Don’t mess with Marie: tidying up with author and Netflix star Marie Kondo
(Published in the UK Guardian & Observer, Dec. 30, 2018)
I am flying across America to meet Marie Kondo, a diminutive Japanese Mary Poppins who transforms people’s lives by helping them to tidy their homes. Below, cities blossom and sprawl: millions of homes in which people fight, make love, cook, pick their nose, watch TV, and accumulate clutter. Kondo has been in a few of them, kneeling to offer respect to the house before helping those who live there to purge, throwing out anything that does not spark joy. On the plane, I listen to the audiobook of her best-selling tome, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. It is easy to see why it has sold 10 million copies. Kondo has hitched tidying to the bandwagon of well-being, and is prone to saying things like, “Putting your house in order is the magic that creates a vibrant and happy life.” And: “To go throughout life without knowing how to fold is a huge loss.” I would like to have a vibrant and happy life. I would like to know how to fold. Making order from disorder feels like a balm for these turbulent times.
Like a lot of messy people, I first heard about Kondo through my other half, who hoped it would cure my hoarding tendencies. Did I want to be cured? Not enough, perhaps, since I had waited until now to read her book. When I told a friend that I was interviewing Kondo, she responded, “Omg, my sister-in-law read Marie’s book & basically made my brother get rid of everything… and now she uses “Kondo” as a verb, as in “we Kondo’ed our living room and now instead of books & personal effects, we only have a bare floor.” This is a pretty good summation of Kondo’s method, in which people end up discarding 75 percent of their belongings, maybe more. For accumulators like me, it’s the equivalent of going cold turkey.
My last surviving grandmother died in September, and I thought of the way she had reduced the things in her life until they barely filled the few rooms in which she lived. Kondo would approve. My grandmother raised five children in a council house, and was supremely unsentimental about her possessions. If they weren’t useful, out they went. She knew how to fold. She did not greet her home by crouching on the floor and acknowledging its beneficence. She did not thank her shoes for their hard work. After her death, I was able to choose a few small mementoes — one of her needlepoints; a plate; an unremarkable tea caddy. They would all meet Kondo’s threshold for sparking joy. But what about the First World War trench spade that I recently found on eBay, with its handle on which someone’s initials were engraved? What about the voluptuous blue milk jug that I tracked down, after reading about its designer, Eva Zeisel. “Why” was all my husband could muster, when I pushed it onto a shelf with the rest of my bric-a-brac. And what would Kondo say about my childhood collections of bookmarks and shells and badges and tins and old bottles and — yes, really — sweet wrappers that I somehow imagined gifting to a museum one day?
Inside a Spanish-style 1920s home in West Hollywood, a young woman is energetically pointing me towards a bottle, its label splotched with grease. “It’s a probiotic vinaigrette with pine pollen and charcoal,” she explains. We are at a long wooden table dotted with glass jars of pale blue anemones that might be made of silk. At one end three women tap at laptops; at the other is a spread of salad greens, baby roast potatoes, cuts of poached salmon and marinated tofu. There are dips with gluten-free crackers, but no bread. Through the sliding glass doors, a pool glints prettily in the afternoon sun. I am offered a drink, and request a Coke. My host’s face creases into a portrait of regret. “We’re a wellness company,” she explains. I settle for water.
We are waiting for Marie Kondo to materialize. Her book is four years old, but there has been another since, and a new show on Netflix aims to amplify its message of transformation through tidying. Each episode is bookended with Kondo arriving on the threshold of an untidy home and departing 30 minutes later, leaving miracles in her wake. Tears are shed, marital strains resolved, and garbage bags of stuff are carted to the charity shop, destined to become someone else’s crap. Kondo, who has trademarked her system as the “KonMari Method,” is rare among organizing professionals for rejecting so-called storage solutions. She is not trying to sell anything except her manual for tidying. Even that, she suggests, can be discarded once it’s fulfilled its purpose. She is especially hard on books, preferring to keep hers in a cupboard. Book left on shelves for a long time are likened to a “praying mantis lurking in the grass.” The KonMari Method ™ requires participants to work through a hierarchy of possessions: clothes first, books second, then papers, miscellany (Kondo uses the Japanese word Komono), and finally sentimental items. But in the episodes of the show I watched, we never see anyone sorting through books — the emphasis always seems to be on clothes and the kitchen.
