Getting It Right

Although right means exact, precise, correct, in the world of decluttering, right is a relative word. It means different things to different people and to different families.

Shortly after we published our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, someone published a book with Rightsizing in the title rather than Downsizing and to me that made perfect sense.

So how do we get it right – right for ourselves and our families?

Start small.

Start with just one item that you can get rid of, whether you try to sell it, donate it, or just plain give it away. Then choose a second item. Take small, very small steps.

Remind yourself you are not a storage unit.

We hold onto things that other people gave us, that belonged to family members, that don’t quite fit, that aren’t quite our style, that we may use one day, that we can’t possibly give away… We hold onto a lot of stuff. Give some thought to the items for which you have excuses. Maybe those are the things that can go.

Live for today.

You don’t need too many things in your home that remind you of the past – even if they belonged to your family. You don’t need too many items that reference of the future – that refer to a person you aspire to be rather than the person you are today. And you don’t need to keep stuff for the person you once were or for the job you once had or from the relationship you were once in. What things do you need for the life you live today?

Be you.

Not everything has to be minimized. It’s not about having fewer things; it’s about having the right things. For some of us, that is books, for others it’s pots and pans and spices, for still others it’s a DVD collection of classic movies, for some it’s a big yarn stash, for others it’s stylish clothing. Being you is about having just enough things and learning to feel that you already have enough. It’s about having less of the things that don’t move you forward and more of the things you love.

Enjoy your stories.

Whether you keep an item or give it away, an important part of the process is to tell stories about it. What meaning does it have in your family? Who were you with when you wore that outfit? When did you purchase that thing and why? Tell those stories. After giving away some of your stuff are you feeling disappointed? Do you feel a bit of regret? Tell those stories, too. Stories help keep alive the stuff that has meaning whether you have kept the item or given it away. Stories help make it right.

What can you get rid of today that makes it right for you?

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 Sentimental Journey Revisited

 

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m a bit envious of people who are using their time at home these days to downsize and declutter and, most importantly, GET RID OF STUFF. I’m not there yet. I find it too difficult and fraught a process to be a stay-at-home activity like doing jigsaw puzzles or gardening.

For me, the process involves sentimentality, which as J.D. Salinger had one of his characters, Seymour Glass, describe, is giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

One of the antidotes to getting bogged down in sentimentality, as my coauthor and I have said in our book, is to take your time. Perhaps time does not heal all wounds but it does give us some perspective.

And perspective can give us a new way of seeing things, a new perception of the old. So today I’m sharing a favorite post from the early days of our blog that calls attention to family items and how we view them.

A Bowl…Full of Memories

The bowl was clear glass with a fluted edge around the top opening. It sat in the center of my parents’ dining room table for as long as I can remember, sometimes with artificial flowers in it (not very attractive ones, in my opinion) in a seasonal color to match whichever tablecloth my mother had put on the table.

When my father was moving out of the house he and my mother had lived in for over 50 years, we used the dining room as a staging area.

The bowl was now off to the side in a “donate or give away” section, put there by my sisters on a previous visit. I moved it to a “still thinking about it; not sure what this means to me” area because I had such vivid memories of the bowl and how it spoke of my mother’s style.

The bowl was inexpensive, a testament to my mother’s frugality, and it usually sat alone in the center of the table, a sign of my mother’s simple decorating style. Although she had some good Swedish glass like Kosta Boda and Orrefors, my mother also had many things, as this bowl probably was, purchased at a five-and-ten.

When family dinners grew in number to include in-laws and grandkids, the bowl was moved to a sideboard to allow more room for serving dishes. But always, after dinner, the bowl was put back in place in the center of the table.

I remember the bowl in its central place on the dining room table when I returned home from college, a welcoming sight for me.

I remember it sitting there, too, when I brought my boyfriend, now husband, home to meet my parents.

I remember seeing it there when my kids played in the living room with my parents.

