Reckoning with Marie Kondo: The Substance of Stuff

Bestowing a Legacy of Love

JC Miller
JC Miller
Jul 19, 2018 · 4 min read

I’ve been meaning to clean out my closets, metaphorically and literally, for the past twenty years, give or take a decade. I fully intend to create a tidier, more minimalist existence — some day.

Somehow my cupboards and drawers remain cram-jammed. My closets overflow-eth. When I decided to write about this issue, I imagined a lighthearted piece with a dose of self-deprecating humor, good ol’ roll-up-my-sleeves and get-to-work gumption.

Having consulted a number of resources, such as Marie Kondo’s acclaimed KonMari method, I believed I had a roadmap. However, my journey soon took an unexpected, dark turn.

Kondo’s formula appears straightforward: keep only cherished belongings and discard the rest. Her advice is logical, her writing lovely, poetic and compelling in its simplicity. She provides a step-by-step recipe to envision and create a tranquil, energizing home. For my efforts, the promise of lasting contentment.

I am convinced. I’m ready to begin anew.

Why then, am I paralyzed?

The Big Picture

In the United States, the self-storage industry is booming, with an annual industry revenue of $38 billion, according to Alexander Harris, sparefoot.com. Individual storage lockers rent for about $1200 per year, so per capita, that’s one hell of a math problem.

A visit to my local refuse disposal site reveals a sadder truth, a delicate, planet overburdened by senseless waste. Gazing at the steaming heap, I swallow a painful shard of guilt, all-too aware of my part in a mindless, addicted-to-stuff consumer culture gone haywire.

I blame Amazon’s one-click feature.

The Diagnosis

I know the drill. Clutter is a kind of sickness, the outward manifestation of a troubled, disordered inner life. The problem is, this knowledge does not help me. I know I am unwell. While my symptoms may be obvious, when it comes to a remedy, I am at a loss.

As I stare into the abyss of my closet, I become uneasy. All children know about the existence of the monster that dwells within. Lately I have become reacquainted with that monster, keeper of the closet, guardian of unseen ooze beneath the surface, the skeletons I’ve been avoiding. Like a kid, I promptly shut that door. Damn you, monster.

With a sigh, I must admit I am no longer a child, not ancient perhaps, but vintage. For those of us who have turned the page out of midlife into late-life, time is not our friend. Time begins to shrink, along with the freedom to fail, to make mistakes and put things off. Let’s face it. We are running out of do-overs.

At last, it dawns on me — this isn’t about cleaning my closets.

Putting my “house in order,” is about sorting out my life, and ultimately confronting my own mortality. It means being a grown-up.

I shut the door, flip on my laptop, tuning into another Seinfeld rerun on Hulu, though I’ve already seen it six times. Don’t judge me. It sucks to be a grownup.

It’s Complicated

Tasked with the sorting and disbursement of departed family members’ possessions, I’ve experienced the emotional charge of “stuff,” the irrational attachment and anguish of letting go. I’ve found myself clinging to a beloved aunt’s moth-eaten, threadbare scarf because she loved it so. Only a heartless ingrate would trash it. I fill a box. Stack it on top of the other boxes. But what will become of auntie’s scarf after I am gone? Who will recognize her face in a worn, dog-eared photo?

As a child, I rarely listened to my parents, tuning out their “old people’s” advice. But lately, certain words of wisdom have resonated with me. My dad’s fallback line for any daunting job: Just dig in. It’s like eating an elephant — do it one bite at a time. When confronted with hard choices and life’s complexity, mom advised me to approach every challenge big or small, decently and in order. These little nuggets, I realize now, epitomize how my parents lived, and relevantly, how they died. They were practical people who accepted life’s impermanence, the inevitability of death.

Mom, never sentimental about stuff, did not abide clutter. Sometimes this hurt my feelings, like the time she gave away all of our Christmas ornaments. But in the end, her organization and tidy closets made it a little easier to navigate losing her. Before my father’s passing, he made certain his finances were transparent, documents in order, eliminating red tape or legal entanglement. In the depths of profound loss, my sisters and I felt taken care of. I will forever miss my humorous, intelligent, imperfect, exceptionally devoted parents. Only time has lessened my grief. But unlike many of my peers, I did not inherit legal struggles, money knots or heaps of unwanted stuff. Why? My parents prepared for death. They made considerate decisions, like grown-ups.

No Easy Cure

I take a deep breath. Once again, I peer into my closet, confronted with the truth — nobody has a roadmap for this life. I’ve always learned by fire, negotiating the bumps, twists and forks in the road as I grow. Traversing new territory at the end-of-life is a sobering task, with few do-overs allowed.

Where to begin? Taking stock, as usual, I have more questions than answers. There are no shortcuts, no signposts, but I do have a few breadcrumbs along the path, guidance to help me find my way. When I’m ready, I plan to take it slow, mindfully, one bite at a time, decently and in order.

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