How Wide is Your Window of Tolerance?

A statue of Peter Stuyvesant wearing appropriate PPE.

New times bring new thoughts, or how do we adapt to the times we’re now living in? Several terms are cropping up in social media that can help us rethink and perhaps better understand what we’re going through.

And one of them is not a new definition of cranky people. Cranky still means “given to fretfulness, easily angered, ill-tempered, grouchy, cross.” Sound familiar? Sheltering at home is not always easy. Sometimes resilience is just putting one foot in front of the other.

Someone has asked, “How wide does your window of tolerance have to be?” Window of tolerance, a term coined by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a psychiatrist, is defined as the zone in which people are able to function most effectively.

“When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.”

How wide does our window of tolerance have to be for us to adapt to the disconnection and solitude we are experiencing, to being alone and not having the company of family and friends? What can we do so we don’t feel overwhelmed and withdrawn, which are legitimate feelings in these times. Much food for thought.

One of the ways in which we can be more tolerant of our situation is that we are now better able to see what is essential, another current meme. We now know we don’t need things, we need people, so the media is telling us. It makes me smile, a bit ruefully, that my coauthor and I have been talking about this for nearly two decades, as have others involved in the world of downsizing and decluttering. But now it seems that our message if being heard, loud and clear, by a newer and bigger audience.

What do I miss most? A friend says she can’t wait to invite us over for tea and cookies (she’s a great baker) and I can’t wait to accept her invitation. I would like the library to reopen, even if it’s just to pick up books. And I would love to get a haircut. I would like to greet my favorite people at the farmers market from a distance closer than 6 feet. I don’t miss going to the theater as much as I thought I would, maybe because there is so much available online. I don’t miss in-person meetings (although video conferencing is getting to be a drag). I would love to get on public transportation so I could visit loved ones who are a train ride away.

This need to rethink our lives brings us another new term, or rather an old term that has found new relevance: a circular economy. What this means is to reuse or recirculate what you have.

In practical terms, it means to darn your socks (as my coauthor pointed out a few weeks ago), patch your jeans, wear clothes until they wear out or pass them along to someone who will. It’s a world of wearing hand-me-down clothes, fixing electronics when possible to make them last longer, borrowing books from the library (which is not possible right now) or sharing your books and jigsaw puzzles with others. It’s a world of eating leftovers, not wasting food. It’s making protective face masks from old t-shirts. It’s carrying a bag with you when you shop, being willing to forego the free plastic shopping bags. It’s a world where we care more about the planet and its people than we do about what we can get or own or have.

We widen our window of tolerance, which helps us see that people matter more than things and that makes us more caring of the world around us.

Stay safe. Stay well. Keep sharing what you have.

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 Matters

Bryant Park, New York City

An update on our situation seems unnecessary since the virus dominates the news these days. Being alone, or alone with our significant other, becomes a time to ponder, to wonder about life, and to think about what matters.

Here are some of the things that matter to me.

Helping others. I continue to be in awe of the people who offer services to those in need, to buy and deliver food, to pick up medication, to run errands. Very selfless, and so needed. Many of us are trying to help support local businesses, those still open for pick up and delivery only. We want them to stay in business, to make it through this difficult time and to be here when we’re able to be out and about again.

Offering support. Every night, promptly at 7 pm, neighbors everywhere hang out their windows or step outside their buildings to clap for the healthcare workers. At first my inner curmudgeon came out and I said why clap, why not send masks and other PPE. But now I realize how bonding this applause is. We’re in this together.

An amazing number of people do make masks to donate and many people donate money to the various charities that help support the helpers. This week the groundskeepers at Bryant Park, adjacent to the New York Public Library, mowed a heart in the grassy center of the park, as a tribute to the first responders. How wonderful is that.

Being distracted. Or being focused. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, whichever works for you in the moment. For the first couple of weeks, I worked out to an exercise class on Zoom every day (you can see that didn’t last long) and I’ve also taken classes in literation and in popular culture.

