The sounds of closing doors, rustling potato chip bags, steps on the back staircase, and the refrigerator door slamming at 3 a.m. have become unfamiliar these days, yet having three teens home from college has removed our silence and returned us to a house of vibrant activity, dishes left in the sink, and late-night returns home from seeing friends.
At first it was disturbing, disrupting the silence these empty-nesters only recently discovered after 18 years of care-giving. But now they are joyous sounds, now that we’ve adapted again, this time knowing our guiding voices are needed a little less.
I used to rise early, while the house was sleeping, in order to find the sounds of silence. I’d escape to the back porch, overlooking the neighbors’ 40 acres of cattle. This morning, I sit in the living room, dogs on my lap, nudging me to pet them while my hands are juggling the keyboard.
Old friends greet me — the giant Christmas coffee cup and platter we have used for almost two decades to put out cookies and milk for Santa. The stockings with the names of each family member, the dogs, and dogs from our past. The tall strong nutcrackers stand guard by the fireplace, following instructions to let no one other than Mr. Claus enter. The color-filled tree, filling the air with the scent of pine, holds family heirlooms, treasures from our past. If there were to be a fire, those ornaments would be the biggest loss — ornaments with the kids’ faces on their first Christmas, reminders of vacations over the years, ornaments that were favorites from our childhoods that stimulate memories of our lifetimes.
A Solution to Hoarding
On the table in front of me is the old family Bible, used for generations and the place everyone documented family births and graduations to a better place. Beside it, a pair of preserved baby shoes that were mine, discovered with my mom’s special treasures when we had to clean out her house. Only a few items remain from the house of memories, which is now gone. Rather than take everything away with us (which would have been impossible), we each picked what we wanted and then took pictures of the things we had not seen in years so that, rather than becoming hoarders, we could get the good feeling of seeing them in our photo libraries.
Decades of Dust
When my grandparents died, the same process occurred. People took what they wanted and put those memories to use. My mom did the same, but the big stuff, like furniture, went into a storage unit she intended to use for a little while, until she could use the things in it “someday.” Laurie had the pleasure of driving to Indiana on the way home from New York, and having the storage people cut the lock off the unit and pry the door open. It had not been opened for 25 years, since the last time I visited to consolidate everything down to a smaller unit. Overall, my mom paid on that unit for 35 years, and those “someday” things never saw sunlight. This summer we’ll stop on our way back to the lake and spend a couple of days going through the dust, to fill a truck with some of those antiques to use in our antique lake cabin. The rest will be distributed to my brothers or to Goodwill.
My Depression-era parents saved everything because they grew up with nothing. I was well trained in hoarding. I used to do a spring cleaning of my room and throw out toys and things I no longer needed, and when I came back from school they were all back in my closet. I eventually learned to keep everything, following in the footsteps of my past.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
For decades I begged my mom and my dad to not leave us with this mess to go through. Dad listened and has spent weeks combing through his storage unit and is no longer clinging to good things that should be put to use one day. Mom never did. The other remarkable three-year project was getting every photo and slide my dad ever made scanned to be stored digitally.
After a failed marriage over 30 years ago, I left with what I could fit in a couple of trips in my car, but it seems I’ve managed to keep everything since. Hundreds of paintings I’ve created, useful to no one but my memory. Oh, and piles of old business records, scrapbooks, boxes of photos, and a lot of stuff I’ll never use. Of course my fear is something good will end up at Goodwill. Thankfully, I’ve had all my paintings photographed and archived; I just need to get around to “comments” to explain the meaning of each. And of course there are about 30 portraits of me, by the greatest living masters, that will one day need a home.
When going through mom’s storage, I realized that the only things meaningful were memories we could relate to. Most everything she kept that had meaning to her was of little meaning to others.
