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

’Tis the Season to Ponder Gift Giving

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

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

Ask them what they need.

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

Give them experiences rather than things.

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

Give consumables only.

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

Give them a family treasure.

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

Give gifts that have meaning.

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

Change up the family dynamics.

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

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

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

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

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

“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

How Not to Talk to Your Mother

My mother always said she wanted to die in the house, the one she had lived in for almost 50 years and where she had raised her children. Of course, what she meant was she wanted to spend the rest of her days in the comfortable and familiar place she knew, not in a retirement community.

Would she have been more comfortable in a house on one floor rather than three? Would it have been easier to live in a place with wider halls and doorways to accommodate her wheelchair? And in a house that didn’t have stairs up to the front door? Yes, yes, and yes.

But these weren’t reasons that resonated with my mother. She was happy where she was, taken care of by my father, who was a huge support system for her.

Would she have benefited from a discussion about how she could get round-the-clock care in a more accommodating space? Not really.

If you have a mom (or dad) who knows exactly what they want and how they want to spend however many days or years are left to them, you don’t want to start a conversation about how you know better (even if you think you do).

You want to start with where they are. As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So what can you do with what you have? You have a lot of love for your parents and you want to consider what’s best for them. You know they want to stay in the family home. How can you make it easier, healthier, and certainly safer for them to do that?

You can start with the idea of downsizing and decluttering to make the house easier to navigate. If that’s not something they have considered, you’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

It may be at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you so here are some suggestions to make it a little easier for both of you.

Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.

Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.

Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may or may not want your opinions; they may or may not want your physical help.

Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.

Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

Tell stories. Stories bring us together and help keep our family history alive. They help us see our lives more clearly. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

Give them a copy of our book. Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is a great Mother’s Day gift. And this is the perfect time to purchase it because, for a short time, the book is available at half off the original price.

So how will you celebrate Mother’s Day? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and don’t forget the flowers.

 

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

Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

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

‘Tis the Season to Give…with Gifts That Make a Difference

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In this season of giving, there’s no better gift than giving back. Keeping in mind that most of us have too much stuff, really, way too many material things, we relish the idea of giving gifts that can be consumed, or used up, or ones that will help others.

Here’s our guide to what we call alternative, maybe subversive gift giving – subversive in that they don’t accumulate in your house later.

Family items

One of the people we interviewed for our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, told us how her mother gave family items, family heirlooms, as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She said she didn’t want her family members to wait to inherit them from her and preferred that they enjoy the items now. We agree, and think it’s an idea worth considering for the holidays. And don’t forget to share the stories behind the objects.

Food and drink

We love to receive gifts of homemade food or something we wouldn’t necessarily buy for ourselves. Things like good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread, homemade pickles, a jar filled with dry ingredients and a favorite soup recipe, a make-your-own spice mix, an assortment of tea or coffee, a hot chocolate kit. Who doesn’t love food made with love.

And you could make a recipe book, a compilation of family recipes handed down over the years, for each member of your family.

Experiences

Giving a gift of an experience lasts far longer than a new scarf or gloves. Gifts of outings such as a camping trip or dinner at a lovely restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, a bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest.

Sharing your talents

Use your skills like knitting, crochet, and woodworking, to create one-of-kind gifts. Or, your skills are more modest, you could frame a loved one’s wedding announcement or diploma, get seeds or bulbs for an avid gardener, or create a photo album commemorating a family event this past year.

A gift of time

Homemade gift certificates allow you to offer to help others in a festive way – and you get to spend time with friends and family while getting some chores done. You could offer to help with yard work or planting, make a dinner, bake a cake for a special occasion, offer babysitting to new parents, or take your grandkids out for ice cream, or help someone sort through their clothes or books.

Adopt a family

You can help those less fortunate by purchasing gifts of clothes and food for those in need, or adopt a soldier who is serving overseas and send notes and gifts.

Make a donation

Donating to a worthy cause is a gift that gives back. There are so many places to give but here’s a list of a few to consider.

A good place to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here’s this year’s list.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $1-for-$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, doubles the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer International helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Help domestic animals by giving to the ASPCA.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

The best way to celebrate the season is to practice gratitude. Be happy and thankful for what you have. Recently spotted on a T-shirt: “Happiness is homemade” and I think that’s a great attitude for the holidays. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things you have, for friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes you calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.

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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