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

 

Keeping Memories of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Outer Order, Inner Calm” Sparks Joy for Me

Gretchen Rubin has always been an intriguing author for me because she is thoughtful, practical, and focused on what makes us happy – as she ought to be since her seminal work, The Happiness Project, is a book about exploring what makes Gretchen happy and more agreeable and how we might glean something for our own lives from her journey.

In her newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, a short look into what works for her and suggestions for what might work for us, Rubin explains her challenges to find more order in a way that is thoughtful and helpful, yes, but also allows for the messiness that is part of life. There is not one way to do this, only different solutions that work for different people.

Here are some of the ways she has found, as the book blurb says, for getting control of the stuff in our lives and making us feel more in control of our lives by getting rid of things we don’t use, or need, or love, so we can free our minds and our homes for what we truly value.

Outer order isn’t a matter of having less or having more. It’s a matter of wanting what we have.

In most situations, we don’t need to make a perfect choice but just a good-enough choice.

People are reluctant to relinquish their possession, so if I think that it might be time to discard an item, I probably should’ve done so already – especially if that thought occurs to me more than once.

Here’s a wonderful explanation of some of the psychic challenges to getting rid of our stuff. The endowment effect: We value things more once we own them. The duration effect: The longer I own a possession, the more precious it becomes, even if it has never been particularly valued.

David Ekerdt, a professor of sociology and gerontology, observed that after age fifty, the chances that a person will divest himself or herself of possessions diminishes with each decade.

Do it now, or decide when you’ll do it.

When trying to make a tough choice, challenge yourself: “Choose the bigger life.” The helpful thing about this question is that it reveals our values.

Does this bring you joy? may be a useful question for some. But for me the question is, Does this energize me?

Someplace, keep an empty shelf or an empty junk drawer. My empty shelf gives me the luxury of space; I have room for more things to come into my life.

Remember love. When it gets to be too much, remember: All this junk is an expression of love.

Outer order is a challenge to impose and it’s a chore to maintain. Nevertheless, for most of us, it’s worth the effort. Especially because it helps us feel good and helps us create an atmosphere of growth.

And inner calm contributes to outer order. When we feel serene, energetic, and focused, that’s when it becomes easier to keep our surroundings in good order. It’s a virtuous cycle.

My possessions aren’t me, that’s true – yet it’s also true that my possessions are me.

When we look at our stuff, we see a reflection of ourselves. We’re happier when that stuff is in good order and includes things that we need, use, and love – because that reflection influences the way we see ourselves.

Thank you, Gretchen Rubin. Your new book echoes some of the themes in our book, Moving On, where we say that when downsizing it’s helps to remember the love that went into accumulating the stuff in the first place.

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

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Collector and the Inner Archivist

 

In a couple of recent posts I have talked about the “voices” of various parts of me that tend to slow me down when I am engaged in the process of downsizing and decluttering (or trying to become engaged in it). In the first one I talked about my “Inner Ecologist” and my “Inner Altruist.” The next one was about my “Inner Sentimentalist” (The latter is one that we have been told our book is especially helpful in dealing with. Boiled down to a  few words our main message/mantra for the Inner Sentimentalist is Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…)

There are two other voices that tend to arise in this process also. One of them is the voice of the Inner Collector, and the other is the voice of the Inner Archivist.

These two voices for me, and probably for many people, are the most difficult to deal with in a way. After all, the main challenge with the Inner Ecologist and the Inner Altruist is simply overcoming inertia, or procrastination; basically just summoning the time, energy, and motivation to get those things out of the house to recycling, reusing, or donating places.

But the problems that the Inner Collector and the Inner Archivist are drawing our attention to are often quite a bit more complicated. In these two cases, the challenge may be to find appropriate homes for very special objects or historical documentation: things that are actually quite valuable and deserve to be carefully placed somewhere where they can be preserved and enjoyed by others: and safeguarded for the future.

In some cases, the voice of the Inner Collector has probably been overly influenced by television programs like Antiques Roadshow and online resale sites like eBay.  I remember that when we were first shopping our book to publishers, one of the comments of the editor who ended up choosing to publish it  was that she was having difficulty getting her parents to get rid of some of the things in their too-full-of-things home. “We’re sitting on a fortune here!” she said her father would protest whenever she tried to urge them to get rid of some of those things.

But unless you are willing to invest the time and energy into making collecting a moneymaking venture by making yourself an expert on whatever type of collectible is involved, it’s probably best to get rid of most, or at least many, of the old things that you’ve been saving against the day they may be “worth a fortune,” and let someone else enjoy them and get whatever profit there may be in selling them. (This is also a reason why hiring professionals to run your estate sale is often a good idea: they know the market for antiques and collectibles much better than most people, and usually they will have a vested interest in trying to help you make the most amount of money from your sale because it is to their benefit as well as yours. We discuss this in our book also.)

