Decluttering Lessons Learned: Dealing with Ephemera

I’m not sure, but I think maybe one of the things very few people recognize is that downsizing doesn’t happen just once.

Ideally, it’s going on kind of all the time. Or at least decluttering is.

Unless, of course, you are an extreme “keeper.” (Or a hoarder, but this post is not about hoarding. It is about how to keep from being an extreme keeper, which is not the same thing as a hoarder, not at all.) More about that, perhaps, another day…

The way I have been learning to do this is by a) writing a book about downsizing with my coauthor; b) trying to follow the advice we developed for our readers in helping our dads with their first round of downsizing in my subsequent rounds of same; and c) refining the advice we developed as I continue to learn from the protracted experience of finding homes for, or getting rid of, or otherwise dealing with the many many (many!) things that were stored in my parents’ home for many years. (Both my Mom and Dad, and both of my grandmothers, were extreme keepers. Those of you who come from families of “keepers” will know what this means…)

One of the experts I interviewed for our book was Mona Nelson, the director of a county historical society in Minnesota. When I asked her what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw out when they were clearing out a house full of things that had been stored there for many years, she picked up a greeting card from her desk, and said, “This kind of thing. Ephemera.” She went on to explain that old tickets, theater programs, greeting cards and the like can be of great interest to museums and historical societies, and that rather than just toss old things like that into a dumpster, one might better take it to a local historical society or museum to see if they would like to have it.

While this is good advice for anyone who is a) going through a house in which there is a lot of such material that is already very old (let’s say 50 years or more, just as a loose, unofficial figure); and who is in a position of having the time and the means to get those boxes of ephemera from the house to the museum (or wherever).

Being of an archival mindset already, that conversation stayed with me for quite a while and compelled me to a) try to arrange to get such things to such places as I came across them in my continuing downsizing adventure; and b) to continue to hold onto such things as I received them. (It does not come naturally to many writers, and I would think most, or all, archivists, to casually toss such things into either trash or recycling…)

But the reality for me is that I really am not in a situation, nor do I have the means to contribute these kinds of things to such places anymore; or the space in which to hold onto the ones that I am accruing all the time.

Therefore, I have developed a new way of dealing with such things.

A couple of months ago I was finally able to roll up my sleeves and attack a box of old letters and cards that had been saved by my mom (and dad). In the same box as the letters my parents wrote to each other when they were first courting were a bunch of get-well cards that my mom had received during her final illness, and sympathy cards for my dad after she died.

For now I have kept all the correspondence between them, and am slowly reading it. To me this is an obvious thing to do, especially since I am writing a memoir which will include their stories as well as mine, and reading their letters is giving me valuable insight into the lives they lived before I came along.

The get-well and sympathy cards and letters I looked through: most of them had something nice to say about my parents. I read and appreciated these thoughts; and then I recycled the cards. I didn’t need to keep them anymore: the main takeaway was that my mom (and dad) had been deeply loved and greatly appreciated by a great many people. This is something I already knew, but it was nice to be reminded once again, and to know that my dad had had the support of a lot of people–friends, neighbors, my mom’s coworkers–in a very rough time for him.

And what about the continuing incoming stream of such material that I receive now, that I received in 2019, for example? I display the cards in my home for a while, and enjoy them very much. After the season is over, I may save one or two that have especially special messages in them. I also save Christmas cards from my sister and my cousin that are newsy enough for me to think that they (or their kids) will one day enjoy having this “slice of life” to help them remember the everyday details of another time …and I put them aside to be returned to them every few years.

As for the rest, I save the fronts of especially pretty cards that have nothing written on the back, to be used as festive holiday notes next year. I read the personal messages once again, I savor and appreciate them; and then I recycle the cards. (Those that can be recycled, that is: pretty as it is , we probably need to all stop buying cards with glitter, you know? Because it’s not recyclable… 😦  )

It will never be easy for me to get rid of such things: it’s just not in my nature. But I have to come to feel that this method allows me to make the most of these special things and fully appreciate them; and head off that inevitable moment in which, if I don’t do it, someone else will be forced to simply throw them away without having the chance to pay them this respect.

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 Are We Going to Keep in 2020?

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on what the past year has been like and what our hopes are for the upcoming year.

A few weeks ago I was looking up something online and came across a comment about our book that asked about what we keep, especially the commenter wanted to know, of the things left to us by our parents. That set me to thinking about what I keep. How many of us question what we choose to keep? And do we question it often enough?

