A (Not So) Quick & Dirty Queer Reflection of Marie Kondo

Creatrix Tiara
Jun 14 · 41 min read

Originally written 17th January 2019 by Creatrix Tiara (‘Tiara’/they/them). Current version edited by Tove.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial International 4.0
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Alishia Holmes-Watson (left), Marie Kondo (center) and Angela Holmes-Watson (right) pose for a photo. The couple are featured on an episode of Netflix’s “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.” Courtesy of Angela Holmes-Watson. (via)

Preamble

In early 2019, I went viral on Twitter for my defence of Marie Kondo / The KonMari Method, particularly the backlash to the (false) accusation that Marie Kondo only wants people to keep 30 books in their home. It wasn’t so much that I had strong feelings about her methodology (though I have written about this before in 2016); rather, I found so much of the backlash infuriating in its xenophobia, misogyny, and willful misunderstanding of what she’s actually said.

Since then, I’ve also provided the voice of Marie Fuckin’ Kondo for Felipe Torres Medina’s amazing satire piece I’m Marie Fucking Kondo and You Can Keep All Your Fucking Books, You Ingrates (which also went viral). That then inspired me to create and perform an affectionate parody skit as her queer salty-sweet counterpart Marie Fuckin’ Kueerdo, providing advice on sorting your sex toys and how there’s more to theorists of colour than just the one Audre Lorde quote the Woke White Queers know, but also reminding queer folk that they deserve to have the living space of their dreams.

That Marie Kueerdo piece was largely informed by my (not so) quick and dirty queer analysis of Kondo’s first book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. At that point, I had read The Life-changing Manga of Tidying Up (which reads more like a case study) and watched through all of the Tidying Up Netflix series and some other interviews & talks with Kondo, but I hadn’t yet read the book that started it all. I figured, since I was getting some notoriety over my thoughts on Marie Kondo, I might as well do a deep dive on what she was truly all about, beyond the overly-simplified memes.

I'm not some kind of tidying up expert. I'm not even that organised—my sister has the organising genes in the family—though I am on a bit of a nesting kick at the moment. A lot of my work, however, often draws connections between pop culture and my lived experience as a queer genderqueer immigrant femme of colour with mental health conditions. KonMari is pretty much a part of pop culture, so why not explore that too?

This is not a glowing review or a scathing criticism of the KonMari Method. Like everything else, there are parts of this process that I like and parts that bother me. I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, but I'm already aware that key parts of the method, such as what "spark joy" even means, are rooted in elements of Japanese culture that I may not be able to fully appreciate. I don't expect people to agree with me fully or take me on as a KonMari expert! I just wanted to read her words for myself, see what she's actually espousing, and reflect from there — especially since I had a lot of thoughts on how her process relates to the experience of people within queer (& adjacent) communities who have different relationships to living space and belongings compared to the cisheteronormative norm.

(This process did make me look into actually being a KonMari consultant, particularly one working with queer/kinky/alternative clients, but the process is very costly and nowhere near my means alas)

The original version was written as I went through the book, leading to well over 10,000 words of lightly edited content (I had expected far less). It was edited by Tove soon after, but due to a lot of life upheavals, I wasn’t really able to take a look at it until now. The structure has remained as is (going through chapter by chapter liveblog-style rather than organising by themes, which Tove had suggested but which I didn’t have the time for) so it’s still pretty long, but Tove did a great job of making the original essay clearer and less rambly.

INTRODUCTION

The philosophy behind the KonMari Method, bolded in the text, is that

A dramatic reorganisation of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.

I'm very, very sceptical of any approach that promises Instant Life Changes If You Do This One Thing. Anything related to manifestation, The Secret, or Law of Attraction puts me in a rage. I tune out at “The universe provides”. I hate it so much.

This is mainly because I used to be much more into that mindset as a means of trying to have some sort of control over multiple massive societal forces working against me. I come from a country that blatantly discriminates against my race, my career and my livelihood have been severely hamstrung by immigration and visa regulations, and even circles of other marginalised folk either don't really recognise me as their own or have caveats about my belonging.

So for a time I also leaned into the spiritual-esque stuff, from witchiness to whatever random Law of Attraction method someone would suggest, because I needed all the help I could get. But that didn't eradicate the societal forces. My success still felt like it was determined via lottery: unpredictable, no clear correlation, utterly fucking random. It still didn't really matter how hard I worked, how much I did, who I knew—and if I did succeed, there was usually a catch, just like in that game where the genie grants your wishes but fucks it up somehow. I felt like I was pleading with a brick wall, an apathetic universe. I envy my friends with a stronger sense of faith — I try not to let myself have faith because I get let down a lot. (I have a classic case of cherophobia: "fear of happiness", as in being suspicious of anything good because bad luck will surely follow.)

All of this isn't to say that I haven't succeeded at all. I've managed to pull off things despite the odds and I've had incredible experiences that very few manage to have. It was just that there was no clear way to know what would succeed; it felt like throwing a whole bunch of pasta at the wall to see what sticks. So anything that promises guaranteed transformation, even the KonMari Method, makes me suspicious. What if I'm the unlucky one that gets nothing out of it? I suspect I'm not the only one — structural oppression, especially from multiple angles, can break your spirit this way.

I get where Kondo is coming from, though. Unlike all the other “manifestation” stuff, which is largely “think it and it'll come”, the KonMari Method is an active process. As Kondo herself says:

When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don't, and what you should and shouldn't do.

Her process involves building awareness of our own values and letting what "sparks joy" lead the way. Going through our possessions is a way to hone in on those values and build up your awareness further. Her intention is that the awareness doesn't just end at our things — we then apply it to the rest of our lives: one testimonial claims, “Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don't — so I got a divorce”.

