Everybody's straightening like it's a commercial

Dawn McCarra Bass

March 17, 2016

Marie Kondo is the gentle ruler of an empire built on a most unusual foundation. Her Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, published in the US in 2014, is still at the top of the New York Times bestseller list — right above her just-released Spark Joy. She was one of Time Magazine’s People of the Year in 2015. Her immense popularity has drawn coverage in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and countless articles and blog posts — both adulating and irritated — across the internet.

In the ultimate compliment, Marie Kondo has even transcended grammar: her name has become a verb, “to Kondo,” meaning to let go of that which no longer pleases. It’s a lot of fuss over an instruction manual for filling our Goodwill bags.

Why this, why here, why now? Maybe it’s not surprising that in this era of Instagram, Food52, and Apartment Therapy, a book that promises a Dwell-worthy living space has fans. And yet there’s something more here, something that our surface-happy, spirit-hungry culture can’t leave alone. Something less about what we own, and more about what owns us.

I first encountered Tidying Up in early 2015. In the middle of the journey of my life, a string of unhappy accidents brought all of my possessions into a single room in my tiny apartment. Peeled from the carapace of shelf and drawer, they became a new entity. This new creature completely filled the living room. It was naked and tender and vulnerable. I hurt for it. And frequently hurt myself on it.

For weeks I tried to tame the monster. New bookshelves lined the hallway, at the cost of the cartilage in my boyfriend’s left shoulder. (It only brought us closer.) I scrubbed the kitchen raw, added more storage, more space to shelter. But the tangle of stuff still glowered at me every time I moved. Sad? Scared? Sulking? I couldn’t read its mood, but it definitely wasn’t joyful. My belongings had a secret identity: Apart, their petty resentments and neglects were pinpricks. Together, they were a zeitgeist.

This is where, in a classic self-help story, Marie Kondo would step in and, with a few well-placed and transformative directives — ideally in a list of three or seven or ten — Save My Marriage. But her star was only starting to rise, not yet visible from where I sat hunkered with the beast.

Without a guide, but determined, I released more than half my stuff into the wild, through consignment shops, donations, and one grisly trip to the transfer station. By touching every item that I owned, one by one, I learned how to recognize the spark of joy that signals the essential: something beloved now; something needed for the future; something that’s holding a bit of the past safe, where memory can’t overwrite it.

And when I finally read Tidying Up, with its injunctions to keep only what “sparks joy,” to let nothing stay hidden, to treat possessions with respect and dignity, there was a spark — this one of recognition.

Five years ago, my boyfriend’s father died. It was not unexpected (if you’re not expecting death, you haven’t been paying attention), but it was untimely. Within months, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This too, is not unusual — it’s a bittersweet reality that strong partnerships mask the gradual loss of acuity and capability that comes with dementia. And that when those partnerships are broken, the mask is ripped away.

Over the next year, her mind emptied. Far more rapidly than we thought. And even more mercilessly. What’s terrifying about dementia, other than everything, is the sweeping disorder that comes as memory decays. It's not just the things that are lost: faces and names; places you meant to travel; how to get home if you walk out farther than a block. It’s the things that stumble drunkenly where they were never meant to be. And the almost-right connections.

  • Exhibit A: Take-out food wrapped in a plastic bag, tucked into the oven for re-heating.
  • Exhibit B: A frantic search through every drawer in the house for “the names of all my friends.”
  • Exhibit C: Garbage hurled over the bluff and onto the beach, which, outside the scope of memory, no longer truly exists.

Questions before the jury: Whether to tell a woman that she has cancer, when she barely understands that she has Alzheimer’s disease. Whether to put someone who can’t remember to eat through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Whether, at this dark moment, you and your boyfriend can joke about the Beastie Boys (Adam Yauch — MCA — died of the same cancer) and still be good people.

The twelve angry men had it relatively easy.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy both offer simple instructions that promise sweeping change. With Poppins-like authority, Kondo instructs us in how to sort, fold, and organize our way to a tidier, better-curated home, mind, and life.

In this, her books are typical of the self-help genre. Such books tell us what’s wrong with us and then tell us how to fix it — and like any good snake-oil salesman, they attract large and polarized crowds.

Sometimes, though, through insight or accident, they tell us more. And that’s why Marie Kondo — though she does attract a crowd, and she does polarize (creating “a backlash, and then a backlash against the backlash,” as the New York Times points out) — has such staying power.

Eccentric and at times silly, Kondo nonetheless speaks directly to our magpie selves — and to the deep, hidden memory of carrying household gods through a burning city. Things matter. Some things matter a lot.

After his mother’s death, my boyfriend was left with his own monster to hurt for and to be hurt by: a vacant home in a small Washington town and the ample possessions of two lost lifetimes. Whether the size of the monster was equal to the gap where his parents used to be is not open to measure.

And this is where you (if you are a bereaved son) learn what “things” really are, or at least what humans invest in them. Now you have the things that remind you of your parents (an enameled salad bowl, a jar of salal berries). The things your parents treasured for the memories they held (a cheerleader’s uniform, letters from a courtship). You have shelf after shelf of books, pages carefully marked, the only remaining map to what your parents thought and cared about and hoped for (writer’s guides, travel books, meticulous family histories). There are too many of these things to be kept. But these are the only things that can be.

And when you (if you are the girlfriend of the bereaved) find your boyfriend in the upstairs bedroom, sorting hundreds of rubber bands into piles by shape and color, you do understand. These small, useless things don’t spark joy. These small, useless things can be managed and, once fully known, discarded.

Books in this review:
  • The Life-changing Magic of Tidying
    by Marie Kondo
    Random House
    December 31, 2013
    248 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Dawn McCarra Bass is associate editor at the Seattle Review of Books and co-director of the Pocket Libraries program, which channels high-quality donated books to people with limited access to reading. By day, she's the founder of Mightier, a small consulting firm where women solve problems creatively, collectively.

Follow Dawn McCarra Bass on Twitter: @despra

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