An Empty Closet and Its Possibilities

A crack in the grout in the bathroom tiles. An extensive home repair. An empty closet.

Previously I had written a post about having my wall oven replaced and how emptying the kitchen cabinets before the work began enabled me to sort through and get rid of many of my pots and pans. And a while back I had written a post about completely emptying a closet or a room, pretending to move, and how that really upends the task of decluttering, based on an article by Carl Richards in the New York Times: “Three Ways to Figure Out What Stuff You Should Keep.”

Recently a leak in a bathroom, one that shares a wall with my bedroom closet, meant I had to completely empty the closet. It’s a rather large closet and I keep the usual things in it: clothes and shoes and out-of-season clothes. But I also keep some photo albums of my kids, gifts I have purchased but not yet given, needlepoint pillow fronts I made years ago but never made into pillows, yarn, lots of yarn, a china tea set from my childhood, and my Swedish horses. (I know, the horses should be on display, but for now they have taken up residence in my closet.)

 

Emptying the closet felt much more personal than emptying my kitchen cabinets. My clothes, supplies for my hobbies, treasured memories, all reside in that closet and speak to who I am. Taking them all out, seeing that empty space, gave me pause. I have had some time to contemplate what all that stuff means and think about whether I need all of it. (I don’t, of course I know that, but it’s still something to I have to think about.)

The work was postponed several times, mostly for the usual reasons, like waiting for new tile to be delivered and scheduling with the repairman. (Talking about those issues is for another post, probably for entirely other blog, one about the joys and tribulations of home maintenance.) So for a couple of weeks, I have had a completely empty closet where, for the first time since we moved in, there is nothing in it.

Each time I walk past the closet, I feel a frisson of joy. I can actually see the floor, for the first time ever, not to mention the entire empty space.

Each time I see the closet, I marvel at the amount of space I have and the enormous amount of stuff that came out of it.

Each time I walk past the emptiness, I see the possibilities, the possibilities of looking at my stuff in a new way.

What do I keep? What do I toss? What has meaning to me? Stay tuned…as I ponder the future of my 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

Stopping to Smell the Roses or Look at Old Photos

My maternal grandmother, on the left, with her sisters.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences (I love that title) suggests people are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life, and in the study psychology professor Nancy Fagley defines appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something…and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”

The great advantage to living in the same place for well over 30 years is that it’s warm and comfortable and definitely feels like home. One of the disadvantages is that it’s easy to accumulate way too much stuff.

As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am constantly trying to sort through stuff that belongs to me, my husband, our parents, and our grandparents. I feel great pressure to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away, mostly pressure that I put on myself but also some that comes from husband and my kids.

As I was going through antique and vintage clothes that have been handed down to me, among them two Swedish dresses, actually blouse/slips that are worn under a wool skirt, that I’m interested in donating to a museum, I decided to look at my grandmother’s photo albums. Yes, I have photo albums that belong to me, some from my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother. Talk about overload!

I took time out to slowly browse through my grandmother’s photos albums, mostly photographs of people that I never knew, but filled with pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather and their families. I also looked through an album of my mother’s that had photos of my father’s family.

My paternal grandmother, on the right, with her siblings.

Looking at the photographs of my two grandmothers, I was filled with appreciation. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without those two women who persevered through good times and bad to keep their families together and who helped shape the people who would become my parents. And seeing photos of their parents, my great grandparents, was an almost out-of-body experience.

I took time to smell the roses, to look at old photos, to appreciate what I have, and to marvel at the photos that show the lives of my ancestors. What a gift to me, one I gave myself, a gift that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the women who came before me.

A caveat here. Of course I would never suggest that someone start to declutter by looking at photos. That’s too difficult and emotional and nostalgia-inducing. And I wouldn’t suggest looking at photos if you are up against a deadline. If things have to be moved out, for whatever reason, deal with the stuff first and the photos later. However, I’m a big fan of taking a break, taking the time to appreciate.

I learned a lot from looking at photographs of my grandmothers.