Once you know what you need, it's up to you to go get it. It doesn't start and end with your stuff, but your stuff can help you figure out how to go about it.

I feel like a lot of people — myself included — tend to approach these methods almost like religion: “Oh, I need to have the right frame of mind to be able to do this correctly, and I have to do it exactly right, the way someone else tells me”. But the KonMari Method is technique-first: action begets clarity. And it needs to be you personally doing the organising —neither she nor anyone else can tell you what to keep because this process is rooted in your values and lifestyle. That bloody “30 books” meme is the total opposite of her approach.

Will the effects be as stupendous as she claims? I don't know. I'm sure there that are people who have sincerely gone through the whole process without much of a change in the status quo. But I do appreciate that Kondo's reasoning for the life changes is “you will be better equipped to build the life that you want”, not “the Universe will listen to your wishes and provide in some mysterious manner".

Yes, all of this is incredibly hard when so much of life is working against us, no matter how much we can build, but there is value in having better insight into the kind of life we want to build in the first place — especially if we're working against the norm. Many of us who are queer or marginalised in some way won't be able to neatly fit into the expected social norms of a Good Life, but we don't have to. The KonMari Method seems like a great opportunity to go within ourselves and figure out the kind of life we want, away from outside eyes or social expectations—even expectations shared within our communities. We are the Gods of our own spaces.

Yes, we are limited in so many ways, but I feel like us queers, in particular, are really good at being really ingenious in repurposing spaces and things and ideas for our personal and communal benefit. And that usually starts with being clear about ourselves — and then using that clarity to connect with others and build something together. Marie Kondo doesn't want to tell us what an ideal tidy home would look like. Like a good art teacher, she doesn't want to tell you what to paint: she wants to teach you how to paint, but ultimately she wants to help us figure out what we want to paint for ourselves.

WHY CAN'T I KEEP MY HOUSE IN ORDER?

Kondo is an adorable fangirl nerd who's been into tidying since teenagerhood. Home organization magazines were her favourite. I would not be surprised at all if it turns out Kondo has AD(H)D, because as someone who has ADHD: oh my GOD I saw so much in her explanations of why the process is the way it is — it relates so easily to my ADD brain.

(Also, with the caveat that whether or not I’m autistic is still up for debate (long story) and armchair diagnosis is tricky at the best of times: it feels a lot like tidying up is Kondo’s special interest.)

Kondo and I are the sort of people who get a lot done under pressure, often at the last minute. She herself says that her attempts at doing a small thing a day don't usually work out — she tried discarding one thing a day, but eventually, she fell into saying "Oh, I'll just discard this tomorrow," and then tomorrow never came. (She says she usually doesn't last more than two weeks. That's pretty much me.)

Making an event of it, though? Doing it all in one fell swoop when she's motivated to do so? That works. I recognise this dedicated, focused, maaaaaaybe slightly manic energy — I get a hell of a lot done when I throw myself into something, but it works best in short bursts, not stretched out over time (which is probably why I ended up writing a long-form book report in one day.) And according to her, once you get it out of the way, you never really have to tidy again because it's done.

What she's basically advocating for is a reset button. You grab everything you own, category by category, and work through it. You start by deciding what to discard and what to keep so that you can make better decisions on how to store things rather than buying storage boxes so you can stuff things in them and forget they exist. You do one category at a time (all clothes, all books, etc. etc.) so that you know for sure that all of your things are accounted for.

In this chapter, Kondo talks about the phenomenon of students avoiding studying by housecleaning. To her, this is because their brains feel too cluttered to be able to study or concentrate properly; since we can't literally declutter our brains, the students find something more tangible to work on: their houses. The feeling of order created by tidying gives your brain some relief so that studying feels a lot easier to handle.

I feel this. I really wish my brain had a defrag option; it’s always racing with a billion ideas and thoughts at once and I get distracted very easily (hello, ADHD brain). It sometimes helps to tangibly put something in order — it makes me feel that I did something. Kondo says that the accomplishment of going through our stuff gives our brains a concrete example of "I can do this!", which then motivates us to tackle the other parts of our lives.

I'm reminded of a common productivity tip of a brain dump: you list EVERYTHING you're thinking about, every last worry or idea or reminder, then look at each item and sort out what to do about it: schedule it, take action, let it go, whatever. The KonMari Method strikes me as the physical, tangible version of a brain dump. Instead of “your thoughts become things", it’s “your things become thoughts”— your things correlate to thoughts in your brain, and when you sort the things out, your brain sorts out the associated thoughts, too.

Taking a good, honest look at what you have, however, can get very, very confrontational. Cleaning up before studying may help us calm down enough to study, or it could be a way to distract ourselves from studying (as has happened to Kondo). We may be trying to avoid dealing with something going on in our inner lives by taking it out on the tangible. Once we've tidied everything away, whether KonMari style or otherwise, we can't hide behind our things anymore. And that can be scary as hell.

When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them. From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. [...] Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination.

I can see this potentially being traumatic — or at least retraumatizing, if your stuff and clutter was protection from the darkness and negativity you'd been facing before. If you don't have good support for resetting your life afterwards, this process can hurt. I feel like Kondo is overly optimistic about the "one and done" nature of her process for this reason: we could very well find some other thing to hide behind, or fall back on old cluttered habits, or be devastated by the truths we uncover.

And hell, for many of us in the margins, the things negatively affecting us aren't going to be solved by a cleanup or by force of will. We're often dealing with structural oppression, which has negative effects on our mental or physical health, leading to burnout and compromised social relationships. Sometimes the oppression is more personal: abusive relationships, unhealthy families, unwelcome communities. The KonMari Method can help us identify what needs to change, but sometimes the thing that needs changing is not within our control.

