Here are some interesting things to know about Marie Kondo. When this young Japanese “cleaning consultant” comes home from work, “I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves,” she says. Having fondled the foliage, “My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag on the rug and put each item away in its place.” Not even the wallet or train pass are allowed to stay in her purse. Everything must be put in its designated spot. “Before closing the drawer, I say ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.’”
All this comes from her new book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a best seller that, despite its instructions to purge, purge, purge has, ironically, sold 2 million copies that will no doubt linger on people’s shelves forever. Kondo claims to have a long waiting list of clients. Those she has worked with using her “KonMari Method” have never lapsed. I heard from several people that they found the book intriguing, so I decided to read it.
It is among the most bizarre tomes I have ever picked up.
Kondo’s habit of talking to her plants and purses is interesting enough, though to be fair, there are elements of Shintoism in treating objects as imbued with energy and spots in the household as shrines. Kondo worked as a shrine tender for several years in an earlier career. This blending of religion and practical matters has a long history, and Americans have produced plenty of self-help books claiming that God wants you to be rich, happy, etc. So I tried to read those parts of the book with an open mind. But Kondo is fully transparent that her interest in tidying did not stem from the healthiest of places. She says multiple times that her family didn’t have time for her, that her siblings absorbed all the attention. “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things,” she writes. She was lonely, and turned to tidying as a way to be useful and, she hoped, make her family value her. “When I came home, I headed straight for the place I had decided to clean that day without even changing out of my school uniform.”
All this tidying finally ended in a divine revelation of sorts. She had spent years tidying and felt she was getting no where. So she plopped herself in the middle of the room, practically screaming in frustration. Then, a voice came to her. She heard a message, though instead of telling her to sell all she had and give the money to the poor, the voice told her to “Look more closely at what is there.” She should keep things she loved, rather than focus on what she didn’t. The only reason to keep something is an affirmative answer to the question “Does this spark joy?”
With this insight, Marie Kondo launched into a new consciousness of tidying. The book has some decent advice. For instance, this: “Getting rid of other people’s things without permission demonstrates a sad lack of common sense.” You cannot force your vision of the world on other people. You can only act it out yourself and trust that if they see your calm and happiness, they will be likewise inspired. This is much better than the “be sneaky” sort of advice often tossed around in women’s magazines for getting rid of kids’ toys. Also, don’t take the weasel route of handing things down to family members who don’t want them. This doesn’t actually solve the problem. And finally, in our consumer society, you really don’t need to fear getting rid of most physical objects. If you do find you need them in the future, you’ll be able to get them.
Of course, there’s also a lot of questionable advice. Like, when deciding whether to keep a book, “Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgment.” Say what? You shouldn’t decide which books to keep based on what’s in the books? She mentions that she herself only owns 30 books, which is just a bit north of the number I wound up including in our literary Advent calendar. Clearly, we are inhabiting different worlds.
It is hardly unique to Kondo as a self-help expert to offer advice that fits her world, but doesn’t fit others (some readers here might say the same of me!) She lives alone. She doesn’t have kids. The idea of having one major storage place, because you want to make things easy to put back, rather than easy to get out, is fine when we’re talking about reference books. It’s another thing if we’re talking about, say, diapers, and you’re trying to change a soiled, screaming infant at 2 a.m. You want everything you need right by the kid. The putting away is less important than the getting out. Trust me.
Then there were some truly strange moments of advice: “One of my clients cleared out a closet and shed that she had neglected for ten years. Immediately after, she had a strong bout of diarrhea after which she felt much lighter.” I think this is presented as a positive. Shed your stuff and you’ll lose weight! But we already have enough stomach bugs circulating around here. This does not inspire me to clean my closets. I’m hoping this is just bad translating.
But here’s what really bothered me about this book: All of her examples of clients are women. When men appear (and they only do 2-3 times) it is as part of a couple. Kondo never says tidying is women’s work, but the implication is clear. She is far from the only person who believes this, and I’m sure she has this feeling from experience: women are the ones who seek her out.
That’s why I kept having this thought while reading this book: For women, there is often life-changing magic in not tidying up.
I don’t mean living in a disorganized mess. My house is reasonably organized. Kid shoes and coats always go in the mud room — not stacked in a neat line, but in there — and the 7-year-old’s homework is either on his homework table or in his backpack. I mean letting go of the idea that the domestic sphere is your responsibility alone, and that it is somehow a reflection on your identity. You can be a happy and successful person and still have a multitude of mismatched mugs in the cupboard. You can read a book even if the toys aren’t picked up and there are dishes in the sink. You can write a book with piles of stuff stacked up in your office (see photo), because you are so drawn to the material you are writing about that it would never occur to you to waste time you could be writing, or being with your family, or running, or volunteering, asking if you should stack stuff vertically or horizontally.
I know this seems crazy, but your cupboards need not be a metaphor for life. But in Marie Kondo’s world, stuff is all about this metaphor. When the energy of our discarded objects is released, we are supposed to experience an awakening. It’s like the Japanese and clutter-oriented version of The Secret: energy you send out into the universe is returned to you as fortune, love, and good parking spots (Kondo doesn’t mention the parking spots thing, but you get my drift). “If you follow this advice, you will dramatically reduce the volume of things you own, experience an exhilaration you have never known before, and gain confidence in your life.”
As she puts it, “your real life begins after putting your house in order.”
I have no doubt her clients believe this. But why are all these clients women? Why are women clamoring to get on her 3-month waiting list in order to spend 6 months purging, so that their lives can finally begin then? Is it possible that men believe that your real life has little to do with the state of your silverware drawer? Is it possible that men think you can have a fulfilling career and relationships and either not pay the drawers much mind, or else find someone else to tend to them? If so, why do women have to put off real life by many months, paying tribute to the domestic gods before they’re allowed to pursue their dreams?
I think these are important questions, and the answers are about patriarchy, not tidiness. Realizing this is life-changing, much more so than tidying up.
In other news: One take-away from the “KonMari” method. I should totally brand my “method” of time makeovers. We could call it the “VandeLa” method. It seems so much more official that way.