Sheltering in Place: Me and My Stuff

Broadway looking north from 43rd Street — with theaters closed and no traffic.           Photo by Peter Macklin

When I first started putting together this post, my sheltering in place was voluntary, now we’re in “pause” and, since New York City has become the epicenter of the virus in the United States, no one knows how long it will be before we are in total lockdown, something our much praised governor, Andrew Cuomo, is reluctant to do. It is difficult to imagine New York City in total lockdown. We hope it never comes to that.

Everything is changing by the minute and so much has been written and posted already about how to cope with sheltering at home, social distancing, and the emotional upheaval of it all that it’s difficult to say anything new. But I would like to add some personal thoughts.

Be useful.

In our downsizing and decluttering world that means we tackle a clutter issue, we use this time to sort through and possibly pass along things we no longer need. I was fortunate to get a couple of bags to Housing Works, a thrift store that uses its income to help the sick and needy, right before they closed. Literally, an hour before they closed down for the foreseeable future. (What’s foreseeable? Who knows how long that will be.) A neighbor and friend is a doctor who volunteers at shelters and she is always grateful for clothing and toiletries. I took several bags of clothing my daughter had left here and brought them to her front door, just a block away. It was social distancing since we did not meet face to face. Many friends have posted about cleaning our their closets, going through their drawers, straightening kitchen cabinets, and redoing their spice cabinet. I’m not there yet.

Be kind.

Several people in our neighborhood list-serv have offered to go to the grocery store or pharmacy or run errands for others. A woman in my building posted in the mailroom that she would do the same for any residents. That selflessness blows me away.

If we choose not to go out, from the comfort of our homes we can call friends who are alone, chat via any of the web-based videoconferencing platforms, and we can pass along via email all the opportunities to participate online. One morning I took a tour of the orchid show at the New York Botanical Gardens, listened to a concert by a singer/friend’s accompanist, and shared a video of the students at The Berklee College of Music’s rendition of “What The World Needs Now.” Last night I watched a reading of a Broadway play.

And we can be kind to ourselves. I started my day with an online meditation followed by a restorative yoga class. Many of us are working from home and Team Vertellis urges us to be grateful for that. Many others do not have that option, most importantly, health care workers. We are grateful for their dedication. We are also grateful for the first responders, the truck drivers who deliver food, the people who work in our grocery stores and pharmacies, and people who make deliveries, all of whom make our lives better. Thank you for your service.

Be creative.

Many of my friends are posting photos and recipes of the most tantalizing meals, ones that make me hungry and envious. Cooking elaborate meals is not my forte. Soup is more my thing. Other friends are knitting and crocheting. Busy hands are happy hands, as they say, but I’ve found it difficult to focus on a knitting project. Some people are sharing their expertise online. While others are binge-watching shows they hadn’t had time to watch before. I just started The Stranger. Not sure watching television qualifies are creative. Perhaps continuing to read interesting books is a form of creativity.

Be careful.

We are all washing our hands, wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant, keeping our distance (a cotton scarf folded over helps keep out 50 percent of the germs, so I’ve read), or are simply staying home. Many of us have posted the meme where healthcare workers in a hospital hold cards that say: We stay here for you, please stay home for us. We belong at home, the safest place we can be right now. Stay safe. And keep others safe.

This is our disaster. But we can learn from the experiences of others.

Two interesting points from Jon Mooallem. In his New York Times Sunday Review essay about the great earthquake in Alaska in 1964 and how people got through it, he described the cluttered basement where rescuers found 30 boxes in which an Anchorage radio broadcaster had “assiduously packed thousands of letters, photographs, diaries, audio recordings and other material from her life. Here it was: all the joys and agonies of one person’s life, but so blurred and compressed that it was impossible not to recognize the form that all our lives assume from such a telescopic distance — a forgettable blip, a meaningless straight line from birth to death.” Gives one pause, especially for the keepers among us. Does it take a disaster to remind us that stuff is just stuff and it’s people that matter?

Soon after learning of the earthquake, disaster researches expected to witness the breakdown of a society but, upon arrival, “immediately began discovering the opposite: The community was meeting the situation with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

Wishing everyone safety and health and an opportunity to share with loved ones. We need to face the situation our world is in right now “with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

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

What Ever Happened to Darning…(and other thoughts about clothing)

I’m currently reading a very interesting book, called Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter. I will have more to say about this book in a future post, but for now I just want to say that it’s gotten me to thinking about (among other things) clothing. Or more precisely the fabrics that our clothing is made of, and what happens to it when we’re no longer wearing it.