Looking at old photos taught me and continues to teach me, foremost, the preciousness of time.

I also felt how fortunate I am to have such a strong family and how incredibly lucky I am to have photographs of them.

And I realized that looking at the old photos gave me more joy than looking at the items they left behind. That was a bit of a revelation to me and, in some ways, makes it easier to “get rid of the stuff and keep the memories.”

At the same time as I was looking back, I could see the value of things to come. As the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, champion of the working classes, said, “You are laden with beginnings.” Everything I do is a new beginning, just as everything my grandmothers did was a new beginning for them.

My maternal grandmother at 17, right after she came to the US.

 

My grandmother with my father and my aunt.

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 Stories, as Coach and Coached

Illustration by Quentin Monge

One reviewer of our book on Amazon said that with Moving On, you get the authors “coaching you, supporting you, and cheering you on with their very practical advice.”

The past couple of weeks I have felt both somewhat of a coach and very much one who is coached.

We have been sorting through our files, mostly business financial papers because we closed our company at the end of 2017. The impetus to get it done now was a free shredding event in our neighborhood.

As we emptied files we ended up with four bankers’ boxes of papers to be shredded. With that amount of stuff, “in our neighborhood” took on a different meaning. To get several blocks away with such heavy boxes became daunting so my husband called a shredding company to request a private pick up, for a fee.

Since we were getting papers picked up, I decided to go through more files, mostly of book stuff. I have a file, sometimes paper, sometimes electronic, sometimes both, for each book I have written, sometimes one for each book I’ve edited, and many files for books I’m thinking of writing. I culled much of that.

Then I started on personal files, which I edited down rather than getting rid of completely. For the file on my father’s funeral, I read through some of the papers I had used to write his obit and reread some very thoughtful and supportive condolence notes. By the end of the file, I was in tears but I got through it by invoking our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object…”

A friend’s mother died a few weeks ago at the age of 102½ (I seem to have quite a few friends with longevity in their genes), and my friend has to empty her mother’s apartment of many years. She had been to a couple of my downsizing talks and even wrote a lovely comment – with 5 stars – on our book’s Amazon page.

Now she was ready to implement the suggestions in Moving On so we talked about how important it is for those emptying a home, and certainly for her, to honor her mother’s life – as an Olympic gymnast, as a wife and mother, and as one who gave back all her life – while at the same time getting rid of a lifetime of stuff. I felt I could be a bit of a coach for her because I had been through that process when my father moved from his home of 50 years.

Another friend, a doctor, is getting ready to retire and wants to downsize. Her kids have been out of the house for years and she now wants to make her home more functional for herself and her husband. She came to me to ask for guidance and then said, “I’ll just buy the book.” So our book will be a coach for her – and she can always ask me questions along the way.

That same reviewer of our book on Amazon also said, “I knew I found my roadmap when I read this book.” (We are so grateful to that reviewer for such kind words about us and our book.)

I have used our book as a roadmap and have been coached and cheered on by my friends and family this past few weeks, just as I have coached and supported and cheered on my friends who are downsizing. It’s been a time of women supporting women.

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

“Outer Order, Inner Calm” Sparks Joy for Me

Gretchen Rubin has always been an intriguing author for me because she is thoughtful, practical, and focused on what makes us happy – as she ought to be since her seminal work, The Happiness Project, is a book about exploring what makes Gretchen happy and more agreeable and how we might glean something for our own lives from her journey.

In her newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, a short look into what works for her and suggestions for what might work for us, Rubin explains her challenges to find more order in a way that is thoughtful and helpful, yes, but also allows for the messiness that is part of life. There is not one way to do this, only different solutions that work for different people.

Here are some of the ways she has found, as the book blurb says, for getting control of the stuff in our lives and making us feel more in control of our lives by getting rid of things we don’t use, or need, or love, so we can free our minds and our homes for what we truly value.

Outer order isn’t a matter of having less or having more. It’s a matter of wanting what we have.

In most situations, we don’t need to make a perfect choice but just a good-enough choice.

