When Excess Becomes Abundance

This table full of necklaces is amazing, isn’t it? But the excess of it is a bit shocking. Sometimes a very large quantity of something, whatever that something is, is daunting and problematical to deal with. And sometimes that same excess can be seen as abundance, as plenty, as a bounty of riches.

I was having difficulty seeing the upside of this huge quantity of jewelry.

In our book and in our many blog posts, we suggest downsizing to rid ourselves of excess, to have fewer things, to streamline. We give this advice, as most people do, because we look at excess as a negative. And we stand by our recommendation to declutter because having too many things can get in the way of living our best lives. Yet there is abundance in excess.

Last weekend I produced the large jewelry sale pictured here (one I’m still recovering from!), a sale that I have organized for the last dozen years, and this year I perceived the excess we encountered as not such a positive thing. I was blown away by the generosity of the donors but troubled by the excess of the resulting donations and I realized I needed a new outlook, a slightly different perspective so I could see excess as something good.

The jewelry sale is for a non-profit and the proceeds from the sale help support their social action programs, especially a program that makes lunches for the homeless, which are then distributed by City Harvest (an organization that started the food recovery movement in 1982 to address the issue of excess food for some while others struggled to feed themselves).

We collect jewelry from individuals: items they no longer wear, gifts that were not quite their style, or pieces they have inherited. And we are fortunate to get jewelry from designers who often donate new pieces from their collections. A small group of us sort through and price the jewelry. This year there was a profusion of donations, months of sorting, and I was feeling this excess as daunting, almost as a burden. Why do we have so much, I kept asking. No one should have this much jewelry. The excess of it all was beginning to eat away at me.

Then it occurred to me that I needed to adjust my thinking. The huge amount of jewelry was not a burden (yes, maybe it would be if it ended up in the landfill) but, rather, it was a sign of the generosity of the people who donated it. That generosity meant a greener environment because jewelry people no longer wanted was finding new homes. And this generosity of donors led to great sales, which meant funds to help people in need. It was a win-win situation.

My inability to see this excess as abundance reminded me of the quote from Ramakrishna,

“An ocean of blessings may rain down from the heavens, but if we’re only holding up a thimble, that’s all we receive.”

This weekend, with a little readjustment on my part, my thimble became a bucket.

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 Can One Do with Archival Material when Downsizing?

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Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

One of the experts I interviewed in the process of researching our book was Mona Nelson, who was at the time the executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar, Minnesota. When I asked her in the course of our conversation what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were in the process of clearing out a home, she picked up a greeting card from her desk and said, “This kind of thing.” She explained that these kinds of things–old cards, letters, brochures, tickets, maps, etc., which she called “ephemera”–could be of interest to historians and that they welcomed the chance to review these things for possible inclusion in their collections.

I must admit that this knowledge was a bit problematic for someone like me, who already has a pretty acute sense of the potential historical value of things that everyone else tends to throw away. On the one hand, it puts one in something of a bind. What do you do with things that are not yet of historical interest? Do you keep saving them until they are? Or do you realize that you simply cannot save everything, and that if you do, that way lies madness?

In the years since, I have managed to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach for myself. On the one hand I no longer keep items that are of potential interest to either collectors or future historians, no matter how interesting and/or beautiful they are (stamps, for example). On the other hand, I do not throw away things that are already pretty old (let’s say 50 years or more). I don’t keep them either. I try, rather to get them to someone, or at least put them within reach of someone who might find value in them and help safeguard their future, as I wrote about in this post.

One special category of archival material is war letters, and in 2013 a special collection was established to collect American war letters. As Family History Month draws to a close and Veteran’s Day approaches,  one very meaningful way to contribute to our national history would be to consider donating old letters you have found in your home to the Center for American War Letters, which I wrote about here.

There are a number of other organizations that can help those who care about preserving historical documentation and archival materials. Here are a few of them:

The American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works has helpful information about how to safeguard your own personal or family treasures.

Center for American War Letters

Ephemera Society

The Society of American Archivists has a helpful guide to how to go about donating personal papers or records to a repository.

