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

 

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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

Gifts That Have Meaning

Gifts that have meaning_art

Much has been made lately – the topic seems to come up every year – about gift giving in this season of so much stuff. Do we buy too much? Do we have too much? Are gifts really necessary?

Here’s a look at some gifts that have meaning and resonate far beyond the gift itself. A gift of a donation to one of these groups, or to so many other worthy causes, is a gift that can have a lasting impact.

Gifts that help the environment and its creatures

Although we can and do applaud the United Nations Climate Agreement that was signed this month in Paris, there is still much to be done to protect our planet.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $2-for$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, triples the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer Foundation helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Projects that help people here and around the world

A favorite place of mine to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here are a few suggestions from his columns over last few years.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the website, click on the Gift Shop for handmade items.

Buy a rat! In Angola, “Hero Rats” have been trained to sniff out land mines and save the lives of humans who used to do the job. At Apopo Foundation you can adopt a rat for $7 a month.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

A gift of food for those in need

We all love to eat and the season from Thanksgiving through the New Year provides so many opportunities to eat wonderful food – and often to overdo it. Not everyone gets to share in this bounty. Here is a way to help those in need.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season by choosing gifts with meaning. Let’s make a difference this holiday season by choosing to help those in need.

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

Simple Practices: Forming New Habits and Taking Conscious Risks

Better Than Before Risk-Reward

 

Earlier this week I attended an author series featuring two best-selling authors whose new books “challenge readers’ daily approach to work and life.” Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, and Anne Kreamer, author of Risk/Reward: Why Intelligent Leaps and Daring Choices Are the Best Career Moves You Can Make, take a look at new ways to approach the small moments in work and in life.

There are two kinds of people in the world, or so it’s said, those who divide people into categories and those who don’t, and Rubin and Kreamer definitely divide by category—as a way to better understand ourselves, say the authors.

In Better Than Before Gretchen Rubin’s thesis is that the key to changing our lives is to change our habits. The more we develop habits, the less we have to depend on willpower. “One of the easiest ways to conserve willpower is to make a behavior into a habit. When something is a habit, we don’t…have to make decisions.” In the book, Rubin identifies 21 strategies to use to make or break habits that will work for each of the personality types she identifies: Upholder (one who meets inner and outer expectations), Questioner (one who resists outer expectations but meets inner ones), Obliger (one who meets outer expectations but resists inner ones), and Rebel (one who resists inner and outer expectations).

The takeaway: What bad habits do we have – dropping the mail as soon as we come in, not putting things away when we’re finished with them – that we could change by creating good habits? How would this transform our issues with clutter?

Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, which we talked about here.

In Risk/Reward Anne Kreamer says that embracing “conscious, consistent, and modest risk-taking at work can help us become more able to recognize opportunity when it appears, and more likely to seize the chance to make the right change at the right moment.” Much of this seems relevant to managing our homes, too. Kreamer writes about four Risk/Reward personality types: Pioneers, Thinkers, Defenders, and Drifters, and presents a matrix so the reader can identify his or her own innate risk style.

The takeaway: What conscious risk can we take – one that may seem radical at first but is really modest – that will directly alter the way we look at the tasks we perform to keep our homes in order? How will this help us make the right change at the right moment?

Both authors show how a little thought, a little more awareness about what we do each day can lead us to rethink our routines. What works for us, and what doesn’t? If something doesn’t work, can we shed it and replace it with a habit that does work? If a practice works for us, can we enhance it and make it work even better? Are we up to the challenge of taking a risk to change our behavior?

The key takeaway from these authors is to be aware of the small things we do every day and to make those moments more meaningful. As Gretchen Rubin says, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” Here’s to forming new habits and taking conscious risks to make our days better.

GretchenRubinPix
Gretchen Rubin signing books at @Macaulay Author Series.

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

 

“Downsizing into a Bigger Life”

We are pleased to share with you an article written by Gail Kauranen Jones for her blog Becoming You: Your Authentic Self. Originally posted on 2/17/14.

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“Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life. ” — Eleanor Roosevelt

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Where Do You Start?

stuff illo

Last week, I participated in a downsizing roundtable for seniors and the question everyone asked was, “Where do you start?” From my experience in writing our book Moving On and our blog, here’s what I’ve learned.

Whether you are moving to a smaller place, straightening up because your apartment is going to be painted, or simply have that feeling that your possessions have taken over, the first question – and sometimes the one that stops you in your tracks – is always how do you get started. Here are some suggestions.