Then this week I ran across a post by an artist in the U.K. named Kate, whose main medium is “reclaimed fabric.” She begins the post, which is called  “Mending Clothes as an Act of Revolution,” by saying “I have often wondered when it was that Western society collectively decided that visibly mended clothes were a mark of reduced status. Of a life worth less. Where a patch or a darn was certainly not acceptable in polite company…”

I have wondered this too! I certainly remember seeing my mother and both of my grandmothers darning socks all the time I was growing up. They would be sitting and chatting, and one (or both) of them would be mending a sock stretched over the left hand while they sewed with the right.

And though I have never taken up the habit myself I have always felt kind of guilty about just tossing holey socks into the garbage. It just doesn’t seem right.

And in fact, in many ways, it isn’t right. That most of us do so now is just one more symptom of a world in which we aren’t thinking enough about what happens to all the things we toss into the garbage once they’re out of our sight.

Because I know it isn’t right to just throw my holey socks away, I usually try to first use them as rags; but the truth is that socks just do not make great rags: they are not tee-shirts!

There’s plenty of advice about how to darn socks on the internet. This gives me a bit of hope that maybe there is more darning going on in the world than it seems.

But is it, though? Is anyone out there still darning their socks? Do you? Do you know anyone who does?

Leaving you with those questions for this week…and hoping to hear from some darning enthusiasts!

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

 

 

I Thought I Had a Plan

A friend of mine always says about her later years: I had a plan. She is a very organized person and had her finances and living situation in order for an eventual retirement. She had emptied her parents’ home and distributed items to family members, donated much of the stuff, and what she decided to keep, she protected in archival storage containers. Indeed, she was a woman with a plan.

Then life threw her a curve, actually a couple of curves. She was unexpectedly let go at work and she was facing a tough medical situation. All of a sudden, she was a person who thought she had a plan but found herself in a new situation.

How many of us enter our later years with, if not a plan, at least a vague idea of what we want to do and how we want to live. Sometimes that plan works and sometimes we have to rethink our lives, maybe not as dramatically as my friend did, but we have to reimagine some parts of it.

We know what we want to do with our stuff and with the family items we inherited from our parents. We share things with family members, give to charity, and make sure we dispose of the rest responsibly.

Then things go awry. Our living situation changes, our finances are not what we thought, our energy is less than we had hoped. How do we get back on track?

Begin by listening to your gut, or to your heart (they’re connected). Don’t beat yourself up. Let your plan go and revise it as you need to.

Start with what bothers you the most. Maybe it’s a particular room in your house. Maybe it’s a category of stuff – your clothes, many of which you no longer wear, or your papers, which are not organized for easy access.

When it comes to giving away your stuff, think of family more broadly. As Mother Teresa said, “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” Can we think of extended family, friends and neighbors, colleagues, and, of course, people who have less than we do, as our family?

If you’re really stuck with what to do with stuff you think you don’t want, ask yourself some questions to help loosen the bottleneck. Will I really need this some day? If I saw this in a store today, would I buy it? If I really don’t want or need an item, what’s holding me back from giving it away? The answers will help you be your own guide.

Learn to embrace change. (That’s a tough one!) You change, life changes, you go with the flow. We all grow and change, some of us more reluctantly than others. Change is part of life and growth is the result of change. We really can’t argue with it, that would get us nowhere, we can only learn to embrace it.

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

Valentines: What to Keep, What to Toss?

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Vintage valentine, c. 1950s?

Valentines present–at least for “keepers” like me (and both of my grandmothers, and both of my parents)–a bit of a challenge in downsizing.

On the one hand, it’s important to ask ourselves, can we really keep all of the valentines that were ever given to all of us forever?

(The answer is no.)

On the other hand, after they’ve already been carefully saved for 20, or 30, or 50 (or more!) years, we shouldn’t just carelessly toss them into the garbage, or the recycling bin now. Should we?

(For me, the answer is, once again: no.)

But then what SHOULD we do with all those vintage valentines that were carefully preserved and stored in boxes for decades in our homes?

