still downsizing & "tidying up"

rusty speed limit sign, Oregon City (near Clackamas River)

Still downsizing after six months, I am past the stage where I'm discarding only the things that don't "spark joy," to quote the internationally bestselling organizer Marie Kondo, but even some of the ones that do. And it's started freaking my roommate friend out. "Why are you selling the Stiffel lamp? I think you'll regret it. You're really going to sell your bookcase?" The goal, I tell him, is to start living as if—as if I'm already in a tiny house, something like: If you downsize, the tiny house will come. In a micro space, which will be all I could ever afford outright, I won't have room for things like oversized lamps designed for sprawling mid-century ranch houses or reclaimed solid teak bookcases heavy enough to break toes.

Besides, culling, like shopping in the first place, is addictive. The more I get rid of, the more I want to get rid of. Have I mentioned my fantasy of living more or less in a one-room space (with big windows) with only a mattress on the bare wood floor, a couple small lamps, a few houseplants, my laptop, some clothes, my cat, and a pile of books, maybe in an old wine crate? The lightest I've ever felt was the one summer in college when I didn't work and instead borrowed money from my grandmother and took a basic student backpack to Europe and India, traveling with a good friend. I had two dresses with me, a pair of sandals, a hat, some underwear, a cheap camera, a notebook, and not much else. And life seemed easier. Traveling was all about collecting experiences, not things. Since living in Korea after college, after I stopped traveling, for me the situation has reversed: things over experiences. But surely there's a balance to be found between the nesting instinct and the travel bug, between the familiar and the novel, the individual and the community? Isn't that what a healthy life is about, balance?

With balance in mind, consider Marie Kondo's internationally bestselling how-to guide, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Calling herself a "tidier" who has turned her lifelong predilection for organization into a consulting career, Kondo offers a simple downsizing process that has sparked conversations worldwide. The best part of Kondo's approach is that she asks for real change within her clients, rather than suggesting they buy yet more stuff (aka storage systems) in which to store and hide away their stuff. In fact, she refers to storage experts as "hoarders." As someone who also has been a lifelong culler and organizer, I strongly agree with the core of her message: 1) Discard those things that don't "spark joy," and then 2) decide where to keep the things that do. She argues that mass discarding should take no more than about six months for a whole household, even better if done more quickly since culling marathon-style, she says, will transform the person's environment and change the person's attitude about possessions and tidiness, thereby preventing backsliding. (She claims she has no clients who've backslid, ever, which seems too good to be true, but whatever.)

Before starting, Kondo asks clients to visualize an image of their ideal life—the goal. (Perhaps an inspiration board or Pinterest could help clarify this for some?) But the real goal is for each person to decide how she wants to live and in what mood, so her home can support that vibe. Kondo herself doesn't decide for her clients what they should live with; they decide, piece by piece.

Then Kondo has clients begin deciding what to keep and what to send off with a literal thank you, like Thank you, t-shirt. Job well done! (I personally couldn't relate to all the Shinto influences in her philosophy, such as having a house shrine or greeting one's home every day, but Kondo believes in a kind of energy transference of objects, that inanimate objects have power, Shinto being a special kind of reverent object worship.) Her focus when tidying is on what to keep—what "sparks joy" when held in the hand—but this is really a matter of perspective, two sides of the same coin, what is wanted versus unwanted. What is consciously chosen is a useful and more positive focus, though, because her philosophy is that the objects we surround ourselves with, similar to the mind game of deciding which few items we'd rescue during a hypothetical house fire, are what should matter most and give us the most use and pleasure. Otherwise, we're just cluttering our lives up with physical baggage that weighs us down in a very real sense (think of a truck stacked with moving boxes).

Speaking of baggage, Kondo mentions garbage bags a lot in the book, and her clients seem to compete over who offers up the most garbage bags. Yet tossing useful unwanted objects into the trash is incredibly wasteful and harmful for the planet. Admittedly, some cultures prohibit secondhand reuse when the objects might possibly have come from dead people, as I learned from one Craigslist inquirer about something I had up for sale (which is still a wasteful cultural or individual belief, in my opinion). Instead of using the trash can, make donation trips to thrift stores—or call to arrange a pick-up. Recycle what can be recycled, and try to throw away in the actual garbage very little. If a home is filled with stuff fit mainly for the garbage bin, then the person has bigger problems than over-consumption.

natural sorting, near Clackamas River

My own downsizing process has taken longer than it normally does this time around because I've been selling things off, which takes extra time, compared to dumping everything in garbage bags and hauling it out to the curb or a charity shop. The actual decisions have gone much easier and faster than the individual resales, but this is an additional factor to consider when downsizing.

Kondo also argues for culling by category, not location, which is good advice but isn't an issue for me since I already store like with like—meaning I've never had a junk drawer, all my paperclips can be found in the same place, etc.—and have always had a clear mental picture of every single thing I own and where to find it, which isn't true for most people in the developed world or there wouldn't be a need for professional organizers like Kondo. She also insists that clients place all their items per category into a big pile in the middle of a room, whether emptying the bookcase of books or pulling all clothes out of closets and drawers. This is so clients can see exactly how many paperclips or pairs of scissors or pairs of socks or jeans or hairbrushes they actually have—their true excess—and thus realize they only need to keep the best or, rather, most "joyful."

