Downsizing sounds like a good idea – until you have to do it

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 6, 2015

We did it!  Practice what you preach, they say.  So we did.  We downsized – and haven’t looked back.

It happened real fast.  A “For Sale” sign appeared on an attractive but much smaller, single-story home down the street.  The owners kept lowering the price, so we bought it; closed the next week and moved in the day before Thanksgiving.

Our new abode, half the size of our former residence, is a short block from our home of nearly 25 years – in a neighborhood called the Anchorage.  It’s where our kids grew up.

Like the pub in Cheers, the Anchorage is a place where everyone knows your name – and you know theirs.  So we can remain in a neighborhood we love as we follow our strategy to “age in place.”

Downsizing, for most, is an inevitable experience of the bonus years.  The kids grow up and move out – though some, called “boomerang kids,” move back in.   One of ours did that. Still, at some point they all leave and the parents are left with a home much bigger than they need.

For others, the pressure to downsize is delayed by the joy of having grandchildren nearby.  After all, you have to have a place for the grands to stay and play whenever their little hearts desire.

But nearly all of us, sooner or later, are faced with too much space to heat in the winter and cool in the summer – or too much grass to mow, leaves to rake or windows to wash.  At some point nearly all of us downsize: Some to a smaller home, condo or apartment; others to a mother-in-law suite in the home of an adult child or assisted living of some kind.

The actual move – that’s when the fun begins.  Not!  In fact, it’s hard.  That’s why helping people to think about downsizing is now a cottage industry.

There are all kinds of books and articles – and spouses – that tell us we have too much “stuff.”  When you go to a lecture or workshop on getting rid of stuff – or sit down at the dinner table at home – the first person to bring up “stuff” almost always does it with a turned-up nose and a contemptuous sneer.

This dreaded word sort of floats out of his or her mouth in a derisive tone and hangs in the air.  It cannot be removed by a breeze or by changing the subject.  There is but one response: “Yes, dear, we have too much stuff and we must downsize – get rid of it.”

Stuff, we are told, is bad.  Jamie Colby reminds us every week on TV’s Strange Inheritance that “You can’t take it with you.” The Marxists insist that stuff is the residue of our degenerate, materialistic culture.   The clergy tell us we can’t get our riches through “the eye of a needle.”  All the how-to books say “trash it” or “transfer it” – the latter being a nice, neutral-sounding way of saying, “Call it a ‘gift’ and shove it off on others.”

I believed a lot of this advice at first reading.   It all sounds so good and logical in the abstract. But when it comes to applying these principles to your own stuff, that’s when you discover that much of your stuff is not for trashing or transferring.  Reason:  Much of your stuff is treasure.  At least it’s treasure to you!

What about those three gold and two silver medals that you won in your first YMCA swim meet in the “8 and under” class – and you were only seven!  I can’t throw those away.  They are part of me.  My first big win.  They are in a box in the storage room, but the downsized house doesn’t have a storage room.

What about that framed reproduction of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” that my father gave me: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, / But make allowance for their doubting too…”  Is there wall space for hanging that cherished frame?  Our new home has at least 18 fewer walls.

What about that tall statue of Abraham Lincoln?  He is one of my heroes; his biographer, Carl Sandburg, was an alumnus of my school; and his Lincoln biography won the Pulitzer Prize.  Can we keep the statue?  It’s only two feet high.

And what about the book itself?  Do I have to give that prize-winning autobiography away because our downsized home has room for only a fraction of my books?   Books are a big issue. There are so many, and I love them all.  They are like old friends.  I have spent a lot of time with them.  They shaped my life.

Francine Jay has written The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide.  Jay says, “You are not what you own.  You are you and things are things; no physical or mathematical alchemy can alter these boundaries.”

Really?  She has gotta be kidding.  I know there’s an alchemy between me and my books – and between me and my framed Kipling and my various pieces of Lincoln lore.  I’ve seen men and even some women Harley riders who have the Harley motorcycle logo tattooed on their arm or back.  That comes pretty close to combining who you are with what you own.

I like many ideas of the minimalists, but they need to rethink relationships that exist between people and things.  Many of those are positive and symbiotic – relationships between people and their books, picture albums, and cherished gifts from loved ones marking births, graduations, marriages, special achievements and other special occasions.

This “stuff” is not about bling.  This is about symbols of human relationships – and in some cases, a relationship with the transcendent.  In short, downsizing must not preclude preserving the soul of the homestead because, in the end, it is the soul that counts.

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