. I carry my own vodka in water bottles if I go out. I have a lovely if shabby wardrobe and haven't bought outside of a thrift store or a yard sale for years.

My favorite activity is to go book shopping at the Amherst, Massachusetts Town Dump Book store. It is just a large often cold shed where people bring books they no longer want to dust. When at the dump, I also like to pick up some mulch for the garden and a few clean Tupperware's for my other adventures. In addition to the book-recycling shed, there is an even larger shed for what can only be called orphan stuff. My best scavenge there was a pair of cross country skis, second best an old bowling alley lane that made a great counter.

I also habituate Free Cycle, a site that rivals eBay for obvious reasons. There is nothing like Tuesdays on the Upper East Side in New York. There you can scavenge designer couches and tables - but you have to have a truck, which involves money, a definite drawback in the life of a scavenger. My worst fear about the economic crisis is that less good stuff will show up on the street.

I have been known to keep chickens and to feed them dumpster dived food. Trader Joe's is often excellent. Thus I have eggs that have a certain ethnic flavor, owing to the odd kind of union free food Trader Joe's imports.

Scavenging things has helped me scavenge people and institutions. I specialize in what other people throw out. Right now I work mostly with people about to be deported. Formerly my "specialty" was abused women. Before that it was alcoholics and drug addicts. I also work with "normal" people even though I doubt openly that they are as normal as they would like to convince me they are. Just because they can buy a new blouse for $79.99 at Bloomingdale's does not make them normal.

Once in Chicago, we were running a homeless shelter in an old church. It gets really cold in Chicago. We knew some people were living in one of the dumpsters in the back of the church because the shelter was overcrowded and we couldn't take everybody in. Someone brought in a dead and frozen baby. She had died in the shelter and been put in the dumpster. No parent was to be found. Why tell you that story? Because things like that happen all the time and we should scavenge their memories. Otherwise we don't know what is normal about life, or at least regular. We can easily become the kind of people who throw away things as though they don't matter. We can easily imagine that the Bloomingdale's buyer is normal and the shelter dweller not.

Nothing drives me crazier than college campuses on the day students leave. Whole department stores of half worn clothing litter the hallway. Bicycles are abandoned. Electronic equipment, much of it never dusted or kept clean, dirty now in that way that microwaves get dirty, with centuries of reheated coffee cup circles dunging their insides, sit around.

To be frugal the way I am frugal it helps to also have a deeply compulsive streak. I do. Weekends in my neighborhood, near Union Square in New York, people often buy new shoes in designer shopping bags. I love to pick up these bags and carry them around as long as they last. I have had to stop picking up the shoeboxes. Last week I walked right into a slightly used size 8 pair of leather boots inside a large boot box inside a large shopping bag. The owner had recycled her old ones and walked off in her new ones. You should see how good I look in these boots.

Sometimes I think I would like something spanky new and squeaky clean. But then I remember what happens to things in the laundry and realize I am only losing one layer. Everything, and everyone, loses shine over time. Why not pre-own the shine?

I have a near inability to walk by a garbage can without at least noticing what is in there. Often I clutter myself with things I don't need because I just can't leave them stranded. Gleaning has both cluttered and outfitted me. It is not easy to be this compulsive about waste.

My favorite bookstore is in Montague, Massachusetts and advertises itself as "Books you don't need in a place you can't find." The fun of scavenging is to glean fun as well as objects. Some people say they are shopaholics. I am a gleanaholic.

Gleaning has its virtues except for the way it tempts us to brag. I have not learned respect for those who don't treasure things the way I do. I get mad at people who leave nice sweaters behind in restaurants. I wonder how they can be so careless.

Scavenging is a low cost form of personal entertainment. It's not just consumerism on the cheap. I glean the garbage because it's fun. I just can't stand being useful all the time. Women, especially clergywomen, are garbed in utility. We should all the time always be helping someone. That gets more than a little tiring and squeezes the juice out of life. I squeeze the juice into life by my little feasts, frequent scavenges and big frugalities.

Frugality is not always the best route. Dare I send the Christmas letter by email? What is the etiquette of the sacred message in a slick and quick package? Especially since I have gone more global as a soul, I should at least hand address a note once a year to people who have touched my life. I probably won't. Efficiency joins frugality to keep this scavenger going.

Frugality can be me internalizing capitalism -- or it can be trying to beat it, sneakily, like people beat fear in the seventh grade by acting like they are not afraid. Scavenging clearly keeps us in the market looking for things at an advanced pace.

My favorite charity is ACCION International, a micro lending organization. It is a scavenger itself. It gives small loans to people so they can build their businesses. One man told the congregation the story of his being able to buy a power washing machine so he didn't have to rent it every day. That meant he could do homework with his son in the evenings. Instead of working 12-hour days, he could work 10-hour days. You see what an investment that $500. was. It scavenged a couple of lives and put them back in business.

Call scavenging an underground economy -- except that we who scavenge do so in the light of day. Call it compulsive -- although it can be done with a great spirit of relaxation. I did throw away, actually recycle, all those shoe boxes I couldn't really use. Or just call it spiritual fun, an easy participation in death and resurrection. You don't even have to wait for Easter to do it.