Teleconferencing platforms allow me to continue to meet with my women’s groups weekly as well as participate in my book club and in one of the boards I’m on. Jigsaw puzzles take focus and are wonderfully distracting, a good combination. And I read. I realized that I probably have enough books to keep me busy for the rest of my life (when it comes to books, no decluttering or downsizing here), and that’s comforting. To quote Louise Penny about one of her characters, “Stories lined the walls and both insulated [me] from the outside world and connected [me] to it.”

Having hope. Staying put is hard but we’re all in this together. So grateful for the many helpers. So grateful for friends and family and keeping in touch. So grateful for a moment to pause. May we all have the hope and the vision to see a new world, one where compassion and caring are more important than “getting and spending” (to quote Wordsworth).

Be safe. Be healthy. Be kind.

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

Sheltering in Place: Me and My Stuff

Broadway looking north from 43rd Street — with theaters closed and no traffic.           Photo by Peter Macklin

When I first started putting together this post, my sheltering in place was voluntary, now we’re in “pause” and, since New York City has become the epicenter of the virus in the United States, no one knows how long it will be before we are in total lockdown, something our much praised governor, Andrew Cuomo, is reluctant to do. It is difficult to imagine New York City in total lockdown. We hope it never comes to that.

Everything is changing by the minute and so much has been written and posted already about how to cope with sheltering at home, social distancing, and the emotional upheaval of it all that it’s difficult to say anything new. But I would like to add some personal thoughts.

Be useful.

In our downsizing and decluttering world that means we tackle a clutter issue, we use this time to sort through and possibly pass along things we no longer need. I was fortunate to get a couple of bags to Housing Works, a thrift store that uses its income to help the sick and needy, right before they closed. Literally, an hour before they closed down for the foreseeable future. (What’s foreseeable? Who knows how long that will be.) A neighbor and friend is a doctor who volunteers at shelters and she is always grateful for clothing and toiletries. I took several bags of clothing my daughter had left here and brought them to her front door, just a block away. It was social distancing since we did not meet face to face. Many friends have posted about cleaning our their closets, going through their drawers, straightening kitchen cabinets, and redoing their spice cabinet. I’m not there yet.

Be kind.

Several people in our neighborhood list-serv have offered to go to the grocery store or pharmacy or run errands for others. A woman in my building posted in the mailroom that she would do the same for any residents. That selflessness blows me away.

If we choose not to go out, from the comfort of our homes we can call friends who are alone, chat via any of the web-based videoconferencing platforms, and we can pass along via email all the opportunities to participate online. One morning I took a tour of the orchid show at the New York Botanical Gardens, listened to a concert by a singer/friend’s accompanist, and shared a video of the students at The Berklee College of Music’s rendition of “What The World Needs Now.” Last night I watched a reading of a Broadway play.

And we can be kind to ourselves. I started my day with an online meditation followed by a restorative yoga class. Many of us are working from home and Team Vertellis urges us to be grateful for that. Many others do not have that option, most importantly, health care workers. We are grateful for their dedication. We are also grateful for the first responders, the truck drivers who deliver food, the people who work in our grocery stores and pharmacies, and people who make deliveries, all of whom make our lives better. Thank you for your service.

Be creative.

Many of my friends are posting photos and recipes of the most tantalizing meals, ones that make me hungry and envious. Cooking elaborate meals is not my forte. Soup is more my thing. Other friends are knitting and crocheting. Busy hands are happy hands, as they say, but I’ve found it difficult to focus on a knitting project. Some people are sharing their expertise online. While others are binge-watching shows they hadn’t had time to watch before. I just started The Stranger. Not sure watching television qualifies are creative. Perhaps continuing to read interesting books is a form of creativity.

Be careful.

We are all washing our hands, wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant, keeping our distance (a cotton scarf folded over helps keep out 50 percent of the germs, so I’ve read), or are simply staying home. Many of us have posted the meme where healthcare workers in a hospital hold cards that say: We stay here for you, please stay home for us. We belong at home, the safest place we can be right now. Stay safe. And keep others safe.

This is our disaster. But we can learn from the experiences of others.

