Don’t call me Marie Kondo. I’ll get all bent out of shape about it.
You see, in a world increasingly filled with downsizers, tiny houses and minimalists, I am a maximalist. I keep stuff. I wrote a whole book about keeping stuff. It was called Year of No Clutter because after several decades of keeping everything in sight, I had finally run out of room, and it took a whole year to figure out how to undo what I had done.
I had read every book ever written on decluttering. The result was that my pile of decluttering books contributed to the clutter. But all that was before Marie Kondo took the organizing world by storm, with her ideas about how our objects ought to “spark joy.”
It’s one of those ideas that is so brilliantly simple that it changes the whole game. Why mess with lists of organizational mumbo jumbo when “spark joy” was all you really needed? And yet… despite the genius of her pithy message, and the appeal of her gentle-but-firm approach, I never was able to fully get on board with Kondo-ism, and I never knew why. Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve read the book. I’ve watched the Netflix series. If Subway made a Kon-Mari sandwich I’d have eaten it.
Yes, it bothered me that the Kon-Mari emphasis was on throwing things away rather than finding them new homes. (Next up: The Life Changing Magic of Topping off the Landfill!)
Yes, I worried that people in the throes of full-blown-Kondo hysteria would suffer declutterers-remorse when they came to their senses and realized they wanted back their old comic book collection/wedding dress/spleen.
Yes, it bothered me that Marie Kondo never discusses finer philosophical points of decluttering such as: What is the difference between clutter and a mess? (During my Year of No Clutter I came to the realization that this distinction is key: a mess is something anyone can clean up, because everything has a place where it is supposed to be. As in: “The kitchen is a mess.” Clutter, on the other hand, is the stuff that doesn’t have a place it belongs yet. Clutter is the result of unmade decisions; no one can undo it but you. As in: “What’s happening with this abandoned craft project?/ broken appliance?/ dead parrot?”)
But none of that was it. I never knew exactly what it was, until one day I posted a picture of a rag rug that I had made out of several boxes of old, sentimental clothing. I tagged the post “Definitely #notmariekondo”!
The reader who responded was a certified KonMari consultant.
“But it IS Marie Kondo!” she wrote. “It’s about keeping and valuing the things that make you happy! It’s beautiful!!”
The reader’s comment gave me pause. Was she right? Was I following Kondo principles without even realizing it? By weaving my old clothes and other fabrics into a rug I had found a new way to take joy in them… right?
Then it hit me. Suddenly I knew the problem with Marie Kondo and KonMari and the whole philosophy of keeping only the things that “spark joy” and it is this: our relationship with objects changes over time.
Because we never know what tomorrow will bring, or how we will feel in it, we never know exactly what to save- what will spark joy in that strange, new place called the future. My admittedly flawed solution to this conundrum in the past had always been to save it ALL. I’d fill up unused closets and corners, create time capsules for the attic— care packages to my future self— and desperately hope to have some ability to sort it all out meaningfully someday in the future. Who would I be when I grew up? What would turn out to have been important? Like Egyptian mummies who have all their belongings packed neatly up around them for whatever the afterlife holds in store, I had to prepare for every possible future self.
Of course, no closet or attic space is infinite, and no matter how good you are at spatial relations this strategy only works for so long. To a certain extent I’ve now become the person I would be when I grew up, and I’m relieved to be able to answer some of those questions at last. Opening up those time capsules from another era often presents either a clear “I’m so glad I saved this!” or a wonderfully freeing “oh, I don’t need that!” And if it doesn’t, I know what to do: I pack it right back up and return it to the attic. It just hasn’t been enough time yet.
In this decidedly un-Kondo-esque manner, I had held on to a whole host of things that any Kon-Mari consultant worth their salt would surely have advised me to pitch. College-era tie-dyes, a never-worn kilt, torn flannel nightgowns, my girls’ outgrown childhood dresses, a skirt I wore the year I met my husband… they were all packed up in boxes in the attic, patiently waiting for me to figure out a new way for them to be in my life. And then I realized I could make them into something new. When woven together they became what I called my Autobiography Rug. It was one of the greatest successes of the whole Year of No Clutter project and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t walk into the room where it now lies and smile, out of the corner of my eye identifying one fabric or another from the series of happy memories it represents, one after another, woven together. It is soft, squishy and pleasing under the feet and riotously colorful. It brings me great… joy.
Remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit? Some things don’t reveal their potential right away. They need time to have their fur worn off and their tail to come unsewn to become real. These things can take time, and that is the thing the Kon-Mari method doesn’t account for. Think of all the museums that are filled with objects that once upon a time someone probably should have thrown away. The Kon-Mari method of objects sparking joy is one barometer, a tool, and a darned good one at that, but I think we do ourselves— and our future selves— a disservice if it is the only one we use. Sometimes intuition, sentimentality, and even luck have crucial roles to play in what gets saved, and that’s as it should be.
We all keep things for reasons perhaps no one else could possibly understand— and thank goodness for that. Sometimes humans are far too sensible for our own good, and many of our objects could benefit from some buffer time, a vacation if you will, to serve as protection from our own good intentions.
A good sturdy attic box might be just the thing.