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?