Last fall, I picked up a copy of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up just as I had a coincidental epiphany about my belongings: They were an overwhelming burden. The timing was odd. I was interning at the Musée Picasso in Paris and living with a French host family and a mere two suitcases worth of my belongings. Roughly 3,500 miles separated me from the bulk of my possessions, and yet I was compelled to unload them.
Perhaps the pared down yet intellectually rich lifestyle of my hosts inspired me. They devoted their free time to friends, meals, museum exhibits, and each other. Madame cleaned in a sweater dress, wool tights and, bien sûr, ballet flats, proving that managing house can be done efficiently – even joyously – if only one’s floor is not impassably cluttered, one’s inbox does not contain a backlog of 20,000 messages (true story), and the laundry consists only of elegant, well made basics.
It is more likely, however, that by being cut off from my stuff, I finally realized how inconsequential so much of it was, and how it had begun to clog up my life. During weekends back home, I’d avoid bills, emails, laundry, and clutter, which led me to guilt-ridden Netflix binges and a failure to fully relax.
A tidying movement
I appear to be part of a bigger movement. “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up,” written by Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo (nickname: KonMari), has become an international best seller, with more than 2 million copies sold.
The KonMari Method, as her process is called, swept into my life and offered an escape route out of clutter and into the light of rational, organized happiness. Back home from my internship, I began to heap items categorically – clothes, books, beauty products, and so on, getting to sentimental items last – into piles, per the author’s instructions.
The process allows you to to see, in one visual mass, exactly how much stuff you own. Konmari then directs her followers to touch each item and ask if it immediately “sparks joy.” Anything that fails the test must be discarded. It turns out to be a subjective but highly effective way to get organized, and includes some pretty unexpected life lessons along the way, too. Here are a few that I learned.
1. Your things aren’t useful unless they’re being used.
I had a minor panic attack when I read that some of Marie’s clients in Japan throw away as many as 200 bags of garbage. As a recycling fanatic that hails from thrifty Yankee stock, it’s very difficult for me to part with anything of potential use. The thought of armies of Marie Kondo converts chucking that much stuff into landfills was nearly enough to make me put the book down.
However, it is possible to tidy up and hardly increase your volume of trash at all. I threw away just one garbage bag more than usual during my entire month of decluttering. Everything else went to consignment, donation, recycling, or my compost bin.
While I initially railed against the idea of “wasting” so many useful items, I now see that the greater waste was to keep things that I never actually used, contributed to a sense that my life was unmanageable, and perpetuated a cycle of consumption. I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to shop anymore, but I’m much more mindful of the impulse to buy. Now I ask myself if an item is going to spark joy for our whole lifetime together or only as I leave with it in a shopping bag. The answer is usually the latter.
2. Don’t worry about other peoples’ feelings to the detriment of your own.
Among my pile of miscellaneous possessions was a mug that belonged to an ex-boyfriend as a child. It was such a sweet gift: He’d brought it back from his parents’ house in England. But I hardly ever used it, and when I held it in my hands for the “spark joy” test, it actually made me sad. I concluded that the only reason I was keeping it was because I worried that if we ever got back together, he would be hurt if I didn’t have it anymore. It was the same with all my exes. In my desire to protect the emotions of these men I would probably never see again, I had surrounded myself with things that actually hurt my own.
3. You are not required to enshrine a loved one’s possessions in your home when they are gone.
After my grandmother died, I made a mad grab for all the things that no one else in my family wanted, unable to bear the idea that they might end up in a thrift store. But as I contemplated, for example, the half dozen unusable pitchers cluttering my kitchen, I decided that there were only two that I really adored. The others didn’t spark joy at all, and I noted with a pang of shame that in some ways, they made me resent my granny for having all these things that I felt duty-bound to preserve. We can only properly cherish so many sentimental items. Letting go of the possessions I didn’t love allowed me to focus on the objects – and memories – that I truly do.
4. You aren’t perfect. Don’t hold on to things because you wish you were.
I noticed early on that I was avoiding my bookshelves – which should technically be sorted second by Konmarie’s rules. Rather than get hung up, I moved on to the next category (miscellany). When I finally did confront my books, I realized that they were loaded with emotional baggage, mainly concerning my unhappiness in college and the guilt I feel for not following through with my plan to become a landscape architect.
Despite being a good student, I confess that I skimmed a lot of the reading in college, telling myself that I’d read those books when I had the time. I’ve since realized that my interest in the history of modern Latin American warfare definitely peaked my freshman year of college. Letting go of unread books was an act of acceptance for who I was then, and what my limits are now. Moreover, that very tall pile of unread books only had the effect on me of reading less, because every time I came across a new and interesting book, I would remember the stack I needed to get through first. Now that the pile is gone, I read every day, and the books are actually relevant to my life.
The bottom line
As I near the end of my month-long tidying marathon, I’ve rid my life of 25 garbage bags full of spark-less clutter. But I’ve also begun to apply the KonMari method to other categories of my life: emails, digital photos, music files, and even Facebook friends. (I was amazed at how many people who, for the life of me, I could not place.)
Outwardly, tidying may seem like it’s about material possessions, but I’ve never been more aware of myself, my behavioral patterns, and my goals than I am right now. I finally have the peace of mind and clarity of purpose to make dedicated strides in my photography business. And I’m happy to report that I now love laundry day.
Our material possessions don’t define who we are, but they do form a surprisingly astute roadmap through our life choices if we take the time to notice them. Today I’m in awe of the gratitude I feel toward all my things, even – or perhaps especially – the ones that did not spark joy. Confronting objects is ultimately about addressing emotional baggage (mine included guilt, sadness, resentment, and regret, to name a few), accepting who you were in the past, and moving on. That my apartment feels more beautiful, clean, and full of light than ever is really just the icing on the cake.