Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live

Live simply so that others may simply live. Elizabeth Ann Seton

In thinking about what I should write about this week, I decided to look up quotes about downsizing the home, and this quote, by Elizabeth Ann Seton, is the one that appealed to me the most strongly. Because it seems to me this quote is the most relevant in our 21st century world.

It is not a contemporary quote: born into a socially prominent New York family in 1774, Elizabeth Ann Seton grew up to become the founder of both the first Catholic girls’ school in the United States, and also the first American congregation of the Sisters of Charity. Her life story is an interesting one.

While there are many reasons for Americans, and citizens of other affluent countries, to cut down on the rampant consumerism that we seem to have become caught up in, especially over the past 50 years or so, it seems to me this is both the most difficult to fathom, and the most important. Because truly, our daily habits are affecting our planet, and all of the billions of people who inhabit our earth.

We have written often on this blog about the importance of becoming more ecologically aware, of recycling, of reusing, of not consuming harmful products in the first place.

Scientists tells us, with increasing urgency, that the climate change crisis we are currently facing is real, and that urgent action is needed. The solution(s) to our problem are neither simple, nor anything any one of us can enact on our own.

But on our own, we can realize that our individual actions, when taken collectively, can indeed make a difference.

And that these things matter not only for the health of our beautiful planet, which will indeed survive, no matter what.

But for each and every one of the more than 7 billion people–our fellow human beings–who call this planet home.

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

Is It Time for a Global Restart?

I saw an interesting article in The Guardian this week that made me think about my mother, and what I learned from her about clothing–among other things.

The article is about the effect that lockdown around the world has had on the fashion industry. It covers a number of aspects of this phenomenon–everything from some people deciding they really like dressing for comfort more than for fashion, to the natural slowdown in consumption habits that has occurred as a result of lockdowns, to people’s growing awareness of the deleterious effects that the production of textiles has on the environment, and a desire to do something about that.

The reason it made me think about my mother is that my mother was, like many of her generation, traumatized by a childhood spent in poverty during the years of the Great Depression, a trauma she was never really able to get over. In her case what it resulted in was some very strong habits having to do with not wasting anything; and also a compulsion to use things until they were completely unusable, and/or to reuse them for new purposes.

This was carried out in our home in many ways, not all of them entirely rational, or reasonable. For example, one of the things my sister and I found in the crawl space above our garage when we were cleaning out our parents’ home after she died was two very tall stacks of styrofoam egg cartons. My sister looked at me, shook her head, and said–a bit sadly, as I recall–“Why?”

Well, the “why” was because my mother must have been saving them for “something useful.” In the case of styrofoam egg cartons the only possible reuse I could think of would be as a kind of funky (and not very nice) costume jewelry organizer, although I suppose there may be others. I think it is more likely my mom was saving them was because in past years children were sometimes urged to bring such things to school to craft into art projects of one kind or another. No matter that our school years were long past, and that those egg cartons were never going to make it to a school anyway, stored in the crawl space of our garage as they were.

The conventional response to such behavior is to view a person like my mother with at best affectionate amusement, and at worst outright disdain and ridicule. It is seen, not entirely incorrectly, as a mild form of hoarding.

But who really is at fault when it comes to the problem of what to do with something like egg cartons made of styrofoam?

What to do with used styrofoam is a complicated problem, and I do not intend to try to propose a solution to it in this post. But I would just like to say that I think the problem of what to do about styrofoam is one that we really should be working on, and if there is anything to be ashamed about it is not the people who hold onto styrofoam egg cartons because they realize on some level that this is just not something that should be thrown into the trash: it is the fact that we are creating on a massive scale an oil-based product that no one really knows how to properly dispose of or recycle. Now that is a problem.

But to get back to the matter of clothing. One of the things I thought about while reading the Guardian article is how when I was a girl I had a great many hand-me-down clothes, mainly because I had two slightly-older-than-me girl cousins, and often when we would visit them we would come home with a bag full of the clothing they had outgrown. I don’t remember ever feeling embarrassed or ashamed about wearing hand-me-downs, in fact some of their clothing became favorites of mine. I had plenty of new clothing too. My parents could afford that, and I was not in any way deprived.

