Downsizing is tough. I know; I've done it. Deciding what to keep and get rid of when you're moving into a smaller space is hard. That’s why I was impressed with the headline in the New York Times: Downsizing Offers a Fresh Start for Older Adults. Why? Because they accentuate the positive, the fresh start, instead of the actual process of getting there. As Harriet Edleson notes in the Times:
The actual process usually takes longer than expected. Possessions can be difficult to throw away, donate or sell. The best strategy is to plan well ahead. Even before you put your home on the market, “inventory your existing furniture, art and accessories and determine their use in the redesigned space.”
In our case, my wife and I were renovating a three-story house with a basement into two units. Most of the third floor and basement were full of stuff that we had to get rid of and the two middle floors were not exactly empty.
And everywhere there were books, thousands of them. I had architecture books, history books, even my grandmother’s encyclopedia of history, printed in 1902. Some of the stuff was probably quite valuable, but getting rid of everything on eBay or other websites is a full-time job. Used bookstores and antique stores offer pennies on the dollar. Most clothing ends up in the charity bins. We thought about a garage sale and might have made a bit of money, but it was November already, way past garage sale season.
There was also an emotional attachment to much of the stuff that we had, and we wanted it to have a good home. The garage sale is so anonymous and often depressing when you see how little you get. So we decided to spread a little joy with our stuff. I gave stacks of valuable architecture books to the young firm that did our renovation; they and their staff will get years of use out of them. I donated my darkroom and film cameras to the local camera club, after trying to sell them on eBay and being offered next to nothing.
We gave our kids first dibs on everything else and then moved everything we wanted to get rid of onto the ground floor and told our son and daughter to invite over all of their friends. They are all in their 20s just starting out, all in theater and the arts, waiting tables and pumping espresso and were so grateful to get stuff that they needed or wanted. I didn’t mind giving away something with real value, like a working digital camera, to someone who I knew was going to use it and get something out of it. It actually gave us pleasure to get rid of the stuff — and this is important. As mentioned in the Times,
“It brings up all kinds of emotional issues,” said Susan Levin, who has downsized more than once, and has been a consultant with Orchestrated Moves, a company that helps older adults and others with relocation and downsizing. “It’s not just moving things but the emotional letting go.”
Knowing something is getting a good home makes it much easier to let go.
It was also about this time that I fell under the spell of Marie Kondo, author of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” (See Starre Vartan’s review here) who tells us:
“Take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it …. keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.”
This book should be required reading for everyone considering a downsize, because the technique really reduces your emotional ties to things. There was much that I owned that I still had because it was expensive but I never used, was nice but no longer fit or was in fashion, books that I didn’t love and even designer chairs that I never sat in because they were uncomfortable. (Sorry, Charles Eames.)
In the end, it is actually a wonderful feeling of lightness, as if these dead weights had been tying you down. A sense of freedom. The New York Times concludes with a quote from a doctor who did it and found it liberating: “It’s a new adventure,” Edward Mopsik said. “This is far more positive than negative.”
I will conclude with words written 150 years before Marie Kondo by English designer William Morris — words to declutter by: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”