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

“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

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

A Year-End Retrospective

Is there anything good to report about 2018? We easily remember the horrendous events that made the headlines in the past year but I, and maybe you too, find it a bit difficult to think about the good things that happened.

For Downsizing The Home, our posts were a mixed bag of looking at the positive as we declutter but also acknowledging the parts that didn’t go quite as planned. What stays with me is the quote from Madeleine L’Engle, It is the ability to choose which makes us human. I have chosen to downsize some of my life while leaving much of it undisturbed (as of yet, anyway).

Here are some of the topics we shared in our blog.

It’s all just stuff.

And while that is to a large degree true, as Janet said, she has been thinking a bit lately about when it is NOT true. Sometimes it’s really not “all just stuff. Sometimes it is the stuff that holds our memories together, and makes our houses homes. Some of it is documentation of the lives we’ve lived.”

If it is all just stuff then it’s precious stuff for a hoarder-friend of ours. Although some of what was in her home was junk, much of it was in good condition and could be donated. It was an important task that a friend and I took on, and one we were honored to perform, to separate the good from the bad, so to speak, and make sure the good things found a new home.

There is joy in decluttering.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and I did. I cleaned out my kitchen cabinets and my junk draw and kept some items, gave others to my kids, and donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to work in the kitchen.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and Janet did. She’s been chronicling, in a series of posts, the challenge she set for herself to empty her storage unit. You can follow along in our blog to see her progress and also to see the dilemmas she’s faced.

We can do better.

As Janet noted, she suspects that not many people are aware of the magnitude of the problem of too much clothing going into landfills. Earth 911 reports that “the EPA estimates that Americans discarded over 14 million tons of textiles in 2010…about 28,000,000,000 pounds of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.” This is where clothing recycling comes in, something we have written about often.

We may not advocate minimalism per se (that’s hard for “the keeper” in me) but we need to heed the words of Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, who says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” We need to rethink our compulsion to own and learn to see the wisdom of simplicity in our lives.

We are all much the same, we are all human.

Those who help us in our quest to declutter are just like us. Alison Lush said, “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.” A born cluttlerbug,” she has “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!”

As we continue decluttering, we look to the future.

Taking a look at our stuff, especially the stuff that holds meaning for us, is the time to think about where it will go after us and how we’ll accomplish that. We learned how downsizing and decluttering can lead to thoughts of the future and how writing a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will helps us sort out our feelings about our things. “Writing a Legacy Letter is an act of love, a means of conveying that love and caring into the recipient’s future and for future generations. It is an inheritance more valuable than money,” says Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words.

May each day of the New Year bring you joy and health and less cluttered closets.

 

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

’Tis the Season to Ponder Gift Giving

We all love to give and receive gifts but we seldom talk about what it really means when we exchange gifts. If the central message behind gift giving is appreciation, love, and respect for the person we’re gifting, then why not focus on giving gifts that reflect our feelings.

If we love someone, we want to give them something they need, will appreciate, or simply like. Here are some thoughts on how to be more focused in our giving.

Ask them what they need.

People often eschew gifts like socks and pajamas but why not get your family members what they need. I need new slippers (if anyone in my family is reading this) and one daughter mentioned she needs new bath towels. Dull, maybe a bit, but definitely useful.

Give them experiences rather than things.

Why not gift a wine tasting, a cheese tasting, home brewing classes, cooking classes, a winery tour, a gym membership, yoga classes, museum workshops and lectures, music lessons for voice or instrument, a glass blowing class, weaving or gardening classes, knit or crochet instructions, a woodworking class. You can match the gift to a loved one’s interests or surprise them with something that’s maybe a bit outside their comfort zone.

Give consumables only.

Some ideas: An expensive bottle of wine for the oenophile, luscious chocolates for the sweets fan, personal care items for those who like to be pampered, oranges and other fruits, especially for those of us in colder climes. We’ve written about this before so you can see more suggestions in an earlier post.

Give them a family treasure.

One of the women we interviewed for our book said that her mother started giving away family heirlooms as birthday and Christmas gifts. When asked about it, her mother said her only regret was that she hadn’t started earlier. So think about giving family items like china, embroidered table linens, tools, golf clubs, paintings, decorative vases, and jewelry as holiday gifts so the next generation can enjoy the items while you are still around to share in their joy.

Give gifts that have meaning.

A donation to a group or worthy cause is a gift that will resonate far beyond the gift itself. For a gift that will have lasting impact, we have posted suggestions here and here in past years. Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, posts an annual holiday guide for presents with meaning and here is this year’s column.

Change up the family dynamics.

Consider instituting some boundaries with family gifts. Give gifts to those under the age of 18 only. Have adults pick names and purchase one gift for that person. Set a limit on spending per gift and see how imaginative you can be at that price. Or, best bonding gift ever, have each family member write a note of thanks or gratitude for each other and hand out the notes to read aloud. That’s better than any material gift.

Or agree with your extended family to support a family in need rather than exchange gifts with each other. Find a family through a local charity and divide the purchases among your family members so the family in need receives the makings for a joyous holiday.

What are your family traditions for giving? Please share in a comment below.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season to have less and to give more.

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

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

Is Simplicity What We Really Want?

 

 

Minimalism sometimes gets a bad rap these days, often from the ‘savers’ among us more so than the ‘throwers.’

To many people, minimalism is all about the restrictions, how few things you can own, how few things you can buy. But according to the Minimalists, minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. That sounds doable.

Maybe it’s the word minimalism that is a bit off-putting. Maybe simplicity is a more embraceable word.

So what exactly is simplicity? According to one dictionary it is the quality or condition of being easy to understand or to do. Another says it is freedom from complexity or intricacy. It’s defined as clarity or clearness, something that’s uncomplicated. That sounds appealing, very appealing. To have a life that is clear and uncomplicated, one in which it is easy to function and to do things is a good goal.

Frank Lloyd Wright said, “To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.”

Can we be educated in simplicity? How do we know what is essential for us? How do we know what to focus on and what to ignore? Perhaps the simplest answer is to focus on what’s most important to us.

Leo Bautista explains, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”

So what is essential to you? It may be grandma’s china, or your parents’ love letters, or your father’s ties, or favorite books from you kids’ childhood. If it’s important to you, then it stays and you find a place for it. Or perhaps you can share stories about the item and then let it go, to another family member or to someone who may appreciate it as much as you do.

It’s not so much about having more, that may be hardwired in our brains, but of educating ourselves to want less. Joshua Becker says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” Learning to want less is being educated in simplicity.

And that’s not easy, given the society we live in. The humorist, Robert Quillan, captured that dilemma when he defined Americanism as “Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.” Of course, who we really want to impress is ourselves and our family. Keeping up a certain lifestyle, maybe one is isn’t really our true selves, is more complicated.

Yvon Chouinard, an environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor outfitters, said, “The more you know, the less you need.” He was most likely referring to rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits but what if we learned more: about our interests, our family members, our ancestors. Would we would need less if we knew more? Perhaps we would need to keep fewer things if we knew more. That’s something to think about.

So is simplicity what we want?

Cedric Bledsoe said, “Simplicity is the essence of happiness.” And Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I, for one, am in favor of a life that is happier and more sophisticated. I am embracing simplicity. Yes, simplicity is what we want.

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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