The Joy of a Junk Drawer Decluttered

It all started when my oven stopped working properly. Food would cook or bake faster on the left side, sometimes even burn, while food on the right side was not yet done. This had gone on long enough and it was finally time for a new oven.

The new one would be a gas wall oven, just like the old one, but the new one would have an electric starter. That meant having to make a connection under the counter to an electrical outlet on the other side of the cooktop. Before the new oven was installed, I was told to empty out the cabinet beneath the oven, my serving dishes, and to the right of it below the cooktop, my pots and pans. I also emptied out the cabinet above the oven just in case, the one with all my baking pans.

Where to put the stuff? I put paper down on the dining room floor and laid everything down. What an awakening it was to see how much cooking equipment I had. There were so many things I didn’t need and I knew, for sure, I wasn’t going to put them all back. This was the perfect time to downsize and declutter.

To start, I put aside the dishes and pots that I use regularly or at least often enough to warrant keeping. The next step was to ask my kids to take what they wanted. Then my husband sold a couple of pots on Craigslist and I offered some serving dishes and utensils to a non-profit. And finally I donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to prepare meals.

It is wonderful to work in a kitchen with fewer items that are more easily accessible. But my joy was tempered somewhat because I have this junk drawer that sticks each time I open it because it’s so overstuffed. Yes, this is a long story of how I finally, after more time than I care to remember, have decluttered my junk drawer.

I took everything out of the drawer and again put it all on paper. Many organizers emphasize the importance of emptying out a drawer or closet completely in order to see what you have and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much easier to work that way, and we’ve talked about this process in a previous post.

And, strange as it might be to imagine, it was also a time for reminiscing. I found so many books of matches. When candle lighting is called for I always scramble to find matches. Not any more. I discovered more than two dozen matchbooks that had been shoved to the back recesses of the drawer, most of them from restaurants where we had enjoyed meals. It was fun to remember the happy occasions, like Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has now been reinvented; family celebrations, like those at Belgo and City Crab, places that are long gone; and casual times at a neighborhood joint, Plate 347, that is no longer there. A particularly bittersweet memory: wonderful dinners at Windows on the World, with its spectacular view of the city.

But, back to the present. The next step was to put like things together, something we say often in our book. It’s amazing to see how many different spatulas, whisks, and measuring spoons I had. Were they really different or were they the same? I kept the ones I liked best or used most often and let go of the rest. Some went to my kids – one wanted my melon baller – and the rest went to the thrift store.

My junk drawer now opens easily and I can see what I have without moving things around. It may not be as neat as the one in the photograph, above, with custom-made dividers, but it works, smoothly and efficiently. I own fewer items now and many of the items I no longer need have found new homes.

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

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Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

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

Downsizing: Is It Comforting to Have a Partner to Help?

We wrote in our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and often say in our posts that it’s a good idea to get help when downsizing and decluttering. But what makes a person a good helper and what is the best way to make use of their help?

The person who helps could be your best friend or a sibling but sometimes it’s better to work with someone who has a little distance from the task at hand, someone who knows you but who has a little more perspective on the situation.

A person who helps in whatever way should be kind and nonjudgmental and on a similar wavelength as you are. It’s not helpful to hear “Oh, just get rid of that,” when you’re contemplating something you want to keep, or “You couldn’t possibly get rid of that,” when you’re thinking of letting something go. The person you choose should offer companionship and encouragement, not make decrees. A partner can also help you minimize regrets by allowing you the time to think through your decisions.

Whether you’re a “keeper or a thrower” – and most likely, if you’re reading this post, you are a keeper – you can gain insight from someone whose view is just slightly different than yours.

A helper can be just an extra pair of hands, helping to throw out the trash and take the donated items to their respective places. Or a helper can be a mental or emotional “pair of hands,” someone who helps keep you focused and offers support, and helps keep you from procrastinating. A helper can also help provide a deadline, or at least a schedule. Making appointments, weekly or otherwise, with a friend or helper is creating a schedule for your decluttering.

As you break down the job of decluttering into manageable parts, it helps to match the helper with the task you’re working on.

If you’re sorting through your clothes, for instance, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire, to help you decide what looks good on you and you’ll want to keep from what doesn’t quite fit or is out of date and you can give away.

If you’re sorting through books, you can ask for help from a friend who is a book lover but who is a little less sentimental than you are. Someone who can say of the fiction, “Are you really going to reread this?” or of the nonfiction, “If you need this information, you can always look it up.”

The task of sorting through papers, financial and medical, may be too private to share with a friend but it would be helpful to read about or discuss with friends the length of time you need to keep certain papers and what kinds of filing systems other people use. The goal of paper sorting is to keep only what you have to and to file it in such a way that you can retrieve it when you need it. A friend who’s organized may help you come up with filing categories that work for you.

Having a calendar of events, or someone who can keep you abreast of such events, can help. Before your town’s annual free shredding day, you can get your papers together. In preparation for your town’s tag sale, you can go through your clothes closet. If your local thrift shop has an annual spring event, you can get your giveaway items together to drop them off.

