Not one to leave my life totally to chance, as usual this week I glanced at my horoscope in “Creative Loafing” which let me know that while I might not be strong enough to take a shot at a daunting challenge that’s five levels beyond my previous best, I could try a trick challenge that’s one level higher than where I have been operating. And that’s a practical use of my courage. If I did what I had been advised by the alignment of the planets — I could accomplish small miracles.
How serendipitous! How fortuitous! Because I had just finished reading — and at least partially complying with the rigorous instructions contained in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.
Me and more than two million other readers around the world. Which has been on best seller’s lists since it was published last October in this country, including the New York Times. Number one for many weeks in the fall, especially in the run up to the holidays, it is now a respectable #5, bumped off initially by a book about the sinking of the Lusitania, now by Bill O’Reilly’s collection of real stories of legendary figures of the American West. Still its Google searches are at an all-time high.
As Wall Street Journal reporter Molly Driscoll noted when talking about the best non-fiction titles of 2014: “A lot of people apparently need to clean up their spaces.” And their act in general, one object at a time — by the author’s estimates — over one million discarded items in thousands of plastic bags — since she began her private home organization business and then Lose the Weight wrote a book about her theory and how to carry it out.
This book by professional organizer and former Shinto shrine caretaker Marie Kondo is only one of a growing list of self-help books and courses devoted to what one opinion writer calls the Clutter Cure which promise to not only re-order our homes but our lives as well. There’s an online class in England called Zero Procrastination — coaching students from at least 18 countries in their quest to declutter. Another professional home organizer, Peter Walsh, author and host of the shows Clean Sweep and Extreme Clutter has written Lose the Clutter, based on his experiences with hoarders — those extreme examples of accumulating too much.
In it, he maintains that people who were, as he wrote, buried in clutter were often carrying extra pounds, the result of stress-induced eating resulting from living in that unhealthy environment. In response, he has designed a six-week program in which you collect duffel bags of clutter: lazy clutter, memory clutter, and what he calls malignant clutter — which reminds you of bad times in your life and prevents you from moving forward. Once filled, there are actual physical exercises to perform as a celebration of victory — some of them employing the actual stuffed bags.
Online support communities now exist for people who are aggressively encouraged to meet specific challenges, such as removing 40 bags of stuff from their homes in 40 days or radically cutting the number of objects they own to say 100 possessions.
Why all this focus on and fuss about clutter? New York Times columnist Pamela Druckerman says that “clutter is having its moment because we have accumulated a critical mass of it.”
The flood of cheap goods from all over cut-rate box stores, online bidding websites, so much that even robberies have declined in wealthy countries because the return on fenced items is often too low to be worth the risk of prison.
So much stuff bought and so little of it gotten rid of — even by the extreme measure of theft — that one study of middle-class families revealed that just one in four families could fit a car in its garage. Let alone the uptick in offsite storage units and onsite pods.
This decluttering trend has captured the attention of major economists who have identified an economic theory of tidying up which lines up with diminishing returns, the sunk cost fallacy, wherein the cost of holding on to something is greater than throwing it out; loss aversion; status quo and the fallacy of prediction — that you will ever fit into that pair of jeans or listen to that record again.
And then, in the swelling vein of spiritual consumerism, there is the sub-marketing of the Japanese Art of Decluttering book — and other “simplifying” products — as somehow connected to Zen Buddhism (such as a “Zen Habits” blog), which has piqued even more interest. As one of my colleagues in Atlanta interfaith circles told me, he is not sure what it is about Zen that draws such popularism and consumer appropriation, a word, he observed, that is pulled into therapy, gardening, dining experiences and this arena of minimalism.
Yes, the concept of letting go, or simplifying, exist in Zen practice (Zen actually meaning meditation), he points out that giving up things so we can move into the posture of openness and surrender to welcome the divine is an important aspect of the spiritual practices of pretty much all faiths. It’s just that Zen is selling better of late.
As author Marie Kondo was formerly a housekeeper of a Shinto shrine, it is more likely that this religious tradition, which imbues certain objects with positive qualities to ward off evil, is in part the basis for her reverence for the appropriate number of and character of things.
