Paring Down And Moving Up

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Downsizing? As an English major, I've never liked the word. What's wrong with decrease, reduce, streamline, or even rethink?

We've been doing some whatever-you-call-it lately. In a change of apartments, we've scaled back from 2,400 to 1,200 square feet; from three bedrooms to one; from a private elevator to a narrow spiral staircase; and from 4,000 books to 800 (I've counted them!). But in gardens - with real soil, not the supermarket stuff - we've up-sized from none to one. And it's the garden you can plunge a spade into that convinces me that thoughtful, fearless downsizing leads to the best word of all: upgrade.

We've moved from one tree-lined city street to another, yet suddenly we hear more birds. We don't have to persuade the cardinals to use our bird feeder. They come to us when they're hungry, and flash their red feathers to reward us for our kindness. We've dropped from the fifth floor to the first floor. There's less sunlight flooding through the windows, but our sunshine is now shared with squirrels and rosebushes. We hear fewer sirens and more bells, including those of the neighborhood church we attend.

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Through these experiences we've found a new kind of freedom, even exhilaration! For example, I wondered how I could ever reduce the books collected over 40 years to fit just eight shelves. I had to apply the old desert-island test. If your well-being on a desert island depended solely on as many items as you could carry in a rowboat, which ones would you take?

I tried rating them as I would movies or concerts or Super Bowls. How many would I honestly - repeat, honestly - like to see again? Which reading experiences would thrill, amuse, inspire me just as much they did the first time? Which books had I taken the time to re-read - or even to dip into - a second time over the past five, 10, or 20 years? And would I be likely to find - or make - the time to do that again in the next five, 10, or 20 years? Then, the oldest - and best - gauge ever applied: Which items could I not live without?

I think that final test worked pretty well for me - and to some extent for my wife, who selected dishes, ornaments, pictures, baby souvenirs, and Christmas wrapping paper to take along! Now it is so much easier to find the books I need; and the others are available in some form or another on the Internet. There are fewer breakables to put away when small children come to visit, and less bulky furniture to fall over in the middle of the night.

I admit it wasn't easy to get rid of the old family dining table, veteran of years of evening meals together. But, to our surprise, it was harder for our children than for us to watch memories they didn't know they had being carried out the backdoor. After all, how can you toss balled-up dinner napkins at each other across a replacement drop-leaf table only four feet long? (It's no challenge at all.)

But we did learn that good family times do not depend upon a walnut table. In their own homes, our children are now practicing simple, uncluttered living so successfully that they are threatening to do it even better than we are.

WHAT we wanted to bring to our new home - but they would never have fit in the rowboat - were the sunsets that once flared across our top windows. Now, at ground level among tightly clustered Victorian brownstones, we lose any direct evidence of sunshine at least half an hour earlier than we used to. But we have discovered that light reflected off our neighbors' upper windows makes it possible for us to eat alfresco among shafts of gold. Over dinner, we enjoy the sounds of children having fun at a nearby playground, and smile at the thought that we don't have to tidy up after them. Distance lends enchantment to the sound.

The only real downsizing brought upon us by our latest move has been in real-estate taxes, grocery bills, cleaning, and repairs. Now that's an upgrade better than any airline has ever offered us!

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