Two interesting points from Jon Mooallem. In his New York Times Sunday Review essay about the great earthquake in Alaska in 1964 and how people got through it, he described the cluttered basement where rescuers found 30 boxes in which an Anchorage radio broadcaster had “assiduously packed thousands of letters, photographs, diaries, audio recordings and other material from her life. Here it was: all the joys and agonies of one person’s life, but so blurred and compressed that it was impossible not to recognize the form that all our lives assume from such a telescopic distance — a forgettable blip, a meaningless straight line from birth to death.” Gives one pause, especially for the keepers among us. Does it take a disaster to remind us that stuff is just stuff and it’s people that matter?

Soon after learning of the earthquake, disaster researches expected to witness the breakdown of a society but, upon arrival, “immediately began discovering the opposite: The community was meeting the situation with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

Wishing everyone safety and health and an opportunity to share with loved ones. We need to face the situation our world is in right now “with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

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

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

What Are We Going to Keep in 2020?

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on what the past year has been like and what our hopes are for the upcoming year.

A few weeks ago I was looking up something online and came across a comment about our book that asked about what we keep, especially the commenter wanted to know, of the things left to us by our parents. That set me to thinking about what I keep. How many of us question what we choose to keep? And do we question it often enough?

Last month I saw a play by British performance artist Daniel Kitson called “keep” which was a kind of meditation on the things we keep. He starts to read a list of his 20,000 possessions, each noted on an index card kept in an old-fashioned library card catalog, one of the few props onstage. The list reading gets derailed, for obvious reasons, but along the way Kitson makes some thought-provoking statements:” I feel this responsibility to objects” and “It’s my stuff to deal with.” Does that responsibility mean we have to live with all that stuff? Does dealing with it extend to getting rid of the objects in a responsible, caring way?

The title of one review of the play is “Comedian Daniel Kitson rants about the joy – and tyranny – of stuff.” Joy and tyranny do come up often. In a somewhat anti-Marie Kondo moment, Kitson says, “if you’re only keeping stuff that makes you happy, you have only ever been happy.” Coming from the curmudgeonly comedian that is he, that is a very startling comment. He fully admits his memories are not all happy ones. So as writer Nicole Serratore says, keeping things is sometimes harder than you realize.

At one point Kitson says that holding onto stuff is a way of bringing the person you once were into the present. Is that why we keep so many of the things that belonged to our parents? Looking at his stuff is an exploration of how one presents oneself to the world. Are we better people with all our stuff or would we be better people if we gave away much of it? Kitson calls his home “a museum of me for me.” Which made me think: what does my museum look like? Do I really need a museum or can I keep the memory and let go of the object as we say in our book?

All these questions about our stuff are ones that will help propel us into the new year. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I’m hoping that the year 2020 will be one with some answers.

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

100 Years Ago

 

One day in early November was the day my father would have been 100 years old. I mentioned it on Facebook for family and friends to see but wasn’t sure I was going to write anything more about it.

Well, 100 years does deserve it’s own post.

My father taught me a lot about history, both history of our family and history of the world because he loved to read about it and see plays about it – and because he lived it, at least to me.

The photo of my father was taken in Brooklyn, New York, when he was about two years old, I would guess, looking a bit scared on a rather large pony. I always thought it a bit odd that he was posed on a pony on a Brooklyn sidewalk. But a few years ago I read a novel about a family who lived in lower Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. In the story a man brings a pony around so children can be photographed on it. I felt history come alive.

My mother and father in the 1940s

A favorite memory for me was when we visited the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site with my father and my children. It was supposed to be the first of two activities that day but we spent the entire afternoon in the museum. My father had to examine every exhibit, read every plaque on the wall and every letter in the case. He was observing history the way he liked to do it, absorbed in the experience.

As I wrote in an earlier post, he kept many things that spoke of his history, records like his baptismal certificate, yearbooks from high school and college, and many, many photographs. He loved taking pictures. And thankfully, his family kept photos of my father and his sister, photos that bring me back to a time long before I was born.

My father lived a long life, 92 years, with some heartbreak, his father died when he was young, and much love, with a family he created with my mother, the woman he adored.

