Imagine an Ideal Lifestyle: Finding parachutes

In the midst of a festival, I found a classmate I hadn’t seen in forty years. We sat together at the edge of the swirl of activity to intertwine memory and news.   Unlike me, my classmate has been building on a single career since graduation. “How many people,” he asked, “knew exactly what they wanted to do by the time we graduated?  I was lucky,” he remarked with a smile, “I did.”

The thing is, I did too and it seems to me a lot of us did. But sometimes opportunity does not knock before resources run out, dreams go astray, circumstances change, or we grow.

Just as I graduated, the expected avenues for an aspiring symphony musician’s career disappeared. Public funding for arts dried up; corporate support for the arts (and for long-term research and development) fell victim to the first waves of downsizing and outsourcing.  In the midst of this confusion I found Richard N. Bolles’ worker-affirmative and extremely helpful book, What Color is Your Parachute, a manual for job hunters and career changers. This annually updated resource remains one of the best guides for folks seeking personal direction and career development

The basic idea, in Bolles’ view, is that to find the perfect career, one must discover not only the talents and skills one prefers to use (and ultimately one’s calling in life) but also discover key elements like one’s preferred responsibility level, income requirements, home and work environment.   A key to discovering all of that is to discover one’s ideal lifestyle.

By now I am an experienced “parachutist,” so I took a reconnaissance spin through Bolles’ self-discovery exercises the minute I knew I was considering retirement. After all, retirement is but an umbrella under which we start new enterprises whether it be perfecting one’s golf game, writing a book, traveling the seven seas or starting a non-profit.

Thus, Marie Kondo’s (the Japanese art of decluttering) blithe remarks that we are to begin the decluttering journey by imagining an ideal lifestyle makes perfect sense. What made me smile, though, is that she doesn’t recognize for a minute that building a dream toward which we aim is not such a light process.

Bolles has us begin by writing ten stories of past accomplishment in which we take especial pride.  We are to describe what we accomplished, how we accomplished it, and why we liked accomplishing whatever it was. From these stories we find the common threads of activities that, if you will, bring us joy. From a decluttering point of view, knowing what it is we want to be doing in retirement dictates what to bring and what to leave behind.

Find ten stories of accomplishment and where they point. So we’ll know what we’ll be doing. And what tools we need to do it.  Try it.  Maybe not the writing, but maybe make a list of ten of your most cherished accomplishments.

Imagine your ideal lifestyle: the second basic requirement

One of my best friends says that his ideal lifestyle would be to win the lottery, sign up for periodic payouts on his winnings and stop working.

It is lovely indeed to think of being free of wage/salary slavery.  I asked him what he would do with his time.  There was a vague idea about spending the next decade catching up on his reading  with his days punctuated by a bit of fine dining…

Another friend works hard to secure her financial future. While she regularly formulates or revises a plan A and a plan B, she once told me that plan Z is to buy a lottery ticket every month.

“Imagine your ideal lifestyle” is the second rule of Marie Kondo’s Six Basic Rules for Japanese-Style Tidying Up. She goes on to suggest that one spend time imagining the kind of house one would like to have and the kind of life one would like in that house.

In “Building Peaceable Habitation” I wrote about how my husband and I took time to imagine the purpose for each room of our house, then applied that vision to carry us through the tedium of moving mountains of accumulated stuff which cluttered those rooms.   We weren’t consciously following Kondo’s program, but in taking the time to consider this bigger picture, we avoided working at cross-purposes or discarding each other’s prized stuff.

Clearing away decades of clutter from my new husband’s house was the second part of the task of building our home together.

In order to get to that part of the task, first I had to severely pare down my own pile of possessions, to make hard and fast, item-by-item decisions about what was to follow me across the Great Plains, a desert and two mountain ranges to get to our new home.

My commitment to do the decluttering was cemented to my fundamental commitment to our marriage with our accompanying decision to relocate to my husband’s house.

Space constraints, the cost of the move, and the contracted pick-up date for my stuff were huge spurs to organized action.   But to make each decision about what to bring and what to leave behind I needed a clear mental picture about what my ideal retirement lifestyle would include.

It turns out that it is not just things that we leave behind, but old lifestyles.

In posts to come, I’ll bring stories about lifestyle changes, and stuff that has flowed into and out of my homes as a result. Maybe there’ll even be a practical hint or two.

Creative Decluttering: One person’s trash is another one’s gold

… there were old car parts, failed do-it-yourself furniture projects, ragged clothing, broken lawn furniture…..

I ended my last post by asking what can motivate a would-be declutterer to commit to decluttering.