People are reluctant to relinquish their possession, so if I think that it might be time to discard an item, I probably should’ve done so already – especially if that thought occurs to me more than once.

Here’s a wonderful explanation of some of the psychic challenges to getting rid of our stuff. The endowment effect: We value things more once we own them. The duration effect: The longer I own a possession, the more precious it becomes, even if it has never been particularly valued.

David Ekerdt, a professor of sociology and gerontology, observed that after age fifty, the chances that a person will divest himself or herself of possessions diminishes with each decade.

Do it now, or decide when you’ll do it.

When trying to make a tough choice, challenge yourself: “Choose the bigger life.” The helpful thing about this question is that it reveals our values.

Does this bring you joy? may be a useful question for some. But for me the question is, Does this energize me?

Someplace, keep an empty shelf or an empty junk drawer. My empty shelf gives me the luxury of space; I have room for more things to come into my life.

Remember love. When it gets to be too much, remember: All this junk is an expression of love.

Outer order is a challenge to impose and it’s a chore to maintain. Nevertheless, for most of us, it’s worth the effort. Especially because it helps us feel good and helps us create an atmosphere of growth.

And inner calm contributes to outer order. When we feel serene, energetic, and focused, that’s when it becomes easier to keep our surroundings in good order. It’s a virtuous cycle.

My possessions aren’t me, that’s true – yet it’s also true that my possessions are me.

When we look at our stuff, we see a reflection of ourselves. We’re happier when that stuff is in good order and includes things that we need, use, and love – because that reflection influences the way we see ourselves.

Thank you, Gretchen Rubin. Your new book echoes some of the themes in our book, Moving On, where we say that when downsizing it’s helps to remember the love that went into accumulating the stuff in the first place.

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

Too Many Papers and How Surprisingly Little Time It Took to Sort Through Them

It began when my husband needed some information from my Social Security card. I started to look for the card in desk part of my secretary and couldn’t find it. An hour or so later, after clearing out outdated bank statements, deposit slips, and the like, I had a cleaned-out, clutter-free secretary, or the desk part anyway. Some of the items were trash and some had to be shredded but all unnecessary stuff was gone.

I love that secretary, a smaller version made for my father of the one his father had had, and I acquired it after my grandmother died. It is immortalized in an illustration on page 50 of the paperback edition of our book Moving On and shown above. But I tend to abuse the desk, actually the entire secretary, by stuffing it with too many papers. The photo of the open desk, below, is not beautiful, but to me it is because it shows how clean and organized it now is.

As much as I don’t like paper clutter, I like going through papers even less so I have lots of piles that need attending to. According to professional organizers, clutter tends to gather in certain parts of our homes and for me there are three places that paper clings to: the secretary, the top of my dresser, and on my desk next to the computer.

The clutter-free secretary spurred me on. I was so inspired by my efforts – I keep opening the desk and admiring how clean and orderly it is – that I was able to tackle the other two areas of paper clutter.

The top of my dresser in the bedroom is a place that gets cluttered with shopping receipts and packing slips from online orders, jewelry I have worn and haven’t put away, and things I want to look at before I get rid of them. Less than two hours after I started, I have a cleaned-out, clutter-free dresser top where you can now see the smooth wood.

Onto the third area of clutter, the space on my desk next to my computer. This is the worst one. I know many experts say to start with the toughest problem but I had to work myself up to confronting this pile.

Next to my computer is where I keep papers about the projects I am working on. Research in paper form (that somehow isn’t online), articles from the New York Times (since I still get the paper delivered to my door every morning), notes to myself (lots of notes) about current projects and future ones, and business cards of people I want to follow up with (although I do have a folder for those).

I usually sort through this pile at the end of a project, a book or an article I have written or one that I have edited. But, for whatever reason, perhaps some laziness, definitely some procrastination, I have put off the periodic clean ups and the pile seemed insurmountable.

For that reason and because of the nature of the items, sorting through this pile required much more thought and decision-making than it did for the other piles and it took me several sessions over a period of a few days to sort through everything. I keep a file, or more than one sometimes, on each of my projects and I created new files for the newer ones so everything had a place to go.

