Sunday, July 4, 2021

Processing Sentimental Items

Birthdays. Holidays. Gifts from loved ones abound. Some gifts are long-lasting, physical items like clothing and accessories, books and other media, and trinkets. Others are short-lived but enjoyable consumables like dinner-dates and bottles of wine. Some sentimental items are left to us whether we wanted them or not--whether the items are gifts or just the possessions of someone who is no longer with us. It's the long-lasting gifts and other people's left-behind posessions that can present the most challenge in our efforts to declutter.

There are a few facets of gifts and other sentimental items that can make parting with them difficult. In the case of the gift-giver still being alive and in contact, not wanting to part with an item might come from a place of guilt or feeling that the giver could be hurt if they knew you discarded an item they gave to you. In the case of the gift-giver having passed away, not wanting to part with an item might come from a place of needing to hold on to good memories of the person. For the purpose of this post, I'm going to categorize sentimental items into two types: Living Items for those given by someone who is still alive, and Items of Loss for those given by someone who is no longer alive.

 

Processing Living Items

In the grand scheme of minimalism and decluttering, it will ultimately be easier to discard Living Items than it will be to discard Items of Loss. With Living Items, you have the advantage of face-to-face, or at least text or email conversation with the people who have given you sentimental items. There are a couple of ways I've found to part with sentimental items given to me by people who are still alive:

  • Donate/discard the item without telling the gift-giver. This is easiest if in-person visits are infrequent, or if there's little chance that the giver would notice the absence of the item. Think of an item through their eyes: How would they feel knowing you kept something you didn't want to just because they gave it to you? Would you expect them to keep something they didn't like just because you gave it to them?
  • Donate/discard the item after telling the gift-giver. I find that with clothing especially, I can generally tell the giver, without guilt, that the item no longer fits me and that I have donated it to charity for someone else to love. Generally, turning the discard into a good deed will prevent a gift-giver from feeling hurt. Giving an honest and brief explanation will be more comforting to them than none at all.
  • Donate/discard after the gift-giver tells you to. It's rare, but sometimes a gift-giver will come to visit and say, "You still have that old thing?" Sometimes we hold on to gifts not out of liking the gift, but out of the feeling of guilt we'd have if we were to get rid of them. Sometimes, very vocal and outgoing gift-givers will be surprised that you've kept something so long. With their blessing, say goodbye to the item and let the relief of their approval to discard it wash over you.

Sometimes we outgrow, don't love, or just plain don't need items that other people give us. We should tailor our belongings to what we love, want, and need, and not get caught up feeling guilty if a gift just doesn't suit us well. Guilt is a natural thing to feel when discarding gifts, but it's also natural to want to get rid of something we don't fully love. Whether you involve the gift-giver in your decision to discard something is up to you. You do you. It should be that simple. 


Processing Items of Loss 

It can be painful to hold on to items that were left behind by people who have passed away. Memories have a habit of attaching themselves to physical items, making Items of Loss extremely difficult to discard. What's worse is that throwing an item away can feel like you're throwing out the person who left it behind, and donating an item can feel like you're giving part of that person away to a stranger. Unlike processing living items, there's no chance of talking face-to-face, over email or text, or over a phone call to the giver of an Item of Loss. The onus falls squarely on you, the recipient, to care for and decide what to do with an Item of Loss. There are a further couple of categories within Items of Loss that come with their own challenges: Gifts, and Things Left Behind.