Experience suggests that the strongest commitment arises from moving house. No buyer will pay a decent price for a house full of clutter. No landlord returns a deposit if the rental isn’t cleared out. Money talks.

My cat and I lived in a rental townhouse with two basement rooms: one for laundry, and a windowless “playroom” which turned out to suffer from a damp external wall during spring and summer.

I installed a washer and dryer in the laundry room but the other room was useless.  So there I stashed stuff. With that damp wall, I wasn’t going to put anything actually useful down there besides, maybe, my out-of-season car tires.

I was in that townhouse only three years.  But if you are reading a blog about decluttering, you can imagine what piles of useless, difficult to deal with stuff can build up even in that short a time.

I had old car parts, components of failed do-it-yourself furniture projects, ragged clothing, rusting lawn furniture, an old futon, exercise equipment, a broken down old bicycle and still-wrapped packages of bankers’ boxes and bubble wrap from an earlier move.  It was an active three years, don’t you think?

As my move approached and I began to feel the pressure to declutter, a friend told a tale of how her kitchen range had caught fire. It was a tale for the ages which ended with everyone safe and the blackened range smack in the middle of her front lawn. She admitted to being torn between gratitude and profound aesthetic annoyance.

Within an hour, an old pick up truck pulled up to her house and the driver asked whether he might have that burned out hulk.

Yes, he understood that it was no longer a working range.  Yes, he wanted to remove it right then and there.

“Ma’am,” he said, “I can get enough money for that scrap to fuel my truck for a week.”

I got to thinking.

Before the next trash collection I hauled up that box of old car parts and neatly laid it beside my garbage can.  Before the truck came scavengers had taken them and put their box with my recyclables.  Decluttering had begun!

Successful repeats dispersed all the scrap metal and some of the plywood.  May it all be a blessing to someone.

Commitment — The first basic requirement for action

In the past week two people made overtures about hiring me to help declutter their homes.

One is a dear friend who has already made a good start on the job, was able to explain exactly what she needed from me, and has already established a good support system.

The other was made by a friend of someone I do not know.  She was most anxious to convince me that I would be the perfect person to help her friend.  But I couldn’t tell a thing about what would be needed or whether the unknown lady actually wants anyone’s help to declutter her home.

I know five women whose basements, attics, and garages are stuffed full of their deceased in-laws’ stuff.  None of it will ever be used in their homes and none of their grown children want to take any of it.

Each of these wives would love to have that stuff out of their homes.  Each of them knows they dare not touch, let along discard, any of the stuff themselves.  Each one of them expounds a version of the refrain, “I don’t know WHAT to do.  He just won’t take care of that stuff.”

And I’ve talked to some of the husbands.  Their daily lives aren’t particularly impeded by the stuff; they don’t recognize that their wives are upset by it; absolutely any other activity is more satisfying and more necessary than shuffling stuff into “keep” or “discard” piles; but it can’t just be thrown out without shuffling through it because there are treasures buried in there!

Nobody does anything just because someone else thinks it would be very good to get it done.

The decision to declutter a home, clean a bathroom, start a business, learn to play the piano, run for office, take in a foster child, finish an academic degree, and anything else starts by finding within oneself the drive to commit to doing it.

What does it take to gain that sense of commitment?

A Weighty Piano Tale

Yesterday I wrote about releasing emotional baggage along with white elephants. But sometimes, a metaphorical overnight bag lurks in the lost emotional luggage office after the elephant was moved on.

Once upon a time long long ago my grandmother bought a piano.  My mother learned to play it, and when I was young, I played it when I was visiting.  After my grandparents died the piano traveled across half the country to our house. Later, after we kids were grown and gone, and my parents began to think about moving to a smaller house, my mother asked me to take the piano. I was a professional musician in those days, so the plan made sense.

In those days I lived in an apartment building with an elevator, and a piano salesroom in the next building. What a great setup!  When the piano drew nigh I contracted their movers to shift that piano up to my apartment.


The elevator proved too small; the stairs were impossible to negotiate, so the piano ended up in storage above the showroom for a couple of years.

By great good fortune, just as they decided they wouldn’t store pianos anymore, I moved to a townhouse, so into my new home it came.  It followed me through two more local moves.  I played it every now and then for several years.

Then, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the time came for me to move on.  I knew for certain that I did not want to move that piano anymore.

I called my mother.

“Mother,” I said, “The music program where I’ve been teaching would be overjoyed to accept our piano for their special division which offers music lessons to inner-city children who otherwise would never have the opportunity to learn to play. They are willing to come move it. Our piano will be a godsend for the program. May I give it to them?”

