Israel: The Upcycler’s dilemma

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I can trace my crafting roots way back into my childhood.  I remember making a stylish sunhat for my Fisher Price people out of mud and strands of grass. I used the hot swing set slide as a kiln and, voila, I had my first pottery project.

Then there’s my mother’s favorite story about the time she pulled out an old chess set to let someone brush up on their game and found each of the pawns dressed in tiny pinafores and toilet paper dresses.  They were a multiracial family with 16 kids.  Sixteen or twenty pawns in a set?  Clearly I don’t play chess, I just play with it.

The rest of my growing up years were filled with sewing projects and garage sales, rehabbed furniture and room makeovers.  The day TLC premiered Trading Spaces, I finally felt I had a place in this world.  But now I face some of the biggest crafting dilemmas of my life.

This pink handbag is made from fused plastic shopping bags from the outdoor market. (Photo credit: Katherine Martinelli.)

First of all, I am approaching my first year anniversary with my wonderful husband, John.  Although we have a million things in common, we are very different in some important ways.

While he loves cleanliness and order, I could care less about it.  I like a mess like a bird likes a nest.  I also think dirt is one of natures most essential vitamins.   So my husband has difficulty understanding why I might want to take the abandoned lamp sitting innocently beside the dumpster and bring it into our home or why I want to save the empty pop bottles and grocery bags “in case I need them later.”

This may be a trait I inherited from my grandmother; whose depression era childhood made her an avid upcycler long before the term ever existed. (I’ll pass on some of her classic tips in a later post.)  So to keep the peace in my house, I have to choose carefully what projects are really worth attempting.  I think this has forced me to be somewhat more practical with my crafts.  If it doesn’t have a good chance of working out, it’s not worth the mess in the mean time.

Trading Spaces – my kind of show. (Publicity photo.)

Which brings me to my second dilemma:  space.  Soon after we were married, John and I returned to his second year of medical school in Beersheba, Israel.  (This is the story of how he got here in the first place.) We live in a one-bedroom apartment with a small living room and efficiency kitchen.  We have little storage space and I have no designated workspace as the desk area is devoted to computers and textbooks.

So while I love to paint, work with furniture, and take up the whole floor with quilting projects, it’s really not an option here.  I’m not saying this is a problem unique to Beersheba.  In fact, our neighbors from New York consider their apartment here to be quite spacious by comparison, but the move from widespread Oklahoma has definitely made me feel my style is a bit cramped.

So in a similar manner to my mess issue, the limited amount of space makes me consider what items are worth storing, whether it’s the materials to make a craft or the finished project itself.  Basically, unless it can be hung on the wall as artwork, I am primarily making things for other people.  As soon as it’s made, it leaves my house.  (I take the same approach when making brownies and cupcakes.  Eat one; give the rest away and quick before I change my mind.)

But my biggest dilemma of all is perhaps Israel itself.

Israel needs an anti-littering campaign. Photos by Kathyrn Jett.

Despite our limited space and my dirt-a-phobic love, living in Israel I have seen the greatest inspiration and the greatest need for creative recycling.  The city of Beersheba and indeed, the country at large, is in desperate need of an anti-littering campaign.

There is literally trash everywhere.  Some of it is useful and inspirational like the colorful plastic bags at the outdoor markets and the wooden shipping pallets that are all the rage on Pinterest.  But some of the litter is an indicator of a very problematic attitude toward ecology and the environment here in Israel.

Despite a history reaching back to the beginning of the world, Israel is technically a relatively young country and in its short life, it has developed a host of environmental problems ranging from poisoned water sources to defunct recycling efforts.

My day-to-day experience here in Beersheba is that people just don’t care about the trash they throw out and how it may affect the people around them.  We live in a fairly nice apartment building but John and I see trash literally being tossed out the windows of the apartments above on a daily basis.  Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land, discusses Israel’s environmental history on a detailed level, and explains one possible theory for the country’s current state.

“Israelis still carry with them a conscious or subconscious alienation from public spaces which they inherited from the Diaspora.  While in exile, the Jew felt unsafe when venturing out . . . and thus the home became a fortress — clean, safe, and totally cut off from the natural world.  The well-known phenomenon of Israeli apartment buildings, with their filthy corridors and stairwells but immaculate personal dwellings, supposedly reflects this mentality.”

This has certainly been my experience of Israel where the streets are littered with bags of garbage, but each house is surrounded by a high fence enclosing a well kept, if small, courtyard or patio.

The recurring question among our friends here is whether or not how we live reflects who we are.  Perhaps Israelis are tough and unapproachable on the outside, but welcoming and hospitable on the inside.  In contrast, Americans have their pristine yards and driveways and keep their messes hidden inside, reflecting a tendency to be warm and open to strangers and acquaintances and tougher on our loved ones.

But there must be a way to blend these two approaches.  The longer we live here, the more determined I am to smile at unfriendly strangers and combat gruffness and rudeness with my Oklahoma friendliness.  Similarly, I am determined to take their trash and make it into something beautiful.

I don’t think I will make a dent in either problem, but it makes me feel better to contribute positive things to the world in some little way.  Maybe that’s what upcycling is all about.  I am not a perfect wife, friend or sister, but I try to make little improvements when I know I can.  I am not prefect and recycling or protecting our environment, but I try to make little improvements when I can.


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