Last month I saw a play by British performance artist Daniel Kitson called “keep” which was a kind of meditation on the things we keep. He starts to read a list of his 20,000 possessions, each noted on an index card kept in an old-fashioned library card catalog, one of the few props onstage. The list reading gets derailed, for obvious reasons, but along the way Kitson makes some thought-provoking statements:” I feel this responsibility to objects” and “It’s my stuff to deal with.” Does that responsibility mean we have to live with all that stuff? Does dealing with it extend to getting rid of the objects in a responsible, caring way?

The title of one review of the play is “Comedian Daniel Kitson rants about the joy – and tyranny – of stuff.” Joy and tyranny do come up often. In a somewhat anti-Marie Kondo moment, Kitson says, “if you’re only keeping stuff that makes you happy, you have only ever been happy.” Coming from the curmudgeonly comedian that is he, that is a very startling comment. He fully admits his memories are not all happy ones. So as writer Nicole Serratore says, keeping things is sometimes harder than you realize.

At one point Kitson says that holding onto stuff is a way of bringing the person you once were into the present. Is that why we keep so many of the things that belonged to our parents? Looking at his stuff is an exploration of how one presents oneself to the world. Are we better people with all our stuff or would we be better people if we gave away much of it? Kitson calls his home “a museum of me for me.” Which made me think: what does my museum look like? Do I really need a museum or can I keep the memory and let go of the object as we say in our book?

All these questions about our stuff are ones that will help propel us into the new year. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I’m hoping that the year 2020 will be one with some answers.

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

Holiday Greetings to All…

It’s that time of the year again…and, depending on which holidays you celebrate and how you celebrate them, some of you may be caught in that unhappy feeling of not having gotten gifts for everyone on your list, and not knowing what to do about it.

I thought I would therefore share a few of our posts from past years that will give people in such a dilemma some ideas about how to give thoughtful gifts, hopefully ones that also do not clutter, and do not involve rushing off to overcrowded stores in these last few days of preparations. If you click on this link from a year ago, you will find links to other helpful posts from previous years as well.

It does seem that increasingly, people are finding ways to give gifts that are more thoughtful, more ecological, less commercial–and gifts that (importantly for the readers of this blog) most of all do not simply add to the overwhelming clutter in our homes. You’ll find a variety of thoughts, suggestions, and ways to do that in the above link.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, holiday season, and all best wishes for the New Year!

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

 

 

 

100 Years Ago

 

One day in early November was the day my father would have been 100 years old. I mentioned it on Facebook for family and friends to see but wasn’t sure I was going to write anything more about it.

Well, 100 years does deserve it’s own post.

My father taught me a lot about history, both history of our family and history of the world because he loved to read about it and see plays about it – and because he lived it, at least to me.

The photo of my father was taken in Brooklyn, New York, when he was about two years old, I would guess, looking a bit scared on a rather large pony. I always thought it a bit odd that he was posed on a pony on a Brooklyn sidewalk. But a few years ago I read a novel about a family who lived in lower Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. In the story a man brings a pony around so children can be photographed on it. I felt history come alive.

My mother and father in the 1940s

A favorite memory for me was when we visited the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site with my father and my children. It was supposed to be the first of two activities that day but we spent the entire afternoon in the museum. My father had to examine every exhibit, read every plaque on the wall and every letter in the case. He was observing history the way he liked to do it, absorbed in the experience.

As I wrote in an earlier post, he kept many things that spoke of his history, records like his baptismal certificate, yearbooks from high school and college, and many, many photographs. He loved taking pictures. And thankfully, his family kept photos of my father and his sister, photos that bring me back to a time long before I was born.

My father lived a long life, 92 years, with some heartbreak, his father died when he was young, and much love, with a family he created with my mother, the woman he adored.

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

Thanksgiving Thoughts…

As Thanksgiving approaches (and with it the unofficial beginning of the holiday season) it seems like a good time to not only give thanks for our blessings, but take a deep breath and the time to consider how we can made the upcoming holidays more meaningful, less stressful, and ultimately more rewarding.

We have reflected on some of the ways to do this over the past nine years on this blog. It’s interesting to notice that in those years certain things have changed. For example, there has been an interesting evolution in the observation of Black Friday: it’s no longer all about sales. Many companies, noting a tendency of things to get out of hand, have even closed their stores on that day, urging people to instead use the extra day to spend time with family, or enjoy nature, or give back to others.

