OR How I Slew the Nostalgia Dragon with Joy Sparking All Around!
By Susan Lilley
For at least four years, I have planned to “clean out my closet” during the summer. The goal is to clear out crap that I really am not going to wear anymore–or in a few humiliating cases, never did wear. But something always got in the way, and I was slowly adding to the over-crowding problem here and there with new purchases. When I saw Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in the hands of a friend recently (a friend who declared the method was life changing, just like the testimonials everywhere say), a glorious flush of something that felt like hope mixed with energetic resolve flowed through me.
Here is where I must admit that I lunged ahead on this project without actually reading the book itself. But I downloaded a 25-minute summary on my iPod and listened to almost all of it on a recent road trip. Then, to deepen my knowledge, I read a short list-style article from a website called One Kings Lane about one fashionable editor’s beatific experience with the method. In her pictures you’ll see fun decluttering activities with her toddler (!) and crisp canvas totes holding neatly folded rejects from her wardrobe, ready to be whisked off to the consignment shops or donation centers. Her closet is airy and color coordinated, and her dresser drawers are now organized with vertically folded items that can be seen at a glance, instead of the unwieldy piles most of us end up with. The idea is that if you can see everything you have, you won’t end up wearing the same 5 things all the time. You might not even—deep breath—continue to buy things that are exactly like what you already have. I mean, how many black cardigans does one need? (Quite a few, as it turns out in my case.)
Kondo’s method is all about categories, not rooms, for very good reasons that I am sure the book explores thoroughly. Starting with clothes removes a huge logjam of holding onto unnecessary stuff, apparently. On faith, I plunged in for a day of hard work on the clothes with sincere plans to move on to other categories next. Kondo warns that during a major decluttering, family members might be appalled at how much good stuff is being thrown out; they may even have sentimental attachments to some of the stuff you want to jettison. But that attachment usually does not translate to said family members taking responsibility for the items in question. Oh no. They don’t actually WANT the vintage stereo that was made into a liquor cabinet a few decades ago. But surely you are not going to throw that gem OUT!! Well yes, I am.
My husband, for example, would be a star on Hoarders if it weren’t for me. Our garage is a scary decluttering project in waiting. His office is a paper-hoarding den, and if you need the hard copy of any article published in Harper’s or The Atlantic for the last 20 years, he can hook you up. He also maintains a storage facility that has everything from old mid-century furniture nobody wants down to team T-shirts his kids wore at various stages of their sports careers. When he saw how serious I was about this project, he wisely backed off and stayed out of my way, occasionally venturing in to utter comments of amazement and awe.
The key to eventual bliss in this process is one question that must be asked about every item: Does it spark joy? Marie Kondo wants you to take out every single thing you own and put it on the floor or the bed, pick up each skirt, top, pair of jeans, whatever, and determine in a split second if that item sparks joy. The book explains what a spark of joy feels like, just in case you have never had one. There are no other criteria! Not guilt (I paid a lot for that), not irrational hope (If I grow three inches taller in the next year, that long dress will be great), not the age of the piece (Everything old is bad).
That last one is crucial for me. Conventional wisdom says that if you have not worn it in a year you must ditch it. That rule never worked for me. I pride myself on my “vintage” clothing collection that I have curated by simply buying things brand new and then waiting decades for them to be cool again. My Levi’s jacket is legit 70s, and still tough-as-nails good. I wore this magenta silk dress on my 40th birthday and now it is a treasured bit of lounge-wear, as I believe they call it in the department stores. My friend Barbara calls gowns like this “dayties”—nighties that you can wear in the day.
When I got married five years ago, I built a wedding dress from the deep recesses of my own closet. No way was I going to spend money on a stupid overpriced event dress—been there, done that—and I must say the look turned out rather well. I paired an antique-style slip dress with a silk chiffon tunic that had never met each other before (bought in different decades) and, voila!
A 20s style wedding ensemble swanky enough to elicit yelps of praise from drunks lying in the streets of Key West as I walked by after the ceremony. Even the necklaces (ropes of fake pearls and little sea shells) came out of my personal archives. Not a penny was spent.
These items clearly spark joy and will not be going anywhere. So, onward in my goal to clear 2/3 of my closet and live free.
I started with the shoes. As I hauled them all out into the hallway, I was struck by how many black shoes, boots, and sandals I own; they seem to have reproduced in the dark corners of the closet. After 90 minutes I was suddenly very tired and hyper aware that this was a much bigger project than I anticipated. But I forged on.
After ruthlessly dismissing well over half my shoes, I faced the true monster: the mass of hanging clothes and stacked sweaters and T-shirts. Trying not to think consciously about JOY yet, I threw them all on the bed and the pile quickly grew horrifying. What kind of person has this much crap!? Am I really a shallow, maniacal American consumer gathering more stuff than I could ever need? On the other hand, the vintage aspect of the pile allowed me to cut myself a bit of slack. When I finally got into the sorting process, applying the JOY test to every item, I started wishing for a chosen uniform to simplify my life, just like the clever woman in this article employed. Clothing began to feel like tyranny. Why can’t we just wear togas?
Look at all these T-shirts! Concerts, causes, witticisms, great bars of the world—and how can I toss the tee celebrating a band my own son was in? Still, they must be narrowed down.
Some are just too significant to part with. I am not really even a T-shirt person, so I may not wear this image of Miles Davis very often. But I need to have the option. I mean, just look at this. Could you put that in a Goodwill bag?
Then I came across this generous and soft hand-painted T-shirt dress that functioned as my favorite maternity outfit during my last pregnancy. Spark joy? Oh yeah. The hundreds of hours I spent in this garment while my future firecracker of a girl kicked and twirled inside me come flooding back when I look at this dress. So what if the baby is going to be 27 next month? Shut up, I am keeping the dress.
It became clear that I had to be a bit more stringent with myself. The baby dress made the cut, so did the bridal outfit. But other things hit the donation bag that pained me to say goodbye to, even though they do not spark the kind of joy required. The flowy green and black jacket my mother wore at her 75th birthday party was one of the hardest things to let go of. I will never wear it, and I have many other beautiful things to remember her by. I held it to my chest for a minute and thanked this sweet bit of silk for making Mom look so beautiful on a wonderful evening. Then I stuffed it quickly into the bag and blinked back the tears. But they were the FIRST tears of the process after hours of work, so that alone was kind of a victory.
I now have four giant contractor bags filled with clothes, shoes, and even handbags (they had reproduced, too) to donate. I also have a smaller collection of pretty damned good clothing set aside for trying my luck at a consignment shop. And there is a truly shameful bag of stuff going straight to the garbage. Worn down athletic shoes, torn shirts, holey socks. Having too much stuff truly makes problem content invisible.
The result is that my closet is as airy and organized as that wonder-woman’s in the posh One King’s Lane article above. It feels amazing. I am sold on Marie Kondo and her joy-sparking ways. In fact, I might actually read the book now.