security, poverty, and the magical art of enough: reflections on Marie Kondo’s work

Posted on January 23, 2019 by

And why not spark joy?

I don’t think my objection has ever been about “sparking joy”.  Unlike legions of her critics, I myself have been using a similar test for over ten years: “Do you love it?  Do you need it?  Then why do you have it?”

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My stuff is still sometimes overwhelming.
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There are a variety of reasons for that.  Sometimes I’m living in a quite small space, or one ill-suited to the things I’m doing. Sometimes I have moved fast, or in the throes of grief and heartache, which is not a time to make any decisions about joy.  I series of such moves has left me with storage units containing remnants of past lives while I try to figure out what space my current life will occupy.  And sometimes I don’t have much money.
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Even with just the things of my current life, I can get overwhelmed.  My one 13×15 room with a small closet serves as office, art studio, video studio, bedroom, guest room, partial pantry, storage space, and more.  My kitchen doesn’t have to fit in here, nor does my bathroom, and I occasionally store things in my car.  But that’s a lot of activities to fit in my space.
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It has its advantages.  For one thing, my rent is manageable.  For another, I have to consider very carefully bringing another object into the room.  Although I am one of the people who scoffed at the idea of 30 books, my current active collection of print books is very small (I just counted: ten–wait, no, eleven).  I tend to read books once, and move on.  The exception are professional and reference books, which I prefer to read in paper and reference by the location of the text on the page spread.  And a number of years ago I took a good, hard look at my religious texts from graduate school and realized they were not only going to be hell to store or move, but that they were perpetuating white supremacy in my studies and consequently in my work.  I can look them up if I need them.  I kept a few unique Bible translations, a study Bible marked up from class, and a handful of others.  I left all the rest of them at the free stuff room at the dump.
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It was liberating.  Hard, but liberating.
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Before that, when I still had the one house I’ve ever owned, I had at one time taken a tall bookcase and shelved only the books I loved (do you love it or need it?  Okay then it goes here.) by subject.  I stood back when I finished, pleased and surprised that everything not in my office at the church had fit, and as I scanned that shelf I could see the entire evolution of my life, the way the whole of my days had pointed toward the career I was choosing at that moment–which I still have.
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It felt so…beautiful.  So clean, so pure, but also like such a justification.  It was a revelation that my life had not in fact been the chaotic, messy disaster I felt like the world around me saw, but a smooth ride toward an obvious result.  I had had some unusual schooling, but it led .here. and nothing could take that away.
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If I could go back to any moment of home, that would be it, the moment when I saw and felt my rightness in a home that I owned myself, that was just mine.
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My life did not unfold as I wish it had from that point–my feet were already tangled in the sheets that would pull me across the deck and overboard with the next big changed of wind.
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That is possibly the most frustrating thing about life for me, that planning is not possible–or rather it is, but that the kind of precise planning required of a tidied-up life is a direct result of privilege.
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And that is where I see the frustration and rage surface, more often than not.  It is only easy to release things if you are a monk or otherwise living in asceticism, or if you have at least some wealth.
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In all the furor, I read this article: (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/marie-kondo-white-western-audineces_us_5c47859be4b025aa26bde77c) which explains the Shinto roots from which Marie Kondo is likely coming.  It connects me to my own version of Kondo’s method (Do you love it?  Do you need it?) and the deeply embodied question of “joy” although after reading about the animism I wonder if it’s more like a positive connection with the soul of the object.  That’s what I look for, too, essentially: do I want this thing here or not, where wanting is about a felt sense of rightness.  But whether I want it or not, whether it feels right or not, whether it “sparks joy” (I’m really questioning the translation) or not, sometimes I keep a thing because I fear being unable to replace it.  I lack the complete faith in a provident God that some of my clergy colleagues have, and that lack of faith that I will have what I need in the future is a direct and clear result of my relationship not to stuff, but to money.
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The few times I have done a thorough decluttering I have been crushed to discover, sometimes mere weeks later, that the thing I was so sick of is the exact thing I need for an emergency, task, or project at hand…and that I cannot at that moment purchase a new one.–nor do I think Kondo wants us to.  It is my sense that she wants us to keep just what we need, and remove everything else, like carving a statue from a block of stone.
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But here’s something else people don’t often say about poverty: it’s damned unpredictable. Things break more often; crises happen more often; because you can’t repair the tear it becomes a gaping hole and then the whole thing needs replacing more often.  At least in my circles the fierceness with which people fire back at the magical art of tidying up is often ringed with the soot and tears of poverty, of hanging on to the edges of their housing, of the tiny bits and bobs of comfort and security…and yes, joy…that have been possible over the years.  Often that’s embedded in and reflected by an accumulation of stuff–precious stuff–that doesn’t fit in the size spaces that we have (at least/especially not in the Bay Area).
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That stuff–mountain of clothes on the bed and all–represents the ways in which people with little money hang on to their identities and their humanity in a world built to strip it away at every turn.  If you need public assistance of any kind you’re not to have choice or pleasure, you’re not to have dignity, you’re not really fully human.
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The stuff is a bulwark against that.
