Moving, Downsizing, Emptying the Family Home–in Literature

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I recently read the review copy of a new book scheduled to come out in the fall, My (Part-Time) Paris Life. In it the author, Lisa Anselmo, tells the story of how she came to create a new life for herself in Paris in the wake of her grief and loss over her mother’s death. In the chapter “Destroy a Home, Build a Home,” she talks about the experience of dismantling her parents’ home with her sister a year after her mother’s death, calling it “a punishing process.”  “I thought our mother’s death would be the hardest thing to bear,” she writes. “But this was much, much worse. It was as if Ma and Dad were dying all over again.”

That got me to thinking about this emotionally difficult process as it has been described in literature. One of my previous posts asks if there is such a thing as “the poetry of downsizing” (and the evidence suggests that there is, or at least can be). And recently I stumbled across On Moving, a book that Louise DeSalvo  was inspired to write after after she and her husband moved out of the home in which they had raised their children to a new home, and she experienced an unexpectedly turbulent set of emotions.  DeSalvo, a professor of literature, not surprisingly turned to some of her favorite writers to see if they had had anything to say on the subject of moving, and found a wealth of material, including some from writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Virginia Woolf.

From time to time people have told me about other books in which the difficulty of moving, downsizing, or just simply dealing with the memories evoked by the objects in a home plays a role. One of them is The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. Another is a lovely poem by Marie Ponsot, “As Is,” that a colleague shared with me a couple of years ago.

I know that this theme comes up actually quite often, if tangentially, in literature. It is also a rather important sub-theme in the recently-released film Hello, I’m Doris.

What’s clear is that there is nothing new about this very human activity (think Ecclesiastes! “A time to keep and a time to throw away…”), and I’m sure there is nothing new about the emotional difficulty of it either. Moving on is something we all have to do, most of us numerous times in our lives: but it is almost never easy.

Perhaps for some people, reading the words of others who have struggled with the emotions involved, and have written poignantly about it, might come as a welcome relief in the middle of a process that can be enervating, exhausting, or just plain sad, many times all three at once. It is one of the things that made us want to write our book, to find a way to make people who were going through downsizing, or dealing with the things left behind by loved ones who are no longer there, feel a bit less alone with the unsettling emotions that seem to almost inevitably arise in the process.

Do you know of any books, stories, or poems that deal with this topic sensitively? If so, I hope you will tell us about them in a comment. It would be nice to be able to share such titles with our readers.

Of course there are a few poignant stories included in our book as well, mixed in with the practical tips and strategies for getting through the process with family harmony intact. But maybe you already knew that.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Five (More) Lessons Learned in Downsizing

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Don’t seal those boxes too soon! Leaving them open as long as possible allows “keepers” the time they need to change their minds, and get rid of more stuff as the job progresses.

When circumstances forced me into a sudden and unexpected move out of my home last spring, and into a major downsizing, I knew it was going to be quite the experience.

I also knew there were going to be new lessons learned to share with our audience, and I was right. My first two blog posts dealing with this “wild ride” took place in the first few weeks afterward. (You can read about them here and here.)

Now, almost a year later, I’m returning to some of the notes I took then. And here are a few of the things that stand out:

