Monday, April 6, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: Downsizing and Decluttering (Again!!)

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Sometimes all our stuff feels seriously overwhelming, and paper is my worst enemy.  (Image from here.)
In the early 1990s when the word "downsizing" had not yet been invented, my mom started the process of transitioning from a 5-bedroom house in suburbia to a one bedroom place in New York City.  She always was ahead of her time. Only her very favorite things came with her, and even though the apartment was very small, there was a feeling of calm and spaciousness because of the sparse decorating, and the feeling that each item was cherished.

I loved her new apartment.  I loved the feeling that every item in the apartment was appreciated, wanted, needed, and used. I've always anthropomorphized things, ascribing feelings to inanimate objects.  Here, there was nothing just patiently biding its time, watching the other possessions get attention and feeling lonely. And no pressure on the owner to care for things that weren't needed.  She almost never needed to dust, because, well, everything was used every day, nothing sat around long enough to get dusty.  I looked at it from the vantage of our 11 acres in Colorado, and a sprawling house that also contained two home offices and Dan's extensive shop and kitchen design showroom. Though there was no name yet for the process she had done, I told her that I admired her space, and wondered how to develop the mindset that would make it possible for us to do the same.  "Your grandparents fled the wars in Europe with little more than the clothes they were wearing.  There were no heirlooms, no mementos of their previous lives.  For forty years, I collected antiques.  I wanted items that had a history, even if that history wasn't my own.  But now, it's time for me to get rid of things.  That's all.  No special tricks.  But as for you, you'll figure it out," she said.  "And I have a feeling it won't take you as long as it did me."

Her words were optimistic as always, projected her confidence in me just as she always had since I was a child, but I couldn't imagine how I was going to get to that streamlined place where she was until I was at least her age, even later.  Achieving what she had seemed completely impossible, like flapping my wings and flying.  How could I give away things that had meaning?  But that was in life before boat.

Just a few years later, she was gone, and Dan and I bought our first sailboat, and four after that, we moved aboard.   My mom's words, now strangely prophetic, came back to me as a lot of our possessions were sold in a series of garage sales, and more were placed in storage.  We wanted the decision to be reversible, if living on a boat didn't work out we wanted to be able to go back ashore, so we kept enough to furnish a small studio apartment.  And there were beautiful sentimental things, meaningful things and family heirlooms, that we didn't want to part with.  In fact, we made an agreement not to pressure each other at all, to part with anything that might make us resent the process of moving aboard, or that we couldn't replace with mere cash if we chose to.  Still, we got rid of a lot, and I never felt like a poser when I talked about the process of drastic downsizing.

I moved aboard first, as my new job in Washington DC started while Dan was still finishing the semester teaching back in Michigan.  There was barely enough room my clothing and minimal stuff, on the boat.  I had no idea what we would do, where we would fit things, when Dan arrived with our tools, kitchenware, books, his clothing and our dog and cat.

We ended up having to give up some of our already minimal living space and turn it into more storage.  For the first few months, we couldn't sleep in the v-berth because it had become a giant storage locker.  We slept on the pullout starboard settee in the main cabin while we sorted and purged, evenings and weekends, while our new surroundings were tempting us to explore the small towns of the Chesapeake, the wonderful museums and monuments of our nation's capital.   Two downsides of having too many possessions -- we missed the chance to play tourist in our new home because we were busy handling our things, and we lost precious living space, in January, when we were already subject to cabin fever.  But suddenly one day I looked around and everything was in its place, and we had exactly the right amount of everything, and I realized that my mom had been right, that I had in fact been able to downsize, radically.  And it felt just as wonderful as I had anticipated.

I've always thought downsizing was something we did once, and then were finished with.  But its a job that doesn't stay done.  Over time, we accumulate a book, an interesting spice, a t-shirt from a fun event, a tool that we needed once (and doubtless will again), random pieces of historic clothing, and my worst nemesis, the inevitable paperwork, documents and receipts that need to be saved for tax purposes.  In general, we have walked a balance between living a clutter-free life, and having all the tools and supplies to be independent wherever we were anchored.  After our time in the apartment in Aruba where we learned anew how calming it was to live in uncluttered, orderly surroundings, we came back to a boat that felt, well, choking with "stuff."  I looked around and started to count.  There were less than the 2,000 things that were visible in the average American home, but sadly more than the 267 we had had in the "birdhouse" apartment. I started on a mission to put things away, establish homes for possessions that had not previously had homes, and consolidate.  We had a couple of sessions with our vacuum-sealer machine and some vinyl drybags from Amazon.

After our purge, the boat felt better, much, much better, but still wasn't enough.  Lockers were still full to bursting, making it difficult to get things out, and worse to put things away.  Unbelievably, we have to do a full-out downsizing process again.  We had to rent a small storage unit in town and start packing boxes.  Mind = blown.


  1. Your mother sounds like she was a wonderfully wise woman.

    Four down, now omwards to E! Can't wait to see what you have in store for us :-)