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

 

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.

 

 

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