When Excess Becomes Abundance

This table full of necklaces is amazing, isn’t it? But the excess of it is a bit shocking. Sometimes a very large quantity of something, whatever that something is, is daunting and problematical to deal with. And sometimes that same excess can be seen as abundance, as plenty, as a bounty of riches.

I was having difficulty seeing the upside of this huge quantity of jewelry.

In our book and in our many blog posts, we suggest downsizing to rid ourselves of excess, to have fewer things, to streamline. We give this advice, as most people do, because we look at excess as a negative. And we stand by our recommendation to declutter because having too many things can get in the way of living our best lives. Yet there is abundance in excess.

Last weekend I produced the large jewelry sale pictured here (one I’m still recovering from!), a sale that I have organized for the last dozen years, and this year I perceived the excess we encountered as not such a positive thing. I was blown away by the generosity of the donors but troubled by the excess of the resulting donations and I realized I needed a new outlook, a slightly different perspective so I could see excess as something good.

The jewelry sale is for a non-profit and the proceeds from the sale help support their social action programs, especially a program that makes lunches for the homeless, which are then distributed by City Harvest (an organization that started the food recovery movement in 1982 to address the issue of excess food for some while others struggled to feed themselves).

We collect jewelry from individuals: items they no longer wear, gifts that were not quite their style, or pieces they have inherited. And we are fortunate to get jewelry from designers who often donate new pieces from their collections. A small group of us sort through and price the jewelry. This year there was a profusion of donations, months of sorting, and I was feeling this excess as daunting, almost as a burden. Why do we have so much, I kept asking. No one should have this much jewelry. The excess of it all was beginning to eat away at me.

Then it occurred to me that I needed to adjust my thinking. The huge amount of jewelry was not a burden (yes, maybe it would be if it ended up in the landfill) but, rather, it was a sign of the generosity of the people who donated it. That generosity meant a greener environment because jewelry people no longer wanted was finding new homes. And this generosity of donors led to great sales, which meant funds to help people in need. It was a win-win situation.

My inability to see this excess as abundance reminded me of the quote from Ramakrishna,

“An ocean of blessings may rain down from the heavens, but if we’re only holding up a thimble, that’s all we receive.”

This weekend, with a little readjustment on my part, my thimble became a bucket.

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

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

Language is the way we communicate with each other so words and how we use them are important. Any conversation about downsizing and decluttering, whether written or spoken, almost always incudes the frequently used catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” All the words in that phrase start with “re-” a prefix that comes from the Latin and means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or it can mean going back to do something again, as in redo or revisit.

I’m revisiting my thinking about that standard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to use less and is certainly a good place to start. Reduce means to have a smaller or lesser amount, or to bring down, to diminish, or to minimize the amount we have. And in some definitions, it means to restore, to bring back or to lead back, to its original or lower state. So if the first step in decluttering is to reduce, then one meaning is to bring ourselves back to our original state of needing or owning less. Perhaps thinking of “reduce” in that way, that our original state is one in which we need less, we will have an easier time of getting rid of the things we no longer need, or at least, maybe, we’ll be able to do it with less angst.

Reuse means to use something again, usually for its original purpose. Most of us have worn a dress or outfit again, getting multiple uses out of our clothes, and all of us reuse our dinner plates and cutlery every day. So reuse is a part of our daily life, a no-brainer. But another definition of reuse is to use something again for a different purpose, sometimes called creative reuse or repurposing. Our forebears used pieces of fabric salvaged from clothing or household items to create bed quilts. Currently, many animal shelters ask for used bedding and pillows to use as animal bedding. Sometimes we reuse by passing along our older child’s clothes to our younger child, or by giving clothing that’s still wearable to a neighbor who has a still younger child. When we were cleaning out my aunt’s closets, we donated a number of pairs of elbow length gloves to a local theater group: clothing from the past to be used as part of a costume.

Recycle means, according to one dictionary, to collect and treat what would otherwise be trash so it can be used again. We recycle paper, sometimes by writing on paper that’s already been used. My father-in-law used the back of legal size envelopes from his mail to make lists, a habit I have incorporated into my life. They are the perfect size and shape for a list. We can print on both sides of paper or go ‘paperless’ by emailing everyone the agenda before a meeting; all are ways to to save trees. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is the process of transforming old or discarded items into new products that are sometimes better than the original. At a crafts fair I went to last weekend, I saw crafters who had cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and fashioned them into fingerless mitts, and others who had felted old sweaters (washed them in very hot water to cause the fibers to lock together) and used that stronger fabric to make purses. In a fully circular economy, we would be continuously using and reusing everything, reducing greatly what goes into the landfills.

What more can we do?

We can take old thinking about our stuff and repeal it, replace it, reverse it; we can rethink what our stuff means to us.

We can think about resale – having a yard sale for toys that our kids have outgrown or taking our clothing to a resale shop – rather than tossing it.

We can reedit or refine our needs, both clothing and household. How many multiples of things do we really need to have.

We can refuse things that don’t work for us, even pens that are given out for free, and rethink things are not environmentally friendly.

We can retire old thinking.

We can show respect – for ourselves and our fellow beings, for all creatures, and for the earth.

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: 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

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

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