The Giant Purge
One of the greatest gifts someone can leave their kids is a clean home with the excess distributed to heirs or removed. And, since this Christmas will be a homebound holiday for most, why not use the time for the great Christmas memory adventure? Scan the photos, photograph things you can let go of and give to charity, purge drawers filled with old gadgets that were once expensive but are no longer of any value, and comb closets to rid yourself of those favorite T-shirts you love but haven’t worn in decades. Your heirs will thank you. And, if you can, make your heirs part of the process. They may want things once they hear the stories behind them. Doing so will stimulate a Christmas of memories and an activity to create some family togetherness.
The Cycle of Stuff
Life is funny. We start out with nothing, we want to make more money to buy more stuff and bigger houses, which we fill with even more stuff. Then, as we age, we eventually need to downsize, but instead of getting rid of things, we make storage unit owners rich. The guy who owns the storage unit I visited has one of the biggest houses in town and told me that most of his customers pay every month and have not visited in decades. His longest absentee customer hadn’t been seen in almost 40 years. My mom was his second-longest.
Clinging to stuff is understandable, because we’re really clinging to memories. It’s hard to throw out a 30-year-old piece of furniture you paid a lot of money for. It’s hard to part with the old appliances you could barely afford. It’s practical to think you might use something or wear it again someday.
What’s Holding You Back?
Stuff is an anchor. Friends once told me they wanted to downsize, but they had too much stuff and did not want to deal with it. So they never did … until their house burned and they were left with no stuff. Though it was a devastating moment that ruined their lives in many ways, they also told me that it may have been the only thing to get them to move on. Now they are building a modern dream house in the same spot, and it’s more of a fit with their lifestyle today.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
As I sit here writing this, I know that I’ll have to do it too. Shelves of stored paintings and books, old easels I have not used in years, gobs of paint. Yet I know someone will want it, and I can either sell it or give it away. I actually have an “eBay pile” of things I’ve intended to sell for the past decade. Never got around to it. It’s embarrassing. But it’s time for it to go, and I need to take the time to make it go.
So, Christmas vacation will be a staycation, and the virus may be doing us a favor by making us stay close to family and deal with the many needed projects that never get done. I don’t want to look back knowing I had the time and did not use it.
What about you?
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Holidays.
PS: What’s better than accumulating stuff? Accumulating knowledge. I always want to grow, and this time is a great time to take online courses in something you want to learn. We have created thousands and thousands of hours of art training by the best in the world, which you can find here.
We also have a rare gathering of the top watercolor artists in the world, teaching online for four days in January. It will make you a better painter, even if you’ve never painted. You can learn about Watercolor Live here.
We’re in survival mode, like most small businesses, so a subscription or a gift always helps. A gift guide is here and everything we do can be found here. Yes, it’s ironic to bring new stuff in when taking the old stuff out. But, when you give it, it’s going elsewhere too. 🙂
MERRY CHRISTMAS. I certainly hope we both come out on the other side of this trying time and that someday I get to meet you and shake your hand.
Eric you are describing me to a T. My family would agree with you.
Eric we love you God Bless
You are more right on than you know. God Bless the Universe and you to know what we think is appropriate my wish is that your words inspire us to know that the past is in our hearts but what we have needs to be shared with those who are cold and alone all days, not just not tonight. Thank you again Eric you are the push in our lives.Peggy
Yes, very timely, Eric! We are trying to clean 2 storage lockers, with not much hope that both will get done — and we have no kids to leave anything to! That’s even worse!! But our life adventures have been great — Climbing up Mt. Kinabalu, getting driven through Jakarta thinking we wouldn’t get out alive, walking down a muddy road to an expat party, climbing some 20 14’ers here in Colorado, loving the cactus , views and friends at Plein Air in Tucson, living off and on in Italy, and of course painting so many years with so many wonderful artists and teachers. So, I had fun making a Christmas card from the beautiful church scene that you sent us, a vertical, edited scene, which reminded me of driving in northern Italian Tyrol where those ground fogs can be treacherous. Although, I agree, this scene is likely in Austria, so beautiful. You are so very fortunate, so good at what you’re doing, and you can be so happy with your accomplishments! The stuff will be taken care of!
