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Tidying up is not about things

On New Year’s Day my youngest child, 16-year-old Lance, cleaned his room and brought out a family “heirloom”—a study table made of narra that I had since I was in kindergarten. He asked me again if I was sure it was all right to bring it out to the building basement for disposal. We had talked about this before, and again I said yes.

As he was pushing the desk out the door his sister asked me to embrace the desk and say goodbye to it. I didn’t budge from where I was sitting, but I cast a fond look toward the table’s direction. A scene flashed in my mind: The day my mother brought it home. Six-year-old me, in pigtails and in socks with lace around the ankle, arrived from school to find her seated in front of it. For a while, I thought she had gotten me a piano.

That desk saw me through many days and nights of study—on to grade school, high school, university, my first (financially challenged) attempt at grad school, my (aborted) pursuit of a law degree, and finally the completed MA. Over the years I had also let some of the children use it, but I had no idea whether the desk gave them the same satisfaction and companionship as it did me. After all, I didn’t just use it for study—I read and wrote and stared into nothing and sorted out my life while sitting in front of it.

After a long pause, I was jolted back to earth. “It’s okay, I’m good,” I said.

“Won’t you miss it?” my daughter asked.

“I will, but it’s time for it to go.”

•••

On the same day, a show called “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” started airing on Netflix. Kondo, in the show, as she does in her bestseller book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” exhorts people to tidy up using a certain mindset and certain manner.

Her overarching criteria for keeping or ditching items? Whether or not they spark joy.

In the show, Kondo would come to people’s homes and help them sort their clutter. The people whom she helps are vastly different: newlyweds, a young couple with toddlers, adolescents, retirees, a widow. These people welcome Kondo into their home, but she is not some kind of heaven-sent magician or a glorified cleaning lady. She just guides them how to declutter their homes and their lives. They do it on their own, being mindful about their possessions, what is truly important to them, what they would like to keep, and what they can do without.

The show is an instant hit, and many viewers are talking about how transformational it is, how it could really occasion change not just in their housekeeping but in family relationships and personal dispositions.

Is the hype justified?

I think there does not need to be hype, and the Kondo method is just one way of making sense of our lives. People can use it if it works for them but are free to use other means—or none at all—if it doesn’t.

That is started airing in January is perhaps one of the best decisions the producers made. Many people, still heady from the holidays, are eager to begin the year with resolutions: To get fit, to work harder or smarter, to tidy up. Kondo’s method is doable because she lays out only the basic principles and leaves the person to do the rest on their own. And while she suggests a manner of doing things, starting, for instance, from emptying one’s closet and putting clothes on a pile in the middle of the room, or folding shirts and stacking them in a certain way, or touching an article of clothing and asking oneself whether that sparks joy or not, Kondo neither judges nor dictates.

That said, nothing precludes anybody from starting the process in January, or in April or November. There are no deadlines to beat here, just the one you set for yourself.

The positive response, however, has not been universal. For instance, Anakana Schofield writes in The Guardian that she does not completely agree with the method. “Do not listen to Marie Kondo in relation to books. Fill your apartment and world with them,” she writes. “Every human needs an extensive library—not clean, boring shelves.”

As a student of tidiness, I have also had self-doubt about the books, particularly the unread ones, I continue to keep and accumulate in my home. I feel pretentious at worst and embarrassed at best that I have all these titles on my shelves but not the time or energy to claim I have read them. Then again, there is joy in possibility —even if it were covered in dust. Unread books spark a joy of their own even if you have yet to experience what they offer.

In this, Schofield’s words provide affirmation: “Success is, eventually, actually reading your unread books, or at least holding on to them long enough that they have the chance to satisfy, dissatisfy or dement you. Unread books are imagined reading futures, not an indication of failure.”

There are also books I have enjoyed and will probably not read again, but keeping them still occasions happiness.

Books notwithstanding, Kondo’s method is one worth keeping primarily because it ultimately reminds us of impermanence.

It is said one needs to practice detachment, ruthless detachment, even, when organizing one’s possessions. But this is not of the ruthless, unfeeling kind. Instead, you touch things and express gratitude for them or to them—your favorite shirt, a handbag, or a bulky, heavy, decades-old study table—that sparked joy in you at one time. Things are hardly just things; we associate them with memories and emotions at certain points.

But when you tidy up, and decide what to lose and what to keep, you acknowledge, too that nothing lasts, and most times the unencumbered, uncluttered way forward is the only real way to go.

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Topics: New Year’s Day , Tidying Up With Marie Kondo , Netflix , The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
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