My grandfather instructed me on the threshold of adolescence, “Michael, if you borrow a man’s tools, return them to where you found them and return them cleaner than when you borrowed them.” We can forgive my grandfather’s gender-ascription to the ownership and use of tools, but his wisdom has endured for me in so many unexpected ways. The first time I applied his advice, the person I had borrowed from said to me, “Thank you for cleaning my tool! I had been meaning to do that for a long time. Thank you!”
Often in our world today, well-intended advice can be easily ignored or discounted, especially when it’s delivered from someone who is of a different gender, ethnicity, or citizenship. There are, of course, a multitude of conditions and personalities that promote that dismissal that we are all aware of: and even citing one is to overlook about a dozen others.
So, when Netflix released a series from Marie Kondo, following on the success of her book, The Life Changing Magic Tidying Up, the response to her advice has been deep and wide: at least for the month of January, 2019. Kondo appears to have struck a nerve: consignment shops and donation stores have reported a surge of drop-offs and gifts of clothing and “stuff.”
More recently, there have been a succession of white-passing women criticizing Kondo for her wisdom and experience in “tidying up.” Some of her advice has elicited some of a subtle, but nonetheless vigorous critique. Some of it is downright petty. Others tend to take a more nuanced, racist approach to criticism of Kondo herself : I intended to post a link to a racially-
tinged saturated Tweet, but the (white-woman) author deleted it when she discovered her latent racism…anyway:
I like the book. And here’s why: She had my attention with this one quote:
How can they be expected to know how to tidy when they have never studied it properly? (11)
Now, ever mindful that what comes to your mind and mine when we read/hear the word, “tidy,” Kondo then explains the breadth and depth of that activity. Not merely shuffling items around giving the appearance of order and doing so incrementally and routinely, for Kondo, to “tidy” has some depth to our possessions and household, procedures to excavate that depth, and practices to manage the depth of the possessions. From the book and the tv series, it becomes apparent that to “tidy” takes many days. The outcomes are remarkable. A few extra thoughts follow here regarding the notion of “spark joy,” some really, really good critiques of Western perceptions of Asian spirituality as a function of Kondo’s presence, and finally: books. Perhaps that is the one issue that everyone is polarized over.
I condense Kondo’s discussion in her book (39-42) here, but for those who know me, I can hardly discuss her text without bringing in Margaret Archer’s original work on reflexivity. In brief, we use our internal conversation to take action in the world. And, that is what you’ll read in Kondo’s discussion on “spark joy”: She exercises her reflexivity to conclude,
“…that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” (41)
Now, a few fundamentalists reading this might think otherwise, viz., that Kondo is subtly promoting some version of Shintoism or other version of Japanese spirituality. Hardly. (More on that for a moment.) I would simply continue, that if we consider how contemporary advertising and marketing manifest themselves, often the appeal is to our senses and our emotions: and then the utility of the item/garment/mode of transportation/food, etc. Right? Sensory access leads to emotional activation: that is an informal statement, but also one that most of us would concur with when it comes to marketing. When I purchased/obtained this item, I likely did so because it sparked joy. Kondo is merely (ahem) coming up from the other side of that economic transaction and raising the question: Do I still have joy from this object?
Let me address everyone on the spirituality matter by referring you to my colleague, Melissa Borja, and her excellent blog on Kondo and spirituality. This is totally the first and last word. She also calls upon my friend, Jane Iwamura, and her seminal book, Virtual Orientalism. Jane’s work is contemporary and historical, and will shake up how you view the presence of Asian actors in Western media, and both will contribute to how you perceive Asian religions, given most of you reading this will be Western educated, if not living in the West already… it is definitely worth your time to read Jane’s book.
Lastly, I simply disagree with Kondo’s recommendation that you keep yourself to “no more than 30 books”, although I’m having a hard time finding that citation in her book. There’s no anti-materialism here on her part; the critique on books simply doesn’t apply universally, and I’d say it’s a safe bet that Kondo would agree. The reaction of so many people tends to corroborate that books “spark joy”! Thus, we keep them, and re-read our books!
Kondo’s advice appears to be solid, and fruitful. I might update you sometime on how I take it up. Now aware and reading her book, I’m less likely to ignore her advice: there is an elegance to her experience and wisdom. And: it’s entirely possible I will deviate from her recommendations. We’ll see. I’d like to try it out starting with my clothing, per her recommendations.
There are other folks out there doing this decluttering thing; Becker is one of the minimalist crowd, and that is decidedly a strategy to reduce one’s possessions and material imprint on the world. Jay is another minimalist with some traction, as is Joyce Fung, M.D. I’ll leave you with a question or two: When I survey Amazon publications on the decluttering/minimalist topic, I find the preponderance of the authors are white men and women: Why? I’m not observing African Americans or Latin/x American authors. Why?