Getting Organized, with Wisdom from the Ages

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January is always a good time for fresh beginnings, updated goals, and a more put-together you. Fittingly, the National Association of Professional Organizers has designated January as “Get Organized Month.”

So how can we focus on getting organized, help make our lives run more smoothly, and stay the course until the work is done?

Let’s take a look at some wisdom from the ages.

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All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action. – James Russell Lowell

It’s most likely that Lowell meant “a single lovely action” to be kindness towards others but this quote applies to getting organized, too. No matter how many thoughts we have about being organized, it’s action that counts. Do one thing. Toss one item, give something away, organize one shelf.

Make time

You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it. – Charles Buxton

What a great quote for our busy lives! We can always use the excuse that we don’t have time to organize or downsize – so we have to make it a priority, put it in our schedule.

Don’t procrastinate

“Now is the time. Needs are great, but your possibilities are greater.” – Bill Blackman

Yes, now is the time to get organized. Start small, start with the easy stuff, but do start. The results will be worth it: what great possibilities await.

Stay the course

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Rather than looking at getting organized as one big project, try seeing it as a series of many small projects. Some of the small decluttering plans may be quick, some may take time; some may be easy, some may be a struggle. But all are worth doing.

Toss the object, keep the memory

Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go. – Herman Hesse

Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff – the mantra of our book – says it all. You are not letting go of your life, or your memories, you are just getting rid of stuff that clutters your life.

Action is better than perfection

“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” – Dr. Robert Schuller

Simply said, done is better than perfect.

Wishing everyone a less cluttered, more organized month.

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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What You Leave Behind

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What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone but what is woven into the lives of others. – Pericles

And what you leave behind is not what you keep in storage. Wonderful memories are woven into the fabric of my life without any need to keep my mother’s teapot, my father’s books, my mother-in-law’s shell collection, or my father-in-law’s paintings.

After writing about downsizing for more than a decade, from co-writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and this blog to giving talks about how to live with less to helping people “Keep the memories, toss the stuff,” I have a confession to make. You guessed it. I have a storage room.

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. Sound familiar?

My husband and I decided that it’s now time to get rid of the storage room so we have been going through its contents. Here’s some of what we found there and how we dealt with it—and are continuing to deal with it.

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Toys

Too many of my kids’ toys were put in storage. A dump truck, a talking Alf doll, stuffed toys, Raggedy Ann, a child’s rocking chair.

The truck is on e-Bay. The stuffed toys were donated to charity. We’re still deciding about the rest.

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China

We stored various pieces of china, some of them handed down in my family for several generations.

My mother’s lusterware teapot is on eBay. I haven’t decided yet what to do with my grandmother’s pitcher and basin and other pieces of a boudoir set. I am giving a set of my mother’s dinnerware to my daughter.

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Clothing

For some reason, I kept some not very interesting or particularly good clothing that belonged to my mother, as well as several bridesmaid dresses from my wedding and my sisters’ weddings. I also had some old baby clothes. One piece has a German label in it, which means it probably belonged to my father, so it would be more than 95 years old.

I may look for a collector for the baby clothes. All the other clothing went to charity.

Camera equipment

My husband stored all his darkroom equipment (he hasn’t had his own darkroom in years) as well as a strobe meter and some other photography apparatus.

He is looking for a student who shoots film, not digital, who might want the equipment.

Old suitcases

We had large suitcases from the years when we traveled for several weeks at a time. We donated all of them to charity.

Books

I have a couple of degrees in English. We stored cartons and cartons of books, from a combined six years of college and graduate school, as well as some books from my parents. (I’m not sure how we managed to bring so many heavy boxes to the storage facility.)

And—ta da—I found my high school yearbook! A little late for the reunion but I can now look up classmates I have recently become reacquainted with.

All the books—except my yearbooks and diplomas—went to charity. Once I made that decision, in the storage room, we put the books in the car and drove directly to the thrift store, no stopping at home to second-guess myself. I’m very proud of that but, of course, this was an easier decision than most because the books are replaceable; I can always buy another copy of a book or get it from the library.

So, the purging continues. I will keep you posted about my progress.

As we celebrate Grandparents Day tomorrow, may we honor our grandparents by the values they lived rather than by the stuff they left behind.

