Things as Our Honored Guests

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You may already have heard of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s a somewhat odd little book with a couple of powerful gems. 

Kondo is a professional organizer from Japan who urges us to keep items that “spark joy” and discard the rest. 

I read about her KonMari Method of “tidying up” several months ago and put the book on hold at the library. There were more than 150 people in front of me, so it took a while before the book was available.

Since I am a teacher who enjoys a long summer break, I have time and energy to devote to a de-cluttering project of some magnitude. Having put this off for quite a few summers, I dug in last month, and I wonder if having read about Kondo’s methods is part of what got me motivated to start. Sometimes all we need is a nudge. 

It’s been fabulous. Even without having read her book, I was already thinking about how I could make my office space more efficient and more inspiring. Getting rid of what I don’t need or want clears the space so I can be with the things I do need and want. My goal with my office is to create a space that’s inspiring, beautiful, functional, and roomy. I want to be there. I want to be creative there. I want to walk into my office and go, “aaaah, yes.” 

That means I need to get rid of anything unnecessary and then create spaces for whatever is necessary. It’s very easy to clean out and then just fill the space with more clutter. 

When our home was robbed some years ago, we had to make a list of what we’d lost and how much those items had cost. Since then, I’d been holding onto receipts. Now, I’m snapping a picture of the receipt next to the item instead of keeping the receipt. This is a way of avoiding adding more papers and clutter in the future. 

I am working through files, piles of papers, deciding which can be photographed to archive, which must be saved, and which can be discarded. Old check books? Really? No need to keep them. Old tax returns? Got a business, got to keep them. This is slow work, so sometimes I upload something on Netflix and half-watch while I sort. 

I also went through my books.  Kondo’s method for books is to take them all of the shelves, all of them. Then hold a book and see if it sparks joy. Don’t start reading. Don’t think about it. Just go for the emotion.

For some things, that method works for me. For instance, I have touched a shirt and thought, ick, I never want to wear this again. I feel a strong No for some items. But I didn’t trust this method for my books. So, yes, I opened them, and if I read something that sparked joy, I kept the book. I loved letting go of books I hadn’t read and felt guilty about. Now when I look at my bookcase, I’m only going to see books I want to read or review. There shouldn’t be anything in my home that makes me feel guilty or less than. I shouldn’t look at something and feel obligated to it. My things shouldn’t own me or shame me. 

I went through books with the reminder to myself that if I haven’t wanted to read a book in the past five years, why did I think it was too valuable to let go? If I let go of a book and realize later I want to read it, I can get it from the library or from I picked up one book I bought and never read and realized:  I don’t want to read it. It’s dense and difficult, which makes me feel very unacademic but there it is: perhaps I have less patience and enthusiasm for academia than I’d thought. I loved Robert Kegan’s lecture but his book bored me; I don’t have to read it and I certainly don’t have to keep it. Kondo says if you have a pile of books that you’re planning on reading some day, that day will never come. Thinking of that, I opened up a book I’d never read and, knowing it had to go in the discard pile, I enjoyed skimming it for an hour. Then I happily put it in the pile to donate to the library. 

This is what’s interesting about the process of de-cluttering. It’s about deciding who I am and how I want to live. It’s a funny and rich world we live in that we have so many choices and so many things. We can get bogged down by both choices and things. At the same time, our relationship to our things can tell us a great deal about our relationship to ourselves and others. 

Though I’m still working on my office, I started in on my closet (Kondo would advise against this method, urging us to stick with one area or one item until complete). 

First, and this is minor but beautiful, Kondo says to stop balling up our socks. Instead, fold them. I thought this couldn’t make much difference, but, lo! It’s neater and nicer and easier to see my socks when they’re folded. So, thanks for that, Marie. 

While some organizers say there should be different piles (a keep pile, a maybe pile, a to-be-mended pile), Kondo says to pull out everything and then only put back what you’ll keep and wear or use. Everything else has to go. There is no Maybe pile. I, however, put a small number of items on probation. I try them on again and see they look good and I like them; I don’t know why I haven’t been wearing them. They get one more season and if I still don’t wear them, they’ll go. 

Clothes can be difficult to discard because they are so personal. They may be sentimental or expensive. Going through clothes requires a bit of ruthlessness. It also requires an attitude of abundance. 

It’s important not to fall into “but it cost so much I have to keep it.” It’s continuing to cost you in space in your closet and regrets. Is that how you want to live your life, tied to a past decision? Bah. Move on. 

