The mess has to increase before it decreases. Any organizing expert will attest to that. In Marie Kondo’s playbook, for example, a person who’s serious about decluttering has to first take stock of what she owns in all of its voluminous bounty. That means creating mountains of personal stuff in categorical heaps and owning up to mankind’s extraordinary ability to accumulate. As Kondo says in her book as well as her hit Netflix series, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, “It is so important to see everything you have and hold each item in your hands.”
Kondo’s wildly popular self-help guide The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, published in 2012, endorses that approach. By taking stock of what you own all at once, you can more easily select the items worth saving—or in Kondo’s terms, things that “spark joy.” Creating a joyful home is the nexus of a happy life, she believes, and in Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru visits the homes of everyday people to guide them through that arduous but purposeful task.
For those who have yet to check it out, the show will remind you strongly of Queer Eye, another Netflix reality series centered on self-improvement. Both rely on experts who are skilled in their fields and embody the enthusiastic optimism of life coaches. Kondo understands that to emerge from a life rut, you often need to start with the physical and work your way in toward self-awareness. As she sees it, decluttering is inevitably an emotional endeavor. She knows that humans have an inexplicable attachment to old belongings, and she creates space, both literally and figuratively, for those possessions to be honored.
I left behind belongings that sparked the most joy in general, like artwork and photo albums, and packed only the things that sparked joy right now.
In episode three Kondo visits the Mersier family, who moved from a large house in Michigan to a smaller apartment in Los Angeles but never downsized their things in the process. The father, Douglas, feels remorseful about discarding sentimental objects like an engraved cup his godmother gave him years ago. His wife, Katrina, inclined to roll her eyes at such vestiges of childhood, comes around when she sees Kondo’s sensitivity to it, ultimately saying, “I love the way [Marie] doesn’t make any of the family members feel bad about what they want to keep. I’m learning.”
Because Kondo’s goal is sparking joy—and not, say, improving utility—she facilitates a personal path toward home improvement. A blender in excellent condition serves no purpose to someone who hates cooking, while an heirloom with no ostensible function might fill a room with warmth.
For my own part, I have a decently healthy relationship to stuff. I have a habit of buying cookware and books, but I keep countertops clear and shelves organized. I’m allergic to all forms of tchotchke. My only hoarding vice is saving birthday cards, letters, and ticket stubs that live in disorganized splendor in my night table drawer. So because my clutter levels are on the lower end of the spectrum, I never thought I needed a thorough assessment of possessions in the manner Marie Kondo prescribes.
It took a fire to change my perspective.
The blaze ignited on the third floor of my Brooklyn building; though the flames never reached my first-floor apartment, the water certainly did. It was New Year’s Eve 2017. I rushed home from a family gathering soon after the fire department left, feeling nervous and uncertain about what I’d find. No one in the building was hurt, luckily, and the fire was extinguished, but copious amounts of water had seeped through the walls. Inside my apartment the hardwood floors undulated like waves from the water buildup. The walls were bulbous from moisture, which signified the likelihood of mold. Everything smelled. Adding to the situation was the timing of it all: My husband and I were planning to put our place on the market that week in pursuit of a bigger home for ourselves and our two little boys. That was an absurd prospect now. We would have to find a temporary place to live. We were grateful for home insurance.
Soon after, we packed up and moved to an Airbnb while repairs started in our home. Most of our possessions were left to collect dust under plastic covers, and I packed a couple suitcases with a few essentials. I left behind belongings that sparked the most joy in general, like artwork and photo albums, and packed only the things that sparked joy right now: my winter boots, the sweaters I wore on repeat, a couple dresses, jeans, the book I had started reading, and another book in case I finished the first. For my boys, I packed a selection of clothes and a tiny assortment of toys: a Lego set, puzzles, picture books. Traveling lightly triumphed over abundance.
We stayed at our temporary lodging for two months. It was a tight space, and we had only a few personal things with us, but we felt so lucky the fire had not been more damaging. More so, living with less made us feel thankful for the comforts we usually enjoyed, like having the space and seating to host friends for meals. Even the ability to say “This is temporary” is a luxury.
It’s funny how the more you have, the more you’re accustomed to having.
When we moved back home, our floors were brand-new and our possessions suddenly looked more plentiful than ever. Look at all this stuff I owned. A KitchenAid! Serving platters! Extra bedding and pillowcases. Dozens of shirts. I barely missed most of these items or even acknowledged their absence. (OK, I did miss the KitchenAid.) The difference between beloved possessions and excess stuff had never seemed starker. I donated a lot that week—baby gear we didn’t need, clothes, books, kitchen supplies—and felt more appreciative of the items I kept.
We finally put our home on the market and bought a new place, coincidentally down the block from the little Airbnb. As we got settled in our new place, I bought Marie Kondo’s book so this home would feel light and peaceful. I didn’t want to take the extra space for granted.
It’s funny how the more you have, the more you’re accustomed to having. Much of Kondo’s cleverness, therefore, is homing in on the inverse relationship between bounty and gratitude. To enhance the latter, you need to confront the former and assess its value. Netflix’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo may have ridiculously banal content—watching people clean out their closets and drawers—but the emotional toll of letting go is a surprisingly moving experience. The episode in which Frank and Matt, two writers with an attachment to old books and papers, host Frank’s parents for the first time in their shared home was genuinely emotional to watch. And I laughed knowingly as the two of them read old birthday cards at their table and agreed to discard most of them. It even inspired me to crack open my night table drawer and, in true Marie Kondo style, greet the mess.
Lonnie Firestone has written for Departures, Vanity Fair, and Playbill.