Time also helps. With enough time, you can decide whether an item is something you really want to keep or something you can give away. With time to think about it, I was able to let go of a favorite vase of my mother’s. And sometimes the wisdom of others, even people of different times and different places, can help give you perspective. See posts about that here and here.

At the very least, but also in some ways the very most, a person you’re comfortable spending organizing time with is there for you, not for your stuff and not for decluttering, but for you. Just keeping you company and allowing you space to work and offering moral support is an act of friendship, an almost sacred act. We would all be wise to accept and welcome such support.

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 Conversation for the Holidays

bird-scan

The holiday season presents families who are gathering together an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about family plans and what the future holds for the older generation. Or does it?

You can’t make your parents talk about what may be a difficult subject for them – how and where they are going to spend their later years.

You can’t expect your siblings to fall in line with your plans just because you think it’s the right time.

You can’t get rid of clutter or divide up family items, unless everyone is on board with the idea.

What can you do?

Remember that all-important conversation – the one that’s so difficult to initiate – is about what’s best for your parents. It’s at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you. You’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

  • Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.
  • Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may, or may not, want your opinions: they may, or may not, want your physical help.
  • Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.
  • Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

So what can you bring to the family table this season? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and bring along a copy of our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Happy Holidays!

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

Collecting: The Things We Love…

teddy-bears

“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

houses

 

Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snowflakes

And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

moms-clothes

 

In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

chicago

Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

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

Just Say No

yes-no- free clip art

Recently I was asked to give another one of my talks on downsizing and decluttering but this time the person hiring me asked that I not only talk about getting rid of stuff but also about not accumulating stuff in the first place.

Interesting thought. We have discussed this topic somewhat in our blog posts but have not really looked into it in great depth. Here are some tips I came up with.

What’s even easier than sorting through your stuff? Not bringing it into your house in the first place.

1. Don’t even touch it.

Studies have shown that handling an item makes it more appealing. Psychologists conducted an experiment: some people were handed a mug as they entered the room for a meeting; for others the mug was on the table. Those who touched the mug, were handed the mug, were much more likely to take it home with them than were those whose mug was on the table. So if you don’t touch it you will be more likely not to bring it home.

2. Don’t bring it into the house.

What can you not bring in? Junk mail: toss it in the trash as soon as you pick up the mail. Takeout menus or anything else someone hands you in the street or you take from the restaurant. Programs from the theater or concerts can stay in the theater. Pens or pencils given at a conference can stay on the table. Papers handed out at a meeting can remain on your seat. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to take it.

3. Don’t overbuy.

We all love Costco and BJ’s but do we really need to purchase a package of six shirts when we really only need one or a month’s supply of cereal if only two people in the family like cereal for breakfast? No, we don’t. Buy what you need, not what you think you might need in an emergency. Of course, if your family loves cereal, buying in quantity is good. But if your household is one or two people, buying in quantity can be wasteful.

4. Plan your purchases.

Before you go shopping, for food or for clothing, check your closets and cupboards. See what you have that you can use to make supper – you might just need a green vegetable to add to the leftover chicken and rice, for example. Check your closets for clothes to wear to work. You might be able to create new combinations by wearing a new shirt with pants or skirts you already own. Buy only what you really need. For clothing, think about the one in/one out rule: for each new piece you buy, you get rid of one you’re not wearing.

5. Limit the items that tend to accumulate.

Most of us have things we hold on to. I accumulate shopping bags. They’re too good to throw out and I’m always carrying something – that’s my justification, anyway. So I have a closet that’s overflowing with shopping bags that fall out of the closet every time I open it, and they certainly do when my husband opens it. I have a friend who buys kitchen magnets everywhere she goes. How many does she really need? Put a limit on the number you save, of anything, say 10, and toss the rest.

6. Give gifts that are consumable or gifts of experiences.

Give gifts of food that the recipient likes to eat: good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread. Or a certificate for your signature beef stew or cassoulet, made to order on a date they choose. Who doesn’t love food made with love. Or give gifts of experiences, outings like a camping trip or dinner at a nice restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest. My mother often gave gifts of books or magazine subscriptions. My coauthor wrote a lovely post about gifts that won’t cause clutter; you can read it here.

7. Think about how much easier it will be to clean.

Less stuff around the house means less stuff to clean. And that should be reason enough not to bring things into the house!

8. Think about other things you can do with the money and your time.

If you don’t buy things indiscriminately, you will save money and you’ll save the time you used to spend shopping. Think about what you could do with the money: save for a longed-for trip, a particular event, or a special evening out. With the time saved, you could learn a new skill or read all those books you’ve wanted to read but never had the time for before. And then you could donate the books and clear out the shelves on your bookcase!

9. Show respect for the planet.

Less stuff in the house means less stuff put into the garbage. Less garbage taken to the landfills means a happier, healthier planet for all of us. See a post here about donating rather than putting things in the trash.

10. Practice gratitude.

Be happy and thankful for what you have. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things we have, for the friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes us calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Less sometimes is more. Less stuff often leads to a more meaningful life.

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

All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

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

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