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

 

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

Language is the way we communicate with each other so words and how we use them are important. Any conversation about downsizing and decluttering, whether written or spoken, almost always incudes the frequently used catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” All the words in that phrase start with “re-” a prefix that comes from the Latin and means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or it can mean going back to do something again, as in redo or revisit.

I’m revisiting my thinking about that standard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to use less and is certainly a good place to start. Reduce means to have a smaller or lesser amount, or to bring down, to diminish, or to minimize the amount we have. And in some definitions, it means to restore, to bring back or to lead back, to its original or lower state. So if the first step in decluttering is to reduce, then one meaning is to bring ourselves back to our original state of needing or owning less. Perhaps thinking of “reduce” in that way, that our original state is one in which we need less, we will have an easier time of getting rid of the things we no longer need, or at least, maybe, we’ll be able to do it with less angst.

Reuse means to use something again, usually for its original purpose. Most of us have worn a dress or outfit again, getting multiple uses out of our clothes, and all of us reuse our dinner plates and cutlery every day. So reuse is a part of our daily life, a no-brainer. But another definition of reuse is to use something again for a different purpose, sometimes called creative reuse or repurposing. Our forebears used pieces of fabric salvaged from clothing or household items to create bed quilts. Currently, many animal shelters ask for used bedding and pillows to use as animal bedding. Sometimes we reuse by passing along our older child’s clothes to our younger child, or by giving clothing that’s still wearable to a neighbor who has a still younger child. When we were cleaning out my aunt’s closets, we donated a number of pairs of elbow length gloves to a local theater group: clothing from the past to be used as part of a costume.

Recycle means, according to one dictionary, to collect and treat what would otherwise be trash so it can be used again. We recycle paper, sometimes by writing on paper that’s already been used. My father-in-law used the back of legal size envelopes from his mail to make lists, a habit I have incorporated into my life. They are the perfect size and shape for a list. We can print on both sides of paper or go ‘paperless’ by emailing everyone the agenda before a meeting; all are ways to to save trees. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is the process of transforming old or discarded items into new products that are sometimes better than the original. At a crafts fair I went to last weekend, I saw crafters who had cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and fashioned them into fingerless mitts, and others who had felted old sweaters (washed them in very hot water to cause the fibers to lock together) and used that stronger fabric to make purses. In a fully circular economy, we would be continuously using and reusing everything, reducing greatly what goes into the landfills.

What more can we do?

We can take old thinking about our stuff and repeal it, replace it, reverse it; we can rethink what our stuff means to us.

We can think about resale – having a yard sale for toys that our kids have outgrown or taking our clothing to a resale shop – rather than tossing it.

We can reedit or refine our needs, both clothing and household. How many multiples of things do we really need to have.

We can refuse things that don’t work for us, even pens that are given out for free, and rethink things are not environmentally friendly.

We can retire old thinking.

We can show respect – for ourselves and our fellow beings, for all creatures, and for the earth.

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

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Collector and the Inner Archivist

 

In a couple of recent posts I have talked about the “voices” of various parts of me that tend to slow me down when I am engaged in the process of downsizing and decluttering (or trying to become engaged in it). In the first one I talked about my “Inner Ecologist” and my “Inner Altruist.” The next one was about my “Inner Sentimentalist” (The latter is one that we have been told our book is especially helpful in dealing with. Boiled down to a  few words our main message/mantra for the Inner Sentimentalist is Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…)

There are two other voices that tend to arise in this process also. One of them is the voice of the Inner Collector, and the other is the voice of the Inner Archivist.

These two voices for me, and probably for many people, are the most difficult to deal with in a way. After all, the main challenge with the Inner Ecologist and the Inner Altruist is simply overcoming inertia, or procrastination; basically just summoning the time, energy, and motivation to get those things out of the house to recycling, reusing, or donating places.

But the problems that the Inner Collector and the Inner Archivist are drawing our attention to are often quite a bit more complicated. In these two cases, the challenge may be to find appropriate homes for very special objects or historical documentation: things that are actually quite valuable and deserve to be carefully placed somewhere where they can be preserved and enjoyed by others: and safeguarded for the future.

