Monday, November 30, 2020

The No-Complaints Challenge

Winter joy

2020 has been a hard year for all of us.

  •  My husband Jon finally has students in his classroom – half the class at a time, wearing masks and socially distanced.  The third graders at his school had to go back to distance learning last week because two children tested positive for COVID, so Jon realizes that his students could be required to re-quarantine at any time.  The students with asthma and other health challenges are still at home, so he and his colleagues are trying to accommodate student learning in a variety of set-ups.  It's uncertain and stressful for everyone, but he has found that his colleagues are super hard-working, committed educators, and that most of the parents of his students are flexible and good-humored.
  • My father-in-law recently passed away, and some family dynamics have emerged that are less than optimal.  Some hard feelings have ensued.  Lines of communication are still open, and we are doing what we can to create more understanding, but it was sad to discover these cracks in the family relationships.
  • My son can now see massage clients if they have a prescription for massage therapy (from their doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist).  That means he still cannot work with the online referral services that brought him over 50% of his business, but at least he can see long-time regular clients, and they can benefit from increased pain-free mobility that massage can provide.  He's still scrambling to put together temporary part-time jobs that can help pay his bills, but at least he's no longer barred from seeing clients at all.
  • Jon and I battled bed bugs this summer.  We don't even know where they came from... it's 2020 and we haven't gone anywhere!  But there is nothing like the feeling you get when the pest control technician lifts up your box spring and shows you a pod of the ugly critters huddled under the edge of the dust fabric, and you realize that hundreds of those things are likely hidden around your bedroom and the rest of the house.  OMG!!  Thankfully, heat kills them, and our apartment manager quickly made arrangements for the costly treatment (free to us).  We came home one evening to a thermostat that read "19."  It can only show two digits, so that really meant "119," down from a high of 140 F. earlier in the day.  Thank God there are no signs of this horrible scourge since.
  • My daughter tripped down a short flight of stairs in September and broke an area on the fifth metatarsal of her right foot.  This is called a "Jones fracture," and can be very difficult to heal without surgery.  The first part of her recovery required that she put no weight on the foot at all for six weeks.  My grandsons are 20 months old and just-turned 5 years old.  Their house is a split-level, which means you can't get anywhere without going up and down stairs.  The injury keeps her from driving.  It's been a struggle, and a lot of extra chores and errands have fallen on my wonderful son-in-law, Steve.  But they're into the 7th week, and Elizabeth now has a walking cast, so she's a bit more mobile.  It looks like she won't need surgery, and the cast may be removed in the first week of December.
  • My brother is currently in the hospital, waiting to have his infected gallbladder removed.  He's been waiting for two days so far, because the need to follow COVID protocols means that fewer non-emergency procedures get scheduled.  My sister, a nurse, isn't happy about the wait because the chances of sepsis and other complications increase the longer the infected organ remains in the body.  We're hopeful he'll go into surgery early tomorrow.

I started writing about the things we've dealt with, and are still dealing with, in order to gain some perspective on how much room for optimism and hope there is.  I know I am not the only person who can put together of list of challenges like this, and that I'm actually far better off than many people.

It is so easy to fall into complaining and self-pity.  It almost seems like a game that some of us play, complaining to each other as if the one who has suffered most will get a prize.  (Don't believe me?  Just listen when a few women start sharing stories of how their children were born.)  But complaining not only fails to make the situation better, it actually does us harm.

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, a season when Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  It's supposed to be a time to step away from a busy holiday season to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, a time to prepare our spirits to hear and receive what God offers to and asks from us.  It's a chance to remember our Savior's birth as a baby, as well as his presence in our lives today, and his promised return as judge and King.

And yet... Christians (myself included) complain.  A lot.  Whether it is about COVID restrictions, politics, the traffic, the weather, the economy, the school situation, or whatever, complaints seem to dominate almost every conversation I hear.

We just celebrated Thanksgiving Day, but what did that really mean?  We took a few hours off from our normal negative behavior and attitude, that's all.

I recently had a post published on No Sidebar which the editor titled "How I Stopped Complaining."  I promise you, that wasn't my title for the piece.  In it I described how complaining damages our brains and makes us sick.  I wrote how letting go of expectations, past hurts and disappointments, spending time with positive people, searching for solutions to problems rather than moaning about them, and practicing gratitude could help us complain less.

So tomorrow is the first of December, and I plan to challenge myself to 31 days of no complaining.  Despite the title of my No Sidebar article, I have not completely kicked that habit!  Would you like to join me?  Let's reap the benefits of less complaining – more positive interactions, more patience, more empathy, more gratitude, more joy.

Sounds like I'll be giving myself a really wonderful Christmas gift.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Friday, November 27, 2020

Be a Holiday Connoisseur

simple white lights

I am a glutton.

As long as I can remember, I have felt rewarded by eating.  Perhaps I learned the pattern in childhood, when I got dessert if I cleaned my plate.  But it really doesn't matter how I acquired the habit.  The result is that given the choice, I'll take a large serving of adequate quality over a small but exceptional meal.  To some extent, I'm not truly satisfied unless I'm a step beyond comfortably full.

