Writing from the Heart: Tidying up

Does decluttering truly spark joy?


I’m early for once. I’m doing my spring cleaning. And it’s only December. So proud. I think it was the smell of the mold that got me going, or was it the fact that I couldn’t find a clean pair of underpants because the drawer was so stuffed? The one drawer I could still close, that is.

My first thought was, is there a local Marie Kondo, the woman who wrote those books that everyone was talking about a few years ago, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” and “Spark Joy.” When her books were on the bestseller list, my drawers could still close, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the whole subject of decluttering, plus I couldn’t relate to the phrase “the magic of tidying up.”

But this week I got motivated. I bought both books. 

Without the life-changing part, I like the word tidying. It feels harmless, almost gentle, kind of British. A little sweeping here, a little dusting there. But then as I started reading the KonMari method, as it’s called, I learned that it has nothing to do with sweeping or dusting or England, and it is definitely not anything little.

What she does is have you gather together all your belongings, and then (and here’s the key) keep only things that (her words) “spark joy.”

Forty-nine years ago, we moved from a normal-size house in Connecticut to a teeny cabin in Chilmark. That was when I needed Marie. But at the time I was reading a lot of Ram Dass and Deepak and Eckert, and from their teachings, I probably would have said, but everything sparks joy. 

The Japanese word she uses is “tokimeku,” which translates to flutter, throb, palpate. My first response is, Oh, she’s talking about pulmonary resuscitation, but I know she doesn’t want me to get on my knees and do CPR, except looking around, that’s exactly what my poor cabin needs. 

It’s not dead, but having trouble breathing. One of the causes of the house gasping for air is that my husband will not kill a spider. Neither will I, but I also don’t relish having them as roommates. His rationale is right. They do catch the other unwanted critters, which is helpful, but letting them propagate can get out of hand. And suddenly it looked as if it had gotten out of hand. 

Of course it wasn’t sudden.

When you first walk into my little abode, it looks like I have lovely lace curtains, but upon closer inspection, the curtains are what spiders do when they are uninterrupted and have freedom to create.

Periodically, he does take the vacuum cleaner and sucks them into the void. He warns them first, says a little apology to their ancestors and future children, and then for a short time, cleanliness returns to godliness.

Marie is clearly next to godliness. She talks about serenity and inspiration and healing. Her method encourages tidying by category, not location, beginning with clothes, then moving on to books, papers, and miscellaneous items.

Marie would not fault me for inverting the order, because it turns out I started before I knew she would become my declutter guru. I began clearing the bookshelves way before the underpants crisis. 

My husband bought 27 copies of “The Answer,” the book about how the element thorium could power up the world and how the fossil fuel industry has kept thorium out of the climate change conversation. He has one book left, and needed it to send to John Kerry, the new climate czar. He commissioned me to search, so I went on the hunt for that one copy, and as my fellow ADD sisters and brothers know, one thing leads to another. While on the quest, I found my signed copy of the “Clinton St. Baking Company Cookbook,” and sat for a spell leafing through it. If I still had the buttermilk and it hadn’t curdled, I could make Neil Kleinman’s unbelievable onion rings. Which led me to the refrigerator, where I couldn’t help but notice the drips of pomegranate juice which had coagulated at the top of the hydrator, which led me to reach for the sponge to do a swipe rather than a concentrated clean, and since the sponge was grotty, I looked for my Shirley’s Hardware list so I could add one more item. I’m not even going to tell you where the list was, and what I did next. It just wouldn’t be fair to you.

Marie would have given up on me. Especially since all those spiritual teachers have taught me that everything will spark joy … if you are looking for joy, that you are the sparker.

So here I am torn between piles of outfits I haven’t worn in decades, stacks of old, half-read New Yorkers, a husband who thinks the planet has 10 years left, and listening to all my Eastern sages who say, “Be with what is.”  

So now what am I supposed to do? 

Obviously, I have to figure out a way to spark joy — for mold!