A Dimwit’s Guide to Downsizing Revisited

  • 14 March 2012

Jan Baird at 3 in her Easter outfit

Although I’ve addressed this subject in the past, I believe it’s worth revisiting. Downsizing and decluttering have become major industries in the U.S, an affluent country known for its packrats and knick-knackers. Websites and books abound on the subject. Decluttering tips (a countless number) can keep the diligent occupied for weeks. When do we have time for real work? For which we get a real paycheck?

Like it or not, I’ve joined the sorority for scalebacks. The hazing proved brutal. How does one go from a four-bedroom, five-bathroom manse to a two-bedroom apartment? With much trepidation.

On moving day my rented storage unit quickly told my U-Haul dolly, “I’ve reached my limit. That’s enough bric-a-brac. I’m not in that space. You’ll have to pick on a unit twice my size.”

Pending user-friendly weather, each day I would park my Prius beside my unit, ready to tackle a new set of boxes. A pecking order of priorities soon became apparent. Knickknacks inherited from my parents quickly topped the “easiest-to-dispose-of” list. Already having culled through them a few years ago, I found they could sustain another round of cuts, as if I were an employer laying off more unsuspecting workers. The heirlooms ended up in a thrift store or consignment shop, way-stations more than willing to repurpose them.

Next on the list were sewing and crafting supplies and the trusty sewing machine I had kept since the ’70’s. At this point in my life season I had to decide on hobbies worth pursuing (did I really need rubber stamps bought years ago at a Stamp-It house party?). The sewing machine ended up at a local Sew-and-Vac store that donates pre-owned machines to schools. A quilter friend gladly accepted the craft and sewing accessories. Avocations I chose to keep included painting and playing ukulele. So my Prius gladly transported art and music supplies to my apartment, where they sit waiting for their owner to pay them attention.

Number three in priority? Decorations and other home decor. Wall hangings and silk floral arrangements had adorned my former abode in lavish display. I had a spray for every season and holiday. What to do with the excess? Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It’s off to the American Cancer Society thrift store, I go!

A decision on the disposition of board and other games that my sons and I enjoyed in earlier days needed more time. Last weekend I sorted them into piles of keep, discard, and donate. I wept at giving up the Star Wars game that the kids had laughed over. That whole happy era was gone, dissolved in a decade of sadder years.

The decisions became increasingly more difficult. It was down to greeting cards, mementos and photos.

In my apartment I sat down at my only table with shoebox upon shoebox of greeting cards. With a box of Kleenex at the ready, I braced myself. Picking up the first one, I glanced at the artwork and opened it to Hallmark poetry ending with a handwritten note from a friend who was sorry I had another diagnosis of cancer. I went on. I read over love letters from one who no longer loves me. I read thank-you cards from kids I transported on field trips. I read home-made cards that my sons created in school.  I read over cards that friends and family sent me on my 40th and 50th birthdays and when I got cancer, the first and second times. Some of these dear souls have drifted out of my life, while others have stayed with me through all my ordeals and still comfort me in times of grief. I found my mother’s hand-painted cards, watercolor wonders bursting with bonzais and peacocks. For his twenty-fifth birthday, I recently sent my son a fold-out castle card from his grandma’s collection.

In the end I saved only the hand-made cards. Proud as I am of having stored all those greeting cards people sent me over the years, I have to honor the limited space I have. In my new season, space = money.

Now I was down to truly sentimental items. I’ve yet to deal with the mementos (for example, my father’s World War II medals and the flag that draped my father’s coffin, folded and presented to me as I stood, numb with pain, at the burial ground). But at least I’m facing the monumental task of going through about fifty photo albums and as many framed photos. Like the one of me pictured here in the fifties, lovingly colorized by my mother.

Do I keep any of these photos or simply scan them and save digital images? Some yellowed photos of ancestors are not identified on the back, lost to time. My sons and brother don’t want to be saddled with volumes of albums rarely to be seen. They have no storage room of their own. yet they don’t want me to toss them. I could pay a service to scan and organize them, but don’t want to spend the money. So instead I slowly but surely empty album upon album of fading photos and enter them into i-clouds of virtual memory. It’s an enormous task:  scanning, labeling and organizing my parents’ albums covering their whole lifetimes, as well as my own pre-marriage and family albums.

At this stage in my life, before my sons have their own  homes with storage room, I never thought I would have to give up so much. Haven’t I given up enough by way of cancer and relationship breakdowns? By way of financial setbacks? How can I just throw out such memories?

I believe this exercise resembles my experience when I first went to Europe after college. About to leave to go back to the States, I decided to take one last look around Brussels before heading for the airport. I thought that if I never returned to Europe again, at least I would have an impression of the buildings and people imprinted somewhere in my memory banks. And I do, despite the ensuing decades. The same will happen at this juncture of my life, except that I also have digital replicas of the experiences. For anyone who is interested enough to look.