This will be the most difficult area for me to keep clean. So far the secretary and the dresser top look so clean and neat that I haven’t dared to put anything there. And the items that tended to accumulate were everyday papers that could easily be dealt with. But the area next to my computer is an active workspace and so it will continue to accumulate papers. I just have to be more vigilant about sorting through them on a regular basis, small sorting sessions rather than one so large I consistently avoided it.

I have to set a goal of sorting through my papers periodically (and frequently) and then follow through by actually cleaning out the stuff I don’t need. Every so often, ask me how I’m doing!

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

Who Are the Visionary Women in Your Life?

 

In March we celebrate Women’s History Month, an initiative that “will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future.” You can read more about the month’s theme here. In recognition of that celebration I would like to pay my respects to several women who have helped me deal with my clutter—and organize my life in countless ways.

Kerri L. Richardson, author of What Your Clutter Is Trying To Tell You, suggests we ask ourselves why we are holding onto some things. Is it because we think we should hold onto them? Do the items speak to the person we think we should be? Other people have posed similar questions but when I read this I had a eureka moment. I have a shelf of a certain type of self-help book, books that I have never read. I always thought I should read them, but never did. After reading Kerri Richardson’s book I decided to get rid of them. At first, I was going to look at each book and choose one to keep and read. Then I decided to just donate all the books to a local charity.

Thank you, Kerri Richardson, for opening my eyes to the futility of should.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the driving force behind the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, says to put all your clothes in a pile in the middle of your bed. Well, I didn’t go quite that far but I did put all my socks on the bed, and I have a lot of socks. I’m very particular about my socks, and I have ones for the gym, for walking/hiking, for everyday use, for when I’m more dressed up, and all depend on the weight and thickness and height of the socks. What prompted me to sort through all of them was a struggle each morning to find socks to wear to the gym so I KonMari’d my socks. The single socks went to fabric recycling and some pairs I no longer wear went to a women’s shelter, and the rest are now arranged by type.

Kudos to you, Marie Kondo, for helping me evoke my inner organizer.

Gretchen Rubin, whose newest book is Outer Order, Inner Calm (which I’m looking forward to reading when it comes out later this month), tells a story in an earlier book, Happier at Home, about the way she handled her grandparents’ stuff. She had inherited quite a few items but two ceramic birds reminded her the most of her grandparents. She gave the birds a place of honor, putting them on a shelf in her home office where she could see them every day. Viewing the birds each day helped draw out her warm feelings about her grandparents and she was able to get rid of the other things she had inherited. I thought of that story as I donated my grandparents’ pitcher and washbasin, a set from the 1880s that had been specifically left to me, because I had no place for it and because I had other things that spoke to me more of my grandparents.

My thanks to you, Gretchen Rubin, for passing along the insight that perhaps the best way to honor our parents and grandparents is to keep only certain things that speak to us.

Julie Morganstern, whose first book Organizing from the Inside Out was such a helpful organizing book, the one I read before starting to write Moving On, looks at decluttering as a positive thing to do, a way to gain insight into ourselves, not just as a way to get rid of the material things we have amassed. She says, “Decluttering is a point of entry, an opportunity to discover an attachment, a belief system, an unexpressed part of yourself.”

I’m so grateful to you, Julie Morganstern, for sharing your wisdom about discovering new parts of ourselves.

This is the first day of the month dedicated to women and I have written about four women I’m thankful for. I’m challenging myself to think of one women each day of this month to honor. How about you? Who are the visionary women in your life and which ones are you thankful for?

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 Joy of Watching Marie Kondo Tidying Up

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about tidying up and many, many people have a lot to say about Marie Kondo, much of it negative. Sometimes what people perceive as wrong or misguided in her approach overshadows the many good points she makes.

People seem to find it hard to embrace the attitude she brings to sorting through our things – does it really have to “spark joy?” – and some even find it difficult to embrace her folding method, reducing everything to tiny squares. Do those things really matter? Or maybe more importantly can we see past what we can’t quite embrace and look at what she does bring to the process of downsizing and decluttering?