No one is going to argue that gluttony is a good thing.  A glutton has an excessive desire for food, drink, work, sex, TV, luxury or other things.  She doesn't just eat or shop – she binges.  A glutton is rarely satisfied for long, and is always looking for the next meal, the next drink, the next purchase, the next trip or experience.  A glutton is easily bored.  A glutton rarely says, "That's too much."

I think our culture encourages gluttony in many ways.  That might explain our response to quarantine and other pandemic protocols.  How quickly we complain of being stuck at home without our usual crazy schedules and constant amusements.  Some of us become so desperate we pick up a book, return to crochet or chess, garden with our kids, or start taking evening bike rides.  These are pastimes we all enjoyed decades ago, but they're rather simple and slow-paced for modern tastes.

As COVID-19 infections surge once again, we need to face the fact that our usual holiday gatherings and travel plans, shopping sprees and restaurant meals, entertainments and even religious services may have to be fewer and smaller this year.

Perhaps you think I'm a Grinch, but I am far from suggesting that we shouldn't celebrate the holidays.  I've been a holiday glutton.  I've planned and eaten feasts, visited relatives far away, attended (and performed in) concerts and plays, tree lightings and holiday parades, cookie exchanges and Christmas teas, caroling parties and midnight church services.  I've shopped for wear-it-one-time holiday clothes, bought yet another decoration just to fill an empty space, wrapped presents in the wee hours, sipped "one more" glass of eggnog, eaten "one last" piece of fudge.

Instead of cramming as much as possible into our homes, schedules, and bodies, trying to fill our lives with all the treats, I'm suggesting that we become holiday connoisseurs.  

We should identify the highest-quality experiences, pay attention to the details, appreciate each nuance, and get the most from the least.

You know, the lives of people in ads or TV shows aren't real.  The "special holiday" issues of magazines aren't real.  They're put together by teams of professionals, and designed to make us want to buy a product.  They aim to create a fear of missing out or of not fitting in.  They push our emotional buttons in order to sell us something – the fantasy of the "perfect" celebration.

And the lives of people we see on social media are a highlight reel.  We see a happy family having fun away from home, or dressed to the nines for a special event.  We don't see everyday life, the imperfect moments, or the struggles that everyone goes through.  But the edited version can make us feel that our lives are falling short.

It isn't true.  We're looking at family life without messes and misunderstandings.  We see the glossy magazine, not the hundreds of hours put in by a large staff.  We see the slick ad, not the psychology employed to make us want something.

It's possible to enjoy a wonderful holiday while doing, buying, eating, drinking, traveling, and consuming less.  The real trick this year is to overcome a slowed economy and social isolation while maintaining healthy behaviors so that we and our loved ones don't wind up sick and miserable.  But how?

6 Essentials for a High-Quality Holiday

1.  Stick to a budget.

A goal without a plan is just a wish.  Take a few minutes now to set your priorities, decide what you can spend, and plan gifts and menus.  You'll insure a more peaceful Christmas and a happier new year.

2.  Be generous.

You may not be as well off as you were last year, but if you're reading this I'm guessing you have a home, food, clothing, light and heat.  You may be economizing, but you still have so much.  Your kids have so much.  Do you want to celebrate the season?  Put the focus on giving rather than getting.  Volunteer to ring a bell for the Salvation Army, clear snow for your elderly neighbor, take your kids shopping for gifts for the local Angel Tree, or donate to the food bank.  There are many opportunities to share.

3.  Connect with loved ones.

You say you miss getting together with people?  Be sure to pay attention to the people in your own home  It's common today for family members to inhabit separate little worlds with their own phones, computers, or TVs.  Unplug and be together.  Go on a hike, bake cookies, craft tree ornaments, play games, address Christmas cards, sing along with holiday music, build a snowman.  Laugh and cuddle.  Meet your need for physical contact with the people who are already there.

4.  Create new traditions.

Let's make new kinds of memories.  Use technology such as FaceTime and Zoom to reach out to loved ones who live elsewhere.  Make a date for lunch or coffee together, each in your own kitchen.  Invite them to visit on your TV or computer screen as you relax in your own living room.  Use your phone to make a video of your kids singing a carol and text it to the grandparents.

5.  Go outside.

There's more than one good reason to spend time outdoors.  Not only do sunlight and fresh air help prevent depression and fatigue, but COVID-19 protocols are easier to observe as well.  Bundle up and meet a friend for a walk, play catch or Frisbee, picnic in a sunny spot, or help each other with yard chores.  Come on – get off the couch and go outside for just 15 minutes!

6.  Shine your light.

Holiday lights raise spirits – it's that simple.  You don't have to cover every square inch, and you don't need energy-gobbling inflatables.  But it's amazing what a string of lights hung on the eaves, along the shrubberies, around the porch, and/or on a tree or menorah in a window can do to make your house look merry.  I guarantee that every person who goes by will appreciate it!  And be sure to enjoy the seasonal displays around your community.

Be a holiday connoisseur, won't you?  Savor what you really value about the holidays, and let the rest go.  It will be just enough and just right.

P.S.  For more inspiration for a simpler, more meaningful holiday, please check out the revised and expanded version of my book, Minimalism for the Holidays (paid link).

