6 things I learned from 6 years of blogging

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Six years ago next month we introduced ourselves to the world of blogging with this blog, Downsizing The Home: Lessons Learned.

Our journey began when my coauthor and I shared our personal downsizing stories with each other, stories of helping our fathers empty our childhood homes as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. We were surprised at how powerful the emotions connected to family possessions could be and, at the same time, how easy it was to let go of many things.

We decided we wanted to share the information we had gathered with others who were going though the same process, and the result was our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. As we promoted the book, our path led to new media and to this blog.

Six things I learned from blogging:

It’s easier said than done.

It’s much easier to write about downsizing and decluttering than it is to actually downsize and declutter. That may come as a surprise to many of the people who read our blog or listen to us speak. Many times at my talks, someone comments about what a neat house I must have. Not so. But I do own up to it and express to everyone what a struggle it is to keep things organized and to make decisions about what we own and what we are willing to let go of.

People are wonderful!

People have so many interesting and inventive ways to rid themselves of clutter and excess and I’ve learned so much from others. I’ve met such wonderful people, many of them as online voices only, who have shared both strategies and advice, as well as many poignant stories, who have shared thoughtful ways to deal with others who see the clutter – and life – differently than we do, people who have inspired me to write about them and share their lives and their work with you. I have been helped enormously by listening to the voices of others.

Think outside the box.

Or, in this case, outside the book. We came to realize that we could stretch ourselves and go beyond our original focus. Our blog has given us the chance to go further and explore deeper than the scope of our book and to include thoughts about recycling and upcycling, views on how to live with less—and happily so, and a vision of how to treasure what we have, without the need to always have more. Writing posts that explore issues beyond the book has expanded my horizons.

Done is better than perfect.

And here’s a shout-out to all the other mantras that help me keep moving: Just do it. Start now. See beyond. And a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I find so helpful, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Life often does circle back.

The blog started with our book and ultimately comes back to our book but, oh, the places we have been! In some ways, as a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that our book exists. But having the opportunity to explore so many aspects of life with our readers, beyond the downsizing process we wrote about originally, has been such a privilege for me.

We are a community.

Yes, we are a community, you and I and everyone else in this Internet family constellation. I love hearing your thoughts and stories, in your own blogs and when you leave a comment on our blog. I’m so pleased when you follow us on Twitter and share our tweets, and when you share our Facebook posts. I love hearing from you. We are all in this together – and you have welcomed me into the group.

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

The Dress I Never Wore

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a flood we had in our apartment and the aftermath of going through so much of our stuff. We still have more to sort through, lots more. Here are some things I’ve wrestled with lately.

On one of our first few days in Bangkok we were walking in the shopping district looking at the stores when a young man asked if I was looking for a silk dress. Of course, I was wanted to buy a Thai silk dress! He guided us to a place he said had the best prices. I choose a lovely turquoise silk dress. I loved the color and bought it, even though I knew at the time it was too big for me. Although I guessed the man was probably – okay, definitely – a shill for the store, I liked the dress and even now have fond memories of it and, naturally, of our trip. Flash forward 30-some years and the dress is still hanging in my closet. I have never worn the dress.

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When my father moved from the house he had lived in for 50 years to an apartment, he gave away a lot of his business attire: suits, ties, and dress shoes. I decided to take a dozen or more ties, I chose the red-themed ones, to make a skirt for my daughter. That was over 10 years ago. The ties are still hanging in my closet.

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A number of years ago, I inherited my aunt’s blue and white china. Blue and white is a classic color combination, one beloved my many people. I like blue and white for clothing and, in some cases, for home furnishings but I’ve never liked blue and white china. (Maybe that sounds quirky but…whatever.) The plates are in the china cabinet in my dining room, where I can see them every day.

There is still much work to do in my apartment, many decisions to be made. Have I made any progress? Yes, I have donated many things, knowing I can “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…” as we say in our book. So what have I done with these particular items?

The plates are going on eBay. The ties have been donated to charity.

And the dress. Well, my daughter happened to stop by when we were photographing these items ( I know, what serendipity) and I asked her to model the dress for the photo. She put it on and decided she liked it. Of course, it is twice as big on her as it was on me (she’s holding the excess fabric with her right hand in the photo). So will it take fewer than 30 years to take in the dress so it fits her? Stay tuned…

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 Universe is Made of Stories…

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“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ― Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in many forms: memoirs, interviews, videos. Sometimes a story can be told in photographs or even in a list of the things that resonate with us. The one thing we want to share with our loved ones is the stories of our life, in whatever form we choose. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

We’ve told stories here in our blog in a variety of ways.