Have a joyous Christmas with your family. Jean
I smiled as I read your blog because it hit home with me. When I was getting ready to move to Mississippi from Georgia, I looked with dismay at the “stuff” I had moved back and forth across country, much of which I had kept for nostalgic reasons. Knowing I might have to downsize in my new home, I called a charity organization and with a twinge in my heart gave them a truckload of my “treasures”. I have not missed them, but carry their memories in my heart.
Thank you… for the story…the reminders and the suggestions.
Years ago I had to clean out my parents home for 40 years and said that I would not do that to my children. Well…. I’m working on it. 🙂
A sketchbook artist a few years back wrote about sketching special family items and writing a bit about them in a sketchbook. What a wonderful idea! Have I done that…. I’m thinking about it!
Stay safe and healthy and thank you again and again for the interview / tutorial videos that you have been sharing!
I needed to hear that. Now is the time to start getting rid of stuff.
Did you know it’s easier to help throw away other people’s stuff than get rid of your own?
I’m really enjoying the coffee with Eric.
Keep up the good work.
Eric, great insights, as always! Thank you. Here’s an idea that worked for me and you may want to borrow: I gave my pile of ebay items to my daughter to list and follow-up on with the agreement that we would split whatever she could sell it all for. She loved doing it and we both got a little spending money out of it!
I found one way to get rid of old art stuff and art creations is to have an “Ancient Art Sale”. It’s amazing new people who appreciate your old creations you have moved beyond. It also makes new art friends!
Hi Eric i would just like to thank you for your daily videos through the pandemic they have made me take a step backwards and start from scratch (your note system) . Just like my golf which was self taught which got really good then went downhill so started again. I have been painting for 3 yrs and have 30 odd paintings under my belt some of which i am pretty proud of some not so but your lessons and videos have been a godsend .Thankyou again and Merry Xmas to you and art family. Regards Alan from Melbourne Australia.
I really enjoy your great ability to express yourself. I love you mentioning having a Christmas stocking for pets who had passed are also placed out for Santa. It hits a soft spot that is appreciated. You are so right about needing to declutter which becomes so important as we hit our senior years. That has been on my bucket list for years!!!!
It’s a wonderful poignant post! And very true….
Such good wisdom this morning Eric! Downsizing, decluttering, purging, I’m in this process as well. After 43 years of accumulation, by two creative people, trying to teach themselves how to throw things away, we have quite a job ahead of us. Your words are very encouraging. I love your sense of humour. Thank you!
My storage unit is 12×60 and is mostly full of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. I got rid of the big house ten years ago but then sacrificed the place to store things. Little by little, I’ve been thinning out. Your editorial hits home for most of us seniors!
As does most of your Sunday Coffee emails! I forward many to friends and family. One big plus is I can delete the non-essential parts of the email which I think makes it more readable and interesting for my family and friends to read. Any tips of how to get the younger generation to read and acknowledge?
We were one of the families that lost our home in the big fire in Bastrop, Texas, in 2011. As your friend said we just lost “stuff” and we are all safe and sound. I did miss the Christmas ornaments made by our kids and things we bought in South America. I asked our grown children and grandkids make ornaments for the new tree. A fun exercise. One daughter used pipe cleaners like she did when she was little. Our granddaughter put a few pieces of broken dishes that were to be her wedding gift. Another put baby photos in hers. Now we have accumulated another lifetime of “stuff”. Thanks for the reminder to clean out the closets again. 🙂 Merry Christmas.
I always enjoy you “Sunday Column” , but today you wrote about something I’ve thought about and never did anything. So, have an article in one of the “Streamline” magazines, showing ALL of your portraits done by various artists. This would be interesting to compare the styles, techniques and differences. Have a Great Christmas and enjoy the company.
I always enjoy you “Sunday Column” , but today you wrote about something I’ve thought about and never did anything. So, have an article in one of the “Streamline” magazines, showing ALL of the portraits done by various artists. This would be interesting to compare the styles, techniques and differences. Have a Great Christmas and enjoy the company.