When Kondo, beaming and immaculate in a cream ribbed sweater and subtle makeup, enters the room she is holding a mug of herbal tea, something of a signifier in her book for well-being. I clap my hands and say, “Herbal tea of course!” to show that I’ve done my research, but my bright enthusiasm sounds forced and is followed by a silence. Kondo speaks only a little English. I do not speak Japanese. So, we sit in a room with a translator and Mallory, a member of the KonMari team who is keen for me to know that the story has evolved beyond tidying. Later I receive an email in which she explains that “we’re building a lifestyle brand around Marie’s philosophy.” There is a new website, on which guest contributors like Arianna Huffington gives tips on sleeping, and the inevitable YouTube channel. In an introductory video, we see Kondo making matcha tea, playing with her children on the beach, and doing something healing with a crystal and a magnet. “If you want to lead a life that sparks joy,” she says, “there is only one thing you must do, and that is to tidy your home.” If it all makes you think of Gwyneth Paltrow’s phenomenally successful Goop that’s the partly the point. “I think that would be a great model,” Mallory concedes.
When she was five, Kondo began reading home magazines. She was, to put it mildly, obsessed. There were no windows in her 100-square foot room, so she cut out images from calendars and stuck them to her wall to simulate the vistas she wanted. When I ask what kind of pictures, she thinks back. “A beautiful sky, a forest, and then a picture of a window with a flower box,” her translator says. Visualizing the home that you want to inhabit, and by extension the life you want to live, is a key step in KonMari. Taking cues from her five-year old self, Kondo suggests we look through magazines to see what sparks joy. “Is it a pink flower in a vase, or is it the color purple? Then you have to think: What can I do to make my home look more like that photo?” At 15, still in junior high school, Kondo looked at her collection of scented erasers and tossed them out, along with five trash bags of clutter. The erasers, collected in kindergarten, had moldered in a box for a decade. Why had she held on to them so long? They were like those piles of photos we all have, sitting in boxes, awaiting the day we finally resolve to put them in albums. Kondo was preternaturally wise. She knew that no such day would ever come.
Although joy is her benchmark for determining what to keep, Kondo in person seems less militant about her method than her book suggests. When I run through the list of my childhood collections she is sympathetic. “A lot of people hit a roadblock because they feel they have to throw something away, but that’s not the point,” she says. “It’s about understanding what needs to go versus what’s important to you.” Meaning I get to keep my sweet wrappers? “Of course!” she replies, but then adds, confusingly, “Many people have a lot of important items they want to keep but you should push off the most difficult things to the very end.” Even photographs, for Kondo, are vessels for nostalgia. Holding on to them may prevent us from moving forward. She tells stories of clients who flourished after KonMari-ing their home. A publicist for a luxury fashion magazine believed she had the perfect job until Kondo entered her home. “None of the clothes she had sparked joy — they were all $2000 jackets from big brands, expensive clothes,” recalls Kondo. “She realized her job didn’t spark joy and she’s now a freelance writer who travels all around the world.” Then, perhaps noticing that she’d drawn a portrait of a rich privileged woman doing privileged things, she says, “Actually, something that’s even deeper for me is couples who are on the verge of getting divorced, who went through the KonMari process, and were able to realize that there was so much joy between them.” Sometimes, too, it can go the other way. “I’ve seen cases where people broke up, and needed to break up, and some cases where they split and came back together.”
Before parting, I ask Kondo if she can think of a bad habit that she’s not been able to purge. She frowns hard and gives the question some thought, turns to the translator and blushes as if confessing a shameful secret. The translator turns to me, and says, “I love wearing slippers, but I take them off in random places around the house — I can’t keep them on for very long, so they’re scattered.” We all laugh a little too loudly.
Back in New York, I walk through my door, remove my shoes, and thank them. And then I look at the disordered surfaces, the piles of unread magazines. My heart sinks. Kondo had conceded that for creative people clutter can be a good thing, but cautioned that it was not an endorsement for excess. What was the right level of clutter for me? The next morning, as instructed, I pile my bed high with all the clothes from my closet, and hold each in turn. It is not perfect — I keep my practical but joyless white shirts — but I end up with a pile of 40 or so garments ready to recycle. Over the next few days I find myself creating homes for possessions that have wandered forever around the apartment like nomads. I gather all the loose change that has accumulated on various surfaces ($8.17)) and take it to the bank, and discard all the pens that no longer work. But I avoid tackling my books. We all have too much stuff, that much is clear, but we’re cluttered in other ways, too, submerged in our social media, bombarded by advertising, overloaded with email. My books feel like an antidote to that. They might represent more stuff, but they’re tactile, poetic, ghosts from the past. Aren’t material things also a mooring amid the tenuousness of so much else? Do we all want to live in homes that feel like hotel rooms? There is clutter we want to shed from our lives, but there is also clutter we want to embrace. In time, like my grandmother, I may come to find those books, that pretty blue milk jug, and that century-old trench spade a burden. But that time is not now.