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Opinion We could all learn from Marie Kondo’s untidy pivot

Japanese organizational expert Marie Kondo in New York on July 11, 2018. (Seth Wenig/AP)
5 min

Tracy Moore is a writer in Los Angeles.

Marie Kondo, Japanese author of the best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” has hit pause on folding her T-shirts into handy little rolls. It’s no longer doable, she says, after giving birth to her third child. The acknowledgment that having three kids can be chaotic would not move the needle most days. But because it’s coming from someone who dared to advise us to evaluate our stuff primarily for whether it sparked joy — inspiring equal parts cultish devotion and apoplectic rage — we’ve now got a tempest in a Twitterpot.

“Up until now, I was a professional tidier, so I did my best to keep my home tidy at all times,” Kondo said via an interpreter recently, according to The Post. “Now, I realize what is important to me is enjoying spending time with my children at home.”

I don’t see Kondo’s pivot as a betrayal. As we get older, our values shift. But the news of Kondo’s repositioning has some people in a tizzy. One person tweeted “VINDICATION IS MINE.” Film director Sarah Polley tweeted that Kondo owed an official apology to those she “influenced to make our clothes into little envelopes while we had three kids,” then deleted it. The overall reaction was, well, untidy, and ranged from those who called Polley unhinged (Polley has since clarified that she was, indeed, joking) to those
who were saying, more or less: We like our stuff. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do with it.

But Kondo asked us only to examine our relationship to things. She never told us which things to care about. You don’t need to be a minimalist or even a practitioner of transcendent non-attachment to see the utility of her approach.

The English translation of Kondo’s book debuted in 2014, and the backlash followed fast. Initial critiques called her approach annoying, propaganda and triggering. In 2019, weeks after the debut of her Netflix reality show “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” the animus resurfaced with a vengeance. Gretchen Smail at the Daily Beast did not mince words: “White people really don’t like it when they feel like an Asian woman is telling them what to do.”

There is indeed more than a whiff of xenophobia in the condescension toward Kondo, but the angrier rhetoric sounds a lot like the National Rifle Association on guns, too: You’ll pry my junk only from my cold, dead hands.

To be clear, no one is coming after your stuff — which, sorry to say, is mostly junk — but your children or partner or siblings will be left to trash, donate or keep it when you’re gone. Remember what we’re up in arms about here, folks: three old vacuum cleaners, ancient magazines, a box of rusty tools your dad gave you and plates your mother thought had value.

Christine Emba in 2019: I have become a Marie Kondo disciple. I am proud and ashamed.

After my mother died in 2016, my sisters and I stood dumbfounded at her decades’ worth of clutter bulging from every closet and shelf. Working weekends and coordinating dumpster runs, it took us more than a year to clean out. Sure, there were sentimental photographs from childhood we wanted to keep, but there were computer manuals from the late ’90s, numerous old hard drives, piles of fabric scraps, gardening tools, decades-old mail, every Sue Grafton novel, a freezer full of food from 2012 and even the bulk of her own deceased mother’s estate, never unboxed — plates, skillets and more fabric scraps.

The Swedes have a solution for this — they call it “dostadning,” or death cleaning, which is a way of taking responsibility for your mess before shuffling off this mortal coil. Author Margareta Magnusson framed Kondo’s question of joy another way: “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” Unsurprisingly, Americans found that idea far too sad, morbid and weird to entertain.

Kondo was right; Magnusson, too. We might not be as spiritual a people as some, but Americans rewrote the book on possessions. We collect stuff with an alarming speed in spectacular quantities and have an almost spiritual, or at least irrationally devoted, relationship to it. It is not too much to say that our stuff occupies a place in our homes somewhere between family and pets. We just don’t like being asked to think too hard about why.

What’s resonant about Kondo’s latest revelation is that she’s reprioritizing her tidy-first mantra in favor of time with her children, which means she’s willing to continue examining her relationship to things, too. She’s just trying to make it work like the rest of us.

Every time a new lifestyle guru comes around to suggest a new approach, perhaps we should ask ourselves why it’s so enraging to consider our relationship to things — or what it is about who is doing the suggesting that rankles. My advice? Try taking what you like from their ideas and leave the rest to the donation bin. The choice is, and has always been, yours to make.

But whichever way you choose, at least remember this: Someone is going to have go through all your stuff when you’re gone.