Photo by Mourad Saadi on Unsplash

Monday, November 23, 2020

How to Make Your Kitchen Bigger

Autumn kitchen

The holidays are coming, and we're going to spending a lot more time in the kitchen.  But crowded counters and crammed, hard-to-access cupboards make holiday cooking more difficult, and steal some of the joy from preparing your special dishes.

To make your kitchen roomier before you start to cook for Thanksgiving, clear away these space-stealing items.

11 Items that Consume Kitchen Real Estate

1.  Excess serving pieces

I'm talking about fish platters, tureens, novelty chip-and-dip servers, deviled egg trays, chargers, or other specialty pieces you rarely use.  Get rid of the ones you're least attached to.  The extra space might be more valuable.

2.  Extra vases

Vases can accumulate and fill an entire cabinet.  If you regularly buy flowers or cut them from your garden, keep the same number of vases as your display areas (the mantel and the dining table, for example).  Either gift the remainder with some flowers or donate them.

3.  Old spices

In general, keep only those that you use regularly.  That dried fenugreek you bought for one Indian dish last year (and used 1/4 teaspoon) can probably go.  Additionally, if your herbs and spices are older than 2 to 3 years, they've probably lost their potency and should be replaced.

4.  Old plastic storage containers

Those that are warped, stained, or cracked probably aren't even safe to use anymore; those with missing lids can't be used for their intended purpose.  Unfortunately, you'll have to just throw them away.  Upgrade to a set of glass storage containers.  Leftovers taste better when they're stored in glass and are safer to reheat.  And nice glass bowls can even be used as serveware.

5.  Gimmicky gadgets

More trouble to use and clean than they're worth, you rarely reach for them.  Declutter, and make room for your well-used utensils.

6.  The knife block

How many knives do you actually use?  Minimalist chef and cookbook author Mark Bittman recommends an 8-inch all-purpose chef's knife, a serrated bread knife (also great for tomatoes), and a paring knife.  Get rid of the block and free up a chunk of counter space.

7.  Extra mugs

We all have some of these.  They crowd cupboards, the sink, and the dishwasher.  How many do you really use in a day?  Keep two per family member and declutter the rest.

8.  Reusable water bottles

These are a great way to keep millions of plastic bottles out of the waste stream, because even recycling uses tons of energy and creates pollution.  But the reusable bottles take a lot of cupboard space, and half of them are probably missing lids or straws.  Keep one per person – you'll take better care of yours if you have only one.  Donate the rest, and don't acquire any more (not even freebies).

9.  Condiment packets and disposable cutlery

You already have your own bottle of ketchup and your own forks.  Why do you need those little packages?  All of that plastic is a menace to the planet.  Next time, just ask the restaurant to leave them out of your to-go bag.

10.  Extraneous sauces

Your refrigerator is a valuable tool every day, so clear out the unneeded to make room for what's important.  Do you regularly use three types of mustard, two brands of barbecue sauce, and four different hot sauces?  Just how old is that jar of cranberry horseradish?  While you're at it, get rid of old or suspect foods at the back of the fridge and in the freezer.

11.  Junk drawers

Junk drawers seem convenient – quick places to stash items that have no regular home but might come in handy someday.  But I've noticed that once something is put in a junk drawer, it stays there, never to be used or even thought of again.  We cram in more and more, and pretty soon we have several catch-all spots, and no idea what's in them.  That's not useful!  Set a timer for 5 minutes.  Dump out the drawers.  Locate items you actually use, such as pens, notepads, flashlights, batteries, and the like.  Toss the rest.  Now you have one reasonably organized miscellaneous drawer, and empty drawers for kitchen utensils, oven mitts, and other oft-used items that currently crowd the counter.

P.S.  This post contains affiliate links.  I earn a small commission if you happen to click through and purchase items.

Photo by Dilyara Garifullina on Unsplash

Friday, November 20, 2020

Kids, Christmas, and Minimalism

Merry minimalism

If you check your calendar, you'll note that Christmas is exactly five weeks away, which probably means that your holiday planning has already begun.  My five-year-old grandson is old enough to begin to understand and participate in Christmas-related activities, such as decorating the tree, making cookies, and setting up the Nativity scene.  Of course, he's also old enough to anticipate gifts, and has already requested "another battery engine," which means that this is likely in his future. 

My parents didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, yet I have some very happy Christmas memories.  Here are some suggestions on how to create a wonderful holiday for your kids while minimizing materialism and maximizing creativity.

7 Tips for a Fun Minimalist Family Christmas

1.  Don't go overboard on gifts.

No matter how great the gifts are, by the time your child opens her third or fourth package the experience seems to peak.  The gifts won't be met with as much enthusiasm and some may be tossed aside.  So focus on three or four quality gifts rather than a bunch of cheap, less desirable items.  It was because of this tactic that my parents were able to get me some memorable gifts without straining their budget.  They usually focused on one or two special gifts each for my siblings and I, added a few good books for each of us, and then finished with a new game the whole family could play together.

