Saturday, 3 September 2016

how Marie Kondo changed my life, a little bit

I have always loved stuff. I use the word “stuff” here in the most specific sense, not in the vague sense that a conversationally awkward thirteen-year-old boy might use it, accompanied by a noncommittal shrug, when asked by their mother’s overly friendly, talkative friend Aunt Clare what they like to do in their free time outside of school: “Uhh... you know, stuff.”

When I say that I love stuff I mean that I love stuff. Material things, worldly goods. I exult in possession. For most of my life I have trodden a fine line between “collecting” (respectable, as in, “Oh, you collect porcelain teddy bears, how delightful!”) and “hoarding” (concerning/faintly repulsive, as in, “Why do you have so many ancient tubes of solidified lip gloss in your drawer?”). This also means that I’m generally reluctant to get rid of or give away things that belong to me. Actually, reluctant paints a flatteringly gentle picture. “Stubbornly resistant to the point of being hostile” come to mind as traditionally more accurate words. This extends to just about everything: clothes, books, stuffed animals, homework assignments from second grade, decorative knick knacks, and the innumerable blank journals I continue to buy under the pleasing delusion that I will someday actually fill them (I will, just watch, haters).

The earliest instance that I can recall of this possessive materialistic instinct manifesting itself was when I was about six. My friend Nicole had come over to our house for a playdate, and we had amused ourselves with the standard games that suburban British children played in the 90s (I don’t actually remember what these were. Bop It? Snakes and Ladders?), but by the late afternoon we had reached a lull. Bored, we sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, racking our brains for a new diversion, when Nicole had a flash of inspiration, and proposed that we dress up in all my clothes and put on a fashion show. Not having any better ideas of my own, I agreed to this proposal.

The next half an hour or so was spent rifling through my wardrobe and putting together several outfits each -- with more energy than taste, it has to be said. When we were satisfied with our work, we dragged my mother out of the kitchen and into the living room to patiently watch us parade down the world’s shortest imaginary runway wearing various items of exceedingly ordinary clothing. The whole thing went about as well as you could expect for a fashion show conspicuously lacking in fashion, though we had a highly enthusiastic -- if very small -- audience.

Once it was over, I started to take Nicole upstairs to my room again so she could change back into her own clothes. I was halfway to the hallway when my mother called out to me, “Yurie, why don’t we give those trousers to Nicole?”

I turned and looked at her, my little six-year-old heart dismayed. She was cheerfully saying something about how they didn’t fit me all that well anymore (lies!) and how they looked great on Nicole (more lies!) and how I had too many pants anyway (that one was maybe fair), but I barely comprehended any of this because I was too busy being distressed at what was happening. My mother, whom I loved with all my heart on most days but not on this particular day, was asking me to give away my favourite pair of uber-cool khaki combat pants under the baseless pretence that they no longer served a purpose for me. And I did not want to do it. Fine, they may have been getting close to becoming a little too snug on me, but that was hardly relevant. What was relevant was that those were MY pants. Mine! While I stood there in stunned silence, my mother went ahead and made up my mind for me. “Let’s give these to Nicole, Yurie. Nicole, would you like to keep those trousers?” She smiled benevolently as Nicole’s face lit up.

I still have questions for my mother about this particular afternoon, seventeen years later. These include the following:
  1. In what alternate reality did you think it would be a good idea to give away my favourite trousers without even giving me any warning?
  2. Were you temporarily blinded when you had this idea because those trousers definitely looked better on me than they did on Nicole?!!

Nicole, on the other hand, had no questions, and jumped at the offer gleefully. (Traitor.) Her mum arrived shortly after to pick her up, Nicole drove away happily in my trousers, and I had my first significant experience of having to give away something that belonged to me, and decided I didn’t like it that much.

After that episode, I clung to my material goods with a stubbornness bordering on obsession, and often accompanied by a sentimentality that conflated sentimental associations with intrinsic value. Over the years, I filled my drawers with endless amounts of stationery, accumulated enough decorative pillows to furnish the display room floor of an IKEA, and, of course, refused to give away clothes that weren’t either riddled with holes or physically impossible to fit my body into. With every cry of “declutter!” that came from my long-suffering mother I immediately went on the defensive. In response to every surprise attack, I provided her with a hundred elaborate reasons, both practical and sentimental, for why I could not throw out my toy bunnies or get rid of just one of my hoodies, until she eventually became overwhelmed by the torrent of words I unleashed and had to go lie down.

When I moved into my first apartment in sophomore year of college, I was in materialistic heaven. A whole apartment all to myself (and three other roommates, but I dismissed this as an unimportant detail) that I could fill with as much stuff as I wanted? And that I could keep? Without having to battle my mother for the right to not declutter as I pleased? I was free at last. To say I got a little carried away when I went on my first apartment-furnishing Target trip would be an understatement. The items I returned with that day that I did not need (a polar bear pattern blanket, a miniature whiteboard, a bowl made expressly to hold popcorn, and a scented candle) far outnumbered those I came back with that I did actually need (a kitchen trash can). The days of having to give away my clothes just because I had “too many” were long behind me.

