Is September the Start of the New Year?

While January has traditionally been the time to make resolutions or set goals for the year, September is often the time we think about how we are actually going to live our lives for the year. Why are we drawn to thinking about our goals more in the fall than in the middle of the winter, I wonder.

In a typical year, September is a month of starts. But what about this September, which is so different from other Septembers.

September starts the school year for most people. And for some of us, that was always a wonderful time, getting ready for school, buying supplies, getting new clothes, and anticipating making new friends. And for me, who loved school, the beginning of September was also my birthday so I was, in fact, starting a new year of my life.

But this year school may be virtual, it may happen only a few days a week, or it may not start at all. In certain ways, the start of school in September is a sign that we’re saying goodbye to the wonderful days of summer and getting ourselves ready for a more serious schedule. Wonderful days of summer? Not so much this year.

For some people, our days in September are just a continuation of our days in August and our days in July and days in June. For people with children, this September can be a fraught time as they have to decide how to negotiate the school year: in person, online, or a combination of both. For people who are going back to work, this September is full of many of the same issues. How safe is it to get together again? How much of school and work depends on social interaction? What’s best for my child, my job, my family? The start of school and the return to work have more worrying overtones this year. All these decisions make us realize all that we have we lost in these last few months. As a wise woman I know said, “We will grieve. And then we will step forward across the threshold into what lies ahead.”

Can you learn a new skill? September has always been a good time to try something new. Can you expand your network of friends and colleagues? Maybe this isn’t the time to see more people, maybe this is the time to continue to hunker down in your own pod. Can you set boundaries? In our world right now, that’s a great skill to have. Knowing who can come into your life and whom it’s best to stay away from can be life changing. Can you get organized? Life at home, life online, life lived mostly indoors requires a great deal of organization. September is the time to do all of these things, to make our lives better than they have been.

For the Jewish faith, the start of the new year is in September and consists of two important days, called High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year” – its been called the “spiritual birthday of the world” – and Yom Kippur, which means “day of cleansing” and, although the new year compels us to both be ourselves and be a part of self-discovery, most of the prayers during Rosh Hashanah are prayers for the health of the world. September is the time to think about the condition of our world, about climate change, about inequality, about the corona virus, about our personal integrity. All faiths require us to think about what we’re doing to help make the world a better place and September, especially this September, seems exactly the right time to contemplate the state of our world.

September is the time to think about our behavior, our cumulative behavior: what makes us better people individually and helps us create a world we all can live in and thrive in. A teacher posted on Facebook this week, twelve days into her first year of virtual teaching, “There are so many opportunities to love and serve one another.” What a great epigraph for this September.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live

Live simply so that others may simply live. Elizabeth Ann Seton

In thinking about what I should write about this week, I decided to look up quotes about downsizing the home, and this quote, by Elizabeth Ann Seton, is the one that appealed to me the most strongly. Because it seems to me this quote is the most relevant in our 21st century world.

It is not a contemporary quote: born into a socially prominent New York family in 1774, Elizabeth Ann Seton grew up to become the founder of both the first Catholic girls’ school in the United States, and also the first American congregation of the Sisters of Charity. Her life story is an interesting one.

While there are many reasons for Americans, and citizens of other affluent countries, to cut down on the rampant consumerism that we seem to have become caught up in, especially over the past 50 years or so, it seems to me this is both the most difficult to fathom, and the most important. Because truly, our daily habits are affecting our planet, and all of the billions of people who inhabit our earth.

We have written often on this blog about the importance of becoming more ecologically aware, of recycling, of reusing, of not consuming harmful products in the first place.

Scientists tells us, with increasing urgency, that the climate change crisis we are currently facing is real, and that urgent action is needed. The solution(s) to our problem are neither simple, nor anything any one of us can enact on our own.

But on our own, we can realize that our individual actions, when taken collectively, can indeed make a difference.

And that these things matter not only for the health of our beautiful planet, which will indeed survive, no matter what.

But for each and every one of the more than 7 billion people–our fellow human beings–who call this planet home.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

Getting It Right

Although right means exact, precise, correct, in the world of decluttering, right is a relative word. It means different things to different people and to different families.

Shortly after we published our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, someone published a book with Rightsizing in the title rather than Downsizing and to me that made perfect sense.

So how do we get it right – right for ourselves and our families?

Start small.