Start now. You can think about this, you can lament having to do it, but at some point you simply have to plunge in – even if “starting” simply means beginning to think about what you want to get rid of and talking to people about the best way to do that. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will become. If you’re older, the sooner you start, the more you’ll be able to be actively involved in the process of sorting through your things. And whether you’re old or young, that means that the changes you’re about to make will be on your terms, not someone else’s.

Take your time. The best way not become overwhelmed with the process of downsizing is to take your time. Schedule regular sessions, maybe just a half hour at a time, adding a few 2- to 3-hour sessions when needed. Doing too much at once may exhaust you and make you postpone starting another session. Keep your sessions short but make them a regular habit.

Start with the easy things. Begin with the areas that have the least emotional impact for you because it will be easier to part with those things. For some, that might be getting rid of old towels (a welcome donation at most animal shelters). For others it might be that pile of unread magazines or the kitchen utensils in that overstuffed kitchen drawer. Start with whatever area works best for you.

Start small. Don’t try to do too much at one time. If it took you 20 or 30 years to accumulate all that clutter, it will take you more than a couple of weeks to sort through it all. And any job that seems overwhelming can be broken down into smaller parts. If going through your clothes is too big a job to contemplate, divide the clothes into smaller groups: office clothes, casual wear, shoes, coats, accessories, and tackle each group separately.

Communicate. Talk over your plans with your family and friends; let them know that you want to get your home in order. Seek out people who have been through the experience of downsizing to find out what they did right—as well as what they did wrong. After the fact, people often have some insight as to what needs to be saved and what can be tossed. And ask for advice from friends and colleagues who are particularly well organized. The more you talk about getting organized and the more you embrace this as your project, the more likely you will be to get it done.

Get help. Nobody has to do this alone. When you are sorting through personal mementos like family photos or going through your income tax files, you’ll want to work alone. But if you need help deciding which clothes to keep and which to give away, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire to give you a helping hand. And anyone can help with carting things away; you could ask a teenage neighbor for help.

Think beyond. What this means is that for some of us, it’s easier to get rid of things when we know that the items will have a life beyond our needs. There are many places, well-known charities, schools, community groups, and businesses, that accept all kinds of household items from used roller skates to nearly new business suits, from college textbooks to sports equipment.

Enjoy the process. You can decide that this process has its upsides, that it’s not all onerous, and to do that you may have to adjust your attitude somewhat. You can also realize that this is an opportunity to be generous. People we interviewed found great joy in giving things away, whether to friends or to those in need. With the right attitude and an awareness of the needs of others, you can make this a positive experience.

Remember that one drawer emptied of its clutter or a couple of shelves in a closet that are organized and easier to use is a great accomplishment. Give yourself permission to feel good about the first small step you take; that will make it easier for you to go on to the next step. And downsizing is a process of many small steps.

So let’s get started.

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

Easy Ways to Clean Naturally

lemon and salt

We often talk in this space about helping the environment by reusing items to keep them out of the landfill and by being thoughtful with what we purchase. We believe that together we can difference in the world.

Making a difference in the world sounds a bit daunting though, doesn’t it, so let’s start in our homes. If charity begins at home, then maybe making environmentally responsible choices can begin there, too.

In making good choices at home, there’s no better place to start than with cleaning. We all clean, at least occasionally, and what we choose to use makes a big difference. When we use natural ingredients – almost all of which are easily available in the grocery store – we help the environment, reduce our exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, and leave our homes smelling better. And these ingredients cost less than commercial cleaners, too.

Here are four essential ingredients.

Baking soda – is an all-purpose cleaner. It soaks up dirt and grease, removes stains, and deodorizes.

Lemon juice – is a natural disinfectant that cuts through grease and can remove perspiration stains. It is fresh smelling.

Salt – can be used as an abrasive. For tough jobs, use Kosher salt, which has thicker crystals.

Vinegar – is a powerful cleaner. It cuts through grease, disinfects, and deodorizes.

Other ingredients you may want to add to your shopping list include hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant; essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, and lemongrass which impart a lovely fragrance or tea tree oil which is a natural disinfectant (oils are strong so use them sparingly); cornstarch for soaking up spills; and olive oil or beeswax for polishing furniture.

Put “natural cleaning ingredients” into a search engine and you will discover many formulas for cleaning all sorts of household items from pots and pans to the bathroom sink, from clothing to hairbrushes. Here are a few sites to check out.

Green Cleaning Recipes from The Daily Green

25 DIY Green Cleaning Recipes from Apartment Therapy

Spring Cleaning from broccoli cupcake

We can clean our homes, keep ourselves healthier, and help the environment, all at the same time.

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

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