We Emptied Our Storage Room!

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My grandparents’ commode

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My grandparents’ pitcher and wash basin

We bid a fond farewell to the old bagel factory that sheltered our family treasures (and our junk)—without judgment—for, well, for more years than I care to count.

As I wrote in a previous post, the reason we have a storage room is common one: We needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. An old story, but a familiar one.

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One of my father-in-law’s paintings

The results of our purge.

We donated and donated and donated. Clothes and toys and cartons and cartons of books went to charity. We sold a few things. We gave away as many items as we could. Some of the china went to my daughter’s apartment. We still have some work to do: finding a photography student who could use my husband’s equipment and looking for a museum that might be interested in the antique pitcher and basin.

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My daughter’s toy truck

Lessons learned.

Out of sight, out of mind. We found many things that we didn’t remember putting into storage. An inventory would have helped.

Keep the memories, toss the stuff. Our mantra is so true. I don’t need my father’s books, voracious reader that he was, to help me think of him, or my father-in-law’s paintings, a prolific artist, to remind me of him.

There will always be regrets. A minor one so far: We sold the toy truck for much less than it was worth.

We stored items for too long. We kept things we didn’t really need or want. Why did we keep the room for so long? Perhaps procrastination played a part. And perhaps we found it difficult to deal with the hold that memories have on us.

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A wonderful sight–the empty room

The takeaway.

The big lesson, always, is that people are more important than things. As we say in our book, people who successfully downsize, declutter, or empty a house (or a storage room) come to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there. Everything else is just stuff.

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

Moving, Downsizing, Emptying the Family Home–in Literature

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I recently read the review copy of a new book scheduled to come out in the fall, My (Part-Time) Paris Life. In it the author, Lisa Anselmo, tells the story of how she came to create a new life for herself in Paris in the wake of her grief and loss over her mother’s death. In the chapter “Destroy a Home, Build a Home,” she talks about the experience of dismantling her parents’ home with her sister a year after her mother’s death, calling it “a punishing process.”  “I thought our mother’s death would be the hardest thing to bear,” she writes. “But this was much, much worse. It was as if Ma and Dad were dying all over again.”

That got me to thinking about this emotionally difficult process as it has been described in literature. One of my previous posts asks if there is such a thing as “the poetry of downsizing” (and the evidence suggests that there is, or at least can be). And recently I stumbled across On Moving, a book that Louise DeSalvo  was inspired to write after after she and her husband moved out of the home in which they had raised their children to a new home, and she experienced an unexpectedly turbulent set of emotions.  DeSalvo, a professor of literature, not surprisingly turned to some of her favorite writers to see if they had had anything to say on the subject of moving, and found a wealth of material, including some from writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Virginia Woolf.

From time to time people have told me about other books in which the difficulty of moving, downsizing, or just simply dealing with the memories evoked by the objects in a home plays a role. One of them is The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. Another is a lovely poem by Marie Ponsot, “As Is,” that a colleague shared with me a couple of years ago.

I know that this theme comes up actually quite often, if tangentially, in literature. It is also a rather important sub-theme in the recently-released film Hello, I’m Doris.

What’s clear is that there is nothing new about this very human activity (think Ecclesiastes! “A time to keep and a time to throw away…”), and I’m sure there is nothing new about the emotional difficulty of it either. Moving on is something we all have to do, most of us numerous times in our lives: but it is almost never easy.

Perhaps for some people, reading the words of others who have struggled with the emotions involved, and have written poignantly about it, might come as a welcome relief in the middle of a process that can be enervating, exhausting, or just plain sad, many times all three at once. It is one of the things that made us want to write our book, to find a way to make people who were going through downsizing, or dealing with the things left behind by loved ones who are no longer there, feel a bit less alone with the unsettling emotions that seem to almost inevitably arise in the process.

Do you know of any books, stories, or poems that deal with this topic sensitively? If so, I hope you will tell us about them in a comment. It would be nice to be able to share such titles with our readers.

Of course there are a few poignant stories included in our book as well, mixed in with the practical tips and strategies for getting through the process with family harmony intact. But maybe you already knew that.

