An Empty Closet and Its Possibilities

A crack in the grout in the bathroom tiles. An extensive home repair. An empty closet.

Previously I had written a post about having my wall oven replaced and how emptying the kitchen cabinets before the work began enabled me to sort through and get rid of many of my pots and pans. And a while back I had written a post about completely emptying a closet or a room, pretending to move, and how that really upends the task of decluttering, based on an article by Carl Richards in the New York Times: “Three Ways to Figure Out What Stuff You Should Keep.”

Recently a leak in a bathroom, one that shares a wall with my bedroom closet, meant I had to completely empty the closet. It’s a rather large closet and I keep the usual things in it: clothes and shoes and out-of-season clothes. But I also keep some photo albums of my kids, gifts I have purchased but not yet given, needlepoint pillow fronts I made years ago but never made into pillows, yarn, lots of yarn, a china tea set from my childhood, and my Swedish horses. (I know, the horses should be on display, but for now they have taken up residence in my closet.)

 

Emptying the closet felt much more personal than emptying my kitchen cabinets. My clothes, supplies for my hobbies, treasured memories, all reside in that closet and speak to who I am. Taking them all out, seeing that empty space, gave me pause. I have had some time to contemplate what all that stuff means and think about whether I need all of it. (I don’t, of course I know that, but it’s still something to I have to think about.)

The work was postponed several times, mostly for the usual reasons, like waiting for new tile to be delivered and scheduling with the repairman. (Talking about those issues is for another post, probably for entirely other blog, one about the joys and tribulations of home maintenance.) So for a couple of weeks, I have had a completely empty closet where, for the first time since we moved in, there is nothing in it.

Each time I walk past the closet, I feel a frisson of joy. I can actually see the floor, for the first time ever, not to mention the entire empty space.

Each time I see the closet, I marvel at the amount of space I have and the enormous amount of stuff that came out of it.

Each time I walk past the emptiness, I see the possibilities, the possibilities of looking at my stuff in a new way.

What do I keep? What do I toss? What has meaning to me? Stay tuned…as I ponder the future of my stuff.

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

Stopping to Smell the Roses or Look at Old Photos

My maternal grandmother, on the left, with her sisters.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences (I love that title) suggests people are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life, and in the study psychology professor Nancy Fagley defines appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something…and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”

The great advantage to living in the same place for well over 30 years is that it’s warm and comfortable and definitely feels like home. One of the disadvantages is that it’s easy to accumulate way too much stuff.

As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am constantly trying to sort through stuff that belongs to me, my husband, our parents, and our grandparents. I feel great pressure to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away, mostly pressure that I put on myself but also some that comes from husband and my kids.

As I was going through antique and vintage clothes that have been handed down to me, among them two Swedish dresses, actually blouse/slips that are worn under a wool skirt, that I’m interested in donating to a museum, I decided to look at my grandmother’s photo albums. Yes, I have photo albums that belong to me, some from my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother. Talk about overload!

I took time out to slowly browse through my grandmother’s photos albums, mostly photographs of people that I never knew, but filled with pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather and their families. I also looked through an album of my mother’s that had photos of my father’s family.

My paternal grandmother, on the right, with her siblings.

Looking at the photographs of my two grandmothers, I was filled with appreciation. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without those two women who persevered through good times and bad to keep their families together and who helped shape the people who would become my parents. And seeing photos of their parents, my great grandparents, was an almost out-of-body experience.

I took time to smell the roses, to look at old photos, to appreciate what I have, and to marvel at the photos that show the lives of my ancestors. What a gift to me, one I gave myself, a gift that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the women who came before me.

A caveat here. Of course I would never suggest that someone start to declutter by looking at photos. That’s too difficult and emotional and nostalgia-inducing. And I wouldn’t suggest looking at photos if you are up against a deadline. If things have to be moved out, for whatever reason, deal with the stuff first and the photos later. However, I’m a big fan of taking a break, taking the time to appreciate.

I learned a lot from looking at photographs of my grandmothers.

Looking at old photos taught me and continues to teach me, foremost, the preciousness of time.

I also felt how fortunate I am to have such a strong family and how incredibly lucky I am to have photographs of them.

And I realized that looking at the old photos gave me more joy than looking at the items they left behind. That was a bit of a revelation to me and, in some ways, makes it easier to “get rid of the stuff and keep the memories.”

At the same time as I was looking back, I could see the value of things to come. As the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, champion of the working classes, said, “You are laden with beginnings.” Everything I do is a new beginning, just as everything my grandmothers did was a new beginning for them.

My maternal grandmother at 17, right after she came to the US.

 

My grandmother with my father and my aunt.

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 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

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

When Excess Becomes Abundance

This table full of necklaces is amazing, isn’t it? But the excess of it is a bit shocking. Sometimes a very large quantity of something, whatever that something is, is daunting and problematical to deal with. And sometimes that same excess can be seen as abundance, as plenty, as a bounty of riches.

