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

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

 

 

Marie Kondo, Now on Netflix…

978-1-60774-730-7

Well there certainly has been a lot of intent interest in–and both enthusiastic and unenthusiastic response to–Marie Kondo’s new “reality” TV series on Netflix, which began earlier this month. (I have put the word “reality” in quotes because, as I hope most of us know, reality TV is not really about reality.)

I think the first thing to do in addressing this topic is to give credit where credit is due–and whatever else you may say or think about Marie Kondo, you’ve got to admit that she certainly has got a great sense of marketing, self-promotion, and business savvy.

Beyond that, she has helped and inspired a lot of people to get rid of clutter that was bogging them down in one way or another, and that is of course a good thing.

This is not the first time I’ve addressed the Marie Kondo phenomenon on this blog. I have written previously about it here and here.  To summarize my opinion about Marie Kondo and her “KonMari” method  briefly, in my initially reluctant and skeptical exploration of her writing I had to admit that her advice was more sympathetic to the “keepers” of this world (as my coauthor and I like to call them) than I thought it would be. And I had to furthermore admit that some of her advice might actually be helpful even for people who have a great deal of trouble letting of certain kinds of items. (This is largely because she does acknowledge the deep emotional, even spiritual, relationship many people have with the special objects in their lives, even as she goes about advising them to get rid of most of them.)

I have always said, when asked what I think about the Kondo phenomenon, that it is clear that for many people her philosophy and advice have been very helpful, even inspirational, and who would want to argue with that?

But I’ve also added that I don’t think her advice works for everyone: and that for many people it is far too extreme to be useful.

By way of example, she quite clearly has gone over the top for most people who love books and reading by saying that ideally people should keep less than 30 books in their homes. (!!)

This advice is so wrongheaded in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. Luckily I don’t have to, because so many other readers, writers, and lovers of books have spoken up on the topic already. (I will give you a list of links to some of my favorite posts on this topic at the end of this piece.)

But I would like to share, right here and now, my favorite quote from one of these pieces, which I think really captures the spirit of what so many people feel about this particular piece of advice. “Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” Summer Brennan asked in a 2016 essay published on Literary Hub.  She added, “What sort of psychopath rips out pages from their favorite books and throws away the rest so they can, as Kondo puts it, “keep only the words they like?” (You can read Brennan’s whole wonderful essay here. At the end of this piece there are some great suggestions for places to donate books “should you choose to part with them” 🙂 )

Some people may think Brennan has gone overboard in the outraged language quoted above. I, for one, think her response is perfectly measured, even serene, given the heresy Marie Kondo has expressed concerning the value of books in a home.

Also. I haven’t seen anyone else address this yet (though probably someone has), but do you not all remember the news that a recent study has found that children who grow up in a home with at least 80 books do better academically? And that the average number of books in an American home is 114? (You can read more about this in this article.)  Is Marie Kondo really trying to suggest that we should lower the average number of books in the American home past the point where the children in that home will be optimally intellectually nourished? I don’t know about you, but to me that seems not only misguided and almost unbelievably lacking in respect for intellectual curiosity, but a little bit creepy.

I should add that the spate of recent (and some not-so-recent) push-backs to the tidal wave of enthusiasm for Kondo-ism addresses more than just her advice about books. For example, this thoughtful essay by Arielle Bernstein, titled “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter,” which was published in 2016 in The Atlantic, frames Kondo’s advice in the context of what decluttering a home can be like for the children of refugees, and reminds readers that Kondo’s advice is pretty easy to follow for people who never have to worry about replacing the items they so gleefully go about shedding–and not necessarily as easy for those who have grown up in poverty.

In this excellent piece by Lisa Miller, which was published in New York magazine in 2015, Miller affectionately (and amusingly)  describes why the fact that she and her husband both grew up in homes where the Depression-era principle of “perfectly good” was dominant, means that they will never actually declutter their home–and why that is actually not such a bad thing.  (I personally feel this is a point of view that has not been adequately heard in all the fervent proselytizing about the virtues of minimalism in recent years.)

Finally, in this thoughtful essay, published just last week in BuzzFeed, Alison Willmore begins by saying that she, like Kondo, is very good at throwing things away. So she doesn’t object to the activity: she objects to the premise that by practicing Kondo’s method people can realize their “ideal lives.” She also objects to the “aura of moral righteousness that has…become attached to minimizing and to minimalism,” and adds that this “has always seemed unearned to me.” I agree with her there. More on that another day, perhaps.

Well, I am sure this is quite enough said on this topic for today. And I’ve given you plenty of other articles to read if you are looking for affirmation that you are not alone in finding Marie Kondo’s advice not quite as “life-changing” or as “magical” as the title of her book suggests.

But let me repeat: I’m happy for anyone who has been truly helped by her advice.  And I do not begrudge her the millions she’s made in giving it. (Well, maybe as the coauthor of a very helpful and useful book on downsizing that has not done nearly as well, I begrudge it just a little bit…)

And let me close by saying, that for those of you who are inclined, when you even hear the word “Kondo,”  to want to clutch your books to your chest (and maybe gather up your children as well, for a round of lap-sitting and reading aloud), I think it’s important to leave you with this reminder.

Her advice is not for everyone.

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

Here, as promised, are a few eloquent, and recent, responses to Marie Kondo’s advice about getting rid of books:

https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/books/a25800198/netflix-tidying-up-marie-kondo-book-advice/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/shortcuts/2019/jan/08/are-books-clutter-marie-kondo-advice-give-them-away

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/07/what-we-gain-from-keeping-books-and-why-it-doesnt-need-to-be-joy-marie-kondo?fbclid=IwAR2USYj9WEfHTP1PNiZ9zZYUlD2JDMF2Xf3AZdN9nkkQcgwQ95eZYSlnIno

 

 

 

A Year-End Retrospective

Is there anything good to report about 2018? We easily remember the horrendous events that made the headlines in the past year but I, and maybe you too, find it a bit difficult to think about the good things that happened.

