When Excess Becomes Abundance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

What more can we do?

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

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

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

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

We can retire old thinking.

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

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Collector and the Inner Archivist

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

When a Hoarder Leaves Home

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

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

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

What she has

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

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

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

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

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

What we’re doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we’ve learned

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

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

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

Interview with Alison Lush, Professional Organizer

alison-lush


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.

 

 

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