We’ve told a story about a favorite object, a bowl, and its importance in our life, and we’ve written a story about the memories of a favorite place in our grandparents’ house. We’ve written poignantly about a cherished brother and a beloved father.

We’ve talked about sharing family stories in a way that will help keep our family history alive, and challenged you to tell us your stories – including a wonderful one about the memories of a treasured family item.  And sometimes you’ve told us a story – about living with less. We’ve also talked about how to get rid of stories – at least the ones in the many books on our shelves!

If you would like some help in telling your family stories, you might start by writing in a journal or by getting professional help to record and share your stories from sites like Legacy Stories or at Story Corps. Perhaps you want to get help writing about your family history from such places as the Armchair Genealogist, Genealogy.com, and from this blog post. And see how telling family stories can help heal and give strength.

So get the family together, invite the kids, make sure to include the grandparents, and encourage everyone to tell a story. “Keep the memories…” by sharing your stories.

Then join other storytellers for National Tell A Story Day, celebrated on April 27 this year. You have a month to get your stories together!

We all have a story to tell.

What’s yours?

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

Finding My Way in My Grandparents’ Attic

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“She figured she loved it for the reason we always love attics, for the reason they figure in our dreams: because they are the hidden rooms where we store our pasts.”

So says a character in Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, the story of a turn-of-the-last-century estate whose attic plays a prominent role in a tale of family and fate, art and love, surprises and secrets.

I loved my grandparents’ attic. It was above the garage, behind the house that my grandfather had built in the early 1920s. It was large, it had windows to bring in light, and it was filled with their treasures and their junk.

Everything was saved in my grandparent’s day. They, like others of their generation who raised families during the Depression, saved everything and valued their possessions in ways we can barely fathom. I remember my sister and I riding the bikes, with big front baskets attached with leather straps, that had belonged to my mother and her sister. And the attic was filled, not with the bikes, but with things they thought they might use again.

Have I used anything that belonged to my grandparents? My mother gave me my grandmother’s china – not very old, but lovely, a set that my uncle had brought back from Japan after the war – when my kids were young. I cautioned my mother that with young kids I wasn’t about to use china that I had to handle with care, and I didn’t. The plates went into the dishwasher, which over the years, cleaned off the pattern along with the food. (I still have the set of twelve perfect cream soups because, somehow, my life is such that there was no occasion for setting a table with cream soup bowls.)

Have I treasured anything that belonged to my grandparents? I have a wooden candlestick, carved from a tree on my grandfather’s family farm outside of Stockholm, prominently displayed on a shelf in my living room. It’s sturdy and practical like my grandfather, who was a carpenter and a builder, and it reminds me of him.

I also have a delicate gold pin, a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother on birth of their first child. In some ways, the pin reminds me of my grandmother; it’s small and delicate and not ostentatious, a good description of her, a woman barely five feet tall. But in other ways jewelry is not like her, at least not how I saw her, a woman who was so practical that she dyed her wedding dress so she had a dress to wear to church, made all her food from scratch, and sewed so beautifully that she earned her living as a seamstress. Both candlestick and brooch are everyday items but for me they evoke powerful memories.

October is National Family History Month, a fitting time to get family members involved in talking about family history. I feel that I have honored my grandparents by looking through old family photos – prompted, of course, by this blog post – and seeing photos of their house I hadn’t seen in years, by remembering them through a few – just a few – favorite objects that belonged to them, and mostly by sharing stories about them here and with my family.

So here’s to looking though your attic – literally or figuratively – and finding ways to bring the past we’ve stored there into the present, to share family memories.

Below is a list of places, some we’ve mentioned before, that may help you and your family get involved in family history.

Family Tree Magazine

http://familytreemagazine.com/article/lunch-hour-genealogy

Minnkota Genealogical Society

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~minnkota/nfhm.html

Practical Archivist: Family Archivist Survival Kit

http://practicalarchivist.com/

Adventures in Genealogy

http://deb-adventuresingenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/09/tuesdays-tip-celebrate-family-history.html

Ancestry.com

http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/category/family-history-month-2/

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

Reaching Beyond The Clutter

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We are so pleased to have Marcia Muskat (marciany@me.com), a personal organizer and founder and owner of ‘section by section,’ a home organizing business, as our guest blogger this week. Marcia shares with us lessons she’s learned from working with older people.

As a personal organizer who has worked mainly with older people, I have found that seniors have a particularly hard time separating themselves from their belongings. But cleaning out does not have to mean losing what they value most. And while satisfaction with life, especially in our golden years, is very much about looking back with pride, it is also about living well now. Seniors I have worked with, who have embraced the process of separating the essentials from the expendables, find that they can accomplish more with less.