  1. Shred ahead!  “Shred documents every January. Better yet, go paperless!” is one of the notes I scrawled in those furiously frantic days when, on top of everything else I needed to do, I filled several large recycling barrels full of shredded financial documents, determined not to move them once again, this time into a storage locker, while I prepared for an international move. January is a good time to do this, since that’s when you will have the end-of-year statements (all that you really need to keep for tax purposes, etc.) readily at hand. But whenever you do it, it just know that the more you do it ahead of time, the less time you’ll have to spend sitting at a shredder when you make your next move. There’s some helpful guidance for proactively getting rid of paper in this post by my coauthor. Many communities now have free document shredding events, especially in the spring. And really, going paperless is a very good idea. (You can usually choose to get some of your financial documents the old-fashioned way, and let the rest just stay online. You know: the ones you’re never gonna read anyway…) It’s good for the earth, it’s good for you, it’s good preparation for your next move.
  2. Don’t seal the boxes too soon! There is a natural urge, especially for the people who are helping you pack for the move, to seal boxes. Sealed boxes signal progress–something EVERYONE wants in the middle of a move–AND they are much easier to move around and stack when they’re sealed. The problem is, sealed boxes make it hard to change your mind, and the ability to change your mind–at least for me, often!– during this process can be important. In my case, the ability to continue to sell/give away/donate tends to increase more and more as the process accelerates…and in terms of the ultimate goal of ending up with less stuff, this is pretty important. So if you’re a “keeper,” don’t let those efficient types helping you rush the process–tell them the boxes have to stay open as long as possible. In the end it will mean fewer boxes to move.
  3. Consider leaving collectibles to the collectors. I remember one anecdote we heard when we were first writing our book. You could call it an anecdote illustrating the Antiques Roadshow mentality. “We’re sittin’ on a fortune here!” I remember hearing repeated by a daughter who was dismayed at not being able to get her parents to get rid of anything because “this might be worth something someday.” When I found myself saying the same thing about some object or other to my son in the middle of packing for my last move, he said, politely, but firmly, “Mom. We’re not collectors. Leave that to the collectors.” And you know what, he was right! Collectors spend a lot of time learning about what “is worth something” and what is not. For the most part, it may make sense to “leave all that to them,” although there are some notable exceptions to this, as discussed in this post by my coauthor. But, especially for little things, and especially in the case of things that may eventually have value, but at the current time do not, at least consider it! In my last move, among the things I had been holding onto for many years that I actually got (a little) money for were, the matchbox collection I had acquired in my 20’s, and a very interesting, shiny gold, heavy metal object whose purpose was completely obscure to me (turns out to have been some kind of resister, perhaps for some kind of spacecraft? Maybe?) The person who bought these two items at one of my yard sales was happy  to have them, and I appreciated the fact that he was going to take care of them from now on. His enthusiasm justified (at least in my mind) having kept them all those years. And if he turns out to have been able to make a lot of money from selling them (which I very much doubt, I don’t think that’s why he bought them), well, anyway, he is welcome to it. He is the one who would have the knowledge and would have been willing to take the time to do so. did not. Even after more than 30 years!
  4. Consider the cost of moving and/or storage versus the cost of replacement. Some furniture is just not worth keeping: the cost of moving and/or storing it probably doesn’t make sense. So for some people, in some situations, it may make sense to take a good hard look at what you’re going to pay for moving and/or storing: and ask yourself if it wouldn’t make more sense to get rid of it now, one way or another (sell? donate? give away?) and just repurchase similar items on the other end. It’s kind of the idea of “rental” vs. ownership of furniture. And in some cases, it makes a lot of sense!
  5. Lighten up. I already knew this, because that is one of the most important–at least implicit–pieces of advice in our book. But I found new practical applications for this advice. For example: who makes the rule about yard sales having to start very early in the day? And is it absolutely necessary to follow this rule? These are two of the questions I asked myself in my last move. (“Who’s having the sale, anyway?” I said to myself.) I do understand that’s how it’s usually done, and perhaps if making the most money possible is important to you, then that’s the way it needs to be done. But if the main purpose is to clear out your house, minimize the number of things you have to move, and also make a little bit of money, then why do you have to be out of bed dragging things out of the house at the crack of dawn when you were probably up very late the night before, figuring out what to sell and how to much to ask? The answer is: you don’t! YOU’RE the one having the sale. YOU can decide when it starts and ends! Really, you can! You don’t have to kill yourself over this. Remember what almost everyone comes to realize is one of the most important “lessons learned” in the downsizing process, somewhere along the way: “It’s all just stuff.”

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

Donate, Reuse, Recycle: A Call for Help When Downsizing

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Which are the hard-to-recycle-or-reuse items in this photo?

There are many reasons why some people have trouble getting rid of things when downsizing the home, or moving. Two of the best reasons are wanting to maximize the benefit to others by donating things that can still be used, and to minimize damage to the earth by keeping things that should be recycled out of landfills.

We’ve written a fair amount about both topics on this blog, and in many of our posts have provided tips and suggestions about ways you can go about doing both of these things. But some items are just harder to deal with responsibly, especially if the downsizing (or moving) has to be done in a hurry.

The photo above provides a clear example of the kinds of things that are fairly easy to get rid of responsibly, and the kinds of things that aren’t. Clearly, if the beautiful pot is not going along in the move, it could be easily donated (or, depending on the value, perhaps sold). Thrift stores would probably be happy to have the hangers. But what about the not-so-gently-used shoes, and the CDs? (Only a couple of CDs are shown here, but most homes would a fairly big pile of them ready to dispose of…)

This post will provide some guidance in finding ecological ways to dispense with these items. But the main purpose is to draw attention to the types of items that are unlikely to be properly disposed of when people have to move or empty a home in a hurry. And a plea that the powers that be–from shoe retailers to government agencies–help us find ways to make these things easier to recycle.