I think the one bad effect this had on me, was not any kind of stigma attached with wearing hand-me-down clothing. It was, rather, that well into my adulthood I thought of myself as being a person who was to accept secondhand clothing, but not necessarily to give it away. Perhaps in my case this is because once I had worn my older cousins’ clothing, we gave it back to the same family so the next girl in line could wear it. So when I grew up and there was clothing I was no longer wearing, I didn’t know quite what to do with it. So I just kept it, as my mother had kept pretty much everything, and never learned to let go in the way that one must do in order to avoid having too many things around. It took me a while to train myself into the habit of taking clothes to thrift stores as well as away from them. Old habits die hard!

What does any of this have to do with the lockdown, or with downsizing for that matter?

Well, here is the admittedly somewhat tenuous chain of connection that I make between these matters.

We are at a moment of global crisis in a variety of ways. And one of the things we have to do is figure out what to do about it. It is not easy, it is not simple, and there is not just one thing to do, of course.

But I think one thing we might do is reexamine our behavior–as a culture, overall–over the period that started in the 1950s and has continued until today.

This is a period in which it somehow became shameful, at least for many people, to wear old clothing, or the same clothing, or secondhand clothing, or mended clothing. But it somehow was not shameful that we were, with our cultural habits, filling landfills, and polluting the earth, and creating all kinds of ecological problems that now we really don’t know how to solve.

Finding a way out of this morass is not going to be easy: but it occurs to me that we might start by reexamining the attitudes we have about things like wearing secondhand (or mended) clothing; putting milk into glass bottles rather than plastic jugs; even hanging clothes out to dry a clothesline rather than using electricity to dry it inside. What, pray tell, is so bad (or shameful?!?!) about hanging clothes to dry on a line?

And maybe, just maybe, it is time to figure out how to create a world in which we are more concerned about what is in our landfills, and in our oceans, and in the air we breathe–than in our closets.

That might be a good start.

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



Five Suggestions for Living in Lockdown

Well, isn’t this an interesting time we find ourselves in (collectively)?

All those things we’re always saying we wished we had the time to do: we can do them now!

But something tells me I’m not alone in having discovered that there are some things I could be doing now that, actually, when push comes to shove (like now) I find that i really really really. REALLY! don’t want to do them after all.

Because now I have the time, and guess what?

Still not doing ’em… 😦

Nonetheless, in the spirit of sharing a few ideas about those hard-to-get-to tasks that “sheltering in place,” quarantine, and/or total lockdown present a perfect opportunity for, here are a few suggestions for ways to make whatever period of time you may be “stuck” at home more productive. (Also in the spirit of “Do what I say, not what I do…”)

And don’t worry. After my suggestions, I’ll share the link to a wonderful article that will help you feel better even if you’re really not (yet) up to doing any of them… 🙂

1) Deep clean your house, especially the kitchen and bathroom. (This is a doubly good idea in the middle of a pandemic.) There are some great tips about how to go about it here.

2) Organize family photos and videos. Probably don’t need to say much more about this. You can find some great tips about how to safely label and otherwise preserve old photographs and letters here.

3) Read, or (as my coauthor suggested last week) take advantage of the opportunity presented by the internet to enjoy cultural events online. My coauthor mentioned having “taken an [online] tour” of an orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden last week. I found myself pleased as punch to be able to “attend” a poetry reading that was held at the University of Virginia years ago. Who ever has time for these things? Well, many of us do, now.

4) Clean your closets. What more perfect time could there be than this, for that? And if you find a stash of old war letters in one of those closets that you’ve been meaning to read, now could be a very good time to do it. Then, if and when you don’t want the responsibility of keeping them in your family anymore, you might consider donating them to The Center for American War Letters. (Be sure to check with everyone in the family before doing so, though.)

5) Just enjoy spending time with your family, and friends whether it’s together in your home, or online through social media platforms. There are so many of them and it is wonderful to see all the newly creative ways they are being put to use these days, everything from online seders and Easter services, to…I dunno…yoga classes!

Finally (and importantly): If you find yourself too unsettled, or just not ready, to do any of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just take the main necessary precautions about which surfaces in your home to disinfect, and let the rest go for now.

One of the things many people are having a hard time with these days is feeling “productivity pressure.” This article is aimed at academics, but there’s a lot of valuable advice, and helpful tips, that can apply to almost anyone.