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

“Throw It Away”

@Michael Ginsburg

Last week I attended a memorial service for a much-loved cabaret singer that consisted almost entirely of other entertainers singing songs. It was lovely, both entertaining and exceptionally moving.

One singer sang Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” with each chorus starting with that line “Throw it away” repeated twice. The songwriter was singing about past loves and the need to live and love for today. I thought of people I had loved and lost but I couldn’t help thinking about the things they left behind, the things my loved ones owned that now belong to me.

Why can’t I “throw it away” and move on? One line of the song caught my ear: “Cause you never lose a thing if it belongs to you.” I have the memories, they belong to me, and I can’t lose them. Keeping the memories gives me permission to find new homes for the things I no longer need.

With that in my mind, I read a blog post this week that seemed to carry these thoughts even further along. The writer’s subject was thinking about the future and, once again, I thought about all my stuff.

The writer suggested we think with intention. I have so often intended to get rid of things and not followed through. I have to be more vigilant about my intentions and more specific, like setting timelines and designating places to donate my stuff.

The writer suggested that we examine our self talk. Are we being more negative than we realize? I am capable of following through on my intentions of getting rid of too much stuff and I have to remember to speak positively about those intentions. Self talk that denigrates me does not help at all.

In another post I read the writer underscored the idea of owning your story. The writer suggested that we tell our best story and then own it. The idea that we see the best in ourselves is not always easy but we can try. One of the characteristics of successful people is that they see their own best story. I want to own my story, a story that reflects the best in me.

Isn’t it interesting how the universe seems to conspire in a way that we see and hear words and thoughts that apply to the thing we have been thinking about? Or, if one does not believe that the universe conspires to help us we can say: When we have a topic we are mulling over, we are so much more attuned to everything around us that pertains to that topic.

James Clear sends out a weekly email called 3-2-1 Thursday with three ideas, two quotes and one question. In this week’s email was the question: “What is one thing you can remove from your life that would improve it?”

Could there be a better question for me this week? I don’t think so. Did the universe conspire so that I would see that question? I hope so! What is one thing I can remove from my life that would improve it? What is the one thing you would remove from your life that would improve it? Let me know your suggestions.

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

Something I Thought I Would Never Say…

A couple of months ago my daughter stopped by to borrow a couple of books to take with her on her vacation. She was very specific about what she wanted: a serious nonfiction book, something she could learn from, and a lighter book, a beach read maybe, and preferably something that was funny or light-hearted.

The nonfiction book she had in mind was a book that I had given away, miraculously perhaps, but I do get rid of books from time to time.

I started looking on the bookshelves between the living room and the dining room and pulled down some books I thought might meet her requirements.

Then I went into my bedroom where there are two bookshelves, one that takes up most of one wall. Again, I took down a few books.

My night table has only three books on it, ones that I am supposedly reading, but not really, because I don’t read in bed that much anymore. But there is a pile of about a dozen books on the floor next to my bed, a pile that is my “to read” list, and much too large and cumbersome to sit on the night table. Again I chose some books.

My daughter went through the books asking about the ones I had read and the ones I had planned to read. After much discussion, she wasn’t really happy with any of the choices. We ended up loading a few books onto my Kindle, including the nonfiction book she had come looking for, and she took that with her.

Now I had several piles of books in my living room that needed to go back to their respective shelves. Or did they? As my daughter and I had talked about the books, I realized that many of them that I had planned to read no longer really interested me.

I have written about purging my books shelves before, here and here. But more recently I wrote about emptying my closet completely in order to have repair work done. The empty closet was an inspiration. The idea of starting with an empty space (or an empty bookshelf) and working to put back what I wanted to keep rather than taking out what I wanted to give away was so liberating.

What if I got rid of, donated, all of my books, and just brought back in the ones that really have meaning for me. The lure of completely empty bookshelves (well, empty except for multiple copies of books I’ve written and my mother’s childhood books – I’m already qualifying what I’m willing to get rid of) was compelling.

Empty bookshelves. What an appealing thought. That’s something I thought I would never say. I haven’t gotten rid of any books yet. But the idea intrigues me. I’m not sure how this will play out but I’ll keep you posted.

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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