Should you have to take yourself apart and give yourself away, just to find out who you are?
Western society has long been obsessed with hoarding, with clutter. Marie Kondo, with her combination of minimalist style and impeccable manners, is currently taking the world by storm, but she is just another in a long line of ‘anti-stuff’ gurus encouraging us to strip away the chattels of capitalism in order to embrace who we really are, and move on. The trouble is, those things we gather? We never know when they might be important again, or why. I don’t condone the collecting of stuff to a clinically morbid level, but I’d encourage anyone feeling empowered by the Kondo life-manifesto to take two steps back, pause, and ask yourself not whether this object brings you joy, but whether you think you might lose some joy by giving it away.
I am writing from a position of experience. Admittedly, I’m a rabid sentimentalist. It’s always been a huge joke in our family, because my husband is the complete opposite. He’s the type of guy who would open a birthday card, thank the sender, and then immediately bin it. Having always prided himself on his lack of ties and ability to load his life into one box and move quickly on, he’s constantly admonishing me for my attachment to what he calls ‘house cholesterol’.
It might be genetic. My parents are moderate hoarders – their garage is so full of stuff they can’t park their car in it, and they keep things that to me seem totally pointless, like a set of custom blinds for a bungalow they lived in back in 1977. (“They were quite expensive, and you never know, we might find another window they fit”.) They’re not the type of people who keep old newspapers, but they do imbue a vast array of objects with intense emotional meaning – and for a time I did this too. Eventually though, my husband’s way of being got under my skin.
It happened when we moved house in 2012. We’d lived in the tiny two up, two down Victorian terrace in the UK for six years, had two children while there, and acquired a large volume of what my husband calls ‘tat’. Having found our dream three-bed slice of suburbia, we committed to a quick sale and found ourselves with just 48 hours to pack. The main house was easy; within a few hours it was all neatly loaded into a moving van. “Now it’s just the loft,” I remember saying confidently, believing we would be eating chip butties and drinking wine in our new place, just 1.5km away, within the hour. But once I got up there I realised the extent of the problem – we’d been shoving boxes of disordered crap up there for years, and five hours later we were only half way through sorting it all out. Desperate, tired, and with no room left in the car or van, I declared nothing left in there worth taking, shut the door and moved on.
It felt good. And in all honestly, I was probably right. We had all the family photos and knick knacks. It was just broken camping gear and old magazines left behind, for sure. So when, just a year later, we decided to shift to NZ I took the same attitude. If I wasn’t prepared to ship it, I said, then it had to be given away. I took four weeks of work, and hit our life with a sledgehammer. The garage contents went from four jammed shelves to two drawers in a filing cabinet. I took seven car-loads to the recycling centre. Then I started on the house – we had two boot sales, 12 trips to the charity shop, and an Ikea blue bag to the children’s hospital. (“It’s so good of your kids to donate all these toys!” the receptionist gushed. “Do you want me to write them a certificate?” Best not, I told her, realising I’d not really discussed it with the kids.) I started listing furniture on Freecycle and soon the house was barren. The kids’ cot they shared, the balance bike passed through friends, the chair my son had fallen off and broken his leg – it was all gone.
I got my first pang of post-decluttering regret just four weeks later, days before we flew out of the country. Reading the local paper at my parents I saw an obituary for my English teacher from school. We’d been close once, but lost touch when I left university. Staring at the words on the page I realised that two of the books I’d enthusiastically given to the op-shop were hers. She had lent them to me in, what, 1995? They had her name, neatly scratched in pencil, on the inside cover, plus notations in the gutters. When I’d held them, just weeks before, they were nothing – just some old books I’d read and would never be able to return to the owner. Now though, in the stark light cast by death, I wanted them back. I wanted to wrap them in paper, send them to the crematorium, addressed to her lovely son who I had once baby sat – two little snippets of our shared past for him to treasure.
Four months later, as we unpacked the scant boxes we shipped to Christchurch, the kids searched eagerly through the meagre pickings. “Where is my pepper pig lamp?” my oldest whined, looking wide eyed at me in panic. Fuck. “Oh, I’m sorry, we didn’t pack it,” I said, gently. Truth was, I’d given it away. It had sat on his bedside table unused for almost two years, I didn’t think he’d notice. But having moved overseas, I could see now he was clinging to any sense of himself he could muster, anything familiar – we all were, and those things just weren’t there.
Our house in Christchurch was empty. There were three pictures on the walls I’d brought from home, and a rag tag bag of mismatched furniture I’d purchased on Trade Me. The kids had gone from a playroom paradise to just one box of toys, and my wardrobe consisted of two dresses, two pairs of leggings, three t-shirts and a raincoat. Suddenly, faced with our choice to seek out a new life in a new world, I felt sad about the life we had shed. We had no compass, we needed to create a whole new narrative, and it affected us greatly. It still affects us today.
When Fantastic Beasts came out at the cinema, I told the kids about how I got the book free with a Harry Potter box set. “Can we read it?” they asked eagerly, but the answer was no, because it went to charity. Visiting my parents, my dad got out my old Sega Mega Drive they had kept all these years. “If you like that, you would have loved my PlayStation!” said my husband, but of course the kids can’t play it because it got Freecycled. Recently, my husband’s grandmother died. As his family gathered to go through her things they each had a story about the items she kept, a touching snap shot of her life. I remembered my own grandmother, and the – what I considered to be terrible – coffee table I inherited in 1999. I gave it to the Salvation Army, but I’d love to have it now, to remember the games of Scrabble we played together in the 1980s, the cups of tepid tea in chipped china which she always delivered to me with a sneaky boiled sweet on the side.
See, the problem with the Kondo method, indeed any decluttering method, is that it asks you to make decisions entirely on who you are in the moment. But we don’t know who we are going to be in the future, so how could we possibly know what level of meaning an object may hold then? I’m not a fan of stuff for stuff’s sake, but the objects we collect in life are our anchor, they keep us grounded in our own personal story. Each piece will rise and fall from prominence as our own priorities and interests ebb and flow. To lose those is to lose your sense of self – your sense of who you might be, where you came from, and for what? The de-cluttering industry has convinced us that in order to progress we need to shed, but I fear they ask too much, they want us to give too much away.
Don’t take yourself apart to try to feel whole again. Instead, embrace the life you’ve already built, bask in its imperfections, and navigate a future within the existing gaps.