(As God is my witness) she agreed.

So, with light heart, open hands and a clear conscience, I gave our piano to a new home to delight a new generation of musicians.

Years and years later, my aging mother complained that I’d given away her family piano. I asked whether she remembered our conversation.  The wind shifted with an, “Oh never you mind,” and that was that.   The matter lay quietly between us never again to be mentioned.

Sometimes a piano can get really, really heavy.

(The featured photo is of my cat atop my current and thoroughly covered piano.)

White Elephants Bearing Emotional Baggage

Yesterday I wrote the words, “Decluttering is all tied up with relationships and often those relationships are with folks we’ll never see again.” Sometimes it is hard to understand that permanence.

I used to chair the Music division of an after-school program. The program’s divisions were Music, Art, Piano Lab, Suzuki, Orff, and Dance and the chairs of these divisions formed the faculty arm of the program’s directive circle. Deep political, pedagogical and artistic alliances formed and one of my closest friendships developed with the guy who ran the Piano Lab.

He was a music composer and over the years I worked hard to bring some of his work to the performance stage.

My friend also taught piano lessons out of a studio in his home and he was particularly popular with ladies of uncertain age who brought their children, or sometimes themselves, for music lessons.

One of these ladies grew concerned about the state of his waiting room and set to work to craft a lovely slipcover for the most worn out sofa.  My friend was completely incapable of refusing the rather astonishing gift and more than a bit disturbed by the notion that just maybe her interests lay beyond their music lessons.

Then my friend announced that he was soon to pull up stakes and head off in non-musical directions in a distant state and I found my own self much more devastated than one expects to be at the severing of a merely professional liaison!

As he was dispersing his local effects, he gave me that slipcovered sofa which I accepted knowing full well that I nurtured a faint hope that our bond might have some sustaining elements.

A few years later it was my own turn to pull up stakes.  And although I hired a truck for the first time, I already knew that one should not pack it without some thought for what is to come at the far end of a move. So, fully aware that I was acting upon the death of that old faint hope, I loaded that slipcovered sofa into the back of the truck last and in the early morning light paused briefly to drop it off at Goodwill.

Thirty years later, and after much more experience of the deep emotional tides of decluttering, I realized that along with that sofa, my long ago friend had entrusted to me for safe-keeping his guilt and confusion about his relationship with that student and perhaps, if vanity may be allowed, with me!

So in the faint light of that long-ago dawn I had relinquished custody of a whole lot more than a sofa.

Sometimes, we just need to let things go.

(The featured image, here, obviously can’t be of that particular slipcovered sofa.)

Puppies, a Monkey, and Bears…

Decluttering is all tied up with relationships and often those relationships are with folks we’ll never see again.

My little brother died as a young man about twenty years ago. It was plain awful for all of us, and differently awful for each of us.

But we collected ourselves, came in from our far-flung venues to meet at the family outpost then crossed the river to take our first licks at emptying his apartment. His extended family-of-choice had agreed to come finish the job after we’d taken what we wanted.

My older brother and parents seemed to have their objectives clear: treasures to find or self-assigned tasks to complete. I wandered about the two rooms keeping out of folks’ way and looking at the things my little brother had chosen to keep in his life. There were gifts I’d sent him over the years. I was glad he’d kept them and used them

And I found his old friends from childhood and their newer companions: an array of teddy bears, a couple of toy dogs and a monkey. I couldn’t abandon them! I loaded his collection into a 30-gallon bag and stashed it safely in the car. Although I had no idea what I would do with them, my brother’s companions came back across the river with us.

That evening the phone rang and after a moment Mother passed it to me. There was a tearful voice asking whether in our searches we’d found a toy monkey; she hadn’t been able to find it when she’d gone over with the others. I remembered that unusual toy. I assured her that I had the monkey safe with me.

It turned out that a few years earlier she and my brother both had been strapped for cash. So, for Christmas they’d agreed to exchange precious childhood toys. My brother had given her a book and she had given him her monkey companion. Was there any way, she asked, she could get her monkey back?

The next day I took the train to her place bearing a duffle bag – slightly unzipped, so they all could breathe, of course — full of my brother’s toy friends. There I met three of the most awesome people, friends of my brother’s, one of whom had been in high school with him.

The monkey was home. And, for hours they shared the stories of how my brother had acquired all the newer bears, while I answered with the stories about his childhood friends.

When our tales were all told, those excellent people decided upon appropriate homes for every one of those toys. But I kept Puppable and Junebread, whose picture is featured.

Sometimes, we just need to keep things.