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The Exquisite Pain of Downsizing

By Howard Fishman February 18, 2021 Lifestyle

We downsize to make life less complicated. Less expensive. Easier to maneuver. More accommodating to health care needs. Or for some of us, to lessen our footprint on mother earth.

Though the care and upkeep of less square footage is enticing, the physical act of downsizing can be overwhelming. Because it demands getting rid of – how can I put it gently – our stuff.

Can We Avoid Downsizing Altogether?

I have a friend whom I’ll call John. John has specific thoughts on the activity of downsizing. Simply put: he’ll have none of it. You might wonder about his level of self-awareness. Think he’s lazy. Or living in the past. Yet in the end, you might want to adapt his philosophy.

On any given day, John can be found rummaging through stacks of paper. Rifling through albums from the 70s. Polishing used furniture he’s picked up at neighborhood garage sales. Clipping articles about his beloved New York Yankees. Or working on a classic Ford Mustang. The one that’s rendered his garage useless for any other purpose.

(Promise you won’t report him to tidy-up guru, Marie Kondo.)

John would rather up-size his square footage than eliminate what’s no longer necessary. There’s no discernible psychological reason for this. He’s not a hoarder. Nor is he disturbingly attached to his possessions.

John knows there’s a choice. He’s just busy living his life. And when that life is over, an independent fiduciary will make a few calls: to an estate sales representative; a consignment shop owner; a cleaning service. And just like that, the contents of John’s house will disappear. With no apparent consequence to John.

No tears will be shed. There will be no moments of consternation. No should I or shouldn’t I?

It’s not for everyone. Certainly not for me. I tend to get tactile with my memorabilia. Time-travel to the moment it appeared in my life. Get clear on what it contributed to my role as a son, husband, lover, or friend.

We Opt to Save Rather Than Toss

We’re emotional hoarders. Material objects are strongly associated with feelings and memories that hold dominion over better sensibilities. We keep, lest we forget. It’s easier to reseal the box. Revisit at a later time. Decide what gets tossed into the trash bin of history – later.

Up until recently, I had no catch-and-release program. I kept things until forced by space or spouse to let them go. Until this most current move. The first in a series of steps leading to an expat life in Spain.

The idea that you can’t take it with you, apparently extends to moves across great bodies of water. Shipping non-essential personal belongings overseas makes poor financial sense. It’s impractical. Especially if one’s goal is extensive exploration across Europe.

Renting a storage area, stateside, is possible but also costly. Why pay to store objects that will ultimately be abandoned down the road?

Then there’s this recent learning: don’t leave the task of disposing of possessions for others to deal with after you’ve gone. Be responsible for the cleanliness of your departure.

What Makes Downsizing So Exquisitely Painful?

Shakespeare wrote, parting is such sweet sorrow.” That was true for Romeo and Juliet. They had imagined they’d see each other the next morning. But when the trash truck rambles down the street, filled with the pieces of your life stuffed into black plastic bags, that’s pretty much it.

Therein lies the pain. It’s permanent.

The exquisite part comes later. After emotional clarity settles over you. When you experience a freedom that’s only possible with the release of extraneous possessions. When you finally understand that nothing can cancel the memory itself. It lives within you.

Let me be clear about one thing, though. I’m not an advocate for ridding yourself of everything.

After the death of my mother, I was asked which of her possessions I’d want to keep. There were dozens from which to choose. I selected only one. A soft scarf with muted colors. As I brought the silky material to my face with both hands, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. And there it was. The scent of my mother’s lifetime.

I had reveled in the fragrance. During comforting hugs. When it filled the car as she drove me to school on snowy New York mornings. Or on weekends, when, as a children, my sister and I jumped into bed with my parents. And I’d steal a quick whiff of her pillow.

So, no. You don’t need to toss everything. Just choose wisely.

What does downsizing mean to you? Have you considered what you might choose to get rid of? What have you decided to keep and why? Please share your thoughts below!

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The Author

Howard Fishman is a writer. An expat from California, now residing in Spain, Howard is focused on a journalistic second career, sharing insights on the expat experience, the culture of aging, meaningful friendships, generational workplace issues, and the arts that best express who we are at fifty plus. His writings can be found at

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