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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

To Keep or Not to Keep? Debating Stuff.
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Readers respond to one of our essays by Arielle Bernstein, “Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter,” and Bernstein responds in kind. To join, say hello@.

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No Room for Clutter in the Military

Another reader, Andrew Dashiell, brings a new angle to our discussion over Arielle Bernstein’s piece on the Marie Kondo approach to clutter:

I grew up as a military brat, moving every 18-36 months. Every move was preceded by something of a paring down. Even though I’ve now lived for 35 years in one state, I still maintain a tidy, minimalist accumulation of possessions that I can pack up and move quickly if needed.

Interestingly, as my own personal economic fortunes have drastically declined, I find that the ability to live comfortably with little serves me well and makes me happy. It also frees up resources for the experiences that leave no physical trace but please me the most.

Another reader can relate:

I was an Army brat too, and we also moved every 36 months. My parents mantra for me while I was packing or cleaning my room? “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Or make three piles—things you absolutely need, things you should get rid of, and things you’re not sure about—and purge the last two piles.

I was also a military brat, but I moved even more than every 36 months because my parents—both Army officers—were divorced and had shared custody of my brother and me. My mom was pretty normal as far as possessions, but my dad was an compulsive collector—of antiques, of furniture, of heirlooms, of used cars, of tractors … the heavier the stuff, the better. He had a penchant for potbelly stoves—cast iron, man-sized relics that had to transported in several pieces—and his preferred ride was a ‘70s-era Lincoln Continental, a boat of a car.

One of my dad’s proudest moments in life is setting the weight record for a move at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the Army base he retired from: 49,000 pounds. (For comparison, the weight limit the military would cover was 17,500 pounds.)

I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of emotional responses I’ve received for my recent essay,“The Privilege of Clutter.” While I originally wrote it with the intention of looking at the refugee experience in particular, what I’ve learned from reading reader responses is that this tension between collecting or casting off seems to be universal. One of the most touching and beautiful responses I received was from a reader reflecting on an elderly couple who saved objects because one spouse was struggling with dementia. For this couple, objects are also about survival of the self, though in a very different way than my family.

A number of other responses I received had to do with the decision to get rid of or keep objects after death or ended relationships, all of which seem like intensely personal decisions, but are also equally shaped by culture and what manner of grief or “holding on to things” is considered healthy and acceptable.

I was surprised that some readers assumed that my essay was prescriptive. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to be a minimalist, or that holding onto objects is superior to letting them go.

Arielle Bernstein wrote a piece for us recently about the KonMari method of decluttering and organizing—which, in part, instructs people to only keep the things that “spark joy.” Bernstein questioned that method from the perspective of the daughter and granddaughter of refugees:

[I]n order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival.

Her piece got a lot of great response from readers. This one points out that “many of Marie Kondo’s Japanese compatriots remember, through their parents and grandparents, how difficult things were in post-WWII Japan”:

Japanese people of a certain age know a lot about poverty and hard times, which is partly why clutter and hoarding are problems there.