Hang in there, everyone. We’ll figure out how to get through this time. (Or rather, the doctors and nurses, and scientists, will.) Then the rest of us should listen hard to whatever they have to tell us in terms of health (of ourselves, of the planet) from here on out…and make sure they get the kind of thanks, attention, and respect they really deserve.

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


What Ever Happened to Darning…(and other thoughts about clothing)

I’m currently reading a very interesting book, called Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter. I will have more to say about this book in a future post, but for now I just want to say that it’s gotten me to thinking about (among other things) clothing. Or more precisely the fabrics that our clothing is made of, and what happens to it when we’re no longer wearing it.

Then this week I ran across a post by an artist in the U.K. named Kate, whose main medium is “reclaimed fabric.” She begins the post, which is called  “Mending Clothes as an Act of Revolution,” by saying “I have often wondered when it was that Western society collectively decided that visibly mended clothes were a mark of reduced status. Of a life worth less. Where a patch or a darn was certainly not acceptable in polite company…”

I have wondered this too! I certainly remember seeing my mother and both of my grandmothers darning socks all the time I was growing up. They would be sitting and chatting, and one (or both) of them would be mending a sock stretched over the left hand while they sewed with the right.

And though I have never taken up the habit myself I have always felt kind of guilty about just tossing holey socks into the garbage. It just doesn’t seem right.

And in fact, in many ways, it isn’t right. That most of us do so now is just one more symptom of a world in which we aren’t thinking enough about what happens to all the things we toss into the garbage once they’re out of our sight.

Because I know it isn’t right to just throw my holey socks away, I usually try to first use them as rags; but the truth is that socks just do not make great rags: they are not tee-shirts!

There’s plenty of advice about how to darn socks on the internet. This gives me a bit of hope that maybe there is more darning going on in the world than it seems.

But is it, though? Is anyone out there still darning their socks? Do you? Do you know anyone who does?

Leaving you with those questions for this week…and hoping to hear from some darning enthusiasts!

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



Valentines: What to Keep, What to Toss?


Vintage valentine, c. 1950s?

Valentines present–at least for “keepers” like me (and both of my grandmothers, and both of my parents)–a bit of a challenge in downsizing.

On the one hand, it’s important to ask ourselves, can we really keep all of the valentines that were ever given to all of us forever?

(The answer is no.)

On the other hand, after they’ve already been carefully saved for 20, or 30, or 50 (or more!) years, we shouldn’t just carelessly toss them into the garbage, or the recycling bin now. Should we?

(For me, the answer is, once again: no.)

But then what SHOULD we do with all those vintage valentines that were carefully preserved and stored in boxes for decades in our homes?

Well, I can’t tell anyone else what to do, but I can tell anyone who might want to know what I did when faced with this very dilemma a few months ago.

I took all those pretty valentines I came across as I went through the many boxes of papers I’m still going through from my parents’ home. Those pretty valentines that evoked so interestingly changing times and tastes and aesthetics, and sometimes even held bits of evidence of tender feelings. I put them carefully into a big ziplock bag and brought them to a thrift store where I knew someone who collects vintage valentines might be very happy to find them, and give them the respect they deserve.

And I tried not to think about other things that might happen to them. 🙂

The main point is, I found a good possible future life for them: and I am not storing them any longer.

It occurred to me as I thought about what to write about today that this series of questions might be helpful to “keepers” when they are trying to decide which sentimental things to keep, which to toss, and which to bring to another “safe” home.

Here are the questions:

Is it beautiful?

Is it important and meaningful to me (or might it be important and meaningful to someone else in my family?)

If the answer to the first question is “yes,” but the answer to the second question is “no” then you might want to consider taking the item to a thrift store (or wherever), where someone who would appreciate its beauty would be happy to find it.

If the answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second question is yes also–like, hmmm, well–like maybe old love letters–well, then…

I don’t really have to tell you what to do about them do I?

I think (especially if you are a keeper) you will know…

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

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 Wisdom of Wanting Less

This new year of double numbers seems to have provoked thoughts of wanting less, or at least of not wanting more, in many people. Wanting less just seems to be in the zeitgeist. Here are four people who have expressed those thoughts in just the last week or so.

Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and Tribe of Mentors, recently wrote a blog post titled “Finding the One Decision That Removes 100 Decisions (or, Why I’m Reading No New Books in 2020).” The theory behind his decision to not read any new books this year is the challenge to find a single decision that will remove or eliminate many other decisions.

