Let’s Talk KonMari #5: ‘My Battery Is Low and It’s Getting Dark’

(Part 5 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooksPapers, Komono, Storage & Cleaning.)

The recent death of the Mars rover Opportunity seems like a particularly fortuitous time to talk about our attachment to material objects.

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How and Why We Love Things

Humans develop emotional attachments to material objects. We start young; according to Christian Jarrett, humans as young as two understand the concept of “mine.” Three to six year olds already connect with “my” stuffed animal in a way that they do not with an exact copy of that stuffed animal – and they even express horror at the thought that they might receive the copy rather than the original.

I’ll Love You Forever

This early attachment to things travels with us throughout our lives, as well. For instance, as a young child, my high school boyfriend had a doll called Marvin. He loved Marvin. Marvin was his constant companion, and after a few years, Marvin started showing the wear and tear you’d expect a soft toy to suffer from accompanying a young boy on his every adventure.

So my boyfriend’s mom sent Marvin to the doctor, promising “he’ll be home for Christmas.” On Christmas morning, Marvin reappeared under the tree, shiny and clean.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend was seventeen that his mother revealed the twist: the Marvin who reappeared on Christmas day wasn’t the original Marvin. He was a new Marvin, gifted from a family friend whose own toddler had been terrified of the toy.

My boyfriend’s mother was proud of having pulled this switcharoo, but my boyfriend was crushed. For days. And he hadn’t played with Marvin for about fifteen years at that point. In fact, I’m not sure Marvin was even in the house anymore.

Why My Marvin?

Some of this is the result of the “endowment effect,” in which we place more value on things we perceive as “ours.” But that value is multifaceted, and it doesn’t merely have to do with financial value. It’s also value created by the perception that the object is an extension of the self.

The fact that we tend to anthropomorphize our things adds to our sense of value, relationship and identity. The manufacturers of the Roomba, for instance, report that when their Roomba breaks down, many owners request that the company fix the device and send it back. They don’t want a new Roomba – they want their Roomba.

Seeing objects as a type of person means that we can extend our emotional bubble to include them even when they aren’t perceived as “ours.” As Dan Broadbent notes, one of the things that made it so easy to cry for Opportunity was that NASA anthropomorphizes spacecraft for us. We can follow craft like Curiosity on Twitter like they’re real people – and many of us have since the moment these spacecraft started tweeting.

“Why didn’t NASA try to revive Opportunity?” was a refrain I saw online several times after the news that the rover had gone dark. The answer, of course, is that they did. They tried for eight months and 1,000 unanswered wake-up messages. And when they accepted that Opportunity wasn’t ever going to answer again, they said goodbye by playing her a love song.

And thousands of us cried, because even though she’s a 400-pound hunk of steel and tech on another planet, we think of Opportunity as a being, not a tool.

If a Mars rover provokes emotions that intense, imagine trying to discard long-held personal items in your own home.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

Marie Kondo recommends leaving the “sentimental items” category for last, on the theory that once we start sorting these items, we’ll be sufficiently sensitive to joy to make it easier to go through them.

Specifically, I think, we get more sensitive to the difference between an object that sparks joy here and now, in the present, as a thing that exists in our lives, and an object that evokes memories that spark joy but that doesn’t itself, in the present, spark joy.

Discerning the difference is essential to discarding objects, and it reaches its peak in dealing with sentimental objects.

I, for instance, have always found myself particularly susceptible to the endowment effect. For me, every object becomes sentimental if I’ve owned it long enough. Objects I don’t even own become sentimental if I see them as part of my daily life long enough. “Long enough” has a life of its own; it can be anywhere from several years to a matter of minutes, depending on how intensely the objects sparked joy when I first encountered it. (I’ve developed an endowment-effect attachment to items I found in stores before I even reached the register.)

On top of that, I’ve also spent large parts of my life using objects not only to mediate my identity, but to reshape it – and, by doing so, to reshape my personal history.

When the Past Sucks

Some people deal with shitty pasts by getting rid of everything that reminds them of those times. I dealt with mine by constantly trying to rearrange its artifacts.

I’ve been obsessed with photo albums and scrapbooking since I was a child. I regularly kept boxes upon boxes of photos, ticket stubs, report cards, newspaper clippings, stickers, candy wrappers, flyers, greeting cards, luggage tags, you name it. And I have spent hundreds of hours of my life arranging and rearranging these things in scrapbooks, pulling them out, starting over, never satisfied with what I had created and never able to keep up with the pile of things intended to go into those books.