For Downsizing The Home, our posts were a mixed bag of looking at the positive as we declutter but also acknowledging the parts that didn’t go quite as planned. What stays with me is the quote from Madeleine L’Engle, It is the ability to choose which makes us human. I have chosen to downsize some of my life while leaving much of it undisturbed (as of yet, anyway).

Here are some of the topics we shared in our blog.

It’s all just stuff.

And while that is to a large degree true, as Janet said, she has been thinking a bit lately about when it is NOT true. Sometimes it’s really not “all just stuff. Sometimes it is the stuff that holds our memories together, and makes our houses homes. Some of it is documentation of the lives we’ve lived.”

If it is all just stuff then it’s precious stuff for a hoarder-friend of ours. Although some of what was in her home was junk, much of it was in good condition and could be donated. It was an important task that a friend and I took on, and one we were honored to perform, to separate the good from the bad, so to speak, and make sure the good things found a new home.

There is joy in decluttering.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and I did. I cleaned out my kitchen cabinets and my junk draw and kept some items, gave others to my kids, and donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to work in the kitchen.

“Start where you are,” said Arthur Ashe and Janet did. She’s been chronicling, in a series of posts, the challenge she set for herself to empty her storage unit. You can follow along in our blog to see her progress and also to see the dilemmas she’s faced.

We can do better.

As Janet noted, she suspects that not many people are aware of the magnitude of the problem of too much clothing going into landfills. Earth 911 reports that “the EPA estimates that Americans discarded over 14 million tons of textiles in 2010…about 28,000,000,000 pounds of clothing that could have been reused or recycled – every year.” This is where clothing recycling comes in, something we have written about often.

We may not advocate minimalism per se (that’s hard for “the keeper” in me) but we need to heed the words of Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, who says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” We need to rethink our compulsion to own and learn to see the wisdom of simplicity in our lives.

We are all much the same, we are all human.

Those who help us in our quest to declutter are just like us. Alison Lush said, “During the classes I was taking, while learning how to work successfully as an organizer, I was personally affected. My understanding of the power of my possessions, and my relationship with my possessions started to change. I realized that I had a lot to gain by becoming my own first client.” A born cluttlerbug,” she has “successfully reprogrammed myself and changed my environment quite dramatically. I am therefore truly convinced that many other people are capable of this as well. I am very enthusiastic for them!”

As we continue decluttering, we look to the future.

Taking a look at our stuff, especially the stuff that holds meaning for us, is the time to think about where it will go after us and how we’ll accomplish that. We learned how downsizing and decluttering can lead to thoughts of the future and how writing a Legacy Letter or Ethical Will helps us sort out our feelings about our things. “Writing a Legacy Letter is an act of love, a means of conveying that love and caring into the recipient’s future and for future generations. It is an inheritance more valuable than money,” says Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words.

May each day of the New Year bring you joy and health and less cluttered closets.

 

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

’Tis the Season to Ponder Gift Giving

We all love to give and receive gifts but we seldom talk about what it really means when we exchange gifts. If the central message behind gift giving is appreciation, love, and respect for the person we’re gifting, then why not focus on giving gifts that reflect our feelings.

If we love someone, we want to give them something they need, will appreciate, or simply like. Here are some thoughts on how to be more focused in our giving.

Ask them what they need.

People often eschew gifts like socks and pajamas but why not get your family members what they need. I need new slippers (if anyone in my family is reading this) and one daughter mentioned she needs new bath towels. Dull, maybe a bit, but definitely useful.

Give them experiences rather than things.

Why not gift a wine tasting, a cheese tasting, home brewing classes, cooking classes, a winery tour, a gym membership, yoga classes, museum workshops and lectures, music lessons for voice or instrument, a glass blowing class, weaving or gardening classes, knit or crochet instructions, a woodworking class. You can match the gift to a loved one’s interests or surprise them with something that’s maybe a bit outside their comfort zone.

Give consumables only.

Some ideas: An expensive bottle of wine for the oenophile, luscious chocolates for the sweets fan, personal care items for those who like to be pampered, oranges and other fruits, especially for those of us in colder climes. We’ve written about this before so you can see more suggestions in an earlier post.

Give them a family treasure.

One of the women we interviewed for our book said that her mother started giving away family heirlooms as birthday and Christmas gifts. When asked about it, her mother said her only regret was that she hadn’t started earlier. So think about giving family items like china, embroidered table linens, tools, golf clubs, paintings, decorative vases, and jewelry as holiday gifts so the next generation can enjoy the items while you are still around to share in their joy.

Give gifts that have meaning.

A donation to a group or worthy cause is a gift that will resonate far beyond the gift itself. For a gift that will have lasting impact, we have posted suggestions here and here in past years. Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, posts an annual holiday guide for presents with meaning and here is this year’s column.

Change up the family dynamics.

Consider instituting some boundaries with family gifts. Give gifts to those under the age of 18 only. Have adults pick names and purchase one gift for that person. Set a limit on spending per gift and see how imaginative you can be at that price. Or, best bonding gift ever, have each family member write a note of thanks or gratitude for each other and hand out the notes to read aloud. That’s better than any material gift.

Or agree with your extended family to support a family in need rather than exchange gifts with each other. Find a family through a local charity and divide the purchases among your family members so the family in need receives the makings for a joyous holiday.

What are your family traditions for giving? Please share in a comment below.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season to have less and to give more.

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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