Sunday, 19 February 2017

Joy Unsparked: Some Thoughts on Marie Kondo's Thoughts on Tidying Up


Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, has been on my radar for awhile now. It's a New York Times best seller, and has inspired much discussion and both mockery and reorganizational efforts among the citizenry of the internet sites I frequent. I'd even done some KonMari organizing myself after reading about her concept of vertical folding, and was very pleased with its revolutionary effect on my sock and underwear drawers. Seriously, vertical folding (which means folding things into rectangles that will stand upright) is such a great idea. It's extremely space efficient and allows you to see everything in a drawer at a glance. Folding my laundry takes a little more time than it used to, but it's time well spent because I no longer spend any time rooting through the drawers trying to find the right colour socks or underwear. The book does have a reputation for being ridiculously over the top, but I began to wonder if Kondo might have some other great ideas, and decided it was worthwhile to wade through the book's absurdities in order to pan for any other valuable nuggets it might contain.

As I read the book, I kept a notebook handy so that I could keep a list of all the useful new organizational ideas that I came across. But I got to the end the last page of the book without creating a list. Instead, I had notes on things that stood out to me in a negative way. Kondo's modus operandi consisted of principles I've already been living by for years (i.e., organize things one category at a time, prune your belongings down to what you actually need and want and then figure out how to store them rather than the reverse, store items of one kind together, etc.), or concepts I disagreed with (i.e., don't keep anything doesn't "spark joy", get rid of unread books and spare buttons for clothing, empty your handbag every day, talk to your belongings and thank them for their service). The only useful new thing I learned from her work is vertical folding, and I learned that without reading the book. That is very thin pickings for a 200-page book that promised me life-changing magic.

To be fair, I am not the intended audience for the book. Far from being a hoarder or even ever having had a problem with untidiness, I share Kondo's passion for orderliness, for keeping my belongings tidy and readily accessible, and for keeping the total amount of stuff down to what I actually need and use. In my twenties I lived in one 10' x 15' room in a rooming house for almost five years, and at the end of that time I still had a few empty drawers. Though there's always room for improvement and I'm always open to new ideas for how to be better organized, I'm good enough at the job of being neat that friends and acquaintances will often ask me for suggestions on how to keep their space as tidy as I keep mine. However, given that Kondo prides herself on being an expert on being tidy who has been incessantly tidying the spaces around her since kindergarten and says she spends 70% of her life thinking about tidiness, I have to wonder why she didn't have more ninja-level organizational tips to offer me. I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that keeping things tidy isn't rocket science, that it's easy to keep your things tidy if you have only a reasonable amount of it and an average amount of closets, drawers and shelving to keep it in, and that the real issue that most chronically messy people have is simply one of excess, and they often need help working through both the mental and physical aspects of the downsizing process. If you are someone who simply cannot seem to pare down your belongings to what you actually need and use, you may find this book helps you get into a mental zone where that's possible.

Much fun has been made of Kondo's rituals of talking to her belongings and thanking them before she discards or stores them, of how she writes of feeling a connection to them and caring about whether they're happy and comfortable, which can across as silly and even psychologically unhealthy to Westernized people, but her mindset has to be considered within the context of Kondo's devout Shinto beliefs (she spent five years working as a Shinto shrine maiden in her younger days). Her attitude towards her material belongings makes more sense when you understand that it's rooted in the Shinto principle that everything has a soul and deserves to be treated with respect. And then too, I can see value in her ideas even for someone who has never heard of Shinto. Her approach will foster mindfulness, and if you're a hoarder who has a lot of emotional barriers to work through when it comes discarding unneeded things, Kondo's suggestions may give you a shame and guilt-free framework for working through them.

More worrisome is Kondo's references to just how obsessed she is with throwing things out and keeping things tidy, to the point where it seems to have taken over her life, she thinks about tidiness nearly constantly, and she gets very upset if some tiny detail of her environment is not as she wants it, as when she describes herself as being "near tears" because she has to scrub some slime off the bottom of a shampoo bottle. If a friend of mine was showing that level of preoccupation with and unhappiness over something so trivial, I would do my best to persuade her to talk to a therapist about it.

Though Kondo's book is short, it still reads as repetitive and overwritten to the point that I am quite sure I could condense all the really useful information in it into one article. She spends way too much of her total word count telling us how much she helps people and how none of her clients who have "successfully completed" her course have fallen back into their old messy ways. Her wording is suspect (much like those of an addictions counselor would be if he claimed that no addict he's treated who has successfully stopped drinking has gone back to drinking) and I am skeptical, and wonder what objective reportage on her clientele's current habits would reveal. She also goes on ad nauseam about her central mantra: do not keep anything that does not give you a spark of joy. I've heard better and more useful mantras, frankly. My toilet plunger, roll of duct tape, and box of tampons don't give me a spark of joy, but I'll be damned before I throw any of them out. I suppose the ideas is that I'll think about how happy I'll be to have those things on hand when I need them in order to feel the requisite spark of joy, but that makes the decision process more convoluted than it needs to be. I much prefer William Morris's, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," and my own less graceful maxim, "Decide in specific terms what you need and want, and stick to that."

