Hi, my name is Kathleen, and I like stuff.
Not all stuff, admittedly—my problem areas are clothing (specifically dresses) and books. I mean, that’s the reason I started this blog: my overwhelming piles of unread books. I’m happy to say that since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, those piles have gotten a little smaller. My closet is more organized, and my drawers have room in them.
Kondo is an organizing guru and this book is ostensibly about how to be tidy, but it’s really about how to approach the concept of possessions in a way that doesn’t leave you with piles of useless crap. The book is a manifesto in favour of minimalism and joy. Kondo’s point is that our possessions should bring us joy, from our socks to our hats to the oven mitts we use. Working through a typical home in categories, from clothing to books to papers to mementos and so on, Kondo urges us to ask ourselves, “Does this spark joy?” of everything we own. It’s a simple question, but it felt revolutionary when I applied it to my own belongings. No, in fact, that book I bought in 2004 and am clearly never going to read does not spark joy. It makes me feel guilty. And so out it went. (That book was Vanity Fair, by the way. I can’t believe I’ve carted that thing around to three different cities and five different apartments.)
“Does this spark joy?” is in fact a surprisingly easy question to answer. It turns out that joy is pretty easy to identify (as anyone who saw Inside Out knows). If you’re holding a shirt and you answer this question with, “Well, I paid a lot of money for this,” or “My mom gave it to me,” Kondo would say to get rid of the shirt. You should be able to say, “Yes!” to the question without qualifiers.
Kondo’s methods can seem kind of bizarre—for example, she advocates holding each item of clothing and thanking it for its service to you before discarding it—but she writes about them in such a matter-of-fact and encouraging tone that before long I was completely hooked. I’ve applied her method to my clothes, books, and papers so far. This is how it works: you take everything in your house that belongs to that category, let’s say clothing, and lay it out on the floor. This way you can confront it all at once. Spread out like that and it just looks like so much unnecessary stuff. Why do I have so much?
As I dutifully picked up each item and considered it, the benefits of Kondo’s method became apparent. When everything you own is on your floor, you’re forced to think about whether each item should get to go back into the closet. I found myself holding dresses I haven’t worn in years, remembering who I was with when I bought it or the friend’s wedding I wore it to. Somehow, remembering these things made it easier to part with items that didn’t spark joy. I spent the longest amount of time holding a plain t-shirt—ratty, old, and cheap—because it reminded me of a very particular memory. It was hard to get rid of it, but I had to face the fact that it didn’t spark joy (in fact, it made me kind of sad). Also, the memory exists in my head, not in the t-shirt.
Kondo also has a special method of folding clothes, and it is genius. There is about fifty times more space in each of my dresser drawers now from a combination of discarding and refolding.
Books were much harder than clothes. You see, Kondo is firm about unread books. She writes that if you haven’t read it soon after buying it, you’ll never read it. I don’t totally agree (and in fact this inspired me to pick up Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which I can’t even remember acquiring it was so long ago, just to prove her wrong), but there was certainly a reason that I didn’t get around to reading some of those books. And that reason was that I didn’t want to. So out they went.
I’ve made a deal with myself that the unread books I did keep have to be read within the next year. I’ve updated my list with those titles, so stay tuned.
Naturally, there has been a bit of backlash to Kondo’s method. A writer for the New York Times exhorted everyone to embrace clutter because to be human means to collect, to treasure. I agree, but do I really need to keep treasuring unopened mail from Scotiabank’s SCENE program? Probably not. Writing for the National Post, Emily M. Keeler expressed the same idea: “You are supposed to be burdened by your life, you are supposed to have stuff, to accumulate memories, experiences, and things in equal measure.” I agree with this, too, but as I’ve learned, memories and experiences are not tied to stuff, and not all stuff needs to stay tied to me, either. Believe me, I still have plenty of stuff (I probably wasn’t strict enough when I went KonMari on my clothes, to be honest). The thing is, when we get rid of what we don’t love, we can focus on all of the things we do love.
And why are we so beholden to our stuff, anyway? Our possessions aren’t supposed to possess us. It’s lovely to have dresses that we enjoy wearing and books to read and, I don’t know, a fancy cheese grater to grate fancy cheese or whatever else we like, but in the end, they are just objects. The meaning we give them comes from us. And we carry that meaning, invisible and weightless, with us.
Kondo has worked one-on-one with clients, and she writes that many of them have experienced big life changes after such sessions. We’re talking promotions, new jobs, new love interests, financial windfalls, etc. This is where her method gets a little bizarre again. I actually did get promoted recently, although obviously it wasn’t caused by my getting rid of a bunch of striped sweaters I don’t wear, but I think Kondo’s point is interesting. Clearing out items that don’t spark joy can make you feel more focused on the present and optimistic about what other things you want to focus on in your life. Changes can naturally follow.
I do know that since I’ve done this clear-out, I’ve been able to make some plans for my future. I feel a tiny bit less stuck than I did before. And all I had to do was get rid of an old t-shirt.