How Mari Kondo’s system helped me grieve the life I lost

I’ve seen a lot of criticisms of the Konmari method of decluttering your life. Most of the criticisms I’ve read are either based on the idea that it’s supposed to be one size fits all, that it suggests that everyone should be decluttering and living a minimalist lifestyle, or that throwing stuff away is bad for some reason. Every time I read one of those articles or blogs I get annoyed because they’re either branding it with minimal understanding of it, or misunderstanding the process.

Right upfront I want to say that 1) decluttering isn’t for everyone. If you are happy with keeping all of your stuff and how it fits in your life (and those who share your space agree), then that’s all good. 2) yes, decluttering will result in things going to landfill, but realistically, you’ve just moved that landfill into your garage if you’re only storing it because you feel guilty about dumping it. 3) not everyone can physically do this. My physical restrictions are the reason this is going to take me much longer than the expected 6-12 months. 4) I am poor, so I understand the problems of having stuff simply because of need and availability, and that’s exactly why I wanted to do this. (Yes, I know the bathroom and wardrobe in my photos are pretty flash, for someone who claims to be poor, but that is deceptive).

I haven’t completed the process, or even a section properly. My ME means I can’t dump every book I own in a pile and deal with it all in a day. My chaotic life of the last 15 years means I don’t even know where all of my books are, so I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, and thought about the principles and philosophy of her method and modified the process slightly to let me at least make a start.

And that small start has already changed the way I think about my space, my stuff, my illness, and my life in general. And it’s made the parts of the house I have reorganised work much better and stay tidier.

Principles of the system

  • Work in categories from easiest (emotionally) to hardest. She suggests starting with clothing because most people quickly know how they feel about each item of clothing. Categories are not rooms, they are things like “books” (all of your books, from shelves, storage, under the bed, handbags etc), clothing, cleaning products, bed linen. This allows you to do a bit of a stocktake of each category and get a sense of how much you have. It also prevents unnecessary duplication.
  • Hold every item, one at a time, asking yourself “this this item bring me joy?” And “is this something I want to carry with me into my future?” Every item should get at least 1 “yes”.
  • Take notice of “important” items that did not get a “yes” and consider what this might mean. If you really dislike your saucepans, but they are all you have, consider making a plan to upgrade in the future. If your work uniform is a “no” consider why this might be. Do you need to look for or a new job?
  • All “yes” items are placed in one pile, all “no” items are thanked and/or farewelled before putting in another pile. Thanking the items is important; do not skip this step.
  • Items that can be sold, or donated to charity, or given away* should be passed forward as soon as possible. Items that can be recycled should be recycled, if it must go to landfill, then that is its fate – maybe end of life disposal will become part of your future acquisition choices.
  • When you put everything away it should be stored so you can easily find the item you need and easily return it to its rightful place when done. Storage should let you see what is where and not have to dig through or pull out lots of other things. The more layers you need to remove to get to an item, the less likely it will be that they will go back how they were.
  • If it’s necessary to layer, due to cupboard shapes (we have 2 annoying L shaped cupboard, one of which stores our stove’s gas cylinder – there is no way to access the back without removing items in front), then try to organise it so that you only need to move 1 or 2 items, and you don’t have to remove the front items often (store less uses items in the back).
  • For myself, being rather poor, I did not want to waste anything that could be used by me. So I added a category – use up. I have a lot of hand creams and soaps, body lotions, makeup, nail polishes, note books, pens etc. I decided not throw any out unless it was actually off/horrible/unusable, and use up the caches of motel shampoos, gift basket lip balms and hand creams, and 20 year old nail polishes before buying and more. The only exception to the no buying more rule was notebooks – I purchased a small notebook for my purse, which I use for everything. It needed to be smaller than anything in my stash.