In some cases, the voice of the Inner Collector has probably been overly influenced by television programs like Antiques Roadshow and online resale sites like eBay.  I remember that when we were first shopping our book to publishers, one of the comments of the editor who ended up choosing to publish it  was that she was having difficulty getting her parents to get rid of some of the things in their too-full-of-things home. “We’re sitting on a fortune here!” she said her father would protest whenever she tried to urge them to get rid of some of those things.

But unless you are willing to invest the time and energy into making collecting a moneymaking venture by making yourself an expert on whatever type of collectible is involved, it’s probably best to get rid of most, or at least many, of the old things that you’ve been saving against the day they may be “worth a fortune,” and let someone else enjoy them and get whatever profit there may be in selling them. (This is also a reason why hiring professionals to run your estate sale is often a good idea: they know the market for antiques and collectibles much better than most people, and usually they will have a vested interest in trying to help you make the most amount of money from your sale because it is to their benefit as well as yours. We discuss this in our book also.)

On the other hand, some people either have kept, or have inherited, serious collections that do in fact have real value, either as something to sell, or something to donate to a museum or library. We go into how best to deal with serious collections in some detail in our book, and we provide links to organizations and institutions that can help people know where to turn for even more detailed information and advice in the resource section.

The voice that is hardest of all for me to ignore, and/or deal with,  is the voice of my Inner Archivist. As a writer, I know only too well how valuable old letters, journals, cards, and other documentation of various kinds can be for writers, researchers, and historians of the future. And so, to be honest, it is really hard for me to throw away almost anything on paper. (This does not mean I never do it. It means it is almost always pretty hard to do. That Inner Archivist keeps saying things like “Wouldn’t this be interesting for someone to come across in a hundred years?” (!) One of the things I was told by the director of a local historical museum when I interviewed her for our book was that one thing you can do with old cards, papers, and letters is take them to your local historical society and let the experts make the decisions about what should be kept, and what can be discarded. She used a wonderful phrase in explaining to me that sometimes items that are not appropriate for the local collection may be sent to another historical society where they would be welcomed. She called this “sending it home.” I loved that phrase, and that idea!

So I would never urge anyone to throw away really old documents if you come across them in your downsizing/decluttering activities. You might want to see instead if your local historical society would have an interest in them.

Of course all of this takes time, more time than just tossing documents into the recycling barrel.

Which is why the #1 piece of advice in our book is to start now! And take your time… 🙂 

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

 

 

 

 

 

“End Tables. I Have Just Two Words, End Tables.”

At a meeting of community business leaders I attended a few weeks ago, we were asked to share our business cards. I looked in my bag and saw that I had only two cards with me. (No, not very professional of me to not even think about checking to see if I had cards with me before I left. Really?)

I took out the two cards I had and then, after a brief pause, also shared some of our book’s business cards. (Yes, our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home has its very own business card).

The book’s card is a bit busy on the front with a photo of the book cover and information on how to access the book and the blog. The back is more serene, with a black-and-white rendering of our logo, the house, with our mantra “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” below it.

I think it was the back of the card that started the discussion.

The conversation that ensued sounded a bit like our own discussion of “keepers and throwers.” “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process.

People are usually more nuanced than those labels imply and both “keepers” and “throwers” have issues that need to be dealt with. What followed with our small group was an interesting discussion of the what and the how of emptying our parents’ homes.

Tim looked at our business card and said, “End tables. All I have to say is two words: end tables.” He is a “keeper” with a lot of sentimentality to deal with, along with a strong dose “but someone could use this.” He had carefully emptied his parents’ home but had difficulty parting with the last few things. He had divvied up the family items, sold furniture, and donated many household items. He had two beautiful end tables with an inlaid wood design. His kids didn’t want them. And we all agreed that Millennials don’t want much of what we have and they certainly don’t want furniture that belonged to their grandparents. Tim couldn’t sell the end tables and wasn’t ready yet to donate them because he thought they were too beautiful to part with. Why didn’t someone else see them the way he saw them, their beauty, their value, he asked in a voice tinged somewhat with regret.

