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I Tried the 'kon-mari' Method of Tidying Up and Was Left Feeling Empty

Her only real criteria for not discarding something is the question "does it spark joy?" I took too much joy in it. I was getting too much joy out of my tee shirts being folded vertically in rows. My tidy kitchen sparked too much contentment. I loved, too much, the new state of tidy.
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Like every other person, it seems, I just read the life-changing magic of tidying up; the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by marie kondo - the on-purpose-lower-case- titled clutter-fighting manual (3 million copies sold!).

I read it while standing in line at my neighborhood bookstore - it's short and to the point, the cover -a beautifully water colored umbrae blue. Then I felt guilty because I love books and I love bookstores so I bought it, and handed it to my husband who will never read it.

So I read it again.

I need to say one thing straight off the bat, I don't know if this distinction matters, but it's worth noting: after reading this book twice in the span of a couple of weeks, unless I'm missing something, it seems to me that this is not a description of "Japanese" decluttering and organizing, but instead a manifesto by one Japanese woman, whose life's work (since she was 5 years old) has been figuring out the best way (in her words) to tidy. I'm not sure that matters, but it struck me as a bit of false advertising, at the very least.

I should back up. I love organizing or "tidying" as kondo (I'm using the lowercase because she does) reminds us to call it. I love cleaning; it calms my mind, it makes my heart race, it connects me back to my Lithuanian grandmother who cleans all the bathrooms twice a day and the kitchen floor with a sponge on her hands and knees. You read that right, it's in present tense, she's still alive at 93; and still doing it. There's something to a lifetime of cleaning the floor tiles, for sure.

I get a little obsessive about "tidying," I'll admit. I tackle a room like an enemy, and stuff leaves in body bags. I have no attachment to papers, or crappy sweatshirts or old teddy bears or notes from my high school boyfriend except...maybe I do.

With the book at my side, I started at the beginning - kondo suggests "the secret to success is to tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible," and to start by discarding.

I can do that. I love to do that.

kondo also suggests a method to the madness this might induce (or for me, the compulsion it is definitely feeding). Do "clothes first then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly mementos."

Again, right on sister, I can do it in whatever order you think is best.

Her only real criteria for not discarding something is the question "does it spark joy?"

Vague? Yes. Possible to use practically? Also yes. I know what I love, and I know what makes me happy when I touch it. This idea of only keeping that which makes you joyful is not only lovely, it's inspiring. And enabling.

So I began. And let me tell you, it was glorious. That pale blue polyester dress with the hot pink zipper up the back that I wore in New York City bars as a twenty-everything? Gone. My pink cashmere scarf with the nine tiny holes and one big hole, bye bye. The pile (read: crinkled mess) of my children's preschool work I had shoved in a plastic bin in the depths of the closet? I picked out the three or four best ones and recycled the rest. And then books. I really have a hard time getting rid of books, but the ones that didn't spark joy anymore - that I wouldn't re-read or reference - I "thanked for their service" and planned new homes for them. Friends who would love a particular story, the library, the children's thrift store.

Even the mementos and photos weren't so hard to part with. The suggestion I "cherish who [I] am now" was refreshing if a little unsettling. It reminded me a bit of the mindfulness my yoga teacher/therapist/friends keep reminding me to practice. A lot sparked joy, so I kept them, and organized - I'm sorry, tidied - and let the rest go with the wind.

I truly loved this process, but as I sat down to chat about it with my husband - again read: try to convince him he should do it in his office and his closet, bursting at the seams with old tee shirts, papers and weird congealed unidentifiable things - I took pause.

Did I feel better, or "dramatically altered?" as kondo suggests? My home did, to some extent. My reaching for a sweater did, for sure. But something felt off.

I needed to go back to that part in the text that didn't feel so good to me, the last part.

kondo says about herself: "because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things. I think precisely because I did not feel comfortable exposing my weaknesses or my true feelings to others, my room and the things in it became very precious.... It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or my friends."

And then, "When 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."

I couldn't get that image of kondo, sitting alone in a perfectly tidied apartment, surrounded by her most loved and joyful things, out of my mind. I don't know of course, but I imagine her living alone, the contents of her handbag ("emptied every day") on her lacquered nightstand, a pair of supple leather shoes lined up on a bright white sheepskin rug by the front door. Who am I to judge where she finds happiness? But by the same accord, who is she to tell me where to find mine?

The problem with the book and its far-reaching effects lies in this admission, I think. I don't fault kondo any of this. She's made a big business manifesting in a three-month waiting list for her services and sold more copies of her book than most writers will ever dream of - myself very much included. And, furthermore, all of it makes her happy. And it makes other people happy. It makes me happy too. But I wondered about the new lack of clutter in my life and how much joy that actually gave me.

I concluded something that kondo's class would probably fail me for: I took too much joy in it. I was getting too much joy out of my tee shirts being folded vertically in rows. My tidy kitchen sparked too much contentment. I loved, too much, the new state of tidy.

And though I don't think I will miss most of the things I let go, I can't tell you how much miss that blue dress with the pink zipper. kondo says "it is not our memories, but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure." But the person I was in that dress, before I was a mom, before the shape of my breasts and the height of my shoes fell significantly, the more reckless, carefree, fun version of me, I miss her. She doesn't only have to live in a corner of my ever-more-forgetful brain, does she? Couldn't she live in that blue dress so that I could think of the memory when I see it?

I know, you are saying: that's joy, that's sparked, you should have kept that weird blue dress! Maybe. But maybe I didn't know until it was gone.

Dawn Raffel, in her book The Secret Life of Objects reminds us "things carry with them the places they've been." I think that may be more of my mantra.

By all means, I'll get rid of all of the plastic Tupperware tops that have no bottoms. But I don't know what might spark joy in five years, or five days or five minutes. I don't know what will spark joy in my children, my grandchildren, my old friend from the bar where I most often wore the bizarre blue dress. I want an attachment to my past; I want some eagerness (and even fear) about the future.

My six-year-old son came into my office while I was writing this. He picked up a small powdery heart made of soap that my aunt gave to me last Chanukah. It smells good. Does it spark joy? I don't know. But we just had a ten-minute conversation about my aunt, where she works, what she loves, how giving she is. And I don't think we would have had it with out the object to spark the conversation.

I know that this book has been life changing for many. In a way, it was for me.

But I'm thankful that I have landed in a different mind space from where I began.

Because regardless of how I store my tee-shirts- and let me tell you I will never fold that same old way I used to, I can thank kondo for that- I need to back away from the idea that I can control my life if I can control my environment. I need to reject the thought that exists as last line in kondo's book. That, "life truly begins when you put your house in order."

Because that, frankly, is ridiculous. It's the people in this house, tidy or not, who are my life, and it's been going on all along.