The Twitter world seems really stressed out by Marie Kondo right now. Since her new Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, launched on New Year’s Day, people have been discussing, disparaging, and misrepresenting her message in the name of clicks. This Meme-version of Marie Kondo hates possessions, hates books in particular, and hates you for having them. She’s trying to “optimise” us, insisting that everything we own must be perfectly useful and necessary, and we all must follow her message of simplicity or we fail as people, just as we fail for not all meditating or only eating homecooked gluten-free sugar-free vegan or whatever the Instagram-trendy “#lifegoals” quest of the moment is.
What nonsense. In a world where we are ceaselessly told what we should want and who we should be, where we are asked to brand ourselves on social media and compare the reality of our lives to the Instagram-worthy highlights of others’, Marie Kondo’s patient message of tidiness and joy is freeing. It’s revolutionary.
Marie Kondo’s method has nuance to it, but the simple version of it is this. Take everything you own, category by category. Pile it all up so you see how much you have, and then sort through it, piece by piece, deciding what you want to be part of your current life and what you are ready to part with. She uses the term “spark joy,” which is a pretty nebulous concept, but I take it as a way of reaching out to your instincts and your emotions and asking yourself, “Does this appear in the life I want for myself? Does it make me feel good? Or am I keeping it out of guilt or sadness or obligation? When I see it, do I feel inspired, or is it something more negative?”
As she says repeatedly in her book and her show, it’s not about getting rid of things. There’s no decluttering quota to meet, no rules on what you can and can’t have. It’s just about deciding what’s important to you personally, whatever that might be, and then organising things so everything has a home where you can easily enjoy it. She’s telling you, in her own quiet way — be selfish. Think about yourself. More of what you value, less of what you don’t. It’s a rejection of the capitalist need for more stuff, and the idea that the past controls us. We’re not bad for valuing things and keeping them… but we need to be sure we do value them, and then keep them in a way that lets us enjoy them fully.
Throughout the show, Marie Kondo never tries to optimise anybody, like machines at a factory, but instead encourages them to find themselves. She’s like a fairy, gentle and magical and somewhat ethereal, coming into people’s homes with such joy and enthusiasm, happy to hear the stories of their things, and be the ear that allows them to finally let go of the past. She’s non-judgemental, endlessly encouraging, and always so proud of the progress they make, even when they end up with just 10 boxes piled up in the bedroom instead of 30.
For me, when I first tried Marie Kondo’s tidying methods, the biggest roadblock, and most freeing discovery, was books. I saw myself as a writer and a reader, and writers and readers need to hoard books. I also had about 50 books on my shelf that I hadn’t read but that I meant to read, which made me feel guilty and overwhelmed every time I looked at them. In the end, I donated every single book I hadn’t got around to reading yet. If I ended up wanting to read them in the future, I reasoned, I’d get them from the library, or take the risk of buying them again. This was four years ago, and the only book I’ve ever had to reacquire was Anna Karenina — which I got from the library and didn’t finish that second time either.
For some people, as we see in the show, it’s clothes they want to fit into, but whose presence in their closet just makes them feel bad about themselves. Or it’s the possessions of someone who died, which they feel they must keep out of respect and love for the person, but which are so overwhelming that they can’t actually feel the good memories when they look at them.
By trimming things down, we can focus on what’s important and what we want. If my bookshelf has a few fave novels, Japanese and Korean books for my current level, and my D&D books, my focus is clear. Am I dressing in a way that makes me happy and feel good? Am I stressed from lack of space? What do I REALLY want to do with my time? For me, Marie Kondo is about all of those things — figuring out who you are and what’s important RIGHT NOW, clearing the cobwebs and past misfortunes away and looking to the present and the future.
And the show demonstrates that Marie Kondo’s method is also revolutionary in a much more mundane way, in a revolution we wish and sometimes assume is already complete. Many of the families featured in the show start out with a shockingly unfair divison of labour. There’s a dad who works full time and is angry that his wife, who is the full-time caretaker of two toddlers, does all the cooking and cleaning, and also works part-time, has hired outside help to do laundry. “I hate laundry,” she says apologetically, like she’s failed in some way instead of getting help to pull off a pretty miraculous task. We see a family of four where no one other than the mom cooks, cleans or even knows where their own possessions are, so she is constantly called for help finding things, no matter where she is or what she’s doing. Through the process, without admonishing anyone, Marie Kondo teaches people to value and care for their own possessions, and that everyone has responsibility in their home. It’s not radical — one guy makes a salad for the family by the end and that’s huge progress — but it’s there.
Again, it’s a quiet way of saying to break free of old habits and societal expectations, to approach yourself and your family and your possessions with love. If people are burned out with comparisons and expectations, Marie Kondo’s show, and her book before it, says, “Forget all that. Figure out who you want to be.”
And that, in my mind, is pretty magical.