The Reluctant KonMari: Or, how to be crazy without actually being certifiable, and why being a little crazy can be useful

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo came out in the U.S. a couple years ago and there was a phase when it seemed as though all of my friends were talking about it, with derision and not a small quantity of defensiveness. I spoke of it, too, remarking that surely the woman who wrote it was a nut job, but also suspecting that my friends took me to be not that far removed from Marie Kondo. In my circle, I’m regarded as The Crazy Cleaning Lady, which is not much better than being a Crazy Cat Lady.

But I didn’t read the book; I wasn’t willing to buy it to find out just how unreasonable the KonMaris were. (By the way: I think it should be Konmaristes, to lend it a little flair, but I guess that extra flair goes against the spirit of KonMari, in which there are no frivolities, no extras. But Konmaristes sparks joy in me, so there.)

However, I was recently at the public library, which is a wonderful place for KonMaristes, because you can borrow books and then return them, so you needn’t clutter your home with so many books. I was standing there at the New Non-Fiction section when I noticed The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I thought, “Well, look. Here’s my chance.” So I took the book and started reading it on the bus ride home. By page 38 I had jotted down a number of thoughts. That evening my husband accused me of having bought the book as a way of, I don’t know, casting aspersions on his sterling character. I refuted this by asserting that I had borrowed the book from the library; that I had no plans to buy it; and that I was by no means commenting on his character (when we first crossed paths with this book a couple years ago in a bookstore, I held it up to show him, and he stuck his nose in the air and said, “I could have written that”). I was merely trying to keep up with this cultural movement. In the middle of reading, I suddenly glanced at the coffee table on which I was resting my feet, and began to speedily  re-stack all the crap on it so that it was, yes, tidier. It still had the same amount of crap on it, but the crap was Knolled, which even I know is better than just having crap all over the place.

Reading Marie Kondo does something to you: you become instantly aware of all of your shortcomings. I guess that could be construed as life-changing, except that most of us are already aware of our shortcomings. So I’m not sure how beneficial this really is.

Moreover: It was quickly clear to me that Marie Kondo is indeed a nut case. But she is a very impressive nut case: she’s the rare bird who’s taken her neuroses and channelled them into a highly profitable enterprise. All of her character flaws — and they are many, if I can judge from her text — are turned, by her book, in her book, into virtues.

From the time she was very young, she was a compulsive tidier. She didn’t want to go play outside, as a schoolchild; she wanted to stay in and tidy the classroom. When at home, she’d tidy her family’s house. As a youth she threw away bags of things that didn’t belong to her, but to her siblings and parents, because she felt they were unnecessary. (It didn’t matter what they thought. If I’d pulled this kind of stunt, as a child, I am positive my parents would have either permanently lost their voices from screaming at me, or had me committed.) In my circle, here in America, a girl like this would probably be analyzed and medicated and turned into something else. In Japan, she grew up just as she was, and found work that took advantage of her compulsions. In her late 20s, her book was published in Japan; now she’s 31 and has a six or seven month old baby, and I imagine her life is…. less tidy than it was. But I assume she’s made a lot of money.

The book is both laughable and valuable. I’ll be brave and admit that. I wanted to be able to just dismiss Marie Kondo entirely, but the fact is, there are some sensible observations in there. I gritted my teeth when I got to bits that suggested little ways of organizing stuff that are, in fact, methods or systems I use on a daily basis. It irked me that I was doing anything that Marie Kondo would describe as “correct.” She is not an easy writer to love, Marie Kondo: she’s written a book that, I feel, were it a book on tape, the narrator would be whoever the young Japanese lady version of Mr. Rogers is. A lot of people love Mr. Rogers, I know; but I don’t, and I never did. He bored me. He annoyed me. And that’s the voice I hear in Marie Kondo: this slow, soft-spoken, very reassuring voice, telling you that you really can get rid of all the things you don’t need. Except with Marie Kondo, there’s something I read as smugness. I’m sure there are people who find it calming or encouraging; they don’t feel that they’re being scolded. They feel they’re being moved to become better people. But I’m pretty much okay with being who I am already. I don’t want to be soothed into having only thirty books in my house. (That’s what she finds acceptable, in her home: thirty books.) I am confident that she would say I should get rid of my LPs and the few CDs I own (I have maybe 100 CDs). And my visceral reaction to this is twofold:

  1. I need to tidy the coffee table; and
  2. I want to play Ramones albums really loudly. Messy house, messy music.

But here she is, blithely insisting that you can do it. That I can do it. That women, even more than men, should be tidy, because to be sloppy is unfeminine. Women own far, far too much clothing. A hundred pairs of shoes is too many.  And that, furthermore, if you KonMari your house, the odds are actually good that you will lose weight!