  • Gifts from someone who has passed away can be the hardest things to give up. After all, a gift is an item that they put thought about you into. It's very natural and okay to feel guilty for even considering to discard a gift like this. But it's also okay to let it go and to find a new loving home. It might help to treat gifts similar to how I explained Living Items above. Think about if the gift-giver would still expect you to have the item at this point. If you knew them well enough, try to make up a conversation with them about the item. If you think they wouldn't mind that you let the item go, then let it go.
  • Things Left Behind are a wildly different beast from gifts. This category encompasses everything from clothes and shoes to furniture, decorations, and even cars. 
    • Clothes are an everyday essential that usually helped define someone's identity and personal style. Sometimes, clothes are kept for so long with the intent of wearing them or maybe making a quilt from squares cut from each garment. But if neither of those ideal visions are carried out, clothes can take up a lot of space. Clothes can be very sentimental, but they're also one of the best things to donate to charity as long as they're in good shape. If the person was religious, perhaps ask their church/temple if they would accept the clothing to help disadvantaged community members. Non-profit organizations that conduct rummage sales will likely also gladly take clothing to resell. And there are always shelters that could use clothing to keep someone warm.
    • Furniture and decor can be bulky and hard to deal with, but generally I've seen these items be the easiest for families to part with after someone has died. Of course, there are usually some decor items that were very personal or unique and are worth keeping. But generally, furniture and decor are just utility items that very few of us probably pour a lot of emotional thought into. If you can't use them or don't have space for them, give away or resell bulky furniture and decor items.
    • Finally there are odd and huge things left behind like cars. These can be tricky to get rid of, especially if they're antique or classic cars that the person poured time and love into maintaining. With newer cars it might not be the same case. Newer cars might be nice to keep in the family, especially if someone needs a new vehicle. Cars with a bit of age that aren't vintage or classic might be a bit easier to part with, and can either be sold to a third party or donated to an organization like Habitat for Humanity. Vintage, Classic, and Antique cars can be incredibly difficult to handle once someone has passed. I'm sure most people are, at least somewhere deep down, excited by old cars. But if not, some classic cars could mean a financial windfall if sold to the right collector. Or if you love someone's old car and have a place to keep it out of the elements or plan to drive it yourself, that's a wonderful option as well.
    • There are also likely to be small trinkets and photos left behind. These items are likely the easiest, and honestly probably the best to keep around long-term. Little items like costume jewelry, class rings, photos, and film negatives are tiny and easy to store... and probably brought the deceased person a lot of joy. 

With items of loss, there's no real strategy other than "You do you." Nothing has to be discarded or donated if that's not what you want to do with it. It's okay to also just pick and choose a couple of items to keep or discard instead of wholesale keeping or discarding everything in every category. It's normal to attach memories to loved ones' items they've left behind. In the end though, you need to keep what feels right to keep. If you need to keep everything a bit longer, that's fine. It's also fine to get rid of everything if you have no strong feelings about it. Take your time and allow yourself to grieve as you go through someone's old things.


Sentimental items are saved for last in many minimalist decluttering methods for a reason. They can be emotionally-charged and take years to finally decide one way or the other on whether they should be kept. We attach memories to items, but an important thing to remember is that we can keep the memory without needing to keep the item. Sentimental items are the most "You do you" category of objects. There's no simpler way to put it, which is why I've used that phrase three times now. In the end, you're in charge of every sentimental item you have. You do you, and process your memories and emotions attached to objects in the way that best suits you.

The Dreaded Junk Drawer: A Mess That Always Comes Back

Some time ago, I wrote about how my discarding and decluttering habits helped me empty my junk drawer. Well, it's a couple of years later now and the chaos slowly crept back. This time, I'm going to tackle it once and for all... but with a different end goal in mind


What is a junk drawer?

For anyone who doesn't know what a junk drawer is, it's a pretty ubiquitous phenomenon across American homes. My parents, my husband's parents, tons of our friends' parents all had junk drawers... and we do, too. The junk drawer varies from home to home, but generally it's a potpourri of seemingly useful objects all mingling together in a useless and chaotic way. For my parents, the junk drawer was where rubber bands, paper clips, one-off nails and screws, screwdrivers without a matching set, and other small tools ended up. In other junk drawers I've seen, there have been souvenir spoons, thimbles, tiny dollar store sewing kits... all sorts of things. The worst part about all of these junk drawers is that they're invariably a bit grimy and always leave your hands feeling sticky and dusty, and usually smelling of pennies.