What the system is not

  • Prescriptive. Only you know how much stuff, or how much of a particular stuff, is the right amount for you. There are no rules about how many books or cds or t-shirts you should own. My husband has about 40 t-shirts, and he wears them all. I think I have 6, and I’m considering culling a few.
  • About how you fold your socks. That’s just a suggestion of a nice way to store clothing so you can see what is there and get to the items you need while maximising storage space. If you don’t want to roll your underwear, don’t roll your underwear.
  • A process that will need repeating regularly. When you reach your personal “sweet spot” of possessions, Kondo claims you will not feel the desire to add to the clutter, and will stay at this level, discarding as you acquire or just not acquiring. From the changes I have seen in myself already, I can see this being true. I haven’t found my sweet spot yet, but I definitely don’t feel like adding to the things I own. **

Thank you for your service

Thanking and farewelling the discarded items is a really important aspect of this system for a number of reasons.

First if all, Marie Kondo’s background is Shinto. In this belief system all objects deserve respect and honour because they embody the ideas and the effort of a person, and because they are made from resources that have a value and a cost, both to ourselves and to the planet.

In a world rapidly chasing environmental disaster, it is important that we recognise the resources that went into making everything we use, and the cost of their disposal. This helps reduce mindless consumption and reduce our dependence disposable items.

When you’ve thanked, farewelled, and considered the life cycle of 300 items before sending them to landfill, you start to think about how you use spend your money and whether that cheap, but poor quality cutlery set that you never liked was a good use of resources or whether saving up to get something you actually like, or slowly collecting nicer and better quality cutlery a piece at a time, or even not buying the thing at all, is a better choice. I’d much rather scour op shops to buy good quality items second hand than something new but sub-standard.

Secondly, thanking the items helps reduce feelings of guilt we might have about their disposal and recognises the work they have done in our lives. It also forces us to acknowledge the things we don’t need and make us more conscious of how much ‘stuff’ we acquire without really considering its usefulness. Doing this over and over slowly changes your mindset about gathering new things, either through purchasing or accepting and keeping gifts/donations. You do not have to keep an item simply because soneone else gave it to you or because it cost money. Hoarding things we don’t want or use is not showing respect to that item or its source, so better to find it somewhere where it will be used.

One item that we replaced (I haven’t reached that part of the house yet, but it broke and had to be dealt with) was the cheese grater. It was a very nice, 4 sided grater with a thick rubber foot; it was a good size for collecting lots of grated cheese; it had all the right sizes of cutting edges, and a soft but sturdy handle…but it had also been badly crushed on the way home from kitchen duties at our wedding. I panel beated the worst of the dents out at the time, but earlier this year it finally collapsed and tore. There was no saving it.

I went shopping and found a suitably awesome replacement, then we farewelled our much loved kitchen tool. I held the grater in my hands and thanked it; I told it that we appreciated how well made it was and that it had done such a good job; I told it that we regretted that the injuries it had sustained meant that it had not been able to serve us for as long as we knew it would have, and that we were sorry to see it go. “Your watch has ended. Thank you for your service.” I said as I placed it in the bin. It felt like closure. I didn’t feel like I needed to try again to fix this very broken thing, or feel guilty for throwing it away when it had been such a good tool. I had told it that it was appreciated, and I had replaced it with something at least as good, so I could let it go.

Letting go of the past

Speaking of letting go…sometimes we hold onto things that we don’t want because we’re still clinging to their history in some way. This system can help with that too.

“Oy” (short for “Boy”) was a gift from my first boyfriend. I loved the dog, but he came to represent something painful. He ended up in limbo of too loved to pass on but too upsetting to have around.

When I was 17 years old I had a boyfriend, ‘P’. He went on holiday with a friend and when he came back he gave me a giant toy dog. He had already named the dog “Oy” after a dog-like character in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I love those books, and the Oy character.

I loved that dog. I would take him to school on Fridays so he would be with me at my dad’s place over the weekend.

The relationship lasted just over 6 years, despite being far from healthy. When it ended, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of Oy. It wasn’t his fault that the relationship wasn’t good. But over time, as things became even more toxic between P and myself, I became less able to enjoy Oy, because he made me think of P. So he was stuck in a love-hate limbo.

I was sorting my soft toys and came to Oy, and I decided that, as he didn’t bring me joy any more, I should try to find him a new home.

I asked my friends on Facebook if anyone wanted him. Someone (R) did. He had a plan to propose to his girlfriend, and Oy was going to have a starring role. Perfect.

