11/06/2014 07:34 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

5 Life Lessons I Learned From Holding A Charity Garage Sale

Who knew that the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the universe could be found in a garage sale? Actually, the keys to the universe's mysteries were probably the only things not donated to the community-wide garage sale I helped my daughter and her friend run to raise money for the Love Without Boundaries Foundation, a charity that helps Chinese orphans. The girls took in a barrel full of cash and had tremendous fun in the process. But there were a few life lessons that came with the windfall too:

We only think that you heal faster from divorce when you shed the visual reminders.
One woman donated a pair of Delft blue candlestick holders (the name of item has been changed to protect the innocent) when she came to shop the sale. "Get as much as you can for them," she said in a hushed whisper, just outside the earshot of her kids. "My mother-in-law gave them to me and I always hated them," she said, "and now that I'm divorced I don't have to fish them out of the closet every time she shows up from Florida." She was brimming from ear-to-ear as she handed them over.

I gave the candlesticks a display perch of prominence, right next to the elaborate hamster condo-cage, and the woman went off to browse through the cashmere sweaters another benefactor had donated. Within five minutes, one of her kids spotted the Delft blue candlesticks and shouted out to her, "Look Mom, these are just like the ones we got from Grandma!" I watched her eyes soften when she looked at her son. She walked over, put a $10 bill in my hand and purchased back the candlesticks with a shrug. "It felt good while it lasted," she said of her brief respite from the item.

Everyone has their own timetable for healing from a divorce; and ours just may not be the same timetable as our kids'. Sometimes, we just need to hold off moving on until they are ready to move on too, and until then, we live with Delft blue candlesticks in our closet.

Death has a price tag.
OK, this hamster condo-cage was designer super-high-end cool. It was a multi-story complex with a total hamster fitness gym and a swimming pool that I suspect was pretty popular with the swinging single hamsters. Without wanting to ask the donor what happened to the condo-cage's former occupants, I just thanked him. Oddly -- at least to my mind -- more than a dozen people asked if the hamsters came with the condo-cage. When I said "no," they all wanted to know what happened to the hamsters.

"Uh, forced out in a foreclosure?" I tried humor.

The garage sale reminded me that death is regarded as such bad mojo for a lot of people. In real estate, home sellers must disclose when someone dies in the house being sold -- even when it is of natural causes. I'm not sure why this extends to hamster habitat, but I do know that we couldn't sell that sucker no matter how hard we tried. It was beautiful, I tell you. And it was the hamsters-had-died-here that stopped its sale.

Maybe, with the population aging every day, it's time we adjusted our thinking about death. All too often, our unwillingness to let go of life results only in prolonging our dying, not extending our lives in a meaningful way. Death is inevitable. Enjoy life, live it fully, and don't obsess too much when it comes time to let go. And since death isn't contagious, it's OK to buy used hamster cages.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.
This is, of course, the whole premise of garage sales -- that someone will find a purpose for the things you no longer find purposeful. It's just that we all draw the line in the sand differently when it comes to what we think has purpose.

At some point, things are not treasures in disguise; they are simply trash. We saw some very weird items in the donation pile. Those little foot socks they give you at the shoe store when you try on shoes? They should simply be tossed in the garbage. Disposable trays that frozen dinners come on? Again, to the trash. Yes, a few worked their way into this sale and while I found them initially baffling, there was a lesson in it:

Every once in a while, it does us all good to purge things from our lives. We hang on to items -- and relationships -- long after they stop being worthwhile. We know we need to let go of them, yet it's hard. As long as we think someone else can "use" those things that weigh us down, we're good with parting with them. I choose to believe that at some level, the donor of the TV dinner trays knew they were not really reusable -- not even for 10-cents a tray -- but just needed a reason to discard them. That said, the woman who bought two of them to feed the stray cat that's been coming around may disagree. Proof again that I know nothing.

Nice people get rewarded, always.
Early in the day, we had a customer who simply sucked the air from the room. She scowled her way through the tables in a dark energy force field. She undercut every price we quoted and would toss the "overpriced" item back on the table not caring if it slipped to the ground. When I saw her hold up a scarf I had donated, I realized that I didn't want her to have it. It deserved a better home. I made up an absurdly high price and gave thanks when she left without it. Yeah, yeah, we never know what struggles others are having and all that other Facebook wisdom. She wasn't getting my scarf. Period.

The very next customer who came in was a gem that renewed our faith in humankind. Her smile lightened the mood and she wanted to know everything about our charity and cause. I even called up a photo on my phone of the girl in China we were helping and showed it to her. When she bee-lined for my scarf -- like the messenger from Heaven that she surely was -- and asked how much it was, I told her I wanted her to have it as a gift. She insisted on paying and very sweetly said every time she wore it, she would remember that girl in China and feel good knowing she did something to help her.

Lady, you made my day. Thank you.

Like life, the later the hour the more agreeable we all become.
Very few people on their deathbed want to hang on to grudges. The same is true of a garage sale. "Take what you want, pay what you want" became our mantra for the final 30 minutes.

In our case, a very popular thrift store that supports the homeless had agreed to send a truck over at the end of our sale and take away any of the leftovers. But a bag of clothes for $5 put $5 in the kitty to help a Chinese orphan, so bargain away we did. And the most amazing thing happened. Lured in with the promise of super-bargains, our shoppers filled up those bags to the brim. But instead of handing us a $5 bill, a few pushed $10's in our hands and said, "Here, keep it."

At the end of the day, we all want to be thought of as generous.