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

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

 

 

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