How Not to Talk to Your Mother

My mother always said she wanted to die in the house, the one she had lived in for almost 50 years and where she had raised her children. Of course, what she meant was she wanted to spend the rest of her days in the comfortable and familiar place she knew, not in a retirement community.

Would she have been more comfortable in a house on one floor rather than three? Would it have been easier to live in a place with wider halls and doorways to accommodate her wheelchair? And in a house that didn’t have stairs up to the front door? Yes, yes, and yes.

But these weren’t reasons that resonated with my mother. She was happy where she was, taken care of by my father, who was a huge support system for her.

Would she have benefited from a discussion about how she could get round-the-clock care in a more accommodating space? Not really.

If you have a mom (or dad) who knows exactly what they want and how they want to spend however many days or years are left to them, you don’t want to start a conversation about how you know better (even if you think you do).

You want to start with where they are. As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So what can you do with what you have? You have a lot of love for your parents and you want to consider what’s best for them. You know they want to stay in the family home. How can you make it easier, healthier, and certainly safer for them to do that?

You can start with the idea of downsizing and decluttering to make the house easier to navigate. If that’s not something they have considered, you’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

It may be at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you so here are some suggestions to make it a little easier for both of you.

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.

Tell stories. Stories bring us together and help keep our family history alive. They help us see our lives more clearly. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

Give them a copy of our book. Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is a great Mother’s Day gift. And this is the perfect time to purchase it because, for a short time, the book is available at half off the original price.

So how will you celebrate Mother’s Day? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and don’t forget the flowers.

 

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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Interview with Alison Lush, Professional Organizer

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Alison Lush
 is a certified professional organizer CPO-CD®, CPO® in Montreal, Canada. She recently took the time to discuss the challenges of dealing with clutter; how “spring clearing” can offer an opportunity for people to redefine their relationship with stuff; her approach with her clients; and what all those letters mean after her name. Here is her interview, conducted via e-mail with Janet Hulstrand.

Janet: First of all, I’d like to ask how you came to be a professional organizer. What motivated you? Was there a specific life event, or moment of awareness, that made you realize this was a good profession for you?

Alison: I had a career in catering–was very successful, loved it, was at the top of my game–when I realized at age 45 that the food industry did not offer much for my future growth and advancement. When I told my best friend I was looking for a new career in April 2010, she said “professional organizer,” and I literally replied, “What’s that?”

I jumped right in, joining the Professional Organizers in Canada, and becoming a subscriber to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. I started volunteering right away, which was a great move in hindsight: I started building my professional network, developing my own reputation, and learning from others.

During the classes I was taking, while learning how to work successfully as an organizer, I was personally affected. My understanding of the power of my possessions, and my relationship with my possessions started to change. I realized that I had a lot to gain by becoming my own first client.

Janet: You asked me to change my use of the term “spring cleaning” in the intro to this interview, to “spring clearing.” Why is that?

Alison: I’m not a fan of spring cleaning: too much guilt! I prefer to say “spring clearing,” which is an opportunity to create new awareness of our relationships with our stuff and our space.

Janet: What do you love most about your work? What do you find the hardest?

Alison: I LOVE being called in when someone is

  • discouraged about their stuff;
  • curious about how they ended up where they are;
  • and ready for change.

Through discussion, while we’re working through their stuff, we can shed light on the various elements of these things, develop an understanding of the causes and consequences, and develop alternative strategies. I love to empower the individual while breaking through the backlog!

What I find the most difficult is when my clients have decided that a thing may leave their home, but conditionally, that is, they are only willing to let a thing go if they either get a certain amount of money for it, or if they find someone who will cherish it. I certainly respect this need, but I find it difficult. I would so prefer that we invest our energies inside their homes!

Janet: You recently were interviewed for an article in New York magazine with the tag line “When You Love Clutter and Your Partner is a Minimalist.” First of all, I’m curious: do you think anyone really loves clutter? 

Alison: Perception is everything here.

