I’m faced, this summer, with the melancholy task of emptying my mom’s house, the house I grew up in. The process has been an extended, physically demanding and emotional mediation on the nature of our possessions and our mortality. I often find myself thinking about the person that will have to sort through the stuff Kelly and I have accumulated over the years. Which is why I find myself drawn back to the work of controversial de-cluttering master Marie Kondo.
My mom was not a hoarder but she struggled, like most of us Westerners, with the problem of storing and maintaining vast piles of stuff. In her papers I found a file about tidying. It contained a sort of diary entry expressing her own frustration, as well as an article of standard, pre-Kondo advice: that one should get a bunch of boxes, sort stuff and file it away. Kondo notes, in her book Spark Joy why this approach doesn’t work, “When things are put away, a home will look neat on the surface, but if the storage units are filled with unnecessary items, it will be impossible to keep them organized, and this will inevitably lead to a relapse.” This is exactly what I’m faced with at my mom’s house: boxes of neatly filed away stuff that was never used and that occasionally spilled out during her lifetime. These possessions became a burden, a time-sucking sorting task that claimed many hours of the last years of my mom’s life.
This has sparked a, perhaps, overly emotional reaction to quickly get rid of stuff at our own house. We’ve had aborted “Kondo-ing” attempts before but this time I’ve decided to more carefully re-read Kondo’s directions. It’s easy to think that Kondo-ing is just about de-junking. This completely misses her point. Her method is not about getting rid of stuff. It is about about creating joy. And it’s very important to follow her directions closely.
Here are three of those directions many people miss:
1. Setting a goal
Kondo says in the introduction to Spark Joy,
Think about what kind of house you want to live in and how you want to live in it. In other words, describe your ideal lifestyle. If you like drawing, sketch out what it looks like. If you prefer to write, describe it in a notebook. You can also cut out photos from magazines.
For me I like to imagine that American Bungalow Magazine is coming over for a photo shoot. Without a clear and joy-sparking goal in mind it would be a lot harder to part with sentimental items and those “things I’ll need someday.” If it doesn’t fit into my ideal bungalow it goes. All I really need is a clean living room, a place to write and a functional workshop. I got a book out of the library on bungalow interiors and I’ve referred to it often in the course of emptying my mom’s house and Kondo-ing our own.
2. Asking the “spark joy” question
Kondo insists that you hold every object and ask if it “sparks joy” (the Japanese word Kondo uses is tokimeku which Wikipedia translates as “flutter, throb, palpitate”). It an item doesn’t spark joy you are supposed to thank the object and let it go. This part of Kondo’s philosophy is heavily influenced by her Shintoism. In Shintoism, what we Westerners think of as “inanimate” objects contain a kind of spiritual essence. In practice, we’re all Shintoists. Don’t believe me? Just ponder the odd ontological phenomenon of the auction value of celebrity owned pieces of junk like Elvis’ bath mat. The fact is that even diehard Western materialists ascribe spirit and meaning to belongings. This is why you can’t skip Kondo’s suggestion to hold things and thank an item if you need to get rid of it. I sometimes get in a frenzy and skip this important step. Do so and the effect is cumulative. You begin to keep things you shouldn’t.
3. Reviewing Kondo’s directions
I’ve found that, during this summer’s arduous Kondo-ing, I have to go back to and re-read the introduction and first chapter of Spark Joy on a regular basis. It’s easy to just fall into the trap of thinking the Kondo message is about de-cluttering. In fact, Kondo’s process can be long and painful. If you lose sight of the goal or fail to understand her directions you’ll end up stalling out as we have in the past.
Lastly, I’ll note that Kondo has a simple, free app that I’ve found useful. It’s basically just a checklist with the added social media function of being able to create and share before and after photos.
And, at the risk of zealotry, I feel the need to defend her against what I think is a typical, Kondo-backlash article in the New Yorker. First, I don’t think the fact that her first book proposal won a prize in a “how to write a bestseller” negates its content. The article goes on to assert that her method won’t work for actual hoarders. True, but sadly, no method yet devised seems to work for pathological hoarders. One thing I like about the New Yorker article is the mention of the work of photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki who documented the condition of Japanese homes and apartments in a book Tokyo: A Certain Style. Tsuzuki book, which has haunted me for years, shows Japanese homes as they actual are: crammed with junk, spilling out of every cabinet and closet in spaces that are much smaller to begin with than what we are used to in the US. This rampant consumerism combined with the horrors of the tsunami, definitely helped catapult Kondo’s career in Japan. But, again, I don’t think this undermines the value of Kondo’s message.