2.  Make sure at least one of the gifts for your child is very open-ended.

Open-ended toys encourage creative, child-guided play, rather than limited interactions that are controlled by the toy.  Compare an "educational" electronic toy or branded action figure with toys like blocks, Legos, K'Nex, baby dolls or a doll house, small vehicles, plastic zoo or farm animals, play dishes, drawing and craft supplies, bicycles, skateboards, and the like.  The more versatile the toy, the more resourceful your child's play will be and the more interesting the toy will remain.

3.  Plan a fun family adventure.

The kids probably won't remember most of what you buy them for Christmas, but they will always remember the time you spent together.  An adventure doesn't have to be as costly as a visit to a theme park; trekking to a rural Christmas tree farm or attending a community theater holiday performance can be every bit as fun and memorable.  I remember being taken to see the ice skating and decorations on Union Square in San Francisco, and marveling at the gigantic Christmas tree in the beautiful rotunda at City of Paris.  My daughter and son-in-law buy tickets for the Christmas Train sponsored by the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento; maybe sleigh rides are a possibility where you live.  Do a little research and plan a special experience for your family.

4.  Use natural tree decorations, and let the kids help make them.

Everything except the lights (and maybe a few cherished ornaments) can be natural and/or recyclable.  String popcorn or Cheerios with fresh or dried cranberries.  Use raffia to hang pinecones.  Dried orange slices are festive and smell wonderful.  (You can dry apples the same way – slice them so the star appears in the core, and brush with lemon juice so they won't turn brown.)  I used to spend hours cutting paper snowflakes, and your kids may enjoy doing it too.  They look pretty on the tree, on windows, and on brown paper packages.

5.  Involve your children in food preparation.

From sugar cookies, frosting, and plenty of sprinkles, to ambrosia salad and roasted winter vegetables, kids can have fun and learn valuable skills in the kitchen.  Don't forget to let them help you make jars of five bean soup as gifts for neighbors and teachers.

6.  Have your children write thank you notes.

Gratitude for our many blessings is absolutely essential to a contented minimalist life, and kids should always be taught to say thank you.  Even a five-year-old can write "Thank you" and Love" and his or her name.  Mom or Dad can fill in the specific reason for thankfulness.  This is a great activity for Boxing Day.

7.  Speaking of Boxing Day – be sure to celebrate it.

Boxing Day is on December 26, the day after Christmas.  It's also the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem.  The word "boxing" doesn't refer to the sport, but to the tradition of giving boxes of food and clothing to servants and the poor.  Interestingly, the role of a deacon in the early Christian church was to serve the needs of the church members – to visit the sick and to distribute food to the poor.  The story in the carol "Good King Wenceslas" takes place "on the feast of Stephen," and ends with the reminder, "Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing."

So please don't go shopping the day after Christmas!  Write thank you notes and visit family you couldn't see on Christmas Day.  Maybe your kids could plan a canned food drive among your neighbors, or this could be the day that you purchase chickens or rabbits to help a poor family feed themselves.  If your town has a hospital, perhaps your family could visit the pediatric ward.  You could sing carols and bring small gifts to the kids who couldn't be at home for Christmas:

  • a bag of mixed fun-size candies and chocolates
  • a box of mixed snack-size packages of crackers, cookies, and dried fruit
  • Matchbox cars
  • a compact game such as Uno or Boggle
  • a cuddly stuffed animal (these rabbits, bears, and bunnies are super soft, machine washable, and baby-safe)
  • a sticker book (these have lots of great themes; some are reusable; all are amazing play value for the price)
  • flexible, fun Wiki Stix
  • pocket-size Spirograph in a tin
  • books that can be read to or read by boys and girls of many ages (these are great too).

P.S.  This post contains several paid links.  As an Amazon Associate, I will make a tiny commission if you happen to click through and purchase one of the items I recommend.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Monday, November 16, 2020

How to Downsize, Part 2

dream cottage

We are now entering the "tough love" section of this process.  If you think the first three steps were a challenge, prepare yourself.  These next two steps are the hardest but most necessary of all. 

Remember your motto:  "Life is not measured by how much you own." (Luke 12:15)

5 Steps to Downsize

4.  Choose some keepsakes.

  • Framed photos and documents are items you deemed worth displaying in the past.  Curate the best from this select group, and feel confident that they effectively represent your life.
  • Include any photo albums or scrapbooks.  You've taken time and effort to put these together – they deserve to be kept and enjoyed by you and your descendants.
  • Keep three, or at most four, collections.  Figure out which are your favorites.  (By the way, books are a collection.  So are videos and Christmas decorations.)
  • Choose your favorite pieces of wall art.  Set a limit, such as two or three items for each room of your new home.  (Okay, okay... you don't have to count a wall clock or your dresser mirror as wall décor.)

  • They aren't keepsakes, but you'll need important papers such as birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, loan documents or deeds, tax returns and the like.  For most people, these documents can be stored in one sturdy fireproof box. 
  • If you have memorabilia piled in boxes, decomposing, admit that no matter your emotional response, the truth is they don't actually mean much.  If they did, you would have done more than toss them into a box.  Don't say, "But they're my memories!"  They aren't facilitating memories – they're in a junk pile.  If a family member has offered to go through and digitize them, don't presume on his patience and good nature.  There's no reason for him to deal with what you couldn't be bothered to do yourself.  Choose one box to give to that generous person, and be thankful that he may make it worthwhile.

