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

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

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

“End Tables. I Have Just Two Words, End Tables.”

At a meeting of community business leaders I attended a few weeks ago, we were asked to share our business cards. I looked in my bag and saw that I had only two cards with me. (No, not very professional of me to not even think about checking to see if I had cards with me before I left. Really?)

I took out the two cards I had and then, after a brief pause, also shared some of our book’s business cards. (Yes, our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home has its very own business card).

The book’s card is a bit busy on the front with a photo of the book cover and information on how to access the book and the blog. The back is more serene, with a black-and-white rendering of our logo, the house, with our mantra “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” below it.

I think it was the back of the card that started the discussion.

The conversation that ensued sounded a bit like our own discussion of “keepers and throwers.” “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process.

People are usually more nuanced than those labels imply and both “keepers” and “throwers” have issues that need to be dealt with. What followed with our small group was an interesting discussion of the what and the how of emptying our parents’ homes.

Tim looked at our business card and said, “End tables. All I have to say is two words: end tables.” He is a “keeper” with a lot of sentimentality to deal with, along with a strong dose “but someone could use this.” He had carefully emptied his parents’ home but had difficulty parting with the last few things. He had divvied up the family items, sold furniture, and donated many household items. He had two beautiful end tables with an inlaid wood design. His kids didn’t want them. And we all agreed that Millennials don’t want much of what we have and they certainly don’t want furniture that belonged to their grandparents. Tim couldn’t sell the end tables and wasn’t ready yet to donate them because he thought they were too beautiful to part with. Why didn’t someone else see them the way he saw them, their beauty, their value, he asked in a voice tinged somewhat with regret.

Phil is a more pure form of “thrower.” He said he had emptied his parents’ home, giving some items to nieces and nephews who were just starting out and getting rid of the rest. You could almost see him washing his hands of the job. He had been thorough and the job was done.

Jamie seemed poised between a “keeper” and a “thrower.” She embodies what we say in our book: “People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there.” She had emptied her childhood home when her parents moved to a retirement condo, then emptied the condo when her parents passed away. She donated most of the stuff, sold a few things, and preserved her family treasures in archival containers. She was able to identify what was important to her and she kept those items for herself, and for the next generation.

Matt kept quiet during our discussion. Whatever his story is, he chose to keep it private and we respected that.

Amy was somewhat wide-eyed during our talk. She is a little younger and hasn’t started yet to dismantle a home. My hope is that she absorbed the many hints and tips, along the laments, about the process of downsizing and will store them away for a time when she will need them.

Luca was visiting from Italy and seemed a bit baffled by Americans talking so much about their parents’ possessions. His puzzled look seemed to say that this consuming-so-much then wondering-what-to-do-with-it is a distinctly American dilemma.

At our business meeting, the meet-and-greet part at the beginning became a dialogue about downsizing – about “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” – because I forgot to bring my business cards with me. It was fortuitous, a chance to share our stories with complete strangers, a wonderful opportunity.

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

When a Hoarder Leaves Home

Other people’s stuff just left out on the street.

A friend asked me if I would like to help her clean out the home of a friend of hers. The homeowner is 70 years old, a consummate New Yorker, and…a hoarder. She had a health emergency that landed her in a rehab facility and her sister reached out for help sorting through what to bring her sister at the facility and what could be given away. I agreed to help.

To say that I really didn’t understand what the job entailed would be an understatement.

What she has

When we arrived at her home, one of the most obvious things about the place is that it is overstuffed. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of plastic storage bins, some small with cubbies, others larger chests with three drawers, in every room.

One container in the dressing area was full of shoulder pads covered in various fabrics, the kind that were part of “power” clothing in the 1980s, apparently cut out of dresses and jackets. She saved them all.

On one shelf were patterned cotton scarves, folded neatly and clearly never worn, in 17 different colorways. Yes, 17. I counted them. She was evidently a huge fan of scarves. We have uncovered hundreds, some well worn, others brand new.

The bottom drawer of one of the plastic storage containers was full of jars of the same lotion. There must have been 50 or 60 jars, most of them unopened.

Along one wall of the hallway were shelves holding nearly 1000 VHS tapes and over 150 DVDs.

What we’re doing

We are trying to donate as much of the usable items as we can.

We have brought many, many industrial-size trash bags full of used clothing to fabric recycling at our local farmers’ market.

Dressy clothing that is new or only lightly used, along with handbags and small purses and decorative household items, is going to a charity that raises funds through its thrift shops and uses that money to help those in need.

We brought other more practical clothing and unopened personal care items to a woman’s shelter, thanks to another friend who took care of that for us. That friend has also taken a couple of backpacks filled with more personal care items to a shelter for teens.

We have brought medical equipment and supplies to a charity that makes these items available to people in need.

We sent the VHS tapes to a company that recycles them (or disposes of them responsibly) and donated the DVDs to a local thrift store.

We have trashed as little as possible: old make-up, half empty bottles of shampoo and lotion, and other items that are beyond use.

What we’ve learned

In interviewing Dr. Gail Steketee, coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, I learned that hoarding is the inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed and that one of the top reasons for hoarding is the wish to avoid wasting things that may have value.

Our response to that is to acknowledge that so much of the stuff in this woman’s home has value and we will not waste it, simply put it in the trash it, but rather make sure it goes to a place where it will be used.

New homes can be found for almost everything, it just takes a little searching.

And for us, or at least for me, I’ve learned that what I have is enough, I don’t need to buy more. Helping to sort through the home of a person who kept way too much stuff is a lesson in anti-consumerism.

Being in this home offers me a look at what purchasing somewhat indiscriminately can lead to. It’s a lesson on how to be more measured in consuming and how important it is to sort through and get rid of things on a regular basis, small steps often, rather than waiting for what has become a large and somewhat onerous task.

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 Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

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

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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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