“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

Reflections on Downsizing and Decluttering: Savoring the Process

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the time downsizing and decluttering feels like pretty much the LAST thing you’d think of when you think of an experience for savoring.

A delicious meal. A perfect massage. The taste of fresh strawberries that really taste like strawberries melting on your tongue. A sunset so beautiful you wish you could press “pause,” but you wouldn’t really want to do that because with each passing minute it becomes a new kind of beautiful.

Those are the kinds of things more likely to match with the word “savoring” in my mind.

But downsizing? And decluttering? I don’t think so….

And yet.

One of the things that has always bothered me a bit in the conversation surrounding this topic is the often stated, seemingly obvious “truth” that people who leave lots of things for their heirs to go through are at the very least leaving them with an entirely unsavory task, and that this reeks of at the very least a kind of selfish irresponsibility.

And yet. As the child of two parents who left us with plenty of things to go through after they died, and a brother who left my sister and me an even more bewildering collection of unwieldy possessions to go through, I have for the most part stayed out of this conversation, harboring my own private thoughts about it.

Well, almost. I did write this about my brother and his stuff.

But here is what I would like to stay about this now, for what it’s worth.

I would like to say that while I agree entirely that what my parents and my brother left for us to go through could certainly quite accurately be described as “a burden.” There’s no denying that.

But to me this “burden” has not been entirely a negative experience, not at all. In fact, there have been many parts of this process that has unfolded actually over a number of years, that have been worthy of savoring.

There have been many little items that have, shall we say “sparked joy” as I came upon them. Some of them have sparked sadness also, but often along with the sadness they have brought a kind of poignant comfort to me, or to others. (And not all of them were saved by my parents. Some of them were saved by me (a chip off the old blocks if ever there were one!)

A few of the things I came across in my last round of going through the things in my storage locker were these: my father’s report card from grade school (back in the 1930s, in a little one-room country schoolhouse in rural Minnesota); a letter I had saved from a dear friend who is no longer alive, in which she had lovingly and beautifully written about her children when they were young (I sent the letter to her children); a little ceramic mouse that had been a “stocking stuffer” gift from my mother-in-law years ago, and which brought comfort to her son at a time when he needed comfort, and a reminder of his mother, desperately.

Going through these things one by one, piece by piece, is often a tedious process. The thing I like the least about it is this feeling that I am being sucked into the past, a past from which I’ll never escape. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling, and certainly not worth savoring.

But parts of it are: those moments when you feel love expressed many years earlier in the form of a letter; or a little ceramic mouse; or a lump of brown and gray clay fashioned by a little boy, who had brought it to his mother one day while she was working, handed it to her, and said, “Mommy, this is a butterfly.”

Those are the moments I savor, and I always will. And because they are there to be savored, I think the tedium, all the tedium is worth it, really.

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

Downsizing Stories, as Coach and Coached

Illustration by Quentin Monge

One reviewer of our book on Amazon said that with Moving On, you get the authors “coaching you, supporting you, and cheering you on with their very practical advice.”

The past couple of weeks I have felt both somewhat of a coach and very much one who is coached.

We have been sorting through our files, mostly business financial papers because we closed our company at the end of 2017. The impetus to get it done now was a free shredding event in our neighborhood.

As we emptied files we ended up with four bankers’ boxes of papers to be shredded. With that amount of stuff, “in our neighborhood” took on a different meaning. To get several blocks away with such heavy boxes became daunting so my husband called a shredding company to request a private pick up, for a fee.

Since we were getting papers picked up, I decided to go through more files, mostly of book stuff. I have a file, sometimes paper, sometimes electronic, sometimes both, for each book I have written, sometimes one for each book I’ve edited, and many files for books I’m thinking of writing. I culled much of that.

Then I started on personal files, which I edited down rather than getting rid of completely. For the file on my father’s funeral, I read through some of the papers I had used to write his obit and reread some very thoughtful and supportive condolence notes. By the end of the file, I was in tears but I got through it by invoking our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object…”

A friend’s mother died a few weeks ago at the age of 102½ (I seem to have quite a few friends with longevity in their genes), and my friend has to empty her mother’s apartment of many years. She had been to a couple of my downsizing talks and even wrote a lovely comment – with 5 stars – on our book’s Amazon page.

Now she was ready to implement the suggestions in Moving On so we talked about how important it is for those emptying a home, and certainly for her, to honor her mother’s life – as an Olympic gymnast, as a wife and mother, and as one who gave back all her life – while at the same time getting rid of a lifetime of stuff. I felt I could be a bit of a coach for her because I had been through that process when my father moved from his home of 50 years.

Another friend, a doctor, is getting ready to retire and wants to downsize. Her kids have been out of the house for years and she now wants to make her home more functional for herself and her husband. She came to me to ask for guidance and then said, “I’ll just buy the book.” So our book will be a coach for her – and she can always ask me questions along the way.

