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

 

What Are We Going to Keep in 2020?

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on what the past year has been like and what our hopes are for the upcoming year.

A few weeks ago I was looking up something online and came across a comment about our book that asked about what we keep, especially the commenter wanted to know, of the things left to us by our parents. That set me to thinking about what I keep. How many of us question what we choose to keep? And do we question it often enough?

Last month I saw a play by British performance artist Daniel Kitson called “keep” which was a kind of meditation on the things we keep. He starts to read a list of his 20,000 possessions, each noted on an index card kept in an old-fashioned library card catalog, one of the few props onstage. The list reading gets derailed, for obvious reasons, but along the way Kitson makes some thought-provoking statements:” I feel this responsibility to objects” and “It’s my stuff to deal with.” Does that responsibility mean we have to live with all that stuff? Does dealing with it extend to getting rid of the objects in a responsible, caring way?

The title of one review of the play is “Comedian Daniel Kitson rants about the joy – and tyranny – of stuff.” Joy and tyranny do come up often. In a somewhat anti-Marie Kondo moment, Kitson says, “if you’re only keeping stuff that makes you happy, you have only ever been happy.” Coming from the curmudgeonly comedian that is he, that is a very startling comment. He fully admits his memories are not all happy ones. So as writer Nicole Serratore says, keeping things is sometimes harder than you realize.

At one point Kitson says that holding onto stuff is a way of bringing the person you once were into the present. Is that why we keep so many of the things that belonged to our parents? Looking at his stuff is an exploration of how one presents oneself to the world. Are we better people with all our stuff or would we be better people if we gave away much of it? Kitson calls his home “a museum of me for me.” Which made me think: what does my museum look like? Do I really need a museum or can I keep the memory and let go of the object as we say in our book?

All these questions about our stuff are ones that will help propel us into the new year. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I’m hoping that the year 2020 will be one with some answers.

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

An Extra Hour in the Day

For many of us who live in the United States and Canada, last Sunday gifted us with an extra hour in the day. Sometimes that feels silly, like why fiddle with the clocks only to have dusk or darkness descend earlier in the day. (Not the greatest outcome.) Sometimes that feels a bit magical, like just moving the hands of the clock actually provides us with more time. (Of course, it really isn’t more time, just the illusion of more.)

What can you do with an extra hour?

Sleep

Research has shown that an extra hour of sleep can help raise your salary (the researchers mean an extra hour per day, not just once) Interesting. Perhaps an extra hour of sleep helps job performance. Check out the article here. And an extra hour of sleep may boost your athletic performance.

Work

Working an extra hour, maybe just once to catch up, can be productive but working more hours in general is not good for your health. So here’s to one catch-up hour per year but not per day.

Play

Play in adults helps relieve stress, boost creativity, improve relationships, and makes you feel more energetic. How many of us spent our extra hour playing with friends and loved ones? Play is something to consider for my next extra hour.

Declutter

In our book and in the many book talks I have given, we always say “start small” and by this we mean start decluttering by spending only 20 minutes at a time at the task. Set a timer. Well, with an extra hour, a magical hour, a gift of time, what more could you accomplish?

Donate

Perhaps you have decluttered and organized your closets. This may be the time to donate all the excess. The extra hour could be spent finding new homes for the things you are ready to part with. Here’s a post that will help you.

There are many other ways to spend the gift of one hour: reading your favorite book, catching up with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, being creative, giving back. I would love to know how you spent your extra hour. Let us know by leaving a comment 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

An Empty Closet and Its Possibilities

A crack in the grout in the bathroom tiles. An extensive home repair. An empty closet.

Previously I had written a post about having my wall oven replaced and how emptying the kitchen cabinets before the work began enabled me to sort through and get rid of many of my pots and pans. And a while back I had written a post about completely emptying a closet or a room, pretending to move, and how that really upends the task of decluttering, based on an article by Carl Richards in the New York Times: “Three Ways to Figure Out What Stuff You Should Keep.”

Recently a leak in a bathroom, one that shares a wall with my bedroom closet, meant I had to completely empty the closet. It’s a rather large closet and I keep the usual things in it: clothes and shoes and out-of-season clothes. But I also keep some photo albums of my kids, gifts I have purchased but not yet given, needlepoint pillow fronts I made years ago but never made into pillows, yarn, lots of yarn, a china tea set from my childhood, and my Swedish horses. (I know, the horses should be on display, but for now they have taken up residence in my closet.)

 

Emptying the closet felt much more personal than emptying my kitchen cabinets. My clothes, supplies for my hobbies, treasured memories, all reside in that closet and speak to who I am. Taking them all out, seeing that empty space, gave me pause. I have had some time to contemplate what all that stuff means and think about whether I need all of it. (I don’t, of course I know that, but it’s still something to I have to think about.)