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

Caregivers Extraordinaire

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Along with the dilemma of what to do with all the stuff that we accumulate in life comes the dilemma of what to do with a life itself, with a person who has aged and lost the ability to take care of him or her self. Although this is not a topic we usually write about, I would like to share the stories of three of the best writers writing today who have tackled the subject, each in a personal and poignant way.

Susan Allen Toth describes what it’s like to be in the trenches every hour of every day caring for her husband. With grace and humor, Scott Simon shows us how to just be there for a dear loved one, for him his beloved mother, in the last days of her life. Roz Chast uses her laugh-out-loud funny and, at the same time, devastatingly real cartoons to depict the old-age roller coaster ride of her parents.

No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days by Susan Allen Toth

As her husband’s Parkinson’s disease and eventual dementia take control over his body and mind, Susan Allen Toth is determined to care for him at home. This book, based on the journal she kept during the last 18 months of his life, is often painful in its details, frightening in her feelings of loneliness and isolation (although she did hire many aides), and compelling and poignant and sometimes funny in its story. It is written with unstinting love and brutal honesty. Toth made me laugh with her wit, disturbed me her details, and frightened me with her forthrightness – sometimes all on the same page.

Toth captures the uncertainty of the job of a caregiver: “I feel as though I am about to fall off my balance beam. I picture every caregiver on one, usually performing with an outward calm, like a confident acrobat, but concealing an inner terror: “What in the world will I do now?” For many of us, this must require both courage and faith, because I am often dizzy and close to gasping as I edge my way forward. The balance beam hangs in an enveloping haze.”

The author may have meant to be ironic with her title, but many readers feel that, to the contrary, Toth is as close to a saint as there is today.

“We all need someone to hear us,” Toth says of the millions who devote their days to the care of a loved one. With her calm, gentle voice, Susan Allen Toth has become a loud and forceful advocate for caregivers everywhere.

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Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by Scott Simon

Using the tweets that he sent out to his Twitter followers during the last days of his mother’s illness as a framework, Scott Simon, the NPR correspondent, has written a memoir of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gelbin, a gorgeous, glamorous, funny, mischievous, three-times married woman who raised Simon as a single mother for much of his life.

She knew a lot of people, some very famous ones, and mother and son reminisce about their life as they wait, his mother with great patience, to hear back from various doctors. As Simon tweets, “I’m getting a life’s lesson in grace from my mother in the ICU.”

There are many memorable passages. Simon’s realization about death: “Death makes life worthwhile. It gives each moment meaning…Death drives life. It frightens and inspires us. Do away with death, and we have no reason to get out of bed (or into it), grow, work, or love…” His mother’s lament about aging: “You know what is so hard? There’s a tone in their voice when you get old and people call you ‘lovely.’ Like you’ve become some kind of beautiful, crumbling statue. They never see you as the person you were before you got trapped in this old body.” Simon’s description of his mother’s later years: “After [her second husband] died, my mother became part of a merry and remarkable group of women, all widowed, who lived in her building and kept moving. They explored the city each day, went to plays, movies, museums, galleries, and new restaurants…My mother loved the women; so did I. They had fun…” How lovely for her.

To the very end, Simon’s mother had her wits about her and, always, her grace. Here he captures the small details of life in the hospital and, at the same time, the big picture of a life well lived.

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast

With equal parts laughter and tears, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells the story of taking on the parenting duties for her elderly and somewhat recalcitrant parents.

As Alex Witchel says in her review in the New York Times: “This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter’s rescue.

With her quirky cartoons, sometimes in step-by-step panels and sometimes in full-page illustrations, Chast tells the story of her parents’ decline, their falls, their many visits to doctors. They refuse to let aides (strangers!) help care for them; they abhor the idea of assisted living; they refuse to part with any of stuff they have accumulated, even the junk (as Chast says, “I was aggravated that they hadn’t dealt with their accumulations back when they had the ability to do so.”) They are in denial about everything: their limitations, their aging, their dependence. They can’t abide the mention of death and won’t talk about what may happen.

Chast’s book is at times hilarious, at times difficult to read, at times so surprisingly familiar. Her parents aged together, into their late 90s, which gave them comfort but also perpetuated the quirky dependence on each other that often excluded help from others, including their only daughter.

Chast tells a very personal story but one that is universal. The cartoons, which are charming, honest, and humorous, serve to lighten the mood, yet highlight the seriousness of a story of aging and death.