Start with just one item that you can get rid of, whether you try to sell it, donate it, or just plain give it away. Then choose a second item. Take small, very small steps.

Remind yourself you are not a storage unit.

We hold onto things that other people gave us, that belonged to family members, that don’t quite fit, that aren’t quite our style, that we may use one day, that we can’t possibly give away… We hold onto a lot of stuff. Give some thought to the items for which you have excuses. Maybe those are the things that can go.

Live for today.

You don’t need too many things in your home that remind you of the past – even if they belonged to your family. You don’t need too many items that reference of the future – that refer to a person you aspire to be rather than the person you are today. And you don’t need to keep stuff for the person you once were or for the job you once had or from the relationship you were once in. What things do you need for the life you live today?

Be you.

Not everything has to be minimized. It’s not about having fewer things; it’s about having the right things. For some of us, that is books, for others it’s pots and pans and spices, for still others it’s a DVD collection of classic movies, for some it’s a big yarn stash, for others it’s stylish clothing. Being you is about having just enough things and learning to feel that you already have enough. It’s about having less of the things that don’t move you forward and more of the things you love.

Enjoy your stories.

Whether you keep an item or give it away, an important part of the process is to tell stories about it. What meaning does it have in your family? Who were you with when you wore that outfit? When did you purchase that thing and why? Tell those stories. After giving away some of your stuff are you feeling disappointed? Do you feel a bit of regret? Tell those stories, too. Stories help keep alive the stuff that has meaning whether you have kept the item or given it away. Stories help make it right.

What can you get rid of today that makes it right for you?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Is It Time for a Global Restart?

I saw an interesting article in The Guardian this week that made me think about my mother, and what I learned from her about clothing–among other things.

The article is about the effect that lockdown around the world has had on the fashion industry. It covers a number of aspects of this phenomenon–everything from some people deciding they really like dressing for comfort more than for fashion, to the natural slowdown in consumption habits that has occurred as a result of lockdowns, to people’s growing awareness of the deleterious effects that the production of textiles has on the environment, and a desire to do something about that.

The reason it made me think about my mother is that my mother was, like many of her generation, traumatized by a childhood spent in poverty during the years of the Great Depression, a trauma she was never really able to get over. In her case what it resulted in was some very strong habits having to do with not wasting anything; and also a compulsion to use things until they were completely unusable, and/or to reuse them for new purposes.

This was carried out in our home in many ways, not all of them entirely rational, or reasonable. For example, one of the things my sister and I found in the crawl space above our garage when we were cleaning out our parents’ home after she died was two very tall stacks of styrofoam egg cartons. My sister looked at me, shook her head, and said–a bit sadly, as I recall–“Why?”

Well, the “why” was because my mother must have been saving them for “something useful.” In the case of styrofoam egg cartons the only possible reuse I could think of would be as a kind of funky (and not very nice) costume jewelry organizer, although I suppose there may be others. I think it is more likely my mom was saving them was because in past years children were sometimes urged to bring such things to school to craft into art projects of one kind or another. No matter that our school years were long past, and that those egg cartons were never going to make it to a school anyway, stored in the crawl space of our garage as they were.

The conventional response to such behavior is to view a person like my mother with at best affectionate amusement, and at worst outright disdain and ridicule. It is seen, not entirely incorrectly, as a mild form of hoarding.

But who really is at fault when it comes to the problem of what to do with something like egg cartons made of styrofoam?

What to do with used styrofoam is a complicated problem, and I do not intend to try to propose a solution to it in this post. But I would just like to say that I think the problem of what to do about styrofoam is one that we really should be working on, and if there is anything to be ashamed about it is not the people who hold onto styrofoam egg cartons because they realize on some level that this is just not something that should be thrown into the trash: it is the fact that we are creating on a massive scale an oil-based product that no one really knows how to properly dispose of or recycle. Now that is a problem.

But to get back to the matter of clothing. One of the things I thought about while reading the Guardian article is how when I was a girl I had a great many hand-me-down clothes, mainly because I had two slightly-older-than-me girl cousins, and often when we would visit them we would come home with a bag full of the clothing they had outgrown. I don’t remember ever feeling embarrassed or ashamed about wearing hand-me-downs, in fact some of their clothing became favorites of mine. I had plenty of new clothing too. My parents could afford that, and I was not in any way deprived.

