Downsizing: The incredible lightness of being

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

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 Pexels.com

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 Medium.com

Moving Mom and Dad

The folks are getting on in years, the old house needs work, the Stuff is piling up everywhere — it’s time to look at moving. But the big question is, where to? Urban condo? Assisted living? Retirement village? LifeCare facility? Co-housing? Maybe even the dreaded Nursing home or dementia facility?

Making the decision to move into what is likely the last residence on this side of the hereafter can be daunting, sometimes devastating. Whether it involves oneself or one’s older family members, the Final Move often exhausts patience, finances and family resources. But good choices are out there, and good help (sometimes free, more often adding to the growing costs of this life event) can be found. In previous posts this space has offered glimpses of these choices and experiences: Helping Mom Die (10/16); Hanging in the ‘Hood (9/29); Justice Souter’s Retirement Housing (8/10.) What follows is a look into the LifeCare option. I should first insert a grateful nod to the source of this headline, a great book by Sarah Morse and Donna Quinn Robbins.

I have just returned from a visit with my sister Helen and her husband, newly installed in a spacious two-bedroom cottage at Kendal at Ithaca (NY), a Continuing Care Retirement Community. To do this necessitated cleaning out and selling (of course, the sale fell through when everything was on the moving vans, but last-minute calamity is to be expected) the far more spacious four-bedroom plus roof deck 1920s condominium in Boston they have called home for nearly 40 years. It was not pretty. Despite my earlier Boston visits to whittle down the Stuff factor and later urgings to connect Helen with the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, the job tested the limits of patience and strength of their four extraordinarily loving children.

Nonetheless the deed did get done, and Kendal at Ithaca is perfect for Helen and Clare, thanks to a confluence of happy circumstances: their physician daughter has relocated from Seattle to Ithaca; Manhattan is a comfortable Cornell bus trip away; desired features are in place. KAI includes a community center with a dining room in which their monthly fees entitle them to one meal per day, a fitness center, a large library, a van to take residents to doctors’ appointments etc. Best of all, says Clare, who has Parkinson’s, “they can’t throw me out.” The major appeal of LifeCare, or Continuing Care communities, for many seniors, is the inclusion of facilities for different levels of care which one may require in the future. (Worst of all, Clare adds, is the fact that “we have a lot of Parkinson’s, so I see myself 3 years down the road… 6 years down the road.”)

Continuing Care communities do not come cheap. But for seniors who have a chunk of change from a home sale or other source and a comfortable retirement income, they fortunately exist in growing numbers across the country.

For my own part, and I am certainly very senior, I was suffering anxieties and depression after one day. I need regular infusions of 30-somethings and 40-somethings for basic survival. Again, from what I’ve heard about co-housing — the perfect choice for many others as they age — that arrangement would feel crowded and disorderly. But there is the growing aging-in-place “Village” movement, which many would not choose but seems perfect to me.

Thank heaven for choices. It is seldom too early for Boomers, or Beyonders, to start considering them — and while you’re at it, you may want to clean out the attic.