Until I KonMari’ed that pile, however, I didn’t understand why I scrapbooked so intensely. I’ve never been interested in “scrapbooking” the popular hobby: I don’t ever volunteer to do scrapbooks for groups or teams I’m part of, I’m not interested in seeing other people’s scrapbooks, and and scrapbooking supply stores just make me feel tired.

My relationship to my scrapbooks was a deeply private obsession. It was a way to reorganize my past, to give myself the non-abusive childhood I have always so desperately wanted to have. If I could rearrange all these old little bits of paper just right, I would retroactively become the person that my survival had depended on my pretending to be.

This obsession got particularly bad when it came to photographs. I hoarded old photographs like a dragon hoards gold. I spent hours looking at them, trying to rewrite my own memories, trying to convince myself that I saw happiness in those photos and that that Kodak moment was what had really taken place.

…This kind of constant mental editing is exhausting, not to mention an Olympian feat of self-gaslighting.

When I threw those photos out, however, I cried. I cried because I had had to give up one of the most enduring projects of my life: my attempt to rewrite history, and thus to re-form myself, based on nothing more than sheer will.

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(Pictured: Two once-full photo albums and a box of photos.)

For the Record….

…I can’t tell you whether going through your sentimental objects will provoke a similar reaction. Mine comes from a nightmarish childhood; it’s the unearthing of a lot of outdated ways of attempting to salvage some part of myself in the face of a world that did its level best to turn me into someone else.

Mine is also another step on a years-long journey through therapy. These aren’t realizations I could have had a year ago, and I’ve been working on my closet full of demons a lot longer than that. We have the realizations about ourselves that we’re ready to have.

Post-tidying, my sentimental stuff is under much better control. I still have a scrapbook of sorts:

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It’s organized chronologically, and it’s a combination of various awards, childhood artwork, letters from loved ones that were particularly meaningful, and so on. It also contains the photos that aren’t going on our walls.

I also sorted through my box of non-flat childhood keepsake items:

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This one was particularly interesting because I had managed to stuff that box with items that I kept not because they sparked joy, but because the anxiety associated with getting rid of them was so high I couldn’t mediate it. And the anxiety items – all of them – were things family members had given me as a way of keeping me attached to our shared heritage of generational toxicity.

In Spark Joy, Kondo says that if you’re having trouble saying goodbye to an object even though you know it doesn’t spark joy, try tossing a few handfuls of salt into the bag to settle the spirits.

I’m not a practitioner of Shinto by any means, and I’m not even particularly religious, but whipping a few handfuls of kosher salt into the trash bags in this photo worked. I was able to carry them to the bin with a sense of peace I haven’t experienced…well, ever.

I don’t know if it settles any other kind of spirit, but it sure settled mine.

I also added a feature to my writing space of which I am particularly proud:

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Stuffed animals are perhaps the biggest victory of my childhood. My mother was constantly deciding by fiat when I had “outgrown” them and trying to dispose of them accordingly, and I was constantly rescuing them and buying new ones. That Popple is the result of the only fight of my childhood that I won.

For years, as an adult, I stored my stuffed animals in a plastic bin in the basement, believing that the person I was supposed to be wasn’t supposed to have them but too in love with them to simply throw them out.

On Kondo’s advice, they now live on this shelf, which is right next to my desk. I can look up and see them there, cheering me on, whenever I’m writing.

(The mother who fought me about owning stuffed animals, by the way, is the same woman who rescued her beloved stuffed animal Tigger from the trash on a half-dozen occasions when her own mother tried to unilaterally dispose of him. I think this is what they mean when they say you can either learn from the mistakes of the past or repeat them.)

Next time: Storage and Cleaning.

 

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Let’s Talk KonMari #4: Small Potatoes

(Part 4 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: ClothingBooks, Papers, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

After clothing, books and papers, Marie Kondo recommends tackling the “komono” (小物).

The name means “little things” and repeatedly gets translated as “miscellany” for KonMari purposes, but the category itself is huge. It’s pretty much every item in your house that isn’t clothing, books or paperwork and that exists there for practical (as opposed to sentimental) reasons.

For this reason, komono is often the category people get stuck on the most, as in this Reddit thread. That’s if they don’t throw out the KonMari method altogether on the theory that “everything else” shouldn’t be a damn tidying category in the first place.

