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Darn It!: Recycling Frugality

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As jobs disappear, stocks plummet and credit freezes, many of us are cutting expenses and looking for ways to save. This is new territory for most of us, who've grown up in the age of disposability and more, more, more. But it's familiar ground to the old folks, who made it through the Depression and WW2 rationing. Before them, before the past 100 years really, recycling, at home and in the wider world, was the only way of life. Turns out the finance crisis and the eco-crisis share a cause, and, at least in part, a solution.

The current emergency throws us back on old wisdom and skills. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without," went the old line. "Mend and make do, " the British government enjoined the home-front. Time to talk to grandma and your old-hippie aunt who still buys kasha in bulk with no packaging (we do pay for that stuff we then have to cart away). Or to the twenty- and thirty-something members of your local knitting group, who've made parsimony over into a new style and who don't fear the realms of craft. Time to practice a new frugality, one with lots in common with the old frugality.

Last month inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander invoked images of the old thrifty ways, describing "[Someone] stitching up a hem, darning / a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, /repairing the things in need of repair." These may be viewed as images of poverty -- of how far many of us come from a darker past, but they are also images of love and caring and a model for behavior now on many fronts. There's a lot in need of repair nowadays.

The skills themselves are not so difficult -- fixing, re-using, making from scratch -- though the mindset behind them may be, in the short term. "Do you know how to do that?" someone asked me incredulously, when I said I'd just have to darn the holey cuffs of an otherwise cute sweater I picked up at a clothing swap. It won't look expert, but even I can figure out a basic warp and woof. Maybe with practice I'll manage that special look of stylish ruin. Make it a game, not a sign of shame.

What these skills also require that's maybe harder to come by is time. Collectively, we haven't had much of that to spare recently. But increasing numbers of us will -- if we're out of work, or if our hours reduce. This last could have its positive side. If employers cut everybody's hours instead of cutting some workers and keeping others (one more argument for a national health plan), everyone will have more time to talk to our families and our neighbors and to make good, cheap soup. More time to invest in looking for bargains, since, as our elders knew, a frugal housewife fattens the family fortune (works with househusbands too). More time to write letters to our purveyors reminding them to stock in bulk and to let us refill our old shampoo bottles, on the old co-op model. More time to follow through on that model and actually carry those bottles back.

Frugality can't make soup out of a stone -- nor will it provide the kind of stimulus the economy needs to pull us out of the current fast-deepening hole. We do have to spend some money in order to make money, it seems. But we recognize that we can't just go back to the profligacy of the recent past, even if we do get access to credit again. And we do have to re-think the operations of value in all the senses of that word.

As we figure out the terms of the new economy, we could do a lot worse than to listen to the band of grandmas, knitters, granddads, historians, hippies, poets, cooks, tightwads and crafts-men and -women who connect us to the wisdom of generations past. Not only could that wisdom save us a few bucks, it could reinforce the fabric of those ties that bind.

Elizabeth Gregory is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books); she teaches at the University of Houston.