The Sometimes Unbearable Lightness of Living with Less

02/25/2015 9:55 AM |

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Like most of my great ideas, this one began in the shower. Rather, it’s not really that it was an idea I had in the shower, so much as it was an idea that I had applied to my shower, and would now be applying to the rest of my life. Basically, I wanted to live with less. I know, I know—living minimally is all the rage right now; there isn’t a person in New York who doesn’t have either an opinion of or an experience with Marie Kondo’s decluttering bible, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which recommends that we all give up those things in our homes that “do not spark joy.” And really, what New Yorker doesn’t welcome, if not already obsess over, the concept of paring down to the essentials? For most of us here, space is at a premium, and the simplest way to access more of it (other than having one of those dreams in which you discover that your apartment has a whole extra room—or even wing!—which you’d never noticed before; I love those dreams) is by getting rid of as much stuff as you can bear to part with—just like that, your storage needs will be solved!

But this wasn’t simply about space issues for me (although it wasn’t not about space issues, because I do live in New York). For me, the real reason I had recently had to get rid of all the soaps and shampoos and scrubs and conditioners I had amassed over the years was that there was some ingredient in one of these not inexpensive, usually heavily perfumed products that was inflaming my skin and turning the back of my ears red and making me itch all over. And so because I’m not the most patient person and didn’t really feel like figuring out which ingredient (or ingredients) was the offending agent, I just got rid of everything all at once. Suddenly, my bathtub—formerly lined with three different kinds of body wash, four scrubs, an ultra-conditioning hair masque, three types of shampoo, and two conditioners—held only two products: a huge bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Lavender soap, and a smaller, but no less long-lasting bottle of Wen cleansing conditioner, which takes the place of both shampoo and conditioner. My skin had started to behave again, my shower routine was stream-lined (which doesn’t mean shorter; there’s still nothing I like more than standing under hot, streaming water), and I felt a new sense of peace with one part of my life. So why not turn the same kind of attention to the rest of my cluttered existence?

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In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo exhorts readers to strive for perfection as they clean out their homes. This feels, in many ways, like the opposite of what so many other lifestyle experts will advise you to do. Baby steps, they’ll tell you, get rid of one thing a day. Kondo reminds us that if you tackle projects bit-by-bit, you will then wind up working on them forever. This, to put it bluntly, sounds like actual hell to me. Plus, Kondo says something designed to appeal to people like me i.e. huge procrastinators who like to do everything at once in one big work-dump: This method of a massive clean-out is ideal for people who are not “diligent, persevering types” and it’s ok for perfection to be a goal just this once. Which, to be honest, is something I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life. Unhealthy as it may seem (and be!), perfection has long been my goal, and while I know there are countless ways in which perfection is unacheivable and maybe even undesirable, it soothes my obsessive mind to think that I could actually facilitate a certain kind of perfection in my own life. And all it would take is getting rid of a few ratty T-shirts and saying goodbye to all those “back-up” black tights I keep around for when I haven’t washed my favorite pairs.

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So, I began to Kondo-ize my life. There were areas where it was simple enough—beauty supplies for one. I was ruthless going through my medicine cabinet, sweeping away every half-filled tube of moisturizer and used-once-or-twice-and-then-forgotten eye shadow. All those Sephora samples that I had taken and blithely left perched on a bathroom shelf where they had remained for months and months? Gone. The extra hair-dryer that I keep just in case my other one dies, even though it doesn’t work very well and I don’t ever blow dry my hair except on days cold enough that it would freeze if I went outside with it still wet? Also gone. Soon, all I was left with was a Konjac sponge for washing my face, one face oil (Butter Elixir), one moisturizer for my face (Aesop Camellia Nut Facial Hydrating Cream, because it is the best), deodorant (Soapwalla natural deodorant, because same), one moisturizer for my body (Egyptian Magic Cream), a tinted moisturizer (Laura Mercier), mascara, (Tarte Amazonian Clay), eyebrow gel (Benefit), and two lip pencils (both Nars, Dragon Girl and Belle du Jour). Oh, and Blistex, because that’s the best lip goo with the worst (but also best?) name.

Maybe this still sounds like a lot to some people; I don’t really know. But I do know that every one of those products are now the only things I use, making my life, my medicine cabinet, and, I guess, my face and body, feel much less cluttered already. Plus, the fact that I only use a handful of items guarantees that should I ever lose those things, I’ll be able to replace them easily enough.

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And, in fact, that kind of mentality, the whole “what would I do if I lost everything tomorrow” one, was really helpful in getting rid of so much other stuff too. I said goodbye to pots and pans whose non-stick coatings had seen better days; I recycled old cell phones and a laptop and tons of batteries that weren’t AA or AAA and which were nearing their expiration dates; I got rid of towels I never used and blankets that had stayed folded and put away on out-of-reach shelves; I rounded up pillow inserts that had no matching covers, and pillow covers with no matching inserts, and put them all in a bag for donation. It was liberating. It was glorious. It was easy. The hard part was still to come.

I don’t know how many books I have. Under a thousand, definitely. Under 500, probably. But I have a lot. I’ve read most of them, though not all. I’ve long since gotten rid of the college textbooks with their yellow “USED” stickers on the spine. I no longer have books that I picked up off people’s stoops, or on my lobby’s giveaway table, books that never wound up getting read, books that I only took because they were free. Marie Kondo says that before you get rid of any of your books, before you decide if they deserve to be kept, you must take them all off their shelves and stack them on the floor. This way, you see, you can interact with them. Your gaze won’t simply skim their titles; you will be handling them and really sensing their worth. This is the only way to know if they bring you joy.