  1. Shoes. A couple of years ago my coauthor wrote a very helpful post about how to recycle or donate shoes here. And while I think it’s great that there are organizations that are helping with this process, I can’t help but wish that more shoe stores would step up (no pun intended!) and make it even easier. Why couldn’t the big chains have a program similar to Best Buy’s electronics recycling program for example? So that people in a hurry to empty a home would be able to take big bags of shoes that are no longer usable directly to the nearest store and just drop them off? Payless? DSW? Your thoughts?
  2. CDs and tapes. Earth 911 has a very helpful page on various options for dealing with CDs and videotapes you no longer want, but the fact is, most people are not going to do the right thing when it comes to old CDs and tapes if it isn’t made easier for them to do. And most people are not going to want to pay to recycle anything. Call me a dreamer, but it seems to me that if we know that having these items go en masse into our landfills is harmful to the environment (and future generations) it would seem an appropriate matter for collective action. In other words, Help! Isn’t there some way our local governments–or the state or federal government, someone, anyone!–can help make it easier for us all to do the right thing?
  3. Prescription Drugs. I didn’t realize the importance of proper disposal of prescription drugs until a cousin who is a doctor grimaced when someone suggested at a family gathering to just throw them into the trash. “No, no, no!” she said. “It goes into our water supply. That is not a good idea.” But here again the problem is the difficulty of doing the right thing. (Just take a look at these FDA guidelines and you’ll see what I mean.) So here again, I think we need help, and probably in this case pharmacies are the most likely source of assistance. Why couldn’t people bring unused/unwanted drugs back to pharmacies to be properly disposed of? Certainly they would know how to do it, right? The only option for me to properly dispose of the expired prescriptions in our home when I looked into this last summer was to drive several miles to a government office in an area with very little available parking to turn them in. It has to be made easier if we want people to do it.

I think most people understand the importance of protecting our earth from contamination. But if it’s too difficult to do things the right way, they will be tempted or forced into doing them the wrong way.

Are there other categories of items that you’ve found difficult to reuse, donate, or recycle when downsizing, or information about programs that make recycling shoes/CDs/prescription drugs easier? If so, I hope you’ll add them to the comment box below, so we can help spread the word.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

My Downsizing-the-Home (in a Hurry) Report Card: How Did I Do?

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Downsizing Day 1: Pulling the Books Off the Shelves

When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York, he was known for his habit of asking New Yorkers, “How’m I doin’?” I found that habit endearing, even though a big part of me knew that a big part of him probably wasn’t really listening to the answers. (Because, let’s face it, most politicians are not really great listeners.)

Last month, as someone who has become known as a “downsizing expert” in connection with my extensive writing and sometimes speaking on the topic, as I was going through my own downsizing-the-home-(in-a-hurry) experience last month, a part of me was also observing the process, and thinking, “So, how’m I doin’?”

For of course, writing about downsizing and actually doing it are two very different things.

Now, with a few weeks after my big downsizing move to think about “how I did,” I thought I would give myself a Downsizing Report Card. Since as far as I know, no such report card has ever been done before, I had to first think up the categories. It is my hope that having defined some of the elements involved in successful downsizing may prove helpful for others going through, or planning for, a downsizing move.

Success In Significantly Reducing Number (and Volume) of Possessions: A

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Downsizing Day 5: Dad’s Dresser. I would rather have kept this dresser but a rational decision-making process led me to the unavoidable conclusion that it didn’t make sense to do so anymore. (See “Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life.”)

I really did get rid of a lot of my stuff! I sold and donated LOTS of clothing, furniture, books, equipment of various kinds, and shredded pounds and pounds and pounds of paper. I feel I was particularly successful in this category, since some of the things I sold were things I never thought I would sell, and things I really would rather not have gotten rid of. (For example, beautiful old furniture that had been in my family for some time; and some of my work files, which contained interesting, though not essential, material of various kinds.) In my case, having made the decision to NOT move from one house to another (or even from my house to an apartment), but to put all my stuff in storage for an unforeseen length of time helped me realize that it was probably a good time to let go of these things, that I just couldn’t keep them anymore, or at least that it didn’t really make sense to do so. (There will be more on this decision-making process in another post.)