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I’ve had the mixed blessing, this move, of rebuilding from scratch, buying only things that suit me right now.  My wardrobe is a mix of western and Indian clothes, masculine and feminine styling, which is exactly me.  My sweetheart says I glow–I thank her for helping me buy pieces that fit who I am right now.  I have a small handful of pieces from before, and of the whole wardrobe I have almost nothing goes unused.  A few things that I held over of the one suitcase full that arrived with me are getting ready for…some new life.  As I look at my sweaters I see one that is going to be glorious covered with applique flowers, and I know someone who will probably delight in doing it.  I have one shirt I bought two years ago that shrank and needs to go to some much smaller-bodied person.  Some of my underwear has worn and needed replacing, as have some of my t-shirts.  But never in my life have I replaced things because they were worn before–always something else has happened.  So this is a new moment.  A small wardrobe, rapid turnover, and–forget keeping–even buying for joy.
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And in this place, where I have bought a few things just because I wanted them–luxury!–I had a glorious moment about a month ago.  I had just purchased four saris for myself, after having gone to India and purchased six of saris for myself.  It felt like a lot of clothes for just-me, but also like an exercise in art and delight.  And with these four saris’ arrival, I felt a sudden sense of sufficiency.  Of satisfaction.  Somehow in that moment I didn’t .need. any stuff.  I had reached equilibrium.
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To be honest, I had never been sure if I would ever reach equilibrium.  Like people contemplating consequence-free bags full of Oreos, I had wondered if I would ever be able to stop.
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As it turns out, it’s not about being .able. to stop–it’s about noticing that feeling that you are done, and heeding it. In her first Netflix episode, Kondo has a moment–a pause in which she speaks directly to the camera, to you-the-viewer and not to the couple with whom she’s working–where she describes the feeling of “sparking joy” and how you get better at tuning into it as you go.  I’ve been practicing a long time, and noticing that quiet, calm, grounded, relief is not new to me, but I’d never had it with .stuff. before.  I have had material desires or needs for pretty much my whole life.
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When the clamoring in my head ceased, I took inventory.  How had I arrived here?
  • I have food and shelter that feel secure and safe.
  • I have transportation I can rely on.
  • I have clothes in good repair that are right for the weather and reflect me accurately to the world, in enough substance and variety that I can easily get dressed for most occasions.
  • I am warm enough and dry enough.
  • I have the tools I need to do my work easily (up-to-date computer, smartphone, video lighting, microphone) and anything I add is now an improvement–there is nothing the absence of which is an impediment to my work.
  • I have the tools for enough arts to keep my heart and soul fed and happy.
  • I have communication means to connect with the people who are dear to me.
  • I can visit my sweetheart and my grandmother enough to feel like I am connected to them.
  • But here’s the kicker: for two years now I have had a partner with enough income that she can share if I need backup, and which she does share to help support me.  With my partnership has come a shift in privilege, and that, more than anything, has relieved the desperation.
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I said to her with a kind of bewilderment, “I’m at a point where I don’t need anything else.”
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I also don’t have to keep .everything. “just in case.”  That said, I still keep some cardboard boxes on the top shelf of the closet.  You never know.
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How would this essay look different if she had not arrived in my life?  I don’t know, but I do know that staring down the barrel of life crises does not motivate me–it makes me freeze.  The odds that I would have magically made a million dollars by now are very slim.  The odds that I’d have this much stuff to consider the joy of?  Very slim.  The odds that I would have reached that sense of sufficiency, that internal signal that I don’t need anything else?  Almost zero.
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The tidying is wonderful.  It’s the virtue-signaling that goes with it–a kind of virtue-signaling that may well be woven into the cultural shift from Japan to the US and not present in the original concept–that sets my teeth on edge.  I have spent so many years surrounded by the message that chaotic spaces are morally bereft and therefore the humans that abide them are failing some fundamental test of functionality (and so often that poverty is tied to this failure), that one more highly-touted, tidying expert-made-guru hit the edge of my tolerance from the very beginning.  For me the key to beginning the process of tidying is always the release of judgment, the release of rules, the release of badness or wrongness of any kind.  Want to keep 300 books?  Then do.
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Need them for work?  Then keep them.  Need them for pleasure?  Then keep them.
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Of course Marie Kondo didn’t say “you must only keep 30 books”, because that makes no sense. She gives permission to keep exactly as many books as bring you joy.  Maybe that’s three. Maybe it is 300.  Say thank you to the rest, and bid them farewell.
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The funny thing is that Indians–half my heritage–are also very kind to certain objects, notably books.  If they are dropped the get apologized to; they are never put on the floor or treated disrespectfully.  Thanking something for serving me, for accompanying me?  Absolutely.  The grace, ease, and spaciousness of a process where one can release stuff whose presence with us is done looks like heaven in comparison to the tear-streaked hurried packing I’ve done, wracked with fear and self-loathing.
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Which brings me to the other thing: it’s not just about financial privilege, although that helps.  From my list I can see that it’s also about emotional and relational security.  The freedom of release is the freedom of knowing that something has your back, whether that something is yourself or someone else.  The community and social network I have is possibly the most valuable thing in my universe, and I don’t even control that.  It’s made of shifting sands, but I’m not building a house there, I’m swimming into the beach, and rocks are far less welcoming.  Knowing that my people are there, that I am loved and supported with incredible persistence and depth, makes everything else possible.  And as long as I live with integrity, that community tidies itself.
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Could my room be tidier, even with the relatively small collection of stuff I own?  Certainly.  Am I prioritizing that right now?  I am not. I’m focusing on other things for other needs, and I’m comfortable with that.  It is useful to consider whether what you have brings you joy, or is serving you well, and your choices go with that.  Someday when the time is right I will clear out the stash of cardboard boxes–or I will be vindicated when I need them.
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But not right now.  Right now, what I have is exactly, precisely enough.