I’m looking at a pile of stuff to deal with at the side of my office.  Aesthetically, it can be called clutter because those things do not belong together,and none of those things belong there.

But that pile also represents other things.

  • Time: it will take me time to deal with each of those things.
  • Decisions: each of those things will need to be considered, which is work.

I suspect that most people live with clutter because it is WORK to deal with it.

Some people surround themselves with great volumes of possessions and truly want to keep it all, but in my experience, those are in the minority.

 Janet: It says in that article that you are “a born clutterbug” who comes from a “chronically disorganized background.” What does that mean? And how has this helped (or maybe hindered?) you in your work?

Alison:It has helped me in my work because I have successfully reprogrammed myself and changed my environment quite dramatically. I am therefore truly convinced that many other people are capable of this as well. I am very enthusiastic for them!

 Janet: Many times the people we call “keepers” in our book need and want help in decluttering, but they don’t want to be shamed, scolded, or bossed around. What is the best way for professional organizers–or friends and family, for that matter–to work with people who theoretically want to declutter their lives, but find it extremely difficult to do so in practice?What do you think are the most important qualities for professional organizers to have?

Alison: Empathy, humility, and respect. This is not primarily about the stuff. It is about individuals and how they feel in their lives. They are the experts in their lives. Their values are the ones that matter. Their emotional readiness needs to define the speed of progress. A professional organizer is there to encourage, to support, to help, to make jokes, to offer alternatives, and to work.

Helping move stuff around is easy, and anyone can do it. But helping an individual who has a backlog and some emotional attachment is challenging and sensitivework, and many people are neither skilled nor emotionally prepared for this role.

Choose your helpers with care. My primary goal is “Do no harm.”

Janet: What should people be able to expect of someone who is in the business of helping others declutter their lives?

Alison: Professional organizing is still an unregulated industry. Organizers who are members of their professional association, who have achieved industry education, who volunteer for the industry, and who are insured demonstrate the highest standards of professionalism and engagement.

After all those benchmarks, pay attention to how you feel when you are with the organizer. The goal is to develop a partnership. You should feel encouraged, supported, and not judged at all.

Janet: What do the people looking to declutter need to bring to the process? 

Alison: People looking to declutter will get the most out of it if they are willing to be curious about their relationship with stuff, and to consider change.

For example:

  • Every spring and fall, the person has a big job to swap out all their seasonal clothing;
  • The person feels burdened by these tasks, resulting in procrastination and guilt…twice every year!
  • Questioning one’s clothes systematically helps to identify whether that work is necessary;
  • Start by examining the cut, colour, and condition of each item. Raise the bar!
  • Reducing the overall volume of clothes (through higher standards) will render the seasonal task more manageable, and may even reduce it to just outerwear and footwear (as in my home).

Janet: Finally, can you tell our readers what the letters CPO-CD® mean after your name? What kind of training is involved in earning this professional credential, and what additional knowledge or expertise does someone who has had this training have to offer that other organizers may not?

Alison: CPO-CD®means Certified Professional Organizer specializing in Chronic Disorganzation, and represents several years of specialized education from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, plus mentoring. It culminates in an examination by a panel of peers.

The CPO-CD® program was the best professional and business decision I made. We learn best practices for helping people living with the most complex challenges concerning their belongings. We study multiple underlying causes that may be contributing to chronic disorganization. We demonstrate the philosophy, language, and behaviors that are respectful and humanistic. Curiosity, empathy, and professionalism are nurtured.

If I needed to hire a professional organizer, I would look for a CPO-CD®!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Alison Lush is a professional organizer in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her here.

 

 

Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

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

Looking for Ways to Make Money While Decluttering?

We were honored and pleased to be asked recently, as the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and this blog, to share our thoughts about decluttering for an article titled “15 Ways to Make Some Extra Money.”

