Marie Kondo’s oh-so-joyous cleaning revolution happened back in 2015 (thanks for the illustrated guide, Gwyneth!). But just this summer, I saw another dear friend of mine going through the process — first clothes, then books, then everything else, striving for that stripped-down life we’re all trying so hard to find in this era of AirSpace, that transnational span of faux-artisanal, bare-brick coffee shops emanating from Silicon Valley.
I was excited for my friend. Seeing Facebook pictures of her organization process was a welcome respite from the newborn babies that have taken over my feed lately. And it made me recall my own experience with Kondo’s book, a legitimate transformation that I think made me a wiser person and even a better feminist — as crazy and goopy as that sounds.
Hear me out. In 2015, I’d just finished graduate school, was getting into a new serious relationship. As a younger woman, I’d lived with three different boyfriends, each time moving out to leave behind a life that no longer “brought joy.” Sometimes I took lease obligations with me, even though that did not bring much joy either, but I’m a stickler for fulfilling legal obligations.
Now, on the verge of getting serious with my new guy, I was worried my boyfriend habit would leave me poverty-stricken and alone. As a newly-woke feminist quickly approaching the end of my twenties, I wondered if straight monogamous relationships were even possible. I was searching. My boyfriend went on a summer trip to Prague, and a poet friend of mine told me to get The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Maybe that’s why I trusted it — I knew she’d never pick up a bad book.
Here’s one passage I remember well.
One client in her twenties defined her dream as “a more feminine lifestyle.” … “What do you mean by a ‘feminine lifestyle’?” I asked. She thought for a long moment before finally responding. “Well, when I come home from work, the floor would be clear of clutter…and my room, as tidy as a hotel suite with nothing obstructing the line of sight. I’d have a pink bedspread and a white antique-style lamp. Before going to bed, I would have a bath, burn aromatherapy oils, and listen to classical piano or violin while doing yoga and drinking herbal tea. I would fall asleep with a feeling of unhurried spaciousness.”
Kondo helps her client achieve that “unhurried spaciousness,” successfully forming a home that matches her desires. In the world of KonMari, women seemed like quiet, particular organizers, tasked with management of family and home. At first I was put off by the stereotyping. I didn’t like Kondo’s writing style much either — her propensities are unabashedly feminine, clearly unaware of how an affinity for cleaning and organizing might be informed by gender roles.
At heart, though, the book is simple, and that was why I stuck with it. Or maybe it’s just that I was bored, and lonely, and longing for my cute boyfriend, trying not to drink so much in the long days of the Midwest summers between the university classes I was teaching at that time. I know I wanted to be better friends with the girl who recommended KonMari to me in the first place. And, at that time, I would have done anything to make my life feel rich and meaningful. How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama was even sitting there — right there! — on my bookshelf. But somehow, I went with this instead.
Anyway, you know the drill. Kondo asks you to sort through the stuff you own, consciously deciding what to keep, and what to throw out. Asking yourself “does this bring joy” is twee, I’ll admit, but it points out something important. The possessions you decide to own, says Kondo, should be selected according to your values.
As I threw out faded old clothes, I also released gifts from past boyfriends. There was a gold Buddha statue, a small circus elephant, and a Christmas stocking monogrammed with my name. From then on, I promised, I would only put in my apartment things this version of me chose. I was amazed by how much I had passively agreed to keep. Piles of canning jars with rusty metal lids. Lingerie with a lacy, see-through butt. A machine for making takoyaki I’d acquired in Japan and used once in the ten years since. Why did I still have this stuff? Each time I left a boyfriend, I wanted a clean start. But I ended up swimming around in the exact same self I’d had before.
For example, as a young girl, I learned by watching my mother and aunts that it’s important to make sure men are happy. I feared the consequences of not properly attending to my father and my other male family members, and I monitored their emotions and reactions, dead-set on smooth, invisible maintenance.
As I cleaned, I kept thinking about my boyfriend, who was far away in Prague. He had told me at the beginning of summer that he was going there alone, to sightsee before a conference. For months I imagined buying a ticket and meeting him during the trip. I’ve always wanted to Czech out Prague (sorry). But I didn’t want to invite myself along if his preference was to go solo. I tried to read him, to predict whether he wanted to go together. I couldn’t figure out what he wanted, and he ended up leaving without discussing it. Why didn’t I just come out and ask?
We talked about it later, and he said, “That would have been so much fun. You should have said something. I didn’t want to pressure you into spending the money.” I replied, “I didn’t want to piss you off.” After all this time, I was shocked I still had that relationship pattern with me. An old talisman I just couldn’t let go.
Interestingly, after I’d released the KonMari whirlwind on my own apartment, I recommended the book to many women friends and family members. I was always surprised when they were resistant, complaining they could “never go through with it.”
It reminded me of the times I’ve quietly suggested their patterns of interaction with men — particularly their husbands — are informed by rigid gender roles. It’s like I’m suggesting they get rid of these things that carry so much meaning, so many memories, they’re impossible to throw out.
Transformations are never as permanent as we want them to be. After he came back from Prague, my boyfriend and I did get serious, and since then we’ve had many conversations about communication, gender roles, and domesticity. But I still hate changing the subject from his work day to chores, or requesting that he change the kitty litter box without my reminding him each time. I still feel for a moment like I’m putting my entire relationship on the line, this weird anxiety motivating me to stay silent and hang onto my resentments. But in the same way Kondo recommends we ask ourselves “Does this bring joy?” I’ve learned to ask myself “Does this fit my values?” And I value a relationship where conversations about Prague and kitty litter are possible.
Tidying up is a constant process, and it’s not necessarily work we want to do. Nobody likes attending to the fractured, plastic leavings of an entrenched consumer culture. When other women resist doing so, I don’t blame them. Nor do I hate them for succumbing to internalized patriarchy sometimes (Roxane Gay, thanks for reminding us it’s okay to be a Bad Feminist). Some of us are moms. Others are enterprising millennials busy building our social media brands. We don’t all have time to go through the house and throw out what we don’t need or want.
But what I learned from KonMari is that you can and should make time to ask yourself, “Does this life fit my values?” And if you’re tempted to ask your husband (or your startup) what your values are, maybe you should try talking to Marie Kondo instead.