Stopping to Smell the Roses or Look at Old Photos

My maternal grandmother, on the left, with her sisters.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences (I love that title) suggests people are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life, and in the study psychology professor Nancy Fagley defines appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something…and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”

The great advantage to living in the same place for well over 30 years is that it’s warm and comfortable and definitely feels like home. One of the disadvantages is that it’s easy to accumulate way too much stuff.

As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am constantly trying to sort through stuff that belongs to me, my husband, our parents, and our grandparents. I feel great pressure to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away, mostly pressure that I put on myself but also some that comes from husband and my kids.

As I was going through antique and vintage clothes that have been handed down to me, among them two Swedish dresses, actually blouse/slips that are worn under a wool skirt, that I’m interested in donating to a museum, I decided to look at my grandmother’s photo albums. Yes, I have photo albums that belong to me, some from my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother. Talk about overload!

I took time out to slowly browse through my grandmother’s photos albums, mostly photographs of people that I never knew, but filled with pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather and their families. I also looked through an album of my mother’s that had photos of my father’s family.

My paternal grandmother, on the right, with her siblings.

Looking at the photographs of my two grandmothers, I was filled with appreciation. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without those two women who persevered through good times and bad to keep their families together and who helped shape the people who would become my parents. And seeing photos of their parents, my great grandparents, was an almost out-of-body experience.

I took time to smell the roses, to look at old photos, to appreciate what I have, and to marvel at the photos that show the lives of my ancestors. What a gift to me, one I gave myself, a gift that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the women who came before me.

A caveat here. Of course I would never suggest that someone start to declutter by looking at photos. That’s too difficult and emotional and nostalgia-inducing. And I wouldn’t suggest looking at photos if you are up against a deadline. If things have to be moved out, for whatever reason, deal with the stuff first and the photos later. However, I’m a big fan of taking a break, taking the time to appreciate.

I learned a lot from looking at photographs of my grandmothers.

Looking at old photos taught me and continues to teach me, foremost, the preciousness of time.

I also felt how fortunate I am to have such a strong family and how incredibly lucky I am to have photographs of them.

And I realized that looking at the old photos gave me more joy than looking at the items they left behind. That was a bit of a revelation to me and, in some ways, makes it easier to “get rid of the stuff and keep the memories.”

At the same time as I was looking back, I could see the value of things to come. As the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, champion of the working classes, said, “You are laden with beginnings.” Everything I do is a new beginning, just as everything my grandmothers did was a new beginning for them.

My maternal grandmother at 17, right after she came to the US.

 

My grandmother with my father and my aunt.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Joy of Watching Marie Kondo Tidying Up

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about tidying up and many, many people have a lot to say about Marie Kondo, much of it negative. Sometimes what people perceive as wrong or misguided in her approach overshadows the many good points she makes.

People seem to find it hard to embrace the attitude she brings to sorting through our things – does it really have to “spark joy?” – and some even find it difficult to embrace her folding method, reducing everything to tiny squares. Do those things really matter? Or maybe more importantly can we see past what we can’t quite embrace and look at what she does bring to the process of downsizing and decluttering?

I enjoyed the Netflix series and found certain themes emerging as each family Marie Kondo worked with struggled with their stuff. Here is some of what Kondo brings to this quest.

Marie Kondo has a respect, for…well, for everything…the people she’s working with, the stuff they have, and the home they live in. She is not judgmental about what people have saved or how they have stored it and she’s not the least critical of the people who have saved all this stuff. She doesn’t begrudge anyone anything. No judgment, just a gentle nudge to be more mindful of what we have.

As well as respect, Kondo offers her clients encouragement as they decide what they need and what they can toss. There is a meme going around, a bit mean at times, that she “allows” people to keep only 30 books, something that would be just about impossible for most of us. Much ink has been spilled, including on this blog, about a statement that Kondo never made. What she said was that she honed her personal library to 30 books (and that number probably does not include her kids’ books) and suggests that people decide if a book is necessary, if it interests you, if it needs a place in your home.

Her request to her clients to pile all their clothes on the bed, a suggestion which took me aback at first, is a way to see the abundance in our lives. In a small way, I have used this technique. A few years ago, I sorted through my necklaces (and, yes, I have too many). I purchased two organizers, not meant for jewelry but for neckties, and hung the necklaces on them. It was valuable to me to see everything in one pile as I chose which ones to keep and which  to donate. And having them all hanging together in one place makes life better in two ways: it’s easier to choose which necklace to wear and it serves as a constant reminder that I don’t need to acquire any more.

Kondo shows a great reverence for the things in our lives. She gets acquainted with the home in an almost prayerful way, she taps on books to awaken them (isn’t it lovely to think that our favorite characters are waking up), she asks people to thank their clothes – all features very Eastern in thinking, coming most likely from her Shinto background. Many in the everything-is-disposable, everything-is replaceable West think it’s a bit hokey but valuing each object makes us more aware of what we have and ultimately what we want to keep in our life. To help us on the way to a reverent or more centered stance, Kondo suggests taking a deep breath, opening the window to let in fresh air, and creating pleasant sounds, whether that’s a gong or a chant or our favorite Beatles album. (We did recommend in our book to declutter with music to make the task more enjoyable!)

