By Bronwyn Petry
When I finally got a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo in my hands, I felt like I had been waiting for it forever.
I first heard about it in the spring of 2015, when it started making the social media rounds of a few friends of mine, and I was immediately drawn in by the minimalist cover and how it promised to teach “the Japanese art of decluttering.” I promptly put my name on the wait list at my local library…
…and was still waiting to read it seven months later. It was apparently that popular. At any rate, when the chance came up to review it for The Tattooed Buddha, I jumped at it.
There is a problem with being excited about something for months, though, and that is that I picked up a lot of the ideas behind the book before I actually read it. For instance, I knew well before I cracked the spine that a huge theory of Kondo’s was that you should only keep things in your home that “spark joy” when you touch them (the tactile aspect is very important).
I think I got started before I should have (a big no-no in her book is doing things gradually). I wonder now, months after I read it for the first time, followed her method and then reread, if that ruined a bit of my experience with it. I wonder if it would be more effective if I had read it without knowing anything about it beyond the title.
I am both a pack rat and a minimalist—I attract a lot of “things.” I realized a decade ago that one way of cleaning up after myself was just not having a lot of stuff; periodically doing “purges” was already programmed into my make-up. I also have moved a ton in my life—my 20s were spectacularly nomadic—and don’t have a parent’s house to store things in, so what is in my house is everything of what I own.
I don’t think anyone in my life would call me clean—in fact, my untidiness is legendary and has been since I was a child. While I have my theories of how my general dislike for chores started, as an adult I’ve realized that if one has three cats and a dog, like I do, there will always be pet hair around, and there will always be more to do. Routine tires the hell out of me, especially if there isn’t a permanent reward. Reading or going for walks or seeing people is much more interesting.
In contrast, the person I live with tends to keep everything of potential use, from extra bookcases to speakers. It’s frustrated me a little, how he kept things “just in case,” as we have learned to merge our lives. In the lead up to starting the book, we had talked lots about this process: about how we wanted to move someday, so getting rid of stuff we didn’t need was pro-active, and would free up energy.
I slowly got him on board. We talked a lot about where we were in life, and what we wanted and where we wanted to be. Our roommate moved out to be with his girlfriend, giving us the extra room in the house to play with. The foundations had been laid.
The book runs on a simple enough premise: most people have problems with staying organized because they concentrate on storing their things when they should be thinking about discarding them.
According to Kondo, household items have an energy of their own, a semi-sentience, which means they energetically respond to being honored and respected. This is why it is important for followers of her method to touch their things before deciding if they are kept. Her strategy is: do it all at once, clean by category (easiest to hardest), don’t start storing until you’ve discarded it all.
The way to clean your house by category is to first discard clothing, then books, papers, miscellany and things with sentimental value. It was pretty much when I started with the first category that I realized I would have to diverge from the book.
I think the author is writing specifically to the person who has lived in the same place for a long time, and who has never done this sort of process before. Even though I am historically messy, I have definitely been through purging and accumulation cycles, because most people apparently own 160 items of clothing. Once I laid out my own clothes, I had about ten t-shirts, a baggy and ripped pair of jeans, (the only ones I had), a pair of my husband’s hand-me-down long johns, two pairs of black pants (also hand-me-downs), three sweaters, and my ski jacket.
Really, there wasn’t a lot there. And none of it exactly sparked JOY, but they were good, serviceable items of clothing that wouldn’t get reused otherwise. If I got rid of the clothes that didn’t spark joy, I would literally have had nothing left—besides, I disagreed fundamentally with the idea that you shouldn’t downgrade “nice” clothing to “lounge-wear” if applicable. It seemed wasteful, to me.
Once I finished with the clothes, even though I didn’t have a lot, I still had about two and a half garbage bags. Surprising.