This is the kind of thing that makes me lose my mind. We don’t just have to be tidy, we have to be skinny and tidy. Really, the only way for some of us to achieve that would be to become addicted to amphetamines, but wouldn’t that be a bad thing? (Don’t argue with me.)

Many of the women I know who’ve discussed KonMari have mentioned that the technique is basically an impossible proposition for anyone with small children, and this is, if you ask me, a cold, hard fact. Having a child means giving up, at many levels, on calm and order in one’s household. One of my friends told me that Marie Kondo had a baby a few months ago and that she gave an interview on NPR more or less recanting, saying, “Mothers, fathers, you’re right, this is all bullshit.” But I am unsatisfied. Partly because I haven’t heard this interview, myself, and partly because what I really think is that Kondo is either going to simply have a nervous breakdown after some months of motherhood, or her child is going to grow up to be a lunatic as the result of living with a woman who cannot tolerate the slightest bit of untidiness in her home.

This is a woman who wants us to thank our handbags and briefcases, when we empty them out at the end of the work day. She thinks we have time to do these things, in addition to the inclination. I can tell you: when my daughter was very small, and leaving the house took 20 solid minutes of preparation, it also took 20 minutes to unload. I had to put down the groceries I was carrying in addition to the diaper bag and then I had to undo the Ergo baby carrier and put the baby someplace safe. Then I had to get the groceries into the fridge as fast as I could, before the baby began to scream because she was pissed off. Remembering to get the yucky diapers stored in the diaper bag into the trash was another essential activity. If I myself needed to pee, that was another matter that needed attention, and since I didn’t wear diapers, I gave it higher priority than my daughter’s need for a new diaper. At no time did I find it feasible to unpack bags entirely and thank them for their loyal service. If I could get through a day without discovering a spilled bottle of formula lying somewhere, and do a load of laundry, and cook dinner and serve it to us by 7.30 p.m., and get the baby bathed and fed and into clean clothes, and keep the house reasonably clean (as opposed to tidy: a distinction I feel is vitally important, and which is not fully explored in Kondo’s book), then I was doing great. 

At the same time, I want to give credit where credit is due. Some of Kondo’s suggestions for tidying are a) reasonable and b) do-able. I know this because some of them are things I hit on myself a few years ago. One that stands out in my mind is what I think of as “the shoebox trick.” This is a very simple matter. The idea is that there are certain places in the house where one will naturally have collections of small things that are both needed at that location and hard to keep tidy on a shelf or countertop. The place where this became an issue, for me, was the bathroom. Our bathroom does not have a ton of well-designed storage. What we have is a cabinet under the sink, and a tall but stupidly deep and narrow linen closet. I’ve had to put thought and effort into working with what I have without spending any money on fixing the problem.

So it dawned on me, after a while, that the way to keep most of our personal hygiene products reachable, and organized, was to put as much of it as possible in shoeboxes that can live hidden under the bathroom sink. I will grant that it’s not a pretty arrangement under there, but on the other hand, we know where everything is, and it’s kept clean and dry, which god knows it would not be if it were all living on the bathroom counter (as if there’s room for it there). Bottles of shampoos and tubes of unguents that for whatever reason must be stored upright, and cannot fit correctly into shoeboxes, are all kept in a large silicone bucket that’s also under the sink. As I say, this isn’t an extremely attractive storage solution, but it is a solution, it works, and it didn’t cost me anything in particular, because I already had the shoeboxes and the silicone bucket, which I acquired in the days when I had to soak filthy baby clothes in something, and which was clearly a very good investment.

Another shoebox trick, which I don’t currently use, but which I have in the past, is the “use a shoebox lid to corral oil bottles in the kitchen so that they’re kept neat and won’t gunk up the shelf.” If you trim down a shoebox lid so that it serves as a kind of sliding tray in a cabinet (depending on your cabinets, you may not need to trim it at all, come to think of it; I did, though), you can keep your oil and sticky-things bottles there and not be in a constant state of low-level horror at the condition of your kitchen shelf, which grosses you out every time you reach for a bottle of oil.

