Keeping Memories and Sharing Wisdom: Writing a Legacy Letter

Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words, is a former corporate attorney who switched careers to work in the non-profit world. She was Executive Director of two non-profit organizations that assisted older individuals. She has a Geriatric Scholar Certificate from the Consortium of NY Geriatric Education Centers and is a trained as a mediator. Amy has been devoted to community improvement projects all her life.

 

I met Amy when I attended one of her workshops and was eager to learn more about her take on sharing your wisdom and values with your family members.

 

Linda: So Amy, let’s start with the obvious: What is a Legacy Letter? What is an Ethical Will? Are they the same and, if not, what are the differences?

Amy: The term, Ethical Will, is a writing tradition in which the author expresses his/her life wisdom, love and life values with a loved one with the intention that it serve as a future guide, inspiration and support. The term recognizes the historical genesis of this practice, which comes from the Old Testament and was carried forward in the New Testament. The term, Legacy Letter, serves the same function as the Ethical Will, but is conceived outside any particular religious or historical foundation.

A Legacy Letter is a written document in which your life lessons, wisdom, family history and love are conveyed as a guide and source of comfort to your loved ones as a legacy for future generations.

Linda: How did you get interested in this and what was your path to your current enterprise?

Amy: I have worked as an advocate on behalf of older individuals for over 10 years. In addition, I was a caregiver for my elderly parents. As my parents got older, I drew upon my experience with older individuals and activities that they enjoyed, and I engaged my father in writing his memoir. This proved to be an uplifting experience for my dad and my family received the memoir as a ‘treasure’ for themselves and future generations. I started to research into both memoir and alternative options that could offer similar benefits. That’s when I learned about Ethical Wills/Legacy Letters.

Linda: You mentioned the history of Ethical Wills is religious. Is writing a Legacy Letter a relatively new phenomenon or have people been writing them for ages and it’s just new to those of us who weren’t familiar with them?

Amy: Ethical Wills were a strong tradition for hundreds of years in western society, but it was lost as a common practice in the most recent centuries. The practice has recently been revived, in part because current social science research strongly suggests that it offers benefits to both the author and the recipient.

Linda: How do you start a letter? What should your aim be?

Amy: As a starting point, I suggest you decide to whom you wish to write, and if you will write one letter to your entire family or you will write a different letter to each individual. That decision will help you to think about how to write the letter.

Linda: Sometimes in my talks about downsizing and end-of-life issues, I suggest that people make a simple letter listing which possessions are important to them, such as a piece of jewelry, a painting, or grandmother’s china, explain what the item means to them, and why they want it to go to a particular person in their life. It seems easier to me to begin with an object and work towards an emotion then to delve into emotions at the start. When you teach your workshops, what are some tips you give for starting a letter to those who are reluctant to write one? Or have trouble starting one?

Amy: If people have trouble starting to write, I encourage them to review their own values/life priorities before they start writing. Typically, I distribute select ‘memory prompts’ and ‘values prompts’ to help them start writing on a blank page. Some people use the technique of mind mapping, too. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. The map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole.

People who are downsizing, as you mention, and facing an impact on their memories by getting rid of items, might be especially helped by writing a Legacy Letter as something tangible to hold onto.

In addition, I encourage folks to think about some of their favorite music, books, and movies to see if there are particular common themes or values that resonant within these cultural memories. In this regard, I often have some ‘interview time’ with them to discuss the life lessons that have made them who they are. This kind of reminiscing helps folks to get started.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, it involves whatever gets you thinking about the life lessons and values that have brought meaning to your life.

Linda: How important is a Legacy Letter? What is its purpose? How should we as the writer of one see ourselves and see the task?

Amy: Writing 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.

Linda: Since women, now as well as historically, are the keepers of stuff and the passers-on of memories, I was wondering if most of the people who attend your workshops and engage your help in writing a Legacy Letter are women? If so, what are your thoughts on getting more men involved in the process.

Amy: That’s a great question. Most of the people interested in this topic appear to be women. That said, I was invited and gave a talk to a group of semi-retired/retired men, a total of about 75 people, last year and their response was very positive.

Overall, I have had about an average of 25 percent men in the talks thus far and those who attend seem extremely interested in making an Ethical Will. Often they attend because their wives encourage them to attend the session together. But, I think that my numbers are largely due to the fact that women are more easily accessed for me. That is, my contacts come from and through community groups – religious groups, senior programs, organizational groups – and those tend to be largely women. So, I don’t have any greater insight into this, i.e. why do women seek out information through community and why do they seek out socialization through community?

But men have written books on Ethical Wills. See especially Barry Baines’ Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Baines, along with Jack Riemer, are strongly associated with the modern advent of Ethical Wills.