How do we deal with an aging parent or relative? How will we deal with our aging and eventual death? We could do well to take lessons from these three talented and perceptive authors, from books that should be on all of our to-read lists.

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

Reaching Beyond The Clutter

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We are so pleased to have Marcia Muskat (marciany@me.com), a personal organizer and founder and owner of ‘section by section,’ a home organizing business, as our guest blogger this week. Marcia shares with us lessons she’s learned from working with older people.

As a personal organizer who has worked mainly with older people, I have found that seniors have a particularly hard time separating themselves from their belongings. But cleaning out does not have to mean losing what they value most. And while satisfaction with life, especially in our golden years, is very much about looking back with pride, it is also about living well now. Seniors I have worked with, who have embraced the process of separating the essentials from the expendables, find that they can accomplish more with less.

Excessive accumulations that threaten health, safety and quality of life add an extra urgency to my role as a personal organizer. Case in point is a client of mine. A reporter for a big city newspaper, she tackled challenges in domains usually reserved, in her day, for driven men with strong resumes. Today, a young 80-something, she easily navigates the stairs in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment (kudos to her muscle memory) while carrying groceries in a sturdy knapsack. An ardent literary and art fan, she makes her way downtown to the renowned Strand Book Store or uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But at home, she has lost her bearings.

She has outlived family and friends, neighbors and doctors. She sits captive in her only available chair among a dusty, toxic avalanche of professional news clippings, art books, brochures and the like.  And while she will be the first to tell you that she would love to live in a comfortable, safe and productive home, she agonizes over even more loss, especially the things that are so critical to her personal identity and integrity: the loss of her papers and books. Each bit of memorabilia feels like a piece of herself.

But my client, always a high achiever, is not to be underestimated. The more she trusts that our organizing process protects her valuables, the more she is able to part with what’s not important, and the more apartment space she gets back to do more of the things she has wanted to do. With her newly cleaned off desktop and more walkable floor space, she can now entertain her dreams of critiquing a local art exhibit, adopting a cat and staying relevant to her life today.

What Lessons Have We Learned?

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Having emptied our own family homes of decades’ worth of accumulated stuff, we are well aware of how much work it entails and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.

After having had a chance to sit back and ponder the experience, we are very glad our parents saved all the family stuff they did, but we also know in our hearts that the most valuable thing in the house was the lives that have been lived there.

Working with multiple generations to empty a much-loved home does present issues, however. How one deals with those issues differs with each family and with each family member.

How do we assess the process? Was it a job well done? Were there issues that were resolved? Or was the process fraught with problems? What did we learn from downsizing?

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask ourselves.

  • Are our parents content with their new living arrangements? Do they feel surrounded by a few favorite things? Were they happy, or at least able to come to terms with, what they let go of?
  • Are we still on speaking terms with all of our siblings? If we are, then we can feel, rightly, that it was a job well done. If not, what can we do to mend fences?
  • What have we taught our children as we worked through the process of emptying our parents’ home? About the process of downsizing? About working with others? About the importance of possessions? And about the importance of family?
  • What are we doing about our own accumulated stuff to make things easier for our children when we are no longer around to help them?
  • What have we learned about the value of stuff? Has it made us grateful for what we have and, more importantly, for our families?

Things to ponder. What would you add to the list?

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

The Paper Chase: Decluttering

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Having too much paper is a common complaint. It’s something that we all have too much of.

I have a pile of papers next to my computer that needs to be sorted and I decided it would be helpful to take a look at this paper in a somewhat different way: by hierarchy, subject matter, and filing system.

We all impose a hierarchy on paper, often without realizing it. When we buy groceries with cash, the receipt goes in the trash. When we use a credit card, we save the receipt until the end of the month to reconcile it with the credit card statement. When we sort mail, the junk mail goes in the trash but the bills get top priority. How can I create a hierarchy for the items in my pile of papers?

It may sound like a no-brainer that we need to divide our paper by subject matter to make the pile more approachable and the sorting more doable. Yes, it’s easier to sort through and prioritize the papers, if we separate them by subject: health, financial, credit cards, insurance. How many categories and subcategories do I need?

Filing systems are good. But everyone’s brain, their memory, the intuitive way we understand things, works differently. A system that works for a professional organizer might not be right for me, my system might not work for you, your system might not work for your sister. How do I create a system that works for me (so I’ll be more likely to actually use it)?

