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MODERN LIFE

The pull of possessions

An author shares her tips for breaking the emotional ties that bind us to our stuff.

January 18, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

CIJI WARE lived in a large Los Angeles house for more than 20 years, accumulating all the possessions emblematic of an accomplished, acquisitive life.

For 16 of those years, she was the health and lifestyle reporter on KABC-AM radio's "Ken & Bob Show." Ware is also a print journalist and author of seven books, five of them historical novels. Her newest, "Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most" (Warner Books, $15.99) is a primer on how to reevaluate your possessions, decide which of them really matter and liberate yourself from the rest.

What is the difference between rightsizing and downsizing?

Rightsizing has more to do with right than with size. It's about figuring out what works, surrounding yourself only with what you use and love in the space you have or the one you're moving to. It's about how to edit, cull and select what you want to live with.

Possessions have emotional content and connection in ways we're not even conscious of until we have to make decisions about them. In my own case, until I learned why an object meant something to me, I couldn't figure out whether to keep it or toss it.

What made you want to write this book?

We had a huge upheaval. Our child went off to college. Our dog died. KABC decided they wanted a kind of female Howard Stern, and I wasn't it. My husband, an Internet maven, took a position in Silicon Valley, which meant we had to move.

We went from a 4,000-square-foot home in L.A. to a tiny, temporary furnished rental. We put all our things in storage. We moved six times in the next seven years until we decided where and how we wanted to live.

What was the problem in deciding?

We had an epiphany. We realized things we used to think we needed, we didn't want or need. We wanted a freer, more easy life. When we found a place, we finally had to deal with all the stuff in storage. We hadn't looked at it. We hadn't used it. We hadn't missed it one bit.

It can happen to young or old. You go through a hurricane or earthquake and lose everything, and you reevaluate what possessions mean. You go through a divorce, lose a loved one, and maybe you decide to simplify your life. Typically, it happens to people in their 50s, which is what we were. It's deciding what you want in your life, what makes you happy, what frees you up to live a more satisfying way. And how to responsibly dispose of the rest.

How did you do that?

I had no system for doing it. We found an ideal place right on San Francisco Bay in Sausalito. It's about 1,275 square feet. We went through our possessions, tried to assess what to keep and what to release to the universe. I learned there's a huge emotional side to dealing with possessions. My husband looked at my son's little rocking chair with a petit point seat that I'd made. He said, 'We don't need this any more.' I burst into tears. I didn't understand at the time that it wasn't about the chair but about the end of my motherhood.

I learned that while writing the book. If you can understand why you want to keep certain things, you may decide to let them go. A good example of this is a wedding dress. You're not going to wear it, so take a good photo and pass it on to someone who will. Honor the possession and find creative ways to recycle it so that you will feel good about letting it go.

Yes, but what about beautiful, useful, valuable things that you have no room for?

We had an 18th century sideboard that I loved, a family heirloom. It was dark and heavy, though, and didn't fit in our new beach home. My son didn't want it, but I found a nephew who did. I felt good that it stayed in the family.

How did you go about finding the system that enables people to pare their possessions?

I started out by sending a query to people who were in my high school and college graduating classes, asking if they had experienced this notion of changing their environment, and what they did.

I got amazing responses from those who'd made transitions and some who'd solved a lot of financial problems in the process. Then I started talking to all the declared experts: space planners, senior move managers. I talked with midlife therapists who deal with this crisis -- the psychology of what possessions mean to us.

I realized that rightsizing is a process, not an event. It's something everyone should think about, even if there isn't a gun to your head. I developed a method for deciding what you really want -- a practical, how-to guide -- and a way to understand the emotional component that can block you.

What's your situation now?

My husband and I feel such liberation, such exhilaration, having divested ourselves of things we don't need.

bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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