Recently, and almost back-to-back, I read two non-fiction books that are quite different, yet about the same thing: tidying up.
Plum Johnson’s They Left us Everything: a memoir, which won the RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction earlier this year, is a compelling account of Johnson’s attempt to clean up the large family home, which was crammed to the rafters, after the death of her mother. What she expects will be a task of weeks stretches into years; there is so much to sort through and get evaluated and dispose of or divide among the siblings. A book about stuff may sound boring, but it’s not, because in handling the possessions of her parents, who seemed unable to dispose of anything themselves, this eldest daughter also remembers and confronts their past, and hers. Most of all, she attempts to sort through her fraught relationship with her mother. If ambivalence about that relationship remains at book’s end, the journey proves necessary and beneficial for the daughter and is a pleasure to share as a reader.
Processing the past is exactly what handling possessions is all about, states Marie Kondo, author of The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Hers is an easy-to-read self-help type book. It seems to have taken our possession-heavy North American culture by storm, at least if its “millions sold” is any indication. I found it chock-full of insights, some that I argued with and will probably not implement, others that resonated immediately, but all of which, if not changing my life, have at least partially changed my surroundings. (For someone who by personality needs to be in tune with her environment, that may amount to the same thing.)
We’ve moved enough times for this divesting to have happened somewhat regularly. And without the benefit of her book, I’m proud to say, I reduced my personal filing cabinet from a four-drawer to a two-drawer unit some months ago, which felt amazingly soul-freeing. And the process was continuing in various other categories, mainly as a headstart should we transition to a smaller place some time down the road.
Near the end of her book, Plum Johnson writes, “I used to think parents should clean up their own mess before they depart this world; now I think just the opposite. Don’t die early. Wait till your children are old enough to appreciate it, and then leave them everything.” I want to think that’s at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but if it’s not I quite disagree, and so would Kondo. Her criterion for what we (continue to) surround ourselves with is “does it spark joy?” So if that’s what our children encounter when we leave them “everything” then they will discover what we are like just as easily—surely more easily—than wading through reams of what we ourselves were unwilling to process and clean up.
Marie Kondo is young, and it seems she lives alone, and she doesn’t have young or teenage children, which necessitates a constant flow of accumulation and discarding (which ought to be non-obsessive on a parent’s part, in my opinion), but her advice is great fun. And her claim that tidying is great fun is infectious—and proves true as well.
I found her somewhat cavalier about books, but as I considered and resisted her advice in that category, I realized that in fact our various walls of books—particularly the one in our living room—spark joy in me. Which is exactly why I need to keep them as is for now. I realized, though, that I had been inhibiting that spark by hiding far too much of that LR wall of books behind a love seat and hassock. So my mind went to work (and my inner ears, trying to listen to what the room needed/wanted, as per Kondo too) on how I could re-arrange that room. It happens to be a lovely south-facing room but very difficult to arrange furnishings in because there’s a large window I don’t like to block with furniture either and a fireplace to one side that can’t be ignored and two entrances to the room that can’t be blocked. I decided to put a single chair in front of the books and fiddled the love seat and other chairs into a group. As I’ve long suspected, it was the big square coffee table “inherited” from my parents that was half the problem in that part of the room; it wouldn’t orient to any one piece without disorienting the others. A relatively inexpensive round “fix” from IKEA (thanking the square table, of course, per Kondo, for its provenance via my parents and for its excellent service over the years), that problem was solved too. With some additional work, the paintings found themselves re-arranged on the current nails to accommodate the changes, which seemed not so much magical as miraculous.
So it’s been fun—and clarifying—both to read these books, and to do some practical things that emerged from them. I could go on with other stories concerning the tidying of bedding and aprons and purses, but enough already. I know that some of my readers have read one or the other of these books and have had interesting thoughts and adventures and memories-arousal because of them as well. And, just to say in wrapping up, we’ve had lovely weather this summer, and quite a bit of company, which we’ve enjoyed. After a holiday from my writing work, I’m back at it. Perhaps I’ll say a bit more about that in a subsequent post. In the meanwhile, happy August!