Here are a few articles that offer help for paper clutter.

Curb Paper Clutter at Home This article has a very helpful way of going about curbing the buildup of paper clutter in your home, depending on whether you are a “filer” or a “piler.”

How To: 4 Steps to Less Paper Clutter Here organizing expert Carol Keller shares her four-step plan for having less paper: analyze, sort and purge, classify and label, create a regular decluttering routine.

10 Best Tips for Organizing Paper Clutter This article has some good suggestions for how to approach the problem proactively by choosing to go paperless for bills, and getting yourself off the junk mail lists.

What Documents to Keep, What You Can Toss This is a helpful list of what household papers to keep and for how long and, most importantly, when you can toss them.

The takeaway:

* Get rid of as much paper as possible (don’t bring it into your home at all, toss before you enter, go paperless).

* Create a system for keeping the papers that works for you.

* Declutter regularly.

* Revisit your system, as needed.

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

Letting Go of Some Favorite Things

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As I began to write this post I thought of it as another in our occasional series “Getting Rid of…” but with a twist. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s not about finding places to donate usable items we no longer need, rather it’s a look at the process I went through to get to the point where I could get rid of things that were important to me. And the items seemed dear to me partly because they helped define who I am.

I was prompted to embark on this bit of soul searching by an essay I had read about one woman’s journey to let go of mementos from a failed marriage, or more accurately, mementos from the good times in a relationship that ended with a split. At first, I thought she held onto things that brought her pain and that seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized that she held onto things that reminded her of the good parts of the relationship but when she looked at them, lived with them over the years, they brought her, not joy, but sorrow. And she decided that she needed to move on from those feelings.

My exploration was less dramatic that the essay-writer’s journey but significant to me. Here’s what I got rid of.

My collection of Playbills. I have always loved going to the theater, starting when I was a teenager, and I go as often as I can, more often to off-Broadway than to Broadway shows because the tickets are more affordable. When I was in my early twenties, I saw an apartment where the bathroom was papered with Playbill covers. It was a small guest bathroom but, still, I was so impressed that someone had been to see so many plays. I never papered my walls with Playbills; I kept them on a shelf. A couple of years ago, when they started to overrun the shelf, I put them in shopping bags, a first step, perhaps, to moving them out.

Why were the Playbills so important to me? I’ve always been a reader – there are family stories about my reading at the age of four, I have several degrees in English literature, I’ve worked in publishing for most of my career, and I love reading books and going to plays. Having tangible evidence of my love of literature helps define the reader and playgoer part of me.

I came to the realization that I have the memories (or maybe not so much now as I age since sometimes I have to ask a friend to remind me what a particular play was about!) but could get rid of the items. So I sent the Playbills on to paper recycling…to serve, one hopes, some better purpose.

The response cards and envelopes from my wedding. I’ve been married a long time and for years I have kept a sturdy box from the printer filled with the extra response cards and the matching small envelopes addressed to me. I’m not sure why we had so many extras and I’m not sure why I kept them, except it felt somehow sacrilegious to just discard them.

Certainly the wedding was a seminal event in my life and the marriage helped define me as a wife, and later as a mother. The marriage has been a good one, or to paraphrase Jim Dale’s comment in his one-man show, we often have opposing points of view but end up seeing eye to eye. Do these seemingly useless items enhance the relationship in any way? Someone, a good organizer and declutterer I’m sure, once said that all you need to keep as a memento is one invitation, complete with all its parts if you like. So the cards and envelopes went out to paper recycling…perhaps to become the recycled paper that a current, environmentally aware bride will choose for her invitations.

Old videotapes. I have several shelves of old videotapes of movies and children’s shows, films my children enjoyed or videotapes of popular movies they were given as birthday gifts. (Although it may seem odd given today’s media, a videotape of a favorite movie or an old classic was an enjoyable gift when my kids were young.)

Even though the tapes do not speak to me in any particular way, the fact that I kept them helps define me as a clutterer because clutter is, as someone once defined it, postponed decisions. So I sorted through the tapes. I donated still good ones to a local thrift shop, sent damaged ones to electronic recycling, and put aside the tapes of my children’s performances, plays, and concerts to be converted to DVDs…a task that is now high up on my to-do list.

All of these things brought back happy memories for me. And I know that I can remember the pleasures without having the objects to look at, which is another way of expressing the mantra of our book and blog: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the 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