Thank you for this, Eric. I, too, have finally figured out that it is all just stuff, and that the memories are what are important. My husband and I collected Victorian antiques for over 20 years. After he passed I had several auctions and just kept the most meaningful items. Now, after 15 years it is time for me to downsize. I have no children and really don’t want to leave the mess to nieces and nephews, so am currently in the process of planning an auction of the “stuff” so that others can enjoy it. I will still have the memories and will not have to dust it or find storage space for it.
Funny how it takes so long to wise up! You have a Blessed Christmas and a very Happy New Year. Thanks for all you do.
Wise words Eric. Stay safe and well.
I too jettisoned most after my husband passed away. Much was given to his college friends, who were more like his family than merely friends. The rest to museums and charity. However, about those t shirts..those I recycled into quilts..keeping the graphics, backing them with interfacing..sewing the newly created blocks into a new life. That is joyful.
Hi, I grew up in a house of several eneration. GRANDMOTHER, FROM Europe saved things, parents saved things, In-Law saved a few things, I save things. As an artist some times the things you save can sent you off on a new artistic tangent. Artists SAVE STUFF, BUT WE ALSO REUSE WHAT WE SAVE. CAUTION DO NOT DICARD ALL THAT STUFF, GO THROUGH IT AND GET RID OF THINGS YOU DO NOT NEED, WILL NEVER USE.
welcome trash day, clean house, home studio, But keep the valuable things, in summer have a yard/sidewalk sale
enjoy All the holidays
An awesome read
This really speaks to me Eric! My brother in law died in August and we had to sell his house , so we waded thru tons of stuff, and antiques that seemed to have value, but as we learned, none of the kids want old stuff, beautiful though it might be, and it only has value if you can find a buyer! Many trips to good will later, I have continued by focusing on our house! Seemed like lockdown was a good time! Drawer by drawer, and then I called the painters! It feels great. I even moved my art studio out of a corner of the living room and took over my married son’s room! What was I waiting for, in retrospect??? As we are forced to think about life and death with this virus looming over all of us, time comes into sharp focus, and how we want to use what is left…Thank you for your Sunday thoughts…hope to see you in this new year, painting.
PS Streamline publishing has been a godsend right now…
There are very few clouds lacking a silver lining. I, too, am taking some of this time to get rid of things I no longer use because they are either a sentimental attachment or as Mom would say “Perfectly good”. As a child of Depression era parents, I fear tossing something and then needing it the next day! I am in “recovery”;-)
You really touched a nerve today! My parents were depression era children and they saved everything. My brother and I got that sentimental saving gene. This year of lockdowns and hardships has triggered fears and uncertainty . It’s hard to tamp them down once they have surfaced. I try to convince myself that someone will need the things more than I do. The idea of giving is easier to accept than thinking you are throwing good stuff away.
Thank you Eric for the Sunday Coffee reminder of keeping the important memories. My daughters keep reminding me to please get rid of the Barbies in the attic that I saved for them.
Thank you, Eric! Wise and fitting words. Now if I could just let it go!
I love your Sunday Coffee musings … Actually, I love my quiet time in the morning with my coffee and trusty laptop. I plan my day and catch up with friends and family on FB. My best ideas and thoughts are during this time.
With your words, you have captured the essence of what we early-morningers know. Thank you so much for continuing with these emails – they are a great start to the week ahead.
We have family in Austin – and if we plan a trip there I would absolutely love to see you and Laurie.
All the charity shops here in Norfolk (uk) are full as everyone has been clearing out their houses during lockdown! It’s going to b e bonfire time soon! I agree with every word about clutter…..
They are pretty full here too. I took somethings to a charity shop and saw them just throwing things into the dumpster out back.
Wow, so timely Eric,
I am actually do this right now. Somehow I don’t feel comfortable giving some of my personal memories to the Goodwill.
I am putting those things into boxes and plan to rent a cabin or beach house one day and have a bonfire. I will feel better doing that than having things I loved end up in a dumpster.
I am lucky that my parents took care of most of it before I had to, I’m doing it for my son now.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,