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

 

Our Need to Quantify

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We seem to have a need to quantify everything. Is this a particularly American trait or is it something that appeals to certain personality traits? I wonder how many people are attracted to this idea? (That question, in itself, is a need to quantify!)

Sometimes quantifying works: People who are successful at losing weight often tract their food amounts and athletes who want to improve their performance keep logs and then try to best their own record. Sometimes it doesn’t work. The national controversy with testing school children has led many to conclude that children are being deprived of learning self-motivation, of time to explore, of just being children.

Does quantifying work for decluttering? The 80/20 rule, another way of quantifying, states that we use about 20 percent of our stuff 80 percent of the time. If that’s true, which I’m sure it is, perhaps some of these suggestions will be helpful.

Joshua Becker if his book The More of Less: Finding The Life You Want Under Everything You Own suggests that we get rid of 50 percent of what we own, to try to live with only half of what we have now. He asks “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of the world?” We need to embrace security without over accumulating.

In The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, Dave Bruno explains how he downsized his possessions to only 100 items. He says his challenge was “a handy way to get rid of stuff that was never going to fix my past or make me someone that I was not.” It was serious soul-searching as well as earnest decluttering.

Marie Kondo, in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On The Art Of Organizing And Tidying Up, her second book, focuses on time rather than on the number of items. She feels strongly that decluttering, what she defines as finding what gives you joy and getting rid of what doesn’t, should be done quickly, not over time.

Another way to quantify our downsizing is the 40 Bags in 40 Days decluttering challenge. The writer of the blog White House, Black Shutters offers tips on how to do this and lists the rules (there really aren’t any) for anyone who wants to accept the challenge.

Rather than getting rid of stuff as these authors have done, many people have vowed not to buy more stuff. Just search for “no shopping blogs” and you will find many people who have documented a year in their lives when they chose to not buy any new items. For some, after seeing how much space they had and how easy it was to live with less, it became a permanent way of life.

In his book Joshua Becker writes about a shorter challenge: a woman named Courtney created a personal experiment called Project 333 where for 3 months she allowed herself only 33 items of clothing (not including underwear and sleepwear).

Dave Bruno writes that “downsizing not only would help take care of what I’d accumulated over the years…it was also going to be my way forward.”

Are we ready to move forward? That always involves change and this first week in July is Take Charge of Change Week. Let’s take charge of change in our lives. What can we get rid of?

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 Downsizing Anniversary: What I Remember

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It is almost exactly a year ago that I rode away from the home I had lived in for the past eight years in a cab, airport-bound, in a driving rain. (“A monsoon” the neighbor who helped me get the last things out of the house has described it.) I have described the experience of having to move out of that home WAY too quickly here and here. And some of the lessons learned in that move here.

The first anniversary of this momentous move seems like a good time to look back and reflect. This particular move was not just a move from one place to another: it involved moving myself from the U.S. to Europe, and putting  everything I didn’t either sell, donate, or fit into a couple of suitcases to take with me, into long-term storage.

What stands out to me about the process, emotionally, a year later?

The goodness of people. One of the things that stands out is just how good most people are. Neighbors I didn’t know stepped up and helped me in a host of ways. The men from the work crew that was digging up the street outside our house in my final days there (yes, there was that too!) helped me by carrying the last few pieces of furniture that I couldn’t move, couldn’t sell, and couldn’t carry myself, outside for me and refused to take the money I offered them for the task. Perhaps this was because for days they had been bringing home clothing, toys, etc. from the “curb alert” piles I was leaving out every day, sometimes sending their wives, mothers, and friends back at night to take a look at what was still there. (I guess what goes around comes around…)

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Other neighbors loaded up their cars to take things to charitable organizations when I ran out of time to do so myself. Friends made meals for me. Still others stopped by simply to offer a kind word, or good luck with the move. It left me with a good feeling about people in general, and my neighbors in particular.

