A Poetic Response to Hoarding

 

Every month, Goodreads, a social network for readers, and the ¡POETRY! group host a poetry contest. They feel it’s a great way to discover and support the work of emerging poets.

The June contest winner, Susan J. Raineri, wrote a thoughtful poem about hoarding.

 

The Hoarder

People let her down,
time after time.

In the empty bed,
where people left spaces,
things piled up.

Her life became choked
and crowded with stuff
that stayed put.
Rooms filled to their brims
up to the ceiling.

Until, she could barely
walk amongst it all;
more things, more and
more things.
At least, she could
count on these things.

They sat there
and collected dust,
but, they never left her.

She could choose
what to keep
and what to throw out.
Mostly, she kept.

We are all hoarders
of something;
holding on to memories,
collecting love and hate,
saving up envy
for other people’s lives,

 

The poet says in a note about the punctuation that the comma at the end is on purpose so that the reader can add whatever they think.

Do we hold onto our things because they make us feel secure? Yes, indeed, says the poet but that sense of security is illusory. Do we hold onto them because we are troubled by the spaces they will leave behind if we give them away? Spaces in our homes and in our lives can be challenging. Do we hold onto the stuff because we are afraid we’re throwing out our memories? It’s so difficult, as we say in our book, to “Keep the memories, toss the stuff.”

How do you think the poem should end? What is the last line you would write? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box.

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

Poignant Personal Stories Are Motivation for Living With Less

everything-that-remains2

 

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.

 

the-more-of-less2

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.

 

white-walls2

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

Collecting: The Things We Love…

teddy-bears

“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.

houses

 

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.

apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snowflakes

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?

moms-clothes

 

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.

chicago

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

Just Say No

yes-no- free clip art

Recently I was asked to give another one of my talks on downsizing and decluttering but this time the person hiring me asked that I not only talk about getting rid of stuff but also about not accumulating stuff in the first place.

Interesting thought. We have discussed this topic somewhat in our blog posts but have not really looked into it in great depth. Here are some tips I came up with.

What’s even easier than sorting through your stuff? Not bringing it into your house in the first place.

1. Don’t even touch it.

Studies have shown that handling an item makes it more appealing. Psychologists conducted an experiment: some people were handed a mug as they entered the room for a meeting; for others the mug was on the table. Those who touched the mug, were handed the mug, were much more likely to take it home with them than were those whose mug was on the table. So if you don’t touch it you will be more likely not to bring it home.

2. Don’t bring it into the house.

What can you not bring in? Junk mail: toss it in the trash as soon as you pick up the mail. Takeout menus or anything else someone hands you in the street or you take from the restaurant. Programs from the theater or concerts can stay in the theater. Pens or pencils given at a conference can stay on the table. Papers handed out at a meeting can remain on your seat. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to take it.

3. Don’t overbuy.

We all love Costco and BJ’s but do we really need to purchase a package of six shirts when we really only need one or a month’s supply of cereal if only two people in the family like cereal for breakfast? No, we don’t. Buy what you need, not what you think you might need in an emergency. Of course, if your family loves cereal, buying in quantity is good. But if your household is one or two people, buying in quantity can be wasteful.

4. Plan your purchases.

Before you go shopping, for food or for clothing, check your closets and cupboards. See what you have that you can use to make supper – you might just need a green vegetable to add to the leftover chicken and rice, for example. Check your closets for clothes to wear to work. You might be able to create new combinations by wearing a new shirt with pants or skirts you already own. Buy only what you really need. For clothing, think about the one in/one out rule: for each new piece you buy, you get rid of one you’re not wearing.

5. Limit the items that tend to accumulate.

Most of us have things we hold on to. I accumulate shopping bags. They’re too good to throw out and I’m always carrying something – that’s my justification, anyway. So I have a closet that’s overflowing with shopping bags that fall out of the closet every time I open it, and they certainly do when my husband opens it. I have a friend who buys kitchen magnets everywhere she goes. How many does she really need? Put a limit on the number you save, of anything, say 10, and toss the rest.

6. Give gifts that are consumable or gifts of experiences.

Give gifts of food that the recipient likes to eat: good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread. Or a certificate for your signature beef stew or cassoulet, made to order on a date they choose. Who doesn’t love food made with love. Or give gifts of experiences, outings like a camping trip or dinner at a nice restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest. My mother often gave gifts of books or magazine subscriptions. My coauthor wrote a lovely post about gifts that won’t cause clutter; you can read it here.

