Marie Kondo: a Foreign Service Perspective

The last 30 years of my life have involved a lot of dealing with Stuff. Nineteen moves, people. Nineteen! Capped off with moving into our “forever home” after retirement from the Foreign Service. This turned out to be a sort of extended Final Reckoning of Stuff. I blogged about this process here, and here, and here. From wheels-down to finally emptying out the storage unit, it was well over a year to the Settled In stage.

Then, just when the last home renovation project wrapped up, my in-laws moved out of their condo into assisted living. Now I know just how much stuff can come out of a one bedroom apartment if you live there for two decades! We emptied the place in a two-day blitz of sorting, packing, and donating, capped off with a blessed visit from 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

So, anyway,  I have what you might call a lifetime of experience with sorting, organizing, purging, etc. And actually, my house is pretty organized now. I’m not a minimalist. I really like my stuff. But I definitely don’t like to feel that it is all closing in on me. That means, given that my house is about 1,400 square feet with three adults living in it, that I have to be really organized and tidy in order to enjoy living here.

Just when I stopped to take a breath from all this domestic goddessery, “Tidying Up” with Marie Kondo came to Netflix. Of course, I had to watch it, because everyone else is! Some thoughts after finishing the series, with a Foreign Service twist at the end.

Things I like about the Kondo method

Categorizing stuff. Oh, definitely. Clothes are not books are not kitchen items are not memorabilia. It may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of folks seem to need help with the view from 10,000 feet up, so to speak. Breaking up the mess into the topmost categories is a great way to stop panicking and start organizing.

Pull it all out where you can see it. Absolutely! We do this every time we move in the Foreign Service, right? It really does work. I don’t have to move any more, but when I switch out my clothes between summer/winter, I still take them all out and lay them on the bed before putting them back in the closet. I can really see what I have that way, and of course every time I end up donating some items that I forgot I even had.

Take it in stages. On the show, Kondo comes into the house at intervals and gives the family in question “homework.” This is sorting one category of items per week (if we believe the timeline on the show is real). Makes perfect sense, because if you pulled everything out of every closet and cupboard at once, you wouldn’t be able to walk through it all!

I’d add, “peel it off in layers.” You kind of have to settle into a house, even if it’s the same house, redesigned. You might sort all of your books, for example, then a couple of months later decide you didn’t really need all those cookbooks after all, so you do another sort…this doesn’t mean the first sort was a failure! It just means that sometimes, it takes more time than shown on reality TV to complete the project. Or it could be that the project may never truly be complete. And that’s fine.

Stay positive. I like this about “Tidying Up.” Some organizing shows, like “Clean House,” though enjoyable, tend to focus too much on all the trash and junk in a house. Not that there wasn’t always plenty of junk, but the point is not really what needs tossing, but what needs keeping, right?

Kondo flips the usual reality TV shame-the-participants formula. Instead of making people feel ashamed of their stuff (they don’t need any more help with that) she compliments them on the nicer items and encourages them to prioritize and display them.  I think this is probably why the show is such a hit. It is a kinder, gentler “get your life in order” program.

Keep items where you can see and use them. I am a super-visual person. If I don’t see what I have, I am likely to forget it is there. And so I really like see-through containers for storage. That’s just me, but no matter how your brain works, there is no need to blow a ton of money on the project. You do not have to buy adorable-but-expensive Marie Kondo brand storage boxes for your stuff. Home Depot has plastic shoeboxes for 99 cents each, as one example. Ikea has inexpensive boxes and baskets. Thrift stores always have all kinds of baskets and plastic containers for sale if you don’t care about matching.

I inherited a LOT of yarn when I cleaned out the in-laws apartment. Which led to figuring out how to squeeze more into this closet. Cheap plastic and cardboard containers work just fine.
This old Ikea kitchen island holds more of my craft supplies. I like it because I can SEE what’s in the drawers. (Never mind what’s stored in plastic containers under my bed. The one who dies with the most fabric wins!)

Another aspect of this approach: why are you keeping something if you are not either using or displaying it? It’s a good question to ask! Although, the answer may be, “it’s important to me and I am fine keeping it even though it is in a box under my bed.” Do you know what it is, where it is and why you are keeping it?  I think if you can answer those questions— and you are comfortable with the amount of stuff in your house—then there is no problem here.

Things I am little more iffy on

Thanking the house. I don’t have a major problem with this, I just feel it could reinforce the idea that the house is somehow in charge and not the people in it. Which, when you are talking about people who are already overwhelmed by their houses could go either way. I just think it’s a bit passive, maybe? But, I admit there may be a cultural thing I am not getting there.

Sparking joy. OK, I get what she is saying. I like my stuff, and I often say I am buying or keeping something because it “speaks to me.” But I have to tell you, my socks do not spark any joy. Neither do my cleaning supplies. Or my stapler. Some items we have because they are simply useful. And that is fine, too. I would not want to drive myself batty asking myself if every item in my house “sparks joy.”

The whole folding thing. Hey, if you want to spend all that time folding your t-shirts into little rectangles, I will not judge. But I think if my clothes are clean, fit comfortably in my dresser drawers and are not all scrunched-up, I’m good.

I feel like Kondo is tiptoeing through a minefield there, because the kind of people who are overwhelmed by their houses are often the exact same people who would get sidetracked by folding socks perfectly and sorting them by color and consequently not get anything else done. (She really went over the top with folding baby onesies into tiny squares. I just couldn’t with that.)

But, with those caveats, I really do like the show. If it gets Americans to be more mindful about how much stuff they buy and pile up in their houses, and to recycle more of that stuff into thrift stores and charities, that can only be a good thing!

Final Foreign Service notes

Weird stuff. You live all over the world, you are going to acquire some weird stuff. Eventually, it all have to find a place in your “forever home.” I know this will come as a great shock, but it may not all fit. And it may take a while for it to “settle in.” A couple of examples from my home.

We have lots of textiles from Central America and Africa. In some Foreign Service homes, there has been room to display them on the walls. Not here! But I didn’t want to donate them, either. So, finally, they “settled” in layers on a wrought-iron quilt stand and in a stack on top of my linen cupboard. (Which was a TV cabinet when we had it made in El Salvador in the early 90s.) I can still enjoy them that way and they take up almost no space.

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Thank you, somewhat battered old giant TV cabinet, for storing my linens!

Another weird example: these Czech beer crates. My husband had them in his home brewing supplies. After concluding there simply was no space for this hobby in our home, he was going to give them away with the rest of the equipment. For some reason, I just couldn’t get rid of them. They are so sturdy! They sat on the back porch for months, then I finally thought of a great use for them: bookcases! Now they are “sparking joy” in my office—and keeping my books from falling all over the place.

As Marie Kondo would say, “ting!”


One comment

  1. I love these thoughts.

    Watching my friends KonMari’ing, I have this tinge of sadness. I think it is good and needful to deal with the “stuff.” Yet in the exuberance of keeping only what “sparks joy” in the moment, it is inevitable that things will be tossed that have deeper meaning just realized in the moment.

    The “stuff” of life is important.

    Perhaps with the many moves, many sortings, make seasons of stuff in storage, I’m just seeing things differently.

    Liked by 1 person

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