5.  Sell, donate, or throw away the rest.

Yep, you read that right.  Special occasion serving dishes, basketball trophies, all the other knickknacks and memorabilia, books you haven't opened in years, old camping equipment, holiday decorations, the piano no one plays, those extra chairs... release them.  Don't investigate the boxes, closets, attics, storage sheds, barns, under the beds, or anywhere else your accumulated items have gone to molder.  Release them all.

Please notice that only Steps 1 and 2 include items that are necessary to life (clothing and housewares) – and I bet you still have some extras mixed in.  Steps 3 and 4 (hobbies and keepsakes) are embellishments.  They nurture your personality, interests, memories, and values.  Even if you remove everything else after doing the first four steps, you are not in a deprived, comfortless situation.

Attachment to objects is fleeting.  When we box things up and store them away, or move them to a new house and then don't get around to unpacking them for several months (or maybe never), it's pretty clear we have no particular need or affection for those items.  Go to a yard sale, and notice all the things going for $1 or $2.  They aren't special at all.  They're just stuff.

Once settled into your new life, you won't miss the stuff you got rid of.  You'll be too busy meeting new people and learning and doing new things.  You'll find that you enjoy being light and flexible.  Rather than tending to your piles of belongings, you can enjoy the people and activities that really matter to you.  It's a joyful way to live.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash


Friday, November 13, 2020

How to Downsize, Part 1

cozy corner

Many of us live in homes that hold far too much, and we find it hard to declutter unless and until something forces us to do so.  But downsizing in distress, because of illness, financial difficulty, natural disaster, or death is far more difficult.

That's why I appreciate the "gentle art" of Swedish death cleaning described by author Margareta Magnusson (paid link).  It's the process of mindfully clearing out your own possessions before others have to do it for you.  It lightens and eases your own life as well as removing a burden from your loved ones.  

Here's the motto for your lightened life.  The quote is from Jesus (Luke chapter 12, verse 15):

"Life is not measured by how much you own."

Whether you actually move from your current home into a smaller living space, or simply undertake a radical declutter, it's a challenge.  But it's also a chance to reinvent yourself, to carry only the essentials into your new life.  By divesting ourselves of decades of accumulated stuff, we emerge with more energy and more freedom.  We're looking ahead, not back.

Many people begin their approach to downsizing by sorting boxes of things they have in basements and back closets.  That can be very time-consuming and emotionally draining, and you're almost surely going to be side-tracked by stuff you can't even remember owning.  I recommend a different strategy:

Choose what you want to keep, rather than choosing things to toss.

This isn't the "declutter one item every day for a year," on-tiptoe method of getting rid of extraneous stuff.  The average American home contains 300,000 items, from toys to towels to toasters.  Removing 365 things won't make a dent.  We're going deeper than that.

5 Steps to Downsize

1.  Pack for a two-week vacation.

  • Pick all of your favorite clothes and shoes – the ones that fit comfortably and look good on you.
  • Include a couple of dressy outfits.  Unless you regularly walk a red carpet, two is plenty.
  • Plan for weather extremes.  Add a few sweaters, a jacket, hat, gloves and boots.  Include a few pairs of shorts and tank tops, or a couple of sun dresses and some sandals.  You're building a year-round wardrobe.
  • Don't forget underclothes, night clothes, and exercise clothes.
  • If you're like the average American, this will amount to far less than half of what's in your closet and dresser drawers.
  • Gather the grooming tools that you use every day, such as your comb, hair dryer, shaving implements, nail clippers, etc.
  • Assemble the other things you use every day.  For me that's my glasses, laptop, and phone.  You might have other devices.  Bring the things you would take on a trip and can't do without.

2.  Assemble some housewares.

  • Identify the furniture you must have in a new, smaller space.  I'm talking about pieces you use every day, such as your bed, dresser, perhaps a bedside table, the couch or your favorite easy chairs, a side table or two, some lamps, the refrigerator, the dining table and chairs.  Add a desk, TV, or other items only if you use them regularly and often.
  • Open the linen closet.  Quickly reach in and grab one or two sets of sheets, one or two blankets, and two pillows per bed.  Make sure these are in good condition.  Add two bath towels, hand towels, and wash cloths per person.  Close the closet door.  (Okay, grab a beach towel if you're bringing a bathing suit.)
  • Gather three or four sturdy boxes (or up to six or so if your family is larger than two people) and start loading your kitchen items in order of how often you use them.  Stop when the boxes are full.  Seriously, two place settings of dishes and flatware per person and two or three of your most-used pots and pans, along with some other cooking basics, are sufficient.  If you're protesting, "But I love to bake," see Step 3 below.
  • You'll also want your vacuum cleaner, broom, dustpan, and other cleaning tools (including your washer and dryer, if your new home has a laundry room).