I think the one bad effect this had on me, was not any kind of stigma attached with wearing hand-me-down clothing. It was, rather, that well into my adulthood I thought of myself as being a person who was to accept secondhand clothing, but not necessarily to give it away. Perhaps in my case this is because once I had worn my older cousins’ clothing, we gave it back to the same family so the next girl in line could wear it. So when I grew up and there was clothing I was no longer wearing, I didn’t know quite what to do with it. So I just kept it, as my mother had kept pretty much everything, and never learned to let go in the way that one must do in order to avoid having too many things around. It took me a while to train myself into the habit of taking clothes to thrift stores as well as away from them. Old habits die hard!

What does any of this have to do with the lockdown, or with downsizing for that matter?

Well, here is the admittedly somewhat tenuous chain of connection that I make between these matters.

We are at a moment of global crisis in a variety of ways. And one of the things we have to do is figure out what to do about it. It is not easy, it is not simple, and there is not just one thing to do, of course.

But I think one thing we might do is reexamine our behavior–as a culture, overall–over the period that started in the 1950s and has continued until today.

This is a period in which it somehow became shameful, at least for many people, to wear old clothing, or the same clothing, or secondhand clothing, or mended clothing. But it somehow was not shameful that we were, with our cultural habits, filling landfills, and polluting the earth, and creating all kinds of ecological problems that now we really don’t know how to solve.

Finding a way out of this morass is not going to be easy: but it occurs to me that we might start by reexamining the attitudes we have about things like wearing secondhand (or mended) clothing; putting milk into glass bottles rather than plastic jugs; even hanging clothes out to dry a clothesline rather than using electricity to dry it inside. What, pray tell, is so bad (or shameful?!?!) about hanging clothes to dry on a line?

And maybe, just maybe, it is time to figure out how to create a world in which we are more concerned about what is in our landfills, and in our oceans, and in the air we breathe–than in our closets.

That might be a good start.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

 

A Sentimental Journey Revisited

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m a bit envious of people who are using their time at home these days to downsize and declutter and, most importantly, GET RID OF STUFF. I’m not there yet. I find it too difficult and fraught a process to be a stay-at-home activity like doing jigsaw puzzles or gardening.

For me, the process involves sentimentality, which as J.D. Salinger had one of his characters, Seymour Glass, describe, is giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

One of the antidotes to getting bogged down in sentimentality, as my coauthor and I have said in our book, is to take your time. Perhaps time does not heal all wounds but it does give us some perspective.

And perspective can give us a new way of seeing things, a new perception of the old. So today I’m sharing a favorite post from the early days of our blog that calls attention to family items and how we view them.

A Bowl…Full of Memories

The bowl was clear glass with a fluted edge around the top opening. It sat in the center of my parents’ dining room table for as long as I can remember, sometimes with artificial flowers in it (not very attractive ones, in my opinion) in a seasonal color to match whichever tablecloth my mother had put on the table.

When my father was moving out of the house he and my mother had lived in for over 50 years, we used the dining room as a staging area.

The bowl was now off to the side in a “donate or give away” section, put there by my sisters on a previous visit. I moved it to a “still thinking about it; not sure what this means to me” area because I had such vivid memories of the bowl and how it spoke of my mother’s style.

The bowl was inexpensive, a testament to my mother’s frugality, and it usually sat alone in the center of the table, a sign of my mother’s simple decorating style. Although she had some good Swedish glass like Kosta Boda and Orrefors, my mother also had many things, as this bowl probably was, purchased at a five-and-ten.

When family dinners grew in number to include in-laws and grandkids, the bowl was moved to a sideboard to allow more room for serving dishes. But always, after dinner, the bowl was put back in place in the center of the table.

I remember the bowl in its central place on the dining room table when I returned home from college, a welcoming sight for me.

I remember it sitting there, too, when I brought my boyfriend, now husband, home to meet my parents.

I remember seeing it there when my kids played in the living room with my parents.

After my mother’s funeral, the bowl was probably moved to the sideboard to make room for the platters of food brought over by friends and neighbors. I’m sure, really sure, we put it back in its rightful place after we cleared the table.

Did I want this bowl, I asked myself as we emptied the house. At each visit to sort through more of my parents’ stuff, I pondered that. I had the luxury to think about it week after week.

Finally, I moved the bowl back to the “donate or give away” section. I didn’t want the bowl. But I was so grateful for the memories it had elicited.

