Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone.
In this way, I was built for the KonMari method in a way my mother never was. I grew up in a middle-class American home. While we were never wealthy, we also never truly wanted for material things. As an adolescent, I would tell my mother that I was an American, and that, as an American, I didn’t have to be loyal to anything or anyone if I didn’t want to. I’d throw away the last dregs of shampoo or toothpaste, which my mom would painstakingly rescue from the trash before scolding me for being so wasteful. I’d happily throw out or donate clothing I didn’t want any more.
My quick disposal of things always made my mother irreparably sad. She mourned the loss of my prom dress (which I gave to a friend) and the pots and pans she gave me for college (which I left in the group house I lived in), and she looked horrified when I once dumped a bunch of letters from friends and family in the trash. For me, being able to dispose of things has always been one of the ways I learned to identify as an American—a way to try and separate myself from the weight of growing up in a home where the important things that defined my family had long been lost.
To my mother, the KonMari method isn’t joyful; it’s cold. “Americans love throwing things away,” she tells me, “And yet they are fascinated by the way that Cubans have maintained their houses, their cars. Yes, growing up we took great pleasure in preserving things. But we also didn’t really have a choice.”
Today, of course, my mother has plenty of choices, but throwing things away still makes her anxious. Now that my grandparents have both passed away, my mother still struggles to decide what to do with all that stuff. It’s very painful for her, and my father’s encouragement that she sift through everything, organize it in some kind of clearly delineated way, often falls on deaf ears.
A few months ago, when I was visiting home, my father asked if I would help go through some of the items. Now that he and my mom are older and my brother and I are grown, they’ve both expressed a desire to downsize. In the car, my dad recommended starting with my childhood bedroom, which looks exactly as it did when I was 14 years old, pink and purple, filled with childhood books and stuffed animals, half-filled journals, and never worn shoes. At first I was enthusiastic about the project. “We can give a lot of those things to charity,” I said.
But at home, I sat in front of my bookshelf and did exactly what Kondo cautions most against: I started my project of decluttering by going through the things that mattered most to me: the books I loved when I was a child; the CDs made by dear friends and stacked high in no particular order; the college textbooks I never remembered to return. Objects imbued with memories of a person I once was, and a person that part of me always will be.
I didn’t want to give any of it up.
Kondo says that we can appreciate the objects we used to love deeply just by saying goodbye to them. But for families that have experienced giving their dearest possessions up unwillingly, “putting things in order” is never going to be as simple as throwing things away. Everything they manage to hold onto matters deeply. Everything is confirmation they survived.