Sunday, May 7, 2017

Maybe not exactly "magic."

Once I moved past my pack-rat childhood years, I found that clutter makes me edgy. And I started gravitating toward a more stream-lined life. And yet, it just seems to keep accumulating. If I lived completely alone, it wouldn't be as difficult to keep clutter from building up, but I knew I had to have my husband on board if it was going to work. As I often do, I did some reading first to psych myself up. I have read many books and articles on de-cluttering and I can easily say this is the oddest one I've ever read. By far, in fact. First, it is hard to get past the author's obsessive attachment to "tidying." She traces the arc of her personal history with the subject, beginning as a very young child:

"My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five, and I believe that I was trying in my own way not to make trouble for my parents, who were clearly busy taking care of my other two siblings. I also became conscious from a very young age of the need to avoid being dependent on other people. And, of course, I wanted my parents to praise and notice me. From the time I was a first grader, I used an alarm clock to wake up before everyone else. I did not like being dependent on others, found it hard to trust them, and was very inept at expressing my feelings. From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child. I really enjoyed wandering around the school by myself, and I still prefer to do things alone, including traveling and shopping. This is very natural for me. Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things."

Well. I'm no psychologist, but... wait a minute. I am a psychologist. But you don't have to be one to see that this does not describe psychologically healthy development. And then there is this passage which I feel compelled to post in its entirety:

"This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, “I’m home!” Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, “Thank you very much for your hard work,” and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the entranceway. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, “Good job!” and hang them temporarily from the closet doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my closet, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing inside, and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves. My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag on the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my wallet in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, “Thanks for all you did for me today.” Next, I return to the entrance and put away the books and notebooks I carried around all day (I have converted a shelf of my shoe cupboard into a bookshelf). From the shelf below it I take out my “receipt pouch” and put my receipts in it. Then I put my digital camera that I use for work in the space beside it, which is reserved for electrical things. Papers that I’ve finished with go in the recycle bin beneath the kitchen range. In the kitchen, I make a pot of tea while checking the mail, disposing of the letters I’ve finished with. I return to my bedroom, put my empty handbag in a bag, and put it on the top shelf of the closet, saying, “You did well. Have a good rest.” From the time I get in the door to the moment I close the closet, a total of only five minutes has passed. Now I can go back to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of tea, and relax."

I have to tell you that is one of the saddest things I've ever read.
And yet, I myself like things to be organized and I found myself motivated in spite of the bizarre advice in the book. I don't worry, as Kondo does, about labels on things that are out of view. "Strangely," she writes, "just closing the cupboard doors does not conceal the flood of information. The words become static that fills the air." She advises you to remove labels whenever possible. Yeah. That's not going to happen. And I did not do my discarding and organizing wearing a dress and blazer to indicate my respect for the process. Nor  did I begin by offering a greeting to my house. "If you do this repeatedly, you will start to feel your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things. Carry on a dialogue with your home while tidying. I know this sounds totally impractical and fantastic, but if you ignore this step, you will find that the job goes less smoothly."

But what I did do, which seemed to go smoothly enough although in spite of my lack of conversation with the house and the fact that I was in pajama pants, was go through the bathroom cabinet and weed out everything that we weren't using or was past its expiration date, and set up a system where back-up products were up higher and stuff used more regularly organized and accessible.
That leaves the open shelf clear and uncluttered. Kondo advocates storing things in shoeboxes and boxes from Apple products (she must a big consumer of iPhones and Macbooks). I don't think keeping cardboard boxes around is a good idea since the glue in them attracts roaches. Maybe that's not an issue in Japan but in our house, cardboard goes into gardening projects or recycling. For storage containers that show, I like prettier things anyway. Our vitamins/meds boxes go into the woven lidded basket we bought in Gaiole, Italy, washcloths in another basket, cotton and swabs in ceramic and wooden cups. It's just more aesthetically pleasing to me, but that's my quirk.

Also on the list of things that didn't happen: "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."  What. The. Hell.
What I do agree with is discarding things first and then organizing/storing things. And I also already knew that it helps to drag everything in one category out of the closets and drawers and into one spot. But she suggested a slight re-frame that made sense to me - to decide what you want to keep rather than what you want to get rid of. So from the pile on the bed I picked up one piece of clothing at a time and either put it in a stack to return to my room or tossed it into the discard pile. Possibly the most helpful bit of advice is to ask whether each thing "sparks joy." That's a bit of an overstatement, but in all seriousness, why keep things you don't love? At one point, as we were going through my husband's clothes, he threw a t-shirt on the discard pile and then looked at it sadly. I said, "Wait a minute - I thought you loved that shirt?" He acknowledged that he did and I told him to keep it - it definitely fell under the "sparks joy" category for him.

In the end, I had a pile of 83 articles of clothing and 8 pairs of shoes to donate and my husband had off-loaded 54 articles of clothing and 6 pairs of shoes. This doesn't count the non-donateable items like socks and underwear or t-shirts too shabby to give to anyone. To be fair, I have significantly more clothes than my husband because women's clothing tends to be much more specific and varied. So his outgoing numbers represent a bigger percentage than mine.
Kondo also advocates vertical storage, a technique my older son had shown me years ago when he was still in high school. The idea is that you can see at a glance everything you have and stuff doesn't get lost at the bottom of a pile. But again, her mystical thinking about organizing clothing leaves me cold. She writes, "Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle." Folding actually improves the fabric. Sure. Sure it does.

She believes that clothes can guide you in their own folding: "There is nothing more satisfying than finding that “sweet spot.” The piece of clothing keeps its shape when stood on edge and feels just right when held in your hand. It’s like a sudden revelation—So this is how you always wanted to be folded!—a historical moment in which your mind and the piece of clothing connect." Sigh. Is this sort of animism really necessary?

She even wants you to gently fold your socks. Your socks. She chides one client: "I pointed to the balled-up socks. “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. 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. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest." Who knew we've been mis-treating our socks all this time?

Kondo is Japanese and she threw in this wacky little racist gem for good measure: "Japanese people quickly grasp the pleasure that comes from folding clothes, almost as if they are genetically programmed for this task."
But still. Although I certainly don't believe that "clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure," I can agree that storing by type helps me find what I'm looking for more quickly.

Marie Kondo strikes me as rigid and obsessive in her routinized, solitary life. I don't want to be like her. So I think it's safe to say that I will not be storing my carrots vertically in the fridge, thanking my belongings before I discard them, texting my old phone from my new phone, weeping when I notice soap scum, setting my dishes on the veranda to dry, asking my house where something belongs, or throwing out any book I have not yet read. However, somehow it still encouraged me to start the purge I've been building up to do to get my house back to the uncluttered state I am happiest in. And my small closet? It currently has only clothes I really like. I may not feel my "cells buzz" when I gaze upon it, but you have to admit - it is now an organized thing of beauty.

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