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What If All My Stuff Sparks Joy? The Problem with Marie Kondo

Surviving an apartment fire made me realize how much I love my clutter.

Photo: Driely S. for Racked
Photo: Driely S. for Racked

If you are not yet familiar with the craze surrounding Marie Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you may very well be trapped in your home, surrounded by empty Kleenex boxes, waiting for the Hoarders crew to arrive.

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Perhaps you own the watercolored hardcover yourself. Or maybe you recently came home and all your kitchen cups were on the floor, and you're still working up the nerve to ask your roommate why. Either way, the Japanese art of decluttering is all the rage, and it is coming for us all. David Blaine, move over—there's a new magician in town.

Without enough time to rescue my boxes filled with mementos or even my grandmother's jewelry, I grabbed my laptop and scurried down the fire escape.

The best-selling book's KonMari method loosely promises that domestic purging will solve your life's problems. According to Kondo, disposing of no-longer-needed items will bring about "dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective" and cause "life-transforming" results in weight loss, relationships and business. (And that's just on page three!)

Even with a methodology that sounds like the midway point between Weight Watchers Online and good old-fashioned snake oil, Kondo's ideas have exploded stateside and taken the Internet by storm. All across the world, people are disposing of old unread books, keratin hair products, and even greeting cards from Grandpop, all in the name of finding their inner joy.

Well, everyone except for me.

When I first moved to New York, I lived in a railroad apartment in a neighborhood which, at that time, was considered Williamsburg only by a realtor's exaggerations. It wasn't lovely, so to speak, but it had enough room for my many belongings, a necessity which heretofore had me plotting to build a Boxtroll-like habitat.

When the fire was over, our belongings somehow remained intact.

Each morning, I woke up and dressed myself from the half-bedroom I had turned into a low-rent version of the Vogue closet, until one morning in particular, when I woke up not to an alarm, but to the neighbors screaming. Our entire building was burning, rapidly, and we were all still inside of it. Without enough time to rescue my boxes filled with mementos, my stuffed animals, or even my grandmother's jewelry, I instinctively grabbed my laptop and scurried down the fire escape, leaving everything else behind.

The details are emotional and scary. Incredibly, we lived across a fireproofed hallway from the place where the blaze began, so the building burned up and then over, making our apartment last in line. When the fire was over, our belongings somehow remained intact, down to an external hard drive we found sitting dangerously close to a firefighter's puddle. My neighbors' apartments looked like blackened veggie dogs, shriveled and unrecognizable. My vintage knick-knacks, framed artwork, and beloved dresses were generally undisturbed. We were the lucky ones, and I'll never know why.

I've never forgotten this twist of fate. Nor have I let it go, because it wasn't just this one instance. My family has a weird legacy of surviving fires. My mom has endured one, my grandmother, two. I was raised on the story of my mom's incredible designer wardrobe—amassed from hours of hard work and well-earned paychecks—disappearing forever, replaced with just a handful of cash to start anew.

I happen to be of the currently unfavorable opinion that owning an overflowing amount of things is the source of joy.

Since the fire, I've moved more than any New Yorker I know and bought enough vintage dresses to become a de facto wardrobe assistant on Mad Men, yet I've refused to whittle down my belongings. I've signed leases to multiple storage units for their flexibility, and to terrible apartments just for the closet space. I have purchased more collapsable five-dress hangers than you can imagine.

I'm not against cleaning up and throwing things out. Nor do I doubt that her readers, her clientele and Marie herself have amassed extreme happiness through this ideology. (The woman's got a best-selling book, a cool husband, a long client waitlist, and bangs for days. She's living the life.) The KonMari method is rooted in the simple concept of touching your items individually and asking, "Does this spark joy?" And, unfortunately, I happen to be of the currently unfavorable opinion that owning an overflowing amount of things is the source of joy.

I wasn't expecting to be alone in this, but I very well might be. After Japan was ravaged by two natural disasters, sales of Kondo's organizational bible skyrocketed. For thousands of Kondo readers, surviving a crisis was a catalyst for reevaluating the role of stuff in their lives. But for me, it was quite the opposite.

If I were to open my closet doors and see nothing but the items that truly bring me happiness, the results would look completely different today from tomorrow from next week.

Because for me, it all sparks joy. I don't wake up overwhelmed by the stack of t-shirts I need to sift through, or the hangers jammed on top of each other in my closet. I wake up appreciative that it's all still here. To me, joy is opening a closet and seeing things you currently love, once loved, or do not yet know why you purchased, and mix-and-matching them into an outfit that conveys your current mood at that moment in time.

I want to see the vintage treasures I somehow did not lose that fateful morning, the red dress I wore for a year straight, the knick-knacks that lined the desk that was too heavy to move out when I had to scramble for a new home. I won't let my precious things go because I know how easily they can be taken from me. It could all very well disappear at any time. No matter where I am, I have an exit bag strategy: Grab my stuffed monkey Walter, those Marc Jacobs backwards heels, and the external hard drive. Ready at a moment's notice.

And, fire aside, If I were to open my closet doors and see nothing but the items that truly bring me happiness, the results would look completely different today from tomorrow from next week. Fashion thrives on possibility. It's no accident that the unworn poofy blouse I bought five years ago in Boston is finally serving its joy-inducing purpose when paired under a jumper I bought for my honeymoon this month.

In her book, Marie says, "If you can say without a doubt ‘I really like this!' no matter what anyone else says, and if you like yourself for having it, then ignore what other people think." That's how I feel about everything in my house. And I'm happy to keep it that way.


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