It’s also gotten easier to make holiday celebrations more “green,” whether by recycling old holiday lights or thinking more carefully about how to wrap gifts.

And of course there is always the question of how to keep the holidays from forcing us into habits of overconsumption, while still finding ways to present our friends and family with thoughtful gifts.

Here are a few of the posts we’ve written over the years to help our readers think of ways to make the holiday season special but also more ecological, calmer, less stressed. Because some of these posts are a few years old, some of the details and links may be a bit out of date, and of course some of the information varies from location to location. But hopefully these posts will inspire you to seek out ways to make your holidays more meaningful, more “green,” and less stressful.

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/wishing-you-green-peaceful-holidays/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/talking-turkey-about-downsizing-at-the-holidays/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2018/12/21/caught-at-the-last-minute-without-a-gift-no-youre-not/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/tis-the-season-to-givewith-gifts-that-make-a-difference/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/giving-thanks-and-giving-back/

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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

 

An Extra Hour in the Day

For many of us who live in the United States and Canada, last Sunday gifted us with an extra hour in the day. Sometimes that feels silly, like why fiddle with the clocks only to have dusk or darkness descend earlier in the day. (Not the greatest outcome.) Sometimes that feels a bit magical, like just moving the hands of the clock actually provides us with more time. (Of course, it really isn’t more time, just the illusion of more.)

What can you do with an extra hour?

Sleep

Research has shown that an extra hour of sleep can help raise your salary (the researchers mean an extra hour per day, not just once) Interesting. Perhaps an extra hour of sleep helps job performance. Check out the article here. And an extra hour of sleep may boost your athletic performance.

Work

Working an extra hour, maybe just once to catch up, can be productive but working more hours in general is not good for your health. So here’s to one catch-up hour per year but not per day.

Play

Play in adults helps relieve stress, boost creativity, improve relationships, and makes you feel more energetic. How many of us spent our extra hour playing with friends and loved ones? Play is something to consider for my next extra hour.

Declutter

In our book and in the many book talks I have given, we always say “start small” and by this we mean start decluttering by spending only 20 minutes at a time at the task. Set a timer. Well, with an extra hour, a magical hour, a gift of time, what more could you accomplish?

Donate

Perhaps you have decluttered and organized your closets. This may be the time to donate all the excess. The extra hour could be spent finding new homes for the things you are ready to part with. Here’s a post that will help you.

There are many other ways to spend the gift of one hour: reading your favorite book, catching up with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, being creative, giving back. I would love to know how you spent your extra hour. Let us know by leaving 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

My Mother, A Keeper par Excellence

My mom, a few years before she died.

This morning when I woke up two thoughts occurred to me as I was groping my way toward full consciousness.

One is that it was my turn today, to post on this blog.

The other one is that this is the day that my mother died, 29 years ago.

And so I decided today’s post would be some kind of tribute to my mother, who I must say was a “keeper” par excellence.

My mom died far too soon. She died far too soon to have the time to read all those newspaper articles she was keeping to read “someday.”

And far too soon to do some of the things my coauthor and I recommend that people do in preparation for the day when they will no longer be around, to make things easier for the ones they leave behind.

She did not have the chance to do any of that. She was only 64 when she died. She worked as a nurse until a few short months before the cancer she had rendered her incapable of working anymore. And by then she was too sick to do anything else.

But she had done what she could: not about downsizing, exactly, but certainly about “keeping the memories,” when she still had the time and energy to do so. She put little notes, usually written on masking tape, and attached to the bottom surface of various pieces of pottery, jewelry boxes, and the like. Little notes that would let us know why some of the things she kept were special. Little notes that became pretty special themselves when we found them after she was gone…

This whole thing about downsizing can be pretty complicated. I wrote about some of those complicated feelings I had, especially about my mother, a couple of years after our book was first published, in an essay that was published in the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper she loved. That essay ended with these words:

Once, when I was in my 20s and home for a visit, I was trying to find an iron and ironing board in the maddening clutter of the place. I’m now sorry to say that I spoke harsh words to my mother about how hard it was to complete the simplest action in that house. What I said was true, but it was not kind, and it was not the most important thing that could be said about my parents’ home.

I had the chance to say the most important thing in the book I ended up writing after the experience of getting rid of all that accumulated stuff. I dedicated the book to my mother, “who filled our home with many, many things–but most of all, with love.”


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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