On the phone, my mom and I discuss the possibility of doing the KonMari method together when I come to visit. “Let’s watch the show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo first,” I tell her. I try to be positive and supportive, even though the process of tidying the family house fills me with tremendous anxiety. My mother’s home is cluttered and warm, filled with knickknacks and doodads. It’s always been a little messy, but it’s also a loving space, filled with soft couches with blankets and stacks of library books. Everywhere I look in my mother’s house, I can see an object that holds some kind of special memory, along with a lot of other things that need to be sorted through and thrown away.
Marie Kondo’s famous book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a straightforward guide to tidying up, all based around her now famous method of only keeping things that spark a feeling of joy. It’s a quick and adorable read, filled to the brim with illustrations of tiny forest creatures delightedly folding, storing, and otherwise tidying up various things. The TV show isn’t animated, but tugs at the heartstrings in a different way. Through each episode, Kondo works directly with an individual or family that is actively struggling to use her methods. The result is a TV show that, unlike a very different sort of reality show like Hoarders, is deeply invested in showing how people who struggle with clutter deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and care.
As someone who grew up in a cluttered home, this is a message I’ve long yearned for. My mother’s side of the family are Cuban-Jewish refugees who struggle a lot with what to decide to keep, since every generation except for mine has had to suddenly move, leaving most things behind in the process. On their gravestones, my mother and aunt charted my grandparents’ journey from Poland to Cuba to the U.S., each stop along the way another lost homeland. On the way, my family lost material things as well as people, and so the objects we’ve held onto feel tremendously important, even when they are things that might seem ordinary or inconsequential to other families.
Because of this, it’s hard for me to imagine that any specific object might “spark joy,” even though I desperately want to feel the joy that Marie Kondo promises we all can feel. When I watch her show, I’m fascinated by the way that joy itself is given a sound—a lovely and melodic “ching” that Kondo demonstrates by listing her chest and body upwards, as if tidying itself is a loving sort of dance. Even though it’s very sweet to see, watching different people learn to feel joy also makes me feel a little afraid. I worry that my family’s heart is too broken from years of loss to be able to find that sense of pure happiness. And I worry that my heart is somehow irreparably broken, too.
When I first started writing about my family’s experiences, I was surprised that some readers assumed the trauma that refugees experience ends once they have access to a safe home. In reality, scientific evidence shows that whenever families experience traumatic displacement, there are often echoes that continue for many generations. My mother keeps things as a way to try and hold onto a past that is already gone and, now that I am in my 30s, I’ve started to struggle with keeping too. When I was younger, I gleefully disposed of things I didn’t think I needed any longer. Now, I wonder about all those things I let go of― my prom dress, college pots and pans, notebooks filled with messy scribbles―and worry that my fervor to be tidy is also an effort to try and erase a sad family story, instead of recognizing that coming to terms with that story is also an aspect of healing.
My mom and I are best friends in the way that only mothers and daughters can be. We talk on the phone almost every day, sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to complain, and sometimes to bare our souls. Since we live in different places, we don’t see each other as much as either of us would like to, and once we’re finally in the same space, the last thing we want to do is sort through all the tchotchkes.
When my mom came to this country as a refugee, she was 16 and had almost nothing. A large part of her identity over the last 50 years has been built on taking pride in preserving the items she loves and the things she can give me. I’m still not sure how to tell her (gently) that I don’t need another lunch bag. For my mom, love is woven into the language of giving and receiving, so I’m always worried that resisting her gifts will make it seem as though I’m rejecting her.
When my mom and I watch Tidying Up together she doesn’t cry. She isn’t moved like I am by the possibility of a freshly organized room —though maybe that’s not what provokes such an emotional reaction in me either. When Marie Kondo enters a house, she always reassures the people she is visiting, telling each family that she also struggles with clutter. When a woman tries to tell her husband that he should throw an object out, Marie Kondo very calmly and resolutely tells the woman that only you can choose what sparks joy for you. When a widow requests that she look through her late husband’s clothes first, rather than wait and do the sentimental objects later, Marie Kondo allows her to make an exception to the very specific KonMari methods. I cry because Marie Kondo truly wants these people to make good choices, to feel empowered, to wake up every day surrounded only by the things they want and need.
And I cry because I feel powerless to help my family do the same thing. When I tell my mom that we’re supposed to start the process of sorting, she demurs, trying to shift the conversation to something, anything, else—gossip, a TV show, cooking. I try placing objects in her hands, asking to see if any will spark joy, and, when I do, she leaves the room.
The reason Marie Kondo is popular is because the tasks she asks us to do are intrinsically relatable: everyone has stuff they need to sort through, and everyone wants to experience a feeling of joy. When we watch other people sort through their own unique messes, we are relieved to see how most of us are basically the same. That none of us can keep everything. That even things that are lovingly maintained aren’t going to last forever. That a large part of life is preparing to give up the things you love.
When I first started writing about my family’s relationship to clutter, I received many moving emails from people who have a similarly fraught relationship with material stuff. I also received some comments that made me question writing about this subject at all. “If you think it’s hard now, just wait until your mom dies!” one man wrote, and I immediately burst into tears. Was it unclear that my biggest fear was this type of irreplaceable loss? We didn’t grow up in an especially religious home, but I remember saying something akin to prayer every night as a child. I thought that if I felt love strongly enough, I could send that loving, healing energy to my mom, could help her feel safe in a way that I’ve always known she simply doesn’t. I could tell by the way she held me and by the way she developed a lot of fears. I could tell by the way we talked about the past. I could tell by the way she always said goodbye.
In the world of Tidying Up each episode is between 35 and 47 minutes. During that time, the families trying to sort through their belongings get through quite a lot. Very quickly, armed with Marie Kondo’s methods, they stop their bad habits and learn to live with a more joyful relationship to their material things.
In contrast, over the past three years since my mom and I started trying to get through all her clutter, we’ve made incredibly little progress. But these years have also connected my mother and I in a way that’s been profoundly healing. I now understand, and can empathize with, her reasons for keeping things that other people might find silly. While the objects my mom refuses to get through don’t “spark joy” for me, I no longer feel the intense pressure to get rid of things like I did when I was younger.
Years ago, when my grandmother was dying, I watched my mother calmly brush her hair in the hospital room, and was shocked by how quietly you could love someone. The home I grew up in was warm and kind, but also loud and messy, filled with arguments, anxieties, and sadness at everything we had to leave. I never thought it was possible to love someone that gently.
Tidying with my mom embodies this same sort of subtle grief, in that there are moments of joy, but also profound loss that come with this process of sorting. Since embarking on this process, I’ve learned that feeling that sense of loss—really holding it in that moment and just allowing it to be—is more meaningful and fulfilling than imagining the happiness that discarding an old object and getting a new one might bring.
This act of emotional tidying goes beyond feeling joy; it’s about feeling present. It’s about seeing the mess as something beautiful simply because it is also a very real part of being alive.