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Here’s the link to the article: https://www.wpdiamonds.com/ways-to-make-money/

If you scroll down past the infographic (which has some great ideas, by the way!) you’ll see our place in the piece. Many thanks to WP Diamonds for helping us spread the word about our book and our blog–and for inviting us to share some of the wisdom we’ve gathered along the way with their readers.

We’ll be back next week with our next post–in the meantime, wishing all a good, safe, pleasant weekend!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and of this blog.

 

 

On My Reading List: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

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Well, this “coming soon” title has definitely caught my eye, not only because of my Swedish-American roots, but because the title of the book seems—to me anyway—ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around! 🙂 )

Reviewed this week by Jura Koncius in the Washington Post, the book, which is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in January, sounds like yet another gentle pushing back at—or at least moderating influence over—the Marie Kondo “magic of tidying up” tidal wave that has swept the nation in the past few years. The publisher describes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering, which sounds either helpful or frightening, depending I suppose, on one’s perspective—that is, as we have discussed in our book, on whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.”

It’s interesting to me that this book comes from Sweden. I have often thought about the fact that within a few short generations my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with. I have wondered if it is in part the fact that there was that lingering and painful historical memory of having had to leave everything behind in Sweden that fueled part of the fierce resistance to letting go of things that is very familiar to me as a Swedish-American Minnesotan.

So the explanation in the Washington Post article that “death cleaning”—that is, doing most of the getting rid of things before you die, so your survivors don’t have to it—is a very Swedish thing (“almost biological” says the Swedish ambassador to the U.S.) and the author’s view that it’s “not fair” to leave that task to others to me feels on the one hand surprisingly un-Swedish (that is, the getting-rid-of-things part), and on the other hand very Swedish indeed (the-importance-of-fairness part).

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I imagine we’ll be letting you know more about how well it complements our approach to downsizing—or doesn’t?—later. So stay tuned for more…

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

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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

 

12 (or More) Surprising Ways Clutter Is Ruining Your Life

Our friends at MakeSpace (https://makespace.com/los-angeles/) have come up with this infographic to illustrate ways that clutter harms our lives. Here’s what they have to say about it.

Clutter and its causes are in a constant game of ping-pong with each other.

A distraction at work causes chores to go unfinished at home. The mountain of plates in the sink causes tension between you and your partner. A disagreement with your spouse makes it difficult to complete that home improvement project together. And back and forth we go.

If the game continues, it could have a seriously detrimental impact on your life. From your physical and mental health, to your relationships, career, and finances, clutter can negatively affect you in a myriad of ways.

This clutter infographic from MakeSpace, (with offices in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC) helps us determine if clutter is, in fact, ruining our lives, and how to get back in control.

What other ways can you think of that clutter impacts your life negatively? Does having too much stuff in your life hinder you from moving forward? Here are a few more ways that clutter interferes with…well, with just about everything.

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

Your kids don’t learn that everything has its place because there are more things than places.

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

Your evening rituals are taken up with finding the things your kids need for school the next day rather than reading to them.

Your friends are upset because you’re always late because you can’t find the clothes you wanted to wear.

Your library books are always late.

You seldom get to read the library book because you’re always behind on your chores.

You can’t make the meal you wanted to make because you’re missing one key ingredient, which you thought you had but can’t find in the pantry.

You have clothes in your closet from a decade ago, or more.

You have shoes that don’t fit alongside shoes that do fit.

You have so much stuff around that you hate to dust. (Okay, everyone hates to dust.)

You are late paying the bills because the bills due are mixed up with other papers.

You forget to make a follow-up doctor visit because the card the doctor’s office gave you is lost in a pile of other papers.

You missed your friend’s dinner party because you mislaid the invitation.

You put off exercising at home because you don’t have the space on your floor to do sit-ups.

Your sister’s birthday card is always late, not because you don’t remember her birthday, but because you can’t find the stamps.

You haven’t written a will because you can’t find the necessary financial papers.

You’re reluctant to get rid of anything; you want to keep it, just in case.

What other ways does having too much clutter interfere with your life? What’s on your list? We would love to have you share it with us.

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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