Konmari and Me

The women around me sing the praises of this purification ritual. It is a spiritual experience, they insist. They promise I will feel renewed; reborn. I have misgivings about its sexist underpinnings, but decide to give it a try.

So I bought Marie Kondo's book about the Japanese art of de-cluttering your home.

This ode to the "life-changing magic of tidying" your dwelling place contends that inertia and inefficiencies in our lives reflect our living quarters; that cluttered homes result in cluttered minds.

At the core of the "KonMari Method" is examining every object you own and asking yourself if it "sparks joy" in your heart. If it does not, you thank the item for its service, or for the lesson it taught you, and then get rid of it. No exceptions.

I earnestly explained this idea to my husband, watching panic battle amusement on his face. When he thanked the empty yogurt container in his hand for its service while depositing it in the trash, I scowled. This wasn't a joke, it was about the energy with which we filled our lives!

I opened the hall closet and pulled out the first thing I touched. "Does this spark joy?" I asked Joel.

"It's a vacuum cleaner," he said.

I wavered. Vacuuming might not spark joy, but needing to vacuum and not having a vacuum cleaner could spark one heck of an argument. But Marie believed in keeping things because you love them, not "just because." Joel asked me if she also believed in providing a renewable supply of cash to replace the appliances to which her clients did not have deep emotional ties.

Switching focus, I told Joel that the KonMari Method could help us make more efficient use of space. I noted that she recommended folding clothes into neat rectangles and storing them vertically rather than stacking them. I should have quit while I was ahead, because that's when I carelessly mentioned that she also believed in treating one's socks and stockings with respect.

Joel stared at me, biting his lip to keep from laughing.

She says it's disrespectful to ball up your socks because they cannot rest if they are always in a state of tension," I mumbled in explanation.

Joel whooped, and poured us big glasses of wine.

I took a gulp and sighed. I couldn't get Joel to move his shoes from the doorway; what made me think he'd be up for turning his wardrobe into origami? I sniffed that perhaps it would be best if I tested the KonMari Method on my own possessions first.

The KonMari disciple is urged to begin with her clothing, emptying all drawers and closets on to the floor and then selecting what to keep rather than what to discard.

Marie Kondo must believe I have a great deal of floor space--not to mention agility, if she thinks I can get up and down that many times after having mulched the yard.

Truthfully, it felt like more than I could handle, so I decided to begin with my books instead. This is no small feat for someone who has long held that putting up another bookcase doubles as both home improvement and interior decorating. But it seemed like a safer place to start, because I was sure I would experience positive emotions in handling my books.

I anticipated delight as I remembered the first time I read a favorite novel, nostalgia as I paged through gifts from my dad, and pride as I reminisced about reaching the summit of that college class that showed me what I could accomplish if I was passionate about my work.

But when I held some of the books with which I'd surrounded myself for years, I was shocked to identify emotions that I did not expect: guilt because I'd only skimmed the volumes about urban blight, shame since I had never read the turgid novels by authors I was supposed to like but really didn't, and even resentment, realizing that certain books had been foisted upon me by relatives cleaning out their own bookshelves.

I tossed hundreds of discards into boxes and bags, and I felt lighter.

Hours later, I sat in my favorite reading chair and looked around the living room. The room seemed bigger, and I felt triumphant. Seeing some empty space on the once jam-packed bookcases made the mementos seem more prominent, too.

That's when I realized, with a jolt, that I'd never liked some of them. There was a vase that had been a wedding gift, but never my taste; when I held it, I felt guilt rather than joy. Fingering a trinket given to me by a childhood friend reminded me more of the end of our relationship than the friendship itself. Another bauble, given to me by a relative's relative, made my face go hot with embarrassment as I remembered learning that it had not been bequeathed to me; the family had just decided it was easier to give it to me than bring it to the ARK.

I boxed them all up and felt a surge of relief. There was something to this!

Once done purging the bookcases, I began looking at all of the objects around my home in a different light. I realized that I kept a plethora of items in an attempt to feel rooted, but that some of these possessions instead made me feel burdened.

Truth be told, I haven't used my childhood desk as anything more than a deficient filing cabinet in 40 years. I never actually sit in my grandmother's uncomfortable tapestry chair, which gathers dust in the corner of my bedroom. I have never used the tiny silver chafing dish that my parents received as a wedding gift, and never will.

I imagined carting them away and creating some space for new memories. And why just stop with my own stuff?

Like any evangelist, I wanted to share my newfound wisdom, and sat Joel down to ask how he felt about his deceased father's many possessions on display in our home. The cameras, the photos, the display case with tokens of his dad's military service--how did they really make him feel, really, truly, in his heart of hearts?

"Good," he said, slightly puzzled.

And then it hit me: In her book, Marie Kondo barely mentions the family, beyond warning that it will cause great consternation if one's parents witness a household purge. She never speaks about the items that represent your family's history, however bittersweet, much less those that are a touchstone to one spouse and an albatross to the other.

Perhaps she was deliberately single. I googled her and found that Marie Kondo is not only married, but the mother of an infant. This is the woman who, to be true to her personal brand of asceticism, wears only white. I smirked unkindly, imagining her with spit-up running down her snow-white sleeve as she stepped on scattered legos. And then I let the image go.

Instead of picturing Marie, I imagined myself, with perfectly-folded clothes and minimalist furnishings, far removed from the boxes of baby clothes in my attic and the shelves of haggadahs in my pantry, divested of the ancient pull-out table in my dining room and the candlesticks in my cupboard, freed from the wine-stained tablecloths and the cache of Costco paper products in my basement. I pictured myself in a spotless living room, unburdened, in a home that is calm, minimalist and pristine.

And I didn't recognize myself.

The truth is that Marie Kondo is right: the home does reflect life. But life is messy, not tidy. Complicated. Alternatingly heartbreaking and heartening. And it sure as hell does not always spark joy.

I have heard it said that debating whether the glass is half-full or half-empty misses the point, which is that the glass is refillable. Just like our closets and our lives, which doubtless will once again overflow with treasures and trash, love and loss, no matter how many times I purge them.