Asking her clients to thank each piece of clothing, each book, each object is a way of pointing out the gratitude we want to have for the things in our lives. It was poignant to see how moving it was for people to thank their stuff; they were affected by it, sometimes expressing nostalgia, sometimes almost wistful, but ultimately more able to let go of the items. Her clients’ struggle has made me try to be less judgmental of other people, either of their stuff or their way of organizing (or their lack of organizing) it.

Kondo says it’s important to have a vision and to communicate that vision to your home. Having too many ties to our childhood can make it harder to be an adult, she says; that’s interesting to ponder. Catastrophizing, what if I need this, is fear, she says, and fear is not a reason to hang onto things. For me Kondo’s question to one of the family members is brilliant: “Is this something you want to bring with you into the future?” That question gives me a new perspective, a new way to look at my stuff.

Kondo’s definition of “sparking joy” says that joy includes anything that serves you well, whether it is an melon baller sitting in your kitchen drawer and used only in the summer or a favorite wool sweater that keeps you warm in the winter only. Recently a friend sorted through her books (yet again) and had piles in her living room for friends to choose from. There were many she had read and was ready to let go of and many she had not yet read and had decided – she made this decision herself – that they did not spark enough interest to keep them on her bookshelves. The joy for my friend is in the warmth of the home, the ease of living in it, and the ability to make our own choices about her books.

What does decluttering do? It makes more room in your home, it makes it easier to find things, and it simplifies your life. Julie Morganstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life, says “Organizing is what you do to settle down. Decluttering is what you do to grow.” And, perhaps most importantly, as Marie Kondo says, decluttering is a way “to understand what is most important in your life.”

“The most important part of this process of tidying is to always think about what you have and about the discovery of your sense of value, what you value that is important.”

Thank you, Marie Kondo. Well said.

 

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: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Is Simplicity What We Really Want?

 

 

Minimalism sometimes gets a bad rap these days, often from the ‘savers’ among us more so than the ‘throwers.’

To many people, minimalism is all about the restrictions, how few things you can own, how few things you can buy. But according to the Minimalists, minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. That sounds doable.

Maybe it’s the word minimalism that is a bit off-putting. Maybe simplicity is a more embraceable word.

So what exactly is simplicity? According to one dictionary it is the quality or condition of being easy to understand or to do. Another says it is freedom from complexity or intricacy. It’s defined as clarity or clearness, something that’s uncomplicated. That sounds appealing, very appealing. To have a life that is clear and uncomplicated, one in which it is easy to function and to do things is a good goal.

Frank Lloyd Wright said, “To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.”

Can we be educated in simplicity? How do we know what is essential for us? How do we know what to focus on and what to ignore? Perhaps the simplest answer is to focus on what’s most important to us.

Leo Bautista explains, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”

So what is essential to you? It may be grandma’s china, or your parents’ love letters, or your father’s ties, or favorite books from you kids’ childhood. If it’s important to you, then it stays and you find a place for it. Or perhaps you can share stories about the item and then let it go, to another family member or to someone who may appreciate it as much as you do.

It’s not so much about having more, that may be hardwired in our brains, but of educating ourselves to want less. Joshua Becker says, “Desiring less is even more valuable than owning less.” Learning to want less is being educated in simplicity.

And that’s not easy, given the society we live in. The humorist, Robert Quillan, captured that dilemma when he defined Americanism as “Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.” Of course, who we really want to impress is ourselves and our family. Keeping up a certain lifestyle, maybe one is isn’t really our true selves, is more complicated.

Yvon Chouinard, an environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor outfitters, said, “The more you know, the less you need.” He was most likely referring to rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits but what if we learned more: about our interests, our family members, our ancestors. Would we would need less if we knew more? Perhaps we would need to keep fewer things if we knew more. That’s something to think about.

So is simplicity what we want?

Cedric Bledsoe said, “Simplicity is the essence of happiness.” And Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I, for one, am in favor of a life that is happier and more sophisticated. I am embracing simplicity. Yes, simplicity is what we want.

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

The Joy of a Junk Drawer Decluttered

It all started when my oven stopped working properly. Food would cook or bake faster on the left side, sometimes even burn, while food on the right side was not yet done. This had gone on long enough and it was finally time for a new oven.

The new one would be a gas wall oven, just like the old one, but the new one would have an electric starter. That meant having to make a connection under the counter to an electrical outlet on the other side of the cooktop. Before the new oven was installed, I was told to empty out the cabinet beneath the oven, my serving dishes, and to the right of it below the cooktop, my pots and pans. I also emptied out the cabinet above the oven just in case, the one with all my baking pans.

Where to put the stuff? I put paper down on the dining room floor and laid everything down. What an awakening it was to see how much cooking equipment I had. There were so many things I didn’t need and I knew, for sure, I wasn’t going to put them all back. This was the perfect time to downsize and declutter.

To start, I put aside the dishes and pots that I use regularly or at least often enough to warrant keeping. The next step was to ask my kids to take what they wanted. Then my husband sold a couple of pots on Craigslist and I offered some serving dishes and utensils to a non-profit. And finally I 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 prepare meals.

It is wonderful to work in a kitchen with fewer items that are more easily accessible. But my joy was tempered somewhat because I have this junk drawer that sticks each time I open it because it’s so overstuffed. Yes, this is a long story of how I finally, after more time than I care to remember, have decluttered my junk drawer.

I took everything out of the drawer and again put it all on paper. Many organizers emphasize the importance of emptying out a drawer or closet completely in order to see what you have and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much easier to work that way, and we’ve talked about this process in a previous post.

And, strange as it might be to imagine, it was also a time for reminiscing. I found so many books of matches. When candle lighting is called for I always scramble to find matches. Not any more. I discovered more than two dozen matchbooks that had been shoved to the back recesses of the drawer, most of them from restaurants where we had enjoyed meals. It was fun to remember the happy occasions, like Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has now been reinvented; family celebrations, like those at Belgo and City Crab, places that are long gone; and casual times at a neighborhood joint, Plate 347, that is no longer there. A particularly bittersweet memory: wonderful dinners at Windows on the World, with its spectacular view of the city.

But, back to the present. The next step was to put like things together, something we say often in our book. It’s amazing to see how many different spatulas, whisks, and measuring spoons I had. Were they really different or were they the same? I kept the ones I liked best or used most often and let go of the rest. Some went to my kids – one wanted my melon baller – and the rest went to the thrift store.

My junk drawer now opens easily and I can see what I have without moving things around. It may not be as neat as the one in the photograph, above, with custom-made dividers, but it works, smoothly and efficiently. I own fewer items now and many of the items I no longer need have found new homes.

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

Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

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

Happier at Home…Or How You Can Make Your Surroundings Friendlier

 

We’ve said often that getting rid of what we don’t need can add to our happiness. But what do we do with the stuff that we have chosen to keep? Three authors explain how making small changes at home can lead to a greater feeling of contentment.

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, has traveled the world researching what makes people happy. He has discovered three strands of happiness—pleasure, purpose, and pride—gleaned from what he calls the world’s happiest places.

I understand how having a purpose in life makes us happier and how we need to experience pleasure or enjoyment, but pride was the one that kind of threw me. Buettner’s focus is on improving our surroundings. He says, “There are small things [we can do]. One facet of happiness is a sum of positive emotions. So I like the idea of a “pride shrine”—a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories. Or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.”

Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life, says, “Of all the elements of a happy life, my home is the most important.”

Two stories that Rubin tells in her book speak to both the importance of a comfortable home to her and to the truth of our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object.” She also calls these set-ups “shrines” and shows how one item or a grouping of a few can make us happier.

Of the many items that Ruben had that belonged to her grandparents, she treasured most two small ceramic birds. She decided to put them on a shelf in her home office, a place where she would see them every day, and this enabled her to get rid of the rest the inherited things.

Ruben’s two daughters were accomplished ballerinas and Ruben kept the tutus from their many recitals in storage under their beds. The tutus soon outgrew the space available and Ruben agonized a bit over what to do about the costumes even though she had many photos of the recitals. She chose to set up a “shrine” in her foyer: several frames with photos of the events. She kept additional recital photos in a drawer in the hall table so she can swap them out from time to time. These photos are the first things Ruben sees as she enters her home.

Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life, writes about how to streamline your life by identifying the essential and eliminating the unnecessary, freeing you from everyday clutter and allowing you to live a better life.

In a recent blog post, he wrote about lowering your life’s requirements. He explains: he was walking through an airport in early morning and wanted a cup of coffee but the long line at the coffee bar made him change his mind. He didn’t need the coffee to be awake. His thoughts were, “What are your requirements, things you can’t do without?…What happens when we let go of these needs, and just keep them as a ‘nice-to-have’ option?”

He and his wife joined a no alcohol challenge, “just to push into the discomfort of not relaxing with a glass of wine at night.”

Babauta concludes, “The fewer requirements we have, the less of a burden these requirements become. The more often we have the same thing every day, the more likely they are to become a requirement.”

To make our homes happier, we can create small monuments to important aspects of our lives – “shrines” to our accomplishments, to our family, and to our favorite activities. We can also rethink our habits, what we do every day without thinking, whether it’s making coffee first thing in the morning or keeping too much stuff simply because it belonged to our parents or grandparents.

Is it time to rethink what makes us happy? These authors suggest that we can let a few things, a curated few, tell the story we want to tell. We don’t have to keep everything, or hold onto everything, whether it’s an item we inherited or a habit we have cultivated.

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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