If you find your life is stuck in a rut, would you consider the remedy might be to…<ahem>…tidy your house? I might have dismissed the premise of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up myself, had I not been adrift in my own particular doldrums. I leafed through the small and elegant book; its proposal was not exactly modest. Japanese tidying guru, Marie Kondo, claims that her clients (now on a three-month waiting list) not only learn to beat back bulging closets, but unleash untold vivacity and vision in the process. “In this book,” she declares, “I have summed up how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.” (p1)
I could use such a change. My job had recently come to an end, as had a dating relationship; and now that I was slowly sliding into middle age, I was growing rather weary of the “seasons of life” thing. Starting again was not something I wanted at an age when, let’s face it, I’d hoped certain things would be settled by now. But no—it was back to the drawing board. This time, however, I didn’t want to draw up the same old plans with the same old pencils. I needed new tools; I wanted fresh eyes.
According to Kondo, tidying your house offers this fresh outlook, because tidying is different from cleaning. It’s an intense, almost disruptive process that forces a closer look at your possessions and at your habits. We tend to buy mindlessly and throw money at our mess without addressing the reasons we buy and hold. “The best way to find out what we really need,” she explains, “is to get rid of what we don’t. Quests to faraway places or shopping sprees are no longer necessary. All you have to do is eliminate what you don’t need by confronting each of your possessions properly.” (183) It’s not about buying more bins for overstuffed spaces; it’s about discarding what has fulfilled its purpose. It’s about learning to let go.
I’m all for getting to the heart of an issue. But confronting your heart by confronting your house? This was a new one. Kondo’s clients rave that by consciously decluttering, they have kickstarted new careers, relationships, even the ability to lose weight. It may sound like snake oil, but I’m a foodie, and I always thought snake oil sounded kind of tasty. Anyway, what did I have to lose? Besides teetering boxes of unsorted sordids? The time, it seemed, was ripe to tidy.
The process. With the KonMari MethodTM, you tidy in categories, not rooms: clothes, then books, papers, miscellany, and finally sentimental items. Gather all items together, then hold each one in your hands and determine if it “sparks joy” in your soul. Only the items that thrill you get to stay. Even if an item doesn’t give you joy, you learn that every item has a purpose—even to teach you what doesn’t work for you. If you decide to discard the item, you thank it for the memories (yes, you thank your items out loud in a ceremony of honor). Then you let it go.
The esoteric steps of tidying enchanted me. I was ready to shake out the shelves of my house, speak reverently to my junk, and let the inner healing begin. I skipped to the starting line like a jogger with new shoes and a good night’s sleep. The seasoned pros on the sidelines shook their heads, wary of what lay ahead…
GOOD RIDDANCE. I hated half the stuff on hangers. I didn’t even thank my clothes as I chucked them in a box to Goodwill (was that cheating?). I was appalled at how many of my clothes made me feel dumpy and dull. Why? Why did I hang on to tired attire? Looks like the therapy has begun! After some inner wrestling, I was forced to admit that, besides being lazy (I’d rather throw on that beige sweater with clown sleeves than go shopping), sometimes I feel uncomfortable looking amazing. Those details are not included in your price of admission, but let’s just say the exhuming has begun.
I culled my clothes in a day. Which tells you I’m no Imelda Marcos. My closet felt shorn, like a haircut that went too far, but also refreshed and ready to be filled with sartorial candy. I glanced at the Goodwill box and grimaced; there were clothes I recognized in photos from ten years ago. Remember High School, when you were mortified to show up in last year’s fashions? Welcome to early onset middle age. I can keep clothes for a decade and not blink.
The climb steepens. Reading is my addiction, and I had boxes of books that hadn’t been cleared since college. Fortunately, I don’t accumulate a ton of stuff, even books (I don’t like physical labor, and boxes are heavy). But no matter a smattering or shelves-full, you must confront each of your books. The ones you keep should spark joy when you hold them; these are the titles you revisit and that speak to your spirit. They are your treasures.