The work was postponed several times, mostly for the usual reasons, like waiting for new tile to be delivered and scheduling with the repairman. (Talking about those issues is for another post, probably for entirely other blog, one about the joys and tribulations of home maintenance.) So for a couple of weeks, I have had a completely empty closet where, for the first time since we moved in, there is nothing in it.

Each time I walk past the closet, I feel a frisson of joy. I can actually see the floor, for the first time ever, not to mention the entire empty space.

Each time I see the closet, I marvel at the amount of space I have and the enormous amount of stuff that came out of it.

Each time I walk past the emptiness, I see the possibilities, the possibilities of looking at my stuff in a new way.

What do I keep? What do I toss? What has meaning to me? Stay tuned…as I ponder the future of my stuff.

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

Has Downsizing Ever Sparked Joy For You?

As regular readers of this blog will already know, I am less than 100 percent enthusiastic about the KonMari approach to decluttering. But I’ll be the first to admit the phrase “spark joy” is awfully appealing.

I’ve written a fair amount already about why keeping “only” the things that spark joy doesn’t help me that much, because WAY too many things spark joy for me, and I can’t keep all of those things.

So I thought that today I’d write about moments of getting RID of things that have sparked joy for me.

For me it sparks joy to give things away to people who can use them. When I was doing an aggressive clearing out of the last house I lived in in Maryland, the closer my deadline came, the more furiously things were going out the door.

At first I tried to sell things in a series of moving and yard sales, with modest, but limited success.

Yard sales can be a good way to start the process of downsizing gradually. You’ll probably find that it gets easier to get rid of things the more you do it. Practice makes perfect! 🙂

Then I started putting things out with “Free” signs and things went much faster.

It so happened that there was a crew of workmen working on our street in the last days I was there. A couple of times they helped me carry things out (things like bookcases!) when they could see they needed help. I urged them to take the clothing, furniture, toys, games, anything that was still left that I didn’t want that I was putting out at the curb, home with them at the end of the day.

This workman loved this hat, which my son didn’t want anymore, SO MUCH!!! A moment of sparking joy (for someone else!) to be sure…

In the final couple of days they started bringing their wives and children to my place in the evenings. At this point it became honestly kind of festive atmosphere, and much more of a human-to-human interaction. One night one mother asked me if I had a specific item of clothing for one of her boys that she didn’t see. “I don’t know, but I’ll look,” I said, and lo and behold, I found the needed item. That “sparked joy” for both of us!

Another night someone came by to thank me for a bicycle I had apparently sold to him for a very low sum at one of my yard sales. Because I didn’t remember either the man or the bicycle I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t even in one of the three yard sales I had held in the previous weeks. It was probably from at least a year ago. Anyway, he came by to tell me how useful the bike had been for him, and how much he appreciated being able to have a bicycle for such a low price. I think he also said something about my having given him whatever price he asked for instead of the marked price, I don’t know. To be honest, I was in such a downsizing/moving fog by that point in the process that I was having a hard time remembering my own name!

Another (admittedly perhaps somewhat bizarre) moment that sparked joy for me was when I heard some garbage pickers go through the pile of metal junk that I had I had set out strategically so there would be enough time for the people that do that kind of thing to find it before it was hauled off to the dump by the city. I heard a truck pull up in the middle of the night and saw someone taking all the things they could use, loading them up, and driving away. The pile was much smaller in the morning. That sparked joy for me too, because I knew it was in the spirit of “reuse” before recycling: that those things were going to be used by the people that picked them up, and the pile going into the dump was much smaller.

Anyway. These are some of the moments that sparked joy for me in a time that was to be honest (again) not all that joyful.

I gave away a TON of books also. And here is where Marie Kondo and I will never agree. There is no joy in giving away books for me. I’ve moved many times, and every time I’ve moved I’ve had to give up a lot of books I wished I could keep. This time, because I was contemplating an international move I had to cut much deeper, and the cut hurt.

There was no joy for me in giving away these books. I got rid of the ones I could bear to long ago. So this was a matter of just “doing what needs to be done” and trying not to dwell on it too much.

I can get over it, and I have written here about how it is much easier for book lovers to get rid of books now than it used to be and why it is.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. I still wish I could live the way a writer I admire did. Apparently he had two houses, side by side. One for him. One for his books.

That’s not going to happen for me, but if it did, that would REALLY spark joy. 🙂

 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

 

 

 

 

Stopping to Smell the Roses or Look at Old Photos

My maternal grandmother, on the left, with her sisters.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences (I love that title) suggests people are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life, and in the study psychology professor Nancy Fagley defines appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something…and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”

The great advantage to living in the same place for well over 30 years is that it’s warm and comfortable and definitely feels like home. One of the disadvantages is that it’s easy to accumulate way too much stuff.

As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am constantly trying to sort through stuff that belongs to me, my husband, our parents, and our grandparents. I feel great pressure to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away, mostly pressure that I put on myself but also some that comes from husband and my kids.