What’s your favorite story about a cherished family object?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Is It Really All Just Stuff?

The author, in a (typical) moment of dejection while attempting (once again) to downsize…

 

Is it really “all just stuff”?

And if so, why is it so damn hard to do?

I think that while this pronouncement is usually made out of kindness, to console someone who is regretting having to give away (or having already done so) things that were precious to them in the process of downsizing, I also think it’s one of the more damaging myths about downsizing.

Because, really: if it’s really “all just stuff” why do SO MANY PEOPLE have SO MUCH TROUBLE doing it?

Answer me that. (As we used to say where I grew up…)

It’s not really the things that are so important usually. Of course. It’s the memories attached to them. And/but by trying to ignore the importance of this very important fact, I believe many well-meaning (and often understandably frustrated) “throwers” are actually slowing down the process for the “keepers” in their lives by insisting on what we all know to be true (but not really)…instead of acknowledging, honoring, and being patient with the more important reality that many of us (let’s call us “keepers”) need to honor, celebrate, re-remember, or otherwise somehow take time to caress those memories, store them up, share them (whatever), and separate them from the things before the things go on their merry way to the dumpster/the thrift store/the antique shop, or wherever…

In our book, my coauthor and I talk about some of the ways that “throwers” (whether they be family members, professional organizers, or other professionals) can help “keepers” actually do this. It’s not that hard, but it does require patience, understanding, and respect for the process. Plus a little bit more time.

But it’s worth it. In terms of peace of mind for the keepers. In terms of improved family relations between keepers and throwers.

In terms of avoiding downsizing regrets…which NOBODY wants to have…

Has anyone come up with your own ways to make this happen? If so, we hope you’ll share them in the comments. We’d love to hear about them, and I’m sure many of our readers would also…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

What Motivates You?

During this prolonged stay-at-home time, many people have founds ways both traditional and innovative to fill their time. They are reading more, gardening, knitting, working on jigsaw puzzles, baking, and taking video classes (I took one on neuroscience). Some brave souls have taken to downsizing and decluttering years of possessions. My hats off to them and the initiative they have. Me, not so much.

What motivates someone to decide to accept the challenge of owning too much stuff and then actually getting rid of what they don’t need? Let’s look at what impels people to declutter.

Does it spark joy?

Although Marie Kondo has strict guidelines for herself and her home, she shows great respect for others who can’t quite declutter by asking that one simple question. As I wrote in a previous post: She doesn’t begrudge anyone anything. No judgment, just a gentle nudge to be more mindful of what we have. With no place open to donate to, Kondo-ing doesn’t seem quite right for this moment.

Pretend you’re moving

For those of us stuck at home right now that seems a bit drastic – we can’t move anywhere – although there is much to recommend here. As suggested in an earlier post, perhaps we could use the “move out” method on closets and dressers. Empty them completely and then put back only what we need and love.

Soul searching

Soul searching is thinking about who we really are in relation to our stuff: what we need to keep and what we can get rid of because it no longer speaks to who we are. Perhaps there is a good time for that, as discussed here, but right now it seems too difficult a task for those sheltering at home.

“The best, favorite, necessary”

Emily Ley, an author and creator of the Simplified Planner has created a #RuthlessDeclutterChallenge and asks her followers to keep only “the best, favorite, necessary.” That has become a new mantra for me. Asking what is the best, the favorite or the necessary works for any collection of things from too many T-shirts to too many pots (and maybe even to too many books) and gives us new criteria against which to make decisions about our stuff.

Some of us are under more strict stay-at-home orders, some of us live in areas that are beginning to open up. All of us, to some degree, are at home with everything we own. What motivates you to sort through your stuff? We’d love to hear from you. Share what motivates you in a comment below.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Can Even Extreme Keepers Follow Marie Kondo’s Advice (at least occasionally?)

Eve Schaub. Photo by Stephen Schaub

 

We often talk on this blog about the world being divided into “keepers” and “throwers.” I am a keeper, and so is Eve Schaub, even though she is also the author of a (wonderful) book called Year of No Clutter. (The book explains very well why, despite the title, she is indeed a keeper.)

I interviewed Eve (as well as some members of her family) a few years ago when this book came out. You can read that interview here

And I follow her Year of No Clutter blog. As Eve is a kindred soul (and a very good writer) I find her reflections on downsizing and decluttering not only witty and helpful, but also thought-provoking. I bumped into another of her posts the other day, in which she struggles with Marie Kondo’s famous advice to keep only those things that “spark joy.”