What about books you haven’t gotten around to reading? Let them go, Kondo says. When a book enters your life, that was the time to read it. If it’s been languishing in the corner, you should send it on its way. Sounds severe, but if you get bold in your discarding, you’ll find a lot of “someday” in your possessions that subconsciously clutters your life. “You may have wanted to read [the book] when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.” (91) Dang. I feel the same way every time I eat a Totino’s Party Pizza.
Also—resist the urge to read the books! Your keepers should pique your joy at a glance. Once you choose your best and free the rest, what remains is a bookshelf selfie (bookshelfie?) of your soul. The books that lay strewn across my carpet composed a literary snapshot of my heart: my C.S. Lewis volumes, the Bible in several translations (Jewish, Amplified, NIV), handwriting analysis, The Little Prince in both English and French, a tome on prayer…and a crate full of unread back issues of food magazines. Yes, I bent the rules on this one, but someday I plan to cook through these recipes…someday…
Kondo defines “papers” as the receipts and bills that clutter your counter, and coursework—no sentimental stuff. But I had to subdivide this category. Most of my possessions are paper, and most of it is sentimental. Though technically academic, my English class journals from middle school are personal and embarrassing. I also have boxes of diaries I’ve kept since 8 years old, and notebooks with maudlin poetry and emotional free-writing. Kondo was quite adamant about leaving that sort of sentimental tidying for LAST, which is NOT A PROBLEM, because I’m AVOIDING THOSE LIKE THE PLAGUE ANYWAY.
I parsed through my boring papers with nary a hiccup…until I stumbled over a thick stack of notes from an online Accounting course. Hardly joy-sparky, but hard to part with—here was proof of intense effort and good money spent. But as I held the notes in my hands, I recoiled; never, in what’s left of my life, do I want to be an Accountant. I faced a harder truth—when I took the class, I was feeling pressure to develop skills other people wanted me to have, that served their goals and dreams. I’m good at pompomming other people’s passions, but it’s been a difficult journey to identify and pursue my own. As I press into the courage to live out who I really am, I also have to let go of what I know I’m not. I thanked the Accounting notes for what they taught me and lay them gingerly in the trash.
I did save my heavy binder of French lessons. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the two courses might have brought more in the way of filthy lucre. But the criteria (in Tidying Up, if not in modern culture) is not “brings market value” but “brings joy." I cradled the pink binder and gleefully remembered my first-ever trip to Europe a few years back, where I employed my broken, eager French. (At a KFC in Paris, I may have ordered “chicken boobies” instead of “breast meat.”) Alas, my life choices are every movie where the young heroine chooses the poor lover over her rich, heartless fiancé. Accounting may offer me a heavy blue diamond necklace, but French whisks me into steerage for beer and Irish clogging.
I never threw anything away as a child—photos, journals, mementos. I remember feeling acutely that no one was watching my life. I crafted manic records in an attempt to justify my existence, perhaps, or grip the cliff I felt I was slipping off. I craved the mementos of an event more than the experience itself. Otherwise, where did it go? Who could prove it had happened? I took feverish accounts of even unhappy times. Why did I cling so tightly to it all? I think when you’re young, good or bad, your life is all you have, all you think you’ll ever have. I feared if I lost the memories, I’d lose me, too. No one else was keeping a record.
This category was uneventful. No, table-top Christmas tree, I will no longer be needing your services.
Ah, the Mount of Humiliation. Sentimental papers. Here the air is thin; breathing is belabored with shame-tinged giggling. Can a soul on earth revisit the raw expressions of their childish mind without cringing? I’m grateful I sprouted before the dawn of social media. Poor modern kids—the ether has filed forever the raw material and missteps of learning to be you. All anyone has on me are grainy photos from birthday parties and a few notes I passed in class. Expunging the record was so much easier before the Internet.
