Reading ‘Thanks, Robert Frost’ by David Ray
I walked by the window of a bookstore and saw something that made me stop short. There, at the front of the display case was Marie Kondo’s bestselling book: The life-changing magic of tidying up.
And, there, perched right next to Kondo’s book, in a neat, side by side display, was another book with equally attractive cover jacket, this one titled the joy of leaving your sh*t all over the place.
(It was a nice counterpoint.) But I didn’t buy either book.
But that’s because I already owned the first one. And the second one just made me think of friends I love… who don’t need more of that kind of inspiration.
Decluttering. It is the phenomenon of our time, some people love it, some love to hate it.
I… love it. In fact, decluttering became one of my top projects during my sabbatical last spring.
I’d been eyeing the 42,000 emails in my personal gmail inbox. Yes, 42 thousand. When I told a friend the number of emails in in that account she thanked me for making her feel better about her own. Hearing that did not make me feel better.
I’d been eyeing the nearly 20 drawers of file cabinets in my storage space. Mostly full.
I’d been eyeing my airless closets, the basement with its big green bins still stocked with sports equipment from my 30’s, my many and very full bookshelves, and the reality that my living space is not actually very big.
And I’d been eyeing that book. The first one. Life-changing magic sounded right up my ally.
You’ve probably heard of it somehow, somewhere. It’s the book that was the inspiration for multiple youtube talks and a netflix show. It is the book that has made Marie Kondo a household name and the anti-clutter movement a phenomenon for our time.
And you could even say her signature question, does it spark joy, has made its way into our collective public consciousness.
As evidenced by its appearance in popular media. The New Yorker magazine printed a cartoon recently showing a woman holding two overstuffed black garbage bags in a room in which all the dresser drawers were pulled out and empty, saying to her partner: “I’m not so much keeping what sparks joy as getting rid of everything that sparks rage.”
A friend of mine posted a cartoon recently showing a burglar holding a TV, looking pensive, asking himself the question “but does it spark joy”?
It is a powerful question.
Does it spark joy?
If it does, Kondo says, you should keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.
If you do that, your life will change, Kondo asserts. If you follow these simple direction, something will open up for you, not just in your living room, but in your life.
“A dramatic reorganization of the home,” Kondo writes in the book, “causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.” It is life transforming. It is magic.
“After your course,” one of her clients asserts, “I quit my job and launched my own business doing something I had dreamed of […] since I was a child.”
“Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t.” said another. “So I got a divorce, and now I feel much happier. “
A third wrote that: “My husband and I are getting along much better,” wrote a 3rd. (luckily, it seems divorce is not an inevitable outcome)
And finally: “I’m amazed to find that just throwing things away has changed me so much,” said a fourth.
The more I read Marie Kondo’s book the more it did indeed sound like magic. And on her netflix show there were all these people – unburdened, happier, more alive. It looked good.
I wanted to test out her theory.
I wanted to see what this would do for me.
I wanted to find out if I too, would find myself changed, freed, happier.
So, on my sabbatical last spring, I took the plunge.
I started with my emails. From 42K to 8K in under 3 hours. So many marketing emails… Gone.
Extra clothing that didn’t really fit, that I didn’t really like, or that I never actually wore… Gone.
The old coffee maker that I kept around for when my mom came to stay that she never used because she said it smelled like the rat poison from the basement, which it did…. Gone.
Files and papers and bills and receipts and photocopies that added up to over 100 pounds of paper? 6 giant garbage bags full of shreddings before I gave up and got staples to do the rest? Gone gone gone.
Are you feeling the relief with me?
It sounds good, right? You can probably picture the before and after. Stacks of clutter, the overflowing papers, piles of junk on the left-hand side of the frame and then this beautifully clear, organized, sorted, work of organizational beauty on the right. Like something out of Modern Living, or Oprah magazine, or wherever they publish these kinds of dramatic before and afters. I almost took snapshots, in case Marie Kondo might want to highlight me on her show in some way.
I haven’t heard from her. At least not yet.
But maybe that’s just as well because the pictures wouldn’t tell the whole story anyway.
Those neat and clean before and after’s that can appear so enticing in a magazine often leave some of the messier parts of the process out of the picture.
Messier parts like grief, like feelings of loss, like reckoning. Messier parts like anxiety, fear, uncertainty.
Letting go has its challenges, whatever form it takes.
As I progressed along my personal decluttering trajectory, I discovered something that will not surprise you, that stuff is not just stuff. And I discovered another thing that likely also will not surprise you, my relationship with my stuff, is a reflection of my relationship with life. Which, for me, means, sometimes conflicted, sometimes hopeful? Sometimes a little too attached, sometimes full of expectation. Stuff is not just stuff.