But 20 years of cuddles, travel, and garage storage had left Oy less than pristine. His fur was dusty, grey, and matted. R and I took some soapy water to see if it was possible to clean Oy up well enough to do the job… we scrubbed a small section of his head and an ear to see how he looked… It was disturbing, but promising.

Over the next couple of months I spent a few hours each week, sitting in the sun with a bucket of soapy water and a large fluffy toy dog, slowly cleaning him up. While I washed him, I talked to him about P, the good, the bad, and why we weren’t together. I sang “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” while I thanked him for being such a constant and faithful companion over the years. I explained that although he was a good friend, he now represented something that was painful to me. I told him he was a good boy.

By the time he was ready to give away, he no longer represented the negaribe aspects of my relationship with P, I had worked through a lot of the lingering baggage I carried from that relationship (it all, but some), and Oy was looking like the big fluffy bundle of toy doggy love that he always should have been.

I really don’t think I would have ever sat down with myself and worked through any of the resentment and pain if I hadn’t been thanking and farewelling Oy.

Happy ending… Oy has gone to his new home, and has been renamed “BFD” (big fluffy dog).

Facing some harsh realities

Learning to accept my illness means saying goodbye to the life I had and the life I thought I would have. This is really hard. Going through my rather extensive, sometimes expensive, and well stocked wardrobe, I looked at each item and asked an extra question of every “yes” garment: “is this still useful to me?” I only kept clothes that I could imagine being worn in my new life. ***

One thing I did not want to do was keep only ratty, old (but comfortable) loungewear. Everything I kept, even the older items, was kept because it made me feel good. When I’m at home, I mostly need comfort, so the clothes I kept were comfortable and tidy. When I leave the house, I want to feel nice about doing it, so I have a range of pretty dresses, skirts, pants, and tops that make me feel sexy or confident or just comfortably presentable. Anything I now find myself avoiding will be reconsidered (I have a few items I’m unsure about/need until I can find a suitable replacement/wear seasonally or in phases, so they will stay until I’m certain I’ve moved on).

My dad says “there’s no such thing as over dressed, only better dressed.” I kept this in mind when looking at day wear. Even my lounging at home clothes and pajamas are reasonably nice.

Wardrobe of corporate attire

There are many items that I really loved, but I will not wear again in the foreseeable future, as they were very specifically “office” or “corporate” attire that I couldn’t see myself wearing outside that setting. It was painful to admit to myself that my life as an operations manager might really be over, but I recognised that holding onto the clothing was just wasting space and resources. If I ever manage to return to the corporate world, it is likely that a stylish or designer dress from 2014 will look dated. I told myself that if I am ever well enough to return to work, I’ll just get appropriate clothes to fit my body and the style of that point in time, then I passed most of my corporate wear (just what she chose to take – there’s no point in shifting the clutter) to a friend who was job hunting, as she will get use out of them. Other items I sold or donated.

Secret stash of wintergreen lifesavers and shoe overflow. I have now also added cardboard tubes to the boots so they’ll stand up.

Rediscovering lost loves, uncovering holes

In my wardrobe alone I rediscovered so many things that I loved, but had almost forgotten I owned.

I rediscovered a favourite dress of mine that had barely been worn in the last few years, that I bought in 2006 on sale. I loved that dress so much, I don’t even know how much I paid for it (I know it was half price, so I would guess somewhere around $50 based on the usual pricing of that range). It’s comfortable, flattering, and always appropriate, whether for work, a funeral, or a date (just move the pin to adjust the cleavage to suit the event and/or add a scarf). It’s good for 3 seasons of the year, and some evenings in summer. Why did I stop wearing it? I had too many other options.

We have no shortage of clothes, even post clean out, and now we can easily find what we want to wear.

Strangely, I did still wear over 90% of the items in my wardrobe that fitted me, but having enough work clothes that you can go 6 weeks without doing any laundry is really too many… especially for someone who doesn’t work. Even much loved items could go months without being worn when I was working, so I could definitely spare a lot of it.

On the other side of that coin, when all the extra bulk was gone, I discovered a few holes in my wardrobe. There are skirts that never had tops that matched nicely, and I need to do something about my black pants – they’re all too long or uncomfortable on high pain days. I also had only 1 pair or pajama pants, to go with about 6 pajama tops, and 1 nighty.

