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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Downsizing Chronicles: The Storage Locker, Part 3 (Interlude)

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Consigning items for sale at my favorite thrift store in Bethesda, Maryland. (St. John’s Norwood Opportunity Shop)

As assiduous followers of this blog may already know, for a variety of fairly good reasons, I have been keeping a lot of my stuff in a storage locker for three years now.

As the coauthor of a book on downsizing the home, I certainly know all the reasons to try to avoid doing such a thing.

But as a person who is in the middle of a protracted international move, I know some of the advantages as well.

Renting a storage locker has allowed me to free myself of the necessity–and the expense–of holding down a place to live in Country A while I have been making the transition to living in Country B.

Because storage lockers are much smaller than homes, it also inspired me to get rid of a LOT of the things I was keeping before I emptied the house I had been living in for the past eight years, and flew across the ocean to a new life.

One of the biggest drawbacks of what I did, of course, is that it’s pretty hard to continue the process of downsizing when all your stuff is in a storage locker; you live across the ocean from that locker; and you don’t have a home anymore, anywhere near that locker.

Which is why the process of getting all of my stuff out of the locker is probably going to take something like forever to complete.

I returned to the storage locker a year ago with the somewhat–I now realize–overly ambitious plan of emptying it and redistributing the things in it in a few short weeks. That turned out to be a plan that was not only overly ambitious, but in fact, was actually not feasible, for a variety of reasons.

At first this was frustrating, and to be honest, a bit embarrassing too.

But I’ve decided there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. The transition I am making is a complicated one. And, although the commonly heard cliché is that “it’s all just stuff” is true of many of the things that got thrown into that locker–and in the three years since I first put them there, I’ve gotten rid of many of them–it’s also really not true of many of the other things I put there.

Many of the things I put in that storage locker were special in one way or another, some of them very special–and bit by bit I am finding ways to honor, preserve, treasure, reunite with, and enjoy some of them again–and give away, sell, or donate the rest. And yes. Some of the things are just plain being recycled or thrown away.

I’ve been at the task again over the past few weeks. In the process I’ve gained new insights into and had new thoughts about the whole matter of “stuff”–why we keep it, why it’s hard to part with some of it, why sometimes keeping certain things matters, and why sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve met some interesting people along the way, made some new friends, and been filled with gratitude for the support and kindness of old friends who have helped me through this process in a myriad of ways.

There will be more to come about all of this, I’m sure, in future posts. But for now, with all due respect to the minimalists of the world, I’d just like to say…

You know what? 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…

And some of that stuff is worth keeping. Even when it’s a lot of trouble to do so.

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

 

 

Of Spring Cleaning, Gently Used, and Landfills

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As spring cleaning time draws near, I’m having a bundle of thoughts about the relationship between spring cleaning, the words “gently used,” and landfills.

What do these three things have to do with each other? Well, actually quite a bit.

Spring, of course, is the time that many people aggressively go about decluttering their homes and getting rid of the things they don’t need or want anymore. And this is a good thing.

Much of what goes out of our homes goes either to organizations that can pass our “rejects” on to others who can use them; or into recycling receptacles; or into the trash. (And sadly, the stuff that ends up in the trash goes on to landfills… 😦 )

So the best thing to do, from a community health and an ecological point of view is to try to minimize the amount of stuff that ends up in the trash.

And the best thing, from the point of view of those who sort through our “rejects” in thrift stores, churches, shelters, libraries, and other places where people donate used things, is to not have to spend a lot of time sorting through stuff that really should have gone into the trash. This is why these organizations tend to stress, beg, cajole, and otherwise urge people to only donate those things that are “gently used.” And this is completely understandable. (Moldy items, for example, create unhealthy fumes for those people who are sorting through the stuff to breathe while they’re sorting, and may also contaminate things that are still usable with things that are not. This is not okay!)

But one of the big problems is what to do with the stuff that is between “gently used” and trash. We have written several posts on this blog that can help people find ways to recycle hard-to-recycle items, such as textiles, shoes, carpeting, and so on. Here is the link to a section of our blog where you can find some of those posts.

We also wrestled with this problem when we were writing our book, and what we found is that if people are committed to finding ways to reuse items that are more than gently used rather than trash them, there are ways. Just one example of this is the idea of donating old towels to an animal shelter. (The dogs. Don’t. Care!!!)

I suspect 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 5.7% of the total municipal solid waste (MSW). And while 5.7% may seem like a ‘small’ percentage, that is still 28,000,000,000 lbs. of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.”  Earth 911 points out that the textiles dumped in landfills burden the environment and artificially decrease the lifespan of the products. This, they say, is where clothing recycling comes in. You can learn more about how to recycle clothing  here and about some of the initiatives businesses are taking to encourage reusing garments here.

I think it may also be time for all of us to think through the consequences of rejecting  items, whether clothing, books, or furniture, as soon as they are “gently used.” Do we really need to give away, or trash things the minute they are no longer “gently used”? And do the standards really need to be as high as they are at some of the places we donate things? Do we really imagine, for example, that one slight stain on an otherwise very serviceable (and attractive) garment, or (perfectly comfortable) chair, means that it should be trashed? That it could not still prove useful to someone? Do we really imagine that a “well-loved” picture book cannot be enjoyed just as much by a young child who has it at second or third (or even fifth?) hand, as much as they would enjoy a “gently used” one? After all, what is the most important thing about reading a picture book to a child? It is the pictures, right? And the closeness? And the voice of someone reading to them? And all of that can happen quite easily with books that are definitely more than “gently used.”

I think if we can all just become a bit more aware of what happens when we lose sight of the things we’re letting go of, and what the long-term consequences are of what we do with them, hopefully we can all become a little more thoughtful, a little bit less picky, and a lot more “green.”

Out of sight may be out of mind, but it shouldn’t be. It’s good to know that we’ve done the best we can to ensure that when we’re done using something, it doesn’t turn into a problem for someone else.

Happy spring cleaning, everyone!!! 🙂

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

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

More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

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

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

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

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

Your library books are always late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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