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Advice for Life: Repurpose!

Working in the town dump wasn't inspiring, until one woman decided to change her thinking and "repurpose" her life.

Some of Shana's creations

Even for a county dump, the pile behind the shed that served as my office was turning into an eyesore.

I’d been tossing things back there since summer, when I started working at the Garfield Bay dump here in the Idaho panhandle.

Things that seemed too good or too interesting to send to a landfill—a wooden ladder with a loose step, a shovel, rusted pieces of metal, an old shipping crate.

But that had been four months ago. Winter would be here soon and the pile wasn’t getting any smaller. People were beginning to notice, and I didn’t need that kind of attention. I needed this job.

I pulled out a long piece of wood from the pile, about eight inches wide. I hate to throw things away. I’m certain I’ll find a use for them someday.

That’d been the hardest part about working at the dump. I couldn’t believe what people tossed day after day, without thinking twice about it. But now, even I couldn’t remember what I’d found intriguing about this piece of wood.

Maybe this wasn’t the perfect fit for me. But I was closing in on 60. It’s not like I had a lot of choices. I’d have to make do. Not every job can be the kind that puts a spring in your step.

Once I’d had a good career as a supervisor with Airwest Airlines. Then Republic bought Airwest. My job got relocated. I didn’t want to move so I quit. I’d find something else, something better, I figured.

I’d had so many jobs since then. Laundromat attendant. That’s what I’d done before this. Caregiver. House sitter. Store clerk. Ticket sales. Dog groomer. I couldn’t remember them all.

Some I’d liked. Some I hadn’t. In the end, none of them worked out. That was a bitter blow, knowing I was expendable.

I kept searching for something that would make me feel good about myself. I’d asked God to point me in the right direction. But I still didn’t know which way to turn. My GPS—God Positioning System—felt all out of whack.

That’s why I’d been okay with working at the dump. If you could look past the bins, it was actually kind of pretty, surrounded by evergreens, the lake nearby. I had plenty of time to myself, time to sit in my shed, watch the birds, listen to Diana Krall CDs and wonder where life would take me next.

I plucked some old rusted saw blades out of the pile and arranged them on the piece of wood, playing with an idea. A truck pulled in, the bed loaded with trash bags. I waved at the driver, hoping he wouldn’t look too hard at my junk pile.

I knew the regulars by now. Sometimes we talked about the weather or how the fish were biting. Or what was happening in town. Nothing too deep, but in a strange kind of way the dump was common ground for everyone.

My thoughts were jarred by a ruckus at my bird feeders—nothing fancy, just some discarded hub caps I’d recycled and set on the ground by the shed. An intruding squirrel had sent a flock of chickadees into a tizzy.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s enough for everyone.”

Birds, I thought. Maybe that’s why I’m here. To feed the birds.

One of my first days at the dump I’d noticed a few chickadees singing and fluttering right outside the shed window. I’ve never been much of a bird person. But they had been insistent, almost as if they were trying to tell me something. Or maybe they just liked Diana Krall.

Either way, I couldn’t get their lively serenade out of my head, and the next day I put out some seed.

Within the hour it was birdapalooza—chickadees, beautiful blue jays, a swarm of redheaded birds, a woodpecker. And, of course, there were the intruder squirrels. My shed made a perfect blind to spy on them.

The birds had become one of my favorite things about the dump. I even bought a book to identify them all. The redheads, I learned, were finches.

Soon there would be snow on the ground. Wind blasting down from Canada. Food would be scarce for the birds. They’d be looking to me more than ever. I needed to give them some better feeders. Some shelter from the wind and cold.

I’d saved some old wooden feeders that a regular had dropped off. But with no trees actually in the dump, I hadn’t been able to think of a place to hang them.

The truck drove off. We exchanged waves again and I turned my attention back to the board and saw blades. Some sort of pattern was emerging. I loved the contrast of the rust and wood. I glued the saw blades against the wood. Then attached a water faucet that had caught my fancy.

I leaned the board against the chain-link fence and took it in. Interesting. It wasn’t much, but it’d felt good to make something from nothing.

I looked over at the chickadees pecking away at their seed. Then at my creation. That’s when it hit me. The junk pile! It was full of possibilities for bird feeders. I pulled out the old stepladder and nailed one of those bird feeders I’d saved on top of it.

For a little extra protection, I bent a license plate over the roof of the feeder. Some rusty pieces of metal from a truck engine went on the ladder’s sides. I added some pine boughs to the steps. Voila, a high-rise bird feeder!

The ideas were coming faster than I could keep up with them. I attached another birdhouse to a wooden sled, then covered it with boughs and hung it from the fence. I found an old crate with moss on it and set a bowl on one side for birdseed. On the other side I put a ceramic cat’s head.

Hmm…it needed something else. My eye lit on a football helmet. I stuck it on the ceramic cat. I added an arrangement of broken arrows and branches to the box. Kind of strange, sure, but there was something I liked about it.

Then it was time for the test. I filled the feeders with seed and went into the shed to see what would happen. Within minutes the birds were flocking to my creations. I got goose bumps watching them. I started thinking about what else I could do. Before I knew it, it was time to go home.

First thing the next morning, a car pulled into the dump. The driver got out, but instead of going to the compactor he headed toward my feeders. Would he think I’d junked up the place?

“Did you make all these?” he said. “They’re so original. Like something you’d see in an art gallery.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m glad you like them.” I was sure I was blushing.

“You should make more,” he said.

I added some new items. I tied some boots around a rusty shovel, along with some pine boughs, and hung it from the fence. Next to it I added a tire, with a feeder suspended from a heavy chain in the middle.

All morning person after person made a point of commenting about the feeders. “Beautiful! Creative! Really something!” they’d say.

I soaked up the compliments, but couldn’t help thinking it was a little odd, people gushing over the trash they’d brought in, just slightly rearranged. “Folks are funny,” I muttered to myself and the birds.

That afternoon a Mercedes SUV pulled into the dump and a sophisticated-looking woman stepped out. “Oh, good, it’s still here,” she said. “Will you take four hundred dollars for that piece there?” She pointed at the board with the saw blades and faucet on it.

I was speechless. “Well, ma’am,” I began, trying to find the words, “it’s not really my place to sell it. Technically, the county owns it. It’s trash, you know.”

She looked at me strangely. “It may have started out as trash,” she said, “but you have turned it into art. It’s wonderful. Let me know if you change your mind.” She handed me a business card and drove off, leaving me staring at those rusty saw blades in amazement.

Maybe the trash wasn’t all that was being transformed. I’d discovered something beautiful in the things people threw away, but maybe God was trying to show me the hidden potential he saw in me.

Soon, people began bringing me things to see if I could use them in my art. They took pictures of themselves standing next to the feeders. They even brought friends from out of town to see them. Who would have guessed the dump would be a tourist attraction?

One day John, one of the regulars, drove up. He didn’t have any trash in his truck. He walked over to my shed.

“I just wanted to say what you’ve done, it’s amazing,” he said. “I like dropping by just to see what’s new. You’ve made it fun to come here.”

“Thanks,” I said. “It’s special for me too.” The sun glinted off the screen of a small TV. I had an idea for a way to convert it to a feeder. The birds were singing along with Diana Krall.

Another day at the dump. A new day to revel in all the possibilities God put in front of me.

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