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

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

Downsizing Stories, as Coach and Coached

Illustration by Quentin Monge

One reviewer of our book on Amazon said that with Moving On, you get the authors “coaching you, supporting you, and cheering you on with their very practical advice.”

The past couple of weeks I have felt both somewhat of a coach and very much one who is coached.

We have been sorting through our files, mostly business financial papers because we closed our company at the end of 2017. The impetus to get it done now was a free shredding event in our neighborhood.

As we emptied files we ended up with four bankers’ boxes of papers to be shredded. With that amount of stuff, “in our neighborhood” took on a different meaning. To get several blocks away with such heavy boxes became daunting so my husband called a shredding company to request a private pick up, for a fee.

Since we were getting papers picked up, I decided to go through more files, mostly of book stuff. I have a file, sometimes paper, sometimes electronic, sometimes both, for each book I have written, sometimes one for each book I’ve edited, and many files for books I’m thinking of writing. I culled much of that.

Then I started on personal files, which I edited down rather than getting rid of completely. For the file on my father’s funeral, I read through some of the papers I had used to write his obit and reread some very thoughtful and supportive condolence notes. By the end of the file, I was in tears but I got through it by invoking our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object…”

A friend’s mother died a few weeks ago at the age of 102½ (I seem to have quite a few friends with longevity in their genes), and my friend has to empty her mother’s apartment of many years. She had been to a couple of my downsizing talks and even wrote a lovely comment – with 5 stars – on our book’s Amazon page.

Now she was ready to implement the suggestions in Moving On so we talked about how important it is for those emptying a home, and certainly for her, to honor her mother’s life – as an Olympic gymnast, as a wife and mother, and as one who gave back all her life – while at the same time getting rid of a lifetime of stuff. I felt I could be a bit of a coach for her because I had been through that process when my father moved from his home of 50 years.

Another friend, a doctor, is getting ready to retire and wants to downsize. Her kids have been out of the house for years and she now wants to make her home more functional for herself and her husband. She came to me to ask for guidance and then said, “I’ll just buy the book.” So our book will be a coach for her – and she can always ask me questions along the way.

That same reviewer of our book on Amazon also said, “I knew I found my roadmap when I read this book.” (We are so grateful to that reviewer for such kind words about us and our book.)

I have used our book as a roadmap and have been coached and cheered on by my friends and family this past few weeks, just as I have coached and supported and cheered on my friends who are downsizing. It’s been a time of women supporting women.

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

“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

Downsizing Mistakes I Have Made

DownsiingAgainI’m involved in another round of downsizing this month, and as I become aware of some of the things I could have done better along the way, it occurred to me it might be helpful to share with our readers some of the downsizing mistakes I’ve made.

Of course it would be nice to maintain the illusion that a person who is coauthor of  a book about downsizing doesn’t make mistakes. But of course we all make mistakes, and the best thing we can do about that is to learn from them. Therefore, here are a few of the things I’ve done wrong, which I am sharing in the hope that others will benefit from reading about them.

Mistake #1.

It’s the #1 tip in our book, but sometimes it is hard to do: Take. Your. Time.

The reason it’s hard to do this is that often when a move comes up, there are circumstances beyond our control that force us to move more quickly than is ideal for making good decisions.

So it has been in my case. This year, as I approached the task again, I realized, in retrospect, that I moved too quickly in the last round. This has led to my gaining several pieces of wisdom that I suppose should have been obvious: but when one is moving too quickly, the obvious doesn’t always stand out.

  1. Since one of the main goals of downsizing is to reduce volume, it’s best to focus on objects that take up lots of space than on small items that can be easily stored away to deal with when you have more time. This means that, for example, you’re probably going to want to focus on furniture, books, and other objects that take up lots of space, especially if they are going to be in storage (for example, cooking equipment and glassware, china, pottery, etc.: things that have to be wrapped in bubble wrap and so on, rather than on jewelry, ephemera, and other things that can be kept flat, or tucked into small boxes rather than large ones, taking up little space.
  2. When (finally) saying goodbye to sentimental items that really must go (usually, but not always, because they take up too much space), be sure to take the time to properly honor what they have meant to you, and make sure that whatever you do with them honors the sometimes sacred meaning they have for you. The best example of this that I have is the little handmade felt heart that my son made for me in school as a child. When he was helping me in the first round of dealing with all the things in my storage locker, he urged me to let go of the heart, and reluctantly I agreed to do so. But I made two mistakes about letting go of this heart. One was to not, right at that moment, to take a picture of the two of us together, holding the heart. I would have loved to have this picture; even he (who is much less sentimental than I) would probably have liked to have it too; and I would have liked to be able to share that picture on this post. (It would have been demonstrating something like “You see? Working together, we CAN find ways to say goodbye even to some of our most special, sentimental items.”) But I did not think to do that. Instead the heart went into my car, along with a lot of other stuff. And when eventually I got rid of it (telling myself, “He WANTS you to get rid of this. You promised you would!”)  I did NOT find an honorable place or way to say goodbye to it. (The truth is that I cannot even tell you what I did with it, because the memory is too painful.) Even Marie Kondo, whose method for decluttering is seen by many people (including to some degree by me) as too extreme, recognizes the importance of honoring the sacred meaning of such special items. I am pretty sure if she had been standing there, she would have urged me to find a different way to send that beautiful little heart out of my life than the one I finally chose.
  3. Since inevitably you will make some mistakes, know that this is inevitable, and give yourself a break. And when you are feeling regret, know that this too is an inevitable part of the process. This is the time to check your Regret-o-Meter, and move on, wiser for the next stage of downsizing.

Spring is nearly here, and you know what that means: time for spring cleaning, and proactive downsizing!

Here’s hoping that some kernel of wisdom above will help you to go quickly enough to get the job done, and not so quickly that you are filled with regret.

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

 

 

 

Downsizing Chronicles: The Storage Locker, Part 4

JJ&KateStJohnsOpShop

Me and my friend Kay at my favorite thrift store in Bethesda, Maryland. (St. John’s Norwood Opportunity Shop)

And so, the Downsizing Chronicles continues….

It’s been a bit less than a year since I made my last attack on my storage locker. And I’m back at it again, this time because an unexpected opportunity to get some of my stuff loaded onto a shipping container being sent to France from the same area where it is currently being stored has meant that it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves again, and try to determine which of the stuff in that locker is “just stuff” that I can continue to redistribute one way or another (sell? donate? recycle? toss?), and which will enrich my life personally, professionally, and/or aesthetically in my new home in France.

I’ve just arrived back in the U.S., and as soon as I am rested up, I’ll be back at the storage locker, ready to roll. I’m determined to continue to follow the number-one piece of advice in our book this time, as best I can, so that I will be able to keep my Regret-o-Meter from exploding, and yet significantly reduce the volume of things in that locker. Maybe even empty it?

I’m not making any such predictions anymore. Experience has taught me to be cautious in such predictions.

Anyway, please wish me luck, everyone, and stay tuned for my next progress report!

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

 

 

Downsizing: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

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

%d bloggers like this: