Collecting: The Things We Love…

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“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

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Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

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And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

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In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

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Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

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

We Emptied Our Storage Room!

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My grandparents’ commode

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My grandparents’ pitcher and wash basin

We bid a fond farewell to the old bagel factory that sheltered our family treasures (and our junk)—without judgment—for, well, for more years than I care to count.

As I wrote in a previous post, the reason we have a storage room is common one: We needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. An old story, but a familiar one.

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One of my father-in-law’s paintings

The results of our purge.

We donated and donated and donated. Clothes and toys and cartons and cartons of books went to charity. We sold a few things. We gave away as many items as we could. Some of the china went to my daughter’s apartment. We still have some work to do: finding a photography student who could use my husband’s equipment and looking for a museum that might be interested in the antique pitcher and basin.

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My daughter’s toy truck

Lessons learned.

Out of sight, out of mind. We found many things that we didn’t remember putting into storage. An inventory would have helped.

Keep the memories, toss the stuff. Our mantra is so true. I don’t need my father’s books, voracious reader that he was, to help me think of him, or my father-in-law’s paintings, a prolific artist, to remind me of him.

There will always be regrets. A minor one so far: We sold the toy truck for much less than it was worth.

We stored items for too long. We kept things we didn’t really need or want. Why did we keep the room for so long? Perhaps procrastination played a part. And perhaps we found it difficult to deal with the hold that memories have on us.

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A wonderful sight–the empty room

The takeaway.

The big lesson, always, is that people are more important than things. As we say in our book, people who successfully downsize, declutter, or empty a house (or a storage room) come to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there. Everything else is just 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

All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

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 Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

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 Gift of Family History

img139. 1893-1895 Johannes Persson (1851-1933) and Johanna (1858-1950) Per Joel is boy on the right

My grandfather’s family in 1893. My grandfather is center front, my cousin’s grandfather is on the left.

 

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The first page of our family history.

When my cousin Cecilia visited from Sweden this summer, she told me that she had a family history that traces our family back to 1663. She sent it to me recently, just in time for Family History Month.

Our grandfathers were brothers and someone in her family has traced back our family, on our grandfathers’ mother’s side, to Bengt Persson, our six times great grandfather, a man who lived from 1663 to 1709.

This is amazing to me. I’m so grateful to the person who researched this and to Cecilia and her husband Lars who preserved it and scanned it for us.

The gift of the family tree sent me to my grandmother’s photo album and what fun it was to see some of the history in family photos.

 

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The family farm, called Gyllholmen, in 1930.

 

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My great grandparents with their 10 children, some of their spouses, and a few grandchildren.

 

For a previous post on Family History Month, I talked about school projects that got our family started on researching our history. And in another post, I listed some places that may help you get started researching your own history.

You can also get some help from the experts.

Family Tree Magazine has some suggestions for tracing your family tree.

Family Search Blog lists activities for celebrating the month.

On the Ancestry website, you can find family history events.

Here’s hoping you find a special way to celebrate and honor the story of your family.

 

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The first generation born in the U.S. on a street in Brooklyn. My mother’s family on the left, cousins on the right. My mother is the baby standing by the carriage.

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

What You Leave Behind

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What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone but what is woven into the lives of others. – Pericles

And what you leave behind is not what you keep in storage. Wonderful memories are woven into the fabric of my life without any need to keep my mother’s teapot, my father’s books, my mother-in-law’s shell collection, or my father-in-law’s paintings.

After writing about downsizing for more than a decade, from co-writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and this blog to giving talks about how to live with less to helping people “Keep the memories, toss the stuff,” I have a confession to make. You guessed it. I have a storage room.

The reason we have a storage room is common one: we needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. Sound familiar?

My husband and I decided that it’s now time to get rid of the storage room so we have been going through its contents. Here’s some of what we found there and how we dealt with it—and are continuing to deal with it.

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Toys

Too many of my kids’ toys were put in storage. A dump truck, a talking Alf doll, stuffed toys, Raggedy Ann, a child’s rocking chair.

The truck is on e-Bay. The stuffed toys were donated to charity. We’re still deciding about the rest.

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China

We stored various pieces of china, some of them handed down in my family for several generations.

My mother’s lusterware teapot is on eBay. I haven’t decided yet what to do with my grandmother’s pitcher and basin and other pieces of a boudoir set. I am giving a set of my mother’s dinnerware to my daughter.

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Clothing

For some reason, I kept some not very interesting or particularly good clothing that belonged to my mother, as well as several bridesmaid dresses from my wedding and my sisters’ weddings. I also had some old baby clothes. One piece has a German label in it, which means it probably belonged to my father, so it would be more than 95 years old.

I may look for a collector for the baby clothes. All the other clothing went to charity.

Camera equipment

My husband stored all his darkroom equipment (he hasn’t had his own darkroom in years) as well as a strobe meter and some other photography apparatus.

He is looking for a student who shoots film, not digital, who might want the equipment.

Old suitcases

We had large suitcases from the years when we traveled for several weeks at a time. We donated all of them to charity.

Books

I have a couple of degrees in English. We stored cartons and cartons of books, from a combined six years of college and graduate school, as well as some books from my parents. (I’m not sure how we managed to bring so many heavy boxes to the storage facility.)

And—ta da—I found my high school yearbook! A little late for the reunion but I can now look up classmates I have recently become reacquainted with.

All the books—except my yearbooks and diplomas—went to charity. Once I made that decision, in the storage room, we put the books in the car and drove directly to the thrift store, no stopping at home to second-guess myself. I’m very proud of that but, of course, this was an easier decision than most because the books are replaceable; I can always buy another copy of a book or get it from the library.

So, the purging continues. I will keep you posted about my progress.

As we celebrate Grandparents Day tomorrow, may we honor our grandparents by the values they lived rather than by the stuff they left behind.

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

Caregivers Extraordinaire

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Along with the dilemma of what to do with all the stuff that we accumulate in life comes the dilemma of what to do with a life itself, with a person who has aged and lost the ability to take care of him or her self. Although this is not a topic we usually write about, I would like to share the stories of three of the best writers writing today who have tackled the subject, each in a personal and poignant way.

Susan Allen Toth describes what it’s like to be in the trenches every hour of every day caring for her husband. With grace and humor, Scott Simon shows us how to just be there for a dear loved one, for him his beloved mother, in the last days of her life. Roz Chast uses her laugh-out-loud funny and, at the same time, devastatingly real cartoons to depict the old-age roller coaster ride of her parents.

No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days by Susan Allen Toth

As her husband’s Parkinson’s disease and eventual dementia take control over his body and mind, Susan Allen Toth is determined to care for him at home. This book, based on the journal she kept during the last 18 months of his life, is often painful in its details, frightening in her feelings of loneliness and isolation (although she did hire many aides), and compelling and poignant and sometimes funny in its story. It is written with unstinting love and brutal honesty. Toth made me laugh with her wit, disturbed me her details, and frightened me with her forthrightness – sometimes all on the same page.

Toth captures the uncertainty of the job of a caregiver: “I feel as though I am about to fall off my balance beam. I picture every caregiver on one, usually performing with an outward calm, like a confident acrobat, but concealing an inner terror: “What in the world will I do now?” For many of us, this must require both courage and faith, because I am often dizzy and close to gasping as I edge my way forward. The balance beam hangs in an enveloping haze.”

The author may have meant to be ironic with her title, but many readers feel that, to the contrary, Toth is as close to a saint as there is today.

“We all need someone to hear us,” Toth says of the millions who devote their days to the care of a loved one. With her calm, gentle voice, Susan Allen Toth has become a loud and forceful advocate for caregivers everywhere.

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Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by Scott Simon

Using the tweets that he sent out to his Twitter followers during the last days of his mother’s illness as a framework, Scott Simon, the NPR correspondent, has written a memoir of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gelbin, a gorgeous, glamorous, funny, mischievous, three-times married woman who raised Simon as a single mother for much of his life.

She knew a lot of people, some very famous ones, and mother and son reminisce about their life as they wait, his mother with great patience, to hear back from various doctors. As Simon tweets, “I’m getting a life’s lesson in grace from my mother in the ICU.”

There are many memorable passages. Simon’s realization about death: “Death makes life worthwhile. It gives each moment meaning…Death drives life. It frightens and inspires us. Do away with death, and we have no reason to get out of bed (or into it), grow, work, or love…” His mother’s lament about aging: “You know what is so hard? There’s a tone in their voice when you get old and people call you ‘lovely.’ Like you’ve become some kind of beautiful, crumbling statue. They never see you as the person you were before you got trapped in this old body.” Simon’s description of his mother’s later years: “After [her second husband] died, my mother became part of a merry and remarkable group of women, all widowed, who lived in her building and kept moving. They explored the city each day, went to plays, movies, museums, galleries, and new restaurants…My mother loved the women; so did I. They had fun…” How lovely for her.

To the very end, Simon’s mother had her wits about her and, always, her grace. Here he captures the small details of life in the hospital and, at the same time, the big picture of a life well lived.

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast

With equal parts laughter and tears, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells the story of taking on the parenting duties for her elderly and somewhat recalcitrant parents.

As Alex Witchel says in her review in the New York Times: “This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter’s rescue.

With her quirky cartoons, sometimes in step-by-step panels and sometimes in full-page illustrations, Chast tells the story of her parents’ decline, their falls, their many visits to doctors. They refuse to let aides (strangers!) help care for them; they abhor the idea of assisted living; they refuse to part with any of stuff they have accumulated, even the junk (as Chast says, “I was aggravated that they hadn’t dealt with their accumulations back when they had the ability to do so.”) They are in denial about everything: their limitations, their aging, their dependence. They can’t abide the mention of death and won’t talk about what may happen.

Chast’s book is at times hilarious, at times difficult to read, at times so surprisingly familiar. Her parents aged together, into their late 90s, which gave them comfort but also perpetuated the quirky dependence on each other that often excluded help from others, including their only daughter.

Chast tells a very personal story but one that is universal. The cartoons, which are charming, honest, and humorous, serve to lighten the mood, yet highlight the seriousness of a story of aging and death.

How do we deal with an aging parent or relative? How will we deal with our aging and eventual death? We could do well to take lessons from these three talented and perceptive authors, from books that should be on all of our to-read lists.

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