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

Where Do You Start?

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Last week, I participated in a downsizing roundtable for seniors and the question everyone asked was, “Where do you start?” From my experience in writing our book Moving On and our blog, here’s what I’ve learned.

Whether you are moving to a smaller place, straightening up because your apartment is going to be painted, or simply have that feeling that your possessions have taken over, the first question – and sometimes the one that stops you in your tracks – is always how do you get started. Here are some suggestions.

Start now. You can think about this, you can lament having to do it, but at some point you simply have to plunge in – even if “starting” simply means beginning to think about what you want to get rid of and talking to people about the best way to do that. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will become. If you’re older, the sooner you start, the more you’ll be able to be actively involved in the process of sorting through your things. And whether you’re old or young, that means that the changes you’re about to make will be on your terms, not someone else’s.

Take your time. The best way not become overwhelmed with the process of downsizing is to take your time. Schedule regular sessions, maybe just a half hour at a time, adding a few 2- to 3-hour sessions when needed. Doing too much at once may exhaust you and make you postpone starting another session. Keep your sessions short but make them a regular habit.

Start with the easy things. Begin with the areas that have the least emotional impact for you because it will be easier to part with those things. For some, that might be getting rid of old towels (a welcome donation at most animal shelters). For others it might be that pile of unread magazines or the kitchen utensils in that overstuffed kitchen drawer. Start with whatever area works best for you.

Start small. Don’t try to do too much at one time. If it took you 20 or 30 years to accumulate all that clutter, it will take you more than a couple of weeks to sort through it all. And any job that seems overwhelming can be broken down into smaller parts. If going through your clothes is too big a job to contemplate, divide the clothes into smaller groups: office clothes, casual wear, shoes, coats, accessories, and tackle each group separately.

Communicate. Talk over your plans with your family and friends; let them know that you want to get your home in order. Seek out people who have been through the experience of downsizing to find out what they did right—as well as what they did wrong. After the fact, people often have some insight as to what needs to be saved and what can be tossed. And ask for advice from friends and colleagues who are particularly well organized. The more you talk about getting organized and the more you embrace this as your project, the more likely you will be to get it done.

Get help. Nobody has to do this alone. When you are sorting through personal mementos like family photos or going through your income tax files, you’ll want to work alone. But if you need help deciding which clothes to keep and which to give away, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire to give you a helping hand. And anyone can help with carting things away; you could ask a teenage neighbor for help.

Think beyond. What this means is that for some of us, it’s easier to get rid of things when we know that the items will have a life beyond our needs. There are many places, well-known charities, schools, community groups, and businesses, that accept all kinds of household items from used roller skates to nearly new business suits, from college textbooks to sports equipment.

Enjoy the process. You can decide that this process has its upsides, that it’s not all onerous, and to do that you may have to adjust your attitude somewhat. You can also realize that this is an opportunity to be generous. People we interviewed found great joy in giving things away, whether to friends or to those in need. With the right attitude and an awareness of the needs of others, you can make this a positive experience.

Remember that one drawer emptied of its clutter or a couple of shelves in a closet that are organized and easier to use is a great accomplishment. Give yourself permission to feel good about the first small step you take; that will make it easier for you to go on to the next step. And downsizing is a process of many small steps.

So let’s get started.

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

Getting Help After a Death

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It happens to each of us, sadly, at some point. We have to sort through and dispose of an entire household after losing a loved one.

Where do we start? What’s the best way of dealing with the stuff? Who can we ask to help?

We looked to several fellow bloggers for advice as well as to our own experiences and those of the people we interviewed in our book Moving On. Here’s the best of what we found.

Take your time.

Lisa Montanaro in her post Organizing After the Loss of a Loved One, emphasizes taking one’s time. “After the death of a loved one, some people are tempted to sift through belongings and make decisions quickly. If this feels natural to you, fine (consider checking with a grief counselor before moving too quickly through the process). But most people need more time after a loss to organize a loved one’s possessions.” Some people need only a few months; others take years to sort through everything.

Keep a few special things.

