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

Who Are the Visionary Women in Your Life?

 

In March we celebrate Women’s History Month, an initiative that “will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future.” You can read more about the month’s theme here. In recognition of that celebration I would like to pay my respects to several women who have helped me deal with my clutter—and organize my life in countless ways.

Kerri L. Richardson, author of What Your Clutter Is Trying To Tell You, suggests we ask ourselves why we are holding onto some things. Is it because we think we should hold onto them? Do the items speak to the person we think we should be? Other people have posed similar questions but when I read this I had a eureka moment. I have a shelf of a certain type of self-help book, books that I have never read. I always thought I should read them, but never did. After reading Kerri Richardson’s book I decided to get rid of them. At first, I was going to look at each book and choose one to keep and read. Then I decided to just donate all the books to a local charity.

Thank you, Kerri Richardson, for opening my eyes to the futility of should.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the driving force behind the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, says to put all your clothes in a pile in the middle of your bed. Well, I didn’t go quite that far but I did put all my socks on the bed, and I have a lot of socks. I’m very particular about my socks, and I have ones for the gym, for walking/hiking, for everyday use, for when I’m more dressed up, and all depend on the weight and thickness and height of the socks. What prompted me to sort through all of them was a struggle each morning to find socks to wear to the gym so I KonMari’d my socks. The single socks went to fabric recycling and some pairs I no longer wear went to a women’s shelter, and the rest are now arranged by type.

Kudos to you, Marie Kondo, for helping me evoke my inner organizer.

Gretchen Rubin, whose newest book is Outer Order, Inner Calm (which I’m looking forward to reading when it comes out later this month), tells a story in an earlier book, Happier at Home, about the way she handled her grandparents’ stuff. She had inherited quite a few items but two ceramic birds reminded her the most of her grandparents. She gave the birds a place of honor, putting them on a shelf in her home office where she could see them every day. Viewing the birds each day helped draw out her warm feelings about her grandparents and she was able to get rid of the other things she had inherited. I thought of that story as I donated my grandparents’ pitcher and washbasin, a set from the 1880s that had been specifically left to me, because I had no place for it and because I had other things that spoke to me more of my grandparents.

My thanks to you, Gretchen Rubin, for passing along the insight that perhaps the best way to honor our parents and grandparents is to keep only certain things that speak to us.

Julie Morganstern, whose first book Organizing from the Inside Out was such a helpful organizing book, the one I read before starting to write Moving On, looks at decluttering as a positive thing to do, a way to gain insight into ourselves, not just as a way to get rid of the material things we have amassed. She says, “Decluttering is a point of entry, an opportunity to discover an attachment, a belief system, an unexpressed part of yourself.”

I’m so grateful to you, Julie Morganstern, for sharing your wisdom about discovering new parts of ourselves.

This is the first day of the month dedicated to women and I have written about four women I’m thankful for. I’m challenging myself to think of one women each day of this month to honor. How about you? Who are the visionary women in your life and which ones are you thankful for?

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

The Universe is Made of Stories…

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“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ― Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in many forms: memoirs, interviews, videos. Sometimes a story can be told in photographs or even in a list of the things that resonate with us. The one thing we want to share with our loved ones is the stories of our life, in whatever form we choose. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

We’ve told stories here in our blog in a variety of ways.

We’ve told a story about a favorite object, a bowl, and its importance in our life, and we’ve written a story about the memories of a favorite place in our grandparents’ house. We’ve written poignantly about a cherished brother and a beloved father.

We’ve talked about sharing family stories in a way that will help keep our family history alive, and challenged you to tell us your stories – including a wonderful one about the memories of a treasured family item.  And sometimes you’ve told us a story – about living with less. We’ve also talked about how to get rid of stories – at least the ones in the many books on our shelves!

If you would like some help in telling your family stories, you might start by writing in a journal or by getting professional help to record and share your stories from sites like Legacy Stories or at Story Corps. Perhaps you want to get help writing about your family history from such places as the Armchair Genealogist, Genealogy.com, and from this blog post. And see how telling family stories can help heal and give strength.

So get the family together, invite the kids, make sure to include the grandparents, and encourage everyone to tell a story. “Keep the memories…” by sharing your stories.

Then join other storytellers for National Tell A Story Day, celebrated on April 27 this year. You have a month to get your stories together!

We all have a story to tell.

What’s yours?

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 New Year, A New Approach

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It’s a new year and we still have too much stuff. Here’s a plan of action, or a thought experiment, for those of us who are “keepers” of our stuff, we who talk about, deliberate, and brood over our possessions before we decide if we should keep, toss, or donate them.

Sometimes we don’t know why we keep something or why we haven’t been able to make the decision to get rid of it. The following is a technique we can use to see what our possessions mean to us and how they fit into our lives.

This is a writing exercise so if you would like to join in, grab a pencil and paper.

Choose one item in your home that means a lot to you, perhaps a very important item or perhaps one that you’ve had for a long time. Then think about that item in three different, but related, ways.

First, describe the item in detail. Be specific about its attributes: the creamy background color and lovely pink flowers on your dinner plates, the interesting shape of a vase, the sparkling gems in a brooch, the vivid paint strokes in a favorite painting.

Next, explain why this item has meaning for you. Did the chest of drawers belong to your grandparents and was it passed down to you by your parents? Was the gold necklace a gift to yourself, a purchase you made with your very first paycheck? Is the painting something you brought home from a memorable vacation? Was the china something you and your about-to-be husband chose, the first household decision you made together?

