A Spark of Joy, a Cleaner House
By Swati Apte
Inspired by the Japanese organizing consultant, Marie Kondo, I am a recently converted minimalist and a zealous de-clutterer. I am in total awe of this woman, a modern prophet who has earned millions showing people around the world how to do the thing that no mother has successfully managed to get her teenager to do: tidy up. The KonMari method, Kondo’s organizational philosophy, is my new religion. Embracing it has tested some of my relationships – with my children, my mother, and husband.
But I remain devout.
I found Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, during a recent dark hour – those awful 15 days during Ganapati when all your household help abandons you (if you live in Mumbai). It was that time of the year when my husband and I have to pack lunch boxes, clean our own home and argue about whose turn it is to do the laundry and ironing. Things we did plenty of early in our marriage. But then we were newly in love and less grumpy. We also at that time did not own the highly-sophisticated-and-very-delicate music system, the African ebony figurines, Mediterranean pottery and other cute kitsch we have since convinced ourselves gives personality to our living spaces.
Now our home felt full, our lives horribly crowded. I have been feeling for a while now that we were mindlessly collecting things, because we could afford to, without giving much thought to whether we ‘needed’ them . But the actual epiphany came that week of Ganapati. When you have cleaned the china one more morning only to then watch the fine Mumbai dust settle gently on it again a moment later, it can do many things to you. If you are my husband, it can suddenly put urgent outstation meetings on your calendar. If you are me, it can put you into a grim mood and make you wonder when you collected such endless clutter.
It was in this sullen mood that I found KonMari — a forgotten gift tucked among all of the other, thousands of things we possessed — calling out to me to take charge of my own space and time.
It is inevitable that the embracing of a new belief comes with some personal churning. Mine came when I tackled the ‘tidying up’ of my clothes. I pride myself on being non-acquisitive, unattached to material things. Yet out of my closet tumbled five identical black t-shirts, three black pants and seven black blouses/kurtas. (I refuse to admit to anything more; this list is enough, courtesy of my son, who kept a record, by colour.)
Suffice it to say it was a rude jolt to see how much I owned – much of which had never been worn and a lot of which had been forgotten altogether. I took solemn vows of abstinence from online shopping and began feeling each item to see if it “sparked joy.” Kondo insists that only the ones that do should be added to the ‘keep’ pile. I added an additional criterion: “Only if it fits right now”. Suddenly the 10-odd dresses I had been saving for 10-odd years in the hope of losing those 10-odd pounds disappeared. I wept – partly for the loss of long-held illusions of ever becoming that super-model version of myself, and partly out of sheer relief that I never had to try. This new faith was effectively turning me – or at the least my closet – inside out.
The path to true faith is littered with obstacles, however, laid out by non-believers. I encountered mine in the kitchen. As I systematically piled up all the extraneous pots and spatulas and dinner mats, my mother and our cook sulked and muttered about how I had no value for good things. Even as I added the innumerable lid-less plastic boxes and endless jam bottles to the give-away pile, the two of them smuggled away a pan here, rescued a plate there.
Telling them that it was all going to charity, to some family that would put it to better use, was futile. My mother only stood stoutly before the china cupboard, her eyes daring me to so much as try giving away the extra dinner sets, as she railed about starting her own married life with only four plates.
But these battles only strengthened my resolve, leading me to do what all new converts do: I evangelized my new faith. I tried to convert my children and husband, nudging them in to their own process of purging.
It was not easy. The husband, back from his work trip, stood defiantly before his old broken drums, insisting they reminded him of his youth.
So I turned to our kids. I often fret that we raise privileged children with little value for things. KonMari turned out to be a process in making them really ‘see’ what they have. First, with big, imploring eyes, they begged to be allowed to keep every broken plaything. Apparently, the toys reminded them of their ‘youth,’ too. They hugged every mangy stuffed animal and insisted that it “sparked joy.” But eventually, they were won over. I was proud of them as they asked themselves whether a specific item was something they wanted or something they truly needed. They laughed together over shared memories as they added things to the give-away pile,my son – ever the fount of wisdom — declaring they didn’t need the stuff to remember fun times. Also, he said, he could now find his socks more easily amid fewer things in his closet.
As it turned out, there was great relief for all of us in letting things go. So what if, in our zeal, we may have discarded some things that we may have use for. Like a rarely used waffle maker. Or some important property papers. We’ll eat pancakes instead, and live under a tarpaulin in retirement. I feel certain we will still feel it was all worth it for the joy currently sparked and for the awareness and gratitude that will remain.