Downsizing: The incredible lightness of being

Photo by Ann Nekr on

On moving from a four-story, century-old Edwardian into a 1600-sq-ft condo eight years ago I wrote a lengthy feature for the local newspaper (The New Fillmore, May 13, 2013) titled “Lessons Learned from Downsizing.” It drew editorial applause and a bunch of affirmative comments. But it seems not to have sunk in all that well.

I am back in the downsizing business. This time around it is partly a matter of trying to get organized, but despite the donating/tossing/selling/shredding activities of 2013 I am once again (or still) overwhelmed with Stuff. You don’t have to be a Marie Kondo drop-out to know how quickly Stuff can overwhelm. (I applaud every KonMari success story out there, but frankly never got past Step One.)

Here is the Big Truth: downsizing is good for the soul. Whether it’s moving from a 4-story Edwardian into a 3-room condo or reducing a tall pile of photo albums into one small box, there is a lightness akin to joy in the afterglow.

Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on

Looking back on it, there was some pretty good advice in my 2013 article. But as it ran to something over 5,000 words I’ll spare you the whole thing. (Digital copy on request.) I itemized its wisdom in eight lessons learned, which included: Treasures are your enemy; and The Fast-Disposal Plan: put it on the sidewalk with a large sign taped to it reading FREE. Also, even eight years ago much of what is cluttering up the planet (and our lives) could be digitized and made to disappear.

Downsizing is probably good for the soul at any age. What’s your teenager going to do with that wall of blue ribbons from hockey games or dressage events? Maybe one Little League trophy could be representative of the other 57 after the other 57 go to the Goodwill? Or wherever the trophies of our youth go to die. And that, of course is the other half of the Big Truth: wherever our souls go when we leave planet earth, our Stuff remains.

Award-winning (multiple major awards at that) author Ann Patchett confirmed my theory of the Big Truth – this writer uses any crafty means of mentioning herself and Ann Patchett in the same sentence – in a recent, reflective article in The New Yorker. Letting go of an old manual typewriter was particularly problematic for Patchett, as it was for me. She had several more of these treasures than I, and solved the problem by keeping two that had maximum meaning and giving another to a delighted eight-year-old. I solved mine by giving Pearl the Pert Pink Portable to my daughter, in whose family room it is respectfully, somewhat regally, displayed. Although Pearl will live forever in my heart for getting me through college and launched into my literary career, she is undoubtedly happier on display in a room of constant socialization than on my dark closet shelf. (Patchett noted the tendency to anthropomorphize our treasures.)

Back to the issue of departing souls and remaining Stuff. “I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death,” Patchett writes. “They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”

Pearl the Pert Pink Portable

Disposing of the shiny trinkets, along with the ancient documents and the favorite jeans from the 1980s and the shelf of folded paper bags – there’s an unwritten law about getting rid of paper bags that came bearing bottles of wine or small gifts? – and even beloved manual typewriters is a liberating act. If the disposer has begun to realize that he or she may, in fact, die some day, it is liberating to the extreme. With every drawer-cleaning comes lightness.

I may die? Worse things have happened. At least no one will have to curse my ghost while clearing out this junky drawer.

When my beloved mother-in-law died I remember flying to Detroit with a sense of dread about dealing with her house and the trappings of 93 years. My husband was her sole survivor. But nobody had had to tell Isabel Johns to downsize. We would find in a drawer one carefully folded, tissue-wrapped sweater. In a closet, perhaps several dresses and two pairs of shoes. In the pantry, the barest minimum of canned goods and a broom clipped to the door. There were no mysterious piles of documents and receipts, no dusty boxes of unidentified photos, no collections of sermons written by her Methodist preacher husband of fifty-plus years – worthy though a few of the hundreds might have been. In lieu of Stuff, Isabel left only the enduring memories of a life well lived. And a lightness in the afterglow.

This essay appeared earlier on

On language, and understanding

English: Open book icon
English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My book group, which regularly veers off into interesting areas, veered into language and understanding. Even when we speak the same language, do we understand the same? Or, is my language okay, if you can’t understand me?

Debra’s grandson, for example, is struggling with appraxia of speech, a condition wherein “the child knows what he or she wants to say, but his/her brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words,” according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The anguish of it all is hard to imagine.

That brief discussion prompted Sue to tell a story of her own grandson, who happens to be an accomplished, much-honored teenaged classical musician today. But when he was four, he had not begun to speak. Oh, he spoke gibberish which HE understood perfectly well, it just wasn’t English gibberish. One day in the midst of a particularly frustrating outburst from her small grandson, Sue said, “There’s nothing at all wrong with the way you speak. It just happens that I can’t understand.” Ah, so.

Studies have shown, Sue explained further (there are some very wise people in this book group) that babies are born with a universal language, no matter where on the planet their birth may occur, and they have to be trained out of that language into the one that’s being spoken around them. Indeed, in a study published in 2007, Greg Bryant and Clark Barrett found it likely that baby-talk is universal. If only we grown-ups weren’t so determined to speak in our peculiar tongues.

It’s just worth thinking about. What if we could all start over and just evolve into a language of humankind?

(Currently I am struggling with the language of reproductive rights: You say “Pro-choice,” I hear “anti-abortion.” I say “fetus,” you hear “unborn child.” The list goes on.)

Oh, the Book Group book that started it all? Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Some of us liked the book better than others. Some of us speak more than one language; none of us feel we could make ourselves understood to the tribes of the Amazon, fictional or real. Next month’s book selection is Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. Its aim is to build, somehow, better understanding among U.S. tribes who speak the same language but in very different tongues.