Fast forward to January of this year, and to the apartment I’ve been living in with Emily since we graduated college two years ago. We had just returned from our respective Christmas vacations at home with family in Taiwan and Korea and were in the process of unpacking. As was customary, we had both brought back from our pilgrimages several mountains of Asian snacks, Asian pens, and Asian socks. Emily had also brought back a few new books. One of these was the famed tidying-up guru Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which she pulled out of her suitcase and plonked down onto the coffee table. I reached over from the couch and picked it up curiously.

I had heard of Marie Kondo and read a few articles about her supposedly magical life-changing philosophy on organizing and decluttering, but chalked it mostly up to hype. Having always been a naturally very neat person despite owning a lot of things, I was inclined to be skeptical of this tiny Japanese lady with perfect bangs who had apparently built an entire business and earned worldwide fame for being an expert at something I regarded as an easy skill.

I opened the book, ready to make fun of whatever I found inside, and started to skim the chapter titles. Not the chapters themselves, just the titles. And then, much against my will, I felt it happening: Marie Kondo working her magic. My life was indeed being changed, before my very eyes.

The best way I can explain the unexpectedly profound impact these chapter titles had on me is just to list out some of the ones that I felt resonate on a deep personal level, so you can see for yourself the startling truths I found myself faced with:

  • Selection criterion: does it spark joy?
  • Unread books: “sometime” means “never”
  • Sorting papers: rule of thumb -- discard everything
  • Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them -- not “just because”
  • Sentimental items: your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos

It is a disarming experience to be impressed where you had been prepared to ridicule. With each chapter title I read that struck me, I let out an involuntary “whoa” like some kind of awe reflex and read it out loud to Emily, who was still unpacking. “Whoa, Emily, listen. ‘Unread books: sometime means never.’ Damn. Wait, whoa. ‘Keep things because you love them -- not just because.’ Whoa, no, this one: ‘Your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos.’ Fudge, dude!” I went on like this for a while, probably irritating the hell out of Emily, and then flipped to page 89 to read the full chapter on organizing books, but by that point, I didn’t need to. The chapter titles had been enough.

The rest of that afternoon saw me cheerfully emptying a third of the clothes in my wardrobe into garbage bags to donate to Goodwill; removing all the books from my bookcase which had sat there since freshman year and which I’d always said I would read “sometime” but never did (it felt incredibly liberating to finally acknowledge that I would just never read The Last of the Mohicans in this lifetime. Goodbye, James Fenimore Cooper! See ya never!); and eliminating my desk, drawers, and closets of all the komono which I knew deep down I didn’t need and which didn’t “spark joy” when I picked them up.

The whole process took me a few hours, and once I decided I was done, I curled up on the couch and looked over at the bulging garbage bags lined up by the door and the stack of unread books piled next to them, feeling light. And fresh. Like I had just washed my face with a lemony face wash. And then I vaguely remember reaching for my laptop and buying some new stuff online, but that part’s a bit hazy in my memory. Rome wasn’t decluttered in a day, you know. Although if it were up to Marie Kondo, it probably would have been.

It’s now been eight months since Emily brought it back with her, and I still haven’t read the whole book (then again, neither has she). I think I was afraid that actually reading the chapters themselves would force me to take even more drastic measures, and I wasn’t prepared for that. Nor have I undertaken another such comprehensive materials cleanse. Because I still love my stuff. I like owning lots of blankets (every single one of them brings me joy in a unique way!), my bookshelf continues to expand despite my ruthless purge in January, and I’ve come to accept that I’ll just always own more earrings than is strictly necessary.

But all that being said, Marie Kondo really did change my life that afternoon. Not drastically, because I wouldn’t let her go that far. But enough that I maybe don’t attach quite so much importance to my things just because they’re my things anymore. Enough that I now actually comprehend that things are just things. Yes, it only took me twenty-three years to realize this very basic truth. Not all of us are sage ascetics from birth, okay?

And my zealous one-day decluttering session really was freeing, in more ways than one. Giving away all the books that had stayed unread on my shelf for so many years allowed me to turn my energies to ones I was genuinely excited about. Whittling down my wardrobe was a healthy reminder of how much I live in excess. Throwing out all the random objects and unimportant keepsakes stored away for so long and serving no real purpose showed me just how much I had let myself, unknowingly, be controlled by my possessions and by the fear of what I would be saying if I threw certain things away. And, amazingly, it did not kill me to give up any of those things! I made it to the other side alive! Truly, Marie Kondo is so magical that her chapter titles alone will urge you to this kind of action, and have this kind of impact.

So thank you, Marie Kondo, for changing my life just a little bit. You did what my mother could not: make me feel okay about giving away a pair of pants that don’t fit just right anymore. After all, pants, even the most awesome khaki, combat kind, are just pants.