My older sister used to pay me $1 to tidy her room. Actually, the arrangement worked this way: I would tell her what to do.
Put those socks in the hamper.
Stack those books from the floor and place them in height order on your desk.
Take down the poster on the closet; it’s visual noise, and it’s distracting.
I was maybe 6. I had a gift. I saw with laser-beam eyes through clutter and envisioned how objects should be arranged and which objects were extraneous.
I haven’t changed. Even when I had a child, I’ve continued on this path of near religious minimalism.
Our apartment is about 600 square feet, and we have one very imaginative 3-year-old who must use every last object in the house to set up her boutiques, dance studios, fields in Central Park and doctor’s offices. But by days’ end, the toys—the number of which I limit tightly and keep in clear, labeled boxes—are put away.
So I seem both a likely and unlikely candidate for devouring Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you are a poet, don’t you snap up every volume of poetry you can get your hands on? As a devout tidy-er and minimalist, I was charmed and intrigued by its cover—all those fluffy clouds and airy space! Perhaps she would offer a profile of a personality I recognized: my own.
Then I read it. Kondo makes some keen observations that pinpoint the clutter in our minds and the resulting mess of our spaces. But she also makes some recommendations that strike me as missing some important points.
1. Everything in your house should spark joy, and if it doesn’t, get rid of it.
Tampax? Ibuprofen? Strollers filled with goldfish crumbs? Receipts for tax day? Your child during a temper tantrum?
2. People almost never reread books, and therefore, we should discard the majority of our collections.
First, I reread books all the time. I browse my shelves and often pluck a book that catches my fancy. I luxuriate in familiar passages or even read the whole book again. My poor husband is often forced to listen to the best bits of a story, which I love to read aloud, like a sort of incantation.
Second, I have a child. I want to be able to recommend books and then hand them to her for consideration. It is much easier to persuade someone to read something if she is holding the book in her hand.
When I was six months pregnant, we had a cocktail party. I lay on my bed—contracting and unable to attend the party. My girlfriends clustered round and browsed the books by my bed. “Those are all my books from childhood,” I explained. “Actually, they are my daughter’s now; she just doesn’t know it yet.” Ooh, was the collective refrain as everyone delighted in the image of passing down these treasured tomes.
Third, even those books that we don’t read again represent a history of the things we have held dear at different stages of life. When our eyes travel over those spines, we are also traveling in time.
Kondo also claims that if we buy a book and don’t read it right away, we are never going to read it. Not true! I have a (tidy) pile on my bookshelf, and a moment arrives that makes a particular book from this pile call to me. There are moods and times and seasons of life, and a book may have to wait patiently for years, but I do, in fact, get to it.
3. Shoeboxes filled with old photos are bad.
Picture a rainy day at home with your child. We can’t go on an adventure in the park, but we can make an adventure right here at home. Open that old box and delight yourself and your child with the unexpected.
Here’s Daddy on his—13th? 14th?—birthday!
Here’s a note from my college boyfriend—whoops, that belongs in another box.
Oh! Here’s a photo of you in the outfit you came home from the hospital in!
Here’s that first knit cap they placed on your tiny head!
If everything is perfectly organized in albums and scrapbooks, there is no delight hiding somewhere, waiting to surprise us. I do not mean we should live in a sea of dusty mementos, but perhaps we could allow for a bit of organized chaos? What exemplifies this sort of contained surprise more than a box filled with a few old family photos, letters and mementos? Store them neatly, by all means, but don’t discard every last photo, as Kondo recommends. Surprise sparks joy, after all.
4. Don’t store much, because it will haunt you from the closet and clutter your mental landscape.
I am paraphrasing here, but essentially, Kondo wants you to retain nothing that you hope might prove useful some day. She is not entirely wrong; goodness knows, we come up with all sorts of crazy dreams that fulfill our need to hold onto that blue bud vase we’ve never once had occasion to place a flower in. But I am reminded of some wisdom from my mother on the topic of throwing out anything we haven’t used in a while:
“Living a completely minimalist existence is for rich people, because they can afford to replace things if they make a mistake.”
My mother was right. I have had to replace useful things I parted with because, oops, six months later, I needed those items. Replacing them is costly and frustrating.
5. ‘Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence?’ Kondo asks.
As it happens, I have a small chest of clear drawers in my closet. I have one drawer for love letters (which Kondo also recommends disposing of), one drawer for journals (a treasure trove, again, for a rainy afternoon and someday for my daughter, no doubt) and one drawer for the loveliest artwork my daughter has thus far produced in her three years of life. I also have a drawer of old newspaper clippings and stills from my years of work as an actor and one drawer devoted to anything I found beautiful or evocative on a trip.
Have I forgotten every last letter and photo and piece of art and memento in those drawers? Yes! Those drawers are a card catalogue of treasures to be rediscovered and affectionately fondled. I am so glad I have forgotten them; someday they will delight me with both their newness and their nostalgic appeal—a seeming paradox that is deliciously satisfying.
My favorite line in the play Collected Stories goes like this: “It’s funny the things we keep.” It’s the first line in the play; a writer utters it while sorting through a pile of documents in her desk drawer. She is sifting through her own history and the mysteries of what once mattered to her.
Kondo’s book has some sound advice and some important points about our—at times—unhealthy relationship with stuff, with accumulation, and about our terror of letting something go. But to root out all that doesn’t pass her stringent standards is to take away the joy of someday sorting through our objects and pondering the wonder of the human condition—manifested in the things we keep.