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

 

Thanksgiving Thoughts…

As Thanksgiving approaches (and with it the unofficial beginning of the holiday season) it seems like a good time to not only give thanks for our blessings, but take a deep breath and the time to consider how we can made the upcoming holidays more meaningful, less stressful, and ultimately more rewarding.

We have reflected on some of the ways to do this over the past nine years on this blog. It’s interesting to notice that in those years certain things have changed. For example, there has been an interesting evolution in the observation of Black Friday: it’s no longer all about sales. Many companies, noting a tendency of things to get out of hand, have even closed their stores on that day, urging people to instead use the extra day to spend time with family, or enjoy nature, or give back to others.

It’s also gotten easier to make holiday celebrations more “green,” whether by recycling old holiday lights or thinking more carefully about how to wrap gifts.

And of course there is always the question of how to keep the holidays from forcing us into habits of overconsumption, while still finding ways to present our friends and family with thoughtful gifts.

Here are a few of the posts we’ve written over the years to help our readers think of ways to make the holiday season special but also more ecological, calmer, less stressed. Because some of these posts are a few years old, some of the details and links may be a bit out of date, and of course some of the information varies from location to location. But hopefully these posts will inspire you to seek out ways to make your holidays more meaningful, more “green,” and less stressful.

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/wishing-you-green-peaceful-holidays/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/talking-turkey-about-downsizing-at-the-holidays/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2018/12/21/caught-at-the-last-minute-without-a-gift-no-youre-not/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/tis-the-season-to-givewith-gifts-that-make-a-difference/

https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/giving-thanks-and-giving-back/

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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