I enjoyed the Netflix series and found certain themes emerging as each family Marie Kondo worked with struggled with their stuff. Here is some of what Kondo brings to this quest.

Marie Kondo has a respect, for…well, for everything…the people she’s working with, the stuff they have, and the home they live in. She is not judgmental about what people have saved or how they have stored it and she’s not the least critical of the people who have saved all this stuff. She doesn’t begrudge anyone anything. No judgment, just a gentle nudge to be more mindful of what we have.

As well as respect, Kondo offers her clients encouragement as they decide what they need and what they can toss. There is a meme going around, a bit mean at times, that she “allows” people to keep only 30 books, something that would be just about impossible for most of us. Much ink has been spilled, including on this blog, about a statement that Kondo never made. What she said was that she honed her personal library to 30 books (and that number probably does not include her kids’ books) and suggests that people decide if a book is necessary, if it interests you, if it needs a place in your home.

Her request to her clients to pile all their clothes on the bed, a suggestion which took me aback at first, is a way to see the abundance in our lives. In a small way, I have used this technique. A few years ago, I sorted through my necklaces (and, yes, I have too many). I purchased two organizers, not meant for jewelry but for neckties, and hung the necklaces on them. It was valuable to me to see everything in one pile as I chose which ones to keep and which  to donate. And having them all hanging together in one place makes life better in two ways: it’s easier to choose which necklace to wear and it serves as a constant reminder that I don’t need to acquire any more.

Kondo shows a great reverence for the things in our lives. She gets acquainted with the home in an almost prayerful way, she taps on books to awaken them (isn’t it lovely to think that our favorite characters are waking up), she asks people to thank their clothes – all features very Eastern in thinking, coming most likely from her Shinto background. Many in the everything-is-disposable, everything-is replaceable West think it’s a bit hokey but valuing each object makes us more aware of what we have and ultimately what we want to keep in our life. To help us on the way to a reverent or more centered stance, Kondo suggests taking a deep breath, opening the window to let in fresh air, and creating pleasant sounds, whether that’s a gong or a chant or our favorite Beatles album. (We did recommend in our book to declutter with music to make the task more enjoyable!)

Asking her clients to thank each piece of clothing, each book, each object is a way of pointing out the gratitude we want to have for the things in our lives. It was poignant to see how moving it was for people to thank their stuff; they were affected by it, sometimes expressing nostalgia, sometimes almost wistful, but ultimately more able to let go of the items. Her clients’ struggle has made me try to be less judgmental of other people, either of their stuff or their way of organizing (or their lack of organizing) it.

Kondo says it’s important to have a vision and to communicate that vision to your home. Having too many ties to our childhood can make it harder to be an adult, she says; that’s interesting to ponder. Catastrophizing, what if I need this, is fear, she says, and fear is not a reason to hang onto things. For me Kondo’s question to one of the family members is brilliant: “Is this something you want to bring with you into the future?” That question gives me a new perspective, a new way to look at my stuff.

Kondo’s definition of “sparking joy” says that joy includes anything that serves you well, whether it is an melon baller sitting in your kitchen drawer and used only in the summer or a favorite wool sweater that keeps you warm in the winter only. Recently a friend sorted through her books (yet again) and had piles in her living room for friends to choose from. There were many she had read and was ready to let go of and many she had not yet read and had decided – she made this decision herself – that they did not spark enough interest to keep them on her bookshelves. The joy for my friend is in the warmth of the home, the ease of living in it, and the ability to make our own choices about her books.

What does decluttering do? It makes more room in your home, it makes it easier to find things, and it simplifies your life. Julie Morganstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life, says “Organizing is what you do to settle down. Decluttering is what you do to grow.” And, perhaps most importantly, as Marie Kondo says, decluttering is a way “to understand what is most important in your life.”

“The most important part of this process of tidying is to always think about what you have and about the discovery of your sense of value, what you value that is important.”

Thank you, Marie Kondo. Well said.

 

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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