Reading no new books seems like a very daunting prospect for many of us but we can apply the challenge to other parts of our lives. Here are some thoughts on making one decision that eliminates many others: for urbanites, deciding to wear only black clothes; for those with bulging closets, to not buy any new clothes for the year; for those who want to eat better, to eat breakfast and dinner at home on weekdays; for those who sit too much and never get to the gym, to get out for a 30-minute walk every day. What would your decision-to-eliminate-decisions be?

As Jennifer Szalai explains in her review by of Kyle Chayka’s new book The Longing for Less, there are ”two kinds of minimalism: sleek lifestyle branding and enforced austerity.” Chayka admits to being a minimalist, but only “by default,” and explores why the idea of “less is more” keeps resurfacing. Szalai says “the book itself is like an exercise in decluttering, as Chayka cycles through different ideas in order to find those he wants to keep.”

Pointing out much of the excess in our world today, Chayka hopes minimalism might provide an antidote or a balm. It’s encouraging to think of getting rid of stuff, attempting a turn toward minimalism, might be a corrective to the state we’re in now. Is decluttering a balm for you?

In a Here to Help column in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman responds to a question by a reader who writes that an Amazon search for ‘Women’s Tops’ yielded 20,000 listings over 400 pages and laments the resources used to create such excess. She asks if we consumers can do to try to “force” manufacturers to be more responsible.

Friedman says if consumers want to force the issue with manufacturers, the way to do that is to buy less. She suggests buying better clothes, wearing them more often, and taking care of them by cleaning and repairing them on a regular basis. I think most of us are guilty of buying cheap clothes and then replacing them often. My challenge would be: Can I resist a “bargain” and spend more on quality clothes? Who wants to join me?

In a Critical Shopper column, Jon Caramanica explains that selling your things online is part of modern life. We can all be retailers now. He writes of his selling experiences:

“What hole deep inside me all of this fills isn’t totally clear. What I do know is that when several layers of life seem unpredictable, or unwieldy, it can be gratifying and motivating to sell something, pack it up tight, take it to the post office and know that in short order its going to be put to better use. The benefits are ethical and environmental, and also financial, but mostly psychological.”

I love his list of the benefits of getting rid of our stuff: ethical and environmental and financial and psychological. In what other ways does getting rid of our stuff, selling it online or dropping it off at our local thrift store, provide solace for us?

It’s all part of the wisdom of wanting less, part of working towards owning and caring for less, and part of seeing that our stuff can be used to help 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

My Mother, A Keeper par Excellence

My mom, a few years before she died.

This morning when I woke up two thoughts occurred to me as I was groping my way toward full consciousness.

One is that it was my turn today, to post on this blog.

The other one is that this is the day that my mother died, 29 years ago.

And so I decided today’s post would be some kind of tribute to my mother, who I must say was a “keeper” par excellence.

My mom died far too soon. She died far too soon to have the time to read all those newspaper articles she was keeping to read “someday.”

And far too soon to do some of the things my coauthor and I recommend that people do in preparation for the day when they will no longer be around, to make things easier for the ones they leave behind.

She did not have the chance to do any of that. She was only 64 when she died. She worked as a nurse until a few short months before the cancer she had rendered her incapable of working anymore. And by then she was too sick to do anything else.

But she had done what she could: not about downsizing, exactly, but certainly about “keeping the memories,” when she still had the time and energy to do so. She put little notes, usually written on masking tape, and attached to the bottom surface of various pieces of pottery, jewelry boxes, and the like. Little notes that would let us know why some of the things she kept were special. Little notes that became pretty special themselves when we found them after she was gone…

This whole thing about downsizing can be pretty complicated. I wrote about some of those complicated feelings I had, especially about my mother, a couple of years after our book was first published, in an essay that was published in the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper she loved. That essay ended with these words:

Once, when I was in my 20s and home for a visit, I was trying to find an iron and ironing board in the maddening clutter of the place. I’m now sorry to say that I spoke harsh words to my mother about how hard it was to complete the simplest action in that house. What I said was true, but it was not kind, and it was not the most important thing that could be said about my parents’ home.

I had the chance to say the most important thing in the book I ended up writing after the experience of getting rid of all that accumulated stuff. I dedicated the book to my mother, “who filled our home with many, many things–but most of all, with love.”

