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Just in time for spring cleaning, I follow the advice of the best-selling tidiness guru. It doesn’t go as planned

I wish I had a lighter, I think. That would spark joy. I’m standing in my living room, sweating, knee-deep in a mile-wide pile of crumpled clothes. I’m exhausted. Disgusted. Freaked out. So much stuff, so little interest in sorting through it. And short of felonious fire-starting, I cannot see how this excruciating experiment in spring cleaning is going to result in the promise of the book that prompted it: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by cleaning consultant and TED talker Marie Kondo.

“Take each item in one’s hand,” Kondo wrote, “and ask: ‘Does it spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” Now surrounded by every item of clothing I own, because Kondo instructs you to attack your clutter by category, not by room, I’m buried not only in cotton-poly blends but in shame: excessive consumerism, horrendous style choices, unwelcome evidence of size changes, the works.

Days before, in a semi-hallucinatory state, I envisioned spring cleaning with the songbird and wildflower metaphors associated with the season: renewal, revitalization, even spiritual resurrection. I imagined a fresh breeze wafting through open windows, a few trash bags stacked on the curb, and the halfway decent feeling of marginally earned accomplishment. I would tuck stuff out of sight, stack other stuff in straighter piles and wipe down the baseboards with a damp rag — the final mark of a truly mediocre spring cleaning. I’d wrap up the whole affair by noon and retire to the sofa for a self-satisfied nap. I was so enchanted by the notion, in fact, that I decided to take advice from Kondo’s book, a best seller lauded by people attuned to the union of self-help and housework.

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Kondo says she is a lifelong obsessive-compulsive discarder who cleaned her siblings’ rooms for fun. Although I could not relate at all, not even a little, I found it charming, so I was lured through more pages, where I ignored red-flag subtitles like “Why You Should Aim For Perfection” and “Don’t Let Your Family See.” 

Next thing you know, I was poring over counterintuitive passages that explain how you’re supposed to pick up each item, feel its energy, decide if it sparks joy, then either thank it for its service and “free (it) from the prison to which you have relegated (it)” or roll it neatly for storage “as an expression of love and appreciation for the way (it) supports your lifestyle.” And you’re supposed to do it all in one day.

I decided to start with the clothes category, then tackle books, documents and my most massive category: miscellany. I guess I knew it would be a Gilligan’s Island expedition — if not because it would last way longer than the three hours I wanted to set aside, then because I knew it would end in disaster.
 

It was an eerily quiet morning because Kondo suggests not playing music while cleaning, so as to have moments of unfettered dialogue with your surroundings, your belongings and yourself. Tidying will “reset your life,” if done right, the book asserts. You will have life-changing realizations.

Two hours into the magical process of piling and sorting, I had Realization No. 1: I am a hoarder. But because I’m a clever hoarder who tucks things out of sight or in stacks left so long in the corner they appear decorative, I enjoyed the luxury of not caring. I was fine with that! Really!  Two hours and three minutes in, I had Realization No. 2: I’m a denier.

Thus the process went — dreadfully slowly — until, about three hours in, standing in a sea of crap trying to feel the energy of a pair of ridiculously small, ultra-low-waist, flare-leg, acid-wash, rhinestone-pocketed jeans, I have my biggest realization:

“Does tidying this slowly really spark joy?”

While I know I should be having a profound moment about the power of simplifying, of rejecting the mental and material clutter of our meta-post-postmodern lives, and perhaps even a spiritual moment rooted in appreciation for key objects and their purposes, I have a different epiphany: Embrace the collage of living, reject the latest trend that has me deep-talking with my jeans, and enjoy the festive part of spring cleaning. Perhaps not as profound, but a joyful moment for a life-long lover of the art of the arbitrary — and a firm believer that this project has a time limit.

I turn on music. I shovel the whole pile of jeans into a donation bag, no questions asked. I eyeball stacks of books — skipping ahead to category No. 2! — and let my mind wander, bouncing from book title to sock texture to jeans memory to classic rock lyric to lunch daydreams. This is magical tidying for me, nestled in chaos, in random ideas, in rambling trains of thought from one category to the next, room to room, clearing some stuff out, keeping some, rearranging, blending old with new, occasionally reflecting on the life that collected it all.

So I don’t get the damp rag to the baseboards before sundown, nor adopt an ascetic lifestyle. The house is cleaner, if not stark, and the process felt creative, refreshing, revitalizing. Like spring.

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