3.  Evaluate hobbies.

  • Consider only the hobbies that you currently pursue or plan to devote serious time to in your new life.  Do not include hobbies that you have neglected for years unless you truly intend to resurrect them.
  • Some tools and supplies are expensive to replace, so if you are going to use your golf clubs, your telescope, your stand mixer, or your two sewing machines often, keep them.  But be honest with yourself.
  • Plenty of hobbies require only minimal supplies, and you might decide to focus on them going forward.  Knitting, crochet, drawing, reading, sudoku, walking, chess, yoga, tennis, blogging, crosswords, volunteering, and container gardening are some of your options.

Be sure to read next Monday's post – Part Two, outlining Steps 4 and 5, on the way!

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

Monday, November 9, 2020

Most of Our Stuff is Worthless

a lifetime of stuff

Have you had to settle a parent's estate?  I have.  My last surviving parent lived in a typical middle-class suburban home filled with furniture, china, crystal, art, clothing, collectibles, and more.  There were even items inherited from my father's parents that had been stored for several decades.

My mother was a tidy housekeeper.  Her house didn't look cluttered.  But it was packed with stuff that was mostly unused on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis.  Every room, every closet, every shelf, every drawer was full of a lifetime of stuff.  And something needed to be done with all of it.

What do you do with a lifetime of stuff?

Losing a parent is hard enough.  But deciding which belongings should be saved, which have some resale value, which can be donated, and what will have to be hauled to the landfill is gut wrenching.  And the cost of hiring a company to go through all of the stuff, separating trash from treasure, and arranging and displaying all of it in preparation for an estate sale might actually be more than the sale itself generates.

The lesson learned from the whole experience is that most of the stuff we value and are so proud of it worthless.

Many of us live in good-sized houses that we've filled with stuff over the years.  I once owned dishes I used only at the holidays.  Special tools and appliances I used once or twice and continued to store "just in case" I might need them again.  Clothes, shoes, accessories, décor items, and more bought because they once caught my eye.  Old tech.  Mementos from my parents and grandparents.  Hundreds of books read once.

I realized that if I didn't streamline what I owned, eventually someone, probably my children, would be burdened with the job of getting rid of it.

Did you know that even the stuff you worry about the most, the stuff you think is so good that you hardly use it for fear of breaking or staining it, has little or no resale value?  Baby boomers have flooded the market with their castoffs: china cabinets, entertainment centers, tea sets, crystal, collectible figurines, and more.  Millennials, the next generation of buyers, don't want them. 

Millennials are shackled by student loans, tend to rent for many years before buying a home (if they ever do), and move often.  They don't want to be moving a piano, a grandfather clock, or fragile special-occasion china from apartment to apartment.  They don't do formal in-home entertaining, and they don't like "brown furniture," meaning any furniture (regardless of quality) other than clean-lined modern styles.  According to many estate professionals, there's no market for brown (also known as "grandma") furniture.  Even if it's donated, most of it can't be resold.  Much of it will wind up in a landfill.

There are three things you might have in your house that have a decent resale value:

  • Guns
  • LPs (vinyl records), but only 50s and 60s rock 'n' roll, jazz, or R&B in excellent condition and with the original cover
  • Precious gems and metals (including solid silver flatware)

5 Steps to Reduce the Burden

1.  If you aren't using it, but it might be useful, donate it now.

There is absolutely no sense in letting something sit for years or decades gathering dust.  If it's dusty now, you don't need it.  But maybe it will get some use if you remove it from your home today.

2.  Resist the HGTV mentality.

Constant home makeovers are good business for furniture manufacturers and home stores, but really bad for our wallets and the environment.  And much modern furniture is made of particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) that contain formaldehyde and other toxic substances.

Keep what you have if you are using it now, and take care of it.  Update some of that solid wood "brown furniture" by refinishing or painting it, replacing knobs and other hardware for a more modern look, if you want to.  Paint your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.

Resist trendiness and stick with the colors you like.  Create your own art, or decorate with those family heirlooms you claim mean so much to you.  Have old rugs cut down and rebound.  Embrace empty space.

3.  Buy fewer, but better quality, clothing and shoes.

The world is overflowing with used clothing.  

Clothing made today is meant to last no more than a season or two.  In fact, a lot of clothing isn't going to withstand more than a few washes.  And I'm sorry to say you aren't doing much good when you donate unwanted clothing to Goodwill.  Most of it will never make it to the racks in the store, and only a small portion will eventually be sold.

It's much better to buy a few high quality, classically-styled items that you will keep and wear for many years.

4.  Buy fewer books.

Used book sellers provide an important service, but a surprising number of books end up in landfills because many paper recycling facilities can't process the glue in their bindings.

However, you don't have to stop reading books.  If you haven't been to the library in a while, now is the time to go back.  It might also be time to invest in an e-reader (paid link).

5.  Be ruthless about sentimental items.

Keep just enough stuff to remind you of someone, but not so much that your own kids will be dealing with piles of stuff in another 30 years.  I kept some photographs, two pieces of furniture that I use every day, and one item of Christmas décor.

By keeping only one item, you have the opportunity to use or display it in a place of honor.  One useful or display-worthy item will actually have the chance to trigger memories of your loved one.  If a bunch of stuff is only going to sit in the back of a closet or in your attic or garage, you might as well dump it now.