Because I didn’t have a lot of clothes, (and even less once I donated the t-shirts and scarves I didn’t want) and because I need to keep the winter clothes I have (a ski jacket that cost a few hundred dollars is too expensive to replace) I found myself somewhat skipping the storage instructions (note: I will consistently skip steps that involve me fussing around with my hands—not having good motor control means it’s more frustrating than helpful).
The books were the same thing: I had way more than I thought, I only kept the ones that I loved.
This means I still have way more than the Kondo-suggested 30, (way, way more) but I got rid of all the Somerset Maugham I never read, and the boxes of books I put out by the road disappeared before I got back in the door again.
For the longest time, I have employed what I call my “important stuff boxes” which are a pair of Ikea metal, stand-up file folders that keep all of my things. My health insurance coverage, my EI stubs, my last year’s tax return and my passport. Anything that I don’t want to keep on me at all times but I might need to save my ass at some point in the future, essentially.
I had been holding on to a lot of it in order to get it shredded (a few close calls of identity theft have left me pretty cagey) but after reading the book, it all got recycled.
I actually don’t have a lot of those. I have a lamp my mother used to cherish: a bit banged up due to a lot of moving around, but that still works. I keep a small Rubbermaid bin of my childhood things in storage—but I’ve repacked and repacked that container so many times that I know I’m not willing to part with anything more. Pictures from my parents’ engagement shoot. They all stay.
When I was done, and when my husband was done, we looked up from our work and our house had transformed.
Our house is narrow and tall, and for the first time in our six years of living there it felt like you could move through the kitchen. It was airier, the way the book had promised, and we felt more in control of our living space, but something didn’t quite feel right.
I have read criticism about Kondo where they call her attention to detail somewhat obsessive, and to be 100% honest, I have to agree. My mother, in a desperate effort to try and get me to be a cleaner child, would tell me that the state of my bedroom was the state of my mental health—which only made me feel a kind of paralyzing shame when my surroundings got messy, and sort of self-perpetuated the myth. There are overtones of that throughout Kondo’s book: she is earnest and seems good-intentioned, but as she mentions being a “middle child…I was raised with great freedom” who “made up a lot of
She so obviously wants to help, but a lot of her suggestions don’t seem ultimately sustainable: cleaning out your purse after every use, for instance.
Another criticism about Kondo’s methods is that she’s a bit “woo” and a bit sexist (the book does seem to be aimed more towards women and her clients, barring a few, seem to be all women). Well, I’m a bit woo, so it worked out—the idea of objects you’ve carried with you for a while having an energy of their own and touching things to get their essence, didn’t seem too far off to me. As for the sexism, well, I’ve been too exhausted by more violent examples of it lately for me to care about it in this form.
My significant criticisms of this book are more simple: I was waiting for her to tell us how to discard things, or how to do it in an environmental fashion. I worry that those huge black garbage bags she talked about are just going to landfills.
So I did the whole book sort of wrong. I started touching things to see if they sparked joy before realizing I should have done them by category. Once I read the book, I realized I was going to keep downgrading nicer clothes to lounge-wear, because it’s good environmental practice and I hate shopping for clothes. I don’t store things the way she recommends, because I am not able-bodied. I got rid of things in a way that made sense to my soul: sending boxes of batteries to the electric depot, bringing clothes to donation bins and bringing books to the neighborhood libraries.
Did it work?
Three months after I initially read the book, even though I didn’t follow it “perfectly,” is my house still clean? Has my life changed?
Well, my house is still clean, but mostly through the efforts of my husband. We haven’t really accumulated more clutter, so that’s a positive sign, and we are leaving in a few days’ time for a seven-week honeymoon, which we’ve been dreaming of for over a year (and had an immense amount of help to achieve…Maybe, I’m not sure.
Bronwyn Petry is a writer, editor, activist and nomad currently living in Toronto with her husband and their menagerie of animals. She spends her days writing, reading, walking many dogs, running, and thinking about how to be a better human being and leave the world a better place. You can connect with her on her Facebook page or on Instagram.
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer