More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

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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12 (or More) Surprising Ways Clutter Is Ruining Your Life

Our friends at MakeSpace (https://makespace.com/los-angeles/) have come up with this infographic to illustrate ways that clutter harms our lives. Here’s what they have to say about it.

Clutter and its causes are in a constant game of ping-pong with each other.

A distraction at work causes chores to go unfinished at home. The mountain of plates in the sink causes tension between you and your partner. A disagreement with your spouse makes it difficult to complete that home improvement project together. And back and forth we go.

If the game continues, it could have a seriously detrimental impact on your life. From your physical and mental health, to your relationships, career, and finances, clutter can negatively affect you in a myriad of ways.

This clutter infographic from MakeSpace, (with offices in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC) helps us determine if clutter is, in fact, ruining our lives, and how to get back in control.

What other ways can you think of that clutter impacts your life negatively? Does having too much stuff in your life hinder you from moving forward? Here are a few more ways that clutter interferes with…well, with just about everything.

You miss out on family gatherings.

You can’t ever host a family gathering.

Your kids don’t learn that everything has its place because there are more things than places.

Your morning routine with your kids is fraught.

You arrive at the office in a frantic state.

Your evening rituals are taken up with finding the things your kids need for school the next day rather than reading to them.

Your friends are upset because you’re always late because you can’t find the clothes you wanted to wear.

Your library books are always late.

You seldom get to read the library book because you’re always behind on your chores.

You can’t make the meal you wanted to make because you’re missing one key ingredient, which you thought you had but can’t find in the pantry.

You have clothes in your closet from a decade ago, or more.

You have shoes that don’t fit alongside shoes that do fit.

You have so much stuff around that you hate to dust. (Okay, everyone hates to dust.)

You are late paying the bills because the bills due are mixed up with other papers.

You forget to make a follow-up doctor visit because the card the doctor’s office gave you is lost in a pile of other papers.

You missed your friend’s dinner party because you mislaid the invitation.

You put off exercising at home because you don’t have the space on your floor to do sit-ups.

Your sister’s birthday card is always late, not because you don’t remember her birthday, but because you can’t find the stamps.

You haven’t written a will because you can’t find the necessary financial papers.

You’re reluctant to get rid of anything; you want to keep it, just in case.

What other ways does having too much clutter interfere with your life? What’s on your list? We would love to have you share it with us.

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 and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera

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One of the things that has been difficult for me in sifting through the contents of first my parents’ home and now mine, has been what to do with all the vintage items, especially vintage items on paper that first my grandparents, then my parents, and then I have saved through the years.

This kind of material is called “ephemera,” and it is actually a very interesting category of collectibles. The dictionary tells us that ephemera is: “Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.”

Among the things I had moved with me from place to place through the years were many brochures from touristic sites; old (some VERY old) postcards (some written on, some not); old maps; old Valentines; many ticket stubs and playbills; and even some postage stamps torn from letters. These things were kind of interesting at the time I originally kept them, but of course through the years they have become even more so, and some of them have become more valuable. (I suppose. I don’t really know!)

Collecting ephemera is for some people an interesting and fun hobby, and for some—those who take the time to do the research and make it a serious hobby, or even a professional expertise–it may even be a way to make money. For some artists it is material for collage. And for museums and libraries it can be valuable documentation of times gone by to share with the public.

But for me, I have come to realize, it is none of these things. For me it is really just more clutter, but clutter that I recognize as having historical and/or archival and/or artistic interest and value: therefore it is Not To Be Thrown Out. (My Inner Archivist absolutely will not allow me to do that.)

The question is, Inner Archivist, what do I do with it, then?

One of the experts I interviewed when we were writing our book was the director of a local historical museum in Minnesota, who told me that one of the things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were emptying out a home full of stuff was ephemera: she held up a birthday card she had recently received that was lying on her desk by way of example. She also explained to me that these are the kinds of things that become valuable and interesting to historians, because most people do, as a matter of course, throw them out. She told me that the curators of historical museums are often very interested in acquiring such things, and that even when the items in question are not going to be of interest for their collections, they still like having the chance to see them. She said that sometimes with certain items–for example, old photographs taken in another county or state, or printed materials from or about other places–the curators will take the items and “send them home.” Meaning that if the photographs, or documents, or whatever, don’t fit into the local collection, they may be sent to another historical museum that would very much appreciate having them.

I loved that phrase “send it home,” and I loved knowing that there was a network of professionals dedicated to preserving these items for posterity. And shortly after our book was published, I did salvage some items that I knew were of at least potential interest to the historical society near where my parents had grown up, and donated those items to them. And I got a thank you note from them that made me feel very much like I had done the right thing. That was a nice feeling.

But. There were still many more boxes of stuff to go through, and by the time my kids were grown and I was able to start (well, continue) going through them, I was far away from those places. And I still didn’t have the kind of time that would have been needed to spend sorting and deciding and hauling off to the nearest local historical society, because the next round of downsizing I engaged in was a far-too-rapid, radical downsizing that involved an international move.

So, in that round, I made a compromise with my Inner Archivist: I put all the tourist brochures, maps, old postcards and so on together, and took them to a thrift store and dropped them off, with just a brief comment that some of the things in the box might possibly be of interest to collectors. Then I walked away, and deliberately closed my mind to thinking about the possibility that they would be thrown out by an overzealous volunteer. I preferred to think that they would be bundled into batches for sale, and picked up by a very excited collector of whatever the items were. (You can guess which of these options my Inner Archivist would find the most pleasing.)

The point is, I was able to (finally) tell my Inner Archivist that this really just couldn’t be my problem anymore. My turn for watching over these potentially valuable historical items was over. I wasn’t going to throw potentially valuable historical artifacts into the garbage, but I wasn’t going to keep them any longer myself, either.

My Inner Archivist wasn’t completely satisfied, and quite honestly the better solution would have been to take them to a historical society where the possibility of an overly zealous volunteer throwing them out was not such a distinct possibility.

So. I guess the advice here is: if you have the time, and these things are, to you, really just clutter, do your local historical society a favor and let them do the deciding, or perhaps let them guide you to another institution that might welcome the items of ephemera you have.

And if you don’t have the time to do that, please just don’t throw them into the trash or the recycling barrel: at least leave open the possibility for someone to find and appreciate these treasured bits of our past, and to rescue them from obscurity.

But you don’t have to keep hauling them around from place to place, and you don’t have to have them filling up your closets or your storage locker. You really don’t. Trust me on this. I’ll bet even your Inner Archivist will be willing to give you a break.

For those who would like to know more about ephemera, here is a link to the Ephemera Society.

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

 

A Poetic Response to Hoarding

 

Every month, Goodreads, a social network for readers, and the ¡POETRY! group host a poetry contest. They feel it’s a great way to discover and support the work of emerging poets.

The June contest winner, Susan J. Raineri, wrote a thoughtful poem about hoarding.

 

The Hoarder

People let her down,
time after time.

In the empty bed,
where people left spaces,
things piled up.

Her life became choked
and crowded with stuff
that stayed put.
Rooms filled to their brims
up to the ceiling.

Until, she could barely
walk amongst it all;
more things, more and
more things.
At least, she could
count on these things.

They sat there
and collected dust,
but, they never left her.

She could choose
what to keep
and what to throw out.
Mostly, she kept.

We are all hoarders
of something;
holding on to memories,
collecting love and hate,
saving up envy
for other people’s lives,

 

The poet says in a note about the punctuation that the comma at the end is on purpose so that the reader can add whatever they think.

Do we hold onto our things because they make us feel secure? Yes, indeed, says the poet but that sense of security is illusory. Do we hold onto them because we are troubled by the spaces they will leave behind if we give them away? Spaces in our homes and in our lives can be challenging. Do we hold onto the stuff because we are afraid we’re throwing out our memories? It’s so difficult, as we say in our book, to “Keep the memories, toss the stuff.”

How do you think the poem should end? What is the last line you would write? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box.

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

Do Downsizing (and Decluttering) ALWAYS feel liberating?

DownsiingAgainWell, no. Honestly, they don’t. At least not for everyone. I know at least ONE person for whom it is not always so: myself!

And I have talked to quite a few others who feel the same. 🙂

This post is for those who may find it anywhere from a little bit, to very, discouraging to hear about how the process of downsizing is so liberating for others, when they don’t feel that way AT ALL…

This post is for those for whom the task is really difficult and painful, EVEN THOUGH WE ALL KNOW IT IS NECESSARY!!! 

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. As the coauthor of a book on downsizing, people often assume (quite reasonably) that I am someone who is really good at getting rid of things.

But this is SO not the case…I am, on the contrary, someone who has learned to grit my teeth, gather my resolve, roll up my sleeves, and then grin (not very merrily), and BEAR IT!

I am also a person who has managed to find ways to get past my aversion to getting rid of things. Writing our book helped me a lot to become this kind of person, and in the downsizing experiences I’ve engaged in since we wrote it, I found it very helpful to follow our own advice. I often tell people, I know our book is a good one, because it has helped me! 🙂

I think part of what our book offers that many decluttering and downsizing books do not, is acknowledgement that this process is really not so easy at all, especially for those people we call “keepers”–as well as more sympathy for the “keeper” point of view.

What we found through our own experiences, as well as in talking to people as we wrote our book, is that it IS possible, even for the most adamant keepers, to find ways to part with many of the things that are cluttering their homes, or garages, or storage lockers, or simply their minds; and it is possible to do it without breaking their hearts or destroying (or losing) precious memories.

But. I still say it is not all that easy, and for me it really hardly ever actually, truly feels “liberating.” For me, there is always something a little bit sad and unsettling about it.

The process certainly does include moments of feeling liberated, but a far more prevalent feeling is a kind of unnerving fluctuating between being plunged into the past in a not-very-pleasant way, in which the past feels more like a trap from which you’ll never escape than a pleasant field of memories. And then being kind of jolted from those moments into a present in which the words disorienting, or exhausting, or jangling come much more quickly to mind than liberating.