Now, I have nothing wrong with having a junk drawer. Honestly I feel foolish for thinking I could go without one. There are likely always going to be some odds and ends of items that truly are useful but don't have a sensible place among other categories of items. So instead of trying to eliminate my junk drawer again, I'm out to tame it in such a way that I can keep it organized.

 

Why I've kept a junk drawer

Nothing that I have in my junk drawer is something I want to toss out. Quite frankly, they're all useful things, but small enough that they'd easily get lost if they mingled with like items elsewhere. Plus I like to have a centralized location for small odds and ends like that. 

I'm starting off with small handfuls of the following items: rolls of dog poop bags, packs of batteries, matches and lighters, touch-up paint for a bicycle, can coozies, a spare headlamp for the cars, various sizes of batteries, letter and box openers, spare drawer handles, lint roller, travel wipes, and rolls of tape.

My junk drawer is far from the worst that I've ever seen. It's not grimy or dusty or full of rubber bands. It started off fairly organized, but some loose items just began to sprawl and take over. I don't think it will be terribly difficult to organize and keep it that way this time around.

 

How to organize a junk drawer

I was determined to make this organization effort cost me nothing but a few minutes of my time. I felt no need to have the prettiest organizers inside the drawer, so I gathered up a couple of small boxes from recent online shopping orders and cut the top flaps off. I'd had a small plastic basket in the drawer already, so I pressed that back into service.

Into the small plastic basket went the rolls of dog poop bags and the drawer handles. Into one of the small boxes went a pen and a marker, the letter and box openers, kitchen scissors, small rolls of tape, and batteries. I pressed a tiny jar into service to house the spare headlamp and batteries for the key fobs and set it next to the other batteries (kept in the plastic trays of their original packaging). Into the other box went the lint roller and travel wipes. The can coozies made their way into the kitchen towel drawer where I had the perfect amount of space for them. The only items that stayed loose but sort of Tetrised into comfy places were a roll of packing tape, boxes of matches, and the lighters.

The trick to organizing a junk drawer is to put in dividers of some kind. Small, shallow boxes work wonders for this kind of project. It costs nothing to reuse a shipping box.

Once you have your organizers or boxes placed in the drawer, use them to hold categories or groups of items that make sense to you. In my case, the batteries and scissors are the most likely to be needed regularly, so I put them in the same bin in the front of the drawer. The less frequently an item is used, the closer to the back I placed it.

As I've gotten older and customized minimalism to my needs, I've realized that I don't need to be a minimalist for minimalism's sake. I love minimalism for my own very personal reasons; the most important of which is to have a very comfortable and clean house to come home to, and to share it with my husband and our pets. Will I ever fully get rid of my junk drawer? Maybe some day. But for now, it's serving a useful purpose--especially since I reorganized it--so I'll keep it around. 

I don't want people to feel like as a minimalist you have to have everything 100% perfect and 100% decluttered all the time. Life happens. Clutter happens. Junk drawers happen. Just ride out the chaos until you have the energy to tame it. And remember, you don't have to discard anything you don't want to discard. Happy organizing!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Books on Minimalism & Mindfulness: Part 1

I try to revisit a couple of books on minimalism every year. Rereading a book or two, or all of them, in this category will generally help me renew my purpose. I haven't reviewed a book since grad school, which I left in 2016 to advance my career in IT. Having had this blog for over a year now (despite not posting for a while after changing jobs) I feel it's time to finally actually review some of the books that helped me become the minimalist I am today.

Review 1: New Minimalism: Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living
ISBN: 978-1-63217-132-0
Authors: Cary Telander Fortin & Kyle Louise Quilici

I'll be honest and say I don't remember when I bought this book, only that I bought it with the intention of using it to help me design my house around minimalist tendencies. Rereading it this year, it felt more suited to those new to minimalism. It's absolutely great for helping you find a jumping-off point from which you can dive into minimalism. It breaks folx down into four personality types that have their own unique hangups when it comes to decluttering and discarding items. The authors cover common points of failure at the start of minimalist journeys--from discarding too little with the "one in, one out" method, to being too reluctant to part with items when moving in with a partner and being left with too many of each item. They also hit on something I think is especially important: letting each room serve a single purpose. Of course, that's not always possible in small apartments, tiny houses, or family homes, but it's important all the same to let rooms like the kitchen be just a kitchen and the bedroom be just a bedroom. There are also tips on design and decoration for a house that can be magazine-worthy but still feel 100% like home. A minimalist's home still needs personality, and this book can help beginner- and intermediate-level minimalists figure out how to achieve a comfy and clutter-free space.