So should you try the KonMari Method if it could potentially bring up larger, more difficult issues? It's up to you. Maybe the process will help motivate you to find the support you need, like a therapist or a doctor or a community group. (Maybe it can be motivation for further developing systems of community care — not just relying on the self, or on external support, but really helping each other.) Or maybe you'd be better off setting up those support systems ahead of time so that you'll be able to immediately tap into them in case things come up while tidying.

I'm pretty sure that someone will take my cautions as justification to go “not everyone is neurotypical, Karen” at Marie Kondo, but that's not really what I mean. For one thing, as my comment about ADHD shows, I feel like the KonMari Method works really well for types of neurodiversity that thrive on concentrated bursts of energy rather than a slow, piecemeal process. I'm also reminded of symptoms like over/undereating that are rooted in some other kind of life distress (e.g. I eat unhealthily less when I'm extremely stressed): perhaps the KonMari method could be a way to tackle that symptom head-on. And, in the spirit of action begetting clarity, it may be necessary for some people to go through the (potential) ring of fire that is taking stock of your things in one massive go first before they can deal with their depression or anxiety, rather than waiting to be less depressed or anxious before starting the process. Sometimes we're never going to be ready enough and that's OK; that's not necessarily a barrier to getting started.

Given the deep psychological nature of the KonMari Method, however, and given that it's less about procedures for tidying up and more about mindset-building, it may be wise to first take stock of our own selves and see what we can handle. Marie Kondo may want you to commit to the process fully to see results, but you have permission to stop whenever and for whatever reason. She's not there to judge, so come into it with informed consent and see how you go.

FINISH DISCARDING FIRST

There's a lot going on in this chapter: for one thing, this is where the concept of "sparking joy" is introduced — so I'll tackle it section by section.

Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely

One thing that confused me in the previous chapter was her insistence on this process being done "quickly". I had heard that she's had clients who take months to a year to accomplish this — was that yet another bit of misinformation?

It turns out that I was right the first time:

From my experience with private individual lessons, "quickly" means about half a year. That may seem like a long time, but it is only six months out of your whole life.

It's an interesting contrast to other popularised home makeover methods — at least the televised ones — where everything is done in a week or less. Even professional organisers that you can hire for yourself tend to work to short deadlines. The KonMari Method seems like a more long-term project in comparison, but since it's meant to be one-and-done, it's probably less time-consuming in the grand scheme of things, especially in comparison to one-thing-a-day methods which seem endless.

The heading is slightly misleading, though. In terms of the physical, tangible component, yes, discard first, then store. But there's something that needs to happen before you even touch anything.

Before you start, visualise your destination

The KonMari Method is not really something you get into willy-nilly: you could just jump in if you wanted, but I suspect that it's precisely this initial work that makes that changed mindset stick more effectively and make this a one-and-done process.

Here's the self-examination I was talking about earlier: getting clear on why you want to tidy and what you want to get out of this. Kondo is more about the overall life changes you want to see happen, while I specifically honed in on how to take care of yourself if things get too overwhelming, but they're parts of the same intention-building process. For Kondo, the destination is not “I want a clutter-free space”—that's not nearly enough. She wants you to ask why, and ask why again of each answer. Each answer should be as vivid and concrete as possible: visualise your life as you want it, how you want to use and live in your space.

The concrete example that she gives differs between the book and the manga. The book’s example, from a real-world client, is more detailed: the client starts with a “feminine lifestyle”, then when asked to elaborate, she talks about very specific furnishings, a very particular bedtime ritual, and “a feeling of unhurried spaciousness”. The manga’s (fictional) example is much more succinct: the lead character just wants to be able to cook meals in their apartment, but their kitchen is stuffed with junk.

I think that difference in detail can be very helpful to those of us who may have difficulty visualising the kind of life we want, especially if (because of marginalisation) getting that life is very, very unlikely. So many of my peers are often homeless, can only ever live in precarious rentals or sharehouses, or end up back with families that restrict their expression. We're limited in the jobs we can get, the care we can access, and the spaces we can occupy. How can we start dreaming of an "ideal life" if we know for sure that there's no way in hell that we're ever going to get it? What if something as small as “I want to cook meals at home” is still such a big ask?

As much as I enjoy exercises like these on occasion, I also struggle with them because of my cherophobia: “What do you want?” is, to me, the most useless question because circumstances hardly ever will align for me to get it. At the same time, there can be some value in clarifying for ourselves what kind of person we want to be, what we hope to get out of our spaces. What kind of small gestures of ownership we can make towards even the tiniest bit of the space we have?

I come from a line of migrant landlords; they moved, often internationally (like my parents), but they also deeply valued homeownership. In fact, right now we’re in the process of buying my first home, mainly as a way to transfer inheritance ahead of time. This process, though, still gives me existential dread.

For most of my life, I couldn't fathom having a space of my own — or being in one place long enough to really settle in. My life was ruled by visas and immigration, which meant that I was either in a place where I logistically didn't have to leave but faced enough discrimination or backlash that I couldn't stay (i.e. Malaysia or Brisbane) or the place was super fulfilling but I had to leave once my visa was up (oh, Bay Area, I miss you). The only spaces that felt consistently like home were airports — but I can’t exactly move into an airport.

Now, for the first time in my life, I'm in a position where I don't have to stay in this city if I don't want to, but I don't have to leave—and I actually have reasons to stay, which means I can think about nesting for damn once, including home ownership. I’m still grappling with my baggage of not feeling at home anywhere, and the process itself is excruciating, but at least it’s possible now in a way that it couldn’t be just a few years before.

