Alas, I Will Never Actually De-Clutter My House

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In the past couple weeks, I have found my mind circling back, again and again, to an article I read in this magazine, about a Japanese tidying guru named Marie Kondo. Her idea, in a nutshell, is this: People should share the spaces they inhabit exclusively with objects — furniture, books, clothing, cooking pans, potted plants — that bring them joy. Everything else is clutter and should be purged forthwith. That Kondo has a popularity in Japan (the article compared her to Beyoncé) far beyond that of your average closet organizer is attributable in part to the fact that her approach to tidying has the flavor, if not the actual structure, of a religion. Tidying the Kondo way results in more than a Real Simple domicile. It bestows harmony upon your life — contentment, peace. It is a path to transcendence itself: Kondo more than implies that the joy produced by her version of straightening up extends not just to you and the humans with whom you cohabitate, but to your inanimate belongings as well. If you “Kondo” your home, your socks and jeans will be happier too.

There is, of course, an aspirational element to my interest. Like so many New Yorkers, I share a smallish space with a comparatively large number of living creatures: my husband, our child, and a mutt named Callie. We are not slobs or hoarders, but it’s fair to say that our belongings have run amok. There’s luggage under the bed, as well as a plastic bin of mysteriously replicating fleece garments; half a dozen pictures waiting to be hung or reframed hide beneath the arm of a couch. We just bought new bed pillows but haven’t thrown the old ones away; two sets of stainless inhabit our only silverware drawer. This is not how either my husband Charlie or I explicitly wishes to live. In private moments, we have confessed to each other our separate but equal fantasies of pristine, uncluttered living environments. His dream is shiplike, Japanese: a naked countertop adorned with a single blossom in a vase; linens tucked away in low, hand-crafted built-ins. Mine is more straight-up glam: a glass-box apartment aerie; shag carpet; a view. We have no actual aesthetic conflict, though, because each of these visions is, from where we sit, as unattainable as the other. For a decade we’ve been telling each other it’s time to sell the freestanding bookshelf in our dining room on Craig’s List, and somehow we can’t get around to it.

We don’t devote ourselves to de-cluttering for all the usual reasons. Inertia, busyness, a sense that other activities — work, dinner, spin class, overseeing homework — are more pressing than weeding closets when a free hour presents. But beneath the excuses, there’s something else — a religious conflict, if you will — at work. My husband and I were each raised in the faith of the “perfectly good.” This is a belief system handed down by Depression-era parents who teach that objects have value because you bought them with your own hard-earned money or acquired them through fate or some stroke of savvy, and if they’re not totally broken or torn, their merit is intrinsic. Objects are worthy if they’re useful, and — conversely — a use can be invented or imagined for almost every thing. Thus, to live solely among objects that bring us joy would be a repudiation of everything we ever learned. To toss belongings that, in the lexicon of my family of origin, are “perfectly good” simply because they don’t make you feel a certain way would be a heresy.  

“Perfectly good” was the rationale my father consistently gave for not buying one of his three children something they wanted but didn’t demonstrably need. “Your down jacket/backpack/skis/skates from last year are perfectly good,” he’d say. “What’s wrong with that (rusted-out, too small, hand-me-down) bicycle? It’s perfectly good.” Even: “Sure, we can serve that cheese at the party. We’ll cut off the mold and it will be perfectly good.” Perfectly good is the mantra of a frugal man, a university professor who managed to send three children to prep school and then college without incurring any debt. This is a man who will drive a car until it dies on the road, who got me braces but only on the top and who agreed to kitchen renovations only after years of hounding by my mother. What was wrong with the kitchen we had? It was perfectly good. When you grow up with this mind-set, throwing things out willy-nilly, even milk past its sell-by date, is basically unthinkable. “Sniff it,” I heard myself saying to my husband as he inspected the milk carton recently. “It’s probably still perfectly good.”

My father, who is in his mid-70s, can now live comfortably without the pressures of mortgage payments and college bills but he still hates to throw anything away. He loves the family story of a friend’s father, long deceased, who was once an eminent economist at Brown. This man took the faith of the perfectly good to extremes, a wealthy man who wore his canvas tennis shoes until they were full of holes. We once spied him sitting under a tree,  a large cutting board across his knees, a butter knife in his hand, and the carcass of a full jar of peanut butter that had smashed when the groceries were unloaded from the car by his side. This zealot spent the afternoon dipping into the wreckage, spreading the peanut butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, on the cutting board and then minutely chopping through it with the knife, not unlike a cocaine user cutting drugs with a credit card; when he found a shard of broken glass he would fish it out with his fingers and place it in a growing pile, while his adult children, themselves the parents of peanut-butter eating toddlers, looked on aghast. In his mind, the equation was simple: The jar, in smithereens, had outlived its usefulness but the peanut butter was still perfectly good. My father sees the story for what it is -- a cautionary tale – “perfectly good” as dogma rather than a reasonable frame for living. Still, you can hear the admiration in his chuckle.