On the other hand, some people either have kept, or have inherited, serious collections that do in fact have real value, either as something to sell, or something to donate to a museum or library. We go into how best to deal with serious collections in some detail in our book, and we provide links to organizations and institutions that can help people know where to turn for even more detailed information and advice in the resource section.

The voice that is hardest of all for me to ignore, and/or deal with,  is the voice of my Inner Archivist. As a writer, I know only too well how valuable old letters, journals, cards, and other documentation of various kinds can be for writers, researchers, and historians of the future. And so, to be honest, it is really hard for me to throw away almost anything on paper. (This does not mean I never do it. It means it is almost always pretty hard to do. That Inner Archivist keeps saying things like “Wouldn’t this be interesting for someone to come across in a hundred years?” (!) One of the things I was told by the director of a local historical museum when I interviewed her for our book was that one thing you can do with old cards, papers, and letters is take them to your local historical society and let the experts make the decisions about what should be kept, and what can be discarded. She used a wonderful phrase in explaining to me that sometimes items that are not appropriate for the local collection may be sent to another historical society where they would be welcomed. She called this “sending it home.” I loved that phrase, and that idea!

So I would never urge anyone to throw away really old documents if you come across them in your downsizing/decluttering activities. You might want to see instead if your local historical society would have an interest in them.

Of course all of this takes time, more time than just tossing documents into the recycling barrel.

Which is why the #1 piece of advice in our book is to start now! And take your time… 🙂 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Sentimentalist

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Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

 

In a recent post, I wrote about some of the “voices” that keep me from moving forward with the task of downsizing. In that particular post, I talked about the voices of my “inner ecologist” and my “inner altruist.” And I promised to introduce you in a future post to my “inner collector” and my “inner archivist,” both of whom also have plenty of reasons (some, though not I, would say “excuses”) for not getting rid of certain kinds of things.

But what I completely forgot about at the time is one of the MAIN culprits many people encounter when downsizing–and that is the “inner sentimentalist.”

Probably at this point I should mention that the reason I forgot about the Inner Sentimentalist is that our book does such an EXCELLENT job of helping to rein in the Inner Sentimentalist that dwells in many of us, and getting her (or him) to allow us to proceed with the task at hand, that I completely forgot I even had one! (This is actually true!)

I often tell people I know that our book is a good and helpful one because it has helped ME get rid of many things that, had I not had the experience of writing our book, I certainly would not have been able to get rid of–or at least, not nearly as easily.

One of the things we talk about in our book is how it is important to separate the memories from the objects--because often it is the memories we really want to keep (and they take up so much less space!). Often we don’t really need to keep the objects to which they are attached, once we have found a way to celebrate, preserve and otherwise keep the memories.

And so, as I have been involved in peeling away the layers of “getting rid of stuff” that I have had to do in recent years, my Inner Sentimentalist has made scarcely a peep. (She knows it is the memories, not the objects, that count!)

This is not to say that she is entirely dead (or, I suppose some would say, though not I!–entirely cured). She still pipes up once in a while, making her feelings known when I am weighing the value of some very sentimental object, or artifact, against the weight of holding onto it any longer.

A good recent example is when I thought I had lost the ceramic figurine my grandmother gave me when I was 10 years old.

This figurine is rather important to me mainly because it is because of her that I had figured out (perhaps erroneously, not sure yet!) that my grandmother really didn’t like me very much.

That’s a whole ‘nother story that I am not about to tell here, you will have to read my memoir one day, when it is published. For now just let me say that this little ceramic figurine played a key role at a key moment in my life, a moment in which I questioned whether a notion I had held onto since childhood–that my grandmother didn’t really like me–was true.

Anyway, none of that matters for the point I am trying to make here. The point I am trying to make here is that the figurine was important to me, and I thought at a certain point in the process of getting rid of things in my storage locker that I had lost it.

In the past, this would have been EXTRAORDINARILY upsetting to me. (I mean, how important is that? A figurine that represents such a very important awareness about one’s life, and one’s grandmother?!)

Pretty important.

And it was even more important because I had kind of pictured that figurine possibly  being worked into the book cover of my memoir one day. (Most writers have fantasies along these lines, and I am no different in that regard…)

Anyway. Here’s the point. When I thought I had lost her, I will not say I was not upset, because I was.

But I was more annoyed than anything like devastated. (I think before we wrote our book on downsizing I would have been more or less devastated.)

As it was, my thought process went something like this:

“Damn! I can’t believe it! Did that box go off to the thrift store by accident? Damn!”

But I did not stop to mourn the possibly-missing figurine. I did not stop to cry about it. I did not stop to look frantically everywhere for the box in which the figurine had been.  I just kept doing what I had to do.

I knew I had taken a picture of the figurine, so my potential book cover was safe.

I knew that if I didn’t find the figurine, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

And so, when I did find it (after all), all I thought was, “Oh! Here it is! (after all)…”

SO MUCh less sturm und drang than there would have been in the past!

