Several weeks ago, my friend Lori over at Project Based Homeschooling mentioned a book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Over the next 72 hours, I saw this book mentioned across social media. A lot of people I knew were talking about it. Normally I avoid trendy things until they blow over (or forever) but when I read the premise – getting rid of the things you own that don’t prompt a “spark of joy,” I bought the book.
The premise appealed to me because of inklings I’ve been grappling with over the past year. When Kidlet and I were in Colombia last winter, I noticed how clutter was not a way of life for everyone, especially people who didn’t live in the city. Due to its three mountain ranges, history of guerrilla warfare and poor government investment in national infrastructure, Colombia is a difficult country to navigate once you leave the metropolitan areas; this makes bringing goods into small town and rural communities very costly.
One of the consequences is that in those smaller places you don’t see a lot of extra stuff in people’s homes. There are no Walmarts, Targets or Fred Meyer one-stop-shopping stores where you can easily buy things you didn’t know you ‘needed’ until you saw them on display. There is no Amazon delivery service or Zulily. There are still toy stores, market places and shops that sell knick-knacks, necessities and cheap sundries, but they are mom-and-pops. Most people walk to them or take a motorcycle, horse or mototaxi. This is not to say that Colombians are minimalists, nor do I want to romanticize their existence. What I’m saying is I noticed how, because of circumstances often beyond their control, people managed to have a lot less ‘stuff’ and still live comfortably.
This is something I’ve observed often outside the US/Canada, and may be one of the reasons I enjoy traveling. Kidlet and I stayed in normal homes/apartment rentals for our visit to Europe, and while there I paid attention to what possessions the owners chose to have on hand, and how they organized them. I also thought about what we brought with us, for three weeks: One large carry-on suitcase and my purse, plus Kidlet’s tiny backpack for her mini tablet, headphones, and sketchbook supplies. At the end of the three weeks there were clothes and books I’d packed that we never wore or read. Eighty percent of the little items I’d packed “just in case” were never used. Several people have suggested I write about packing light with a child and I will do that later, but for now I’ll say — I could have packed lighter! And wished I had.
So, what does this have to do with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Well, it’s about accurately identifying what one needs and loves. I followed Marie Kondo’s directions as outlined in the book, beginning the process of discarding with my clothes. Just my clothes. (I’m leaving Kidlet and Hubster to do their own discarding later if they want.) It worked out just as she said. When I pulled a plastic tub off the top shelf of Kidlet’s closet marked “Out of Season Clothes,” I found stuff that did give me that “spark of joy” – but I hadn’t laid eyes on them in two years. Because they were in a bag in a closed container on the top shelf of a closet in my daughter’s room. Additionally, I could wear them right now, this month; so much for “out of season.” Meanwhile, there were items hanging in my closet that I looked at every day and didn’t like to wear.
When I was done pulling out the clothes that neither sparked joy nor met a real need, I’d filled four 13-gallon sized bags with clothes — alarming because I’d already ‘decluttered’ three such bags’ worth of clothing a month ago. In one day, I let go of 50+% of my clothes. I don’t miss any of it.
The second category of items to discard is Books. I was looking forward to this because books take up a lot of space in our 2-bedroom flat. But it’s been trickier. I have far more books than clothes, and some of the books I’ve held on to for years have come to symbolize old aspirations and my past.
I also noticed more pushback from virtual on-lookers. Whereas no one suggested I hang on to clothes, or that it was good to have a closet full of outfits, many of my friends reminded me of the virtues of keeping physical books. Clearly, I have more bookworms for friends than fashionistas (not that the two are mutually exclusive), but I was intrigued. The fetishization of books is another thing I’ve been (idly) contemplating for a while, especially as Hubster has shifted mostly to digital/e-books and I imagine myself as a righteous defender of the independent bookstore. It’s tempting to take this generally good thing (a book) and rationalize holding on to it because literacy, education and open-mindedness are so valued among my circles.
But there I was, defending the e-reader as preferable for some kinds of books, defending the whole process …. and in responding to my friends I discovered something: that I want to change my life, and that means removing the barnacles from long-held virtues so that I can actually grasp them again.
Marie Kondo strongly encourages honesty in this process — and the truth is I still view the book as a talisman. Kondo writes of clients with dozens of religious charms in their home, and they’ve had them for years, though the charms — if you take them literally — lose their value over a year or so. There’s a mindlessness to it, the idea that a thing retains its value to you forever. As if this object, long after you’ve paid it any attention, is still doing work for you, imbuing you with desirable gifts or powers.
Looking down at my pile of books — Kondo recommends putting all of them in a big pile on the floor to realize the enormity of ones collecting — it was apparent to me: I don’t need this kind of ‘luck.’
Some of my books qualify as “sentimental items.” Kondo recommends sorting sentimental items last, but I was confronted with some yesterday and today. What inspires sentiment isn’t always positive. Letting go of some books has been about letting go of aspirations of who I want to be or skills I hope to acquire. And accepting that I am still not that person, even if I’ve had the book for 10 years. Emotionally, it’s not easy. But it’s been better to get rid of these books. They are attached to old, unrealized hopes which have just withered into shame.
If I pick up a book and feel shame, there is no doubt that it’s got to go. I had to take a deep breath and accept that there will always be another book to read, another really, really good book to read. Not necessarily to possess, but to read. And share and reflect on.
What I am learning in this KonMari process — which I’m still at the beginning of — is that accepting when I have Enough books, is tied to accepting that I am Enough. Enough doesn’t mean Finished or Perfect, nor is it a prescription for the future. What is in my life today may not be in my life tomorrow, what I love today I don’t have to love tomorrow. The excitement is beginning to mount as I have a much clearer view of the books that do spark joy – with the excess out of the way, I can see them and spend more time with them.