Holding on, Letting Go: Toward a More Discriminating Approach to Downsizing


29 Dec
29Dec

During this year of enforced naval-gazing, I find it’s not easy to the settle on a comfortable perspective on what to downsize. What seemed unimportant yesterday feels essential to my sense of myself today, and vice versa. As the end of the year approaches, it feels like the right time to step back and ask myself, what’s going on, what have I learned, and where can I go from here? 

What’s Going On 

My shifting views have slowed down my already slow downsizing even as I have devoted more hours to it. The whole point of my original slow downsizing plan was that it was to be one activity among the many that make up my life. Now, it’s too large a part of my daily diet, and it’s not healthy. I'm hoarding my downsizing!

For example, in the event that I change my mind about what to keep, I mark folders of papers “scanned” and file them away in a holding drawer in the basement. I keep a growing bag of potential recycling and shredding to go through one more time. The staples in the photo above, spelling out the words “hold on, let go,” come from some of those many packets of papers. 

And as for things once given away or sold, I must accept they are gone. But what if I have the chance to get them back? Several months ago, after taking the requisite photos, I gave away my old guitar, bought on a special father-daughter trip to Sam Goody’s for my 18th birthday. After doing so, I felt some regret. Then, two months later, the person I’d given it to thoughtfully contacted me to see if I wanted it back when his 13-year-old daughter showed little interest in it. I could have said, “No, go ahead and give it to someone else,” but I didn’t. So, there it sits In the hallway, mocking me for my inability to say goodbye. 

There are days when I am ready to get rid of almost everything, when I feel burdened by my lifelong saving habit. And there are others when I am delighted that I kept reminders of my active life, especially during this time when I am unable to have new experiences. I wonder how the pandemic will shape the way I choose to live in the future. Will I be more into the moment, or will my preserved memories take on even greater meaning? I’m obsessing, and that’s never good. Since I have no way to know, I can only operate on my best hunches about what parts of me I will want access to, if not in the short-term, then in the longer term when my world is likely to shrink. But upon reflection, I have learned a few things along this journey that I will try to apply going forward. 

What I’ve Learned (I think!) and What My Learnings Imply for Action 

My insights aren’t necessarily new, even for me. Over the three plus years of this blog, I sometimes have to rediscover principles I’ve already expounded on. Like the slow downsizing, my learnings are also iterative, taking on new dimensions over time. Here is my latest crop, with the framework of holding on, letting go. 

I find It’s easier to let go when I… 

Let stories rule. And not just the individual stories of objects. I obtain the most satisfaction when the papers and objects become the threads of my larger story, or the story of my family. I need to choose the items that will tell that story best. 

Reflect on what I’m doing. There are days when I just plow through stacks of paper, scanning everything. But I am learning that I need to be more discerning, to step back and see how what I am choosing to preserve fits into that story I’m trying to tell. 

Creatively preserve memories. I loved making my family collages, my travel scrapbook pages, the mobile of old holiday cards covers. I was fully absorbed in the process, and the end product is something I (or even others) can enjoy. The creations encourage me to pick out those key threads that can be woven into larger patterns. 

Give away meaningful items to targeted people who truly want them. Of course, I’ve donated masses of books, clothes, linens, kitchen items, and knick knacks to non-profit organizations with no idea of who will receive these, but these are usually my low hanging fruit—the items I’m less attached to. The letters I’ve sent back to friends, extra-curricular materials to my college’s archives, and my papers to my secondary school were all important parts of my life that are now appreciated in their new homes. 

Cull first. Too many of anything is overwhelming—whether it’s books, papers, clothes. I’m better off when I make a first pass and get rid of the chaff so that the remaining contents are more manageable, and my decisions about what to do with what’s left are more reasoned. By the next pass, I’ve often forgotten what was in the first one, suggesting to me that the original items were not that important. 

Scan, photograph, or document an item or an event. I know I do too much of this, but the act of recording in some way frees me up.

Find the right balance between attending to one task and a variety of tasks. I know some organizing experts are proponents of working on one room or one kind of object at a time. I’m good with that for a while, but I am more energized and less obsessive when I share my attention among different tasks, as long as I keep records of what I’ve done so I don’t cover the same territory too many times. 

Choose what to keep as well as what to throw away. There may come a time when I don’t want to or can’t peruse my digital files. I may want some tangible, manageable evidence of my life. The collages and scrapbook pages qualify, but I’ve also decided to keep representative samples of various kinds of items, perhaps applying my culling technique to whittle down the total number. By giving myself permission to keep some things, I can let go of others. 

Remember that slow downsizing is a process. I am not in a rush. The end of the pandemic may allow me to return to a richer life, and it will also open up new opportunities and new homes for my possessions. I know it will take time to fully embrace this mindset of letting go. But when I envision my future smaller living space (as yet undesignated), where there is a place for everything, including selected memories, I get excited. 

Meanwhile, let’s take it one day at a time and hope for a brighter 2021!

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