Lastly, choose someone, a family member, a good friend, to inherit the item and explain why you chose that person. You can leave the china to your son and daughter-in-law because they are the ones who now host the family gatherings. You can decide to give the painting to your best friend from college who accompanied you on that vacation trip. After some thought, you can choose to sell the gold necklace, a style long out of fashion, and give the money to your grandchild to help finance a semester abroad. You can choose to donate the vase to your local historical society because it was made at a now-defunct pottery that used to be in the area. You can decide to have the chest of drawers appraised first before you designate a recipient, and perhaps the appraisal will help you decide to sell the furniture and use the money for a different purpose.

Now read over what you’ve written and see what it tells you. You have articulated why the item appeals to you, its beauty, or perhaps its usefulness. You have explained your emotional attachment to the piece, what event it memorializes or which people are connected to your feelings about the piece. And, lastly, you have designated a caretaker for your item, someone who will appreciate it and care for it the way you did. Or, and perhaps more importantly, you have chosen to give the item away (the painting to your college roommate so she can enjoy it now), donate it (the vase to the historical museum), or sell it (the gold necklace) and put the money to better use.

Does this exercise help you see one item in a new way? I hope so. Will you go through this process for all of your stuff? Probably not, since it’s too time consuming.

But using this new approach in the new year will help us face that fact that we have too much stuff and that some of our stuff can find new homes with family and friends, some of it can be sold, and some of it can be donated – and some of it can even be trashed.

So here’s to a happier new year, a year when we unclutter our homes, a year when we purchase more thoughtfully, a year when we live with less stuff and more joy. A year when we “Keep the memories, get rid of the 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

Give Your Stuff Away

When I came across Never Liked It Anyway, a site where the recently divorced as well as runaway brides can sell their wedding items, giving once loved things a second chance, my first thought was that I would like to start a site called always-liked-it-but-have-to-get-rid-of-it-and-want-to-find-it-a-good-home-where-it-will-be-appreciated-dot-com because most of the stuff I struggle with are things that have meaning for me, or at least whose meaning is something I would like to share with others.

After giving it some thought, I will probably not be creating that website – at least not anyway soon – so what can I do, what can all of us do?

Give your stuff away.

Saturday May 12 is Give Your Stuff Away Day

Mike Morone has created what he hopes will be the largest recycling event where you can put your stuff out on the curb for others to take. You can join in with people around the nation to make this the day you clean out the closet, junk drawer, basement, or garage and put the items out on the curb.

Donate for good.

Check out the AARP Recycling Guide where you can learn about organizations that recycle everything from batteries to blue jeans or Parade Magazine’s Places That Help Your Clutter Do Good for places that will put your stuff to good use.

Don’t buy gifts.

That may sound extreme but you can let your loved ones know that you are decluttering and suggest alternative gifts like a massage, dinner out, or theater tickets. As Jane Brody suggests in “Making Progress Against Clutter” you can even ask them for services like helping you box up clothes or books to give away.

Or give to a charity or nonprofit organization as a gift. Shift My Gift helps you set up a page where friends can donate to your favorite charity in your honor.

Tell your stories.

It’s been shown that the more we share the stories about our stuff, the easier it is to let the stuff go.

At the recent PEN World Voices Festival, author Margaret Atwood said she was once asked by a moderator “Why write?” Atwood said that the real question is “Why tell stories?” And her answer is “Because we are human.”

Whether we are a recent bride selling the wedding dress, a participant in Give Your Stuff Away Day, or someone donating in place of gifting, we are all human beings telling our stories – and helping to keep our stuff out of the landfill.

≈Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home design, crafts, and foodand coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Facing Fears, Finding Grace

Facing Fears, Finding Grace is a symposium on end-of-life issues that I have organized for this weekend.

The speakers include a lawyer, a funeral director, a bereavement counselor, the manager of a hospice facility, and me, the coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. The topics of discussion will include spiritual matters, ritual practices, bereavement, practical considerations, and finding meaning in routine matters.

We plan to explore what is entailed in writing a will, arranging for hospice care, planning a funeral, and understanding the process of bereavement.

Conversations about the end of life can be uncomfortable, even difficult. But making decisions now can help to support us and nurture us, help us focus on what is of great import and what is not.

We want to approach these important issues in a way that comforts us, challenges us, and is meaningful for us. We hope that what we take away from this event will help us – in the words of people I follow on Twitter – to age abundantly and gracefully.

≈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.

More Words of Wisdom…

I’ve always collected quotes. Something about the pithiness, the essence of some universal truth captured in just a few words, appeals to me. I like to savor the words that someone else has written and I revisit the quotes from time to time.

The quotes I save are often about nature, food, jobs, books and other topics that I write about but I also treasure quotes about life in general: working, aging, raising children, and all of life’s little ironies.

Since writing about downsizing, I’ve gathered quotes about clutter. My coauthor shared some of her favorites in an earlier post.

Some quotes help us see how frustrating it is to live with clutter.

“When all you see is clutter, all you feel is frustration.” – Richard Flint, motivational speaker

“When you live surrounded by clutter, it’s like dragging the ball and chain of your past around with you everywhere you go.” – Karen Kingston

Other quotes help us see the internal component of clutter.

Legendary personal organizer Barbara Hemphill has a great quote that goes straight to the heart of the matter: “Clutter is postponed decisions.”

And some quotes give us hope.

“Decluttering isn’t just simplifying your life. It’s having a vision, setting new priorities and using those notions to get rid of obstacles.” – Peter Walsh

 “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Do you save your favorite quotes? Or do you have words of wisdom passed along by your parents or grandparents? We would love to hear about them so please share some of them in a comment on this post.

LH

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