Phil is a more pure form of “thrower.” He said he had emptied his parents’ home, giving some items to nieces and nephews who were just starting out and getting rid of the rest. You could almost see him washing his hands of the job. He had been thorough and the job was done.

Jamie seemed poised between a “keeper” and a “thrower.” She embodies what we say in our book: “People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there.” She had emptied her childhood home when her parents moved to a retirement condo, then emptied the condo when her parents passed away. She donated most of the stuff, sold a few things, and preserved her family treasures in archival containers. She was able to identify what was important to her and she kept those items for herself, and for the next generation.

Matt kept quiet during our discussion. Whatever his story is, he chose to keep it private and we respected that.

Amy was somewhat wide-eyed during our talk. She is a little younger and hasn’t started yet to dismantle a home. My hope is that she absorbed the many hints and tips, along the laments, about the process of downsizing and will store them away for a time when she will need them.

Luca was visiting from Italy and seemed a bit baffled by Americans talking so much about their parents’ possessions. His puzzled look seemed to say that this consuming-so-much then wondering-what-to-do-with-it is a distinctly American dilemma.

At our business meeting, the meet-and-greet part at the beginning became a dialogue about downsizing – about “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” – because I forgot to bring my business cards with me. It was fortuitous, a chance to share our stories with complete strangers, a wonderful opportunity.

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

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Sentimentalist

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Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

 

In a recent post, I wrote about some of the “voices” that keep me from moving forward with the task of downsizing. In that particular post, I talked about the voices of my “inner ecologist” and my “inner altruist.” And I promised to introduce you in a future post to my “inner collector” and my “inner archivist,” both of whom also have plenty of reasons (some, though not I, would say “excuses”) for not getting rid of certain kinds of things.

But what I completely forgot about at the time is one of the MAIN culprits many people encounter when downsizing–and that is the “inner sentimentalist.”

Probably at this point I should mention that the reason I forgot about the Inner Sentimentalist is that our book does such an EXCELLENT job of helping to rein in the Inner Sentimentalist that dwells in many of us, and getting her (or him) to allow us to proceed with the task at hand, that I completely forgot I even had one! (This is actually true!)

I often tell people I know that our book is a good and helpful one because it has helped ME get rid of many things that, had I not had the experience of writing our book, I certainly would not have been able to get rid of–or at least, not nearly as easily.

One of the things we talk about in our book is how it is important to separate the memories from the objects--because often it is the memories we really want to keep (and they take up so much less space!). Often we don’t really need to keep the objects to which they are attached, once we have found a way to celebrate, preserve and otherwise keep the memories.

And so, as I have been involved in peeling away the layers of “getting rid of stuff” that I have had to do in recent years, my Inner Sentimentalist has made scarcely a peep. (She knows it is the memories, not the objects, that count!)

This is not to say that she is entirely dead (or, I suppose some would say, though not I!–entirely cured). She still pipes up once in a while, making her feelings known when I am weighing the value of some very sentimental object, or artifact, against the weight of holding onto it any longer.

A good recent example is when I thought I had lost the ceramic figurine my grandmother gave me when I was 10 years old.

This figurine is rather important to me mainly because it is because of her that I had figured out (perhaps erroneously, not sure yet!) that my grandmother really didn’t like me very much.

That’s a whole ‘nother story that I am not about to tell here, you will have to read my memoir one day, when it is published. For now just let me say that this little ceramic figurine played a key role at a key moment in my life, a moment in which I questioned whether a notion I had held onto since childhood–that my grandmother didn’t really like me–was true.

Anyway, none of that matters for the point I am trying to make here. The point I am trying to make here is that the figurine was important to me, and I thought at a certain point in the process of getting rid of things in my storage locker that I had lost it.

In the past, this would have been EXTRAORDINARILY upsetting to me. (I mean, how important is that? A figurine that represents such a very important awareness about one’s life, and one’s grandmother?!)

Pretty important.