That same reviewer of our book on Amazon also said, “I knew I found my roadmap when I read this book.” (We are so grateful to that reviewer for such kind words about us and our book.)

I have used our book as a roadmap and have been coached and cheered on by my friends and family this past few weeks, just as I have coached and supported and cheered on my friends who are downsizing. It’s been a time of women supporting women.

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

Keeping Memories of War

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This is my Dad’s cousin Howard, who was almost like a brother to him. He was a pilot whose plane went down over the Adriatic Sea during World War II. His body was never found.

One of the tag lines for our book, and for this blog is: “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff.” And as Memorial Day draws near, it seems to me a good time to think about keeping memories of war.

Memorial Day is often thought of as a day of picnics and the beginning of the summer season. But at its heart, Memorial Day is really about remembering those who died at war. That is why I’ve put a picture of a member of our family who lost his life in World War II above.

But I think it’s a good time to also remember those who came back from war, and what they went through.

But do we really want to keep war memories? And do the people who lived through war really want to talk about it once the war is over, or at least over for them? Isn’t war something that people would rather not remember?

There’s no one answer to these questions, of course. It depends very much on the person who is answering the question.

I am of the generation of children of World War II veterans. Although I knew that my Dad and most of my uncles had been involved in one way or another in the war, the impression I had when I was growing up was that no one really wanted to talk about it. They wanted to move on.

And yet when–many years later–I began to ask one of them some questions about his experiences during the war, and he said he’d never really talked about it much before, I asked him why. “No one ever asked,” he said, and it seemed to me there was a tinge of sadness in his voice as he answered.

The number of World War II veterans still around is becoming smaller and smaller as the years go by. Unfortunately, that was not the last war, and there are still plenty of war veterans among who us who could talk about their experiences–if they want to do so. And if someone asks.

Listening to those who have been through war can be healing for them, and enlightening for the listener. In the right circumstances, and done in the right way, it can perhaps be a way of sharing the burden of those memories, or at least lightening the load for those who carry them.

For those who are willing to tell their stories, and wouldn’t mind sharing them with others, there are a number of ways to capture them so that a wider audience, and future generations, can learn from them. Story Corps is one organization that is involved in helping people record oral history of many kinds, including war stories.

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Another way of keeping memories of war is preserving war letters. The Center for American War Letters is a relatively new organization that is dedicated to doing just that. You can find out more about that here.

If there’s a veteran in your life, why not consider asking them if they would like to talk about their wartime experiences. Not everyone will want to do so, and of course, the right to refuse with no explanation should be respected and honored.

But my guess is most people wouldn’t mind at least being asked.

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Watching Marie Kondo Tidying Up

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about tidying up and many, many people have a lot to say about Marie Kondo, much of it negative. Sometimes what people perceive as wrong or misguided in her approach overshadows the many good points she makes.

People seem to find it hard to embrace the attitude she brings to sorting through our things – does it really have to “spark joy?” – and some even find it difficult to embrace her folding method, reducing everything to tiny squares. Do those things really matter? Or maybe more importantly can we see past what we can’t quite embrace and look at what she does bring to the process of downsizing and decluttering?

I enjoyed the Netflix series and found certain themes emerging as each family Marie Kondo worked with struggled with their stuff. Here is some of what Kondo brings to this quest.

Marie Kondo has a respect, for…well, for everything…the people she’s working with, the stuff they have, and the home they live in. She is not judgmental about what people have saved or how they have stored it and she’s not the least critical of the people who have saved all this stuff. She doesn’t begrudge anyone anything. No judgment, just a gentle nudge to be more mindful of what we have.

As well as respect, Kondo offers her clients encouragement as they decide what they need and what they can toss. There is a meme going around, a bit mean at times, that she “allows” people to keep only 30 books, something that would be just about impossible for most of us. Much ink has been spilled, including on this blog, about a statement that Kondo never made. What she said was that she honed her personal library to 30 books (and that number probably does not include her kids’ books) and suggests that people decide if a book is necessary, if it interests you, if it needs a place in your home.

Her request to her clients to pile all their clothes on the bed, a suggestion which took me aback at first, is a way to see the abundance in our lives. In a small way, I have used this technique. A few years ago, I sorted through my necklaces (and, yes, I have too many). I purchased two organizers, not meant for jewelry but for neckties, and hung the necklaces on them. It was valuable to me to see everything in one pile as I chose which ones to keep and which  to donate. And having them all hanging together in one place makes life better in two ways: it’s easier to choose which necklace to wear and it serves as a constant reminder that I don’t need to acquire any more.

Kondo shows a great reverence for the things in our lives. She gets acquainted with the home in an almost prayerful way, she taps on books to awaken them (isn’t it lovely to think that our favorite characters are waking up), she asks people to thank their clothes – all features very Eastern in thinking, coming most likely from her Shinto background. Many in the everything-is-disposable, everything-is replaceable West think it’s a bit hokey but valuing each object makes us more aware of what we have and ultimately what we want to keep in our life. To help us on the way to a reverent or more centered stance, Kondo suggests taking a deep breath, opening the window to let in fresh air, and creating pleasant sounds, whether that’s a gong or a chant or our favorite Beatles album. (We did recommend in our book to declutter with music to make the task more enjoyable!)

