Decluttering Lessons Learned: Dealing with Ephemera

I’m not sure, but I think maybe one of the things very few people recognize is that downsizing doesn’t happen just once.

Ideally, it’s going on kind of all the time. Or at least decluttering is.

Unless, of course, you are an extreme “keeper.” (Or a hoarder, but this post is not about hoarding. It is about how to keep from being an extreme keeper, which is not the same thing as a hoarder, not at all.) More about that, perhaps, another day…

The way I have been learning to do this is by a) writing a book about downsizing with my coauthor; b) trying to follow the advice we developed for our readers in helping our dads with their first round of downsizing in my subsequent rounds of same; and c) refining the advice we developed as I continue to learn from the protracted experience of finding homes for, or getting rid of, or otherwise dealing with the many many (many!) things that were stored in my parents’ home for many years. (Both my Mom and Dad, and both of my grandmothers, were extreme keepers. Those of you who come from families of “keepers” will know what this means…)

One of the experts I interviewed for our book was Mona Nelson, the director of a county historical society in Minnesota. When I asked her what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw out when they were clearing out a house full of things that had been stored there for many years, she picked up a greeting card from her desk, and said, “This kind of thing. Ephemera.” She went on to explain that old tickets, theater programs, greeting cards and the like can be of great interest to museums and historical societies, and that rather than just toss old things like that into a dumpster, one might better take it to a local historical society or museum to see if they would like to have it.

While this is good advice for anyone who is a) going through a house in which there is a lot of such material that is already very old (let’s say 50 years or more, just as a loose, unofficial figure); and who is in a position of having the time and the means to get those boxes of ephemera from the house to the museum (or wherever).

Being of an archival mindset already, that conversation stayed with me for quite a while and compelled me to a) try to arrange to get such things to such places as I came across them in my continuing downsizing adventure; and b) to continue to hold onto such things as I received them. (It does not come naturally to many writers, and I would think most, or all, archivists, to casually toss such things into either trash or recycling…)

But the reality for me is that I really am not in a situation, nor do I have the means to contribute these kinds of things to such places anymore; or the space in which to hold onto the ones that I am accruing all the time.

Therefore, I have developed a new way of dealing with such things.

A couple of months ago I was finally able to roll up my sleeves and attack a box of old letters and cards that had been saved by my mom (and dad). In the same box as the letters my parents wrote to each other when they were first courting were a bunch of get-well cards that my mom had received during her final illness, and sympathy cards for my dad after she died.

For now I have kept all the correspondence between them, and am slowly reading it. To me this is an obvious thing to do, especially since I am writing a memoir which will include their stories as well as mine, and reading their letters is giving me valuable insight into the lives they lived before I came along.

The get-well and sympathy cards and letters I looked through: most of them had something nice to say about my parents. I read and appreciated these thoughts; and then I recycled the cards. I didn’t need to keep them anymore: the main takeaway was that my mom (and dad) had been deeply loved and greatly appreciated by a great many people. This is something I already knew, but it was nice to be reminded once again, and to know that my dad had had the support of a lot of people–friends, neighbors, my mom’s coworkers–in a very rough time for him.

And what about the continuing incoming stream of such material that I receive now, that I received in 2019, for example? I display the cards in my home for a while, and enjoy them very much. After the season is over, I may save one or two that have especially special messages in them. I also save Christmas cards from my sister and my cousin that are newsy enough for me to think that they (or their kids) will one day enjoy having this “slice of life” to help them remember the everyday details of another time …and I put them aside to be returned to them every few years.

As for the rest, I save the fronts of especially pretty cards that have nothing written on the back, to be used as festive holiday notes next year. I read the personal messages once again, I savor and appreciate them; and then I recycle the cards. (Those that can be recycled, that is: pretty as it is , we probably need to all stop buying cards with glitter, you know? Because it’s not recyclable… 😦  )

It will never be easy for me to get rid of such things: it’s just not in my nature. But I have to come to feel that this method allows me to make the most of these special things and fully appreciate them; and head off that inevitable moment in which, if I don’t do it, someone else will be forced to simply throw them away without having the chance to pay them this respect.

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: Where Is Your Regret-o-Meter?


Me in a moment of no regret at my favorite thrift store (St. John’s of Norwood Op Shop) in Bethesda, Maryland. (I had a few little regrets later. But I got over them!)

Downsizing and decluttering the home is for most people not just a one-time thing: it is a constant process, and most people go through several episodes of “extreme decluttering” in their lives as they downsize in the process of moving from a large house to a smaller house; a small house to an apartment; an apartment to assisted living, and so on…

And I’ve just been through another round of radical downsizing.

As some of you may already know, my coauthor and I have pointed out in our book, and also frequently on this blog, that the world divides roughly into “keepers” and “throwers.” Both of us are on the “keeper” side of the spectrum, and we both come from families that had a lot of  keepers also.  While some people find this ironic–a couple of downsizing experts identifying themselves as “keepers,” I mean–I actually think this is one of the biggest strengths of our book. Because being who we are, and coming from the families that we come from, we know that keepers need sympathy, respect, encouragement, and helpful tips (helpful tips that work even for keepers!), not criticism, shaming, or being bossed around as they go through the process of downsizing.