General Organization: C

In the first three weeks of my 27-day downsizing marathon, my organizational skills were pretty good. I had a lot to do in a very short time, and it all went pretty well. I held three days of moving sales: early in the process I scheduled pick-ups of furniture, and dropped about 30 boxes of books at our county library’s used book store; I filled our recycling barrels every week with tons of shredded paper; what I couldn’t sell I put out as “curb alerts” for my neighbors to come and pick up; I identified, and rented, the best self-storage unit I could find near my home; and scheduled a cleaning service to come in a couple of days before my move. So I would say that overall, I deserve at least a B+, maybe even an A for those weeks. But the last week? Honestly, I would have to give the last week an “F,” or at least a D-. The last week, predictably, slid into pure chaos. This is because my decision to try to do such a big downsizing job in such a short period of time flew in the face of probably the most valuable piece of advice in our book. Take Your Time! So I knew from the start it was inevitable that the job was not going to be done perfectly.

On the other hand, with those “take your time” and “the time to start is now” lessons firmly in my mind ever since we first published our book, I really had been working on the task for months and even years before those last 27 days. If I had not been proactively downsizing all along, it definitely could have been worse!

Yard sales can be a good way to start the process of downsizing gradually. You'll probably find that it gets easier to get rid of things the more you do it. Practice makes perfect! :-)

Downsizing Day 8: The first of three moving sales in less than a month.

Safeguarding of Important Things: A

I think! Although I did get rid of a lot of things that had sentimental and other kinds of value, I didn’t have time to go through pictures, letters, etc, etc., etc. in detail. So what I couldn’t go through, I just kept, for now. As far as I know, I didn’t lose anything of importance, though the verdict will be out on that for a while, since I am currently in another country and won’t have the chance to go through everything and really know what I still have for some time.

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Downsizing Day 22: Keeping the Things That Bring You the Most Joy, Even When Impractical

Sharing With Others: A  

For me, as for many “keepers,” being able to give things to people who can use them rather than just throw them in a dumpster or the garbage is very important. In this regard, I think I did quite well. As soon as I knew I was going to move out of my home I scheduled a pick-up from a local charity that gives furniture and clothing to families in need. (Scheduling such pick-ups well ahead of time is crucial, I found.)  And the yard sales and curb-alerts I did proved over and over again the truth of the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Many people took delight in acquiring items that other people (I won’t point any fingers here 🙂 ) had declared “junk,” and walked away happy with their treasures.

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Downsizing Day 19: The Cowboy Hat. My son didn’t want it anymore. This man was delighted to find it on our curb 🙂

Environmental Awareness and Respect for the Earth: B

Here again, not just throwing everything I didn’t need into the trash was important to me. I think I did pretty well in this regard, but again the speed of the move plus the inconvenient nature of recycling or properly disposing of certain kinds of items (for example, CDs and videotapes) made it impossible for me to have an entirely earth-friendly move. I think my county is exceptionally earth-friendly in its approach to recycling, and I did manage to get most of the toxic materials to the county’s toxic waste disposal center. But I do wish it were easier to properly dispose of these items, and am hoping my county will become even more “green” in this regard in the future, and that these practices will become more widely established across the country. (There will be more this later, too.)

Maintaining an Upbeat Attitude: A+

 I believe that maintaining an upbeat attitude is an essential skill in downsizing. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re depressed! And I did manage to maintain an upbeat attitude throughout the process. On the last frantic day, when it was extremely hard to be upbeat, as thunderstorms and my imminent transatlantic flight made an extremely difficult and stressful process even worse, a neighbor who I have come to think of as an angel helped me stay upbeat despite it all. (Which reminds me of another important piece of advice in our book: Get Help!)

Maintenance of Health, Safety, and Sanity: A

This may not seem like it has anything to do with successful downsizing, but in fact it is probably the most important thing of all. (And actually, maintaining an upbeat attitude is related to this one too.) Downsizing is mentally, physically, and emotionally very stressful, and rife with abundant opportunities to become injured or dangerously exhausted. A couple of times I had to willfully slow myself down and take a short break to lie down and meditate, because I knew if I didn’t do so I would be endangering my health, and that ending up in the hospital would definitely be counterproductive to the process, not to mention my life! So: in those last few days when I was giving myself an “F” for organization, I was also giving myself an “A” for maintaining my health. (“You didn’t have a stroke!” I told myself. “You didn’t break any bones. You didn’t end up in the hospital. You’re doin’ great!!!” 🙂 )

I was exhausted after 27 days of intense downsizing, but I was alive, more or less well, and able to get myself to a beautiful place for a few days of R&R. I call that some sort of success! 🙂

Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life: A

Coming up with this category has been kind of a revelation to me. But I believe it is of essential importance in downsizing, and that failure to do it can be one of the main impediments to proceeding with the task. A good friend has reminded me that the life I have been living is not very similar at all to the life my parents lived. My parents moved all their household goods exactly twice in 40 years of their adult lives, and both times the move was paid for by my dad’s employer. My husband and I moved five times in the space of 15 years, and only one of those moves was funded by someone else. Our parents lived in sprawling suburban homes near the places they had grown up, with attics, basements, and plenty of storage space, while I have lived much of my life halfway across the country from where I grew up, in small apartments in urban areas, and have spent a lot time abroad. With the decision to put all my stuff into storage while I figure out where my gypsy nature will take me next, I have finally realized that my life is not a life that allows for hanging onto things in the same way my parents did. I do appreciate the “keeper” instincts that kept so many special things in my family for several generations, and even as I have reluctantly let some of those special things go, I have held onto others (mostly the ones that don’t take up too much space!

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I kept these pictures where I could see them until the last minute. It was helpful in always remembering what’s most important….

So, all in all I didn’t do so badly, really. What is that? A B-? C+? I’ve never been too good at grading. But I do give myself an A for honest self-analysis, and I look forward to doing better next time. Hopefully on a longer timeline. 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Shedding

Today we share this lovely meditation written by a friend, author of the blog “The Sober Heart: More About Life, Love, Recovery,” who has recently been through the downsizing process. We think many of you will draw inspiration and/or comfort from her words.

Emptying a Family Home: A Wellspring of Emotion

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Last month, the New York Times ran a wonderful eight-day series in their Opinionator column, titled “The Task.”

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, former Times columnist–and a supremely graceful and sensitive writer–is the author of the series. In it she describes in great detail, with honesty and candor, the deeply emotional and difficult process of dismantling her parents’ home after the death of her father. Step by step she walks her readers through the myriad decisions that needed to be made as she and her brother went through mountains of accumulated “stuff”—54 file drawers in her father’s office alone!  Along the way she explains and indeed shows just how and why these decisions are not so easy to make, and shares the memories and emotions—some beautiful and poignant, some painful—evoked in the process.

Almost as interesting as the posts themselves are the comments published in response to the series, and the conversations it has engendered. So far, more than 800 readers have responded. The vast majority of them express sympathy and solidarity with what Judson was going through; a few advised her to just pitch everything into a dumpster; others warned her not to throw things out too quickly, and some gave helpful suggestions about what to do with some of the things. Quite a few vowed not to leave their children with such a task. Most simply shared their own similar experiences, memories of childhood homes (several very interesting comments recount the prominent role of childhood homes in dreams), dread of going through this process themselves one day, or appreciation of the rewarding discoveries that come along with the drudgery.

Quite a few readers said they were moved to tears while reading Judson’s essays. For me one of the most moving comments was one in which the respondent confessed he had found himself crying as he read, adding “No idea why.”

What was very clear to me in reading this series was that no matter how much we might wish that the process of emptying a beloved home of everything in it could be straightforward and rational, a logistical task that simply requires organizing and executing the transfer of objects from one place to another (or rather, others), it is anything but either simple or straightforward. It is complex and deeply emotional, and for many of us it is heartbreaking in ways we can hardly fathom.

In the final essay Judson tells how she follows the advice of a friend to choose a “memory stone” to help her through the final goodbye to her childhood home. I won’t attempt to retell the story for her: you can read the entire series here, and I recommend that you do read it, essay by essay, in order.

It’s a wonderful tribute to both the beauty and the pain of what one of my favorite poets, James A. Emanuel, referred to as “this load that makes us human.”  And though each of us has to find our own way of saying goodbye to the past, in listening to the stories of how others have done it we can find helpful guidance, and the comforting knowledge that we are not alone.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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Moving On is now available as an e-book!

We’re pleased to announce that the new e-book edition of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is now available. It’s updated, with live links to a variety of helpful resources.

Here’s what readers and reviewers have said about Moving On: 

“Well-organized, easy-to-read, with lots of practical advice…”

“An essential ‘how-to’ book, with a special sense of how to preserve family relations…”

“…injects an impartial, yet understanding, voice of reason into an often highly charged subject.”

“…a downsizing bible.”

If you’ll be gathering with family over the holidays and plan to talk about transitions in living arrangements, our book can help make the conversations go easier and the planning process smoother.

And…this is one book that won’t add to the clutter!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, now available as an e-book.