The Magic of Tidying Up

KonMariUntil recently, my home office has always been a source of joy. It is a fairly large room on the second floor with south-facing windows that overlook a crepe myrtle tree, three large bookcases, a couch for guests, a comfortable chair. It’s not only the magic portal to the fictional settings where my characters live, it’s also the home and family command central–meaning that in addition to being the place where I write, it’s where I pay bills, manage calendars, do correspondence, maintain files, and keep mementos.

A lot goes on in here, and a lot of stuff comes in. A lot more than goes out, actually. So in spite of the fact that I’ve always considered myself very neat and organized, my beloved office has become something of a shithole. Not so much that I’d be embarrassed if you were to drop in for a cup of coffee, but enough that lately I feel myself tense up when I step across the threshold.

I have no problem tossing things out, or so I thought. My monthly trips to Goodwill suggest I’m able to let things go. It’s just that all this stuff seems essential. The trinkets that I’ve set up on my shelves as little altars to each of my novels, the gifts and handmade cards, the artwork, the little bits of nostalgia. The hundreds of books, both read and to-be-read. All the files, neatly labeled. All the documents.

I started noticing my sense of joy shifting sometime during the writing of my most recent book, The Weight of a Piano, in which the protagonist struggles with her relationship to the single remaining item from her childhood: the piano that her father gave her a week before her parents died. The women in my family, it seems, are intensely bonded with their stuff: photographs are carefully curated and stored, family heirlooms are documented and displayed. When someone tires of something, it is rarely cast off to strangers; instead, she looks to others in the family to absorb it into their own household reliquaries.

When I worked as a firefighter, there were occasions when a home and all its contents were destroyed. Ashes to ashes. The family would stand there on the opposite curb, the stricken parents and children huddled together, watching smoke curl from the empty place. I don’t mean to sound insensitive to those who have lost everything when I say that I sometimes found myself thinking, maybe that wouldn’t be so terrible. Of course it would be, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone—including myself. But it is also true that there is a weight to our possessions that far exceeds their poundage.

A couple of days ago, my friend Sarah mentioned the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Intrigued, I downloaded it right away—it was one of those examples of a book coming to the reader at the precise moment it is needed—and lost a night of sleep to it. Though Kondo often deals with clients that are one shopping spree away from being featured on an episode of Hoarders, she also speaks to the well-intentioned among us: those who work hard at keeping things tidy but who are up against a never-ending onslaught. This book isn’t a storage manual, or a guide to getting rid of things. Rather, it’s about what we should choose to keep. Her premise is simple: handle each item in your possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”

Does this spark joy.

What a brilliant, elegant approach to ownership. She advises tidying not by room but by category, starting with clothes, then books, then komono (miscellany) and finally, mementos. I’ve become an evangelist before I’ve even filled a single garbage bag, but this book has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship to the things only yesterday I felt I couldn’t part with. I’m eager to pare down my belongings to an amount that feels ideal so that I can once again walk into my office (and every room in the house) and not feel stifled by stuff.

Recently, I told a friend that while I’m between books, I would take a couple of months off writing and tackle my shoeboxes of photographs. (My word choice should have been a sign: one shouldn’t have to tackle anything that is meant to represent pleasant memories.) But Kondo clearly warns against going through the photos and mementos before training oneself on this specific emotion-driven decision-making process of discarding. Only after culling the easily replaced items such as clothing and books should one consider the potentially irreplaceable.

About this final step, Kondo says, “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you just stow these things away in a drawer or box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too. It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.”

That definitely sparks joy.