As for me, I was obviously about a decade ahead of the game or the fad when I wrote a sermon in the spring of 2005 called “Sweating the Small Stuff,” based on the popular notion of that era in American culture that we needed to stop fretting about comparatively minor problems, saving our emotional energy for the really big matters in our lives.
Which may, in fact, be non-existent.
No, I took the enjoinder quite literally: I needed to actually sweat all the stuff I had accumulated (and in fairness to me, also amassed by three children leaving things behind). I needed to do a spring cleaning to beat all spring cleanings at a pace hard to stop: so much disorder and confusion, so many tiny pieces of things to be wiped and put away or tossed into the large green bags that were scattered around each and every room. Nothing, it turned out, was too small for my ruthless scrutiny. I opened drawers, often randomly, and began my inquisition: expired coupons for a certain kind of new whitening toothpaste or alpine cheese; receipts for books I had not yet and would never read; telephone numbers that I may or may not have called.
It began just after Easter, this grandest and sweatiest of cleanings. My kind of resurrection. This mess that was my home and office had gotten that way from so much moving things in and out of our small brick house, the death of my mother-in-law and those things of hers we had chosen from her sparse and orderly estate (she was the kind of person who threw out things as she went along, including most of the family photos), but still we inherited tarnished silverware and those few remaining framed pictures that lay in piles on the bedroom floor still waiting for a proper place on what remains of empty wall. And the departure of our youngest child for college, with his room only half-empty — old soccer cleats, outgrown jackets, and video tapes remaining behind.
And then the remains of my father’s apartment of 25 years when we finally moved him to what would be his last home in a nursing facility: the emptying of all emptying, much of it going to a locker, stacked up to the high ceiling, but too much of it also landing in the trunk of my car and the living room hall space: odd sheets and old cookbooks, huge cans of dried mushrooms, bags and bags of seasoned rice.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, we were being told. Focus your life’s energy on the big picture, the things that really matter. But for me it was that actual small stuff that was literally getting in my way as I tripped over it on the way to what was alleged to be the really meaningful parts of my life.
Already there was beginning to be a readjustment of the notion of ignoring the small stuff, including a book I least thumbed through ten years ago, God is in the Small Stuff, which was written primarily for an audience of evangelical Christians whose view of, belief in, God was more personal than feels comfortable for me and I would imagine for most us. Nonetheless, it spoke to the notion that in cleaning out, in simplifying, we would add quality and commitment to our lives.
But it was a reading by novelist and essayist Anne Lamott at Emory University that had most directly triggered my decluttering campaign, the spring cleaning to top all spring cleanings. She was asked how she had grown herself — this formerly addicted person with a wildly messy personal life — into such immaculate, shimmering clarity.
I keep my house picked up and I focus on fewer things now, she answered.
I fiercely protect living a spacious life.
A decade later, after that mammoth possession purging and major house scrubbing, I found myself with yet another layer of excess things and level of household chaos. Perhaps not chaos but at least disorder.
An office piled high with papers that might be viewed as accomplishments but also just looked unruly. My father had died, and in the scramble to rescue some of what he left behind, both practically and for memory’s sake, I had boxed up and taken home all of his copper-bottomed cookware and kitchen gadgets, duplicating and triplicating what we already owned. Grapefruit knives (for grapefruits I never buy or eat) and garlic presses, sauté pans, and measuring cups.
More books. More clothes. More shoes. More holiday cards.
So, like the millions of others who have at least picked up and the many that have followed her instructions on how to tidy up, I began again the process of confronting my piles and drawers and closets, this time around using the uncompromising guidance of Marie Kondo, gleaned from her work with clients in her home country of Japan.
Beginning with the stern premise that we must face our possessions now, sometime, or the day we die, her practical commands include carrying out the process of tidying up in one shot — not an hour a day, or a room at a time, but all at once, by category: first clothes, then books and papers, miscellany (what she calls Komono) and finally mementos. Handling every item, only keeping what sparks joy.
Never re-storing things for another look at a future date. Getting it done and moving on.
And then returning them reverently and lovingly to the proper place: folding most clothes, folding — never rolling — socks, hanging that which absolutely must be hung in order — wools or wool-like fabrics in one part of a closet, cotton in another, light colors in the front, dark in the back.
Being rigorous about what to keep and what to discard: throwing out appliance and electronics warranties, credit card statements after they’ve been checked, even greeting cards that have, in her view, fulfilled their purpose once opened.
