On a recent Saturday, my daughter and I completed some serious spring cleaning in her room that was long overdue. As we meticulously went through each drawer, hanger, and shelf, we made piles for recycling, trash, and donations. Some items were easy to categorize: Clothes that were too small, toys no longer touched, parts of craft kits we no longer owned. But, some things were hard to decide: What if, one day, she needs more beads for a (yet unimagined) project? What if, one day, she wants to have that adorable smocked dress for her daughter (assuming she has a daughter, and, one who wants to wear a smocked dress from 30 years before)? What do you give away? What do you keep? And how do you make such decisions?
Why do I feel that as a mom so much of my time is spent in household organization and management? Is there a tried and true way to simplify?
Fortunately for our spring cleaning day, I had just finished the decluttering Bible on a recent airplane trip by a Japanese organization consultant, Marie Kondo. Her four books have sold millions of copies; her basic “KonMari” method is outlined in The Life-Saving Magic of Tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Devotees will recognize her signature question for decluttering discernment: “Does this item spark joy?” Joy is the guiding principle for home organization, not Tetris skills in your closet, not the newest article in Real Simple, not another trip to the Container Store for more bins to store toys or too-small or off-season clothes. Her philosophical premise is simple: Does it spark joy?
But the joy question turns out not to be so simple. Yes, my childhood Strawberry Shortcake doll that my mom had somehow saved from the 1980s sparked incredible joy at one time in my life. And, seeing my daughter play with the doll (her hair still smelled, three decades later!) brought me delight. But, seeing it this spring, knowing that my daughter has well outgrown playing with it, doesn’t spark joy anymore — it sparks joyful memories, but does that warrant us keeping it?
Marie Kondo reaches deep into our human psyche to ask the questions of why we keep things. She says, “Is it an attachment to the past or a fear of the future?” What a hard question to answer. Yes, Strawberry Shortcake is a sentimental part of my childhood, and, yes, there’s even a part of me that wonders if I will regret giving it away in case I want it in the future.
As contemporary North Americans, in particular, we struggle with all our stuff and our excessive accumulation and storage of if (think of the million dollar storage unit business!). We operate from a space of scarcity when there is so much around us. Plus, it’s easy to buy another matching storage bin in case we decide we want something later. I find myself reorganizing the same stuff year after year instead of addressing the real issue: What is it that I want to keep?
Ms. Kondo says that people often begin with the wrong question when they organize. Instead of “What do I want to give away?” the question needs to be, “What do I want to keep?” This small change in perspective can revolutionize the relationship we have with our stuff. Kondo says, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
Wow, all I wanted to do was to figure out which pile to put this Strawberry Shortcake doll in, and now I am contending with metaphysical questions I should be exploring with a therapist.
And, yet, many KonMari subscribers will attest that her method reaches to the heart of the issue with our stuff. When we declutter, we are not simply preventing another middle-of-the-night Legos-on-our-barefeet accident, we are creating harmony in our hearts and home.
So, back to my Strawberry Shortcake doll. What do we do when we finally decide to part with something? Marie Kondo takes decluttering to a devotional level. She suggests that even material possessions have feelings of their own. They should be treated honorably and gratefully; and, when it is time to bid goodbye, they should be thanked for fulfilling their purpose in your life. “Thank you, sweater, for keeping me warm.” “Thank you, china cup, for reminding me of my family.”
While it felt strange to tell Strawberry Shortcake all that she has meant to me over these years as I gently placed her in the give-away pile, I understand why Kondo includes this step. It provides closure through gratitude and ritual — all things we long for as humans, even in small ways. And, truthfully, rubrics of joy and gratitude for organizing my home is a lot more fulfilling and enjoyable than the way I have previously approached decluttering: Mainly, frustration that I can’t fit into that cute dress anymore, or wanting to chunk every kid thing I step on when walking into their room. What a better operating principle: Does it spark joy?
In the case of Strawberry Shortcake, she now has a new home with a younger daughter of a friend who appreciates vintage toys from our childhood. And, for them, for now, I hope the doll sparks joy.