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A Big Pile of Small Potatoes

I’ve never had the honor of being invited into a Japanese home, so I can’t begin to speak for how they’re organized or what they contain. In the US, however, komono is by far the largest category in the house.

It’s even larger when the house’s residents aren’t fashionistas or bookworms. A Scholastic study estimated that 61 percent of low-income US families have zero books in the house. Zero.

Scholastic, of course, is concerned about the effect of a bookless home on children’s early language and literacy development. In the KonMari context, it’s more likely to inflate the amount of komono to be sorted through. Books take up space, and they occupy our time. A house with no books is likely to have something else in that space that takes up its occupants’ time.

Does Your Spatula Spark Joy?

Komono is overwhelmingly stuff we keep for practical purposes. It’s not personally chosen as an expression of identity (clothes), as a means to shape our identity (books), because we have adult obligations to others (papers), or because we have feelings (sentimental objects). It’s there to do the heavy lifting of keeping us alive.

As such, it poses two challenges that most of the other KonMari categories do not. First, it’s hard to imagine a lot of these things sparking joy. Second, because we view them as workhorses, we don’t see the ways in which these objects mediate our identities, particularly our class identities.

“Praise it to the Hilt”

Some of the earliest KonMari-related jokes I saw on social media had to do with tossing out our washing machines or vacuum cleaners because they don’t “spark joy.” It’s tough to see a roll of paper towels warming our hearts, especially when we think about it in the abstract.

In Spark Joy, Kondo writes, “If you come across komono that don’t particularly spark joy, try praising them to the hilt.”

Praising our material possessions, like thanking them, is a huge sticking point for Westerners who criticize Kondo’s methods – and it’s also why many commenters, like Jessica Roy in the LA Times, have pointed out the racial element of this criticism.

Kondo recommends thanks and praise because the KonMari method embraces animism as a given. The Shinto concept of everything, even individual grains of rice, having a god/soul/divine essence (I really have no idea which, whether or how to translate “kami” here) is a natural underpinning of Kondo’s approach.

It’s also, to most of us in the US, very, very weird.

Shinto isn’t the only world religion to embrace the concept of material objects sharing in the divine essence. A Muslim teaching explains that every inanimate “thing” in the world, down to individual blades of grass or grains of sand, is constantly engaged in praising its Creator. Psalm 150:6 says “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” with the definition of “breath” capacious enough to encompass ideas like spirit, soul, or the imprint of Divine creation as well as literal respiration.

For US material culture, however, the idea that individual objects might have personalities, spirits, or some other “being”ness we might recognize or respect is an affront to the ways we perform class success.

Who Is the Master Here?

Class status is frequently measured through performances of commanding and controlling others, and in the middle class, performances of status are most often performed through material objects. This is the driver behind our parents’ “keeping up with the Joneses” and our participation in both acquiring objects and divesting ourselves from them as a form of virtue signaling.

One of the ways to define class status in the US is by examining a person’s relationship to and use of stuff. The middle class embraces stuff both as a way to exercise the command and control that are usually exercised upon them by the capitalist class and as a way to signal their relative “middleness.”

I’ve certainly played this game in the past. In college I owned a knockoff Gucci clutch that I damn well knew was a knockoff, but I still preened when other people didn’t. Personal possessions I don’t even like, such as the bottle of Chanel no. 5 I inherited from my grandmother, have nevertheless held places of reverence among my personal things for years. They’re symbols of Status, of the better (and richer) me I longed to be.

The middle class even uses material things to moralize themselves into a position “above” the poor, kvetching about “poor people” who own iPhones or who drive dependable cars. Using material goods to signify status is a luxury the middle class believes should be reserved for the middle class.

“If I were poor, I would eat lentils,” say middle-classers, conveniently dodging the question “Okay, but if lentils would make you richer, why don’t you eat them now?”

The upper classes don’t need to play this game, and when they do, it is a dead giveaway of a failure to shed middle-class sensibilities despite an increase in material wealth. Donald Trump is the classic example: the poor (or middle-class) person’s conception of how a rich person should live, with gilded apartments, ketchupy steak and excessive golfing.

In fact, there’s only a certain amount of money one can spend on material comforts before all of one’s needs are luxuriously met. When money is invested in material displays beyond this point, it ends up being spent on things that are superfluous by any standard, like a tenth yacht.

This is why minimalism has become a method of signaling higher class status, rather than lower. “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and its telling that its fan base is clusetered in the well-off middle class,” says Stephanie Land in a 2016 NYT Opinion piece. “For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.”

