When I read Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the promise of an ordered, intentional way of life took a magnetic command over me. Kondo’s method entails sorting through one’s every belonging and deciding whether to keep or discard each thing based on the question: Does it spark joy?
Her promise of a de-cluttered life, one that only contains the things of pure happiness, was like a vision of the promised land. Suddenly, my many clothes, books, art supplies, tokens, and trinkets seemed more like clutter than prized collections. I had amassed a lot of stuff over the years, much of it tucked away in drawers or boxes—out of sight and out of mind. But equipped with Kondo’s guidelines, trash bags, and the merciless will to de-clutter, I took to the KonMari challenge, with surprising results, which I was reminded of while recently watching the new Gilmore Girls installment, A Year in the Life.
Emily, Lorelai's mother and Rory's grandmother, is bit by the Kondo bug herself, although Emily’s circumstances were wildly different from mine. Emily had to cope with losing Richard after 50 years of marriage. In the wake of her husband’s death, she had to reinvent herself. I, on the other hand, had just applied to graduate school; quit my job; and moved back in with my parents, bringing with me everything from books to bedroom furniture. Shuffling cardboard boxes around my old room, it's fair to say my state in life resembled Rory’s more than her grandmother’s.
My mind mulls over the future much more than the past. Before I began de-cluttering, I thought I could glide through the process with detachment. Yet, I soon learned that some experiences (like sorting through old belongings) seem to breed introspection. As I handled each item, one by one, the memories of those items came to me, too. My leopard-print lava lamp, long forgotten in the closet, brought me back to a time when it lit up my grade school sleepovers. My CD collection all but echoed the soundtrack of my high school years. My stash of threadbare t-shirts retained memories of homecoming dances and sorority socials.
I realized this: I had set out to confront my belongings, but my belongings were confronting me. With every object reclaimed from storage, memories came to the surface like heaps of dust.
Kondo’s criteria seems simple, but joy does not lend itself to objectivity. Deciphering joy may be the most difficult part of the process. Our belongings carry stories and reminders. We assign them meaning. We hold onto some mementos not because they spark joy but because they stir our memories; likewise, other objects we cannot bear to keep for this same reason.
Though the KonMari method receives but one scene in A Year in the Life, it speaks deeply of our connection to things; to our past. More than a moment of wry humor, Emily’s avowal that neither her ball gowns nor dining room chairs “spark joy” reveals the limbo in which she finds herself. Emily must mediate her past—including a house full of remnants—and her need to move forward as a widow.
But it isn't just death or moving that puts a person into a state of reconciling all his or her yesterdays to all the tomorrows. At any point, on any given day, we can choose to confront our lives and the physical manifestations of the experiences we've acquired along the way.
By tidying up Emily finds freedom, not because she renounces her possessions but because she confronts her new circumstances head on. In this way, the process of tidying up becomes therapeutic. Her heart remains heavy, no doubt, but in the process, Emily seems to learn that belongings can only be reminders of joy, not its source.
For me, some things were easily disposable, such as movie theater tickets that I had saved, college notebooks, and stacks of outdated magazines. Other things—my beloved books, my grandmother’s cloth-bound copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, souvenirs from my travels, ink pens with which my grandfather once drafted editorials—I had to keep. These belongings bring me more joy than most, for they remind me of my roots. They bridge where I have come from and where I hope to go. Still, some items made me wonder why I ever kept them. My pretty slate-blue journal, for example, helped me through a hard time, but to read it again would rob my joy, I thought. So, I tossed it into the trash.
We are composites of our past, no doubt, but we never have to preserve it through the things we keep. Sometimes, the adage holds true: The less you own, the less that owns you.
The real “magic” of tidying up isn't a organized shelf or cleaned out closet—though those things are perks. The real reward lies in these emotional benefits. In tidying up, we become careful curators of our lives, purposefully choosing what to leave behind and what to carry with us. “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle,” Kondo writes.
Tidying up gives us the chance to reorder our lives, to cultivate the kind of environment that we want to live in. Emily’s story reminds us that we need not rid ourselves of every belonging to move forward in a new way. When I tidied up, some belongings held memories that were worth holding onto, but others brought me back to times that were more bitter than sweet. So, I let go of those. Tidying up taught me to be intentional in how I live and what I surround myself with. It taught me to live with less. And in the end, I felt content, for the things that I kept reminded me of joy reaped over the years.
Indeed, our belongings often point us to where we have been, who we are, what we value, and what lights up our life. Although A Year in the Life reflects on loss, it also offers a lesson in joy—that is, that joy comes not from collecting things but collecting moments.
Photo Credit: Netflix