I'm reminded of Skyler from season two, episode five of Queer Eye, who wanted his space to be a refuge for other queers in need: a simple, succinct, powerful goal. Like Skylar, I want my space to be a refuge, a haven for creativity, for friendships, for anything. My best friend has used my apartment as rehearsal space while I was out and it thrilled me to be able to make that happen. I had people over for New Year's Eve and it was lovely. It wasn't a big thing — but it was plenty.

Kondo's question is ultimately: what makes you happy? Which leads into the core of her philosophy:

Selection criteria: does it spark joy?

Ah yes, that infamous question, debated and misunderstood and maligned and celebrated all at once, somehow.

“What makes you happy?”, like “What do you want?”, is a pretty loaded question, especially if you've lived most of your life being told that you aren't allowed to be happy. I've seen some interesting discussion, too, about how people with depression or other related mental illnesses aren't necessarily going to be able to feel joy, which makes this criterion useless for them.

From what I understand, the concept in its original Japanese is more nuanced. It's less about heart-racing happiness and more of a feeling of resonance, of alignment. In the English translation Kondo ends the chapter with this:

Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.

There've been a lot of attempts to clarify the meaning of "sparking joy" (including Kondo’s other book, Sparks Joy, which goes into further detail about each step in the process). Working from the Japanese definition, as aforementioned. Thinking about things as a function of some process that gives you joy. Lots of words.

It seems, though, that words may not be the best approach here.

Kondo's method is visceral, somatic: Hold the item. Evaluate the item in your hands. Account for the item. As you hold it, observe your body. How does this item make you feel? How is your body reacting?

Kondo says “Trust me and try it”, which gives me hives because I have a blanket rule of not trusting anyone who says “trust me”. But I'm also familiar with some elements of somatic psychology—body-based work—where this approach is pretty much their philosophy. Basing a decision on physical responses can help bypass the need to overthink and overjustify. “Go with your gut”, as they say.

(Since writing the original version of this essay, I did use the KonMari Method on my clothes. What really fascinated me were these two pieces that I intellectually thought I’d keep, but my body and gut said to let go. I placed them in the Keep pile at first, but then later it felt like the clothes were screaming at me to be released. So I did. I still kinda miss them but I hope they’ve gone to someone who doesn’t make them scream.)

Would a body-based methodology help those who say they can't feel joy? I think it depends on the person, and I don't think there's a blanket inability for those dealing with depression or similar conditions to make use of this process. You may find it easier to work with how you're feeling if you don't need to translate it into words. You may find your body to be calmer and clearer than the ruminations of your anxious headspace.

Or maybe you feel so disconnected from your body that you can't get any useful information from it. Maybe the part of you that can figure out Joy or Not Joy is more like a voice in your mind, or a tinge in your heart or some other part of you. That's fine! The process is very You Do You. Kondo’s ultimate goal is for you to make your tidying choices however you want, based on whatever makes you happy.

Another important part of this chapter is her focus on keeping what you want. A lot of decluttering methodologies focus on what to get rid of and being as minimalist as possible, which is why people assume Kondo's a minimalist herself.

She’s not.

She tells this story about having a mental breakdown after discarding to the point of interfering with other people's stuff. Through that breakdown, she heard a voice say, “Look more closely at what is there”, and realised that she hadn't really taken the time to account for her things, or rather to account for her happiness. Once she changed her focus to what she wanted to keep and cherish — what sparked joy — things got better.

So perhaps if you can't articulate or feel “joy”, maybe it's enough to just hear, “I want to keep this”. You don't have to justify to anyone why you want to keep it. It's your want, it's your thing. If it sparks enough of something that it makes you want to keep it, great! Your choices, your consent, your life.

Starting with mementoes spells certain failure

This is where Kondo introduces her order of operations: clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellany), mementoes. This is actually what sparked me to write this reflection piece in the first place — because I think this order would be very different for us queermos for the very same reason she chose this approach.

Her reasoning is that the skill of evaluating what does and doesn't spark joy needs to be practised; we're not necessarily going to be able to do it from the jump. Mementoes and sentimental items are loaded—if we start with them, we're probably going to be confronted with too much emotion to do a clear evaluation. If we end up making the wrong decision, a sentimental item is difficult to replace. Clothes are not necessarily rare; if we do end up feeling like we needed that t-shirt again, we can get another t-shirt much more easily than we could that photo of our dead grandmother. Start with something low-stakes, then move up to higher-stakes items as we get more confident in the process.

But for a lot of queer folk —and trans folk especially—clothes are super loaded with meaning and sentiment. Many of us use clothing as a way to signify identity, to affirm ourselves in a world that doesn't want to recognise us for who we are. (I have dubious feelings myself about clothing as queer signifiers, but that's a different discussion.) Some clothes can actually be pretty rare and hard to replace, especially if we're not of a typical body type. Some clothes, like costumes or wedding dresses, can function more like mementoes than regular attire. Sometimes we have clothing that functions as a mask for our true selves, or we hold onto clothes from a past when we were very different, or we're still trying to figure out who we are and want to experiment. What “sparks joy” could very easily get muddled here.

I think that Kondo's principles of doing sentimental, very loaded things last, and starting with a relatively easy entry point to get a sense of how the process works, are good and important ones. That entry point is probably going to differ from person to person—only we can know what our own personal order of operations should be.

And hell, even Kondo's open to shifting things — like allowing the widow in episode four of Tidying Up to sort her late husband's items earlier in the process, despite them being very sentimental, because the task would be weighing too heavily on her mind for her to focus on the other tasks. If you do need to get through with the sentimental stuff first, make sure that you're very clear on what that entails, and know what to do if the process becomes too emotional.

Don't let your family see + If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause + What you don't need, your family doesn't either

Not all of us live with family or even have anything to do with them, so the advice here may seem superfluous, but it all basically boils down to one rule: you, and only you, can deal with your stuff—and only YOUR stuff. And this relates to more than just family or even just the people we live with.

