It’s spring cleaning time again. Judging by the length of the drop off line at Goodwill, I am not the only one who is in decluttering mode. However, for me, the urge to purge stretches into all seasons.
According to Jonathan Fader, Ph.D. (“The Psychology of Spring Cleaning.” Psychology Today, April 2015), “Ridding oneself of clutter has been associated with improved mood, decreased stress and heightened creativity.”
He points out that studies show that clutter, “can increase stress by distracting us and overwhelming our senses with extraneous stimuli.” Piles of papers, for instance, can indicate that work is endless and that even when we finish what we are working on there is more to be done.
For me, decluttering is like hitting a reset button. Literarily starting with a clean slate.
There’s that. And then there’s also my obsession with HGTV. Especially with shows that focus on turning old, worn-down houses into designer showcases that end with a Big Reveal and happy homeowners shedding tears and uttering Oh my God over and over and over. Fixer Upper, Rehab Addict, Flip or Flop, House Hunters Renovation…You name it, I’ll watch it! It has occurred to me that maybe the rehab shows are a metaphor for my aging body and some deep-seated desire to restore it to its former glory.
I may have a crumbling exterior; but thanks to my parents, I’ve also got “good bones.” According to Chip and Joanna Gaines, all I need to do is shore up the foundation, update the plumbing, patch the roof, pull up the carpeting, and give the whole thing a fresh coat of paint. Apply that advice to my own “fixer upper” and I could live well past 100 and be the envy of all the new construction in the neighborhood.
Joking aside, my attachment to these shows goes beyond the superficial. I have a psychological need to see these dilapidated and disheveled spaces restored to order.
Before HGTV, I watched Robin Leach’s The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And then MTV’s Cribs. The shows were aspirational and drew a huge audience of “Yuppies” that dreamed of owning sprawling mansions with iron gates emblazoned with their initials and a collection of “beemers” and Porche 911 Turbos parked in a circular driveway. I was never overly impressed with any of the homes, most of them too big and overly-formal for my taste. That is, until I saw a segment featuring the Beverly Hills estate of Aaron Spelling in which his wife, Candy, had dedicated an entire wing of their house to gift wrapping. At the sight of these perfectly organized workrooms, the clouds parted, angels sang, and I was lifted up to Container Store heaven.
I know what you’re thinking, I need a tranquilizer and a “vacation” at Get-a-grip Gardens.
But I’m not the only one. Last summer, my husband and I spent an evening at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. With a lingering buzz from some handcrafted local beer and the heady scent of one million dusty tomes, we walked from room to room in this booklover’s mecca like gape-mouthed archeologists exploring the wonders of a forgotten land. My husband tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a little book on a shelf labeled “Staff Picks.”
The book was called, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo.
“You could have written that,” he whispered. The inside joke being that I am Felix to his Oscar.
I paged through it and shrugged. I acted like I wasn’t impressed. Really. Not. Impressed. “Like someone needs a book to teach them how to keep their room clean,” I replied, a little too defensively. Then I scolded myself for not coming up with the idea first. But it turns out, my friends, that I could NOT have written this book. Whereas I am mildly neurotic, Marie Kondo is, in the words of one critic, “Bat shit crazy.”
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Japanese cleaning consultant, Marie Kondo, describes her “KonMari” method as not just “a mere set of rules on how to sort, organize, and put things away. It is a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person.” The method requires that we touch every item in our household from potato peelers to pillowcases, and decide what to keep and what to get rid of based on whether or not an item “sparks joy” within us.
One reader asks, “How does anyone find joy in beige underwear and Neosporin?” The answer lies in the shifting of our attitudes. For instance, the way we view the contents of our medicine cabinets can be positive, and may “spark joy” when we focus on the benefits of the medicine to our health.