In my most recent bout of downsizing, I had some conversations with friends who were reminiscing (or commiserating) about their past, or current, decluttering projects. One of them remarked on a phenomenon I have noticed too. “You keep finding yourself holding objects that have no relation to each other in your two hands, and not knowing what to do with either one of them,” she said, with a bewildered and frustrated shake of her head. “I KNOW it!” I said, and together we shook our heads some more.

Why this should be so distressing is beyond me, but for me, and clearly for my friend as well, it just is.

I suppose it is possible that people who are much more adept at arranging physical spaces and objects than I am, or my friend is, don’t have this kind of thing happen to them nearly as much, or perhaps they find it challenging, or amusing, rather than distressing. I wouldn’t know.

But I do know that there are many ways to overcome the aversion to getting rid of things. We share a lot of those ways in our book. But there’s one new tactic I came up with in my last downsizing adventure that I hadn’t thought of before: invoking a war chant!

As I got into the car, and took a deep breath before driving out to the storage locker where the next stage of downsizing awaited me, I remembered that I had a CD in the car with some beautiful, and rather stirring, Icelandic folk music on it. I have to admit I’m not sure if this particular song really is a war chant of some kind, or not. But the music certainly sounds martial, or at least very determined, to me: and listening to it as I drove toward what I was thinking of as the Battle of the Storage Locker both made me laugh and gave me the surge of physical energy I needed to begin the task.

On another day, as I headed away from the storage locker, when what I needed was more calming down than revving up, I played some of my favorite soothing Hawaiian music.

Both things helped!

So, you might want to think about putting that into your bag of tricks, keepers of the world, next time you’re ready to attack “the beast”–music to downsize by!

OR…take a look at our last post, in which my coauthor has a list of 50 things that can be fairly easy to get rid of, even for most keepers. Especially if you put on a war chant! 🙂

Whatever works!

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

 

Downsizing Chronicles: The Storage Locker, Part Two

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Most of the stuff you see in this picture has gone on its way…but there’s still a lot inside the storage locker! 😦

Oh, well. So my plan to empty my storage unit during the month of March was a bit overly ambitious, and even more overly optimistic.

The point is, as one of our readers pointed out in a comment posted on my last post (and I take some comfort in the fact that she is a professional organizer!) I made progress! And that is what I am choosing to focus on.

It turns out that two of the three complicating factors to my move turned out to be if not insurmountable obstacles, clear signs that my idea of totally emptying my storage unit, moving some of it to France, and some of it to Minnesota, all within less than a month, turned out to be not so doable. Or at least not the smartest thing to do at this time, for a variety of reasons.

So: a lot of my “stuff” is still in the same storage locker where I left it two years ago.

And so, instead of the inspiring picture of an empty locker that I had so optimistically imagined posting today, here instead is my interim report, unaccompanied by a photo of the storage unit because even though a lot of stuff went out of there, it doesn’t actually look so much like it did!!! 😦 (My coauthor has been able to post such a picture, of her emptied storage locker, in this post, and the fact she has been able to do so I hold before me as an inspiring vision of what is possible, even for those of us who are, at heart, “keepers, not throwers.” 🙂 )

AND YET! The truth is, that there IS a lot less stuff in the locker now than there was when I arrived there in early March.  Some of what was in there (very little!) went to my millennial, minimalist son, who is now furnishing his first apartment in New York. A lot more of it (books, lamps, dishes, towels, etc) went to various local thrift stores and charities.

Also, many more pounds of paper went into recycling bins in Maryland. (Some of this was paper I had no problem getting rid of, but had not had time to do in my far-too-rapid moving out of my home two years ago; some of what I dumped this time was excruciating for me to do, but I did it. There will be more on that process later..)

A few of the precious things I wanted to have with me (mostly family pictures, some sheet music, a very few select books, a quilt made for me by my mom and my two grandmothers, and some art work) were packed into the one almost-empty suitcase I had brought with me, and the rest filled a second suitcase that was in the storage unit. Here are a few of the things that made it into my suitcases for my return to France.

A few small items of jewelry and other antique objects that I realized I am probably never going to wear or have room to display, I left in my favorite local thrift store, which also takes some items on consignment. There I had an interesting lesson in What to Do With Old Jewelry and Other Things Like That from the kind and knowledgeable volunteers. (There will be more on why they became my favorites in another post too…)

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Me with my new friend Kay (at left), one of the volunteers at the St. John’s Norwood Op Shop in Bethesda, Maryland. Here she is reviewing and pricing some of the things I left with them on consignment. The volunteers at St. John’s Norwood are very nice people, they run a well-organized shop, and the proceeds from the store benefit local charities. I felt good about leaving my stuff there!

This journey really began, for me, with the downsizing of my parents’ home more than 15 years ago, the experience that led to writing the book that my coauthor and I wrote, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. And as we have pointed out in our book, for most people downsizing doesn’t happen just once. For most people it happens several times in their lives.

Having just emerged from a fresh bout with this very human, often very physically and emotionally challenging activity, has brought both practical information and tips, and material for contemplation and reflection back into the forefront of my mind. There will be more of all that to share in the weeks and months to come. I hope that some of what I remembered, discovered, rediscovered, or learned for the first time this time, will help others get through the experience less painfully, more joyfully. It can be done! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, 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