More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

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Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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

 

Back to School the Green Way

It’s back-to-school time, and for most people that means it’s back to shopping for new school clothes, books, and supplies.

We all know it’s fun buying a bunch of new stuff. But many of us are also becoming increasingly aware that new stuff inevitably becomes old stuff, and often (unfortunately) adds not only to the clutter in our homes, but also–if we’re honest with ourselves–also adds unnecessarily to pressure on the family budget, and very often on the environment as well.

And while it’s good for kids to have some nice new things to celebrate their return to school, it’s also good for us to teach them how to minimize waste, practice recycling and reuse, and in general find ways to keep our landfills from filling up any more than we need to.

Here are a few links to places where you can get some great ideas for minimizing the costs, both personal and ecological, of returning to school–and simultaneously giving your kids a pre-back-to-school lesson in green living.

http://earth911.com/home/family/8-ways-to-green-back-to-school/

http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2017/07/back-to-school_shoppers_gravit.html

These 16 stores will reward you for recycling old phones, clothes and more

We’d also be interested in hearing ways that parents, especially of elementary-school-age kids have found to minimize the buying of school supplies each fall. Do teachers still send home those lists of supplies that everyone is supposed to comply with? Have schools been finding ways to exercise a bit more “green thinking” in the creation of these lists, and simultaneously teaching kids about ways to reuse/recycle? And also reduce pressure on families with very tight budgets? If so, we hope you’ll share them in the comments below.

We’d love to hear your ideas, and we’ll be happy to share any strategies parents, teachers, or kids themselves have come up with in this regard.

Wishing you and your family a very pleasant–and as green as green can be–return to school!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from 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

Tip #1 for an International Move: Packing Books

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First of all, let me explain that when I returned to the U.S. from France last March with the intention of emptying my storage locker in Maryland completely, by first getting rid of a lot of what was there that no longer made sense to either keep or move; then sending a small fraction of the contents (mostly books, papers, artwork, plus maybe my piano) to France; and then taking the rest away from the East Coast, and off to the Midwest, near my family, where storage rental units are much less expensive….

…when I returned to the U.S. in March, as I say, planning for all of the above to take place within four weeks, I completely thought it was doable.

Alas, it turned out not to be. At least it was not doable for me. There are many reasons for this, some bureaucratic, others due to my somewhat typical habit of making overly ambitious plans and ignoring the general feasibility of them; and I’m not going to bore you with any of those.

I’m just going to say that many of my things are still there in the storage locker on the East Coast, and the books, papers, and art work I had hoped to shipped to France are still there too. I would also like to say that although I did not by any means meet my primary goals,  I did make significant progress on some of them, most especially getting rid of a lot of what was in there and made no sense to keep any longer.

Yay for me, at least for that! 😦

I also learned a lot of things I needed to know about an international move, in particular a move to France, from the two international movers I had meet me at the storage locker, survey what I had, and advise me what my options were. But I didn’t learn enough that I feel I can write the post I imagined writing back in March, when I was optimistically winging my way back to the U.S.

I imagined that I would write a post titled something like “Ten Tips for a Successful International Move.”

But hah! I certainly couldn’t do that, given the so-far-unsuccessful outcome of my plan, now could I?

No. I could not. In fact I should probably be reading such posts, by people who know how to do it.

But there is one thing I discovered in this process that I have felt a bit guilty about not sharing with our public before now, and so I’m wasting no more time in sharing the one tip I came up with. And so…here it is!

If you are packing books for an international move, you might not want to pack them in liquor boxes–even though normally liquor boxes are excellent boxes for packing books in.

Why is this? Well, to be honest, I’m not 100% sure that it is truly necessary to NOT pack your books in liquor boxes for an international move. I’m just telling you why I decided that I wished I had not done so when I packed up all the contents of my house before running off to France.

And so here is why.

One of the things I learned from one of the international movers I consulted is that one unpredictable cost (at least in moving things into France, I don’t know about anywhere else) is a (potential) charge for x-raying your goods. This is a charge that happens only when the customs agent decides that they want to be sure that what you say is in your shipment is really what is in your shipment.

A bit earlier in the conversation, I had asked the agent what kinds of things customs agents charge duty on. I didn’t think I had anything that would cause me to have to pay duty, really, all I had was books, papers, and some artwork, not valuable artwork, just artwork made by friends. (Well it is valuable artwork, to me. But not the kind you would have to pay duty on. You know what I’m saying, right?) So I was just asking, trying to learn everything I could about how this all works.

“Luxury goods, wine, liquor, things like that,” he said.

And so, you can see where this leads, now, right?

Let’s suppose you have 50 cartons of books, and they are packed in liquor boxes. One could not really blame a customs agent for wondering if what you said–that you were moving books and papers into the country–was really true, especially if you were not there in person to show your very innocent, very writerly presence by way of proof, or strong implication, that in fact all those boxes of Yellowtail wine, or Dom Perignon, or whatever, actually held books and papers, not wine and liquor.

And so if the customs agent did wonder about those 50 cartons that had once held wine and liquor, and decided to x-ray your shipment, you would have to pay for the cost of the x-raying, which could be as much as several hundred euros.

And so. That is why I wish I had not packed all my books and papers in liquor boxes, even though for a domestic move liquor boxes are pretty much perfect. Because if you have the bad luck to have an exceptionally suspicious customs agent, or perhaps just a perfectly reasonable customs agent in the middle of a having a bad day, you could have a several-hundred-euro addition to an already pretty hefty bill for moving a bunch of books and papers across the ocean.

And most writers can’t afford this.

One thing I have not been able to determine yet is whether this several-hundred-euro potential x-ray of goods would take place while the goods are still in the shipping container (in which case the details of things like what kinds of boxes things are packed in would be irrelevant). Or whether it would take place after the goods are taken out of the shipping container to be put on a truck for the rest of the journey. (If you are getting the impression that an international move is much more complicated than a domestic one, you are right. Diplomats and others who have lots of help through this process are lucky people indeed. And if anyone out there has further insight into this matter, I hope you will share it in a comment below!)

One more thing I learned, to my surprise and dismay, is that shipping books via US Postal Service is no longer a viable option. (The only option they offer is shipping (via air) in flat-rate boxes that cost $86.95 for up to 20 pounds. NOT affordable. There is no shipping via boat through the USPS anymore. 😦 ) Paying the $100 charge for an extra bag on a plane is a better deal.

So. Maybe one day I will come up with nine more wonderful tips about an international move to France, but for now,  I feel better for having told you all about this at least. So that if you are planning a move to France, and you have not already started packing, you might not want to use liquor boxes for packing your books and papers.

And I hope this post helps someone. Even just one person. I really do! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

12 (or More) Surprising Ways Clutter Is Ruining Your Life

Our friends at MakeSpace (https://makespace.com/los-angeles/) have come up with this infographic to illustrate ways that clutter harms our lives. Here’s what they have to say about it.

Clutter and its causes are in a constant game of ping-pong with each other.

A distraction at work causes chores to go unfinished at home. The mountain of plates in the sink causes tension between you and your partner. A disagreement with your spouse makes it difficult to complete that home improvement project together. And back and forth we go.

If the game continues, it could have a seriously detrimental impact on your life. From your physical and mental health, to your relationships, career, and finances, clutter can negatively affect you in a myriad of ways.

This clutter infographic from MakeSpace, (with offices in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC) helps us determine if clutter is, in fact, ruining our lives, and how to get back in control.

What other ways can you think of that clutter impacts your life negatively? Does having too much stuff in your life hinder you from moving forward? Here are a few more ways that clutter interferes with…well, with just about everything.

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

Your kids don’t learn that everything has its place because there are more things than places.

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

Your evening rituals are taken up with finding the things your kids need for school the next day rather than reading to them.

Your friends are upset because you’re always late because you can’t find the clothes you wanted to wear.

Your library books are always late.

You seldom get to read the library book because you’re always behind on your chores.

You can’t make the meal you wanted to make because you’re missing one key ingredient, which you thought you had but can’t find in the pantry.

You have clothes in your closet from a decade ago, or more.

You have shoes that don’t fit alongside shoes that do fit.

You have so much stuff around that you hate to dust. (Okay, everyone hates to dust.)

You are late paying the bills because the bills due are mixed up with other papers.

You forget to make a follow-up doctor visit because the card the doctor’s office gave you is lost in a pile of other papers.

You missed your friend’s dinner party because you mislaid the invitation.

You put off exercising at home because you don’t have the space on your floor to do sit-ups.

Your sister’s birthday card is always late, not because you don’t remember her birthday, but because you can’t find the stamps.

You haven’t written a will because you can’t find the necessary financial papers.

You’re reluctant to get rid of anything; you want to keep it, just in case.

