Tidying Up as Spiritual Practice Part 3: Additional Critiques

I’m officially back on the tidying wagon, and it feels great. Part of my resistance came from the fact that I’ve gotten through clothes (easy), books (easier than I thought), and papers (very easy and very fulfilling), and now I’m in the biggest category: komono, translated as miscellaneous items.

Komono includes media such as CDs and DVDs, toiletries and makeup, valuables, electronics, office supplies, cleaning supplies, kitchen goods, hobby items, and whatever else is in your house. I have a lot of komono, and after stopping the tidying process to travel, getting back into the thick of komono was overwhelming I finally got motivated out of sheer need: I thought I had lost an important document for the nonprofit I volunteer with, and it was only through the act of tidying my office supplies that I managed to find it.

As I delve back in, I am reminded of what I appreciate about the process of tidying: really tuning into the relationship between myself and the things I own, and remembering that this process is changing my behavior toward compulsive spending. Yes, I’ve bought a few books since tidying my shelves. But I haven’t spontaneously purchased every single vaguely interesting book I came across. I’m using my library card regularly. I find myself being excited to wear the clothes I have on hand, and when I’ve needed to replace something, I’m making choices based on what makes me feel good… not what might make me feel good if I lost a few pounds. I’m also doing a lot better at remembering to deal with bills and other documents that come in the mail, because I have an organizational system that keeps papers consolidated but still in my field of vision, so I don’t forget about them. I was so distressed at the amount of really and truly expired food in my pantry (like, condiments I had purchased back when I was still married) that my grocery shopping habits changed immediately, and I’ve improved at just buying what I need, and when I overbuy (hey, you can’t just buy half an onion), making sure I use up the leftovers.

Consider yourself lucky that I forgot to take a before picture of the fridge.

Consider yourself lucky that I forgot to take a before picture of the fridge.

Resuming the process, I’ve also been thinking about an excellent essay that was published this week at Popular Culture and Theology: Marie Kondo: Tidying Up and Spirituality” by Kim Anderson. Although I am not Christian, I appreciate the way that Anderson uses Christian Environmentalist values to give a thorough critique of the KonMari method.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the KonMari method is not perfect. Most of my analysis has looked at the issues of class and privilege inherent in Kondo’s system. In her article, Anderson points to some other concerns that I had not addressed before. For example, she points to the hidden costs in what we own, using the example of finding a shirt for her daughter that only cost $0.98. She explains: 

When you stop to think about it, just the cotton to make the shirt should have cost 98 cents. Or the labor to make it. Or the fuel to ship it from where it was produced. Or the wages and benefits of the people who produced it OR who sold it to me. But lo and behold, here it was, marked down to 98 cents. Even at the original price of $10, many people/resources had been exploited in the process of selling it to me for a good price. This is something we don’t take into consideration when we find a shirt for $1 or $10, and then discard it a year or two or even five years later when it no longer brings us joy, serves a purpose in our lives, or is in fashion.

It’s easy to forget that our clothes demand the resources of the Earth and of other people, and bother are regularly exploited under capitalism. This is both a class issue and an environmental issue, and reminds us that we can’t separate the way we treat consumption from the way we treat the planet, and the way we treat each other. I try to shop primarily at consignment and thrift stores to offset this problem in my own life; it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a step. Not everyone can do this, though. For example, until recently, many thrift stores did not have great options for plus-size people. While that’s changed some in recent years, I know many plus-size friends who would like to purchase more from secondhand and consignment stores, but don’t always have many options.  

Anderson also points out that Marie Kondo doesn’t encourage us to think about why we accumulated so many things in the first place. That hadn’t occurred to me, largely because in my own tidying process, I’ve frequently asked myself, “Why the heck did I buy this?” and “Why the heck did I keep this?” Often, I have an answer: I thought I might have use for it; I was at an event and felt pressured to buy something; I was dealing with a bad mood by shopping. While I don’t always know how to answer that question, more often than not, I at least have a sense of why. If you’re doing the KonMari method, I recommend that, as you work through each phase of the process, take some time to reflect on why and how your habits developed. 

One of my favorite parts of Anderson’s essay is when she asks, “Is this a real lifestyle change? Or will we just repeat this behavior?” Let’s face it: Kondo boasts of a 0% recidivism rate, but we have no way to assess whether or not that’s true. (I’m going to say it’s dubious. I don’t know of any medical, psychological, or spiritual method for any problem that has a 100% success rate in the long term.) I have two friends who have talked about repeating the process. I do think that, in my own case, this is resulting in a real change. I already mentioned some examples above. There have been points in the process where I thought, No wonder she can claim a high success rate. Who would want to do all this work over again? On some level, the thought of doing the KonMari method twice in a lifetime is overwhelming. Once is enough. I’d rather change my spending habits so I avoid constant accumulation, and having to go through this again.

At the end of her article, Kim Anderson asks us to consider the following questions:

  • Does this bring me joy?

  • Do I value the cost of production?

  • Am I paying a fair price?

  • Will I keep it for a long time?

  • How will I dispose of it when I am done with it?

  • Do I recognize that it has come from God?

 Even if the final questions doesn’t resonate with your spiritual belief system, I believe these are valuable points to ponder. You could even, if it made more sense to you, substitute a phrase such as “the Universe” or “the Earth.” (Yes, even your child’s plastic toy came from the Earth. Where do you think we got those petrochemicals to make the plastic in the first place?)

Maybe these six questions seem like a lot to think about when you’re shopping. On the other hand, what if we did all of our shopping with that kind of intentionality? What if we approached our grocery, clothing, furniture, tool, gift, and media purchases all with the same kind of reverence and care? I honestly would wager that if I put all six of these questions into every shopping trip, I would resolve my compulsive spending issues in a year.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t resolve them 100%. Who would? Nobody is perfect. Sometimes, you completely forget that you are out of dog food, and you just have to run to the store and get a can of wet food from 7/11 because the dog wants his dinner now and the pet store is closed. Sometimes you get caught off-guard by your period and have to rush to buy tampons and some new underwear from a chain store you wouldn’t normally frequent, because you need to deal with biology now. Sometimes you are going to have a truly bad day, and because you both got a flat tire and fought with your best friend and found out you need $500 worth of dental work done, you will forget to be mindful and you will just buy something frivolous. That’s part of being human. We make mistakes and we try to do better next time.

Just because we are human, though, does not mean we shouldn’t try. As soon as I post this essay, I’m going to write Kim Anderson’s six questions into my planner, which goes with me on every shopping trip. I’ll be able to see and review them regularly. I’ll put them into regular use. And hopefully a year from now, I’ll remember that I wrote this post, and I’ll let you know how it worked out.

Tidying Up as Spiritual Practice Part 2: Books, Intuition, and Letting Go

I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. My mom sometimes tells the story about the time she and my dad brought my newborn sister home from the hospital. I was three years old. My parents had concerns about me being jealous, and had read in a parenting book that the father should carry the new baby in so the mother can greet the older child (or children) with open arms. My aunt was in the middle of reading to me when my parents arrived home with the baby. My mom was prepared to embrace me. Instead, when they walked in the door, I barely looked up. I said to them, “Just a minute, I’d like to finish this book.” Clearly, the passion had already started to take hold. 

About 33% of the way done. (I lost the photo of the before picture when I unexpectedly had to wipe my phone.)

About 33% of the way done. (I lost the photo of the before picture when I unexpectedly had to wipe my phone.)

My mom is a librarian. She and my dad started reading to me the day they brough me home from the hospital. My sister and I could always expect a stack of nice new books at Christmas and on our birthdays. I started writing poetry when I was twelve years old. I got a B.A. and M.A. in English literature, and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Even though I no longer had most of my childhood books, and even with the occasional culling of my library whenever I moved apartments, by the time I turned 35 I had amassed a huge collection… and most of it was in the to-be-read pile. When I started Marie Kondo’s tidying up process this year, I estimated that 2/3 of my books had never been read. I had an entire cedar chest in my closet filled to the lid with untouched books, a large bin of books next to my bed, and a pile on top of that bin almost as tall as me.  

Tidying up my clothes was relatively easy. I’ve never had the same attachment to clothes that I’ve had to books. I spent nearly two hours digging up all my books and placing them in piles in my living room floor, dreading the inevitable process of sorting through them. I had to accept that, if I was going to take this seriously, I was probably going to give away a lot of unread books. At first, I felt anxious. I had some serious FOMO going on. But as I stacked the books in piles that came up to my hips, I realized that many of these unread books had been sitting tucked away for four or five years. What was the point of holding onto these books when I clearly showed no evidence of reading them? If I hadn’t made reading them a priority yet, would I ever get around to them? How could something spark joy just sitting in a crate? And what was the point of keeping books that were never going to fulfill their purpose, which was to be read? Better to let them go into the homes and libraries of people who would actually enjoy them.

A point of clarity: there has been a lot of hubbub on the internet about Marie Kondo ostensibly telling people they should limit their personal libraries to only 30 books. That’s not entirely true. Kondo says 30 books is what turned out to be the right number for her. While she does clearly skew toward minimalism, she also recognizes that some people will be their happiest surrounded by many books. She elaborates on this point more in Spark Joy, her follow-up book. I haven’t counted the number of books I have left after the tidying process, but it’s definitely more than 30. It’s not the hard number that matters; it’s that you’re comfortable with your personal library.

I spent eight days tidying up my book collection, investing 1-3 hours a day in the process. Marie Kondo recommends doing every category in one fell swoop, but I had so many books, her advice just wasn’t realistic. Still, I think breaking the process up into chunks actually helped me. Trying to go through all my books at once would have been exhausting, and ultimately, I probably wouldn’t have made the best decisions. Being able to return to the project fresh each day helped me approach my books with fresh eyes.

I applied the process of determining what sparked joy, I had the opportunity to reflect on what that meant for me. On some level, the spark of joy can’t be explained rationally; on some level, it’s intuitive. But many of us in this world have been cut off from our intuition as the result of contemporary life. Some of us have work we need to do in order to be able to access our intuitive selves. The tidying process is one that has helped me with that. Tidying books has been particularly effective. The more I dove into the process, the easier it was for me to let my instincts come forward to help me decide.    

The books that stayed.

The books that stayed.

One of the things I’ve learned from this process is how to be less judgmental of what people choose to have in their homes. My boyfriend’s house isn’t messy, but it’s definitely full. All of his walls have beautiful art. Every table and dresser has some sort of decorative object. He has collections of masks, musical instruments, seashells, and music from his travels. He has three whole walls filled floor-to-ceiling with books; he has another shelf that’s floor-to-ceiling with records. I’ve often teased him about how much stuff he has. But as I’ve gone through the work of tidying up my own space, I’ve been able to see his home from a new perspective. It’s not the way I would choose to decorate. But I’ve started to see how having an office full of books and records really does bring him joy. I’ve started to understand how much he values each and every object on his coffee table and his desk. I’ve come to appreciate the effort he’s made to organize his art collection just so. We’re never going to share the same interior aesthetic. But I can still see how his home brings him joy. Far be it for me to tease him about what makes him happy.

As of this writing, summer travel and reentry have interrupted my tidying process. The project remains unfinished, but I plan to continue it this week, and continue updating as I go.

Tidying Up as Spiritual Practice Part 1: My Life as an Unrepentant Slob

I can’t recall a time in my life when I was tidy. Not for want of trying. When I was a child, I was expected to clean my room, but the end result never seemed to last more than a few hours. My mom was frequently exasperated by the state of my closet. While I did make an effort to straighten up every weekend, my drawers were perpetually overfilled, and my closet truly was a disaster.

 Admittedly, while I went through the motions of cleaning, I honestly didn’t care much about being tidy, beyond not wanting to get in trouble at home. In college, I full-on embraced my slovenly ways.

Confession: I haven’t made my bed since 2006 except for visits home. Even now, deep in the KonMari method, I have yet to make my bed in the morning. But as of this writing, I’m only about halfway through the process. So perhaps there’s still hope.

I was truly the worst person to live with. My second year of grad school in Cleveland, I lived in a house with four other women. One was tidier than the rest of us. She became so frustrated by the mess in the house that she decided to institute a chore chart. I refused to participate.  

Confession: the only reason I got out of it was because we hosted a party, got drunk, wrestled, and I won. I was pretty pleased with myself at the time. Now, I look back, and I repent. I was not a fun person to share a space with. I doubt Kathryn Anderson is ever going to see this, but I extend a much-belated apology nonetheless.

