Poignant Personal Stories Are Motivation for Living With Less

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Touching stories, sometimes heartrending, always deeply personal, help us see our lives more clearly. These authors, all declutterers and minimalists to varying degrees, have engrossing stories that explain how they got to the realization, whether sudden or painstakingly forged over time, that less is indeed more.

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

Joshua Fields Millburn grew up poor and worked very hard to become a poor man’s version of a rich man. He made more than enough money to have a nice house with lots of furniture, a nice car, and more tech toys than he could possibly use.

He was not happy. The idea that he could do something more meaningful with his life nagged him. “Something I’m passionate about,” he says. “Although it’s usually codified with statements of significance—declarations of  “following one’s passion”—I simply refer to it as my life’s mission.” His mission, he decided, was to divest himself of most of the things he owned.

His epiphany: Having less makes what you have more meaningful.

He thought, “If I adjust my lifestyle to revolve around experiences instead of material possessions, then I need much less money to live a fulfilled life. As long as I earn enough money to provide my basic needs—rent, utilities, meals, insurance, savings—then I can find my happiness in other ways.”

He embraced uncertainty. “I didn’t really have a grandiose plan in which every detail was set and every contingency was outlined. And I certainly didn’t have an end goad. Instead, I knew my direction, and I knew how to start walking in that direction.”

And walking in that direction led him to write a book, a self-published book.

 

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The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under the Things You Own by Joshua Becker

Joshua Becker was spring cleaning with his wife and kids one Memorial Day weekend. He and his son started in the garage. His son worked a bit and then went into the backyard to play. As Joshua stood there watching his son, conflicted with wanting to play with him and wanting to clean out the garage, his neighbor said, “Maybe you don’t need to own all this stuff.”

His epiphany: The best things in life aren’t things.

He asked, “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of the world?” He states that a desire for security and a craving for acceptance are two basic human objectives that “we can foolishly try to fulfill by overaccumulating.”

Early in his journey towards simplicity, he says, that one of his favorite decluttering techniques was to grab a large trash bag and to see how quickly he could fill it. Sometimes he collected trash, sometimes he gathered things that went to charity.

One revelation that spoke to me was getting rid of things, like a tennis racket, that are not who we are now. He says, “It was tough to give up my hope of being someone I am not and not likely to become.”

Don’t settle for less, says Becker, find the freedom to pursue the things that matter the most to you.

And what mattered the most to him was to write a book about his experiences.

 

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White Walls:A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between by Judy Batalion.

Judy Batalion grew up in a house filled with stuff: tuna fish cans, items of clothing still in packages, pens, papers and magazines, almost all bought as bargains by her mother who is a hoarder. She says of her mother, “She built bigger and bigger walls around her to protect herself but all she was doing was creating a smaller and smaller, deathly dangerous universe inside.”

Of her mother, she says, “I glanced at the bags under her eyes, shelves that stored sadness.” Reflecting on her dysfunctional family, Batalion discovers that her grandmother, a Polish Jewish immigrant who escaped the Holocaust, also used accumulating things as a way to heal her wounds.

When Batalion leaves her Montreal home, travels to Europe, she lives a minimalist life in an apartment with white walls, a vivid contrast to her childhood home.

Her epiphany: She was looking for a home.

“I was not my heritage of trauma and terror…I had been seeking something intangible. But Jon [her soon-to-be husband] was real. He was my home, which I now understood was not about a certain place, present or past, but between us. It was the ability to be your self around those you loved.”

And from a quest for a home that reflected who she is, Batalion wrote a book, a memoir that is poignant, funny, and warm.

We started our quest by emptying our childhood homes of decades and generations of stuff and wrote a book about it: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family HomeIs there a story behind your quest for less? We would love to hear your story.

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

A Conversation for the Holidays

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The holiday season presents families who are gathering together an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about family plans and what the future holds for the older generation. Or does it?

You can’t make your parents talk about what may be a difficult subject for them – how and where they are going to spend their later years.

You can’t expect your siblings to fall in line with your plans just because you think it’s the right time.

You can’t get rid of clutter or divide up family items, unless everyone is on board with the idea.

What can you do?

Remember that all-important conversation – the one that’s so difficult to initiate – is about what’s best for your parents. It’s at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you. You’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

  • Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.
  • Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may, or may not, want your opinions: they may, or may not, want your physical help.
  • Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.
  • Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

So what can you bring to the family table this season? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and bring along a copy of our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Happy Holidays!

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

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

“Out of Clutter, Find Simplicity.”

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Out of clutter, find simplicity.

From discord, find harmony.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

~ Albert Einstein

The first line of this quote was used in a newspaper advertisement for a new credit card and I was so intrigued by it that I searched for the entire quote. Of course, Einstein was talking about particles in physics, but the quote is relevant today in the way we live our lives in our homes and in the state of our country right now.

We can only hope that from the discord in our country today we will eventually find harmony. But in our lives at home, we can certainly work from our clutter towards a state of greater simplicity.

Marie Kondo, in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On The Art Of Organizing And Tidying Up, her second book, suggests an order to approaching the clutter. She feels the most helpful order for tidying up is:

Clothes

Books

Papers

Miscellany or what she calls Komono

Sentimental items

As you read her book, you come to realize how right she is about this order. She is very astute about the nature of clutter in one’s life.

Kondo asks: What sparks joy for you personally? And what doesn’t? And says the answers to these questions represent a major clue for getting to know yourself as a recipient of the gift of life. I find that a rather profound insight into the way we approach clutter. It’s all about how we approach life.

She says that complaining about tidying up – and this applies to me – is proof that a person still has the energy to carry on. So we should carry on even if we don’t feel like it because we can do it.

Going through your stuff is honing your sensitivity to joy. Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature. For me, that explains why it’s often easier to clean than to declutter.

And the most important insight for those of us who are “keepers’” of our stuff is about the sentimental items. Kondo says tidying sentimental items means putting the past in order. We write about “keepers” and “throwers” in our book and have more to say about the two approaches to personal items here in a previous post.

Much food for thought in Spark Joy. I recommend the book as a new way to understand why we have so much stuff and for innovative ways to deal with the clutter we have created.

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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 Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

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 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