Erin Dolan in her post Uncluttering After the Loss of a Loved One says that uncluttering – getting rid of the clutter and keeping what you value – is a way to keep the best of your loved one with you. She says, “Find the handful of things that you value most and that best honor your memories of [your loved one]…the pieces that make your heart sing.”

Save what’s meaningful to you.

As Jeri Dansky says in her post Not Clutter: The Odd Sentimental Items, “Memorabilia is very personal. Go ahead and save meaningless-to-anyone-else sentimental items – but it does help to be selective and save only the most precious. And don’t worry about getting rid of things that you think should be meaningful, but aren’t.”

Get help.

Tina Segal, founder of The Estate Settlers, has set up an information network and a service to assist an estate executor that helps families during the emotional and trying times following a death in the family. Her company focuses its efforts on the financial side of the estate as well as the “stuff” that’s left behind: the furniture, the cars, the jewelry, as well as the house itself.

The death of a loved one is a trying time in one’s life. Go at your own pace and deal with the items in your own way. And ask for help when you need it. As Lisa Montanaro says, “Give yourself permission to grieve first, heal, and then to organize.”

And her best advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

And one more thing…

Get your own house in order.

Getting your own papers and favorite items in order for your heirs is the best gift you can give them. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, make sure you have the four important papers updated and kept in a safe place. And make sure to create a list of all the important stuff in your life as a guide for after you’re gone.

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

September Resolutions?

I have always felt that September is a much more reasonable time for contemplating new beginnings than January, in the dead of winter when everyone is exhausted after a whirlwind of holiday parties.  The brisk back-to-work, back-to-school energy always makes me feel energetic too—ready to tackle new projects, learn new things, begin a “new year.”

So as I sat at the side of a lake on a quiet day in late August, contemplating my return to my usual schedule, I had the thought that maybe this would be a good time for some September resolutions—we could call them “New Years Resolutions Lite.”

Instead of making those heavy, daunting New Years resolutions that for so many people evoke cynicism and dread about breaking them before the new year has even begun—why not pick a few manageable, simple downsizing-the-home tasks to complete before that Other New Year begins?

Maybe just choose one task for each month.

These tasks could (and should, I think) be rather modest in scope. A collection of  childhood photos sorted and made into a welcome-home photo album before the first college-bound kid in your family returns for Thanksgiving. Two boxes of old letters from your parents or grandparents, at least opened and reviewed (if not read) before Christmas, so you can share (or preserve) whatever may be worth sharing or preserving with relatives at the family holiday celebration. Those boxes of kids books you’ve been trying to let go of finally delivered to a preschool or school library, where kids can enjoy them (saving just a few, for those grandchildren you hope may be visiting one day). A couple of hours a month devoted to doing the online research you’ve been putting off to find out for once and for all whether some of those odd things around the house are “worth something” (as some members of your family think) or are more appropriate for donation to the local thrift shop (as others have been suggesting).

The tasks you choose to assign yourself for this season could be kept very private—no one but you needs to know what your September Resolutions are.

Who knows? Maybe with lower expectations, and no fanfare, we might actually get something done!

Happy September, everyone!


Favorite Downsizing Stories: “The Fight Shelf”

One of my favorite stories about emptying the family home was told to us by one of the people we interviewed in the course of writing our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home). Here it is:

When my two sisters and I were breaking up my mother’s house of 40-plus years, we of course came upon things that more than one of us thought we couldn’t live without. After the first few snide comments, we made a “fight shelf” for the disputed items. The “fight shelf” grew into the “fight room,” and by the end of the summer there was quite a stash of memorabilia, none of which had much intrinsic value, but all of which held emotional and political power.

On an early fall morning we went to divvy up the goods, when we were all fresh and cool. We drew straws to determine the order of picks. After each of us had appropriated our first few choices in an orderly fashion, the pickings began to look a little slim. I picked up a very ugly tray and tried to recall who had fought over such a piece of trash. We couldn’t remember!

One by one, we inspected the remaining items, getting more and more amused by what we had once thought was worth fighting over. We ended up laughing uncontrollably. The rest of the contents of the room went to Goodwill, where I hope they found new owners with as much possessive enthusiasm as we had once had.

