The daunting dilemmas surrounding downsizing

You'd think that somebody would have warned us. When we were first out of our cradles, some kind mentor should have laid down a few precepts for coping with a world that, a poet once wrote, is "so full of a number of things" we should all be happy as kings.

It's that "number of things" which is the sticking point. Unlike kings, we don't all have huge castles in which to keep the things.

For instance, our advisor should have told us never to buy a house with more than two rooms, no matter how many people might be housed there, because, as a matter of course, we'd furnish all those rooms, leaving us, at some point in our lives, having to unfurnish them.

We should have been warned, as well, never to accept inheritances of any goods that are larger than a breadbox - a very small one. No sets of antique china or ginger jar vases. No French armoires. No plush albums with photos of long-gone and now unidentifiable ancestors.

Travel souvenirs would have warranted another warning. The Mexican bark paintings, the camel seat from that Moroccan bazaar, brass rubbings, masks and other reminders of happy vacations and overseas sojourns.

Collections? A wise advisor would have suggested the avoidance of any collectibles larger than thimbles.

And what about that omnium gatherum of crafts materials which creative souls are planning to use, someday? (Among people who sew, the prevalent t-shirt slogan is: The one who dies with the most fabrics wins.)

Another precept: Stay away from garage, rummage and estate sales. (Those of you who haven't lived by this wisdom know who you are and what consequences you suffer.)

The probable truth is that the day will come, if it hasn't already, when you will move to a smaller place or into one-bedroom senior housing or have only a studio apartment in the retirement home in which to fit yourself and your prized possessions.

What will you dispose of, and how will you do it? What will you keep, and why? These are the often-daunting questions that face those of us who, after a lifetime of adding to them, must reduce the "number of things" which have added comfort and color to our lives. Getting rid of our things can be intimidating because they are often triggers for happy memories and connections to the people who had given them to us.

I am looking for advice here, from those of you who have taken the downsizing bullet between your teeth and clamped down hard. So far, most of my own downsizing has been of the "maintenance" variety - meaning the maintenance of a modicum of living space between stacks of books and other worldly goods.

Even at this paltry level, I don't seem to be a marvelous success.

When I return from my frequent runs to the Goodwill or neighborhood rummage sales, I get the feeling that my discards have cloned themselves in my absence and left the place as crowded as before.

Different people, of course, have different ways of handling this dilemma, sometimes suffering an enduring trauma in the process, and sometimes sailing through the yard sales and other ways of lightening the load.

My sister Cathy, a longtime, creative packrat who spent years simplifying her surroundings, recommends patience and persistence. One thing at a time. If you can't sell it, give it away.

Now, she and her husband live in a tidy, little retirement apartment, with only a small, rented storage locker to remind them of more spacious days. Some older people actually stuff their cars with things that won't fit into tiny dwellings, using their cars as auxiliary closets. (Nobly, I am refraining from giving this info to SUV manufacturers to use in their advertising.)

Other people call the St. Vincent de Paul truck, or simply put everything in the dumpster.

Among the many downsizing stories to be heard in my circle of acquaintances, one of the most unusual (and rewarding) is the one told to me a couple of weeks ago at a fund-raising event at a community senior center. A board member whom I'd just met, a woman of engaging youthfulness and charm, told me that she was required, with some suddenness, to move from her spacious suburban home to smaller and less expensive digs.

Finding an apartment for herself was hard enough. But what seemed insurmountable was the problem of finding space for a valuable piano. It had been the prized possession of her grandmother, a noted concert pianist. Her decision was to store the piano at the Wallingford Center, located not far from the apartment she finally found. The piano reposes safely in the Center, where she visits (and plays) it frequently, sharing her inheritance with appreciative senior citizens and volunteering on their behalf.

That's what I'd call uplifting downsizing. Would that all our downsizing stories exemplified such positive thinking.

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