Poignant Personal Stories Are Motivation for Living With Less

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Touching stories, sometimes heartrending, always deeply personal, help us see our lives more clearly. These authors, all declutterers and minimalists to varying degrees, have engrossing stories that explain how they got to the realization, whether sudden or painstakingly forged over time, that less is indeed more.

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

Joshua Fields Millburn grew up poor and worked very hard to become a poor man’s version of a rich man. He made more than enough money to have a nice house with lots of furniture, a nice car, and more tech toys than he could possibly use.

He was not happy. The idea that he could do something more meaningful with his life nagged him. “Something I’m passionate about,” he says. “Although it’s usually codified with statements of significance—declarations of  “following one’s passion”—I simply refer to it as my life’s mission.” His mission, he decided, was to divest himself of most of the things he owned.

His epiphany: Having less makes what you have more meaningful.

He thought, “If I adjust my lifestyle to revolve around experiences instead of material possessions, then I need much less money to live a fulfilled life. As long as I earn enough money to provide my basic needs—rent, utilities, meals, insurance, savings—then I can find my happiness in other ways.”

He embraced uncertainty. “I didn’t really have a grandiose plan in which every detail was set and every contingency was outlined. And I certainly didn’t have an end goad. Instead, I knew my direction, and I knew how to start walking in that direction.”

And walking in that direction led him to write a book, a self-published book.

 

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The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under the Things You Own by Joshua Becker

Joshua Becker was spring cleaning with his wife and kids one Memorial Day weekend. He and his son started in the garage. His son worked a bit and then went into the backyard to play. As Joshua stood there watching his son, conflicted with wanting to play with him and wanting to clean out the garage, his neighbor said, “Maybe you don’t need to own all this stuff.”

His epiphany: The best things in life aren’t things.

He asked, “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of the world?” He states that a desire for security and a craving for acceptance are two basic human objectives that “we can foolishly try to fulfill by overaccumulating.”

Early in his journey towards simplicity, he says, that one of his favorite decluttering techniques was to grab a large trash bag and to see how quickly he could fill it. Sometimes he collected trash, sometimes he gathered things that went to charity.

One revelation that spoke to me was getting rid of things, like a tennis racket, that are not who we are now. He says, “It was tough to give up my hope of being someone I am not and not likely to become.”

Don’t settle for less, says Becker, find the freedom to pursue the things that matter the most to you.

And what mattered the most to him was to write a book about his experiences.

 

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White Walls:A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between by Judy Batalion.

Judy Batalion grew up in a house filled with stuff: tuna fish cans, items of clothing still in packages, pens, papers and magazines, almost all bought as bargains by her mother who is a hoarder. She says of her mother, “She built bigger and bigger walls around her to protect herself but all she was doing was creating a smaller and smaller, deathly dangerous universe inside.”

Of her mother, she says, “I glanced at the bags under her eyes, shelves that stored sadness.” Reflecting on her dysfunctional family, Batalion discovers that her grandmother, a Polish Jewish immigrant who escaped the Holocaust, also used accumulating things as a way to heal her wounds.

When Batalion leaves her Montreal home, travels to Europe, she lives a minimalist life in an apartment with white walls, a vivid contrast to her childhood home.

Her epiphany: She was looking for a home.

“I was not my heritage of trauma and terror…I had been seeking something intangible. But Jon [her soon-to-be husband] was real. He was my home, which I now understood was not about a certain place, present or past, but between us. It was the ability to be your self around those you loved.”

And from a quest for a home that reflected who she is, Batalion wrote a book, a memoir that is poignant, funny, and warm.

We started our quest by emptying our childhood homes of decades and generations of stuff and wrote a book about it: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family HomeIs there a story behind your quest for less? We would love to hear your story.

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

Do You Have A Vision?

Peeking into the future.

Peeking into the future.

In the next few days, as 2016 comes to an end (not too soon for many of us) and 2017 begins, many people will make resolutions – or at least think about making them.

One definition of resolution is “a firm decision to do or not do something” but, as many of us know from past experience, resolutions are hardly firm. Another part of the definition is “the action of solving a problem.” Yet, can we be honest, how many problems do we solve with New Year’s resolutions?

So instead of looking at the problems we need to solve or the things we do not want to continue to do, let’s look at how we want to see ourselves.

A man in one of my downsizing talks asked me, “Do you have a vision?” and I thought what a great question. He was asking about a vision of a less cluttered life; do the steps we take make more sense if we have a vision of what we want our homes to look like. But it’s also a question about life in general. What if we looked at our vision, the end goal, what we want our lives to look like, rather than at the steps or resolutions we need to take to get there.

