The possession I have the most attachment to is probably the guitar I have lugged around the country over the last seven and a half years. I’ve played it for all kinds of gigs in all kinds of places, jammed with friends, written songs with it and recorded albums.
I love the way this guitar came into my hands. I was running a youth group that included a few kids who you might say were from the wrong side of the tracks. I loved these kids, and they would occasionally come round to my house just for somewhere to hang out. One day they told me they had found a guitar in the kerbside rubbish collection and, knowing I played music, wondered if I would like it. The only thing was that it didn’t have any strings. I told them that was no problem. There was a pause of a few seconds, then “well, it did have strings on it. But we wanted to see if you could play it with the strings on fire. So we sprayed deodorant on them and lit it and they all snapped.”
It’s a while since I’ve seen those kids (though I can happily say they are doing ok), but like I said the guitar is still with me. Many years ago in a cheesy but sincere moment I wrote “this is a weapon” on it because I wanted my music to be a force that can change lives and change the world. I’ve twice had to lovingly repair the neck after others snapped it. I can guarantee that every gig I have ever played I have had the least fancy guitar of all the performers. But that’s the way I like it.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last thing I repurposed out of the trash. After discovering supermarket bins full of edible groceries, I never really went back to going inside the store. Almost all the food I have eaten in the last nine years came out of the bin, or occasionally even the leftovers off restaurant plates I walk past. I often try to distribute the excess; feeding others including years of street kitchens serving strangers for free.
Seeing the waste of our society in a world where people still starve to death made me resolve to be a re-user. I have honestly hardly bought a thing over the last decade – my clothes, bicycles, mobile phones and pretty much everything else salvaged from discard piles; my homes often made in abandoned buildings.
I didn’t limit it to things either. As someone who never really felt I belonged in this society, I gathered with other rejects. We dreamed of a world that was different and tried to put it into place – sharing art and music about our lives; trying to look after each other; discussing politics, religion and philosophy; going out to protest injustice and prophesy new possibilities; sitting together in handcuffs and courtrooms when our values veered too far from the world’s.
I found people discarded in other ways too. I hung out on the streets chatting to people who long ago fell off the chart of social status. I opened up the doors of my house to the homeless, the addicts, the disabled, the migrants and wanderers.
The ideals that have meant the most to me and inspired my life also seem to mostly be the ones our society discards – the idea that nature and people of other lands we’ll never meet have rights equal to our own; the notion that greed is what causes most of the world’s problems and therefore money and status are something to be avoided; the power of humility, compassion and forgiveness. The idea that you can grow older and still believe in changing the world.
A life of digging through the trash like that can bring a lot of joy – at times the kind of treasure that makes my guitar seem like an insignificant bit of timber. To see new possibilities emerge; things that have been rejected and forsaken turned into something useful and whole.
But there are a lot of unpleasant things stored in our bins, and to wade through them can certainly be difficult. You don’t often get many thanks for it either. Sometimes you do; but mostly it’s condescending looks of pity, stares of disapproval, upturned noses, occasionally abuse for violating people’s refined sensibilities.
And yet as difficult as it occasionally gets, I think the trash is where I’ll stay. Certainly the neglected margins of society is where I feel most comfortable and most inspired. Maybe after this long I’ve acclimatised to it and can’t go back; like the urban ibis or possum. I know though that this guitar I carry around with me is a reminder of the possibilities contained in things others have written off.