I like this story for several reasons. For one thing, it illustrates the value of probably the single most important piece of advice we came up with about downsizing the home in writing our book, which is  “Take your time.”

Of course it is not always possible to take as much time as these sisters did. Sometimes it is necessary to empty a house in a very short period of time, and such a long cooling-off period would not be possible for all families in this situation.

But in my experience with my family, we found that whenever the disposition of a particular item threatened to cause hard feelings or resentment–even if the cooling-off period was overnight, or even just a few hours later–backing off, and agreeing to decide “later” was inevitably helpful.

The other thing I love about this story is the way it shows how even very amicable families can descend into petty bickering over things when they are forced to part with sentimental items, especially when that process follows close upon the loss of a loved one, or accompanies other distressing or sad changes in the life of the family.

It also shows that with commitment to maintaining family harmony, lots of patience, and a good sense of humor, those tense moments can be turned into opportunities for becoming closer, and even sharing a few laughs along the way.

So, that’s one of my favorite downsizing  stories. What are some of yours?


Keepers and Throwers Unite!

“…‘throwers’ relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly and efficiently; ‘keepers’ want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process…” from Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Can these two temperamentally opposite kinds of people ever see eye-to-eye?

Is there a way for them to work together peacefully, harmoniously, with mutual respect for each other’s ways, when trying to get rid of stuff?

We think so. Which is not to say that finding that common ground might not be challenging from time to time.

What’s really needed is for these two opposite types to “cross the aisle” as it were. Try to see things from the other person’s point of view; recognize that their feelings about things (or about freedom from things, or freedom from clutter) have value and legitimacy; and practice the all-important art of compromise.

Keepers need to realize that you really can’t keep everything, that that way lies madness. They need to find ways to get rid of things, while honoring and keeping important memories.

Throwers need to recognize the value of sentimental items, and most especially their importance to keepers. They need to understand that keepers need to have sufficient time to go through a process of letting go of special items as they find ways to hold onto the memories attached to them.

In turn, keepers need to realize that “sufficient time” doesn’t mean forever. In fact in some cases it may mean by next Tuesday.

And so on…

In most families, and in many couples, there are both keepers and throwers, and there can be a fair amount of tension around this issue when it comes to figuring out what to do with “all that stuff.”

But it is possible to find common ground, and to work together both productively and peacefully. We’ll talk about some of the ways the process can be made sweeter, more harmonious, and more efficient in coming posts. It could even provide moments of laughter and fun. Believe it or not!

We’d love to hear stories about how you found ways to work with the “keepers” or the “throwers” in your lives too. Please consider sharing them with us.

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

A New Year’s Resolution

My friend cleans out her closet every year getting rid of clothes she hasn’t worn in the last two years. I would like to make that my New Year’s resolution but I know myself well enough to know that I won’t keep my resolution. Any suggestions?

One friend of mine gets rid of one item for every item she brings into the house. Another has vowed to throw out one thing every day – and has kept that vow. These are great resolutions for people with strong resolve but the rest of us may need a more user-friendly approach.

Let’s look at the situation a bit differently; why not create a task that is doable for you, one that can be accomplished more easily, one that is small enough that you’re not overwhelmed by it. Creating many small steps that you actually complete is more logical than focusing on one large task – emptying your closets – that is so daunting that, at the thought of it, you simply want to throw up your hands in surrender.

Here are two suggestions for ways to begin:

* Start with the small stuff. Start by sorting through the items that have little or no emotional impact for you: clean out the linen closet to get rid of all those frayed towels, sort through the kitchen utensils in that overstuffed kitchen drawer, or toss that pile of unread magazines sitting in the corner of the room.

* Break big jobs into smaller ones. If going through your closet seems too large a task, try breaking the job down into smaller parts such as coats, shoes, office attire, sportswear, accessories – and sort through each of these groups separately.

You can get rid of things as long as you approach the task in way that works for you.

Here’s to a happy-with-less New Year!


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