“Don't let your family see” because you don't want them to start deciding what you should or shouldn't keep, as in “You should wear this if you want to be coded as queer even though you're not fond of it”, or “You should have this Very Important Book for the Discourse even though you can't stand the author”, or “You should have This Tool to be a Serious Professional even though you don't really use it and can make do with something else”.

“If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause” is the same principle but in the other direction: work on your stuff rather than telling others what to do with their own.

“What you don't need, your family doesn't either” means not handing off our stuff to others just because we don't want to deal with it. Kondo uses examples of younger siblings who often get so many castoffs from elder siblings that they never get a chance to build their own sense of style. There's also the current situation of op shops/thrift stores being inundated with unworkable clothes because people don't want to deal with sorting out what's good and what's in tatters. We can offer things to others, sure, but we must let them enthusiastically consent to receive those things.

This applies to more than just your things. You can have outside influences affect your decision-making (everyone does) but ultimately it's your call. If some issue is deeply bothering you, to the point of you interfering with someone else's life, examine yourself first and see what's going on there. And don't just dump on others without their consent — communicate first to see if they'd be up for it, and focus on things you know with some confidence they'd be into or even that they were looking for.

Tidying is a dialogue with one's self

Confrontation. Accountability. Self-examination. This is what the KonMari Method really boils down to: reflecting on ourselves and our lives through a methodical and thorough exploration of everything we own.

Kondo suggests working early in the morning so that we're alert, as well as creating a quiet, meditative space so that we can fully focus on your things and receive the visceral “sparks joy” responses. But you know your body better than anyone else. Maybe you're much more alert in the middle of the night. Or a completely quiet space gives you anxiety and some music helps calm you down enough to proceed. Or it’s always going to be too damn noisy and you’re always going to be too damn tired because life is like that sometimes. That’s all cool. The point is to be able to focus as much as we can on each object one at a time, and really give each object the time and attention it deserves. And if you’re like me and find it hard to really focus on just one thing at a time, just do what you can and take breaks if you need to.

What to do when you can’t throw something away

Part of the KonMari Method is that when you decide something doesn’t spark enough joy to warrant keeping, you thank it for its service before disposing of it. Some people find this rather woo-woo or “weird Japanese twee” — “Kondo is an animist and believes everything has a spirit”, or “She was a Shinto shrine maiden, of course she’d think that”.

I think there’s more to it. It’s about acknowledging and respecting the part of ourselves or our lives that an item represents. This isn’t just a t-shirt; it’s the one you got from your very first concert. This isn’t just a wooden spoon; you got that when you thought you were going to get into baking more. Sure, not everything we own is going to be that meaningful, but everything has some kind of story. Every item has a purpose, and maybe its purpose is no longer one we need to care about. Maybe the item’s purpose to you is to affirm to you that you are not the kind of person that needs it — its job is done and it can move on to being purposeful for someone else. “Thank you, next” is a useful strategy here.

Kivan Bay has a really great idea for how to deal with old clothes if you’re a trans person and the clothes don’t align with your gender:

As you go through those old clothes, or any old markers of a life that is no longer you — whether due to gender transition, or an ended relationship, or a job change, whatever — acknowledge that you’ve come this far. Acknowledge the life you lived, the lessons you learned; acknowledge the hurt and acknowledge the happiness. Take as long as you need. Then you may find that you no longer need that item as a reminder, or you may find that it’s something you want to treasure because you’ve done the work on reflecting on that item’s history and purpose, and reflecting on yourself through that item.

And the things you keep? Cherish them. Store them in a way that you can see them (we’ll get to her storage methods later). Really, really appreciate them and the parts of your life that they things represent: your affirmed gender. Your favourite hobbies. Your loved ones. Yourself.

Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude.

Kondo wants you to respect your things, but really she wants you to respect yourself.

A common criticism of the KonMari Method is that many of us can’t afford to replace discarded items, so we can’t get rid of something just because it doesn’t spark joy. This process forces us to reckon with our ideas of what we need — do we really need it, or do we feel like we need it for some unforeseen possibility, or because society told us so? This is why Kondo wants us to work with low-stakes, easily-replaceable items first: by the time we get to the harder-to-replace items, we’ll know ourselves well enough that we won’t end up having to replace too many items that we discard by mistake. Our lives could change enough, Kondo claims, that we may be better able to afford to replace things when the time comes.

This is also why we focus on what we want to keep, rather than what we want to get rid of. In an earlier section, Kondo described how her discard-first mentality led to her being so stressed out that she’d shop to soothe herself — which just made things worse. Focusing on what she wanted to keep meant that she could focus her energy on things she already had — including things she had forgotten but could reappreciate — and she didn’t feel the need to continue shopping to fill some void.

Your things are enough. You are enough.

TIDYING BY CATEGORY WORKS LIKE MAGIC

So after outlining with “the process of assessing how you feel about the things you own…[which] is really about assessing your inner life”, Kondo details the specific methods for working with each category: how to figure out what to discard as well as how to store the items we’ve decided to keep. This is where the animist angle can get a little overwhelming — “everything has feelings! Just TRUST ME on this!” — but it’s worth noting the subtext: respect your stuff and respect your feelings. If you decide to not hang your clothes from longest to shortest like she recommends because it feels wrong to you, you’re the authority that you should follow.

Clothing

You do want to take out every piece of clothing and accessory you own, including handbags, but stuff that’s currently in the laundry can be dealt with later. Kondo has an ultimatum of “if you find something later that didn’t make it, it’s an automatic discard”, the point being that if you’d forgotten about its existence, you probably don’t care about it so much that it sparks any joy.

There’s a controversial section here about loungewear, the things we wear at home when we don’t have much on, like PJs and sweatpants: she doesn’t want us to demote clothes to loungewear just to avoid discarding them. This paragraph targeted at women is a little dodgy:

If you are a woman, try wearing something elegant as nightwear. The worst thing you can do is to wear a sloppy sweat suit. I occasionally meet people who dress like this all the time, whether waking or sleeping. If sweatpants are your everyday attire, you’ll end up looking like you belong in them, which is not very attractive. What you wear in the house does impact your self-image.

Yes, it does sound like that one viral article about what to wear when working at home and it’s all extremely expensive designer clothing. And worrying about whether what you wear at home will make you attractive to the outside world is bullshit.

In the context of the entire section, though, it makes a little more sense: our homes are just as important as the outside world. We deserve nice things, and we deserve to wear what makes us happy— even and especially in our homes because they’re our spaces. Kondo is trying to get us to respect and honour ourselves even when nobody else is looking, to live our chosen joy-sparking lifestyle at all time — including when we’re at home, which is ideally our sanctuary, our safe space, the space where our self-image is at its most congruent.

Kondo’s known for her folding methods, but surprisingly the book isn’t as diagrammatical or even didactic about folding as the TV show or other media may make it seem. Rather, each item has its own comfortable ways of folding, so go experiment. (Sparks Joy has specific diagrams for folding.) The book does talk about healing energy flowing from our hands to our clothes when we fold them, which may be a little too woo-woo for some. Practically speaking, it’s so we can really get to know our clothing and notice details, such as frays or other damage, that would get overlooked if we just hung it and forgot it. And sometimes some clothes would work better hung — that’s great, go hang them.

Really that’s what a lot of the more animistic elements of KonMari boil down to: paying attention to what we have and letting that attention inform us on how to care for it. Often the information is much more intuitive (what “sparks joy”) than intellectual. You don’t just know you have this item; you know this item, care for this item, respect this item.

Part of respecting clothing is storing it in a way that maintains its quality and also makes it easy for us to see what we have. This is why she wants us to fold everything possible into rectangles and store it spine-up, and to stop pulling over the bands of our socks: well-folded clothes take up less room, maintain their shape and quality better, and are easily accessible — rather than shoved into the corner of a shelf unloved and unworn.

Know, care, respect.

Books

OH GOD THIS FUCKING 30 BOOKS MEME

Those of you who are book people — writers, editors, librarians, bookshop owners, whatever: if you shared that meme unironically or uncritically, I am going to do the least Kondoesque thing ever and tell you that you should be ashamed of yourselves. Because you didn’t bother to read. Your supposed love for books is just for show, because if you actually bothered to read you would know immediately that this is not what she bloody said. (Kondo has a lot more patience and forgiveness than me, so count yourself lucky.)

ARGH. Anyway.

The other rumour that gets passed around is that Kondo tears pages of books to keep for later. The truth is that she tried that as a way to avoid dealing with the reality of discarding a book (after first trying to take notes and photocopy pages). What she found, though, was that she never looked at those pages ever again, so now she just lets go of any book that she doesn’t feel the need to keep.

This actually pings my ADHD brain — I rarely look back at any notes I write about anything, which is why I wasn’t much of a notetaker in school. (And yet I am several thousand words deep into this essay, go me.) I also don’t often read books more than once, and if I do, it’s usually after a span of many, many years. There’re a lot of books on my To Read Someday Maybe pile that, realistically, I’m just not gonna get to, or that I’ve only gotten halfway through, and I feel distracted by their presence. I might as well let those books go to someone else that will appreciate them so that I can just focus on the books I truly care about!

The part about “waking up the books” by tapping on them is yet another example of physically and somatically paying attention to things. Putting all of our books on the floor forces us to reckon with the weight (literal and figurative) of those books. We can’t just gloss over them like they’re decoration. Books are there to be read, and if we’re not going to commit to reading (or re-reading) them, we’re not showing them respect. It would be more respectful of those books — and ourselves — to let those books go to someone that will cherish and make use of them.

(How does one pass on Kindle books though? Please tell me, because I have a pile ready to go.)

This is especially true of books that were bought with the purpose of wanting to learn or improve a skill. A lot of people get hung up on discarding those kinds of books, but are you really respecting yourself if you’re not acting on your ambitions? You’re saying to yourself that your heart’s desire is just a someday/maybe thing, put on a shelf for later. Why not make space for it now? Cherish it — or let it go and allow yourself to embrace who you are already. Get real with yourself: is this the life you want, or is this the life you’ve been told to want? What do you truly value?

You can argue that you’re not able to act on your ambitions because of illness or lack of time or energy — and that’s valid. I’m not one for the mentality of “you need to be working on your passions 24/7” myself. But the presence of those books, untouched and unappreciated, won’t help you deal with your low energy — it’ll just bog you down further by reminding you of what you aren’t doing, which can exacerbate the very things that are preventing you from pursuing those ambitions in the first place. Why have that kind of negative energy in your life?

When you get back to being able to pursue what you want, you can go get those books again when you’re in a much better position to actually read them, study them, and respect them. Meanwhile, somebody else who really wants to pursue those ambitions but didn’t have the resources to do so will find the book you’ve let go, and it will be a great gift.

Papers

This section is actually pretty hilarious to read because I feel like Kondo’s neuroses are more apparent here: “Paperwork is the WORRRRRRRRST” (not a direct quote, please don’t turn this into another misattributed meme.) She grumbles about papers that need to be kept despite their failure to spark joy, but wants you to make good use of those papers so that you don’t need to keep them if you don’t absolutely have to.

Her philosophy of “don’t overcategorize” is something she espoused in the chapter on clothing: don’t get so hung up on how to file your papers that they end up not being useful. I can see that being a pitfall for some of us; we think up elaborate filing systems and then get too overwhelmed to make use of them. I find some degree of sorting beyond Inbox/Need To Keep/Misc. useful, but I can see how it can also be a barrier, especially if your brain conflates “sorting this paper into the right category” with “doing something about the contents of this paper.”

Her rule for dealing with seminar papers reminds me of her rule for books: the best moment for you to get what you need from them is when you take the class or read the book. In both scenarios, she’s big on embodying what you’ve learned — not just passively writing notes or listening, but respecting that knowledge by putting it into practice. Once you’ve done so, you don’t need to keep the notes or the books if you don’t need them, and you retain the knowledge better.

Komono (Miscellaneous)

This category also has subcategories with a recommended order, the gist being that you start with personal items (items only you use), then clearly-defined items, and then move on to stuff that’s less specific. You deal with them category by category (items relating to a special hobby go into one category.) She does note that if you live alone, the order doesn’t necessarily matter — it’s about working on one category at a time.

It’s interesting that this isn’t the first category to get sorted, but I can see why: while it may not be as emotionally loaded as clothes or books (which would have been my reasoning for moving it to the front of the order), it’s also general and utilitarian enough that beginners might get stuck at “uhhhhh I don’t know if this sparks anything let alone joy”. If you follow Kondo’s order, you will have enough of a sense of what you have and what sort of life you want to make informed decisions about what to do with things that are more utilitarian.

For instance, if you ended up deciding that you’re not that into baking anymore and have let go of all your baking cookbooks, you can then easily let go of your baking supplies and not get hung up on “but what if I really need that offset spatula?” Again, if you do decide to get back into baking at some point, you’ll (hopefully) be in a good enough position to be able to revisit it with dedication and a clearer purpose, respecting your interests and yourself.

There has been lot of discussion about how Kondo supposedly doesn’t tell you how to discard of things sustainably, and before reading this book I figured it was because every city is going to have different resources, so trying to be exhaustive about it wouldn’t be helpful. But actually, she does talk about what to do with your discarded items! It’s not “throw in the trash”: she mentions sustainable options, like contacting local recyclers for broken appliances or donating what you don’t need.

The overarching theme of this section, like with every other section, is respect. Don’t keep outdated cosmetics because they won’t be good on your skin and that’s not respectful to yourself. Don’t keep mildewed guest bedding because that’s not respectful to your guests. If your clothes are at the point where they have buttons falling off and you can’t be bothered to fix them, don’t hoard spare buttons — and maybe don’t hoard those clothes either, because it’s not respectful to them.

Kondo wants you to keep stuff that sparks joy, and part of sparking joy is using the item. Books are to be read, clothes are to be worn, buttons are to be sewn on. If you find spare change, put it in your wallet, not a piggy bank (or if you’re gonna have a piggy bank, deposit the money in your bank account when it gets full.) “Out of sight, out of mind” is the antithesis of KonMari; to respect things is to use them or to pass them on where they can be most useful, and in this way you are respecting yourself instead of hiding parts of yourself away.

(One thing I am super curious about though: SEX TOYS, literal tools for “sparking joy.” What do you actually do with the ones you don’t want to keep? Do harnesses count as komono or clothing? Trying to answer this particular question led to the Marie Fuckin’ Kueerdo skit.)

Sentimental Items

Dun-dun. This is the KonMari Final Boss. By now you should have a better idea of who you are and you can use that to filter through this category.

I think part of the hangup over dealing with sentimental items is not just that they have a lot of memories, but also that the act of discarding them is disrespectful. You can’t really donate love letters or photos (unless there’s an artist that needs them for a project). Recycling them seems harsh. You’ve gone through this entire process of learning how to respect your things, and then you get to this point and you’re torn between respecting yourself by not keeping things from the past that don’t serve you and respecting the item by not harshly tossing it away.

Growing up Muslim, I was taught never to throw away anything that had Quranic verses on it. I also spent eleven years in mandatory Islamic Studies classes, many of which involved writing out Quranic verses from memory, so there are a LOT of exam papers and assignments with Quranic verses on them. It was taboo to dispose of them, but what use do I have of an exam paper from when I was 15? They sat in a box untouched, away from all the other exam papers I discarded. They may still be in a box, if my dad (who’s more willing to throw things out) hasn’t gotten to them.

I honestly don’t know how to deal with sentimental items we no longer want to keep in a way that still respects them. Kondo doesn’t really give many pointers either, at least not at this point in the book — which is strange, given that this is probably where her animist perspective is most needed. I have letters from exes that I’m still good friends with, and while I don’t really need physical reminders of those relationships (because I can still talk to them), they’re not as easy to let go as letters from abusive exes. There’s a framed photo that I was given as part of a friend’s funeral: keeping it in a box isn’t really respecting it, and to be honest I don’t really want to display the photo because it’d just make me sad, but I also don’t want to just toss it in the trash. I don’t know, I really don’t know, it’s been months since I wrote this and I still don’t know.

(To be fair, this may have been covered in Sparks Joy, but I haven’t gotten that far into that book yet.)

Kondo’s aim with letting go of sentimental items is that she wants us to really take stock of our pasts by handling each and every item, giving respect to it, and then making space for us to live now. Be the person you are now, the person you want to bring forward to the future, and release yourself from the shackles holding you back.

If your past involved being closeted, being misgendered, being forced to be someone you aren’t, this could be the most powerful part of the KonMari process: giving yourself permission to really be yourself. But it can also be the most difficult, even with a finely tuned Spark Joy sensor — not just because it’s hard to know what to do with the things from our past, but also because it can be really hard to acknowledge what we truly want (especially if you also have a major case of cherophobia like me). Sentimental items are the things closest to our hearts; it can be tempting to stick with what we know is already there, even if it no longer serves or helps us. It’s scary to try and make room for what we want, whether it’s a new job or a new relationship or just the ability to come out — and to deal with the possibility that this space (physical or metaphorical) may always be empty, or end up filled with more crap, or trashed anew.

Kondo wants you to trust her process and to trust that the space you make for yourself will be respected by the outside world over time. I won’t ask you to do that, because I don’t trust anyone that tells me to trust them. But maybe it’s worth the risk if we’re willing to support each other in making that space, caring for it, and keeping it tidy — not just physically, but also in every other way that matters.

Astounding stockpiles I have seen + Reduce until you reach the point where something clicks + Follow your intuition and all will be well

This is really just reiterating her main points: respect your things, respect yourself. Trust yourself.

Maybe that’s the hangup. We don’t trust ourselves, perhaps because structural oppression tells us that we’re not to be trusted. We second-guess ourselves, trying to predict how we’ll end up dealing with difficult items before we get to that point in the process. We try to plan for the future by stockpiling things we don’t really want, because what if? What if we end up in poverty? What if we don’t know how to deal with these difficult emotions as they arise? What if? We don’t trust ourselves enough to know that if and when that time comes, we’ll be able to deal with it.

I can’t tell you to trust yourself — not when I can’t follow my own advice. Maybe it’s just enough to know that Marie Kondo believes in you no matter what. Maybe in overanticipating bridges we may have to cross, we miss out on the bridges that are already there — the ones we’re already on. Maybe this is how we cross those bridges.

Maybe this is how we make a new map.

STORING YOUR THINGS TO MAKE YOUR LIFE SHINE

This entire section consists of very practical and specific advice for dealing with your things. Some of it is not necessarily intuitive at first glance but makes sense once you know why she recommends it; for instance, storing everything in one category in a single place instead of scattering things around and having unnecessary duplicates, because it’s less effort overall to just go to the one place every time; or taking tags off of clothing other products, because it helps affirm that those things are yours.

Some of it isn’t going to be workable for everybody — for instance, she recommends that you empty your bag every day so that your bag gets to rest and you’re aware of exactly what’s in it. Yet I know that if something’s not already in my bag, I will forget to take it with me. She also recommends not putting bath products in the shower or on the sink so that they don’t get slimy from moisture, but I don’t really have anywhere else to put them.

Take what you need, adapt if necessary, leave the rest.

One line that really jumped out at me:

Once you learn to choose your belongings properly, you will be left only with the amount that fits perfectly in the space you currently own.

Kondo’s asking you to not just trust yourself and trust your things — but trust your house. Once we’ve gone through the process of working through our items, we will figure out exactly how and where to store them, and replacements, if necessary, will be easy to make. Not all of us live in houses we can trust though, and I’d wager this is more common for us marginalised folk than anyone else. It can be foolhardy to think that we will be able to rely on our house to have just enough space and support for ourselves or our things.

If trusting your house isn’t an approach that works for you, maybe it’s worth relying on yourself — trust that you’ll figure out how to deal with the things you have. Conversely, if you have trouble trusting yourself but feel decently comfortable with your house, you can place your trust in the house and use that trust to power you through the process.

Homes themselves are sacred to Kondo — in one section she specifically talks about setting up an altar — but the notion of sacredness in general really underpins a lot of her process: We are sacred. Our things are an extension of us, so they’re sacred. Our homes are where we store things and care for ourselves, so they are sacred too.

Our things are an interesting middle layer: we’re not directly working with our inner selves (as in therapy) but we’re also not externalising the work (as through activism). Our things serve as a gateway to our inner selves, which then help us work out how we want to continue the work externally — making more spaces sacred for more people.

THE MAGIC OF TIDYING DRAMATICALLY TRANSFORMS YOUR LIFE

This section is baaaaasically everything I wrote above, just in less than 10,000 (!!!) words, so I probably don’t have to rehash everything. Hell, she literally talks about putting trust in the house as a way to get through this process in one of the sections. (MAYBE MARIE KONDO AND I ARE THE SAME PERSON AND I AM JUST HER QUEER KINKY FACET COME TO LIFE.)

If this were a review I’d talk more about some minor fatphobia — she talks about clients who’ve lost weight because they gained motivation to work on their health after going through the KonMari Method — but aside from that blip the message is solid: clear your stuff, clear this one massive part of your life in a way that is super mindful and aware and accountable, and the rest will follow.

The KonMari Method is a very intense process. It’s not just about sorting things and storing them and sparking joy; it’s a deep examination of ourselves, our values, our past, present, and future. Marie Kondo may seem like a lighthearted sprite, but her process is full-on. It’s cleansing and shadow work and therapy and accountability all in one. Some parts of it are valuable, some not so much — but which is which is so different for different people. Only you can know what’s right for you.

It’s hard to have faith in a process that promises to change your life for the better, especially when we are so affected by things outside our control. It’s hard to work on a process based on trust when everything seems so precarious, when our lives are marked by betrayal and instability and broken promises.

Maybe the way to regain that power is to trust that whatever happens, we can survive it. Even if we are trapped in an unsafe situation, we can carve out a little space for ourselves that is sanctuary. We can trust our intuition and our instincts. We’ll figure it out. We can get what we want because we already have it around us or within us.

Maybe the power to trust ourselves is how we fight back against a world that tries to tell us that we are always wrong.

END

A (Not So) Quick & Dirty Queer Reflection of Marie Kondo
Originally written 17th January 2019 by Creatrix Tiara (‘Tiara’/they/them). Current version edited by Tove.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial International 4.0
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