Aside from many of its quirks, the KonMari method provides guidance for appreciating one’s necessities and for letting go of things that have already served a purpose. To this latter point, I have a scarf that was given to me in high school by my ex-boyfriend’s sister-in-law. Thirty-three years later, the scarf sits in my closet, neatly folded with it’s price tag still attached to it. I do not ever plan to wear it because it is woefully out of fashion and made of a material that gives me a rash. Still, I hold onto it, partly because it was such a nice gesture from a relative stranger, and partly because of its high quality and its perceived practicality.
According to KonMari, I should let go. Further, I should hold the scarf to my heart and thank it for the time spent together and the lesson it provided, then “release it” into the world. Okaaaay…
I’m not doing that last bit; but I will heed KonMari and cede the scarf to Goodwill with a fond fare-thee-well.
I am both appalled and attracted to the ideas in Marie Kondo’s book. On one hand, Give me a break! In my opinion, this practice is even more pretentious than Bikram Choudhury’s cult of hot yoga. On the other hand, if we ignore the quackish advice about, say, the proper way to fold and store socks (careful not to ball them up or let them rest on their soles since they “take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet.”), then the book offers some helpful guidelines for simplifying life and surrounding ourselves with only the things that serve a vital purpose and stir something within our core.
In recent years, I have strived to live a more stripped-down life. I am continually grappling with my goal of not being beholden to things, which goes against my good intentions of not being wasteful. I have products and possessions that I hold on to simply because I don’t want to appear ungrateful (because I really do appreciate the gift-giver’s thoughtfulness!) or shortsighted (What if I need that someday?). Further, admitting a mistake (such as an unflattering clothing purchase) is hard. The act of Letting Go is hard.
Exploring this topic is forcing me to acknowledge a certain pattern of behavior in which I turn to “tidying” to avoid more important issues that are going on around me. This current period of decluttering began as a terribly stressful family situation arose. And in the midst of a political season in which it seems that half of America has gone stark raving mad. Add to that, a weight of sadness that I have been carrying around with me since I finished reading, When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a doctor with a terminal illness.
In this heartbreaking memoir, Paul Kalanithi ponders the big questions: What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? Coming to terms with the fact that his decade-long slog through med school will not lead to a prestigious career as a neurosurgeon as planned, he reflects, “Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.” In the end, he finds the simple joy of parenthood to be enough as he holds his baby in his arms as he takes his last breaths.
Meanwhile, I retreat to my closet like a turtle back to its shell.
Maybe it’s not so much as avoidance as taking stock, a way of making sure that my house is in order, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps it is my way of holding myself to certain standards and honoring rituals that encourage my best intentions and give me a sense of grounding and purpose.
Take for instance the predictable rhythms of our day that act as a counterbalance to all of the unpredictability of our lives: Coffee and a newspaper. An afternoon jog or visit to a gym. Dinner with family. Bedtime stories and bubble baths. And a prayer as one’s head hits the pillow. Somewhere in each of our routines is also the sorting and sifting and tidying of our spaces.
I recently posted an article in which I boast about letting the dishes pile up while focusing on more meaningful endeavors such as working my way through a major edit of a manuscript and reconnecting with old friends rather than on the banalities of housekeeping. I have been cheering myself on with inspirational quotes found on Pinterest: Do Life, Not Dishes!
But who am I kidding? I still can’t leave the house without making up my bed. And I can’t start writing until all the objects on my desk are positioned at right angles.
Some may argue that creative genius is found in clutter. No one has ever classified me as a genius, so maybe the proof lies therein. All I know is that the world is a very chaotic and messy place over which I have no control. Sometimes all I can do is seek out serenity in clutter-free spaces when faced with an avalanche of cosmic injustices and uncertainties. I attempt to purge the unnecessary and part with the trivial to make space for what is most important. Where others thrive in bedlam and seek constant stimulation, I must take pause and put my house in order, both physically and mentally.
I will never hug my frying pan or talk to my shorts or fold my underwear origami-style; but if I have learned anything from Marie Kondo’s, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it is a similar message that Paul Kalanithi leaves us with in When Breath Becomes Air:
We must surround ourselves with what sparks joy.
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