She starts out by saying. ” Don’t call me Marie Kondo. I’ll get all bent out of shape about it…”

I have struggled with the popularity of Marie Kondo and the advice she gives as well, and I have written about that several times on this blog. So I read Eve’s post with interest; and as usual, I found her take on the whole matter healthily balanced, witty, and insightful.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Why not visit her blog and see for yourself? Here’s the link: https://eveschaub.com/2019/07/08/the-life-changing-magic-of-clear-plastic-storage-bins/

I think you’ll enjoy it: especially if you are always looking for kindred souls who struggle with the Kondo phenomenon…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

How Wide is Your Window of Tolerance?

A statue of Peter Stuyvesant wearing appropriate PPE.

New times bring new thoughts, or how do we adapt to the times we’re now living in? Several terms are cropping up in social media that can help us rethink and perhaps better understand what we’re going through.

And one of them is not a new definition of cranky people. Cranky still means “given to fretfulness, easily angered, ill-tempered, grouchy, cross.” Sound familiar? Sheltering at home is not always easy. Sometimes resilience is just putting one foot in front of the other.

Someone has asked, “How wide does your window of tolerance have to be?” Window of tolerance, a term coined by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a psychiatrist, is defined as the zone in which people are able to function most effectively.

“When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.”

How wide does our window of tolerance have to be for us to adapt to the disconnection and solitude we are experiencing, to being alone and not having the company of family and friends? What can we do so we don’t feel overwhelmed and withdrawn, which are legitimate feelings in these times. Much food for thought.

One of the ways in which we can be more tolerant of our situation is that we are now better able to see what is essential, another current meme. We now know we don’t need things, we need people, so the media is telling us. It makes me smile, a bit ruefully, that my coauthor and I have been talking about this for nearly two decades, as have others involved in the world of downsizing and decluttering. But now it seems that our message if being heard, loud and clear, by a newer and bigger audience.

What do I miss most? A friend says she can’t wait to invite us over for tea and cookies (she’s a great baker) and I can’t wait to accept her invitation. I would like the library to reopen, even if it’s just to pick up books. And I would love to get a haircut. I would like to greet my favorite people at the farmers market from a distance closer than 6 feet. I don’t miss going to the theater as much as I thought I would, maybe because there is so much available online. I don’t miss in-person meetings (although video conferencing is getting to be a drag). I would love to get on public transportation so I could visit loved ones who are a train ride away.

This need to rethink our lives brings us another new term, or rather an old term that has found new relevance: a circular economy. What this means is to reuse or recirculate what you have.

In practical terms, it means to darn your socks (as my coauthor pointed out a few weeks ago), patch your jeans, wear clothes until they wear out or pass them along to someone who will. It’s a world of wearing hand-me-down clothes, fixing electronics when possible to make them last longer, borrowing books from the library (which is not possible right now) or sharing your books and jigsaw puzzles with others. It’s a world of eating leftovers, not wasting food. It’s making protective face masks from old t-shirts. It’s carrying a bag with you when you shop, being willing to forego the free plastic shopping bags. It’s a world where we care more about the planet and its people than we do about what we can get or own or have.

We widen our window of tolerance, which helps us see that people matter more than things and that makes us more caring of the world around us.

Stay safe. Stay well. Keep sharing what you have.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Reading About Downsizing During Quarantine

Still Got Books 1

 

There are of course many things you could read during a period of quarantine, and happily many people are using this opportunity to do so.

There are also many things one could be doing during such a period, especially things related to the process of decluttering and downsizing. I wrote recently about some of those things here.

And there are lots of books about downsizing that you could read when you need a break from the actual doing of it. Here are a few of my favorites:

Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Roz Chast) 

Caring for Your Family Treasures: Heritage Preservation (Jane S. Long)

No Thanks, Mom (Elizabeth Stewart)

A Year of No Clutter (Eve O. Schaub)

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of things (Randy Frost and Gail Steketee) 

 

There’s also a new, and very interesting book out now: Secondhand: Travels in the Global Garage Sale, by Adam Minter.  Stay tuned for an interview with the author on this blog, coming soon.
Of course, my coauthor and I hope you will also consider buying our book. The latest version is the e-book, which you can buy here.
Stay safe, stay well, happy reading, and happy downsizing!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

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