A year and a half ago I became obsessed with the size of landfills. (This could be the result of too much time on my hands to simply think about things, but still.) I had seen some photographs of the largest ones in places like India, South America, and the Pacific. Resulting nightmares about our sweet planet becoming covered in kudzu-like garbage brought on the obsession. Because I already recycle everything I can, I spent a couple of weeks thinking about what one person working alone could do.
The answer: keep fabric out of landfills for as long as possible. The holiday season was coming up, so I decided to sew used towels and cotton prints into those old-fashioned square potholders for presents for my big extended family.
They were such a hit that I’m now making them for everything from wedding gifts to birthday presents. And while I’ve only managed to keep a couple of pounds of cloth in circulation so far, I have hope, still believing that The Little Engine That Could had a mantra worth singing (“I think I can, I think I can …”).
An unexpected outcome of this effort has been the discovery of where today’s saints hang out: at St. Vincent de Paul stores. The Saint Vincent de Paul Society was started in Paris in 1833 by a group of university students who were determined to assist the poor by going directly to them. Almost 200 years later, it is clear that they meant it. The Saint Vinnies where I shop for cloth to wash and reconfigure offer everything from emergency clothing to just about anything people in trouble really need.
The saints? It isn’t just the staff, although they each have their own halos, I swear. I’m always greeted with sincere smiles, genuine concern when I can’t read the price tag on a piece of cloth, even as I squint, and a true openness that always touches me. Any conversation in the store is an open conversation. We all get invited, whether it is about where bread is cheapest (or free) this week or how the University of Oregon’s Ducks got so good.
The surprise saints are the customers. I’ve (mostly) stopped being caught off guard by the acts of kindness I witness on a regular basis. A tiny elderly woman empties her well-worn plastic change purse out onto the palm of a young teen who needs bus money. A woman my age (not quite elderly) tells a young mother needing help that she doesn’t need to buy any baby clothes because she has two plastic garbage bags full in her trunk. A man wants to wash the store’s windows as a thank-you for the help he got from the society when he lost his house two years ago.
For a while I had a sinking feeling that I must be making up these moments of kindness — a sure sign of early senility — since nobody else seemed to be noticing. Then my friend David Crumm gave me a book, Thrift Store Saints, by Jane Knuth, a woman who has been volunteering at the Saint Vincent de Paul store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the last 15 years. She has the same stories. A man who insists on raking leaves for the store as a thank-you for giving him a pair of pants for his cousin. An old man who shows up with a van full of clean, pressed clothing that he has cleaned out of his wife’s closet, following her death. In story after story, these holy people show up at the thrift store, each one a Buddha, embodying compassion and kindness.
My root teacher Samu Sunim was always on the lookout for Buddhas. And he always found them. One time he spontaneously stopped a man riding by on a bicycle when we were trying to move a huge wood stove into the basement of the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple. We were one person short of being able to lift the stove. It turned out that the man knew everything about stoves — how to set them up, test them, lock them into place. Sunim taught me to see everyone as a Buddha, not only capable of helpfulness but wanting to be helpful. Everyone.
Knuth recognizes this, as do her fellow volunteers. They aren’t afraid to get help and advice from their customers and clients. They aren’t afraid to meet them where they are. And the clients aren’t afraid back. “Thrift Store Saints is about recognizing God among us when the language is tough, the labor seems mindless, and everybody is wearing old clothes.”