I discovered that everything I went through, my clothes, my papers, my books, my nicknacks…. Every single thing in my house had a history. And a future that I had imagined. Each item I owned was a reminder of what was happening at the time I got it. And each item had some hope attached to it – some way it was going to help me do something, some way it was going to fix something or help me with something, some way it was going to change me or fix my life.
Not to mention that many of them were also connected, in some way, to people in my life.
From that history book from my aunt who I love so much, to that pair of boots that were going to make me feel as strong and powerful as my friend looked when she wore them, to dozens of file folders labeled tantalizing things like – great ideas for worship, or insights for sermons, or must-see films or shows.
And then there are my books – all those books – that were going to make me alternately smarter, or more world wise, or more insightful, or more skilled or successful.
And I swear there is some part of me that believed simply buying the book would reap me those benefits. And another part that believes as long as I hold on to them, whether I’ve read them or not, their wisdom is mine.
They make me who I am. Or, so it feels. All of it, all my stuff, makes me who I am. Even those piles of papers that I just don’t know what to do with.
There’s a reason we’ve collected what we have. It’s part of our story. Part of how we handle life. Part of our history and who we’ve been. Part of who we thought we would become. Who, perhaps, we hope we still will.
And so this, revisiting, this sorting through is not just a simple tossing out and tidying up. It’s like a review of our whole lives.
Which could lead to magic. And could feel messy.
One of the greatest challenges I encountered, as I was going through my things, was the resistance in my head. Even if it was clear I didn’t need something, hadn’t looked it in in years, and probably never would. Don’t throw that away my mind would caution me. You might need that. You might need those bank statements from 1998. What if you get audited? You might need that folder full of wonderful ideas, what if, some Sunday, you can’t think of anything to say?
I remember reading about one of Marie’s clients talking about the need to go through her husband’s things after he had died. I can only imagine the resistance she must have felt. I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Cleaning house is not just about things. And can bring up feelings like anxiety, fear or grief.
But any kind of sorting through is a chance to practice spiritual principles like trust, and hope, and faith in the simple goodness of life.
In fact, I wonder whether one reason Marie Kondo’s method hits home with so many people is because it is based on spiritual principles. Grounded in Kondo’s own Shinto upbringing. And infused with a gentle trust in each person’s ability to connect with the truth in their own heart.
Just hold each item in your hands and you will know, she said, what touches your heart. You will be surprised how easily you can tell.
Does it spark joy? Does it fuel your spirit?
We can ask that about our things. And we can ask it about so many aspects of our lives.
One of the things we have sometimes done in our new member classes is ask people the question: what, from your religious heritage, would you like to bring forward with you into the future? What has real meaning to you, what has sustained you, what do you cherish… what would you like to keep? And we also ask – what did not serve you? What did not feed you, what would you like to let go of to make room for something new?
And, as we enter this new year, we might ask ourselves the same. What do you want to keep from this last year with all its triumphs and all its joys? What would you leave behind if only you could?
The truth is that in life, of course, it is not so easy to just discard. Memories that we wish were different, mistakes we made that we wish we hadn’t, consequences we are experiencing that we wish we weren’t.
Albatrosses we wish we had not placed upon the tender necks of those we love. Albatrosses that someone placed on ours.
What would it take for the past to have been all right, for what it was, after all?
As I was going through my stuff, and I will confess I haven’t yet gone through it all, it was like I was touching my own history. Like touching, with newfound compassion, my younger self. And going through it all, I had a chance to hold it all gently, let it touch my heart, and begin, again, to accept what was and what was not to be.
And, as I was going through all this stuff that at one time I so carefully categorized, and labeled and stored and then never looked at again, I had to ask myself – what would it look like to have faith. To trust that I’ll have enough. That maybe I’ll be okay. Even if I’m audited. Which I won’t be. At least not for what happened in 1998. Cleaning out my stuff reminded me I’ve made it through hard times. And it was rarely my things that got me through.
Letting things go, reminded me that what really matters anyway is people.
Cleaning house in home or heart.
January is a time to take stock. A time to look back and look forward.
A time to hold on to what matters, and let go, with compassion, of what no longer does. Including some of our own ingrained attitudes.
May we find, as we sort through our things or through our past, that we might grieve as we need to, feel fear if we must, and lean into faith, and hope, and trust.
May we find, as we anticipate the coming year with all its unknown challenges, and all it’s unknown gifts, that we find a way to surround ourselves with joy.
May we, as we begin the year together, find that when we trust, when we open, when we are willing to let go, we will, more and more, create room to connect with what matters most, with each other, with what is unfolding right here and now.