And so I did this with my books. I did this with books that I kept because I had loved them as a teenager and adult, and look forward to my own children reading. I did this with books that I inherited after my father died, full of pages of his marginalia—sometimes just an exclamation point placed next to a Pynchon paragraph, sometimes whole sentences written at the end of a chapter of The Invisible Mans. I did this with a book I have never read, because it was given to me by a man who claimed I’d hurt him, so he sent me this book, but we never spoke again; I worried what reading that book would make me want to do. I took down all these books and realized that I didn’t want to get rid of any of them. That if I were to have some sort of clutter remain in my life, this would be it. I wanted perfection, yes, but not at the cost of losing not just the things that didn’t bring me joy, but those that brought me pain, regret, or were reminders of profound loss. These books are a reflection of my life, and I wanted it intact, messy though it was. Kondo never claims that tidying up your life will have the end result of tidying up your mind. In fact, she says the opposite—no amount of cleaning will ever ease the turmoil that goes on inside you. This is obvious, maybe, but it also felt like a relief to read. It was permission of a sort to hold onto the things that mattered most, whether or not they were strictly necessary. The books stayed; my closet was next.

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This should have been the easy part, in a sense, because I’ve done it before. I’ve gotten rid of bags and bags of clothes that didn’t quite fit (mostly due to overzealous use of the dryer; some things really ought to be hand-washed), or that had small stains, or tiny rips, or that were just never, ever, EVER going to be something I could ever imagine wearing again. And it started out easy, it really did: Disposing of skirts that I couldn’t imagine myself wearing again or shoes that had never really fit that well to begin with was simple. But as I got deeper into my closet, I started to unearth the things that had a different meaning for me than the “spark of joy” that Kondo believes in. Most of these clothes had once been associated with joy, but were now inextricably linked with sorrow. Most of these clothes had been my father’s, and I had taken them from his closet in the days and weeks after he died, wanting to preserve whatever I could of how it felt when I would reach out to him for a hug, my cheek brushing on the soft suede of his fall jacket, my arms against the silk of one of the garish Hawaiian shirts he favored in the summer. These were the things I could have gotten rid of, that were there purely for sentimental reasons, but that were also the only things in my closet that I would have saved from fire or flood or, you know, swarm of locusts. This was the kind of clutter that would, along with my books, prevent me from attaining perfection. And this was ok.

The thing I had grown to learn about the clutter in my life, some of which had started to manifest as a physical problem in that my skin was literally becoming inflamed due to having too much stuff, was that getting rid of it all would mean getting rid of the things that made my life my own. These things that I had collected—some of which were things that had been passed down to me, and had been collected by others, like my grandfather’s boyhood stamp collection or my father’s metal box full of found arrowheads—took up real space in my home and in my life. But that was ok. Their presence was a comfort, not a burden. They didn’t confuse my life, but rather made it clearer that I had a life, and that my life was full of things that meant something—meant everything—to me. Getting rid of them wouldn’t just have meant learning to live with less, it would have meant that I would be welcoming real loss in my life. There are times when things can be a burden, but there are also times when that burden feels more like a weight, securing you to a time and a place—your own spot in the world. The reality that your place in the world is ultimately transient can make it feel like decluttering your life is the best possible option, the only way to truly reflect the futility of piling up all these distractions and reminders around you. But while I think that there is definitely lots of space to get rid of the things that don’t make you feel anything, the tyranny of “joy” is not the only way we should organize our life. Sometimes it’s the tragic things, those that represent the past and loss and love, that we should hold onto. They are the things that make us human, that remind us we are alive, and of just how messy life is supposed to be.•

6 Comment

  • Loved the final 2 paragraphs. Perfection can be too sterile to be a worthwhile goal. There is a difference between keeping a tsotchke and things that are meaningful. It sounds like you have found an admirable path through your possessions.

  • So many of us have -as workers, as citizens, as people-
    have ourselves become disposable
    in this “new economy”, in this brave new age
    of callousness and greed.
    Perhaps the one percent need to stop “hoarding” so much money,…
    instead of ordring us to stop hoarding the little that we have.
    Now the powers that be (who of course can well afford storage spaces)
    encourage- nay, they try to “shame, those that are disposable to themselves dispose,
    —and in the process to become even more invisible in their cold cold eyes.
    No way Jose.

  • Thank you for the validation. My friends know that I’ve been trying to clear the clutter for years and until I read your article, I assumed it was an either/or situation. One gets rid of all clutter, or one becomes part of a “hoarder” TV program. Your article has motivated me to continue and not feel guilty about the things I want to keep, such as my father’s tattered flannel shirt that I wear when doing laundry in my apartment’s basement. He died 16 years ago and I was just thinking about getting rid of it, but not going to until it’s so threadbare that I would be arrested for indecent exposure. I also keep his pipe in an ashtray in my hallway. I framed a skeleton key from the house where I grew up in Detroit and it hangs on my wall along with other memories from my childhood. I also framed two dolly plates that were my mother’s when she was a child. I was told to take pictures of these things before throwing them away. A picture of my dad’s flannel shirt? Nope.

  • Censoring comments now? It’s ok for hipsters to be everyday offensive but when someone throws it back at their face, its angel advocate won’t let the comments through. GTFO.