Linda: What are the benefits to the writer of a Legacy Letter? What are the benefits to the recipient of a Legacy Letter?

Amy: Both the author and recipient of a Legacy Letter attain important benefits by writing a Legacy Letter, which Dr. Andrew Weill has said is a ‘spiritual gift of well being.’ The author can get a broad sense of the meaning of his/her life and the values that were meaningful. In addition, the author can give or get forgiveness as well as get a sense of existence beyond mortality, each offering important closure on what may be festering concerns. Writing a Legacy Letter is a profoundly satisfying experience. It is a life-affirming way to express and embrace your life experience.

For recipients, benefits include a sense of being loved, inspiration for difficult times, an enhanced personal identity, and hope for the future. Legacy Letters also help recipients to keep the spirit of a loved one strong as a source of comfort in the future.

There is a fair amount of research about writing ethical wills and on the importance of reminiscence therapy, of which life review like this is one activity.

Linda: When do you give the letter to the recipient? Or do you leave it with your will for them to read after you have passed on?

Amy: While these documents (and they can be in audio or video tape form as well) are often part of estate papers, they are also given on life milestones like graduations, 21st birthdays, and other occasions.

Linda: Is there a way to see samples of Legacy Letters?

Amy: You can check the Internet for examples. Also, there are many books that include a sampling of Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters, such as the Barry Baines’ book mentioned above. But, please remember that these Letters are most powerful to the intended recipient, within the context of the relationship. Sometimes, outside the relationship of the writer/recipient the Letters might read like a typical or ordinary story; however, within the relationship when the love and caring are personally brought into the reading of the letter it becomes a most powerful document.

Linda: Why write a Legacy Letter? What is the most compelling reason to write a letter to your family or friends?

Amy: In this digital and highly mobile age, we may find ourselves having fewer and fewer human conversations and know less about our family histories and values. Yet, human contact and family connectedness is an important foundation for life. The Legacy Letter is a vehicle to help preserve this human connectedness and, in many instances if provided during the author’s lifetime, can serve to open impactful conversation on a wide array of topics between author and recipient. One need not be wealthy to leave this legacy – it is truly an inheritance more valuable than money.

Thank you, Amy.

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

 

Advertisements

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from 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

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

Earth Day 2017: How Will You Celebrate?

The theme for the 2017 Earth Day, the 47th year of this holiday celebrating the earth, is Environmental and Climate Literacy. The organizers of Earth Day want to empower everyone with the knowledge to act in defense of environmental protection. The hashtag for the event is #CountTo50.

Here are some ways to celebrate the day.

Create no waste.

Who better than Recyclebank to challenge us to A Day Without Waste? Accept their challenge and they will help coach you through the day. And you can follow their own progress on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ZeroWasteDay.

https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/a-day-without-waste?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=ADayWithoutWaste&utm_campaign=Seasonal

Recycle your old technology.

Honor the earth and get money back too. The office supply company Staples is offering a $10 off $30 coupon for recycling your unused tech.

http://www.staples.com/sbd/cre/marketing/sustainability-center/earth-day/index.html

Compost your trash.

Are you ready to dispose of your potato peelings and eggshells in an earth-friendly way? Here’s some help to get you started.

http://www.makeandtakes.com/its-not-trashy-to-compost

Join the March for Science.

Earth Day Network and the March for Science are co-organizing a rally and teach-in on the National Mall in that will include speeches and trainings, musical performances, and a march through the streets of Washington, D.C. Gather at 8 am and the teach-in will begin at 9 am.

http://www.earthday.org/marchforscience/

Switch to clean energy.

You can take one simple step and along with others make a big impact together – for a brighter, healthier future.

http://www.earthdayinitiative.org/countto50

Learn more about climate change.

“The climate has always been changing – but the pace at which it is now changing is faster than humans have ever seen. Climate change threatens to make parts of the planet uninhabitable or inhospitable for life as we know… In short, it is the most pressing global challenge we have ever faced.”

http://www.conservation.org/what/Pages/Climate.aspx

How are you going to give back on Earth Day 2017? How will you contribute to a more sustainable future? Share your plans for the day in a comment below. We would love to hear from 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

Decluttering: A Soupçon of Insight, a Splash of Awareness, and a Morsel of Understanding

decluttering-man-with-papers

Getting rid of the clutter, becoming more organized, and having less stuff is as much about life as it is about our living rooms. Here’s some more wisdom from the ages from a variety of people, some famous, some not.

Having less stuff helps … with everything.

“Decluttering goes beyond possessions—you make peace with your past, take control of your present, set course for your future.” – Francine Jay

Getting organized is contagious.

Julie Morgenstern tweeted: “The act of creating space in any one area fuels your ability to clear out space across many realms.”

Just start.

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney

There is no “right” moment.

“A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.” – John Henry Newman

No need for panic. You can always make a different decision.

