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Neat and Tidy, a messy multipart essay, part one

[This is the first of a series of loosely connected, perhaps sometimes contradictory, essays sparked by various books and conversations around ideas of neatness, messiness, and the good life].

In my library district many people have waited long months to read Marie Kondo’s book The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.

“When you’ve finished putting your house in order, your life will change dramatically . . . you’ll feel your whole world brighten.” Marie Kondo

I put it on hold because I was curious why so many people wanted to read it, and because I have a fascination with how-to-books — how to organize your life, your work, etc. and so forth. I’m interested in the practical ways self help and how-to-books help or don’t help, the rhetoric of these types of works, and how they function in our culture.

“The moment you start, you reset your life.” Marie Kondo

The book finally came in, and I sucked most of it down in one sitting. I appreciated her book for its window into Japanese home-life. And I did pick up some helpful tips for folding laundry. My shirt drawer is much nicer now. (But when in the midst of a major art or research project, as I am about to be, I know I’m going to willy nilly stuff that shit into the drawer). I also appreciated learning that the residents of other First World nations are just as guilty of buying way too much crap and having no idea how to live with an excessive amount of stuff. As a child of a hoarder, part of me would love for her to come work her magic on my father’s junk piles.

“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.” Marie Kondo.

She goes through people’s homes and helps them throw all the excess away. You do this by holding each object and contemplation whether or not it sparks joy. If it does not spark joy, you are to discard it. She claims that throwing it away honors the role those objects have played in our lives, even if the objects have been barely used.

“I have assisted clients who have thrown out two hundred 45-liter garbage bags in one go.” Marie Kondo

Ms. Kondo never speaks about not buying excess. She does not address the ways that throwing all that stuff away fails to honor the work and resources that were put into those objects. Her advice to only keep clothing you love and discard the rest could be useful, if it meant people selected well made clothes that they then wore for years. But in our culture of cheap fashion, people buy an excessive amount of poorly made clothes and then when they no longer “love them,” they dump them in landfills or, to assuage their guilt, donate the craptastic clothes to thrift shops. A recent Huffington Post article reported that about 25 billion pounds of new textiles are generated in the US each year, and around 85% will end up in landfills.

“Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them . . . Not only you, but your things, as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying.” Marie Kondo

Ms. Kondo talks about objects as if they were alive. I would like to take her anthropomorphism to the extreme. Someone who just threw away all the people in their life that didn’t bring them joy would be selfish and cruel. And while it is true that there are times to let go of particular relationships, most of our interactions cannot be treated that cavalierly. I work in public service. Plenty of of people do not bring me joy, but the most important part of my job is working to serve all with respect, regardless of my personal feelings. Some of my most satisfying moments are when I find ways to serve people that never, ever will “spark joy.”

Just holding a thing (or a relationship) for a brief while is not enough to tell us if it sparks joy. What we will find is that it may or may not spark joy in that particular moment. In her imbuing objects with life, she forgets that relationships take work. Often, you have to work to find the joy, to maintain the spark. It takes time and commitment and effort to keep love alive.

She does not suggest that people spend time reworking their hoard of objects into things that give them better service. Most of the objects she talks about discarding have not been worn out. They no longer please the purchaser or were purchased and stuffed into a drawer or closet, never used. Perhaps, she should be showing people how to “love the ones they are with” by putting time and effort into those objects.

“Not only will you never be messy again, but you’ll get a new start on life.” Marie Kondo”

My hoarder of a father didn’t go out and buy his stuff. He rescued it from the side of the road. The junk was on the side of the road because other people purged their stuff, as Ms. Kondo recommends. When my father does “tidy up” his stuff, he takes the time to break things down, separating out the useful from the recyclable from the disposable. He has made quite a bit of mad money from runs to the scrap yard. And he has built many useful things from parts of broken objects. Most recently, my father took the much better drawer tracks from one set of metal filing cabinets and put them in another. I painted it a wonderful, rich dark red color. For the cost of fourteen bucks, I have a lovely, useable filing cabinet for my project files. A new filing cabinet of similar quality and durability would cost a couple hundred dollars, and chances are good the drawer tracks would not be as well made. And my father will use the cabinet with the now not so great drawer tracks in his workshop for rat proof storage of rope and other things that vermin like to chew on.

There are more important things than being tidy. I, like my father, want to use things well. To honor the work and resources it took to produce those objects. Working with the things (and the relationships) I have right now, means living with a bit of mess.

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