And it was even more important because I had kind of pictured that figurine possibly  being worked into the book cover of my memoir one day. (Most writers have fantasies along these lines, and I am no different in that regard…)

Anyway. Here’s the point. When I thought I had lost her, I will not say I was not upset, because I was.

But I was more annoyed than anything like devastated. (I think before we wrote our book on downsizing I would have been more or less devastated.)

As it was, my thought process went something like this:

“Damn! I can’t believe it! Did that box go off to the thrift store by accident? Damn!”

But I did not stop to mourn the possibly-missing figurine. I did not stop to cry about it. I did not stop to look frantically everywhere for the box in which the figurine had been.  I just kept doing what I had to do.

I knew I had taken a picture of the figurine, so my potential book cover was safe.

I knew that if I didn’t find the figurine, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

And so, when I did find it (after all), all I thought was, “Oh! Here it is! (after all)…”

SO MUCh less sturm und drang than there would have been in the past!

Here’s the thing: once you know, really knowthat it’s the memories, not the objects, that are important, then this kind of annoying thing (which takes place unfortunately QUITE OFTEN in the discombobulating experience of moving and downsizing)…Anyway, once you know it, really, really know it?

Losing things doesn’t have to be as upsetting.

And there is a wonderful kind of freedom in that.

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

 

 

When a Hoarder Leaves Home

Other people’s stuff just left out on the street.

A friend asked me if I would like to help her clean out the home of a friend of hers. The homeowner is 70 years old, a consummate New Yorker, and…a hoarder. She had a health emergency that landed her in a rehab facility and her sister reached out for help sorting through what to bring her sister at the facility and what could be given away. I agreed to help.

To say that I really didn’t understand what the job entailed would be an understatement.

What she has

When we arrived at her home, one of the most obvious things about the place is that it is overstuffed. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of plastic storage bins, some small with cubbies, others larger chests with three drawers, in every room.

One container in the dressing area was full of shoulder pads covered in various fabrics, the kind that were part of “power” clothing in the 1980s, apparently cut out of dresses and jackets. She saved them all.

On one shelf were patterned cotton scarves, folded neatly and clearly never worn, in 17 different colorways. Yes, 17. I counted them. She was evidently a huge fan of scarves. We have uncovered hundreds, some well worn, others brand new.

The bottom drawer of one of the plastic storage containers was full of jars of the same lotion. There must have been 50 or 60 jars, most of them unopened.

Along one wall of the hallway were shelves holding nearly 1000 VHS tapes and over 150 DVDs.

What we’re doing

We are trying to donate as much of the usable items as we can.

We have brought many, many industrial-size trash bags full of used clothing to fabric recycling at our local farmers’ market.

Dressy clothing that is new or only lightly used, along with handbags and small purses and decorative household items, is going to a charity that raises funds through its thrift shops and uses that money to help those in need.

We brought other more practical clothing and unopened personal care items to a woman’s shelter, thanks to another friend who took care of that for us. That friend has also taken a couple of backpacks filled with more personal care items to a shelter for teens.

We have brought medical equipment and supplies to a charity that makes these items available to people in need.

We sent the VHS tapes to a company that recycles them (or disposes of them responsibly) and donated the DVDs to a local thrift store.

We have trashed as little as possible: old make-up, half empty bottles of shampoo and lotion, and other items that are beyond use.

What we’ve learned

In interviewing Dr. Gail Steketee, coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, I learned that hoarding is the inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed and that one of the top reasons for hoarding is the wish to avoid wasting things that may have value.

Our response to that is to acknowledge that so much of the stuff in this woman’s home has value and we will not waste it, simply put it in the trash it, but rather make sure it goes to a place where it will be used.

New homes can be found for almost everything, it just takes a little searching.

And for us, or at least for me, I’ve learned that what I have is enough, I don’t need to buy more. Helping to sort through the home of a person who kept way too much stuff is a lesson in anti-consumerism.

Being in this home offers me a look at what purchasing somewhat indiscriminately can lead to. It’s a lesson on how to be more measured in consuming and how important it is to sort through and get rid of things on a regular basis, small steps often, rather than waiting for what has become a large and somewhat onerous task.

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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