7. Think about how much easier it will be to clean.

Less stuff around the house means less stuff to clean. And that should be reason enough not to bring things into the house!

8. Think about other things you can do with the money and your time.

If you don’t buy things indiscriminately, you will save money and you’ll save the time you used to spend shopping. Think about what you could do with the money: save for a longed-for trip, a particular event, or a special evening out. With the time saved, you could learn a new skill or read all those books you’ve wanted to read but never had the time for before. And then you could donate the books and clear out the shelves on your bookcase!

9. Show respect for the planet.

Less stuff in the house means less stuff put into the garbage. Less garbage taken to the landfills means a happier, healthier planet for all of us. See a post here about donating rather than putting things in the trash.

10. Practice gratitude.

Be happy and thankful for what you have. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things we have, for the friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes us calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Less sometimes is more. Less stuff often leads to a more meaningful 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

All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

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

Hello, My Name Is Doris Sheds Light on Hoarding

 

I was lucky enough to be in the audience last week, on the night “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” opened at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. This lovely film, starring Sally Field, is the story of a 60-something woman who has sacrificed much of her own life while serving as caretaker for her mother, who was a hoarder.

While the hoarding part of the story is really just a subplot, coming from a family of what my coauthor and I prefer to call “keepers,” I found one of the many pleasures of watching the film to be the sensitive treatment of this ill-understood disorder. In an interview in Glamour magazine, Field, who consulted with psychiatrists in preparation for playing the role, says, “Doris is not a hoarder on the level that you’ve seen on television shows. There are degrees of these disorders…” And indeed, this is made clear in the film. Certainly the house Doris lives in is beyond merely cluttered: but as the story develops, the implication is that while her mother was probably a bona fide hoarder, Doris is not. In the beginning of the film she is not emotionally ready to clear out the mess accumulated by her mother over a period of years, but by the end of the film she is. She just needs time: time to grieve the loss of her mother, and time to move on to the next part of her life.

Through the character of Doris, the film presents some of the practical and emotional reasons that keepers have difficulty getting rid of things. At one point she says to the therapist her brother has insisted she see, “It’s just that there are so many useful things that people just throw away…” and, though she mumbles the line, obviously a bit embarrassed about her situation, what she says comes out sounding not pathological, but simply as a statement of truth. A scene in which Doris’s brother and sister-in-law come to the house and attempt to shame her, and force her to throw things out before she is ready to do so is a textbook example of how not to help hoarders, or for a less extreme term, packrats. (You can find some suggestions for better ways here.) And in the final scene of the film, Doris takes a lamp she has picked up off the street and brought to her office in the opening scene, and gives it to a coworker, who happily accepts it, as a parting gift. Because, well, the lamp is useful–and also kind of cool-looking, in a retro kind of way.

In a Skype chat with the film’s director, Michael Showalter, the night I attended the film, he admitted that while he had tried to present the phenomenon of hoarding in a more or less realistic light, the housecleaning that Doris does toward the end of the film is achieved more quickly than is realistic, for reasons of dramatic resolution. “I know it’s not that easy to resolve in real life,” he said. He explained that for the purposes of the film, showing that characters can and do change their lives, and that even long-entrenched habits can be changed, was more important. And indeed, though it is very difficult to get hoarders to change, when approached with enough patience and sensitivity, it can be done.

But in some of the lesser degrees of “keeping” behavior, drastic change may not be necessary. In an interview with George Pennachio on ABC 7, Field says she is not a hoarder, that she prefers to think of herself as a collector, but that she has sympathy for Doris. “I have boxes and boxes of things that are memorabilia of my life,” she said. “But so much of it is my kids and grandkids. It’s ridiculous. And they look at it and go ‘Why are you keeping that?” Her answer to them? “I’m just keeping it, OK?”

 

In that matter-of-fact tone, Field puts to rest the notion that there is one, and only one, right way of dealing with the desire to hold onto the objects that evoke treasured memories of our lives. Sometimes the answer to “Why are you keeping that?” may be “Just because…”

And you know what? In some cases, that may be answer enough. It’s too hard for your Mom to get rid of sentimental, or useful, things, so you’re going to have to do it when she’s gone–is that really such a big deal? Is it?

  

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

 

The Importance of a Family Photo Album

photo album

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