With burning face, I paged through my English journals from 6th grade, peeking at nascent Anna in all her naive, expressive glory. I was surprised to find, though a lifetime has passed since then, how much has stayed the same. I don’t think we morph into a different person on our journey, if we’re doing the work; I think we uncover who we were meant to be all along. I’m still a deep thinker, drawn to reading and language, who writes Spanish in her margins and really terrible self-absorbed poetry. I discovered a poem I wrote at 11 called “Mad and Alone.” It is a fantastic garden of drama that I still completely relate to.
Halfway through the process and I was already proselytizing. I insisted my mom employ the KonMari MethodTM as she cleared out her house for a remodel. I had been confident, but when we uncovered boxes of ancient family records, we hesitated. Mom lugged out a heavily gilded portrait of her sister’s young engagement—a man she had divorced before I was born, and who herself had since passed away. We had no reason to keep it, but it felt sacrilegious to toss such a costly and solemn memorial. I stoically intoned the ceremony of honor: “Thank you, picture, for the memories. We release you with gratitude.”
This must have emboldened Mom, because she started chucking relics that sent me dumpster diving in a panic. “Mom! You’re throwing away the unicorn storybook I drew in 2nd grade?! My future children might want to read this masterwork!” I had to breathe into a paper bag and remind myself that children don’t really require extensive proof of your younger years. Apart from a few surprising photos, kids tend to be far more interested in their own childhood than they are in yours.
Out of nowhere, I hit a wall. It was a cold and grey winter morning, and I was depressed. I had been alone for weeks, working through this intensive process. Now I was turning the corner to the truly sentimental: bags of letters and cards from old friends. My schoolwork alone had left me raw and vulnerable. Among my college essays and class notes, I had found printed emails and scribbled notes that brought flooding back the struggles of my 20s. I felt exhausted now, almost angry, as I faced this deeper round of mementos. The years had taught me that there was a lot of lonely in life. Friends had married or moved on long ago. My heart was more often broken than brimming. I’d lived alone for years, and my recent relationship and job failure didn’t help to buoy the prolonged sense of desolation. I had thought myself brave in the face of life’s little lessons—“nothing is constant but change”; “people come and go.” But this morning, I felt defeated. I looked at the letters and hated them.
Letters, 2nd attempt (post pot of coffee).
I ran a half marathon once and found my knee locked up and my energy spent three miles to the finish. I willed myself to press on, simply because I couldn’t stop there. So, too, with tidying—I couldn’t stop here, and I just wanted to be done.
The day brightened as I did the work. I smiled bittersweetly as I read old cards from close friends. I wanted to copy a few and mail them back with morose Sharpie scribbled across the top: “You liked me, you really liked me!” But then I was struck by an equally funny and terrible insight: I, too, had not been great at keeping up with people. Tidying had been trying to teach me: everything has a purpose, but not everything is meant to stay. Relationships that serve for even a season are valuable. Sometimes people leave before you’d hoped, but sometimes you, too, move on and hurt feelings. So what to do with these closed chapters?
I went back to the bottom line—does this memory bring me joy? With that criteria, I kept more cards than I had expected. I found I could cherish how these relationships had shaped me; I could keep the cards and let the people go. After so, so many ends and beginnings, I can accept (slowly, slowly) that few things last in life. I used to fear that parts of me would be lost if loved ones left. But only Jesus promises to never leave or forsake us, even to the very end. Maybe very few people walk with us the whole way. Maybe that’s okay.