Thanking the Help

Because the middle class allays its class anxiety (and the middles have more than everyone else combined) via material things, and because that allaying has much to do with exercising the command and control that are otherwise exercised against the middles, the class that constitutes the vast majority of KonMari consumers is also the class least interested in hearing that we are interdependent with our things.

Being middle class is about having “earned” the luxury of commanding our things: of buying things “just because,” of discarding things without a thought, of spending a premium for “designer” or “gourmet” options. Interdependence with things – the state of needing practical objects for practical purposes – is seen as lower-class. You need lentils; you earn steak.

So when Marie Kondo rolls in and suggests that our things might have feelings about how we treat them, we respond with all the indignation of Ebenezer Scrooge recommending that the poor die “and decrease the surplus population.” How dare you suggest that my purse or shoes deserve some consideration for their hard work? They’re here to serve me! That’s what I pay (for) them for!

This is, of course, exactly the attitude of the shareholder class toward the laboring class, and nobody in the latter group likes it when this attitude is directed at them – so we, in turn, take it out on our material possessions.

Kondo’s animism suggests an alternative path, in which we learn to cooperate with the material objects that share our living space rather than to command or control them. It’s a much kinder approach, and it’s also one that smacks of collectivism. Suspicious stuff for the country that claimed materialism won the Cold War.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

One of the weirdest upper-middle virtue-signaling experiences I’ve had in social media groups about KonMari is meeting the subculture of people who are using the method to one-up Sharon from down the block.

It’s the subculture that’s on full display if you search for “KonMari” on Pinterest. In between the infographics about how to go through all your crap are endless photos of perfectly-appointed drawers, kitchens and children’s rooms.

I’ve even encountered people who seem to think “spark joy” is synonymous with “shop like you’re as rich as you think you are.” One story, which I heard secondhand, involved an acquaintance and a friend of hers who stopped by one day while my acquaintance was canning fruit. My acquaintance mentioned proudly that she’d inherited all her canning jars from her mother and grandmother.

The friend’s response to this was scorn: “I threw all mine away and bought new, since I discovered Marie Kondo.”

I’m less interested in the decision to buy new than I am in the scorn itself. Having sorted 90 percent of what we own, I now know that my reaction to someone telling me they’d kept their heirloom canning jars would have been to assume that the heirloom jars made them happy, possibly in a way that new jars never would.

Their happiness isn’t my happiness, but that doesn’t make their happiness any less valid than mine. I suspect that anyone who missed this message also missed the point of the KonMari method.

I also don’t expect that anything that spark joy for me will automatically spark joy for anyone else. For example:

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Most of these are vintage ornaments from the 1940s or thereabouts. I got them from my stepmother, who got rid of them because all they sparked for her was annoyance.

I love them. My only regret is that they’re showing 80 years’ worth of wear, because if I had my way, I’d keep them in their original state forever. I am thrilled to have these in our Christmas decorations, even though I know there are untold numbers of people who look at them and see nothing but junk.

The ornaments aren’t the only thing in the house that would get me a raised eyebrow from anyone for whom household decor is a means of one-upping the neighbors. But the beauty of having done this process is that I don’t care.

People who walk into my house are going to see me. They’re going to see a space full of stuff that brings me joy. If they love me, it’ll spark joy for them too; if not, they are cordially invited to keep on steppin’.

Next time: Sentimental Objects.

 

Let’s Talk KonMari #3: Paperwork Makes Us Adults

(Part 3 of a series on KonMari’ing my house. A why-to manual, not a how-to. The rest of the series is here: Clothing, Books, Komono, Sentimental Objects, Storage and Cleaning.)

“My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”

This line endeared me to Marie Kondo forever.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo says that many of her clients have rococo-level elaborate paper filing systems. These systems, of course, never work (or these people wouldn’t be Kondo’s clients); they merely guarantee that their owners are drowning in paperwork and in the task of filing that paperwork.

There’s something compellingly “adult,” at least in my mind, about a well-ordered filing cabinet in which every incoming piece of paper automatically belongs somewhere. And like a lot of compellingly “adult” things, it’s one I never once managed to achieve, although I’ve spent my entire adult life trying desperately to do so.

Instead, I’ve simply lugged piles of paper from house to house, some of it for twenty years or more, telling myself that “someday” I would get it all filed. Yet the moment I try I get instantly overwhelmed: What goes where? How long do I need to keep something? What if I need this just in case?

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Why Do We Own So Much Paper?

In the US, we tend to generate a lot of paperwork because we’re a legalistic society. Everything comes with a long trail of fine print on it, because we structure so many of our relationships according to contract principles.

We’re pretty cool with this when pressed about it from other angles. We see our court system as the basis of our fundamental freedoms (not without reason), and we’re willing to get into angery Internet conversations about Teh Constitution(TM) at the drop of a hat.

On the other hand, we also think “Kill all the lawyers” was good advice, we’re convinced that tort claims are just “whining” until they happen to us, and we never read the fine print on all that paperwork we get anyway.

And we really don’t read the paperwork we receive. The argument I repeated more than any other during my time at the law firm was “Plaintiffs had a duty to read their insurance policy.” It was rarely a case of incomprehensible jargon making that task futile, either; I handled multiple cases in which the plaintiffs had sued for coverage on outbuildings, which they referred to as “outbuildings” in conversation, when the policy said in bold all caps “THIS POLICY DOES NOT COVER OUTBUILDINGS.”

We do not read the paperwork we are handed. Somehow, reading it isn’t the adult thing to do. Storing it is.

Throw It All Away

I’m a bit surprised at the lack of negative response to Kondo’s “throw it all away” statement. Most of the sources I’ve found online embraced this idea as a relief.

It’s not the relief I find confusing; it’s the fact that “just throw out your paperwork” is seen as an extraordinarily juvenile thing to do, if not an outright dangerous thing to do. Yet no one seems to have pointed that out on the Intertubes as yet.

In Spark Joy, Kondo clarifies that she doesn’t want you to simply gather all the paperwork in the house and chuck it in the bin. Rather, she recommends that you approach the pile with the assumption that “This is all going in the bin anyway, so let’s see what is important to keep.”

To that end, Kondo recommends keeping three categories of papers:

  1. Things you need to handle in some way (bills, invitations, appointment reminders, etc.)
  2. Things you need to keep for a limited period of time (warranties, taxes, etc.)
  3. Things you need to keep indefinitely (birth certificates, passports, vehicle titles, etc.)

Anything that you can deal with on the spot while cleaning out the paperwork, Kondo says, do so. Don’t let that first folder get too big.

The Cull And What I Learned From It

This was my oh-so-adult filing system when I began:

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(I tried with those file folders. I really did.)

Figuring out what I needed to handle was pretty simple: it was mostly all bills. Figuring out what I needed to keep indefinitely was also pretty simple: it was mostly in the fire safe already.

The second category stumped me. A few things with obvious expiration dates, like current insurance dec pages and the last seven years’ worth of taxes, were obvious. But I found myself with a growing pile of things that I couldn’t put a date on, but also wasn’t certain I could simply dispose of.

Here, the concept I started forming in the “books” phase of book-as-object versus book-as-experience, became extremely helpful. I asked myself, “Do I need this piece of paper, or do I just need the information on it?”

If I only needed the information, I scanned the document and then tossed it. Otherwise, I kept it. (I ended up keeping none of them.)

Scanning: Are We Just Moving the Clutter?

One of my friends brought up a worthwhile point during this process: “Am I really tidying, or just moving the mess to my hard drive?”

Kondo provides advice in Spark Joy about how to tidy your digital files (again, focus on what is worth keeping), but I found myself not too concerned about this question as I scanned.

Having access to the information in my paper pile actually does spark joy. Having papers lying around my workspace stresses me out. The scanner and the hard drive are the answer to this particular dilemma.

My external hard drives are relatively well organized. Sure, there’s a ton of stuff on there that’s probably worth deleting, but at least I know where it is and I can quickly distinguish it from stuff I continue to use.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, moving this huge stack of information from paper to digital was a massive relief.

The Other Papers

I’m an academic and a musician, and I’m also nostalgic, so getting through the pile of papers in my filing cabinet wasn’t nearly as daunting as getting through the other pile of papers: portfolios, scrapbooks, research and sheet music.

This used to be three full shelves:

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A large chunk of it was old photocopied sheet music or pieces my husband and I had composed in Noteflight, Sibelius, or (in one case) Forte. Yes, Forte. Do you remember Forte? I sure didn’t.

I scanned all the photocopied sheet music. The not-photocopied stuff went on the shelf.

The bottom two shelves (one of which you can see at the bottom edge of this photo) are full of scrapbooks, photo albums, and my research from graduate school, the last category of which covers an entire shelf and a half.

Confession: I did not actually touch the research during the papers phase of tidying.

At the time, it was because I spent an entire day last year organizing it into binders by topic, sorting it by author’s last name, and typing out little bibliographies in MLA format to go in the front of each binder. And I thought, when I started this process, that I didn’t want to disturb that research.

Now, at the end, I’m rethinking that approach. Especially since I know I haven’t even read quite a few of the articles down there – and, four years out of grad school, I’m probably not going to.

Paper As Object

Here’s a whole lot of paper I kept as-is:

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The smaller journals on the right date back to 1988; the notebooks on the left start in 2010.

I’ve kept notebooks since I was about ten. In 2009, I broke down the entire collection, sorted out what I thought was “important” (story chunks, journal entries, etc) from what I thought wasn’t (to-do lists), and put what I kept into a binder.

I’ve regretted it ever since.

The notebooks as objects spark joy, a fact I didn’t realize until I’d gotten rid of the first batch entirely. Scanning what’s in them, even if I did every page of every notebook, simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s not that I want easy access to the info; it’s that I want the presence of the notebooks themselves in my life. So here they are.

This Isn’t Even My Final Form

This is the pile on its way out to the recycling bin:

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My filing cabinet now has 8 folders in it: One for each tax year and one for things I need to deal with this month (mostly bills). Once a month, I clean out last folder, deal with its contents, scan anything I need to keep and toss all the paper. The rest of the space in my filing cabinet holds office supplies.

And this approach feels a million times more adulty than what I tried to do before.

I know where everything is. I can find anything I need, either in the filing cabinet or on my external hard drive, in a matter of seconds. I’m not losing bills or paperwork anymore.

Thanks, Marie Kondo. I will happily throw it all away.

Next time: Komono.

Let’s Talk KonMari #1: Clothing and the Social Self

If you’ve been checking my Twitter feed, you may have noticed that I too have jumped on the KonMari bandwagon. And I have very strong opinions.

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This Netflix glitch conveys the gist.

This blog post series will stick to the same basic outline as the KonMari method itself:

What This Series Is Not: A how-to guide or a humblebrag about how great my space looks now.

What This Series Is: An attempt to lay out the various realizations I’ve had while tidying – especially the ones I had while actually doing the practice and simultaneously reading the backlash to Kondo and her method.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kondo’s Netflix series “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” both lay out the how. Spark Joy and the Netflix series give plenty of examples of the what. I want to explore the why.

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KonMari, Capitalism, and Several Yous

Hold each item you own in your hands. Does this item make you feel happy? If not, why do you keep it?

No, really: Why do you keep it?

That’s KonMari in a nutshell. But, like Hamlet’s, this nutshell creates you king of infinite space.

Margaret Dilloway has written an excellent piece at HuffPo about the Shinto roots of the KonMari method and how they give rise to many of the elements of the method that make us the most anxious. As far as my limited knowledge of Shinto will permit, I believe Dilloway is spot-on.

But it’s not Shinto alone that makes Westerners anxious about the KonMari method. It’s the way the method itself collides with some of our most fervently-held beliefs about labor, material goods, and the self.

Hating Yourself is Good for You (Now Buy More Stuff)

Here in the US, we’re not used to trusting ourselves. Our economy depends on us not trusting ourselves. Our relationship to our material possessions developed over decades of not trusting ourselves, of using things to build the “someone else” we need to be in order to be happy, because we are deeply certain that we are not already that person. (If we were that person, wouldn’t we be happy already?)

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Fun fact: I only typed “ads that make” into Google Image Search. “ads that make you feel bad about yourself” was Google’s first recommendation.

It’s this dynamic that produces both clothing ads and the airbrushed models in them. It’s the cause of My Closet Is Packed and I Have Nothing to Wear Syndrome. It’s generated thousands of hours’ worth of commentary, of “just be happy with yourself!” pablum, and an entire industry of life-coaching, wellness products, and self-care in order to get you spend even more money on the “you” you’re convinced you are not.

In the face of all this ad-generating self-doubt, KonMari commits a massive sin: It doesn’t tell you that you need to be fixed.

Worse: It begins by having you do decision-making from your own inner sense of authenticity.

Worst of all: The standard KonMari gives you to make that decision is, in US material culture, extremely suspect.

