Many people, city dwellers especially, know that space is a luxury. I’d bet most of us have, at one time or another, uttered the words, “I need space.” We might have been talking about our apartments, our office cubicles or even our relationships. Even people in large homes rent storage units. But wanting more space can also be metaphysical. We practice yoga to make room in our bodies and we do breathing techniques to create space in our minds. Yet with all this space accumulation, it never seems to be enough.
When I lived in 90-square-feet it felt like I had all the space in the world because I was free. Free from the shackles of a 9 to 5, a high rent, and mounds of unused stuff.
We ourselves don’t need that much space, it’s our stuff that makes us think we do. I’m talking about the stuff we either outgrow or when our stuff’s usefulness is outgrown and we don’t get rid of it. Do you toss old sneakers or leave them in the back of a closet? I have a friend with three broken toasters in her living room. She doesn’t bring them out to the trash because, she says, “I’m too lazy.” Is it really laziness or a fear of letting go?
The bottom line is, it’s not about space or stuff – it’s about happiness. Does a large home with lots of stuff around you make you happy? Then great. But that’s not what people write or say when asking me for help. They feel overwhelmed by their stuff, not knowing how or where to begin to get rid of it. I tell them stuff should leave the same way it came in – piece by piece. Try one item a day or one full box. I also suggest they picture how they’d like their home to look and to hold onto that image as they chip away in small sections. Once you begin to create space, you will be motivated to keep going.
Please check out my newest book: 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more)
My parents moved into their current home in 1980. As the oldest I was given first choice to select my bedroom, and I picked the biggest, a sunny 17’ x 17’ room with three windows. But the real bonus was the two enormous walk-in closets. Who knew that decision would eventually shape my career.
Inside those closets I honed my organizing skills. Hours were spent removing the contents and putting them back, searching for the perfect configuration. Do sweaters take up less room if they’re rolled up like gym towels? Should jeans be folded in half or in threes? I even built my own shoe cubby from scrap wood in the garage. I’m not sure I ever achieved perfection, yet I don’t think it was perfection I was seeking. I just enjoyed the challenge. I still do.
Nevertheless, with all the changes the closet’s contents have seen over the decades: from tomboy to preppy to girlie to woman, there has remained one constant, one item I still use even today when I walk inside.
There’s nothing special about this mirror. It’s a run of the mill mirror that’s not even attached to the wall, but just leans against it. However it has shown me who I was at every stage of my life. Beginning as a lithe 10 year old who only wore alligator shirts and Levis cords, through awkward adolescence, puberty, the Freshman Fifteen, adulthood and, even today (gulp!) middle age.
But it is not just the physical stages this mirror has seen. It helped prepare me for many a first day of school. It has seen sunburns and chicken pox. It was there when I headed off to college, and it knows my darkest secrets, like where the goods are stored. It helped me get ready for weddings, bar mitzvahs and proms, and watched me perfect my breakdancing moves. The mirror even comforted me the time I sat huddled inside, door closed, soothing a broken heart. It’s been my biggest alley as well as foe, when things fit or were too tight.
Over the years, the reflection has changed immensely, yet I still see that 10-year-old girl, looking back, eyes full of wonder, excited about her future.
Life can sometimes be like a walk down the sunny side of the street. Birds chirping, a soft breeze against your skin. But then imagine a hole opens up in front of you. You’re not prepared for it, you had no idea something like this would happen, but it does.
Now maybe that hole is shallow and leaves you with nothing but a sprained ankle or a bruised ego. Maybe it requires a little more effort to get out, but because you’ve taken care of yourself for years, eaten right, exercised, you’re able to climb out. Sometimes though, the hole is deep and there is no way out.
It’s scary, dark and cold in that hole. There are strange, unfamiliar noises too. You can see the light above, the safe space, but it’s out of reach. Friends and family visit to lift your spirits. The worst part is, while you’re down there your mind races, wondering how you didn’t see the hole coming, and you berate yourself for not being better prepared. But sometimes the hole has nothing to do with how you took care of your body. Sometimes, often times, the hole was inevitable.
