“If you feel you don’t have enough, you hold on to things. . . . But if you feel you have enough, you let go of things.” – Garth Stein, A Sudden Light (Simon & Schuster 2014).
One of my intentions after quitting my job in December 2015 was to declutter my house. So after throwing myself a party and spending the following week consuming party leftovers and rereading Harry Potter, it was time to declutter. Except I was stumped on how to tackle this monumental task. My friend and coworker Nan saved the day by giving me a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press 2014). Here was someone who could tell me how to go about this. I spent a couple days reading the book and then began.
First, Kondo instructs you to think about how you want to feel in your home and why. She says, “Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” I thought about it, then wrote:
I want to simplify my life – less clutter, fewer choices, more time and more freedom, less to clean and worry about. I want to live a life I don’t want to escape from. I want my home to feel simple and light, easy to move through because there’s space. Why? So I have more time to do things I enjoy, so I don’t feel weighed down by so much stuff. So I can feel free.
Next, Kondo says you must work by category, not by room, and begin with things most people have a lot of: clothes and books. I draped all my clothes on the living room furniture and made a huge pile on the floor of those clothes that didn’t “spark joy.” Although Kondo says discerning what sparks joy and what doesn’t is easy, I found that not to be true. My head got into the game and I overthought things. But what I knew was that I was tired of having to swap the contents of the closets in my house or haul up clothes from bins in the basement when the seasons changed, and that I no longer needed all those suits I’d worn as an attorney. The reality is that I wore very few of my clothes and that my change in lifestyle, as well as my intention for simplicity and freedom, dictated that all my clothes fit in the dresser and closet in my bedroom.
Two of Kondo’s ideas that I fell in love with were that our things have energy and want to be used; if we are not using them, best to pass them on to someone who will, and that we should ask our things where they want to be placed. When I finished sorting through the books stashed haphazardly on the bookshelf in my office (while still doing battle with the illusive “spark of joy”), I asked the remaining books where they wanted to be placed. I was surprised to learn they had no desire to be returned to the bookshelf and wanted to be housed in the cabinet of the built-in hutch in my dining room. The hutch contained many dishes that I only occasionally – or never – used. Before I could put the books away, I had to go through the cabinets, which was quite easy to do as none of the dishes held any sentimental value for me. I had intended, with all the zeal of someone who has lived a compartmentalized life, to place the books on one side and the dishes on the other side of the cabinet, until my friend Becky suggested I intermingle them. My word! “First I quit my job as an attorney to go to massage school, and now I let my books and dishes fraternize, what will happen next?” I quipped. The effect was surprisingly pleasing and makes me smile whenever I look at the hutch.
What about the energy of things? One thing I possessed that I knew I could no longer hang onto was the baby blanket made upon my birth by a friend of my grandparents. It sat atop a shelf in my office closet, unused and unwanted. I have no children, nor do I want any, and the same goes for my siblings. But it felt wrong to just drop this handmade blanket in another bag for Goodwill, so when a dear friend announced she was expecting her first baby, I washed the blanket and gave it to her to celebrate this new life. (And I dearly hope that if she doesn’t use it and is reading this that she passes it on without a bit of guilt!)
Kondo cautions that you shouldn’t let your family interfere with the process because they will try to keep things or talk you out of getting rid of them. As the only human in my household, you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem, but it turns out my cat Bonnie has hoarder tendencies. I kept a bag in the basement of pet-related items I planned to donate to a local shelter, but Bonnie dug through the bag and brought things back up to the main level. One by one she brought 4 toy balls back up from the basement, yowling all the way; when I put them in a baggie and returned them to the basement, she carried the whole baggie back up. And so it went with other items she apparently objected to donating. We reached a compromise: she could keep the balls but the rest had to go.
Another caution: resist the urge to foist your unwanted stuff onto your loved ones. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, Surely so-and-so would want this! Maybe. Or maybe I was just relieving my guilt about discarding an item by passing it on to someone else. Only last week, another friend and Kondo devotee offered me something she didn’t want and thought I might like. I politely declined because it was something I didn’t want or need.
Of all the things in my house, it was a set of wooden spoons that stymied me in the early days of this process. I have a set of 5 wooden spoons, 2 of which I use a lot, 1 on occasion, and 2 only to fish out cat treats that roll under the stove. I knew I only needed 2 of them and had parted easily with many other kitchen items. There was no sentimental value whatsoever. But I had quit my job and would be living off savings and the little bit of money coming in from teaching yoga. What if I gave away these spoons but then needed them someday? What a waste of money to go purchase new ones! This is the same thinking that compelled me to keep so many unlikely things like shoestrings, twist ties, empty boxes, plastic bags, free samples of everything. What if I need it someday? was a constant refrain in my head.
I wrangled quite a bit over those damn spoons, trying to reason with myself that a few wooden spoons would not keep me from poverty. I hate to admit it but I held on to them for another year. Maybe more. Kondo explains this phenomenon so well: “[W]hen we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” I kept the spoons but used the boxes and bags to donate items. And a friend filling purses with items for women in shelters used my free samples.
That point about attachment and fear held true when I returned to decluttering a year later. I had done the easy stuff before I began massage school: clothes, books, music, kitchen items, and paper files. (Oh the paper! Purchase agreements for cars I hadn’t owned for over 15 years, student loan paperwork – all things that had to be shredded – which I happily deposited at a local church that accepted donations in exchange for shredding.) I thought I would return to the other things on the list throughout the year but ended up doing very little, other than jewelry and decorative items. So, 12 months later I had to pick up where I left off: mementos and the stuff in my basement. I finally sat down with my childhood artwork, my high school memorabilia, my Air Force medals. It was not the spark of joy that guided me through these things but my own intention for simplicity and freedom. I winnowed my memories down to one box of memorabilia.
It has helped to realize that a year later I’m still here, in my home, not living out of my car with my pets. I have survived veterinary bills, home and car repairs, yet I’m still not knocking at poverty’s door. When I began talking about this book over a year ago, someone asked me what the magic was? Did you wave a wand and all your stuff disappeared? It’s far more subtle I’m afraid. The magic is in figuring out what you want your home and your life to feel like, what drives you to acquire and hold onto things, and what it takes to let them go.
One of my biggest objections to Kondo’s book is her instruction to throw things out. The thought of all that waste appalls me! Instead, I have done my best to donate and recycle as much as I can. Every load, even the little things – like old eyeglasses – made me smile and whisper, “Thank you,” because it all makes my life and my home simpler and more free while perhaps enhancing the life of another.
“Freedom” is my intention for 2017. It’s the word that will guide my actions this year as “adventure” did last year. Releasing the stuff I no longer need also allows me to make room for new things in my life, like my own yoga and massage business that I will launch next month.
© 2017 Rachel Regenold
Question for reflection: What compels you to hold on to things (or relationships or jobs or anything, really) that you no longer use or need?