Ridding ourselves of most books — those we only partly read or never read or think we are really going to re-read.
And those little things — the spare buttons that are destined not to be sewn on — cosmetic samples saved for trips, unidentified cords, bedding for guests who do not come — all gone. The extra dozens of rolls of paper towels and toilet paper, the stockpiles of cotton swabs.
The mementos we think we treasure and she believes might well be holding us back or are meaningless: report cards and photos and children’s art. Each one to be handled, each one assessed for the joy factor. And even so, radically pruned. The things we have kept “just because” vanquished.
All this in service of lofty promises — that this dramatic reorganization of your home will be life-transforming. Not only will you never ball your socks or reclutter again and only be surrounded by things you love — you will let go of all that is unimportant, your world will brighten, and you will have a magical new start on life.
In response to this housecleaning dogma that purports to teach you how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever, there have been faithful followers and then others for whom even the prospect of such extreme cleaning out seems too challenging — and mindboggling — even to try out. The challenge of going through our things with such single mindedness.
When I hive-minded (on Facebook) what objects/possessions we could most easily part with, the majority of those who responded said clothes and household items that could be easily replaced, duplicate items, things that if donated could be used by someone else who otherwise would go without. Those things that would be hard if not impossible to part with: anything given as gifts by a child or grandparents or great-grandparents, letters and cards, photos, presents from students, old notebooks and journals, Christmas ornaments, books and more books.
For me it would be easiest to get rid of obscure or redundant tools of all kinds, not so much clothing – hence I still hold on to a forty-year-old silk cape I wore once and a pretty hideously colored Indian blouse. Hardest? Single earrings, photos of my family, all my hard copy writing, including 1,000 yellowed news clippings. And anything to do with Frida Kahlo. Anything.
Critics of Marie Kondo’s tidying up book and approach have pointed out the unhealthy family dynamics that seemed to prompt her choice of vocation — poor at developing bonds of trust, she has an unusually strong attachment to (and preoccupation with) things. She seems to be at least mildly obsessive-compulsive. She is youngish and lives alone and doesn’t have to share her space or negotiate what she keeps or doesn’t with any other adult, let alone having to deal with the built-in challenge of dealing with the objects associated with children (and pets).
And then her clients seem to be — and the examples in the book seem to be in all but a couple of instances, women. As one blogger named Laura wondered why women were, in her words, “clamoring to get on her 3-month waiting list in order to spend six months purging, so that their lives could finally begin?” Why men didn’t believe that their real lives, she asked, have much if anything to do with the state of a silverware drawer?
It’s about patriarchy and not tidiness, she proposed. And I might well agree.
All in all, I am grateful for the tips I gleaned from this slim tome on tidying up. I now lay my socks and stockings flat. My closet is less dense, and the colors of my blouses are lined up in a way that truly does make it easier to find what I want to wear — and it even seems cheerier.
I have mostly thrown out what needs to go — save for that avocado-colored bottle opener my dad left behind, here and there a trinket I cannot yet part with, a few boxes of school papers and books that might well be tossed or given away.
Overall, there is a feeling of lightness in my little house, of possibility.
But for the rest — the life changing imperative to stay clear of any mess, to make sure that my home is completely in order in order to have fulfillment, No.
As a feminist and existentialist and humanist, while I understand the practice of letting go, of emptying and detaching, I am also drawn to the notion that authentic living is full of rich and random content — that we are embodied, distinct beings whose experiences and possessions shape and express who we are.
And so there is messiness. What I see around me, especially this season of the year, when the natural world is in undeniable full-tilt disarray — tangled weeds and over-reaching grasses and brazen blossoms and the discordant sounds of summering birds, frogs, and a gazillion bugs. Spring erupts out of the trash of winter, the murky pools of water after months of rain.
It inspires a whole range of emotions — and calls me to move ahead.
As does all life. The messy and the neat.
In closing, a poem:
After Walking Through a Slovenly Woods (to the best-selling tidy author)
Would you actually advise Nature to
Tidy herself up
Dispense with storm fallen limbs
Blow away last autumn’s long dead leaves.
Or will you take it upon yourself
To decide for all time
What brings her Joy?
I know I can’t and won’t.
May it be so.