I didn't get as much out of this book on a reread as I did the first time I read it, but all the same I would highly recommend it to anyone just getting started with minimalism.

Review 2: The Year of Less: How I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store
ISBN: 978-1-4019-5351-5
Author: Cait Flanders

It's hard to pass up a book with an actual timeline of how and when habits changed. While the author's goal was not to become a minimalist, but to spend less/save more money, it's still a good read for any minimalist. Rampant consumerism is confronted on a very personal, intimate level. Cait is open and candid about where she came from, how she started, and at which points she experienced failure in following her own plan to live better. While few of the chapters cover decluttering efforts, as a reader I find it helpful to hear about a real person's experience--not just a social-media-worthy, curated snapshot of life. Addiction and breaking bad habits are central focus points for the book, which might especially help budding minimalists understand how they can sever ties with habits that are very non-minimalist. The book follows Cait as she claims her life and her time for herself, instead of living for the material things and materialistic people around her. We all have things we want to change about ourselves, and this inspiring book may well be life-changing for the right reader.

I'm glad I reread this book, as it opened my eyes again to just how many things I still have (including bad habits) even after years of minimalist practice. I recommend it to any minimalist, especially those with bad habits they know they need to break.


I'll have more book reviews coming up as I take time to re-read those still in my little library at home. If you're interested in buying one of the books I review, please consider supporting the author directly where possible, or supporting a smaller bookstore. Happy reading!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Declutter, Donate, Sell: What's Your Time Worth?

Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether an item should be kept, donated, or sold. During your decluttering efforts, you might form a "Maybe" pile of items you think you might want to keep, but would donate or sell if they don't fit you (like clothes) or don't fit your space (like furniture). Donating items takes little time--simply box or bag up items and drop them off at a donation center. Selling items to recupe some money, however, can take valuable time and effort best spent on something more important.

I want to keep this post short, sweet, and to the point for those who try to sell items after decluttering. Ask yourself: What is your time worth?

It might help to reframe the attempted sale of items in terms of how much your time is worth, whether to yourself or your employer. Then weigh the cost in time of selling those items against how much you can get back for them. This is a very cold and transactional view of items, but that's kind of the point. You don't want it, after all, so how much is it really worth? How much is your free time worth? For me, it has taken on average 4-5 days to sell an item on an online marketplace to recupe, say, $100 from an item that cost $300 new. So it took a workweek of my time waiting to "make" $100. For a 40-hour week in the US, that's a bad deal. However, it takes me a grand total of 10 minutes for a round trip to and from a donation center drop-off point. Sure I recupe nothing monetarily unless I wait for a receipt for a tax deduction, but I save days or perhaps weeks worth of free time by choosing to donate items instead of sell them.

Consider also, unselfishly, the value an item might have to someone in need who doesn't have the monetary resources that you do. If the path of opening up more free time comes in the form of donating an item to a secondhand store or charity organization, consider the improvement of someone else's life in terms of your time vs. its meaning and value to someone else. It might take minimal time (and therefore, minimal money) to immeasurably improve another person's life.

The TL;DR of this short post is: LET THAT SHIT GO. Respect the value of your own time, and do what you can to help others with your discarded items. Recuping monetary cost isn't always worth the time and effort. Recupe the cost by paying it forward with a good deed, and donate the items you no longer need. Go forth, and be good!

Where to Start before You Start

It seems that in the first few months of every year since I embarked on a minimalist path that I pick up a book or two on minimalism that got or kept me going. I give the books another read-through and reflect on how far I've come.