Asking her clients to thank each piece of clothing, each book, each object is a way of pointing out the gratitude we want to have for the things in our lives. It was poignant to see how moving it was for people to thank their stuff; they were affected by it, sometimes expressing nostalgia, sometimes almost wistful, but ultimately more able to let go of the items. Her clients’ struggle has made me try to be less judgmental of other people, either of their stuff or their way of organizing (or their lack of organizing) it.

Kondo says it’s important to have a vision and to communicate that vision to your home. Having too many ties to our childhood can make it harder to be an adult, she says; that’s interesting to ponder. Catastrophizing, what if I need this, is fear, she says, and fear is not a reason to hang onto things. For me Kondo’s question to one of the family members is brilliant: “Is this something you want to bring with you into the future?” That question gives me a new perspective, a new way to look at my stuff.

Kondo’s definition of “sparking joy” says that joy includes anything that serves you well, whether it is an melon baller sitting in your kitchen drawer and used only in the summer or a favorite wool sweater that keeps you warm in the winter only. Recently a friend sorted through her books (yet again) and had piles in her living room for friends to choose from. There were many she had read and was ready to let go of and many she had not yet read and had decided – she made this decision herself – that they did not spark enough interest to keep them on her bookshelves. The joy for my friend is in the warmth of the home, the ease of living in it, and the ability to make our own choices about her books.

What does decluttering do? It makes more room in your home, it makes it easier to find things, and it simplifies your life. Julie Morganstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life, says “Organizing is what you do to settle down. Decluttering is what you do to grow.” And, perhaps most importantly, as Marie Kondo says, decluttering is a way “to understand what is most important in your life.”

“The most important part of this process of tidying is to always think about what you have and about the discovery of your sense of value, what you value that is important.”

Thank you, Marie Kondo. Well said.

 

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

A Year-End Retrospective

Is there anything good to report about 2018? We easily remember the horrendous events that made the headlines in the past year but I, and maybe you too, find it a bit difficult to think about the good things that happened.

For Downsizing The Home, our posts were a mixed bag of looking at the positive as we declutter but also acknowledging the parts that didn’t go quite as planned. What stays with me is the quote from Madeleine L’Engle, It is the ability to choose which makes us human. I have chosen to downsize some of my life while leaving much of it undisturbed (as of yet, anyway).

Here are some of the topics we shared in our blog.

It’s all just stuff.

And while that is to a large degree true, as Janet said, she has been thinking a bit lately about when it is NOT true. Sometimes it’s really not “all just stuff. Sometimes it is the stuff that holds our memories together, and makes our houses homes. Some of it is documentation of the lives we’ve lived.”

If it is all just stuff then it’s precious stuff for a hoarder-friend of ours. Although some of what was in her home was junk, much of it was in good condition and could be donated. It was an important task that a friend and I took on, and one we were honored to perform, to separate the good from the bad, so to speak, and make sure the good things found a new home.

There is joy in decluttering.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and I did. I cleaned out my kitchen cabinets and my junk draw and kept some items, gave others to my kids, and donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to work in the kitchen.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and Janet did. She’s been chronicling, in a series of posts, the challenge she set for herself to empty her storage unit. You can follow along in our blog to see her progress and also to see the dilemmas she’s faced.

We can do better.

As Janet noted, she suspects that not many people are aware of the magnitude of the problem of too much clothing going into landfills. Earth 911 reports that “the EPA estimates that Americans discarded over 14 million tons of textiles in 2010…about 28,000,000,000 pounds of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.” This is where clothing recycling comes in, something we have written about often.

We may not advocate minimalism per se (that’s hard for “the keeper” in me) but we need to heed the words of Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, who says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” We need to rethink our compulsion to own and learn to see the wisdom of simplicity in our lives.

We are all much the same, we are all human.

Those who help us in our quest to declutter are just like us. Alison Lush said, “During the classes I was taking, while learning how to work successfully as an organizer, I was personally affected. My understanding of the power of my possessions, and my relationship with my possessions started to change. I realized that I had a lot to gain by becoming my own first client.” A born cluttlerbug,” she has “successfully reprogrammed myself and changed my environment quite dramatically. I am therefore truly convinced that many other people are capable of this as well. I am very enthusiastic for them!”

As we continue decluttering, we look to the future.

Taking a look at our stuff, especially the stuff that holds meaning for us, is the time to think about where it will go after us and how we’ll accomplish that. We learned how downsizing and decluttering can lead to thoughts of the future and how writing a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will helps us sort out our feelings about our things. “Writing a 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,” says Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words.

May each day of the New Year bring you joy and health and less cluttered closets.

 

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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