What other ways does having too much clutter interfere with your life? What’s on your list? We would love to have you share it with us.

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

Downsizing and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera

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One of the things that has been difficult for me in sifting through the contents of first my parents’ home and now mine, has been what to do with all the vintage items, especially vintage items on paper that first my grandparents, then my parents, and then I have saved through the years.

This kind of material is called “ephemera,” and it is actually a very interesting category of collectibles. The dictionary tells us that ephemera is: “Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.”

Among the things I had moved with me from place to place through the years were many brochures from touristic sites; old (some VERY old) postcards (some written on, some not); old maps; old Valentines; many ticket stubs and playbills; and even some postage stamps torn from letters. These things were kind of interesting at the time I originally kept them, but of course through the years they have become even more so, and some of them have become more valuable. (I suppose. I don’t really know!)

Collecting ephemera is for some people an interesting and fun hobby, and for some—those who take the time to do the research and make it a serious hobby, or even a professional expertise–it may even be a way to make money. For some artists it is material for collage. And for museums and libraries it can be valuable documentation of times gone by to share with the public.

But for me, I have come to realize, it is none of these things. For me it is really just more clutter, but clutter that I recognize as having historical and/or archival and/or artistic interest and value: therefore it is Not To Be Thrown Out. (My Inner Archivist absolutely will not allow me to do that.)

The question is, Inner Archivist, what do I do with it, then?

One of the experts I interviewed when we were writing our book was the director of a local historical museum in Minnesota, who told me that one of the things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were emptying out a home full of stuff was ephemera: she held up a birthday card she had recently received that was lying on her desk by way of example. She also explained to me that these are the kinds of things that become valuable and interesting to historians, because most people do, as a matter of course, throw them out. She told me that the curators of historical museums are often very interested in acquiring such things, and that even when the items in question are not going to be of interest for their collections, they still like having the chance to see them. She said that sometimes with certain items–for example, old photographs taken in another county or state, or printed materials from or about other places–the curators will take the items and “send them home.” Meaning that if the photographs, or documents, or whatever, don’t fit into the local collection, they may be sent to another historical museum that would very much appreciate having them.

I loved that phrase “send it home,” and I loved knowing that there was a network of professionals dedicated to preserving these items for posterity. And shortly after our book was published, I did salvage some items that I knew were of at least potential interest to the historical society near where my parents had grown up, and donated those items to them. And I got a thank you note from them that made me feel very much like I had done the right thing. That was a nice feeling.

But. There were still many more boxes of stuff to go through, and by the time my kids were grown and I was able to start (well, continue) going through them, I was far away from those places. And I still didn’t have the kind of time that would have been needed to spend sorting and deciding and hauling off to the nearest local historical society, because the next round of downsizing I engaged in was a far-too-rapid, radical downsizing that involved an international move.

So, in that round, I made a compromise with my Inner Archivist: I put all the tourist brochures, maps, old postcards and so on together, and took them to a thrift store and dropped them off, with just a brief comment that some of the things in the box might possibly be of interest to collectors. Then I walked away, and deliberately closed my mind to thinking about the possibility that they would be thrown out by an overzealous volunteer. I preferred to think that they would be bundled into batches for sale, and picked up by a very excited collector of whatever the items were. (You can guess which of these options my Inner Archivist would find the most pleasing.)

The point is, I was able to (finally) tell my Inner Archivist that this really just couldn’t be my problem anymore. My turn for watching over these potentially valuable historical items was over. I wasn’t going to throw potentially valuable historical artifacts into the garbage, but I wasn’t going to keep them any longer myself, either.

My Inner Archivist wasn’t completely satisfied, and quite honestly the better solution would have been to take them to a historical society where the possibility of an overly zealous volunteer throwing them out was not such a distinct possibility.

So. I guess the advice here is: if you have the time, and these things are, to you, really just clutter, do your local historical society a favor and let them do the deciding, or perhaps let them guide you to another institution that might welcome the items of ephemera you have.

And if you don’t have the time to do that, please just don’t throw them into the trash or the recycling barrel: at least leave open the possibility for someone to find and appreciate these treasured bits of our past, and to rescue them from obscurity.

But you don’t have to keep hauling them around from place to place, and you don’t have to have them filling up your closets or your storage locker. You really don’t. Trust me on this. I’ll bet even your Inner Archivist will be willing to give you a break.

For those who would like to know more about ephemera, here is a link to the Ephemera Society.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.