Our treasures aren’t here on this earth, anyway. Rust, mold, or moths will get to them eventually. So I won’t store them up. I’ll just make new friends or renew old friendships. Relationships are much more rewarding than a candy dish I treasured when I was thirty. I like Oprah’s list on decluttering relationships reproduced below:

  • Relationship to self—good riddance to decisions that don’t support self-care, self-value, and self-worth.
  • Relationship to others—do the people in your life give you energy and encourage your personal growth, or block that growth with dysfunctional dynamics and outdated scripts? If they don’t support you as a loving, open, free, and spontaneous being: Goodbye!
  • Relationship to emotional life—out with stagnant patterns that no longer serve you.
  • Relationship to work—not only reducing the “clutter” of paperwork, inefficiency, and overcommunication, but also striving to create a balanced workload and make your work invigorating, inspiring, collaborative, and empowering to others.
  • Relationship to nature and play—seeing these as expressions of love and opportunities to fill your life with truth and joy.

Experts warn not to let your guard down: don’t let closets and drawers fill up again with new trinkets and impulse purchases. Purge from time to time. Do the same with relationships that aren’t working.

So there’s my dimwit’s rundown on downsizing. Do it with trepidation. But do it!

My haiku from the Cancer Center Creative Writing course:

Amidst stored clutter

Treasured heirlooms ponder fate

Good Will loses bid


Have you had to sort through sentimental items? If you had to discard any of these, did you mourn their loss? How do you store your memories?

  • http://journeyingbeyondbreastcancer.com/ Marie Ennis-O’Connor (@JBBC)

    First off – that picture you shared of you as a little girl is just amazing..it’s like a painting. I really loved seeing it Jan. Ok, so now onto decluttering – this is the third time this word has cropped up this week for me. Last weekend Terri and I had a discussion on how in order to live the life she is living now, she had to let go of a lot of her possessions and on the journey she is on, she has to travel light. Then Lois has been writing about it on her blog (which I will share in the round-up this Friday)..and now you! Being a lifelong hoarder, who often feels overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” that surrounds me, I really do think the universe is trying to tell me something this week and I really should pay attention. Thanks for the lesson x

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    I’m so glad you enjoyed that old photo, Marie. It’s amazing the magic my mother made with color. And I now see my dad and dog in the background poking into an ancient car. Amazing that decluttering has popped up so much for you this week. You might find it a cathartic exercise as you sort through treasures and appreciate them anew. I’ll have to head for Lois’ blog for more enlightenment on the subject. Thanks so much for your faithful readership. XOXO

  • http://www.nancyspoint.com Nancy’s Point

    Jan, What an insightful post. I have trouble parting with things too, although I’m trying to do better. As well as keeping too much stuff, I’m also not that organized. Those two vices aren’t the best combo. After my mom passed away, I found it really difficult to sort through her things and throw stuff out. She had boxes and boxes of greeting cards too. I had no idea she had saved every single one ever sent to her. Little by little, I’ve let things go. I do think you have to be ready emotionally, although as you said, your space is limited so you’ve been forced to speed this process up. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been trying to sort through my own stuff too. As you said, it’s just stuff. The memories are forever tucked away in our hearts and minds. That’s what matters most. Hang onto all your good memories, Jan. Thanks for inspiring me to keep on sorting.

  • http://www.nancyspoint.com Nancy’s Point

    Oh, I just had to come back and comment on your picture. You look simply adorable!

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    Nancy, yes it is difficult to sort through mementos that carry such emotional charges. It has to be so hard for you to let your mom’s things go. If I asked a friend, I’m sure she’d let me store my photo albums in her garage forever, but I don’t want to burden someone else with that. Hold on to your good memories, too, Nancy. They’re priceless! Thanks for stopping by. XX

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    Thanks, Nancy. That’s another treasure from my mom. I have no idea how long it took her to colorize it, but she invested the time lovingly. XX

  • http://accidentalamazon.com/ Kathi

    Oh, Jan, how I can relate to this!! One of my overriding motivations for getting a netbook last year was that, among other things, I could read Kindle & other kinds of ebooks on it, and not end up with piles of printed books all over the house. The books alone were drowning me! Sigh. You are so good to be organized enough to donate some of your old clutter. There have been times during this cancer journey when getting the clutter I’d decided to part with to some other place that might find a use for it was just too much work. So twice I rented a dumpster, which sat in my driveway for a whole month, for a very reasonable fee, allowing me to just sort and chuck. It was absolutely wonderful.

    These days, the battle seems to be paper. How, in this digital age, we still end up with so much paper I don’t know. But I am slowly working my way through the pile…

    And then there’s the Fatigue monster…but we won’t even go there.

