When it Comes to Downsizing, Fire is Not the Answer

Have you read “How to Get Rid of Stuff: The Survey Says…”?

Published on Next Avenue, the article features an interview with David J. Ekerdt, author of Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life.

Although I’m too busy confronting my own mountain of stuff to read Ekerdt’s book, the article brought me face-to-face with my own struggle to take control of my possessions.

One line in particular stood out to me. It referred to the “magical thinking” approach to downsizing, which can be summed up as wishing a fire would “take care of” all one’s possessions.

I’ve been guilty of such thinking. In fact, more than a decade ago, I fantasized about this exact thing with my friend Maery Rose.

Last week my fantasy almost came true.

That’s when I came home from a socially distanced visit with my aunt Caroline to a smoke-filled bedroom.  

It started because of my hair.

I haven’t had it cut or colored since the pandemic began, and it’s been driving me crazy. I wanted to give it a bit of TLC from all angles, so I plugged in a curling iron in my bedroom, where I could adjust the mirrored bifold doors of my closet to get a 360-degree view of my hair.

Though I didn’t love what I saw, a figured a few quick curls just before walking out the door would get me to “good enough.”

But in the middle of making those curls, I got distracted by a call and forgot to turn the curling iron off. What’s worse, while I was gone, it slipped from the radiator onto my bed, where I had a pile of clothes I’d been debating about whether to keep or giveaway.

By the time I returned home, the curling iron had burned through the clothes, as well as a treasured handmade afghan, my down comforter and my sheets. Even my mattress was beginning to burn.

I’m lucky I came home when I did. The damage could have been much worse. And while I certainly hope I never accidentally set another thing on fire, there’s one positive that came out of that day: I’m finally, after years of talking about doing so, letting go of those things that don’t fit my future self.

In fact, in the week since the fire, I’ve donated two carloads of boxes and filled my dining room with dozens more.

And thanks to this tweet by Angela Giles Klocke, I’m able to see some humor in the fact that the universe had to light a fire in my bed in order for me to finally take downsizing seriously.

Inspired by Angela, I’m now cross-stitching my own aphorism: “Home Is Where We Unplug Curling Irons So We Don’t Burn Down the House!”

Angela is right, it does have a nice ring to it, one I hope will keep both my home and hers fire-free from now on.

Affection for Collection

“Madeline Kripke, Doyenne of Dictionaries, Is Dead at 76”

That was the headline on a New York Times obituary that got me thinking about what it means to be a collector.

Like Kripke, I have a collection of dictionaries. But unlike her collection, which took up her entire apartment and three warehouses, my collection—now that I’ve given away my two-volume Oxford English Dictionary and the magnifying glass it came with—consists only of a handful of paperbacks: The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, The Official Scrabble® Players Dictionary, Dorland’s Pocket Medical Dictionary, Cassell’s Compact Latin Dictionary and Drugs From A to Z: A Dictionary.

As a writer, I refer to these and other dictionaries often. So normally I’d continue to hold on to them.

But instead, I’m Marie Kondo-ing and letting go of what no longer sparks joy for me. In addition to the dictionaries and dozens of other books, I’m emptying shelves, drawers and closets that were once jam-packed with memory-provoking treasures—everything from journals and jewelry to purses, postcards and paintings.

That said, I have several collections I’m not yet ready to part with: sea glass from my favorite beach, postcards from places I’ve traveled, prayer cards from funerals I’ve attended and just about every handwritten letter I’ve ever received. For now, I’ll be hanging on to them, in large part because I still value the memories they evoke.

Taking inventory of my collections also has me thinking about my family and friends and what they collect.

My sister Karen, for instance, collects ceramic chickens for her kitchen, while my sister Diane collects nativity sets from places she travels. My cousin Mary Ann, a quilter, collects fabric.

Writer Cathy Madison, inspired by the pleasant memory of a green polka-dot clothed clown she used to carry as a child, collects clowns. And while fellow Word Sister Ellen Shriner doesn’t consider herself a serious collector, she does have half a dozen perfume bottles she thinks are pretty.

My friends Diane and Alan, on the other hand, get a kick out of a bathroom basket of “weird things” they’ve collected from the sea, including broken exoskeletons and some mystery items they can’t even identify. The items bring back fond memories of past vacations and spark debates over who dove down to collect what.

My friend Susan uses her journals to collect nametags from the events she attends, while my colleague John has spread his collection of vintage radios, which range from hip transistors from the 60s to large wooden consoles, throughout his house.

Regardless of what we collect, our collections put us in touch with our past selves and sometimes with our hopes and dreams for the future. They also offer an ever-ready way to experiment with arranging, organizing and visually presenting ourselves and our experiences to ourselves, as well as to family and close friends.