After a while, you wonder why you wasted so much time worrying about silly things before you fell into the hole, like bills or getting wrapped up in co-workers’ pettiness, or even your hair. You start to wish you spent more time with your family, more time riding your bike or reading that stack of books on your nightstand instead of checking email before bed. You wish you traveled more, hugged more, and smoked less.
Soon you will become determined to get out of the hole. You promise yourself that when you do, you will change your ways and appreciate the little things, because there’s more life to live. This is where Living Large comes into play. Living Large is about rearranging your priorities before the hole appears. It is about unloading the excess and spending more time doing what you love, instead of working to pay for stuff you don’t even use, because we never know when that hole will appear.
p.s. This blog was brought to you by my Shingles, which came out of left field two weeks ago.
Winter ain’t over just yet folks. While that’s not great for outdoor activities or our skin, it can be beneficial to our closets. It’s our one last chance to be ruthless.
This latest blast of cold weather is a great opportunity to wear anything you haven’t worn all winter (or the one before, or the one before that.). Then by the day’s end (or immediately) you will know whether the item is a keeper or should go into the donate pile.
This easy step is a great way to gauge our stuff and unload items we really don’t need. Many of us simply put all our winter clothing away without going through it. Why continue to store items we’ve outgrown, are worn out, we don’t like, don’t match anything else, or we just haven’t worn and truthfully, never will. Plus, how many of us have the storage space?
“Oh, but that item cost so much,” is an excuse uttered by many for not getting rid of clothing. I talked about this on Saturday with Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, on her radio show Eye on Real Estate. We all have at least one piece of clothing in our closet we spent good money on that we know we will never wear, but just can’t let go of. But think about it, the money is only wasted if the outfit isn’t worn. Donating the clothing allows someone else to wear and enjoy it, and will make you feel better too. Think of your donating not just as a way of getting rid of stuff, but of helping others in need. This new mindset will help you say “buh bye!” to those unworn pieces of clothing.
So this week, especially for those in New England, wear those items you haven’t worn or are not sure about and thank Mother Nature for this last chilly chance. While you’re at it, thank your mother too, for she was probably the one who taught you how to put away your clothes in the first place.
Most of us get our driver’s license when we’re 16. Some may even get their own car. But having “drive” has nothing to do with four wheels. It has to do with that fire inside of you. We all have it. Some more than others.
It begins as a little spark and is ignited by the things we love. Or want. Maybe it’s money that pushes you to stay late at the office, or wanting to lose weight that gets you out of bed on a cold morning to go for a run. Or perhaps it’s the love of music that pushes you to practice until your fingers bleed. Whatever it is, it’s the fuel that’s needed to work on your own projects after you get home from a long day of work. I know. I’ve been doing it for years.
Why are some people more motivated than others? Is their desire greater? Are they willing to work harder? Perhaps they just have a stronger belief that anything they set out to do will be accomplished. But even someone with ambition is in danger of having their spark doused. Aspiration can be a double-edged sword. It might lead you to strive for perfection or possibly make you second-guess what you’re creating has any value. And then there are others who may try to extinguish your flame with criticism or unkindness, to say nothing about an illness that could knock you down.
But it is possible to rekindle that fire. Think back to the moment when that spark inside of you flickered for the first time. What triggered it? An idea? A dream? Simply believing that flame can reappear is all it takes. Like striking a lighter over and over until the spark ignites the fuel, the same is true with your own inner spark. Not giving up is succeeding.
My newest book, released this week, 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more), almost didn’t happen. It took a whole lot of motivation and believing I could get it done. It also took encouragement, support and feedback, to which I say to you, my readers; thank you for fanning the flames all these years.
Every year when we “spring ahead” we lose an hour, but we gain momentum. That first whiff of spring reenergizes us to continue that New Year’s Resolution we let fall by the wayside sometime in February.
But this year – a Leap Year – meant that we gained an extra 24 hours to get stuff done. As a society constantly clamoring for more time, these “free” hours are a gift – more time to spend doing whatever you want. How did you spend your Leap Day? Did you use it to the fullest? Or did you binge an entire series of a television show? (Some would argue that is using it to its fullest.)
While a Leap Day only comes around every 1,460 days, there are ways to get an extra Leap Day or at least a few extra “leap” hours. First, look at how you’re spending your time. How much on texting? Emailing? Playing solitaire? Watching videos of cats? Some maintain you should only check email twice a day. I admit twice a day isn’t enough for me, but I would also say checking several times an hour isn’t good for my production schedule either. Utilizing “misused” minutes could add another hour or two (or more) to your day.
Another way to add a pretend Leap Day is by calling in sick to work. (I wouldn’t make a habit of this, but once in a while a “mental health” day can stave off burnout and be a huge leap to your psyche.) Turning a Tuesday into a Saturday is like getting an unexpected snow day. The key is how you use it. Do you catch up on housework, go hiking, weed the lawn, take a nap, pay bills, or cook? Or maybe you do it all. Whatever you want, it’s your fake Leap Day.
Now what if you take the word “leap” figuratively and use your “leap” time to work toward your goal. My dad recently sent me a card with the quote: “Leap and the net will appear,” meaning to me that when you believe in yourself enough to take a chance, whatever you need to succeed will be there. Not to say it’s a piece of cake, but isn’t life is a whole lot more interesting when you take that leap of faith? I took a chance when I quit my job and moved into an itsy bitsy apartment with the hopes of finishing a book about my grandfather. Was it easy to live in 90 square feet or pay for my own health benefits? Not all the time. But was it worth it. Absolutely.
We love technology, but can it love us back? Are you more connected to your cell phone than to your partner? Do you hold your phone when you walk instead of holding a hand? Yes, phones, tablets and laptops are great at organizing and simplifying our lives, but I bet most of us would rather receive a real hug and kiss than an “XOXO.” At least that’s what I used to think.
My mom recently celebrated her birthday. What is usually a happy occasion was this year saddened, as the first two callers on her special day were always her father and brother who both passed away in December. Not getting those calls this year left a hole in her heart. Then something happened. Unbeknownst to her (or my “techie” dad), for more than a year they had been receiving voice messages through a cloud service they didn’t know about, having only checked the machine in the den. Over a hundred messages (mostly telemarketers) filled their inbox. But there were two personal messages and they were from Papa and Mark. What’s more, they were birthday greetings from the year before, saved as though for this very reason.
Then two weeks ago I finished cleaning out my uncle Mark’s apartment. The last item I removed was his computer. I had gone through his files, copied some, deleted some and just as I was about to log out for the last time before disposing of it, something caught my eye. Mark had a second email account, one he’d set up as a back up. I scrolled through the inbox, about a dozen emails, all spam. Then I checked the Sent box. There was just one email written five years ago. And it was sent to me.
Hi. It’s me your crazy uncle
I froze. Was it a sign from the other side? I wish. No, I knew it was just a random test email, emanating from a cold, heartless piece of machinery, but at that moment, it had the power to warm my heart.
Let’s face it, we’re all busy. If we can find ways to do something faster, we’ll do it, or at least try. Take communicating. Years ago we’d write long, hand-written letters, but when email came along, we were happy to jump onto the shorter, faster electronic mail bandwagon. And though email is still widely used, like everything else, there arrived a speedier form of messaging: texting. Even grandmothers took to texting. At first, texts were just shorter emails. Then they were made shorter with abbreviations: LOL, BFF, OMG. However, for something that was supposed to save time, I found myself spending more time deciphering them. SLAP? (Sounds Like A Plan). JTLYK? (Just To Let You Know). Exasperating. But even abbreviated words appear archaic as now we’re onto the next thing: emojis. We use them to:
– It’s ❄️. Still wanna 🚴? Or 🏂 instead?
– What U want for dinner? 🍔? 🍣? 🐔?
Describe what we’re doing:
– Just 👞 biggest 🐞
– Getting 💇🏻 at 🕑
Or simply to pass along a message to a sweetie:
Don’t get me wrong, emojis are cute and easy to use, but sometimes it feels we’re not communicating information as much as we are putting out a feelings chart. 😀😦😕 With the plethora of symbols available – 🐷, 🍕, 🎇, 🎱, 🚗, ☎️, even a 🚽 – what will we do if we come across a word there is no symbol for? Not use it? Or (gasp!) spell it out? Will emojis begin dictating and limiting what we say based on if there is a graphic for it or not? 😱
Some might see emojis as progress, but aren’t they just updated modern forms of hieroglyphics (♈︎) once used when there were no words? If you don’t believe me, stop by a history museum and check out an exhibit on the evolution of hieroglyphs. From there, go to the nearest Starbucks and look at the pictographs being tapped into smartphones. Yes, we’ve come a long way. Or have we? 😳
The good part about having an organizer in your family is that you get free closet makeovers. The bad part is… if you’re the organizer. This does not mean I don’t enjoy organizing my mom’s closet every time I go home (or my sisters’, my dad’s, etc.). But there is one person whose closet I’ve organized dozens of times and assumed I would continue to do so for years to come: my Uncle Mark, who’s always been more like an older brother. The first time I redid his closet was when I moved in with him in 1996 and needed room for my things. Over the years, even after I moved out, it became a ritual and usually went like this:
Felice: “Mark, this sweatshirt has a stain. Donate it.”
Mark: “But it’s my favorite. The stain isn’t that bad.”
Last August my uncle called me in the middle of the day. “I need you to pick me up and take me to Sloan Kettering.” He’d had an issue with his blood for years, but he was treating it. By October it was confirmed: Leukemia. He got put on a trial. He started chemo. He was getting better. Soon we hoped he’d get a bone marrow transplant (my mom and another uncle were matches) and be okay. But Christmas Eve we got the call: Mark passed away. It was less than two weeks after Papa, a one-two punch.
Last week I found myself in a familiar spot: in front of Mark’s closet. This time, what had become a pastime, I would be doing for the very last time. I removed a sweatshirt. “Mark, this has a stain,” I said, making believe he was in the other rom. “Donate it.” I went to add it to the giveaway pile, but stopped. Instead I put it on. It was swimming on me (my uncle was over six feet). I wrapped my arms around myself, imagining it to be my uncle hugging me one last time and cried. Then I caught a glimpse of the stain. “You know what?” I said out loud. “The stain isn’t that bad.” And then I smiled because I had found my new favorite sweatshirt.
At my grandfather’s funeral this past Wednesday, I walked up to the pulpit, lifted my cell phone to my ear and said to everyone, “I’m sorry, I really need to take this call.” Then, ignoring their shocked expressions, I spoke into the phone.
“Hi Papa! How was your trip? God, we miss you already. Yes, everyone’s fine, they’re all here and say hi. Yes, everything was as you planned, you made it super easy. What? No, I’m not wearing a skirt. Yes, we all rode here together in a limo. Don’t worry, Sidney had a coupon. Yes, we’ll give the driver a good tip. Sure, I’ll send everyone your love. Talk to you soon. Love you.” Then I hung up, looked out at the smiling faces of family and friends and said, “Papa says hi.”
In that brief moment as I pretended to speak to Papa, we all forgot our sadness, forgot that he was gone, because in those few seconds I brought him back to life. In truth, I brought my grandfather back to life five years earlier when our book came out. At 89, Papa was feeling the affects of old age and sufferings past, but the book sparked a renewed will to live, validating his survival and showed him he still had much to offer.
And even though he’s now gone, he still has much to offer.
In the last few years Papa and I spent a lot of time together sitting in his kitchen eating ice cream in our pajamas and talking about life or at speaking engagements to hundreds of school children. But of all the lessons Papa taught me about saving money and being a good person, the most important came from working alongside him in his Brooklyn grocery store.
I was eight years old when I first put on his white apron and stepped behind the counter to work the cash register. Papa trusted me to give the correct change. Working side by side, watching this larger than life figure slice pastrami behind the deli counter, reading glasses perched on top of his head, a smile on his face, never felt like work, just time spent with Papa.
Years later, trusting me once again, Papa handed me his life’s story. And in all the years I spent writing, editing and researching the book, it never felt like work, just, once again, time with Papa. The amazing thing is, all this time I thought the book was a gift from me to him, but now, I realize, it was Papa who had given me the gift. And the only way I can ever repay him is by continuing to talk about the man who, if it hadn’t been for his courage and determination to survive, I would not be here today.
Thank you Papa.
Here is a link to Murray Schwartzbaum’s Obituary in the New York Times