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

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

A Downsizing Story: Tom and Anita

Two years ago Tom and Anita decided to retire from their jobs: Anita had worked for many years for the federal government, and Tom was in the aerospace industry. They also decided to sell their sprawling, 6,00-square-foot Tudor home in suburban Washington D.C. As it is for many people, downsizing was for them a somewhat tumultuous adventure. Two and a half months after they had finally settled into a much smaller home (2,800 square feet), Anita kindly agreed to share their story with the readers of this blog. Our interview follows. Janet Hulstrand

Janet: How long had you been in your home before you went through your big downsizing experience? When and why did you decide to make this move?

Anita: First of all, when we bought our house we weren’t buying just a house: we were really looking for a particular lifestyle. We wanted our home to be a charming, green sanctuary, yet it had to also be urban and walkable. When we brought our twin babies home from the hospital it was to a Capitol Hill rowhouse that I had begun renovating as a single person where I lived with a giant Olde English Sheepdog. Somewhere along the way amidst renovations and both floor and wall demolitions, I met Tom. We married and had twin daughters. The sheepdog was delighted as his loving pack grew. And I got big, fast!

It took us two years to find our charming Tudor home, with a spring-fed creek, flower boxes brimming with seasonal delights, a bridge, and a garden. Inside there was room for lots of books, and nooks and crannies in which to read. We lived happily in this home for more than 25 years. We renovated, decorated, and it doubled in size, Eventually the house was larger than what we needed: unbelievably, our daughters grew up and moved away, the sheepdog died, and the house needed a new bustling family.

Janet: What was the experience like for you, in a word? Or maybe in three words?

Anita: The experience defies words. But Emotional Purging Tornado comes to mind. It was a tornado of emotions as we desperately went about getting rid of possessions. It took over a year to get the house on the market: hundreds of books, gone; armoires, gone; bookshelves, gone; baby grand, gone; tons of clothes, gone; CDs, gone; furniture and orientals, gone; paintings, gone. Finally a slimmed-down, Pottery-Barned version of our whitewashed house went on the market, and then it didn’t sell for three whole summer months. So we took it off the market while we traveled the world. When we came back we put it on the market again in the spring, and this time it sold in two days, with a bidding war.

Janet: What was most difficult about the experience?

Anita: I think the most difficult thing was realizing that the life I had always wanted, I had had: the family, the dog, the white picket fence, and now it was over. I never imagined this incredible sense of loss I would feel: yet it was a success: our daughters grew up and became who they were meant to be; and it took them away from home.

Janet: I know that at a certain point you were planning to put all of your things in storage and travel for a while, but you changed your mind about that. Why did that change?

Anita: After we took our house off the market, we traveled for 100 days straight: 12 countries, 22 flights, and we loved it. But after the traveling was over, we had a home to come home to. We had planned to put everything in storage and do it again, but the realization that we would not have an address, or a home, a place to put the few things we were keeping felt logistically complicated. And, financially, having some money in a house made sense to us.

Janet: Do you have any words of advice, comfort, or wisdom for boomers about to take this step?

Anita: My new advice is, don’t do it: die in the house and let the kids do it, like my parents did! It’s painful, exhausting, and two and a half months after the hell of moving, I still can’t bring myself to drive by my old house. I cried at the closing and my real estate agent cried when she saw me cry. There were so many happy memories attached to that house: and crises, too. So, there’s that.

Janet: What do you think about Marie Kondo’s advice now? Did your opinion of her and her advice change in the process of this move?

Anita: I did read the book. I’m still waiting for the joy! I actually was mad at her.

Janet: How do you feel generally now, as you are beginning to settle into your new home? Are some of the feelings of loss, sadness, disorientation dissipating? Is it “going to be okay”?

Anita: Ask me in a year. It’s definitely going to be okay. I have a ton less house to maintain, our yard is half the size, the house is nice, that’s a plus; but it has needed a lot of work getting it to my standards. I’ve had workmen in here nonstop. I do think this was the right choice. We could have moved anywhere, but nowhere stood out. We could have put everything in storage for a year and done 365 more days of travel. We could have moved into our 34-foot sailboat, or we could have bought a bigger sailboat. But we didn’t know what we wanted. For the first time in our lives we could have done anything, but in the end, this move felt right for now. There were so many choices to make, and only six weeks to get out of the house. Maybe you end up making the right choice by listening to your collective gut.

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

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


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