We also know that no matter what anyone says, there’s really nothing all that easy about downsizing and decluttering, at least not for keepers. So we don’t try to make anyone think it is: we just share ideas for how it actually is possible, even for keepers. (!)

So, here is the latest piece of advice I have to share with the keepers of this world, after my latest round of downsizing. If you are a keeper, every once in a while during a process of extreme letting go of items, you should check your “regret-o-meter.”

What is a “regret-o-meter”? Well. That is just a term I thought up the other day when I was taking a walk and reflecting on some of the things I had given away during my last round of aggressive downsizing. (A quick Google search shows that I am not alone in having thought of such a term, though I don’t know if anyone else has used it to talk about downsizing before.)

In any case, here is the advice that occurred to me in that same stroll around the block. I hope it will be helpful for some “keepers,” and that maybe it will give any “throwers” who happen to love them some insight into how keepers think, and what they may need to do in order to stay with the task.

  1. If you are a “keeper” and you have NO  regrets AT ALL about having gotten rid of some of the items in your household, you are probably not moving quickly or aggressively enough.  Think of the regret-o-meter as a device with a needle, like a compass. On the “high” end of the dial is “deep and painful regret about many items you’ve gotten rid of.” On the other end of the dial is “no regret at all.” When you are involved in downsizing and decluttering, you really want the needle to be somewhere in the middle: which means (at least for keepers) that you will probably feel some wistfulness or regret about some of the items that you kind of wish you would not have given away, at least not yet. But you will NOT go back into the garbage (or the thrift store, or wherever you placed this item), to retrieve it. And you will most likely get over this “pang” of regret relatively quickly, say, within a few days. Because you will know that although you fundamentally wish you never had to make these decisions, and that to be perfectly honest, you’d prefer to pretty much keep everything forever, you know that you CAN’T do that and also have a functional, healthy, smooth-running, visually pleasing home. You just can’t. So you remind yourself of that, you take a deep breath, or a walk, or go do something fun, and the next time you think of the item, whatever it is, the “regret’ needle has slipped a bit down on the dial. If it hasn’t, or if it has even moved up the dial, remind yourself that you can always go to the thrift store (or wherever you left it), and see if it is still there. And if you do this and you find it is no longer there, remind yourself that that’s okay. It’s gone. It was something you liked, you enjoyed it, and now someone else has it. People lose things they like all the time. They get over it, and you will too.
  2. If the needle on your regret-o-meter is on the “high” end of the scale, you’re probably moving too quickly. And you are probably not giving yourself time to do the “leave it overnight” or “leave it til next  week” test for those items you’re really reluctant to give up, but think that you probably should. (Often this test can help “keepers” separate from their cherished items gradually, rather than suddenly and abruptly; and in such a way that is not as likely to cause future regret.) It can also help ensure that some of the items you can’t keep anymore get to places where they can be treasured, used, or kept for historical purposes rather than just being tossed into the trash in a fit of desperation.

I promised in my last post to tell you about my strategies for dealing with my Inner Archivist and my Inner Collector, two of the aspects of myself that can tend to obstruct the downsizing process. I also want to tell you about how successful our book has been in getting my Inner Sentimentalist to be much more able to get rid of those things that represent special memories than I used to be. Our method really works!

So stay tuned for all that–and to those of you who are downsizing, watch that dial! Don’t let the fear of regret keep you from doing the job. But don’t drown in regrets, either. There is a fairly comfortable middle ground, and if you and those around you are patient and persistent enough, you can find it!

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


On My Reading List: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson


Well, this “coming soon” title has definitely caught my eye, not only because of my Swedish-American roots, but because the title of the book seems—to me anyway—ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around! 🙂 )

Reviewed this week by Jura Koncius in the Washington Post, the book, which is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in January, sounds like yet another gentle pushing back at—or at least moderating influence over—the Marie Kondo “magic of tidying up” tidal wave that has swept the nation in the past few years. The publisher describes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering, which sounds either helpful or frightening, depending I suppose, on one’s perspective—that is, as we have discussed in our book, on whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.”

It’s interesting to me that this book comes from Sweden. I have often thought about the fact that within a few short generations my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with. I have wondered if it is in part the fact that there was that lingering and painful historical memory of having had to leave everything behind in Sweden that fueled part of the fierce resistance to letting go of things that is very familiar to me as a Swedish-American Minnesotan.

So the explanation in the Washington Post article that “death cleaning”—that is, doing most of the getting rid of things before you die, so your survivors don’t have to it—is a very Swedish thing (“almost biological” says the Swedish ambassador to the U.S.) and the author’s view that it’s “not fair” to leave that task to others to me feels on the one hand surprisingly un-Swedish (that is, the getting-rid-of-things part), and on the other hand very Swedish indeed (the-importance-of-fairness part).

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I imagine we’ll be letting you know more about how well it complements our approach to downsizing—or doesn’t?—later. So stay tuned for more…

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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