As I was going through antique and vintage clothes that have been handed down to me, among them two Swedish dresses, actually blouse/slips that are worn under a wool skirt, that I’m interested in donating to a museum, I decided to look at my grandmother’s photo albums. Yes, I have photo albums that belong to me, some from my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother. Talk about overload!

I took time out to slowly browse through my grandmother’s photos albums, mostly photographs of people that I never knew, but filled with pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather and their families. I also looked through an album of my mother’s that had photos of my father’s family.

My paternal grandmother, on the right, with her siblings.

Looking at the photographs of my two grandmothers, I was filled with appreciation. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without those two women who persevered through good times and bad to keep their families together and who helped shape the people who would become my parents. And seeing photos of their parents, my great grandparents, was an almost out-of-body experience.

I took time to smell the roses, to look at old photos, to appreciate what I have, and to marvel at the photos that show the lives of my ancestors. What a gift to me, one I gave myself, a gift that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the women who came before me.

A caveat here. Of course I would never suggest that someone start to declutter by looking at photos. That’s too difficult and emotional and nostalgia-inducing. And I wouldn’t suggest looking at photos if you are up against a deadline. If things have to be moved out, for whatever reason, deal with the stuff first and the photos later. However, I’m a big fan of taking a break, taking the time to appreciate.

I learned a lot from looking at photographs of my grandmothers.

Looking at old photos taught me and continues to teach me, foremost, the preciousness of time.

I also felt how fortunate I am to have such a strong family and how incredibly lucky I am to have photographs of them.

And I realized that looking at the old photos gave me more joy than looking at the items they left behind. That was a bit of a revelation to me and, in some ways, makes it easier to “get rid of the stuff and keep the memories.”

At the same time as I was looking back, I could see the value of things to come. As the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, champion of the working classes, said, “You are laden with beginnings.” Everything I do is a new beginning, just as everything my grandmothers did was a new beginning for them.

My maternal grandmother at 17, right after she came to the US.

 

My grandmother with my father and my aunt.

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

Reflections on Downsizing and Decluttering: Savoring the Process

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the time downsizing and decluttering feels like pretty much the LAST thing you’d think of when you think of an experience for savoring.

A delicious meal. A perfect massage. The taste of fresh strawberries that really taste like strawberries melting on your tongue. A sunset so beautiful you wish you could press “pause,” but you wouldn’t really want to do that because with each passing minute it becomes a new kind of beautiful.

Those are the kinds of things more likely to match with the word “savoring” in my mind.

But downsizing? And decluttering? I don’t think so….

And yet.

One of the things that has always bothered me a bit in the conversation surrounding this topic is the often stated, seemingly obvious “truth” that people who leave lots of things for their heirs to go through are at the very least leaving them with an entirely unsavory task, and that this reeks of at the very least a kind of selfish irresponsibility.

And yet. As the child of two parents who left us with plenty of things to go through after they died, and a brother who left my sister and me an even more bewildering collection of unwieldy possessions to go through, I have for the most part stayed out of this conversation, harboring my own private thoughts about it.

Well, almost. I did write this about my brother and his stuff.

But here is what I would like to stay about this now, for what it’s worth.

I would like to say that while I agree entirely that what my parents and my brother left for us to go through could certainly quite accurately be described as “a burden.” There’s no denying that.

But to me this “burden” has not been entirely a negative experience, not at all. In fact, there have been many parts of this process that has unfolded actually over a number of years, that have been worthy of savoring.

There have been many little items that have, shall we say “sparked joy” as I came upon them. Some of them have sparked sadness also, but often along with the sadness they have brought a kind of poignant comfort to me, or to others. (And not all of them were saved by my parents. Some of them were saved by me (a chip off the old blocks if ever there were one!)

A few of the things I came across in my last round of going through the things in my storage locker were these: my father’s report card from grade school (back in the 1930s, in a little one-room country schoolhouse in rural Minnesota); a letter I had saved from a dear friend who is no longer alive, in which she had lovingly and beautifully written about her children when they were young (I sent the letter to her children); a little ceramic mouse that had been a “stocking stuffer” gift from my mother-in-law years ago, and which brought comfort to her son at a time when he needed comfort, and a reminder of his mother, desperately.

Going through these things one by one, piece by piece, is often a tedious process. The thing I like the least about it is this feeling that I am being sucked into the past, a past from which I’ll never escape. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling, and certainly not worth savoring.

But parts of it are: those moments when you feel love expressed many years earlier in the form of a letter; or a little ceramic mouse; or a lump of brown and gray clay fashioned by a little boy, who had brought it to his mother one day while she was working, handed it to her, and said, “Mommy, this is a butterfly.”

Those are the moments I savor, and I always will. And because they are there to be savored, I think the tedium, all the tedium is worth it, really.

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

 

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