I wouldn’t precisely say my mother’s teacups bring me joy. This failure on their part, under the smiling yet severe philosophy of international declutterer Marie Kondo, means they need to go.
They sit in a small glass-fronted cabinet, similar to the breakfront where they were kept in my childhood home. Each cup and saucer is uniquely decorated. Whenever people come over, I have them choose the one they like for their coffee or tea.
Growing up, we didn’t have money to afford elegant things; my mother built this set by buying one new cup and saucer each year. You knew it was a special occasion if they came out of the breakfront. To her, their value was in admiring their beauty and that meant keeping them safe. Me, I’d rather see them get used as much as possible.
I’m sure their existence brought my mother great pleasure. For me, they’re … complicated. I enjoy the eggshell thinness of them and their unabashedly pretty looks. They remind me of big extended-family dinners and how, in childhood, objects seemed imbued with personalities of their own. They’re lovely and homey at the same time.
And also sad. They remind me that my mother’s life wasn’t easy. She didn’t let on much about that. Her style was more to persevere serenely, and the cups also tell me that I could have done a better job of being more sensitive to her. Worst, they remind me that she’s gone and that 15 years later, I miss her terribly.
In other words, like many deep memories, they bring up mixed feelings. That’s good enough for me, no matter what Kondo says.
Kondo, the author of a best-selling book on the transformative joy of tidying a house, is making a big splash right now with her Netflix show, a sort of “Queer Eye” for the messy guy. As television, it’s a little boring – Kondo shows up, always wearing a pure white top that would last about 20 minutes on me before getting its first smudge of the day. She has people pile up their possessions according to category and then throw most of them out. (Ideally they’re donating a lot of it, but don’t be fooled into thinking that most of the stuff is getting a second, environmentally friendly life. More than 80 percent of donated clothing ends up in the trash.)
If you haven’t already been soaked in Kondo-lore, the author of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” isn’t just giving people tips for clearing closets. She claims that clearing shelves and folding clothing just right will transform lives into ones of happiness and success. She’s a domestic version of Tony Robbins, with a touch of spirituality. To determine what to keep and what gets thrown out, you hold an object to perceive whether it brings you a “ching!” of joy. You “wake up” a book you haven’t read in a long time by tapping the cover, which then clues you in to whether it has the joy thing going for it. You’re supposed to thank each object for its service before tossing it to an ignominious fate.
Decluttering is a fine idea, and to the extent that Kondo helps people with a pretty daunting household chore, everyone is better off. But more problematic than our society’s cluttered homes is our belief in perfect solutions to our imperfect lives, our willingness to enrich the people who assure us that daily fulfillment and future success don’t require lifelong wrangling with deeper questions about ethics, values, relationships and ourselves, our unrelenting pursuit of unfettered happiness. It’s how “The Secret” took hold of people 13 years ago, promising them that they could “manifest” whatever they wanted, from a cool bike to overflowing wealth, if they just thought about it in the right way. It’s how Gwyneth Paltrow continues to sell overpriced tchotchkes on Goop.
Life is messier than self-help gurus would have us believe, and that’s part of what makes it richer as well. Neither relentless pursuit of more possessions, nor of fewer, will change that, any more than magical thinking will. Books don’t wake up by being tapped. They wake us up by our taking the effort to read them and open our minds. Some might bring us joy, but they’re more likely to bring us insight and information; the best of them might bring us to tears.
Our clothes don’t hear us thank them, regardless of what I might have imagined as a child, and asking them to bring us joy might be putting a bit too much on their unpadded shoulders. Most of us have more interesting things to do with our time than to literally massage our clothes into compliance as Kondo does while folding. (See previous mention of reading books.)
As for the items in my life, sure, I’d like more empty spaces around. But I don’t demand pure joy from the stuff in my life – or from life in general. Life and the objects in it bring a mix of utility, hope (I really might master wood-carving one day), regret, resolution and, yes, happiness. The feelings are complicated – as life was meant to be.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.