While I have valued and enjoyed my collections, many of which I began in my early 20s, some now feel more like clutter. I’ve even occasionally wondered if instead of being a thoughtful collector, I’ve crossed the line and become a haphazard hoarder. One reason is because I’ve moved some of my collections—once neatly organized and creatively displayed—willy-nilly to storage closets in my basement.

Plus, I’m feeling weighed down by my possessions. I’m traveling more and beginning to think about downsizing, so I’ll likely set several more of my collections free in the weeks and months ahead. One reason is because isolating at home due to the coronavirus makes it easier to sift and sort, reflect and reassess.

Do you have something special you collect?

If so, what is it and why did you start collecting in the first place? How does your collection make you feel? Are you still adding new items, or have you, like me, begun sifting through your collection with an eye toward curating or even curtailing it? Please share.

A Home for the Marys?

The sound of breaking glass might have been heard beyond our garage walls. An hour of cleaning had yielded a large bag of stuff for Goodwill and a number of items that had no second use. The noise was the crash of an engraved mixed drink carafe with a matching stirring stick and two small engraved glasses. These were wedding presents that were very personalized and never used. The thought that there might be bad jokes in a stranger’s home because our name lends itself to humorous pronunciations didn’t feel okay.

Like many Boomers, our cabinets are crowded with generations of glassware, quilts, boxes of photos and family Bibles. As our parents passed, their treasures became ours to maintain.  Anyone want a few sets of 50thanniversary champagne glasses with my parents’ names? Again, their last name has a few quirky pronunciations that are better kept out of strangers’ parties.

A crystal statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary we received one Christmas has a sister that my mother owned. They both stand, hands folded, behind wine bottles on a top shelf in the pantry. Taking more shelf space was a beautiful glass Christmas ornament on its own pedestal that was once the most valuable useless item we owned. Add two clear glass platters decorated with horses and sleds to carry dozens of holiday cookies. Plus one that has a lobster engraving, a total mystery. And the green platter with Thanksgiving in a lovely scroll that I never saw used at my parents but came to rest in my home.

That ornament will hang on our tree this year and later fend for itself in a box of its peers. The pedestal is gone. Someone will be thrilled with the glass platters. Maybe even use the Thanksgiving one. Three orphan wine glasses wait to be used on Thanksgiving before starting the next purge. They are lovely, but we already have dozens of lovely glasses. Let a bride-to-be furnish her wedding table with these things instead of throw away items and benefit Goodwill in the process.

But those statues are another story like a box of rosaries upstairs. Is there a Goodwill equivalent for Catholic stuff? The Marys don’t really deserve to be mistreated or become white elephant gifts.IMG_5858

 

 

 

 

 

Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.

Staycation Therapy

While driving to my class in downtown Minneapolis, I passed a young woman riding a six-foot high blue bike. How’d she get up there? On a different day, I noticed another woman creating a large chalk drawing on an overpass sidewalk. How generous to put so much effort into something so temporary. Yesterday, I saw cyclist riding hands-free and joyfully playing the air drums. What song was he hearing in his head? I really like the lively energy of my neighborhood, but I don’t feel completely at home yet.

IMG_1340It’s hard to explain. My husband and I have been in our new smaller house for close to a year. The rooms are comfortable and attractive. The garden and yard are just the right size. I know where everything is, but something about it still feels like temporary housing. This is where I’m staying, but I don’t have a deep sense of home yet.

John felt at home here even before we moved. The house reminds him of his grandmother’s house and the first house he lived in, so it’s familiar. When he moved out on his own, he chose duplexes from the same era as our house. His collage of memories immediately made this place feel right.

What attracted me to the house were the kitchen’s old-fashioned flour bin and the tall narrow cupboards, like those in my grandmother’s kitchen. I think of Mimmie in her homemade apron, frosting banana cupcakes and teaching me how to doctor up mayonnaise for egg salad.

The house and I are still getting to know each other.

It’s more than seeing a home in all four seasons, though that’s part of it—how the living room dims by 4:30 on winter afternoons, how sunny the deck is before the trees leaf out in spring, how light fills our bedroom at 5:30 on summer mornings. IMG_1343

You also make a place yours by the repetition of ordinary activities: wiping the counters, passing dings in the wall as you run up the stairs, and walking around in the dark without bumping into things.

Carrying over traditions from the old house to the new one helps, too. We’ve celebrated Christmas, Easter, and several birthdays here. Even better are the impromptu gatherings when our sons drop by and we pull out several kinds of leftovers and beer—a feast!

When I realized that I still feel faintly unsettled, I decided a staycation would help—simply be here day in and day out for 11 days. So far, so good.

A friend, who grew up in a military family and moved every three years, says that every time she moved she was reminded that it takes a full year to fully feel at home. After 365 days have passed, something clicks and then it becomes your place.

I’m heartened by her wisdom and trust that, in time, I’ll be completely at home here.