“Does this spark joy?” is highly suspect because it is imminently personal. As Kondo reiterates multiple times in her books, the standard is whether an item makes you happy. Not whether you need it, not whether someone gave it to you, not whether you spend a lot of money on it or it’s hard to find or it makes Janice in Accounting turn green with envy when she sees you with it.

Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy? Does it make you happy?

All of the consequences of owning it that I listed above might make you happy. You might really love having exactly what you need, or being the curator of thirty years’ worth of gifts, or owning things you paid dearly for, or showing off things nobody else has, or ruining Janice’s day.

But those considerations are secondary to the question: Does it make you happy?

All you need in order to tidy is the yes or no. Your happiness is reason enough to keep an item, and your unhappiness is reason enough to discard it.

The more backlash against Kondo and her method that I read, the more convinced I am that this cardinal sin against material culture – being told that our own happiness is good enough – lies at the root of it all. We are so used to being told we’re inadequate that hearing that our judgment can in fact be trusted feels like being told we’re inadequate.

How dare you tell me that the magic was in me all along! I’ve spent my whole life in pursuit of my ideal self – and I’ve spent a lot of money, too!

We bought the things in order to feel safer, more important, more confident – in a word, happier. Sometimes we did feel happier. And sometimes we made it harder to hear our own inner voice.

The Clothes Make the Man – And Everyone Else

KonMari’ing one’s clothes seems to have gotten less backlash than KonMari’ing books or komono, perhaps because we consciously leverage clothing to mediate our identity. Clothing is a malleable medium; through it, we can choose how others see us, and by doing so, we can also fine-tune how much of that image is the “inner me” and how much is a public persona.

And the pressure to use clothing in this way is immense. On average, USians own more clothes and wash them more often that at any previous time in our history. “Fast fashion” allows us to keep up with trends at (nearly) any price point. It also pressures us to keep up with trends: Doing so costs money, and it also communicates that you have money.

Even kids know that there’s a “right” number, type and combination of clothing to wear. I got bullied in elementary school for “not matching” (implying the need to buy/own enough clothes that your outfits always coordinate); in middle school for wearing in-style but “off-brand” jeans (implying there’s a correct amount of money to invest in your public body blankets slash identity markers), and in high school for wearing my favorite outfit, a pair of black corduroy overalls and a babydoll t-shirt, once a week (implying you should have enough clothes to make your outfits non-repetitive).

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Image: A Tumblr meme by user opricat. Person: uhm didn’t you wear that shirt yesterday Me: Yea but there’s this remarkable invention called the washing machine Me: definitely didn’t wash the shirt

…As everyone who’s ever heard this comment before knows, the point isn’t to make you admit washing machines exist; it’s to make you admit that you wore a shirt frequently enough for everyone to know that your wardrobe is not infinity deep. What are you, A Poor?

What’s particularly pernicious about this example is the way it works directly counter to trusting that inner judgment. We tend to wear things we like more frequently than things we don’t…but every time we do, we increase the chances of hearing that we were wrong to trust that inner sense of joy.

The Cull and What I Learned From It

I thought starting with clothes would be a breeze, because I’ve already spent decades working on my wardrobe. I’ve owned dozens of books on “cultivating the perfect closet.” I’ve had my colors done. For most of the early 2000s I carried around a collection of index cards on a keyring so I could reference them while clothes shopping and make sure I was buying the “right” clothing: timeless, high-quality, and adhering to every rule about how people with my coloring, shape and stature were “supposed” to dress.

For years, my wardrobe was a hot mess.

In the months before I discovered KonMari, I’d whittled my clothes down to a capsule wardrobe so tightly curated I brag about it on Quora. As a result, I figured the clothing category would go pretty quickly for me.

…It did, but it still surprised me.

My initial pile was much smaller than the ones you see on the Netflix series:

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(In this, as in every future photo, I did choose to keep the cat.)

What surprised me was that I did, in fact, end up throwing out two trash bags’ worth of stuff. What also surprised me was that it wasn’t easy.

I thought I was pretty unsentimental about my wardrobe. I don’t get attached to clothes because they remind me of certain life events or so-and-so gave them to me.

I do, however, get attached to clothes because they represent a version of me I thought I wanted or needed to be. I get very attached to clothes for this reason.

Notice I didn’t say I “felt joy” for these reasons. The attachment was entirely anxiety-based. Any “joy” I felt was actually relief as I put these items back in the pile, because then I didn’t have to face the anxiety of letting go of that way better version of myself I’m totally going to become as soon as I work up the courage to wear these leggings in public I swear.

Those items did get removed as I was putting clothes back in the drawers, though. I had trouble managing the anxiety as I held them, but when I saw them folded next to clothes I really do love, I realized they didn’t make me feel joy. They just made me feel tired.

Okay, But I Need Those Clothes

There was a time in my life, about ten years ago, when being able to get rid of clothing simply because “it made me feel tired” would have been an unimaginable luxury. Past Me would have scorned Future Me’s ass off.

Do you want to have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill? Because this is how you have to choose between being dressed and paying the electric bill.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo reassures the reader not to worry about throwing out clothes for security reasons. When you’re done sorting, she says, “You will have what you need.”

Kondo doesn’t explain this, but about halfway through sorting my underwear, it hit me:

You will have what you need because you already have what you need.

I’m serious. Imagine this: You’re standing next to your whole wardrobe, all nice and clean and folded. You’re not wearing anything you own: It’s all clean, ready for you to pick what you want.

You reach into the pile and pull out….

You already know. You know which shirt, jeans, skirt or dress is your absolute favorite, your go-to, the number-one thing you want to wear when it’s clean. You know which pairs of underwear cups your bits just right and which ones are a guaranteed all-day wedgie. And so on.

It’s okay to let clothes go when you avoid wearing them anyway.

A Note on Thankfulness

Kondo recommends that when you decide not to keep something, you thank it before relegating it to the trash/recycle/donation bin.

Thanking things before letting them go is one of the biggest “sticking points” I’ve seen among Westerners learning about KonMari. I can’t count the number of social media posts/comments/tweets I’ve seen along the lines of “I’m not thanking my clothes, that’s stupid!”

On the whole, we in the US struggle with gratitude. Gratitude runs counter to our bootstrap-pulling, pioneer-know-howing, “I built it myself”-ing ethos. Gratitude implies that we’re in a position of neediness, of subservience.

Thanking our clothes implies that we somehow need them. That we’re dependent on them to perform certain tasks for us or to help us meet certain goals. And thanking clothes can be particularly galling. How dare you imply that I couldn’t have finished school or gotten my job or had a baby or become the 51st ranked Fortnite player in the world without this sock?

I spent about five years in my tweens and early teens incapable of uttering the words “Please” or “Thank you.” It wasn’t that I was actually ungrateful; it’s that saying those words put me in a position of vulnerability that I, traumatized and mentally ill, could not bear.

After the first five or six times I did it with old clothing, however, I found that it felt weird not to do it. It made the entire process seem rushed. Worse, it made it harder for me to determine whether I was keeping things because I personally loved them or to allay that anxiety of “but I’ll become this person someday I swear!” or “but what if we end up homeless tomorrow?!” (NB: We are not going to end up homeless tomorrow.)

Since finishing my wardrobe about a week ago, I’ve also accepted: Yes, I do rely on my clothes. No, I wouldn’t have accomplished today’s tasks without my socks, or my shirt, or my winter coat.

It was -20F before wind chill here this week. Bootstraps notwithstanding, I’m not actually capable of not freezing to death in such weather on my own. I need clothes. And that’s okay.

So What Should I Do?

So much of the backlash has baffled me because The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up seems to go out of its way to tell the reader that Kondo can’t tell you what will make you happy. Only you can determine whether you find joy in one pair of underwear or ten, in thirty books or three hundred, in two spatulas or twenty-five.

In fact, the book devotes an entire chapter to discussing what Kondo calls the “click point,” at which people know that their space is filled with the right number of items for them. It devotes multiple pages to explaining that the click point is wholly and entirely personal.

Given the book’s repeated insistence that only you can know what and how much you need, it was odd to see people fight against the idea that Kondo “assigns quotas” (an actual phrase I saw one Facebook commenter use). But maybe it’s not that baffling after all.

We’re a society that spends millions every year on people, books, courses and objects that tell us how to fix ourselves. Kondo gently and persistently tells us that she cannot fix us because we were never broken.

Buying all that stuff that didn’t make us happy isn’t our fault. We did the best we could at the time with the tools we had.

But when that stuff comes in the door, it becomes our responsibility. To change the habits that accumulated it, we need to change how we respond to it. KonMari is one new way to respond.

We’re not wrong because we didn’t have this skill before. We were simply fighting to fix something that was never broken in the first place.

That message can be utterly enraging to hear. And rage often shoots the messenger.

Next time: Books.


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