Grief makes you do funny things, like cry on toilets and hate happy people. For me, it made me try to record my dead dad’s spirit voice, and tidy my life away.
After my dad’s sudden death, which happened while he was cycling on vacation in France, all I wanted to do was escape and become someone else, someplace else, every second of my life. And I tried. Four years, five moves, thousands of cocktails, billions of tissues, two therapists, a medium, 40,000 dozen doughnuts, and a psychic later, nothing had helped. I was at a complete loss with my loss.
And then, I saw it.
One Saturday morning, while stalking the self-help section in my local bookstore: Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Just reading those words made me giddy with hope for a new beginning.
I thumbed through the introduction and was immediately taken with the infamous organizing goddess’s cockiness about what she claims to be the life-transforming power of decluttering. My mind raced with fantasies about my own complete cleanout ― not just of my closet, overflowing with clothes I’d never fit in again and 20-year-old underwear, but of the pain and grief that had paralyzed my mind and body for the past four years. Yup. This would be my chance to become a new me.
I ran home and devoured the entire book in three hours, earmarking every single page with a little corner fold because Marie said something potentially life-changing. Her little bouts of simplistic wisdom were the answers to all of my self-loathing problems. She was like the self-help Moses, bestowing upon me the Ten Commandments of Happiness: Thou shalt clean thy closets and drawers in order to have the minimal and peaceful life of a kind and petite woman.
The next morning, I woke up with the sun, ready for my first directive from the mess-free Marie. I was to take every stitch of clothing I owned and throw them into one giant sacrificial pile on the floor. Good thing my husband was out of town. He didn’t need to see this.
Directive two: Hold each piece of clothing in your hands and decide if it “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, thank it for its service of covering your body parts from people’s glaring eyes and put it into a giveaway pile where it will be shuffled off to joyfully cover someone else’s body parts. And if it does spark joy, hug it, fold it into a tight clothing waffle, and file it back into your drawers, where you will ignore it for another 20 years.
Five hours later, I’d polished off two coffees and a bottle of Cabernet and whittled down my entire wardrobe to absolutely nothing to wear because with each piece I discarded, some of my past melted away. It was exhilarating and addicting. I pictured Marie sitting next to me in a black monochromatic outfit that brought her joy, although she didn’t show it, approving and cheering me on, which brought me joy.
Directive three: Go through books the same way as clothes. All juiced up from throwing away everything I wear, I threw away everything I’ve read, because, as Marie says, “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” By the time directive four came along, which instructed me to scan and then discard all physical documents, I was no longer testing for joy, I was just throwing away anything that was dated before my dad died, thereby making room for the sparkly, new me Marie promised.
Then came tackling “komono,” what Marie calls your miscellaneous items, like orphaned power cords, guest bedding for friends that never visit, and unused blenders that mock you. But most importantly, it includes gifts, which according to the tidiness guru, are an expression of love and consideration, whose true purpose is to be received, not kept. In other words, I was to take away all sentimental guilt, thank the gift for the joy it brought me when I first received it, and then bank-shoot it into the trash can or give it to someone who cares. And I did ― to all of them and my collection of old greeting cards. Because Marie said so.
By hour 13, drunk with the feeling of doing life-changing magic and another bottle of wine, I poorly scanned then threw away my entire life’s worth of photographs, placed all VHS tapes and DVDs of everything from my childhood to my wedding into a bag to get digitized (which would end up getting accidentally thrown away anyway) and passed out. My tidying was tidy.
The next morning, I woke up lying in a mountain of trash bags that held my past life, hungover and wearing just a shirt because I gave away my pants, and wondered what in the world I’d done. Then, I saw the little aqua and white book, spread-eagle on the floor next to me, and it all came rushing back. Marie. My old underwear. Wine. Magic. I didn’t know if I should feel ashamed or proud. What I did know was I had to figure out how to get all this stuff out of my apartment before my husband got home and saw another one of my attempts at grief relief. He’d seen enough already.
When the last bag disappeared and the last item was sold on Craigslist, I felt lighter. Getting rid of most of your belongings will do that. With my past out of sight, some fresh cash in my pocket, and no clothes to wear other than a pair of jeans, two shirts, and a cashmere scarf, I could create a new me and a new life. And, once again, I tried. I bought a new wardrobe and some new books; we eventually moved; I had a baby, and another baby; and then we moved again, and again. And then, the world stopped, and I could no longer distract myself with my new life. I needed my old life.
I 'Marie Kondo-ed' it all away, completely disregarding that despite these things not necessarily sparking joy, they might spark comfort, security and coziness when I needed them. And now I needed them.
The anxiety and isolation of COVID made me yearn for connection I could no longer get from outside my home, but I had none left inside. The declutter blitzkrieg, led by the peaceful mess warrior, left me with a barren sentimental wasteland. I was devoid of favorite books to escape into, old gifts to comfort me with love from my past, vacation tchotchkes to remind me of the beauty I’d seen, greeting cards with cheesy sentiments I needed to hear now, lace doilies my dead grandmother crocheted for me that I could touch to feel her DNA, and most importantly, anything from my dad. All because one Sunday, in a thick fog of grief, desperation for a different life, and after drinking too much cheap red wine ― none of what I owned sparked joy, but rather sadness. So, I ‘Marie Kondo-ed’ it all away, completely disregarding that despite these things not necessarily sparking joy, they might spark comfort, security and coziness when I needed them. And now I needed them.
But I don’t blame the life-changing temptress for her self-improvement seduction, since she’s really just trying to help, and I don’t blame myself for being so blindly determined to escape the tsunami of pain that had flooded my life that I tried to throw away my past.
I’ve grieved long enough now to know it’s a messy process and it makes you do funny things. I also now know that nothing really helps but time. Not therapists, moving, traveling, mediums, psychics, gallons of alcohol, self-help books with big promises, purging or keeping your belongings, or even 40,000 dozen doughnuts. What those things can do, I’ve learned, is help you survive as you wait for time to do its thing. Like a new pair of sneakers for your grief run, they can give you a little nudge forward when you’re stuck, until you’ve hit the point where you don’t need them anymore. So, if it comforts you, reenergizes you, re-instills hope in you, motivates you, emotionally hugs you, reminds you of someone you love, and especially, if it sparks joy or peace or comfort in you, I say do it or keep it ... and thank it for being there for you when you need it.
Martini Paratore is a comedian turned grief failure, turned mom, turned quarantine housewife/homeschooler/cook/cleaner/prisoner/weeper. She really wishes she was a mom in the ’80s, because that sounds easier to her. You can find more from her on her Instagram at @MartiniADay.