I’m intrigued with both books since we have a lot of stuff to give away even though we have moved a few times. The Japanese are big into “lean” and the concept of 5S is a big clean up concept in manufacturing, at least, and elsewhere in business. Is there a connection?
Hi Al, Since I don’t know much about “lean” or 5S except what our sister Louise told me this weekend (they were here for a wedding), namely that the Sask. Health Region (her employer) has instituted “lean” as a policy, no unnecessary stockpiling etc., I can’t say. Both Japanese, obviously. I was thinking of Agatha at times while reading Kondo’s book, not in terms of tidying but in reference to the author’s almost spiritual awareness of space and environment and some conversations we’ve had about how we “feel” our spaces/houses.
Always, always enjoy the way you put your words and thoughts together.
wasn’t trying to be anonymous but using my phone for the comment meant i didn’t sign in i guess.
Well you or Anonymous, I was encouraged by the comment! 🙂 (Since I’m “writing again,” which doesn’t come as easily as I often wish it would or people may imagine, it’s a welcome cheer from the side. I happen to be re-visiting our two-plus years in the Chaco, which reminds me what an encouragement your sister-in-law MA was to me as a beginning writer with beginner skills and very little confidence.)
A wall of books give me joy, too. And, I like stones. The inherited dishes—not so much. And like the previous commentator said, I always enjoy your words.
Thanks, Gabe. Stones: interesting. Too bad about the dishes; Marie Kondo grants permission to let go of what has been given/passed down. But dishes get complicated, I know.
we are moving in the direction of maturity when our inner and outer worlds are in sync
Thank you for this, Mary Anne; I hadn’t thought of tidying in terms of maturity and want to reflect on that some more.
Amen to the comment by Anonymous. It’s so good to hear your voice again.
And yours, Loretta, and thank you!
Your words encouraged me, Dora, on several accounts. Thank you. The ongoing process of going through ‘stuff’, my own and as I assist family, somehow becomes more about the people and less about the things. And there are gifts through the process. Also – I’ve been invited to join a book group this fall – a group of 8 women already in existence. Johnson’s book is on the list for this fall – great to hear it will be worth the read! I’m guessing the gathering of women may become more about the people for me, and the books will be secondary. Blessings!
Thanks for the comment, Barb! The process you’re undertaking at a number of levels, you’re right, becomes about people. Dilemmas, but also gifts for sure. — Johnson’s book is the kind of book that will provoke discussion; a great one to do as a group.
A timely post for us in the midst of down-sizing & contemplating a move. I discovered the Plum Johnson book in the library & enjoyed it for the same reasons you note. Also, browsed through the Kondo book at McNally’s–perhaps I’ll go out & buy my own since my library hold is way down on the list. Right now, we’re culling books — a difficult thing for me to do. My son, who has similar reading interests to mine suggested keeping the African fiction & a few special books with personal connections (that includes yours, Dora!), and of course, my well-worn copies of favourite poetry collections, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. Plus, I’ve added several meditative/mind-stretching writers who’ve inspired/helped to shape my inner being, in the past, present & will continue to do on into the future … But it’s tough to do & the “this I’ve got to keep” pile is growing.
May your new quarters have room for all the books that still feel necessary and give you joy! So good to hear from you.
Dora, I enjoyed reading your comments on Marie Kondo’s book. We are reading it for our next book club meeting!
I have a daughter who loved to collect things, and I remember applying Kondo’s principles (having never read her book). My daughter would empty her drawer and make three piles called “must keep, maybe keep and throw out.” The process was painful and there were some tears, but we got through it. We had discussions about the “maybe keep” pile, but most of that ended in the throw out as well! I like to think I have kept her from being a hoarder. I have a grandson who keeps everything and puts it all under his bed! This seems to be genetic, but I’m not afflicted with it.
A unique choice for a book club meeting, Elfrieda, and sure to rouse some interesting discussion. As I was both reading and writing, I thought of the comments you made about it at your blog and the importance of also tidying in the non-material parts of our lives. As you suggest, that’s probably just as important, or more so.