To live as Kondo recommends requires a faith in a continuing abundance and prosperity that I was raised not to have. How can you whittle your sock drawer down to six joyful pairs when you know full well that socks wear out? If you’re one kind of person (i.e., not me, not the members of my family), you can allow yourself to imagine a future in which buying more socks, perhaps cushier, softer, woven from more technologically advanced fibers, is always a possibility. “When these socks have holes, I’ll buy myself another pair — maybe even a pair I like better,” you might say. But raised as I was, the ugly or ill-fitting socks are as valuable as the joyful ones because, well, they’re socks. I spent money on them, and they do their job. They cover the feet and create a protective layer between the shoes and the skin. When my favorite socks are in the laundry, the second-tier socks do just fine. Joy doesn’t come into it.

There is, in other words, an apocalyptic aspect to the religion of the perfectly good that’s absent in the Kondo way, which might be better characterized as a live-for-now-and-see-what-happens approach to owning stuff. My husband and I have a hard time throwing things away because we were each taught that anything can happen at any time, and you have to be prepared. (I come by this honestly. My grandmother used to tell me, over and over, about how when she fled the Nazis with my mother, who was 3, she packed the car full of diapers, even though my mother was potty-trained; in her mind, the potential usefulness of the diapers trumped any other criterion for what to save. She left the rugs. She left the silver. You see how far I am from being able to use joy as my measuring stick?) This is the foundational tenet of the perfectly good. You don’t throw away the cooking pot you own that’s exactly the same size and shape and quality of the other cooking pot (the one you like more), because you never know when you might be called to make two stews in equal quantities simultaneously. You don’t throw away the comforter at the foot of your bed that’s so heavy it causes you to wake up marinating in your own sweat because one frigid night soon, the steam heat might falter and then an arctic-weight comforter will be just the thing. As my husband pointed out the other day, only semi-joking, he hasn’t chucked the gymnastics uniform he wore in the late 1970s because when he’s finally invited to that wear-your-old-sports-uniform cocktail party, he won’t be at a loss for what to put on.

Charlie compares this faith we have, or disease, to anxiety. Just as anxious people believe, wrongly, that their mid-night perseverations are productive and protective against misfortune, we feel justified and even righteous saving all this crap because — here’s the thing — every once in a while you discover that you have exactly what you need exactly when you need it. Charlie, a do-it-yourselfer and technophile, keeps what he calls his Big Box of Wires in a small closet in our house. It’s a plastic Ikea bin stuffed to the gills with old earbuds and Kindle chargers and connectors and plugs. It’s the kind of detritus a crazy person might keep, the kind of person who listens to a transistor radio on the subway — until you go on a road trip and need an out-of-date phone charger for the rental car, or until there’s a blackout and your cell phone doesn’t work, or until you have to connect your old TV monitor to the new cable box (or the new monitor to the old box). The number of times Charlie has saved us time and money by digging through his Big Box of Wires is legion. And every time he does, the importance of that box grows in our hearts and minds to the point where throwing out even a single wire or plug is a separation so anguishing it’s impossible to contemplate. Sometimes you do have to make two stews at once, and sometimes you are invited to a wear-your-old-sports-uniform cocktail party.

What Kondo allowed me to contemplate is the possibility of throwing things away, and the knowledge that some people discard belongings more easily than we do. Purging, weeding then becomes an option, not a requirement. This is freeing, the way psychotherapy can be. You inherit the habits and neuroses of your forebears, but those habits are neither defining nor inevitable. We could clean our closets if we wanted to — and maybe we will — but keeping stuff has satisfactions of its own. Just the other night, there was a knock on the door. Young marrieds had recently moved in across the hall, and their belongings, including their blankets and comforters, had not yet arrived in the shipment from storage. They were freezing. With what can only be called joy, I gave them the comforter at the foot of our bed. Keep it, I said, as long as you need.