    Thank you for the inspiration & moral support!!! And yes, that photo is a keeper — even if it’s digital now! xoxo

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    I know what you mean about getting rid of printed books. I’m making some headway on the ones I took from our main house. Slowly the shelves are emptying up to receive other treasures. But it is taking much longer than I thought. I love the idea of the dumpster. When you had it at your disposal, you could up and chuck whenever you felt like it.

    My paper load is likewise overwhelming. I haven’t even begun to think about that task, especially as attorneys’ letters and documents for marital dissolution come in by the truckload.

    And the Fatigue monster is one I’ve had to battle constantly. Sometimes I’m just not up to the downsizing task, and allow myself a bubble bath or movie break.

    You are so welcome about the moral support. That photo is definitely digital now. I hated throwing away the original, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. Thanks for your encouraging comments. XOXO

  • http://pinkunderbelly.wordpress.com pinkunderbelly

    There’s nothing dimwitted about this post — it’s fantastic! I especially like this part: “Haven’t I given up enough by way of cancer and relationship breakdowns? By way of financial setbacks? How can I just throw out such memories? Yes, you certainly have given up enough from cancer and relationship & money trouble. If only there were an equity scale on such things. As far as the memories, I learned after my mom died that I didn’t need things to remember her. In the beginning, I thought I did, and I clung to all sorts of things, including a ratty old sorority sweatshirt of hers and some unfinished needlework. But now I know that those things are not what bind me to her. I’m glad you know that, too.
    P.S. I LOVE the photo of you, and the idea of your mom lovingly coloring it just made my day!

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    Nancy, thanks so much for your insights. You are so right that we don’t need those physical things around us to bind us to–and remind us of–our moms. My favorite memory of my mom toward the end of her life was reaching her hand out to me and asking me to pray for her. It was a precious moment, as she had never asked me to do that before. And I hope never to forget that feeling of love. I’m so glad the idea of my mom colorizing that photo spoke to you. It’s another memory I shall always treasure. XX

  • http://www.bethlgainer.blogspot.com Beth L. Gainer


    What a heartfelt, beautiful post! I loved the picture of you as a little girl, and I have to say, I can see the resemblance between your child self and adult self! Your post was so moving. I remember when I moved out of the condo I had shared with my husband…the painful memories of seeing our wedding photos.

    I left most of what I owned in that condo, and I don’t miss them. Like you said, relationships are more important than things. And our relationships to ourselves, perhaps, is most important than anything else. At least that’s what I learned.

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    Thanks so much, Beth, for your confirmation of my feelings! I’m so sorry, though, that you also had to go through this painful experience. It seems as if almost everyone I know in my blogosphere has been through the marital spinner. Those who haven’t, those with great husbands should treasure them always. I agree that our relationship to ourselves is probably the most important one we have. I respect myself now far more than I did just before I got married. And I’m much wiser, as I’m sure we all are. Take good care, and enjoy the new addition to your family. I wonder if she will look much the same as an adult. The transformation will be fascinating to watch! XX

  • http://www.beingsarah.com Ronnie Hughes

    Yes, clearing possessions from your life is very emotional Jan. And this is a very moving post. We have a technique and a tool we’ve used over the years when we’ve been de-cluttering.

    The technique is to look at the item or collection of stuff and say ‘Imagine you’d been out and came home to find someone had stolen this. Would you care?’

    The tool is a Precious Things box. Something small enough to grab and run out with if the house caught fire, or to move house with without feeling you’re moving a load of potential clutter. Over time some things simply stop being precious, so you can clear them from the box when you need to add new precious things. And anyway, the most precious things are the people you love and who love you, and your memories. And you don’t need a box for them.

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    What a great tool, Ronnie! After we evacuated in a hurry in 2008 due to a threatening wildfire, I collected in a few (large) containers things I wouldn’t want to burn up for the next time this happened. But now I sense those containers as being too big. If I moved them to another place, I would feel I was transferring clutter. So I will need to tackle the contents of those boxes, too, culling things down to just a few precious treasures. You are right that many items will lose their keepsake value over time. And you absolutely hit the nail on the head about the most precious things we have: the people we love and who love us and our memories. Thanks so much for your insights. XX

  • Sherry

    Thanks for the encouragement. Although we already live in a small home, I’m still decluttering after all these years. I’m going to unload books at a family book swap at Thanksgiving. Approx. 50 of us will be together at that time. Family heirlooms are tough to pass onto, most especially since we have one child and she has her own home. So, some family heirlooms may be at the book swap too. Thanks for your ideas and encouragement.

  • http://janhasak.com jhasak

    What a wonderful idea to have a family book swap, Sherry! That particular solution to decluttering never entered my mind. And why not include some family heirlooms in the mix? In the process of eliminating photo albums I had scanned some old black-and-white photos into my computer and emailed a few to my cousin, not thinking much about it. To my surprise, her siblings expressed their great gratitude for these memories. I had thought they already had similar photos from my aunt and uncle. But apparently they hadn’t, or maybe the photos were lost. Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your insightful suggestions.