“It is wise to keep in mind that neither success nor failure is ever final.” – Roger Babson

Getting rid of the clutter is an ongoing process.

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” – Marie Curie

Of course, there’s our mantra: Keep the memories, toss the object.

“Here’s what it comes down to, really: There is now so much stuff in my head. Memories and lessons learned have taken the place of possessions.” – Anna Quindlen

And one last bit of insight.

“Whatever advice you give, be brief.” – Horace

Wishing you a less cluttered and more organized year ahead.

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 Wisdom of Gratitude

picture_sunflower-1

It’s getting to be that time of the year where we are supposed to count our blessings, but expressing gratitude year round, each and every day, has many benefits say experts on the subject.

“For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult…[but] acting grateful can actually make you grateful,” says Arthur C. Brooks in a New York Times article. That may be true, and acting grateful may help people, but it’s still difficult for many of us to incorporate the expression of gratitude into our lives.

Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, explains that gratitude has two key components. “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received,” and secondly, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

In John Tierney’s article on gratitude at a family Thanksgiving, he notes an experiment at Northeastern University that showed that students who had been helped were more likely to volunteer to help someone else—even a complete stranger. He quotes Sonia Lyubomirsky of the University of California, who advises, “Say thank you for every thoughtful or kind gesture.” So it’s good to remember that helping others and saying thank you will help us be more grateful.

And gratitude is good for us. An article in Psychology Today states that “Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.”

For hands-on help in cultivating gratitude, you can check out “A Practical Guide To Gratitude” at Unstuck. It acknowledges that when “it’s hard to see positive forces when obstacles are blaring,” that is just the time to be grateful, to appreciate what’s not stuck about our lives.

Having read all these articles in a short time makes me feel more ready to express my gratitude. Here’s my thank-you list.

  • With all the cleaning out and decluttering we’ve been doing, I’m thankful for the stuff I have to give away, both to those struck by disaster and to those who are simply in need.
  • I’m grateful for my friends. To my best women friends, my group of women, my extended family of friends, the women I work with and the women I volunteer with, thank you to all of you who have helped me and supported me through this most trying year.
  • I’m thankful for my family, to my husband for being here, always, and to my kids for their love and care and concern.

What are you thankful for this year? How will you incorporate gratitude into your life?

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

6 things I learned from 6 years of blogging

house-sized

Six years ago next month we introduced ourselves to the world of blogging with this blog, Downsizing The Home: Lessons Learned.

Our journey began when my coauthor and I shared our personal downsizing stories with each other, stories of helping our fathers empty our childhood homes as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. We were surprised at how powerful the emotions connected to family possessions could be and, at the same time, how easy it was to let go of many things.

We decided we wanted to share the information we had gathered with others who were going though the same process, and the result was our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. As we promoted the book, our path led to new media and to this blog.

Six things I learned from blogging:

It’s easier said than done.

It’s much easier to write about downsizing and decluttering than it is to actually downsize and declutter. That may come as a surprise to many of the people who read our blog or listen to us speak. Many times at my talks, someone comments about what a neat house I must have. Not so. But I do own up to it and express to everyone what a struggle it is to keep things organized and to make decisions about what we own and what we are willing to let go of.

People are wonderful!

People have so many interesting and inventive ways to rid themselves of clutter and excess and I’ve learned so much from others. I’ve met such wonderful people, many of them as online voices only, who have shared both strategies and advice, as well as many poignant stories, who have shared thoughtful ways to deal with others who see the clutter – and life – differently than we do, people who have inspired me to write about them and share their lives and their work with you. I have been helped enormously by listening to the voices of others.

Think outside the box.

Or, in this case, outside the book. We came to realize that we could stretch ourselves and go beyond our original focus. Our blog has given us the chance to go further and explore deeper than the scope of our book and to include thoughts about recycling and upcycling, views on how to live with less—and happily so, and a vision of how to treasure what we have, without the need to always have more. Writing posts that explore issues beyond the book has expanded my horizons.

Done is better than perfect.

And here’s a shout-out to all the other mantras that help me keep moving: Just do it. Start now. See beyond. And a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I find so helpful, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Life often does circle back.

The blog started with our book and ultimately comes back to our book but, oh, the places we have been! In some ways, as a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that our book exists. But having the opportunity to explore so many aspects of life with our readers, beyond the downsizing process we wrote about originally, has been such a privilege for me.

We are a community.

Yes, we are a community, you and I and everyone else in this Internet family constellation. I love hearing your thoughts and stories, in your own blogs and when you leave a comment on our blog. I’m so pleased when you follow us on Twitter and share our tweets, and when you share our Facebook posts. I love hearing from you. We are all in this together – and you have welcomed me into the group.

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

%d bloggers like this: