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Organization professional practicing what she preaches

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Melissa Schmalenberger2 / 2

SEATTLE — When we called Melissa Schmalenberger, she was drinking a cup of tea, wrapped in a cozy blanket while gazing at the Seattle skyline from her new apartment. It was a relaxing morning in a new place — a far cry from the last few months.

"This has been the most stressful four months of my life," she says as she begins to tell her story.

The well-known Forum News Service columnist and professional organizer — and her husband Ray Ridl, a project manager at Microsoft — got rid of 80 percent of their belongings, left their longtime south Fargo home and built a very different, new life halfway across the country. It turns out the woman known by readers as "Ms. Simplicity" had to practice what she preached by downsizing and simplifying.

FAR to SEA

Schmalenberger and Ridl, high school sweethearts from Dickinson, N.D., and their sons Tyler, Jackson and Carter made a life for themselves in Fargo throughout the '90s and 2000s. Ridl worked for Great Plains Software and eventually Microsoft.

For a time, Schmalenberger was a practicing attorney, but after 2010, she started devoting more time to her professional organizing business, MS. Simplicity. She became a popular columnist, advising people oh how they could take control of the stuff in their lives. It was on at work trip to Seattle 7 years ago when the idea of moving to Seattle first popped up.

"I just kind of fell in love with it," she says. "I always wanted to move there. In fact, I always knew where we would move, but Ray was in charge of the when."

But the timing wasn't right 7 years ago. The couple wanted to wait until their boys had all graduated from college. However, fate stepped in and changed their best laid plans.

By 2017, when all three boys had graduated from high school (one was employed and the other two were studying at the University of Minnesota), Ridl's job at Fargo's Intelligent InSites was eliminated. It seemed like the right time to consider the move to Seattle.

"We're at a great age. I'm 48 and Ray is 49. We're in good health, our parents are in good health and the boys are off. We don't have grandchildren. It just seemed like the time to do what we wanted to do," Schmalenberger says.

Ridl started looking for jobs in Seattle and eventually got hired back at Microsoft in a slightly different role than his previous position in Fargo. Their move to Seattle seemed like it was in the cards.

Downsizing in a big way

Schmalenberger's years as a professional organizer came in handy as the couple set out to downsize from a four-bedroom home to their new one-bedroom apartment in Bellevue, Wash., on the eastern edge of Seattle.

"A lot of the stuff was easy to get rid of," she says. "The key was to find a place that would honor the memories of our things."

For example, the family donated two childhood beds to the YWCA shelter.

"It helped to know that they would go to a mom who really needs them," she says.

She also gave board games to her sons' former elementary school, her jewelry to nursing homes for bingo prizes and her extensive supply of scrapbook items to an assisted living facility where a friend worked.

"She told me, 'Those ladies were so excited! We'll be making cards for years,'" Schmalenberger says.

Yet letting go wasn't all that easy, Schmalenberger says.

"I needed to not be emotionally tied to these things," Schmalenberger says. "Most of the time, Ray and Carter were the ones dropping off the donations."

The one thing she didn't get rid of was her photo albums and pictures, but she has a plan for those.

"I can't wait to digitize those," she says. "I get nauseated thinking about them."

Small space, new life

Schmalenberger and Ridl are settling into their new, much-smaller place. But she says, despite going from a large suburban home to a small urban apartment, it doesn't feel that different.

"When you looked at the area of the house where we actually spent most of our time — the livable space — it wasn't much bigger than what we have now," Schmalenberger says.

There are some challenges, though.

"Our new kitchen is much smaller than our old one, so I had to figure out where I'd put things like my KitchenAid mixer," she says.

Like any good organizer, she got creative and put them in an armoire that used to be full of clothes. Overall, the most pleasure from starting her new life has come not just from downsizing but decorating the way she wants to.

"When you're little, your parents decorate your room. When we were first married, we had hand-me-downs and when the kids came along it was what was good for them," she says. "Now it's about what we like. I have velvet, mirrors and hard edges on the furniture. We even have white bedding because I don't worry about spills anymore," she says with a chuckle.

But more than how nice the place looks, the woman known as "Ms. Simplicity" still insists all of their things have a purpose.

"I don't want to put things out that just look 'pretty,'" she says. "I want things to be very functional. The blanket I'm wrapped in now can't just look nice on the chair — it has to be soft."

Seattle, home sweet home

Schmalenberger says its a huge sense of relief to finally be moved in. They're enjoying their new surroundings, including the walkability of urban life.

"I think we have about 50 restaurants within a three block radius," she says.

She's already had friends from North Dakota out to visit and hopes more will stop by to see their new, downsized life in Seattle.

But Ms. Simplicity will always have a place in her heart for Fargo.

"Fargo did its job. It helped us raise three incredible kids," she says. "But if we ever wanted to pursue my dream of living in a big city, this was the time."

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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