After my mother’s funeral, the bowl was probably moved to the sideboard to make room for the platters of food brought over by friends and neighbors. I’m sure, really sure, we put it back in its rightful place after we cleared the table.

Did I want this bowl, I asked myself as we emptied the house. At each visit to sort through more of my parents’ stuff, I pondered that. I had the luxury to think about it week after week.

Finally, I moved the bowl back to the “donate or give away” section. I didn’t want the bowl. But I was so grateful for the memories it had elicited.

What’s your favorite story about a cherished family object?

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

Is It Really All Just Stuff?

The author, in a (typical) moment of dejection while attempting (once again) to downsize…

 

Is it really “all just stuff”?

And if so, why is it so damn hard to do?

I think that while this pronouncement is usually made out of kindness, to console someone who is regretting having to give away (or having already done so) things that were precious to them in the process of downsizing, I also think it’s one of the more damaging myths about downsizing.

Because, really: if it’s really “all just stuff” why do SO MANY PEOPLE have SO MUCH TROUBLE doing it?

Answer me that. (As we used to say where I grew up…)

It’s not really the things that are so important usually. Of course. It’s the memories attached to them. And/but by trying to ignore the importance of this very important fact, I believe many well-meaning (and often understandably frustrated) “throwers” are actually slowing down the process for the “keepers” in their lives by insisting on what we all know to be true (but not really)…instead of acknowledging, honoring, and being patient with the more important reality that many of us (let’s call us “keepers”) need to honor, celebrate, re-remember, or otherwise somehow take time to caress those memories, store them up, share them (whatever), and separate them from the things before the things go on their merry way to the dumpster/the thrift store/the antique shop, or wherever…

In our book, my coauthor and I talk about some of the ways that “throwers” (whether they be family members, professional organizers, or other professionals) can help “keepers” actually do this. It’s not that hard, but it does require patience, understanding, and respect for the process. Plus a little bit more time.

But it’s worth it. In terms of peace of mind for the keepers. In terms of improved family relations between keepers and throwers.

In terms of avoiding downsizing regrets…which NOBODY wants to have…

Has anyone come up with your own ways to make this happen? If so, we hope you’ll share them in the comments. We’d love to hear about them, and I’m sure many of our readers would also…

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

I Thought I Had a Plan

A friend of mine always says about her later years: I had a plan. She is a very organized person and had her finances and living situation in order for an eventual retirement. She had emptied her parents’ home and distributed items to family members, donated much of the stuff, and what she decided to keep, she protected in archival storage containers. Indeed, she was a woman with a plan.

Then life threw her a curve, actually a couple of curves. She was unexpectedly let go at work and she was facing a tough medical situation. All of a sudden, she was a person who thought she had a plan but found herself in a new situation.

How many of us enter our later years with, if not a plan, at least a vague idea of what we want to do and how we want to live. Sometimes that plan works and sometimes we have to rethink our lives, maybe not as dramatically as my friend did, but we have to reimagine some parts of it.

We know what we want to do with our stuff and with the family items we inherited from our parents. We share things with family members, give to charity, and make sure we dispose of the rest responsibly.

Then things go awry. Our living situation changes, our finances are not what we thought, our energy is less than we had hoped. How do we get back on track?

Begin by listening to your gut, or to your heart (they’re connected). Don’t beat yourself up. Let your plan go and revise it as you need to.

Start with what bothers you the most. Maybe it’s a particular room in your house. Maybe it’s a category of stuff – your clothes, many of which you no longer wear, or your papers, which are not organized for easy access.

When it comes to giving away your stuff, think of family more broadly. As Mother Teresa said, “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” Can we think of extended family, friends and neighbors, colleagues, and, of course, people who have less than we do, as our family?

If you’re really stuck with what to do with stuff you think you don’t want, ask yourself some questions to help loosen the bottleneck. Will I really need this some day? If I saw this in a store today, would I buy it? If I really don’t want or need an item, what’s holding me back from giving it away? The answers will help you be your own guide.