It’s also important not to worry about if you’ll need or want an item later. That’s your fear talking. That’s no way to live either, always afraid that whatever you need or want will not be available.We may judge ourselves harshly with a fear of being wasteful. Donate the clothes you won’t wear. Enjoy the clothes you will wear. That’s not wastefulness. That’s being both practical and joyful. 

It’s liberating to get rid of clothes that I have kept “in case I need it.” I put that in quotes because you know you’ve said that too. Pants that don’t fit great but I love the color — oh, out you go. If I loved it before but no longer love it, it goes. Sometimes it’s painful. If it worked for me when I was 40, you know, maybe it doesn’t work the same way as at 52. That’s okay. In fact, that’s great. 

My closet feels much better, and I also feel— strangely — a bit better about being 52. I sometimes miss being in my 40s. I’ve definitely had to work to focus on abundance (I’m healthy and active and strong!) instead of on comparison (I used to be stronger!). Letting go of clothes from the previous decade frees me to be more present. I’m surrounding myself with what works for me today. 

Like clothes, jewelry also tells a story of who I was when I bought or received that item. Some of the wonderful, glittery, sparkly rhinestone costume jewelry is no longer fun for me. I’m not drawn to it in the same way. Whenever I give up a piece of jewelry that I don’t love, I can arrange the jewelry I do love so I can see and appreciate those pieces even more. 

I have a box of sentimental items, things I do not and will not wear but keep as mementos of the person who gave it to me or owned it before me. Kondo would advise to let those things go. I like touching them. A picture or a memory isn’t the same. It’s a small box. I’m keeping it. 

I have jewelry that used to belong to my sister, Carol, who died just before she turned 31. I had been wearing some of her earrings and realized I hadn’t worn any of them for some years. It hit me: she was 30 the last time she wore this! This is the jewelry of a young woman. I put those earrings away in my sentimental box.

I did give away a few things that I’ve loved — so beautiful! — but didn’t look great on me and I never wore. I have received beautiful gifts that just aren’t quite right for me, and Kondo is correct that the giver would never want us to hold onto something out of obligation. Move it on! 

Kondo invites people to “appreciate their belongings.” She urges her clients to say, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when hanging up clothes at the end of the day. 

What beautiful magic that is! We feel abundance when we’re grateful. Someone made the clothing we’re wearing; someone sold it in a store. Many hands brought that item to us. Thanking the item is also a way to honor everyone who had a part in bringing that object to us. Yes, it’s just a thing. Gratitude, appreciation and honor for our things make us stronger emotionally. We are more likely to take good care of our things and to recognize when a thing is no longer right for us. It’s easier to move it on, too, knowing it may become someone else’s treasure. 

Thank your phone for helping you stay connected. Bring gratitude instead of resentment or fear to your relationship with that really powerful object - the phone!

Kondo also advises us to greet our homes. Imagine how you feel at the end of a work day. You come in and throw things down, too tired to put things away. Now re-imagine. You go up to your door and pause. You think, “I’m home! Hello, home!” You walk through the door with intention, leaving behind your work day or errands and entering into your private and special space. 

Okay, I don’t know that I can do that, but maybe some of you can. It’s a lovely vision, one that helps us shift and one that helps us be less busy and annoyed. Entering our home stops our energy for a moment and gives us an opportunity to shed our work before stepping in to our home. “In essence, tidying ought to be the act of restoring balance among people, their possessions, and the house they live in,” writes Kondo. De-cluttering allows us to enjoy being at home more. It’s showing respect to our home to keep it fresh, open, and alive. 

Kondo says, “Tidying is a celebration, a special send-off for those things that will be departing the house.” In this way, we can see that our things are our honored guests. 

Will getting rid of clutter change your life? You know, in small ways, sure, it could. For me, it’s helping me settle into my life today and release the papers, clothes, jewelry, things, ideas, and self-image of the past. I can’t get to my What’s Next until I’ve felt good about letting go of what’s been. 

I have a confession. I really enjoy the process. I get into the zone. I love touching things or trying on clothes or jewelry, figuring out how to display what I have, choosing how to move things around so that they’re easier to see and access. I love seeing the new, re-organized space emerge. I also admit that I am keeping plenty of things that I know I don’t need or love. There is only so much giving away and clearing out that I can do at once. I do not have to do this process perfectly. 

If you do not love the process, let yourself do whatever you can, as imperfectly as it works for you. The goal may not to be tidy, nor even to be less cluttered, as those may be personal preferences. You may find that appreciating what you have is both the process and the goal, one that brings more happiness to how you live in your home.