Well, I can’t tell anyone else what to do, but I can tell anyone who might want to know what I did when faced with this very dilemma a few months ago.

I took all those pretty valentines I came across as I went through the many boxes of papers I’m still going through from my parents’ home. Those pretty valentines that evoked so interestingly changing times and tastes and aesthetics, and sometimes even held bits of evidence of tender feelings. I put them carefully into a big ziplock bag and brought them to a thrift store where I knew someone who collects vintage valentines might be very happy to find them, and give them the respect they deserve.

And I tried not to think about other things that might happen to them. 🙂

The main point is, I found a good possible future life for them: and I am not storing them any longer.

It occurred to me as I thought about what to write about today that this series of questions might be helpful to “keepers” when they are trying to decide which sentimental things to keep, which to toss, and which to bring to another “safe” home.

Here are the questions:

Is it beautiful?

Is it important and meaningful to me (or might it be important and meaningful to someone else in my family?)

If the answer to the first question is “yes,” but the answer to the second question is “no” then you might want to consider taking the item to a thrift store (or wherever), where someone who would appreciate its beauty would be happy to find it.

If the answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second question is yes also–like, hmmm, well–like maybe old love letters–well, then…

I don’t really have to tell you what to do about them do I?

I think (especially if you are a keeper) you will know…

Happy Valentine’s Day, 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

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Wanting Less

This new year of double numbers seems to have provoked thoughts of wanting less, or at least of not wanting more, in many people. Wanting less just seems to be in the zeitgeist. Here are four people who have expressed those thoughts in just the last week or so.

Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and Tribe of Mentors, recently wrote a blog post titled “Finding the One Decision That Removes 100 Decisions (or, Why I’m Reading No New Books in 2020).” The theory behind his decision to not read any new books this year is the challenge to find a single decision that will remove or eliminate many other decisions.

Reading no new books seems like a very daunting prospect for many of us but we can apply the challenge to other parts of our lives. Here are some thoughts on making one decision that eliminates many others: for urbanites, deciding to wear only black clothes; for those with bulging closets, to not buy any new clothes for the year; for those who want to eat better, to eat breakfast and dinner at home on weekdays; for those who sit too much and never get to the gym, to get out for a 30-minute walk every day. What would your decision-to-eliminate-decisions be?

As Jennifer Szalai explains in her review by of Kyle Chayka’s new book The Longing for Less, there are ”two kinds of minimalism: sleek lifestyle branding and enforced austerity.” Chayka admits to being a minimalist, but only “by default,” and explores why the idea of “less is more” keeps resurfacing. Szalai says “the book itself is like an exercise in decluttering, as Chayka cycles through different ideas in order to find those he wants to keep.”

Pointing out much of the excess in our world today, Chayka hopes minimalism might provide an antidote or a balm. It’s encouraging to think of getting rid of stuff, attempting a turn toward minimalism, might be a corrective to the state we’re in now. Is decluttering a balm for you?

In a Here to Help column in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman responds to a question by a reader who writes that an Amazon search for ‘Women’s Tops’ yielded 20,000 listings over 400 pages and laments the resources used to create such excess. She asks if we consumers can do to try to “force” manufacturers to be more responsible.

Friedman says if consumers want to force the issue with manufacturers, the way to do that is to buy less. She suggests buying better clothes, wearing them more often, and taking care of them by cleaning and repairing them on a regular basis. I think most of us are guilty of buying cheap clothes and then replacing them often. My challenge would be: Can I resist a “bargain” and spend more on quality clothes? Who wants to join me?

In a Critical Shopper column, Jon Caramanica explains that selling your things online is part of modern life. We can all be retailers now. He writes of his selling experiences:

“What hole deep inside me all of this fills isn’t totally clear. What I do know is that when several layers of life seem unpredictable, or unwieldy, it can be gratifying and motivating to sell something, pack it up tight, take it to the post office and know that in short order its going to be put to better use. The benefits are ethical and environmental, and also financial, but mostly psychological.”

I love his list of the benefits of getting rid of our stuff: ethical and environmental and financial and psychological. In what other ways does getting rid of our stuff, selling it online or dropping it off at our local thrift store, provide solace for us?

It’s all part of the wisdom of wanting less, part of working towards owning and caring for less, and part of seeing that our stuff can be used to help others.

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

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

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