 

The unimportance of things, and freedom from them. When I first arrived in Paris after my move, someone who heard I had just been through the experience of downsizing my home asked me if I had any regrets. “I have no way of knowing that yet,” I said, and at the time I really didn’t. It was too soon to know. I was on one side of the ocean and most of the possessions I still owned were in a storage locker on the other side. The whole process had been so rushed and confusing that, aside from a few key things, I didn’t really know what I still had, what I had given away or sold, what had been lost. I was in a state of confused suspension from all the things not only I, but my parents and grandparents, my husband’s parents and grandparents, and others, had accumulated for generations.

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A year later, I still don’t really know what I still have, and what I gave away, sold, or lost in those final crazy weeks.  I did return to the States for a few months, and during that time I went to the locker a couple of times to either retrieve items I needed or put a few more in. But I didn’t have enough time to really examine anything.

But I can say with confidence now that whatever mistakes I may have made, I have no regrets, at least not yet. It has been really interesting to be freed from the state of knowing what you have and what you don’t. To be free of spending time looking for this favorite book or that favorite sweater, or to be plagued with trying to figure out where you put x, y or z. There’s been a lot of time saved from thinking about and looking for objects, and also a kind of dawning awareness that what so many people say at the end of a downsizing move really is true, deep-in-your-bones true: “It’s all just stuff.”

The importance of maintaining balance in the process, and of “taking one’s time…” For the most part I feel much surprisingly much more at peace than I would have thought I could be, about having lost connection with all those things that have always served to make me feel comfortable and happy in my home–mostly pictures and books–for a whole year now.

 

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I’ve managed to bring a few of these things with me to France.  My piano is a notable exception. I couldn’t bring it with me to France, not easily or inexpensively. It probably doesn’t make any sense to do so in any case. But I wasn’t ready to give it up a year ago and I’m not ready to do so now, either. That piano is special to me (and to one of my sons) for many reasons musical, emotional, aesthetic. Since I am not yet sure where my permanent home is going to be, I’m still holding out hope that the piano can join me there one day. So for now it is safely stored in a climate-controlled storage space, along with more books, more pictures, waiting the day I can sit down and play it again.

And knowing that makes me feel good.

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

Just Say No

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Recently I was asked to give another one of my talks on downsizing and decluttering but this time the person hiring me asked that I not only talk about getting rid of stuff but also about not accumulating stuff in the first place.

Interesting thought. We have discussed this topic somewhat in our blog posts but have not really looked into it in great depth. Here are some tips I came up with.

What’s even easier than sorting through your stuff? Not bringing it into your house in the first place.

1. Don’t even touch it.

Studies have shown that handling an item makes it more appealing. Psychologists conducted an experiment: some people were handed a mug as they entered the room for a meeting; for others the mug was on the table. Those who touched the mug, were handed the mug, were much more likely to take it home with them than were those whose mug was on the table. So if you don’t touch it you will be more likely not to bring it home.

2. Don’t bring it into the house.

What can you not bring in? Junk mail: toss it in the trash as soon as you pick up the mail. Takeout menus or anything else someone hands you in the street or you take from the restaurant. Programs from the theater or concerts can stay in the theater. Pens or pencils given at a conference can stay on the table. Papers handed out at a meeting can remain on your seat. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to take it.

3. Don’t overbuy.

We all love Costco and BJ’s but do we really need to purchase a package of six shirts when we really only need one or a month’s supply of cereal if only two people in the family like cereal for breakfast? No, we don’t. Buy what you need, not what you think you might need in an emergency. Of course, if your family loves cereal, buying in quantity is good. But if your household is one or two people, buying in quantity can be wasteful.

4. Plan your purchases.

Before you go shopping, for food or for clothing, check your closets and cupboards. See what you have that you can use to make supper – you might just need a green vegetable to add to the leftover chicken and rice, for example. Check your closets for clothes to wear to work. You might be able to create new combinations by wearing a new shirt with pants or skirts you already own. Buy only what you really need. For clothing, think about the one in/one out rule: for each new piece you buy, you get rid of one you’re not wearing.

5. Limit the items that tend to accumulate.

Most of us have things we hold on to. I accumulate shopping bags. They’re too good to throw out and I’m always carrying something – that’s my justification, anyway. So I have a closet that’s overflowing with shopping bags that fall out of the closet every time I open it, and they certainly do when my husband opens it. I have a friend who buys kitchen magnets everywhere she goes. How many does she really need? Put a limit on the number you save, of anything, say 10, and toss the rest.