For the new year, I would like to set goals for myself, goals that will help me meet a vision of myself that is more positive. Goals like having more kindness in my life, being more minimalist – yes, more of less, and having more gratitude for each day. I want to have a vision of myself as a better person.

Here are five areas where I envision a better version of myself.

*I would like to be more positive.

And I definitely want to be less negative, less anxious, less stressed, less judgmental and less of all the other things that I usually am. I want to take to heart the wonderful words of Gandhi.

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”

*I would like to be more thankful.

The quality of being thankful has been defined as the readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. As someone wise said, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” In a previous post I wrote about the wisdom of gratitude.

*I want to work forwards rather than backwards.

It helps to think of “ought” as the operative word according to Harold Schulweis, an author and activist who said, “Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future.” It’s not what I am doing but what I ought to be doing. A great insight for New Year’s resolution makers.

*I would like to realize a dream.

Someone said childhood dreams never leave us, but we leave them. What would we do if we knew we could not fail? Lily Tomlin had it right when she said, “I always wanted to be someone, but now I realize I needed to be more specific.” Can we be more specific? What is one task or project or dream we have been putting off and what is one thing we could do to get started?

*I would like to be an even better friend.

Friendship, the coming together of people I value greatly, has meant a lot to me these last few years and I want to continue to be a good friend to my best women friends, my group of women, my extended family of friends, the men and women I work with, and the people I volunteer with.

So I will take a deep breath – or better yet do some yoga breathing – as I look forward to working on a more positive me.

As we approach the new year, I would like to share with you wise words from Susan Sontag in her Vassar College commencement speech in 2003.

“I haven’t talked about love. Or about happiness. I’ve talked about becoming – or remaining – the person who can be happy, a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it’s all about. It’s not. It’s about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.”

A happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year to all.

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

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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

Collecting: The Things We Love…

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“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

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Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

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And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

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In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

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Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space 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

Our Need to Quantify

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We seem to have a need to quantify everything. Is this a particularly American trait or is it something that appeals to certain personality traits? I wonder how many people are attracted to this idea? (That question, in itself, is a need to quantify!)

Sometimes quantifying works: People who are successful at losing weight often tract their food amounts and athletes who want to improve their performance keep logs and then try to best their own record. Sometimes it doesn’t work. The national controversy with testing school children has led many to conclude that children are being deprived of learning self-motivation, of time to explore, of just being children.

Does quantifying work for decluttering? The 80/20 rule, another way of quantifying, states that we use about 20 percent of our stuff 80 percent of the time. If that’s true, which I’m sure it is, perhaps some of these suggestions will be helpful.

Joshua Becker if his book The More of Less: Finding The Life You Want Under Everything You Own suggests that we get rid of 50 percent of what we own, to try to live with only half of what we have now. He asks “Am I buying too much stuff because deep down I think it will insulate me from the harms of the world?” We need to embrace security without over accumulating.

In The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, Dave Bruno explains how he downsized his possessions to only 100 items. He says his challenge was “a handy way to get rid of stuff that was never going to fix my past or make me someone that I was not.” It was serious soul-searching as well as earnest decluttering.

Marie Kondo, in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On The Art Of Organizing And Tidying Up, her second book, focuses on time rather than on the number of items. She feels strongly that decluttering, what she defines as finding what gives you joy and getting rid of what doesn’t, should be done quickly, not over time.

Another way to quantify our downsizing is the 40 Bags in 40 Days decluttering challenge. The writer of the blog White House, Black Shutters offers tips on how to do this and lists the rules (there really aren’t any) for anyone who wants to accept the challenge.

Rather than getting rid of stuff as these authors have done, many people have vowed not to buy more stuff. Just search for “no shopping blogs” and you will find many people who have documented a year in their lives when they chose to not buy any new items. For some, after seeing how much space they had and how easy it was to live with less, it became a permanent way of life.

In his book Joshua Becker writes about a shorter challenge: a woman named Courtney created a personal experiment called Project 333 where for 3 months she allowed herself only 33 items of clothing (not including underwear and sleepwear).

Dave Bruno writes that “downsizing not only would help take care of what I’d accumulated over the years…it was also going to be my way forward.”

Are we ready to move forward? That always involves change and this first week in July is Take Charge of Change Week. Let’s take charge of change in our lives. What can we get rid of?

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 Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

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

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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