Kondo insists on her "order of categories" when culling: 1) clothes, 2) books, 3) papers, 4) miscellany, and 5) sentimental items. Her basic logic is sound. Most of us know instinctively when a pair of pants is comfortable and flattering or not, or if we've worn a shirt within the last year or not. About books, she says "someday" really means never, and to just let those unread books go; for me, those books are gift books somebody else wanted me to read or books I know I won't ever read again and have no strong attachment to. Kondo says we'll know by touch what to keep. Clothes and books are fairly easy decisions, especially when remembering that others could get actual use out of them. But your grandmother's silver tea set you never use or a box of old pictures? Heirlooms and sentiment are much harder. She says that by the time we get to the harder items, we've already honed our decision-making skills on the easier stuff, making decisions about the hard stuff much easier.

For me, though, I'd switch Kondo's order of miscellany and papers. Papers are much harder for me to cull than paperclips or random objects because there are more of them (because I have a good filing system and three drawers of filing cabinets specifically for paperwork), meaning going through all those files piece by piece is tedious, and I can always find something else I'd rather be doing than going through file folders. Paperwork is my one shameful area when it comes to possessions; it's all stored neatly, filed away, but in a way "hoarded" in case it's ever needed—like how my grandparents once kept an older spare set of furnishings in their basement. Kondo argues that people should get rid of almost all paperwork in a household because most information can be found online or gleaned from others (e.g., via a phone call to a company). Maybe taxes work differently in Japan, but some paperwork like receipts must be stored for years in the U.S. in case of tax audits, whether we like it or not. And nobody's tax files ever "spark joy." Some paperwork must be kept, unless it can be scanned and stored digitally. Even so, I've been getting rid of more paperwork lately, one file at a time, and seeing the file cabinets with more breathing room feels good.

Samples of Kondo's specific advice include never downgrading one's outside clothes into loungewear, not storing clothes seasonally but rather reducing the overall amount of clothing, and folding clothes vertically and placing them in drawers whenever possible instead of hanging them up in closets because drawer storage saves space. She believes every household member needs her own "sanctuary" in the home—a no-brainer that explains the existence of man caves. She's generally anti-stacking because stacking is hard on the objects on the bottom of the pile. She warns against offloading things onto friends or family (which would only burden them, unless it's a lack they want filled). And she also wants everyone to empty his or her bag every day, putting everything away in its place each evening (which to me seems a waste of time since I use the same shoulder bag every day, except for special outings like beach-going or party-going). Moreover, she believes only "joyful" photos should be kept and all others tossed out, sorted one by one. I still haven't tackled my two boxes of paper photos, but I'm sure many—from my crappy camera days—are either blurry or less than joyful. Out they'll go.

Another of Kondo's directives is to store extras at the store, not at home, which is especially important for those living in small spaces. Unfortunately, buying larger quantities, at least in the U.S., typically means larger per-unit savings. That's why I buy the largest bags of cat litter and cat food they make, despite having to store more. I watched a former roommate who went everywhere by bike bring home one roll of toilet paper at a time because he carried his groceries on his back; but toilet paper is much more expensive by the roll, and who wants to ever run out of toilet paper?! Here again, balance must be found when storing needed supplies. But in general I'd agree with letting shops store stuff for us and skipping warehouse stores like Costco. As for where to store things in the home, she says to, "Ask your house." Hm. I'd like to ask my house to get rid of the previous tenant's secondhand smoke smell (because fresh paint and carpet cleaning didn't work), but I don't think my house has that kind of power.

grass daisies

One can quibble over the details of Kondo's method, but her underlying motives are worth reflection. She sees possessions as the history of past decisions—so that sorting through those possessions and letting go of some of them is a physical way to confront the past in a kind of self-therapy. Does a person have an attachment to the past, a fear of the future, or both? What is keeping the person stuck? She believes that hanging onto items from the past can mean missing out on new opportunities ahead. She says a person can increase confidence in their decision making abilities through the tidying process as hundreds or even thousands of decisions are made, and that deciding which objects we want to surround ourselves with is really about clarifying how we want to live and valuing the person we are today—not a past or possible future self, but who we are right now. She says to reduce until "something clicks" to reveal one's true values, what matters most to each of us.

There's good reason I haven't yet gone through the big forest-green Rubbermaid tub my mother wrote my name on in permanent marker and once kept up in her attic, full of childhood mementos she'd saved over the years, unasked. There was a bin for each of her kids. I've gone through my time-capsule bin over the years more than once, recycling elementary-school art projects and participation ribbons, things I doubted I'd still care about when I was 80, if I lived that long. Now the bin mostly holds old paper letters and cards from friends and family members, some of whom are now dead, and also letters from me to some of them, the tangible evidence of symbolic emotional stuff saved for last, the history I will need to physically process and then write about to loosen its hold.


  1. Anonymous9/4/15 19:54

    Lovely post, Brooke. There's a book here, I think. --Carol

    1. Thank you, Carol, for the support.


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