Sigh. I hit another wall. After reaching such equanimity with the letters, I stalled out violently with the photos. This would be freaking Everest. I had been an obsessive photographer—shot it all and kept the negatives. My mom discovered these piles of photo boxes in my bedroom and foisted them on me after I’d moved out. I was indignant—shouldn’t they stay at her house until one fine, fuzzy day, we’d unearth them and display these jewels to the grandkids? That wasn’t actually a dear dream of mine; I just didn’t want to deal with the bulging boxes. Kondo says unwillingness to confront mementos is common. “Sometimes people keep a mass of photos in a big box with the intention of enjoying them someday in their old age. I can tell you now that ‘someday’ never comes….Do it now. You will enjoy the photos far more when you are old if they are already in an album…” (120)
Fine. It is only proper that I should deal with my own dang photos. Still, this was difficult. I didn’t remember taking half of the countless pics of parties and people (and makeovers?), but discarding the photos felt like I was discarding the person. On the other hand, I don’t need ten hundred “model shots” of my sister and friends from the time I fancied myself the next Annie Leibovitz. I decided which few were nostalgic shots of my youth, and which ones (I’m looking at you, New Year’s Eve party I don’t remember with people I don’t like) needed to go.
I giggled a lot and texted streams of pictures to old high school and college friends. Some of them enjoyed it. As I parsed through pics that made me smile, I decided that whether or not I kept the photo, these good times and good friends remain part of me. Somewhere deep in our psyches and shared history, the memories we make with lovely people live on.
I found a bag of random pictures of my dad’s family that had been thrown in with mine. I handed them to him at coffee one day, and he jumped back—“Where are all of these coming from? Mom already unloaded a box on me!” I laughed to think how universal is this need for tidying. If each of us would work through our own mementos, the next in line won’t get stuck sorting through stacks of pictures, some of people they’ve never met! Then I had a deeper insight: sometimes we throw things in boxes we don’t want to mess with ourselves, while thinking some magical day, it might mean something to the next generation. But if it doesn’t spark joy in YOU now, it won’t for them, either. Legacy is not about passing down a box of photos, but loving people while you have them. I tucked this truth into my heart, something the younger me could have used a lot sooner. Focus on living and loving well. If your loved ones aren’t cared for and cherished now, the photos won’t make up for it later.
Final stretch—and it’s all downhill from here! I gathered every one my diaries and packed them right back into boxes. I didn’t have to hold them to know I was keeping them—these are my prized possession. Due to my aphantasia, I’d never have these memories if they weren’t written down. I haven’t revisited most of my journals yet, but perusing the collection is a wonder to me. I’ve been awake and writing almost my whole life.
Okay, I did open one at random. Get this—it was written exactly 10 years ago, to the month. I was surprised to find I had been wrestling and praying over a situation I’m still facing today. But it confirms my joy in keeping these accounts: I can remember God’s faithfulness, even as the road stretches on. Life (like tidying) is more a marathon than a sprint. Through my diaries, I build my faith and endurance. Some prayers have yet to be answered, but others have been wondrously fulfilled; and I have a record of it all. Unlike the clothes, the papers, the letters and the photos, not one of my diaries will be discarded. I will read my whole life again one fine day.
But today is not that day! Shut the books, tape the boxes—Project Tidy is done, and so is the physical and emotional heavy lifting. It is time to have done with heaviness! The hour has come for festive frivolity! To the galley, mes amis, for some beer and Irish clogging!
Well, I tidied. Like a boss. Did a fresh wind blow in, full of tantalizing possibilities? It’s too soon to say, but I do feel like a fallow field ready for a new planting. I look forward to new things; I feel I’ve made room.
Tidying was a revelation. Though I didn’t have a ton of stuff, I didn’t realize how much I struggled with letting go. As Kondo puts it, “[W]hen we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future” (181). I saw a spiritual principle in it all. Whether time, money, things, or even people, Jesus cautioned that if we hold tight to our life in fear, we’ll only lose it in the end. Kondo says there is a happy number of things we can love and own at any one time, and we hoard beyond this to our own harm. I’ve learned to let go a bit, trusting God to bring what (and who) I need at the right time. It’s freeing to loosen my grip, trusting that as I live by faith and sow generously, I’ll always have enough. Someone else is keeping that record.
Tidying is serious business. I cringed, I cried, I fought a mighty storm of despair, but I made it to the other side. I recommend the task of tidying to anyone in need of a magnificent reset. If you are ready to look your soul in the face, to take charge of what only you can see and what only you can change…
Do try this at home.