I can personally attest to the value of this system, because as a matter of fact, during the days when I was chewing over this essay, I had occasion to rediscover its value. It wasn’t in the kitchen; it was in the bathroom. As I explained above, while I keep many items corralled in shoeboxes under the sink, there is a basket on a shelf in the (very deep, very narrow, hideously designed) linen closet. It is a wicker basket with a fabric lining and for five years I’ve kept it next to a stack of towels. This wicker basket is where I have traditionally kept packages of bandages and tubes of Neosporin and other first-aid type items. My husband has also viewed it as a catchall for all bathroom items. I’ve tended to let this slide and not let it get to me, but one morning this week I needed a certain shape of Band-Aid to put on my foot because I had a terrible blister that I wanted to protect. I fished around for the box of Band-Aids and couldn’t find the shape I wanted, which was annoying because I knew I had that shape, somewhere. Not able to see into the basket — the shelf is higher than my eye level — I finally pulled the basket down and brought it into the bedroom so I could put it on the bed and see what was in there. What I found was that many items were covered in this layer of slightly oily unidentifiable crud. And the fabric lining of the basket was also soaked in that same crud. Clearly, a bottle or tube of something had leaked or oozed in there, over a long period of time, and now, as a result, I had a big, vile mess on my hands.

I sighed heavily and emptied the basket. I put everything on the floor and took the fabric liner and added it to the laundry pile. I found the bandage I wanted and took care of my foot, muttering things like, “There goes my goddamned morning.” I was annoyed, but resigned: this wasn’t a problem that could wait, because summertime is the season when we need that kind of stuff organized the most. Summer is precisely when we get blisters, stupid huge bloody scrapes on knees, and so on. To not be able to lay hands on a  clean bandage when we need it is a problem, and procrastination was not a good idea.

So later in the morning, after I’d taken the kid to camp, I came home and poured myself an iced coffee and set to work. It took me a solid two hours to get that basket sorted out. But with the help of four shoeboxes (scavenged from hither and yon in the house, mostly my daughter’s bedroom) I was able to essentially clean up the whole mess. I relabeled all the boxes so that my husband will not be able to complain that he can’t find anything. I threw out a few suspicious looking bottles, and nearly-empty cough drop bags, and some other miscellaneous crap, but I never did figure out what that oozy film was from. No matter: because everything that was in there has been dealt with, the problem will not recur.

Got that, people? This problem will not recur.

At dinner I announced to my family, “Something gross oozed all over the wicker basket in the bathroom, and it took me two hours to get everything straightened out today, and I have changed the storage system in the bathroom. Go take a look, and do not let it happen again.” My husband looked dismayed — and a touch guilty — and said, “uh-oh, what leaked?” “I don’t know,” I said ominously, “but it will not happen again.”

Marie Kondo applies this level — and deeper levels — of excruciating attention to every category of thing in her home. And there are times when it’s not a big deal to adopt her system, and it works: her famous rolled sock drawer, for example. She is correct that balling up socks is a bad idea because it trashes the socks (renders the elastic in them shot before its time). Rolling them up and standing them up on their sides, like cylinders, in the sock drawer really does make a huge amount of sense. So, dandy. Rolling t-shirts might be fairly reasonable, but it’s a judgment call, I think. I don’t have drawers deep enough to do things like keep my jeans rolled. Perhaps if I took a closet and outfitted it with nothing but very deep drawers and a grid of shelves, such that my closet resembled the wall of a Gap store ca. 1992, I would be able to pull off the kind of clothing system that Kondo has in mind. But since I have no closet, really, to dedicate to my clothes; and since I have a lot of clothes; I do only the best I can. This usually means that my sweaters (probably 50 sweaters) are kept neatly folded in a Rubbermaid bin; my pants are also kept (folded) in a Rubbermaid bin. Button down shirts are hung; skirts are usually folded in a small dresser. Dresses are hung, unless they are wool or another fabric that would be harmed by being hung for an extended period of time, in which case, they are folded.

My point being not that anyone should emulate my clothing storage system — because it SUCKS UTTERLY — but rather that in general we’re all just doing the best we can. In my case, I regard it as a major victory if clothes aren’t thrown on the comfy chair in the bedroom. (I’ve never been someone who threw clothes on the floor. They’ve never accumulated on the floor. Always on a chair. Even when I was little and I had a beanbag chair: the clothes would accumulate on the beanbag chair, which was really a problem because you could lose clothes in the dent in the beanbag chair and then NO UNDIES and you’d finally dig them out and they’d be all sad and crushed-looking. I have to admit, it’s better to put clothes away and not on chairs.) Doing the best you can doesn’t require thanking your shoes for their service on a daily basis. It doesn’t require throwing out 85% of your belongings in the name of having a tidier living space. It requires knowing your limitations and accepting them. And living with people who can deal with that.



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