Here’s the thing: once you know, really knowthat it’s the memories, not the objects, that are important, then this kind of annoying thing (which takes place unfortunately QUITE OFTEN in the discombobulating experience of moving and downsizing)…Anyway, once you know it, really, really know it?

Losing things doesn’t have to be as upsetting.

And there is a wonderful kind of freedom in that.

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

 

 

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Ecologist and the Inner Altruist

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The look on my face says it all. Getting rid of things can be SO hard to do!!!

During my most recent attack on the storage locker that is holding some of my things while I continue to work my way through a complicated and protracted international move, I was talking with some friends who are also going through the downsizing process, as they readied their house to put it on the market.

As we were commiserating one night about the misery of it all, the husband of the couple said, “The reason it is so hard is that there is nothing—NOTHING!!—natural about getting rid of things. We are all about acquiring them. And keeping them. And enjoying them. It’s in our DNA.”

“Hunter/gatherers,” his wife murmured in agreement.

And I said, “I really think you have hit the nail on the head.”

I think that indeed my friend is right, that this is at least a part of the reason—or maybe one could say one of MANY reasons—why downsizing is so difficult.

But most of us do know that we have to do it, at least to a certain degree, sooner or later, much as it goes against our nature.

And we also know that sooner is definitely better than later. Much as we hate to admit it!

This post is about how to deal with some of the voices we hear when we are downsizing that tend to impede the process of actually getting down and doing it—that is, getting rid of things.

At least these are some of the voices I hear that I have to argue with in order to keep the process moving ahead and get it done. Do you hear any of these voices too?

The Inner Ecologist.  The Inner Ecologist in me can’t stand to throw things into the trash that should really be either recycled or reused. (Please note: The Inner Ecologist is a good person, who cares about the earth!)

The problem is that when earth-friendly solutions are not readily available or easy to achieve, the stuff just stays there and adds to the clutter.

In other words, I procrastinate.

We’ve written a lot about various ways to recycle even very hard-to-recycle things on this blog, and there is guidance about ways to do this in our book also.

And as we have pointed out in our book, no matter what avenue you’re taking to get rid of things—selling, donating, recycling—the earlier you start, and the more time you have to complete the task, the better it is.

So what my Inner Ecologist needs to hear when she pipes up, protesting “Don’t throw that away!”  is this: “Find an earth-friendly way to get rid of it NOW, or know that one day it is going to end up in the trash where it SHOULD NOT BE. And if it does, you will feel just AWFUL about it. Plus, you might even get fined. “

That tends to get my Inner Ecologist’s attention and cooperation. 🙂  

Closely related to the Inner Ecologist is the Inner Altruist. The Inner Altruist is  someone who hates to waste. The Inner Altruist cannot stand to see “perfectly good things” (and often imperfect, not-so-good things) “go to waste.”

The Inner Altruist always wants to either use those things him or herself until they are absolutely, completely and CLEARLY no good–or give them to someone else “who could use them.”

The Inner Altruist is a good person too, and has many points of convergence with the Inner Ecologist, one of the most notable among them being the tendency to procrastinate.

So the Inner Altruist, like the Inner Ecologist, needs to be urged to take those things, whatever they are—clothing, shoes, towels, bedding, dishes, whatever!—that are not being used, and get them to someone who can use them NOW, before it is too late and someone comes along and THROWS THEM AWAY!!! (Horrors!)

In my next post, I will introduce you to two other creatures that dwell within me, these two even more difficult to deal with–at least for me.

So stay tuned to meet my Inner Collector and my Inner Archivist….sound familiar, anyone?

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

 

 

 

 

A Spring Sale on Our E-Book!

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When our book first came out, the Cleveland Plain Dealer review said, “The best time to read this excellent book is before you need to…with simple honesty and sensitivity, the authors describe the range of emotions families feel when it’s time to clean out and sell the family home.”

But Moving On is useful in many other life situations, from moving, to spring cleaning, to general decluttering. We encourage people to do “proactive downsizing” – which means, basically, that whatever your age, whatever your situation in life, NOW is the time to start getting rid of stuff, so it won’t be such a daunting task for you or your family later on.

And now, for a limited time only* we are offering our e-book for $4.99, 50% off the regular price of $9.99.  

If you’ve never read an e-book, this would be a great time to try. Why? Well, here are a few reasons:

  • The e-book is an updated version of our 2004 book, and the only version that has been updated.
  • Our helpful resource section provides live links to a wide variety of sources of information about how to appraise, sell, donate, preserve, recycle, or otherwise deal with all the stuff you are going through.
  • An e-book will not add one more book about decluttering to your bookshelf!
  • You don’t need a Kindle, a smartphone, or a tablet to read an e-book. You can read it on a desktop computer.

You can see some of the nice things people have had to say about our book here.

And if you want to take us up on this great opportunity to save 50% on our book, you can get started here.

Sooo…if you don’t mind our asking: what are you waiting for?

*Now through May 31, 2018.

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