This goes for photos too.  If you actually create a small scrapbook that will have pride of place on your coffee table, or if you choose a lovely portrait, frame it nicely, and hang it prominently, then you honor your loved one and have a chance to regularly see and remember her.  Simply keeping a pile of moldering photos in a box in the basement isn't preserving memories for anyone.  Might as well toss them.

I'll definitely think twice before keeping any of my own sentimental items for someone else to deal with after I die.

P.S.  Yes, it's ironic, but my book, Minimalism for the Holidays, is currently being offered at 51% off in the Kindle edition.  This fantastic sale ends tonight at midnight (Pacific time).

Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Magic of Owning Less

serene and tidy

I don't enjoy housework.  Cleaning and scrubbing are not my idea of a good time.  But I do enjoy a clean, tidy, uncluttered home.  I've learned that minimalism works in spite of my natural laziness.

You might be lazy like me or a bit messy by nature.  But that doesn't mean you can't be a minimalist.

Surprised?  Don't be.  If we create homes that allow us to be lazy, we will be lazy.  If we own an excessive number of dishes, we will continue to reach for more from the cabinet instead of rinsing out the water glass we used an hour ago.  Dishes don't make it to the sink or the dishwasher when we know we can just grab another out of the cupboard.

If we own a large number of clothes, we continue to drop the ones we just took off on the floor, or we keep piling them in the laundry room, because we have plenty of clean clothes left in the closet.  We might complain about the mountain of dirty laundry, but we don't do anything about it as long as we have anything clean to wear.

My grandsons own a ton of toys, and when they are playing they gravitate from one thing to another.  They don't have to focus on playing with anything, because there are boxes and cubbies full of toys they haven't accessed yet.  And cleaning up the playroom is a time-consuming, nearly impossible chore.  However, when they come to my house, there are only a few toys for them.  They get very creative with those toys because there aren't very many.  They may still wind up spread all over the floor, but they are not just discards, they are part of some elaborate pretend world.  And when it's time to clean up, it doesn't take too long.

The situations that allow us to be lazy or messy today actually end up creating much more work for us in the long run.  If you want to have less laundry to do, own less clothing.  If you want to have fewer dishes to wash, own fewer dishes.  If you want to spend less time putting away toys, own fewer toys.

This seems like minimalist magic.  But it isn't really.  After all, everything we own is something else to look for, find, move, clean, put away, maintain, and worry about.  Less stuff means less of all of these things, and more time to get on with life.

The answer isn't more or better storage.  This is what sometimes gets us into trouble in the first place.  We may have a lot of storage areas: tons of drawers and cubbies and back closets and spare rooms and garden sheds; attic space, basement space, and garage space.  The house itself may look tidy, but all of those storage spaces are jumbled and unruly, as if lying in wait ready to jump out and overwhelm us.  The more storage spaces we have, the harder it is to remember where anything is, and the longer it takes to search.

Alternatively, we try to "Martha Stewart" our closets and cupboards.  Everything looks beautiful and color-coordinated.  It's stacked and organized and labeled.  But we spend so much time maintaining our pretty setup that it becomes a pain to access anything or put it away.  It's just too much work, so our lovely system returns to its natural disorder.  And if we live with other people, this may happen more quickly.  The more complex our system, the less likely anyone else will be inclined to follow it.

I admit there are a few things that minimalism by itself simply cannot change:

  • Houses don't tidy themselves.  If you want your home to be neat and clean, you will still have to do the work.  I find that when I clean as I go, doing little tasks before they become big ones, I create a routine that makes tidying nearly effortless.
  • The cleaning will never be finished.  It's not simply a matter of making your home shine.  Enjoy those few moments when it's in pristine condition, because now you're going to live in it, and it won't stay that way.  It's far better to accept that, and create daily habits that keep things from becoming completely dirty and chaotic.  It's a lot easier to keep up than to catch up.
  • A tidy home requires mindfulness.  Of course you're tired when you get home.  But if you mindlessly toss your bag and your jacket on the sofa, lay your sunglasses on the kitchen counter, your keys on the bookshelf in the hall, and the mail on your dresser in the bedroom, you've created a mess and insured that you're going to be frantically looking for something that you scattered without thinking about it.  It only takes a bit of time and attention to leave your shoes in the cubby by the door, to hang your jacket and bag on their hook in the closet (insuring that your keys and sunglasses are in the bag), and to open the mail over the recycling bin, setting bills and items that need attention in designated spots on your desk.  This immediately reduces clutter and actually saves time in the long run.

Tidying is a habit, and I realize it doesn't come naturally to everyone.  But anyone can learn tidiness.  If we practice consciously every day, it will eventually become an unconscious habit.  And minimalism makes it so much easier!

  • When we own less, those lazy habits that created such huge piles of dirt and disorder are no longer possible.
  • When we own less, it's faster and easier to keep everything organized and put away.
  • When we own less, we create more space and time for activities that are far more satisfying than housework.

Minimalism doesn't require me to become a control freak.

It simply gives me a handle on my home so that it becomes a place of refuge and support for my best life (paid link).

P.S.  Don't forget: The Kindle edition of Minimalism for the Holidays is on sale now for only $1.99.  Hurry – the sale ends next Monday, November 9th at midnight.

Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

Monday, November 2, 2020

How to Declutter Books

leaf through a book

It's ironic, I know... but I want to let you know about a book sale!  My latest, the revised and expanded Kindle edition of Minimalism for the Holidays, is on sale for 51% off starting tomorrow, November 3rd at 6:00 a.m. Pacific Time, and continuing through next Monday, November 9th, at midnight.

* * * * *

I have loved reading since I was 6, when my bright yellow hardcover copy of Key to the Treasure was one of my most precious possessions.  Even before that, when Mama read a fairy tale or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was smitten by the magic contained between the covers of a book.

Book stores are among my most favorite places to spend an afternoon, and I used to purchase something from every school and library book drive I came across.  After all, who wouldn't want all the books you can carry for only $1 or $2 apiece?  I would buy books just because the title or subject looked interesting, or the author was one I recognized, or it was something I had once read but didn't actually own.

At one point, my home had five bookshelves, and all were completely full.  Most of the books were mine, some were my husband's, and each of my kids had substantial collections as well.  I'm not sure what the total number was, but I'd guess it was over 300.

My daughter got married, and we started thinking about downsizing, even though our son lived with us for another three years.  After we packed, there were boxes and boxes of books – HEAVY boxes.  And guess what?  Our new home didn't have room for five bookshelves.  We squeezed in three.  There was no way to organize my way out of the situation.  There simply wasn't room to keep every book I owned.

Decluttering books was difficult at first.  There were books that I'd loved in my teens, or twenties, or thirties, and even though I didn't really want to read most of them again, it was hard to think about parting with them.  There were children's books that I cherished because I had read them to my kids, or because they were exceptionally beautiful illustrated hardcover editions.  And there were other books that made me feel guilty.  Purchased on a whim, they had looked interesting in the store or at the used book drive, but I had never actually read them.  But maybe I should, and that meant I had to keep them.

Fast forward a few years.  I now own 56 books, plus 17 picture books that my grandsons keep here.  I also have a physical copy of each of the books I've written and published (seven so far).  Everything fits on one bookshelf.  And I think I'm ready to remove another half dozen volumes, which leaves room for something new and interesting!

How did I deal with my emotional attachments, change my thinking, and ultimately reduce the weight of my book collection?

5 Realizations That Can Help You Declutter Books (and other things)

1.  Buying books and reading books are not two sides of the same coin.

I've always been an avid reader, but I don't read or finish every book that catches my eye or piques my interest, and I certainly don't need to buy all of them.  It's fun to dip into something new and different, but I don't need to make a purchase to have that opportunity.  The public library is the perfect place to grab an armload of books that you might want to spend time reading.  Libraries let you explore new reading possibilities to your heart's delight, without guilt or clutter.

Even e-books can become clutter, if you purchase many that you never read or that you read once and will never refer to again.  An alternative is Amazon's Kindle Unlimited (paid link), a service which lets you borrow unlimited books to read or listen to for a small monthly fee.

Instead of collecting books, consider keeping a book journal instead.  That way you can look back to see what you've read without feeling the need to possess it all.

After all, the value comes from reading the books, not owning them.

If you've acquired more books (or anything else) than you can possibly use, ask yourself why you buy so much.  Are you buying for the sake of buying?

2.  You don't have to read every book you've bought.

Let go of guilt, and let go of books you bought but never read, or that you've abandoned part way through.  There are no book police!  Thousands and thousands of new books are published every year.  You can't possibly read everything.  It's perfectly fine to spend time reading what you want to read, rather than what you feel obligated to get through.  Once you let it go, you probably won't even miss it.  And if you ever do want to read it – that's what the library is for.

3.  You can't recoup the money you spent by hanging on to the book.

Decluttering anything can be hard if you feel guilty about how much you spent for it.  It's tempting to feel that you have to keep things because you don't want your money to be wasted.  In fact, the money has already been spent.  It's called the "sunk cost," and nothing will bring it back.  But you can still free up space and make wiser choices in the future.

4.  Sometimes we grow away from books.

Some books become treasures that you revisit over and over through the years.  For me, To Kill a Mockingbird and Emma fit into that category.  My husband and I both love The Lord of the Rings, Hatchet, and The Martian.  But like some old friends, there are other books we cared for in the past that we have drifted away from (Agatha Christie and Harry Potter, for example).  As time passes and we evolve, our preferences may change too.  That includes things like books, music, art, or hobbies that we once enjoyed but no longer do.  When you remove them, you create space, time, and energy to explore what adds value to your life today.

5.  Your books don't define who you are.

You might think that having lots of classics on your shelves shows that you are well-read, or that beautiful travel books or cutting-edge science books show that you are sophisticated, adventurous, or super-smart.  Do read these books if they interest you, but it's your lively, intelligent conversation that will display these attributes, not the books sitting on your shelf.

Of course some books will have a profound impact on you.  A few are so rich that they will continue to provide knowledge, guidance, or support for a long while, or even forever (for me that includes the Bible and a handful of books by C. S. Lewis).

The books that we have read and studied in the past have shaped who we are, and how we think and act in the world today.  They are part of our memories and experiences.  But the benefits we gained came from the act of reading, not the act of owning.  

Decluttering books won't diminish us at all.  

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash.