I know my invitation may come as a surprise after all the snide comments I made about tidying in this blog. You have every right to be offended.
I read your book once, standing up, in the bookstore. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. (My approach saves the clutter of buying new books.)
Your message, which has been praised and parodied, was too austere for me. The word “tidying” made me think of “white gloves,” and “princesses,” who probably have more than they need, incidentally.
It was hard to accept tidying because I believed, and still do, that creativity can thrive in chaos. A life that is too strictly organized feels confined to the straight and narrow. I always find some moment of inspiration when I go through an old stack of papers, books, memorabilia, or the top drawer of my desk. Austin Kleon, whose book, Steal Like an Artist I love, would agree with me, by the way.
Why else would we be fascinated to rummage around in old attics, trusting that some magic could be found in the mess?
Once upon a time, I participated in a spiritual community that favored simple living before minimalist was a word. The teaching was to have no more and no less than you needed. Some participants were able to reduce their belongings to what could fit in a half dozen Tupperware boxes.
I succeeded at simplifying a bit, but I always rankled at the idea that I “should” let go of what I loved. I flunked the teaching.
That’s why Marie, I wasn’t well set up to enjoy “tidying.”
What turned me around to tidying
This weekend I binged watched your new Netflix series in the midst of Seattle’s once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) blizzard. I watched as you taught your approach to eight different households.
First off, thanks for picking a diversity of clients – not just affluent, straight, Caucasians. I counted African-Americans, Pakistani, Japanese-Americans, Caucasians, gays, married straights, married lesbians, and one widow, all at different stages of life. Their homes ranged from tiny apartments to big houses. You greeted all your clients with respect and a squeal of delight.
I once worked in Japan, so hearing you speak Japanese was a treat, as were the moments at the beginning of each consultation in which you’d sit in Zen-like silence, meditating to connect to the spirit of the home.
I was never good at tidying because I thought it meant austerity. Something that would be good for me to do. It brought as much joy as my mother did when I was eight and she made me stay inside on a sunny day and clean my room.
But now your words, “Does it spark joy?” are ringing in my head. Some may call them corny, but I think you’re in touch with something here. I started looking at my belongings in a new way.
I was so glad that you didn’t insist that your clients prepare themselves to sleep on woven tatami mats instead of beds, and keep their belongings in a closet tucked behind a couple of shoji screens, like my Japanese friends. You knew that wouldn’t work for people in the States. I loved watching the man, of Guatemalan parents, who was proud to have reduced his 165 pairs of sneakers to 45.
You seemed to understand what your clients were facing, not just with their stuff, but with the impact that their belongings had on their relationships. You helped them remember what was most important. Maybe that’s what I liked most about your show.
Giving tidying a try
With the blizzard burying our town, and no electric power, I started tidying my bathroom and then did my dresser. That question, “Does it spark joy for you?” shifted my mood, together with the process you suggest of always thanking your belongings for their service before you let them go. Crazy idea perhaps, but it made it much easier for me to give things away.
My belongings started speaking to me in new ways. I discovered items I had forgotten and felt like I was re-meeting old friends. I resolved to pay them more respect.
I admit, I took a few liberties with your system, and I followed more of a “let’s do what I can” process. I approached my book collections separately rather than heaping all my books together. I used a small-steps approach.
The hardest so far has been my vases. I study Ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers, so I can always justify getting another vase. But then I bet Imelda Marcos, the queen of obsessive shoe collections, could always justify buying a hundred more shoes. One by one, I asked the joy question to my vases and started letting some go.
Please be my Valentine
Sparking joy feels a bit like magic, and we need more of that today. Tidying feels like an invitation to feel the essence of things and to appreciate everything you have. Plus, it brought me joy.
I get so tired of reading about bad news that I am powerless to change. Tidying a drawer helped me to feel a little optimism again.
I know, Marie, that you’re probably not available to join me on Valentine’s Day. I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you a lot.
My real Valentine’s date will be my husband. I used your question and discovered that yes, he still brings me joy.