So far this year, I've only picked up one to re-read, and I found that it was much more geared toward me as a budding minimalist and not as an established minimalist. All the same, it still proved to have some value in getting me to reflect on why I became a minimalist in the first place. It reminded me of how I felt before I committed to minimalism--I knew I had too much stuff. I had unclear visions for myself except for one: I wanted to be a less stressed person, and to become that person I would need space to relax. That space at the time was filled with clutterful stuff.

My time spent reflecting, and talking to friends about minimalism, gave me the motivation to come back here and put together a loose guided prompt for people new to minimalism who don't know where to start... or how to start. And by answering the questions that follow, you'll start your journey with a much clearer vision than I did when I started on my own years ago.

Who/What/When/Why/How?

Basic though they may be for a line of questions to answer, they're important. One can't master advanced techniques if they never give the basics the time of day. Grab a piece of scrap paper or a well-loved journal and answer the following questions. Introspection will lead to the best results of anyone's minimalist journey.

WHO: Who do you want to be? Is that person different from who you are now? Describe in a few sentences who you want to be once your space is decluttered. Maybe at the end of decluttering, you're the party host and entertainer you always wanted to be; or maybe you're a tidy bookworm finally living for yourself in a happier space.

WHAT: What is getting in the way of your ideal you? Is there a space or a category of thing that makes you feel drained or unhappy? What kinds of things do you need to prosper and feel successful for yourself? Think of your material world, and write about what you find joyful and what you find stressful.

WHEN: When did your interest in minimalism start? Was there an event, something in popular media, or just a moment of introspection that made you realize your surroundings aren't making you happy?  Consider times when living with fewer things would be to your advantage.

WHY: Why do you want to change your lifestyle? This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the who questions, but abstract your thinking a bit. Are there other people motivating you to live with less? Do you want to develop new habits that make the planet healthier? Think outside of yourself and consider the people, places, and things around you, and why you want to change because of them.

HOW: How do you want to approach minimalism? Perhaps you want to just declutter, to give each room in your house or apartment more space to breathe. Or maybe you want to be true to yourself and pursue only the hobbies and interests that speak to you as a person, and get rid of everything else. Or even more to the extreme, you want to get rid of everything and start over with a much more ascetic approach to life, living only with the bare minimum.

Answer all of these questions to figure out what kind of minimalism is right for you. There are infinite varieties of minimalism, from ascetic minimalists who have few, if any possessions, to cozy minimalists who have "just enough" and then a wee bit more that makes them get the warm fuzzies every time they walk into their homes from outside. There are also infinite reasons to want to become a minimalist, from needing to downsize from a large home to a small one, to just wanting to have a simpler and cleaner space to maintain. There are no wrong answers to the questions above. And once you've answered all of them, you can start to embark on a path toward whichever version of minimalism is right for you. Happy writing!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Mental Health and Minimalism

 No doubt, 2020 was a rough year for so many of us the world over. Lockdown, isolation, and quarantine brought to the forefront just how important mental health, self-care, and mental health awareness are. I have struggled with anxiety disorders and monopolar depression my entire life, and lockdown only served to make them worse.

As everything in the world became less personable and more distant, I did what I've done best my whole life and have looked inward. Except I decided to use the depths of my depression in a positive way, by letting my inner critic become an outward one to pare down my belongings. 

Lockdown early on meant that decluttering efforts were not necessarily effective. Boxes full of unwanted items piled up as businesses deemed non-essential, such as thrift stores and charity shops, had to close. By the time the first round of lockdowns lightened and businesses could open back up, I damn near had a pallet's worth of gently-loved clothing, home goods that no longer sparked joy, and other items ready to be piled in to the back of my car and taken to a donation center. Being limited to shopping online, and poor ability to cope due to mental health centers being closed to in-person visits meant that more items were coming into my home to fill an emotional void. Now that vaccine distribution has started and lockdown restrictions are lifting, it's getting easier to remove a year of clutter from the home, and lighten spirits while lightening the load of stuff on the home.