6. Give gifts that are consumable or gifts of experiences.

Give gifts of food that the recipient likes to eat: good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread. Or a certificate for your signature beef stew or cassoulet, made to order on a date they choose. Who doesn’t love food made with love. Or give gifts of experiences, outings like a camping trip or dinner at a nice restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest. My mother often gave gifts of books or magazine subscriptions. My coauthor wrote a lovely post about gifts that won’t cause clutter; you can read it here.

7. Think about how much easier it will be to clean.

Less stuff around the house means less stuff to clean. And that should be reason enough not to bring things into the house!

8. Think about other things you can do with the money and your time.

If you don’t buy things indiscriminately, you will save money and you’ll save the time you used to spend shopping. Think about what you could do with the money: save for a longed-for trip, a particular event, or a special evening out. With the time saved, you could learn a new skill or read all those books you’ve wanted to read but never had the time for before. And then you could donate the books and clear out the shelves on your bookcase!

9. Show respect for the planet.

Less stuff in the house means less stuff put into the garbage. Less garbage taken to the landfills means a happier, healthier planet for all of us. See a post here about donating rather than putting things in the trash.

10. Practice gratitude.

Be happy and thankful for what you have. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things we have, for the friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes us calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Less sometimes is more. Less stuff often leads to a more meaningful life.

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

Remembering Memorial Day

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The French do not forget.

What do we remember on Memorial Day? Do we remember the lives that have been sacrificed in service to our country? Or do we remember the Memorial Day sales? Or do we think of it just as a three-day start to the summer ahead, and a great day for a barbecue?

How can we restore meaning to this national holiday?

I am currently in a little village in France, and in France they do not forget their war dead. The carnage of World Wars I and II left France devastated, a legacy of loss still very much in living memory, one that would be hard to forget. Every little French village has a war memorial, and the number of names etched upon these memorials, especially from the First World War, even in the tiniest towns, is sobering.

The French do not forget the millions of French lives lost in recent wars, nor do they forget those who helped them to win those wars. In the little village where I live, there were solemn, respectful ceremonies on both Armistice Day (which marks the end of World War I, in November), and on May 8, when V-E Day is remembered in France. On May 8, a small and stately parade of villagers met at the mairie and proceeded to the war memorial next to the church. There they laid flowers, played taps, read a proclamation from the Minister of Defense. As I struggled to follow the meaning of the words, among the phrases that stood out to me was one expressing gratitude for sacrifice made by the citizens of nineteen countries–nineteen!–who gave their lives in the struggle for France to win back its freedom in 1945.

They don’t forget in England, either, how could they? In both World Wars, before the U.S. joined the war effort, many thousands of British lives were lost in France.

In the U.S., Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, because it was a day when families and friends decorated the graves of the loved ones they had lost through war. In the U.K., the analogous day of commemoration is called Remembrance Day. Perhaps that is a better name. Perhaps it would be harder to forget the real meaning of the day if it were called Remembrance Day.

As Memorial Day approaches I hope we will remember American lives lost in past wars. But I hope we will also begin to think of ourselves more as part of a global community, just one nation among many on this earth. It is the only way we will ever find our way to peace, that seems pretty clear. It seems pretty clear that good people everywhere have to work together to stop bad people from doing harm. Preferably sooner rather than later. That is one of the lessons handed to us through history.

In 1994, usmemorialday.org was established to help remind Americans of the meaning and intent of Memorial Day. And in years past we have published posts here and here, offering ideas for a few ways to make Memorial Day more meaningful.

Here’s one of those ideas, right here: if, in your downsizing, or moving, or spring cleaning, you come across some old war letters, we hope you will consider donating them to the newly established Center for American War Letters, so that the history of war, as seen from the point of view of individual soldiers, and their loved ones, may be preserved.

Is it too much to hope that future generations may learn from the bitter lessons of the past not how to fight better wars, but perhaps a way to end them?

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

All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

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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