Learn to embrace change. (That’s a tough one!) You change, life changes, you go with the flow. We all grow and change, some of us more reluctantly than others. Change is part of life and growth is the result of change. We really can’t argue with it, that would get us nowhere, we can only learn to embrace it.

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

An Extra Hour in the Day

For many of us who live in the United States and Canada, last Sunday gifted us with an extra hour in the day. Sometimes that feels silly, like why fiddle with the clocks only to have dusk or darkness descend earlier in the day. (Not the greatest outcome.) Sometimes that feels a bit magical, like just moving the hands of the clock actually provides us with more time. (Of course, it really isn’t more time, just the illusion of more.)

What can you do with an extra hour?

Sleep

Research has shown that an extra hour of sleep can help raise your salary (the researchers mean an extra hour per day, not just once) Interesting. Perhaps an extra hour of sleep helps job performance. Check out the article here. And an extra hour of sleep may boost your athletic performance.

Work

Working an extra hour, maybe just once to catch up, can be productive but working more hours in general is not good for your health. So here’s to one catch-up hour per year but not per day.

Play

Play in adults helps relieve stress, boost creativity, improve relationships, and makes you feel more energetic. How many of us spent our extra hour playing with friends and loved ones? Play is something to consider for my next extra hour.

Declutter

In our book and in the many book talks I have given, we always say “start small” and by this we mean start decluttering by spending only 20 minutes at a time at the task. Set a timer. Well, with an extra hour, a magical hour, a gift of time, what more could you accomplish?

Donate

Perhaps you have decluttered and organized your closets. This may be the time to donate all the excess. The extra hour could be spent finding new homes for the things you are ready to part with. Here’s a post that will help you.

There are many other ways to spend the gift of one hour: reading your favorite book, catching up with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, being creative, giving back. I would love to know how you spent your extra hour. Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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 Most Of Us Learned In Kindergarten—Or Should Have, Anyway

Fall always seems like the start of a new year to me, partly because I loved being a student (oh, so many years ago) and looked forward to the start of the school year and partly because it is a new year for me as my birthday is in the beginning of September.

What lessons did I learn in kindergarten and the years beyond that still apply to my life today?

Think before you act.

It’s always a good idea to think through a project, downsizing or otherwise, before getting started. Look at things dispassionately, exercise reason and patience. Laugh at your own foibles, then act in spite of them!

Be considerate of others’ feelings.

Life works so much more smoothly when we’re sensitive to one another and recognize that each of us is a different person with different ways of getting tasks done and different ways of celebrating. Talking about your needs and expectations ahead of time always helps. Patience, patience, patience—that’s a lesson I really need to learn.

Take your time.

You don’t have to rush through everything—or anything, for that matter. I learned recently that dopamine, the chemical in our brain that contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, is produced when we are looking for something, not when we achieve it. It’s the journey, not the goal, that makes us feel better.

Things worth doing are worth doing well.

If we take our time and think before we act, we will do a better job. Frequent breaks help, too. Recent research shows that taking two naps per week actually helps us live longer.

Share with others.

Life is about sharing, the good things and the more onerous tasks. Sharing is both enjoying the good things in life with others and dividing the burdens with others. Sharing is taking responsibility together.

Appreciate your family.

Family is anyone you love unconditionally, shortcomings and all, even when it’s not always easy to do so, and that includes blood relatives, friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers in life. Family is the group in your life that provides emotional support and shares your interests and values. As Mother Teresa said, “The openness of our hearts and minds can be measured by how wide we draw the circle of what we call family.”

Keep your priorities straight.

It’s always worth reminding yourself that it’s not the stuff you accumulate but the people you meet that matter. All the meaning and the memories in life—all that is important is your life – is inside you, not in the things you have.

Good work is deeply rewarding.