I was having difficulty seeing the upside of this huge quantity of jewelry.

In our book and in our many blog posts, we suggest downsizing to rid ourselves of excess, to have fewer things, to streamline. We give this advice, as most people do, because we look at excess as a negative. And we stand by our recommendation to declutter because having too many things can get in the way of living our best lives. Yet there is abundance in excess.

Last weekend I produced the large jewelry sale pictured here (one I’m still recovering from!), a sale that I have organized for the last dozen years, and this year I perceived the excess we encountered as not such a positive thing. I was blown away by the generosity of the donors but troubled by the excess of the resulting donations and I realized I needed a new outlook, a slightly different perspective so I could see excess as something good.

The jewelry sale is for a non-profit and the proceeds from the sale help support their social action programs, especially a program that makes lunches for the homeless, which are then distributed by City Harvest (an organization that started the food recovery movement in 1982 to address the issue of excess food for some while others struggled to feed themselves).

We collect jewelry from individuals: items they no longer wear, gifts that were not quite their style, or pieces they have inherited. And we are fortunate to get jewelry from designers who often donate new pieces from their collections. A small group of us sort through and price the jewelry. This year there was a profusion of donations, months of sorting, and I was feeling this excess as daunting, almost as a burden. Why do we have so much, I kept asking. No one should have this much jewelry. The excess of it all was beginning to eat away at me.

Then it occurred to me that I needed to adjust my thinking. The huge amount of jewelry was not a burden (yes, maybe it would be if it ended up in the landfill) but, rather, it was a sign of the generosity of the people who donated it. That generosity meant a greener environment because jewelry people no longer wanted was finding new homes. And this generosity of donors led to great sales, which meant funds to help people in need. It was a win-win situation.

My inability to see this excess as abundance reminded me of the quote from Ramakrishna,

“An ocean of blessings may rain down from the heavens, but if we’re only holding up a thimble, that’s all we receive.”

This weekend, with a little readjustment on my part, my thimble became a bucket.

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

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

Language is the way we communicate with each other so words and how we use them are important. Any conversation about downsizing and decluttering, whether written or spoken, almost always incudes the frequently used catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” All the words in that phrase start with “re-” a prefix that comes from the Latin and means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or it can mean going back to do something again, as in redo or revisit.

I’m revisiting my thinking about that standard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to use less and is certainly a good place to start. Reduce means to have a smaller or lesser amount, or to bring down, to diminish, or to minimize the amount we have. And in some definitions, it means to restore, to bring back or to lead back, to its original or lower state. So if the first step in decluttering is to reduce, then one meaning is to bring ourselves back to our original state of needing or owning less. Perhaps thinking of “reduce” in that way, that our original state is one in which we need less, we will have an easier time of getting rid of the things we no longer need, or at least, maybe, we’ll be able to do it with less angst.

Reuse means to use something again, usually for its original purpose. Most of us have worn a dress or outfit again, getting multiple uses out of our clothes, and all of us reuse our dinner plates and cutlery every day. So reuse is a part of our daily life, a no-brainer. But another definition of reuse is to use something again for a different purpose, sometimes called creative reuse or repurposing. Our forebears used pieces of fabric salvaged from clothing or household items to create bed quilts. Currently, many animal shelters ask for used bedding and pillows to use as animal bedding. Sometimes we reuse by passing along our older child’s clothes to our younger child, or by giving clothing that’s still wearable to a neighbor who has a still younger child. When we were cleaning out my aunt’s closets, we donated a number of pairs of elbow length gloves to a local theater group: clothing from the past to be used as part of a costume.

Recycle means, according to one dictionary, to collect and treat what would otherwise be trash so it can be used again. We recycle paper, sometimes by writing on paper that’s already been used. My father-in-law used the back of legal size envelopes from his mail to make lists, a habit I have incorporated into my life. They are the perfect size and shape for a list. We can print on both sides of paper or go ‘paperless’ by emailing everyone the agenda before a meeting; all are ways to to save trees. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is the process of transforming old or discarded items into new products that are sometimes better than the original. At a crafts fair I went to last weekend, I saw crafters who had cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and fashioned them into fingerless mitts, and others who had felted old sweaters (washed them in very hot water to cause the fibers to lock together) and used that stronger fabric to make purses. In a fully circular economy, we would be continuously using and reusing everything, reducing greatly what goes into the landfills.

What more can we do?

We can take old thinking about our stuff and repeal it, replace it, reverse it; we can rethink what our stuff means to us.

We can think about resale – having a yard sale for toys that our kids have outgrown or taking our clothing to a resale shop – rather than tossing it.

We can reedit or refine our needs, both clothing and household. How many multiples of things do we really need to have.

We can refuse things that don’t work for us, even pens that are given out for free, and rethink things are not environmentally friendly.

We can retire old thinking.

We can show respect – for ourselves and our fellow beings, for all creatures, and for the earth.

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: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

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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