Excessive accumulations that threaten health, safety and quality of life add an extra urgency to my role as a personal organizer. Case in point is a client of mine. A reporter for a big city newspaper, she tackled challenges in domains usually reserved, in her day, for driven men with strong resumes. Today, a young 80-something, she easily navigates the stairs in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment (kudos to her muscle memory) while carrying groceries in a sturdy knapsack. An ardent literary and art fan, she makes her way downtown to the renowned Strand Book Store or uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But at home, she has lost her bearings.

She has outlived family and friends, neighbors and doctors. She sits captive in her only available chair among a dusty, toxic avalanche of professional news clippings, art books, brochures and the like.  And while she will be the first to tell you that she would love to live in a comfortable, safe and productive home, she agonizes over even more loss, especially the things that are so critical to her personal identity and integrity: the loss of her papers and books. Each bit of memorabilia feels like a piece of herself.

But my client, always a high achiever, is not to be underestimated. The more she trusts that our organizing process protects her valuables, the more she is able to part with what’s not important, and the more apartment space she gets back to do more of the things she has wanted to do. With her newly cleaned off desktop and more walkable floor space, she can now entertain her dreams of critiquing a local art exhibit, adopting a cat and staying relevant to her life today.

Letting Go of Some Favorite Things

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As I began to write this post I thought of it as another in our occasional series “Getting Rid of…” but with a twist. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s not about finding places to donate usable items we no longer need, rather it’s a look at the process I went through to get to the point where I could get rid of things that were important to me. And the items seemed dear to me partly because they helped define who I am.

I was prompted to embark on this bit of soul searching by an essay I had read about one woman’s journey to let go of mementos from a failed marriage, or more accurately, mementos from the good times in a relationship that ended with a split. At first, I thought she held onto things that brought her pain and that seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized that she held onto things that reminded her of the good parts of the relationship but when she looked at them, lived with them over the years, they brought her, not joy, but sorrow. And she decided that she needed to move on from those feelings.

My exploration was less dramatic that the essay-writer’s journey but significant to me. Here’s what I got rid of.

My collection of Playbills. I have always loved going to the theater, starting when I was a teenager, and I go as often as I can, more often to off-Broadway than to Broadway shows because the tickets are more affordable. When I was in my early twenties, I saw an apartment where the bathroom was papered with Playbill covers. It was a small guest bathroom but, still, I was so impressed that someone had been to see so many plays. I never papered my walls with Playbills; I kept them on a shelf. A couple of years ago, when they started to overrun the shelf, I put them in shopping bags, a first step, perhaps, to moving them out.

Why were the Playbills so important to me? I’ve always been a reader – there are family stories about my reading at the age of four, I have several degrees in English literature, I’ve worked in publishing for most of my career, and I love reading books and going to plays. Having tangible evidence of my love of literature helps define the reader and playgoer part of me.

I came to the realization that I have the memories (or maybe not so much now as I age since sometimes I have to ask a friend to remind me what a particular play was about!) but could get rid of the items. So I sent the Playbills on to paper recycling…to serve, one hopes, some better purpose.

The response cards and envelopes from my wedding. I’ve been married a long time and for years I have kept a sturdy box from the printer filled with the extra response cards and the matching small envelopes addressed to me. I’m not sure why we had so many extras and I’m not sure why I kept them, except it felt somehow sacrilegious to just discard them.

Certainly the wedding was a seminal event in my life and the marriage helped define me as a wife, and later as a mother. The marriage has been a good one, or to paraphrase Jim Dale’s comment in his one-man show, we often have opposing points of view but end up seeing eye to eye. Do these seemingly useless items enhance the relationship in any way? Someone, a good organizer and declutterer I’m sure, once said that all you need to keep as a memento is one invitation, complete with all its parts if you like. So the cards and envelopes went out to paper recycling…perhaps to become the recycled paper that a current, environmentally aware bride will choose for her invitations.

Old videotapes. I have several shelves of old videotapes of movies and children’s shows, films my children enjoyed or videotapes of popular movies they were given as birthday gifts. (Although it may seem odd given today’s media, a videotape of a favorite movie or an old classic was an enjoyable gift when my kids were young.)

Even though the tapes do not speak to me in any particular way, the fact that I kept them helps define me as a clutterer because clutter is, as someone once defined it, postponed decisions. So I sorted through the tapes. I donated still good ones to a local thrift shop, sent damaged ones to electronic recycling, and put aside the tapes of my children’s performances, plays, and concerts to be converted to DVDs…a task that is now high up on my to-do list.

All of these things brought back happy memories for me. And I know that I can remember the pleasures without having the objects to look at, which is another way of expressing the mantra of our book and blog: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the 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