Chores, obligations, hard work, doing for others, maybe learning something new about a process or about ourselves—all of this is gratifying. As we get older we can make a resolution to remove and improve as a way to see more in life.

What did you learn in kindergarten—or last week—that helps you today?

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

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

Has Downsizing Ever Sparked Joy For You?

As regular readers of this blog will already know, I am less than 100 percent enthusiastic about the KonMari approach to decluttering. But I’ll be the first to admit the phrase “spark joy” is awfully appealing.

I’ve written a fair amount already about why keeping “only” the things that spark joy doesn’t help me that much, because WAY too many things spark joy for me, and I can’t keep all of those things.

So I thought that today I’d write about moments of getting RID of things that have sparked joy for me.

For me it sparks joy to give things away to people who can use them. When I was doing an aggressive clearing out of the last house I lived in in Maryland, the closer my deadline came, the more furiously things were going out the door.

At first I tried to sell things in a series of moving and yard sales, with modest, but limited success.

Yard sales can be a good way to start the process of downsizing gradually. You’ll probably find that it gets easier to get rid of things the more you do it. Practice makes perfect! 🙂

Then I started putting things out with “Free” signs and things went much faster.

It so happened that there was a crew of workmen working on our street in the last days I was there. A couple of times they helped me carry things out (things like bookcases!) when they could see they needed help. I urged them to take the clothing, furniture, toys, games, anything that was still left that I didn’t want that I was putting out at the curb, home with them at the end of the day.

This workman loved this hat, which my son didn’t want anymore, SO MUCH!!! A moment of sparking joy (for someone else!) to be sure…

In the final couple of days they started bringing their wives and children to my place in the evenings. At this point it became honestly kind of festive atmosphere, and much more of a human-to-human interaction. One night one mother asked me if I had a specific item of clothing for one of her boys that she didn’t see. “I don’t know, but I’ll look,” I said, and lo and behold, I found the needed item. That “sparked joy” for both of us!

Another night someone came by to thank me for a bicycle I had apparently sold to him for a very low sum at one of my yard sales. Because I didn’t remember either the man or the bicycle I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t even in one of the three yard sales I had held in the previous weeks. It was probably from at least a year ago. Anyway, he came by to tell me how useful the bike had been for him, and how much he appreciated being able to have a bicycle for such a low price. I think he also said something about my having given him whatever price he asked for instead of the marked price, I don’t know. To be honest, I was in such a downsizing/moving fog by that point in the process that I was having a hard time remembering my own name!

Another (admittedly perhaps somewhat bizarre) moment that sparked joy for me was when I heard some garbage pickers go through the pile of metal junk that I had I had set out strategically so there would be enough time for the people that do that kind of thing to find it before it was hauled off to the dump by the city. I heard a truck pull up in the middle of the night and saw someone taking all the things they could use, loading them up, and driving away. The pile was much smaller in the morning. That sparked joy for me too, because I knew it was in the spirit of “reuse” before recycling: that those things were going to be used by the people that picked them up, and the pile going into the dump was much smaller.

Anyway. These are some of the moments that sparked joy for me in a time that was to be honest (again) not all that joyful.

I gave away a TON of books also. And here is where Marie Kondo and I will never agree. There is no joy in giving away books for me. I’ve moved many times, and every time I’ve moved I’ve had to give up a lot of books I wished I could keep. This time, because I was contemplating an international move I had to cut much deeper, and the cut hurt.

There was no joy for me in giving away these books. I got rid of the ones I could bear to long ago. So this was a matter of just “doing what needs to be done” and trying not to dwell on it too much.

I can get over it, and I have written here about how it is much easier for book lovers to get rid of books now than it used to be and why it is.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. I still wish I could live the way a writer I admire did. Apparently he had two houses, side by side. One for him. One for his books.

That’s not going to happen for me, but if it did, that would REALLY spark joy. 🙂

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

 

 

 

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

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

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