How I used Depression Constructively with Minimalist Habits (and vice-versa)

Mind, Body, and Closet: Tired of fighting negative self-talk that worsened with isolation, I turned the critique onto the items in my home. Instead of saying "I don't look good in this dress anymore," I started saying "This dress no longer looks good on me." My inner critic got new targets that helped me keep negative self-talk at bay. As a result, my closet was pared down to dresses and blouses that unconditionally flatter me and make me feel good when wearing them.

Sustenance: The early months of lockdown had me working from home, which left me with no commute and consequently more time to cook each meal. I tracked which utensils, pots, pans, and appliances we were using the most, and paid careful attention to which were languishing in a cabinet going unused. Knowing how it felt to not get to reach my full potential when it came to supporting my end-users (I'm a systems administrator), I sympathized with the ice cream machine, stovetop coffee maker, and small vintage crock pot and decided to let them go where someone else could make the best use of them.

The Pile-Up from Supporting Others: When restrictions were lighter, I would take advantage and go to shops that sold local artists' work. When restrictions intensified again, I'd order posters from artists online. Ultimately, I was left with a pile-up of poster tubes and canvases that were taking up space on the floor. Getting sick of the mess, I decided to scrounge around for hardware to just hang the damn things in fit of being inexplicably and suddenly mad at an easily-tidied mess. The simple act of putting a piece of art in its place was one that sparked a joy that is renewed every time I walk by--whether it's a comic poster in the living room or a canvas in the hallway. After all, they were pieces purchased for a purpose--to spark joy. A little smile here and there helps to keep negative feelings away.

Tidy the Home, Tidy the Mind: Having a strong inner critic meant I heard, "This place is a mess. Why are you so messy?" more times than I can reasonably count. Once I started working back at my office instead of from home, it seemed the pile-up of dishes and general house mess got out of hand. It was hard, but I ultimately convinced myself to just suck it up and deal with messes on weekends when I'd normally have 48 hours of uninterrupted time at home for myself. I now tidy my home as much as I can, setting aside 20 or 30 minutes here and there to tackle specific areas. When something gets tidied and stays that way for weeks, my inner critic fades. The "maintenance" categories like dishes and laundry no longer stress me out like they did at the start of being back at work. Now, I use the act of loading the dishwasher or folding towels to tell my critic, "I'm not messy. I am just a busy person and devoted to my job during the week." When I shut my critic down, tasks take less time to catch up on and the house stays tidier for longer as a result.

Open Up (Space & Self): Minimalist habits tend to make spaces open and so much more breathable. I couldn't see a therapist in-person during lockdown, so I had to make do with phone calls. I opened up about how, having a commute again, I felt like I was losing time to myself, and losing time to give to my home. The calming voice on the other end of the calls told me to set a timer for 30-60 minutes, at least twice a week, to do things just for myself. I followed through, knowing the bi-weekly calls would keep me accountable. Opening up and baring my inner thoughts to another person I wouldn't get to see helped me open up some spaces at home, even if others wouldn't get to see the progress. I started by making my craft room a space specifically for me and my creativity. Although I eventually morphed my "me-time" into time to take care of myself OR my home, whichever needs it more, I realized that an open mind led to open spaces, which has led to a more open and free feeling for myself.

Dealing with all sorts of isolation and lockdown has affected us all. Mental health issues have become more apparent (and sadly, sometimes harder to get adequate help for amidst lockdowns), and some of us have spent more time at home than we ever anticipated. It seems a weird combination, but minimalism and mental health disorders can actually benefit each other when we're left with fewer outlets for our stresses. The hardest part is to find a way to mesh minimalism with depression and anxiety in constructive ways, but hopefully my example has been at least a little bit of an inspiration. Turning an inner critic on to inanimate objects helped me in two ways: I was less the focus of my own personal attacks, and my home was rid of objects that no longer worked for it (or me). Isolation won't be forever, but better habits for a healthier home and healthier mental state can be. Praise yourself for what you can accomplish, and don't beat yourself up for what you can't. Everything will get better.