I went from grad school to being married. My then-husband wasn’t much neater than I was. We would clean whenever we hosted a party, but that was it.

About halfway through my marriage, it occurred to me that keeping a clean house was something adults were supposed to do. Yet, as I mentioned, he and I were both slobs. We were also unhappily married, financially unstable, and cycling between bouts of unemployment, underemployment, and jobs that demanded more than 40 hours a week. Some people create order in their homes as a way to resist the chaos of life. Our home simply fell prey to the rest of the chaos in our lives. 

I got divorced 15 days after my 30th birthday. Still a financial trainwreck, I moved in with a very nice stranger from Craigslist. Suddenly entering into a roommate situation, remembering what a pill I’d been to my last roommates, I was determined to do better. I was determined to be a tidy person.

 Clearly, that didn’t work out, because it’s five years later, and I’m writing this.

 I first heard about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up soon after it was published in 2014. One of my friends got the book, loved it, and recommended it to me. I was definitely not ready to hear it. I’d very recently upended my life and gotten rid of so much stuff as part of the divorce process. I was also at a point in life where I wasn’t experiencing much in the way of joy. I was not in a place to be receptive to the KonMari message. In fact, I forgot all about it.

When the Tidying Up Netflix special launched in December of 2018, I spent several days unable to avoid mention of the KonMari method. Everyone had an opinion. At first, I was irritated that everyone had an opinion. Who cares about a cleaning show? I asked myself. Why is this worth arguing over? If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. And also I am not getting rid of my books. Ever.

Then, however, I became curious. Were the people claiming I could only have 30 books perhaps taking things out of context? Was this method really as extreme as people claimed?

Perhaps it was that extreme, and I needed that in order to finally have a neat, organized home?

And so, in mid-April, I began the process of tidying up. I also read both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, and watched a few episodes of the Netflix special. As of this writing, I’m maybe halfway through. I’ve gotten through clothes, books, and papers. Now I’m working on miscellaneous items. It feels like the end is nowhere in sight. But I’m also finding great value in the process.

Spoiler alert: I actually got rid of most of my books!

 What I’ve learned so far:

1. This is not a perfect system that will work for everyone

And that’s okay. No system is perfect. No system will work for everyone. I’m not even going to try to convince my boyfriend to try this. It really won’t mesh with his style.

2. If you are chronically messy, this might be the system for you

Obviously, I still have a long way to go, but I can tell the process is changing my approach to how I think about and treat my belongings.

3. This system does require a degree of privilege

That’s my biggest complaint about it. Marie Kondo really does not seem to be aware of the extent to which this method will not work for people who are financially insecure, or who live in remote areas and thus need a lot of stuff, because you are an hour away from the nearest anything.

4. That being said, you don’t actually have to get rid of utilitarian items

The second book, Spark Joy, addresses the fact that you do need practical things in your life even if they don’t necessarily spark joy. Marie actually admits she’s made the mistake of getting rid of things she genuinely needed.  

5. Nor do you need to go full-on minimalism and you can have more than 30 books

Marie Kondo is a minimalist, but truly, you could have a maximalist aesthetic and still fit within the system. And the thing about only having 30 books? That’s her preference, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. Anyone who tells you otherwise took that out of context.

6. The second book, Spark Joy, is better than the first

It’s more comprehensive, and really clarifies things. I do think you need to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up first to really get the framework, but provided you liked that one, definitely read Spark Joy.

7. The method is worthy of criticism; please read at least one of the books before you criticize

So much about the method is taken out of context, and the content on the Netflix special is really watered down. The first book is a fast read. Just know what you’re criticizing before you go off on it. 

8. This method really is about clarifying your relationship and attachments to your possessions

And that’s why it speaks to me. It’s not really about purging. It’s really about asking yourself why you choose to keep things. And, by extension, considering why you’ve held on to things you didn’t really like. That, for me, has been a very worthwhile endeavor.

This is literally just random stuff I fished out of all the bags and purses I had lying around.

This is literally just random stuff I fished out of all the bags and purses I had lying around.

There’s more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop for now. Stay tuned as I work through the process!