So went shopping for sleepwear. I got 2 nice pairs of pajama pants that I love wearing. I still want some more nighties, but I can’t afford the ones I liked. I also still need to find the perfect cream blouse (I will accept nothing less than perfection) and get my nice trousers taken up. Alternatively (or additionally), I need to do another pass and decide if I really want to keep that cute skirt and those black tailored pants.

Bags of clothes that no longer fit my body, my personal style, or my life. I’m quite shocked by how much I still have after this.

Practicality of minimalism – what it’s done for me so far

My ME/CFS means that this process will take me much longer than the 6 months to a year that Kondo expects most households to need. I can’t do much at a time, and I can’t gather everything off a certain category together due to years of disorganised chaos made worse by 3 house moves and a bunch of earthquakes. I’ve done my clothes, and my old and new toys, and my books, but I may revisit all of those later. I am doing a “sort into categories” sweep to start, applying the principals as I go, so even though I’m only categorizing, I’m still reducing, but even that has made a difference.

I was a little concerned about getting rid of too many clothes… what if I can’t keep up with the washing and end up bed ridden with nothing to wear? Even through winter this was not an issue. I could probably reduce my sock collection considerably, since there are many pairs that never left the drawer this winter. Having fewer clothes actually meant I did little bits of laundry more often. When I had enough clothing to go 6 weeks without washing clothes, guess how long I would sometimes go before washing anything. Now I do maybe 2-3 loads of clothes and 2-3 loads of towels/sheets every week or so. I can generally manage washing, drying, and folding one load in a day (drying on a rack or in the tumble dryer rather than on the washing line. The line requires more bending and reaching, so is a lot harder), so a load gets washed and hung to dry or tumble dried, and clothes that had been hanging to dry are brought to the bedroom for folding, folded and put away. I don’t have 3 baskets if clean clothes waiting to be put away and no piles of dirty washing threatening to collapse and trigger a USAR event.

We’ve donated 3 large bin sacks of clothing, dumped 2 large car loads of rubbish, and we have another waiting to go, and a similar sized pile of things to donate, sell, or give away. I can find things in the garage. I found a whole lot of missing books, I finally converted some precious home videos to digital.

The spaces I’ve decluttered have stayed pretty tidy. Some need more removed, but they’re pretty good as is.

My art supplies have been sorted and stripped right back. I have a portable kit for watercolour painting and watercolour pencil drawings, which can be supplemented with inks for #inktober. Even this kit will shrink as I use up excess sketch books I found around the place. It’s small enough that I can store it in my bedside cabinet.

My art kit. I don’t tend to take the inks out (they’re also mostly my husband’s) but I can easily add inks or them for the water colours if I choose.

My mindset about my possessions has changed. I now think about the future of the item, rather than my past with it. I am longer content to accept furniture that doesn’t quite fit, or work, or is poorly made or ugly, just because it was available. Now I think more carefully about the use and design of the things I own and how well they suit their purpose in my life. If I buy things, it’s because they are a quality product that makes me happy, like my nice metal pegs I bought to replace the constantly breaking plastic ones, and the wee wooden music box that I loved at first sight when I saw it at the salvation army store, and the pricey but high quality kitchen tongs I bought on sale to replace the bent and broken $2 shop pair.

I feel physically lighter with less stuff around me. The things I own are swiftly becoming the things I like, things that serve a purpose, and the things that help me add content to my life. I have fewer and fewer things that don’t quite work how I would like, or are filled with negative associations, or are just plain ugly… but they’re too good to throw away… let someone else who wants that thing have it.

*only give items away to someone why has requested it – don’t ‘gift’ bags of random clothes; let people select items they want it you’re just passing on the clutter. Clothes they don’t want can be donated to charity, where it will be sorted again.

** interesting tangential thought… this suggests that clutter and hoarding may be similar in mechanism to the “metabolic trap” hypothesis of ME/CFS.

*** for some reason I felt I can justify keeping 8 cocktail dresses, but not 6 pencil skirts. Of course, I do love every one of those dresses, and I somehow do find excuses to wear them. Pencil skirts are pretty, but not the most comfortable or practical for me these days.


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