I find it strange that she says almost nothing about over buying, which is the root cause of much messiness. But then she doesn't seem to object to overconsumption or the waste it causes. She proudly writes (twice!) that she has helped her clients discard over a million items in total, and reassures her readers that if they find they've thrown out something they wanted, they can go buy another. She claims that if a button falls off a shirt, it's a sign that the shirt has reached the end of its life. It makes me cringe when she describes the discarded items as "bags of garbage" when they are almost certainly usable items, makes almost no mention of the possibility of donating the cast offs, and says that on average her single clients will throw out 20 to 30 garbage bags full of stuff each, and a family of three 70 bags. The idea of all this waste, in a world where overconsumption is a threat to our continued survival and the problem of what to do with garbage an ever-growing one, horrifies me. If Kondo must encourage people to throw things out in such a wholesale fashion, couldn't she also encourage them to buy less and to dispose of their discarded items responsibly?

Unlike Kondo, the flip side of my love of orderliness is my hatred of waste, and I believe that the environmentally responsible course of action is to balance the two. For instance, when reorganizing my sock drawer last year, I decided that my ideal sock drawer would contain eight pairs of white or ivory cotton socks, eight pairs of trouser socks in brown or olive green, and eight pairs of hand-knitted wool socks. Right now I have 12-15 pairs of each kind of sock, and my wool socks are commercially made work or hiking socks instead of hand-knitted. I would indeed feel the kind of ease and relief she describes her clients as feeling after a purge if I could get my sock drawer population down to that ideal level... but I'm simply not throwing out my extra existing socks before they're worn out, as that's wasteful. I also mend or darn my socks whenever reasonably possible to extend their usefulness, which I'm sure Kondo would consider the equivalent of prolonging a loved one's mortal agony with life support, but I regret nothing. As long as I don't buy any more socks until they're actually needed, my sock drawer will eventually come to look the way I want it, and reducing by process of attrition rather than by purging means I'm spending less on socks and putting fewer of them into a landfill long-term. I'm doing the same thing with my yarn stash. My ideal stash would fit in a single plastic storage box, as I like having some odds and ends around to use, but don't like too much sitting about waiting to be used as that fusses me. I've made a concerted effort to be more disciplined about how much I bought (no more impulse buys of yarn I have vague intentions of using "someday"), and to use up what I had on hand. Two years ago, I had four bags and four boxes of yarn on hand; I now have one bag and four boxes. I expect it'll take another two or three years for me to get my stash down to the size I want it. This is fine with me, as it means that yarn is going to be turned into useful items rather than possibly winding up in a landfill as it might even if I took it to a thrift shop, and also that I'll be buying less yarn long-term. The textile industry is very bad for the environment.

Not that I'm not willing to discard things that don't meet my standard of usefulness. One day last February I was getting ready to go out somewhere and got frustrated because none of the five or six lipsticks in my makeup case went with the clothes I was wearing. While en route to my destination, I did some thinking about what shades of lipstick I would need to have in order to have one to go with every possible outfit in my wardrobe, and decided I should have four: red, bronze, berry/plum, and coral/orange. When I got home, I tested my theory by thumbing through my closet and drawers (i.e., thinking, "yes, red with this sweater, plum with this dress, coral with this top..."), and then I turned to my existing lipstick collection. I had a coral lipstick and a berry lipstick that I liked, so they stayed. I got rid of the others: the unflattering pinks and purples that had been freebies and had never suited me, the broken old one, the orange/red one that was relatively new and expensive but that made me look as though I'd been dining with Hannibal Lecter. Then I bought a new red lipstick and a bronze lipstick, selecting each shade with great care to make sure they suited me. I've been living with these four lipsticks for some months now and I'm happy with my lipstick strategy. It's one little aspect of my life that's all sorted out. I always have a suitable and flattering lipstick to wear, regardless of what clothes I choose. I don't waste time opening lipsticks and trying to figure out which to wear as it's easy to decide on the right one and to remember which of the four is which (they all have different cases). There's more space in my makeup case. I'll save shopping time and money long-term because I am never tempted to buy new lipsticks when I know I have all the lipstick I need. I wouldn't recommend my particular lipstick rule to anyone as it wouldn't work for anyone but me (i.e., other women might prefer to have different lipstick colours, more or less lipstick colours, or no lipstick at all), but I do recommend that anyone who's trying to get reorganized use that basic principle: decide exactly and specifically what you need, and then by a combination of responsible purging, wearing things out and using them up, and mindful shopping, work towards a state of affairs in which you have just that.

Everyone's comfort level with stuff is different. My mother says my living room is "so full", my sister says it looks "half-decorated", and I think it's just right. I think that's partly why Kondo's book has met with a lot of hostility: everyone has a different benchmark and they really don't like the idea of anyone trying to reset it.

But despite the fact that this book seems to have helped some people, I don't think I'd recommend Marie Kondo's book to anyone. There must be better, more helpful organizational how-to books out there. For that matter, I'd question whether anyone who is struggling with this issue needs an organizing how-to book at all, when there is so much information and advice available online, and what they might need is, in more extreme cases, therapy and medication, or in most cases, the help of a tactful and better organized friend, or simply time to consider the problem and then do what is necessary to resolve it. The buying of a how-to book on how to tidy up might only prove a way to postpone actually dealing with the issue, and become, ironically, part of the problem it was supposed to correct. It amuses me to wonder, how many copies of this bestselling book are sitting about in an overstuffed home, unread?

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