How the Japanese art of decluttering sparked joy in my home, my marriage and my yoga practice

I read Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing in two days and was inspired to take action immediately. While I've always found some fleeting satisfaction in getting rid of stuff I don't need, this book taught me that I was going about it all wrong. 

My previous method looked something like this. Tear through the house in a cloud of urgency, guilt and disgust, haphazardly picking out things to discard. I did this repeatedly and emotionally whenever the mood struck, or probably about once a month. You get the idea. Interrupted by exhaustion, distraction or tears, when I finally reached a stopping point my efforts seemed incomplete, futile. The whole process left my husband (and cats) perplexed. 

The decluttering methods Marie Kondo offers in her book are wildly different than anything I've tried. She believes that the approach of doing a little bit every day is useless. Her instructions are to organize everything in the home intensely and completely in one shot. “A once in a lifetime event.” To sort by category, not by location. I was to pull everything out into the light of day by category (clothes, books, paper) and select only the things I wanted to keep, only the items that “spark joy.” Everything else goes.

Quite serendipitously, it was my time spent living in Japan with few possessions that instilled in me a deep desire to shed the extraneous. Packing lightly and living from a suitcase fills me with ease. I found great joy in living with a near empty closet, one bowl, one spoon and a single beautiful teacup I cherished. I studied the nuance of Japanese design. Marveled at the way a few humble items, thoughtfully arranged, made a tiny interior space seem airy and bright.

My returns to New York were fraught with anxiety seeing my apartment packed full of more stuff than I could even see, let alone enjoy or use in any practical way. I wanted to flee rather than deal with my stuff. And any attempt to deal with my stuff seemed pointless when faced with the overwhelming volume of my husband Alex's stuff. His stuff, a collection of roughly 25 guitars, art books and gig posters, was once a source of (mostly quiet, sometimes spoken) resentment. Why should he take up all the space with his stuff? Where am I going to put my stuff?

I eagerly turned the pages of Kondo's book, wondering if she had any advise for those of us living with family. She does: “The first step is to confront your own stuff.”

Haven't we all grappled with this in one form or another? The idea that we've got to deal our own shit first, before we can possibly see another with clear eyes? For me, it's a lesson that arises again and again.

Propelled forward by Marie Kondo's encouragement, I was stunned to realize the volume of my own stuff. Even more shocked to find that in the process of sorting, discarding, and tidying my own possessions I was less annoyed by the volume of Alex's stuff. I don't need any more storage space now. Everything fits.

Step Two, books. This is everything I decided to keep. All are now stored on shelves inside my closet, a small shelf in my kitchen (cookbooks) and a few gems on my bedside table.

Step Two, books. This is everything I decided to keep. All are now stored on shelves inside my closet, a small shelf in my kitchen (cookbooks) and a few gems on my bedside table.

A few days into my tidying, I walked in on Alex sorting through his books, posting some on eBay and bagging others for donation. He had followed suit with zero pressure from my end. Kondo writes, “To quietly work away at disposing of your own excess is actually the best way of dealing with a family that doesn’t tidy. As if drawn into your wake, they will begin weeding out unnecessary belongings and tidying without your having to utter a single complaint. It may sound incredible, but when someone starts tidying it sets off a chain reaction.”

Kondo argues that the lives of those who tidy thoroughly and completely, in a single shot, are dramatically altered. This once in a lifetime marathon of tidying that I began a few weeks ago and hope to wrap up completely within the weeks that follow has indeed set off a chain reaction. 

I've gained a deeper appreciation for the things I've decided to keep. I can open my closet and see everything at a glance, nothing buried in the murky depths of storage. I have formed a direct and present relationship with the items in my home that spark joy. I can truly take care of the few things I own and thank them for their beauty and service. I've learned that those things that are difficult to part with, gifts from loved ones gone unused or expensive impulse buys never worn, can be thanked for the purpose they served at the time and discarded.

This process of facing the things I own, one by one, has brought me closer to knowing myself. In making conscious and careful choices about the objects that surround me, I've honed my tastes. In learning to live with things as they speak to me in the present, not as relics from the past or things I might need in the future, I've learned to live more immediately with myself.

After sorting my books and choosing a few treasures to be stored on my bedside table, I reached for a book of poems by Mary Oliver. Magically, it fell open to these words:

Impossible to believe we need so much 

as the world wants us to buy.

I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips

than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,

with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.

No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.

Old and cold I will lie apart

from all this buying and selling, with only

the beautiful earth in my heart.