Tidying and decluttering my wardrobe used to be a concentrated process — a few afternoons devoted to trying on clothes, tossing those that didn’t fit or didn’t suit anymore and then dragging the discard pile to a consignment shop or Goodwill for donation.
These days avec l’enfant are quite different. Now, cleaning out the closet is a very s-l-o-w affair — I don’t have large chunks of time free anymore. It’s frustrating because the task is always hanging over my head in some ways. But there have been advantages to a slower pace: I make more thoughtful decisions. I see and trace the mental patterns that led to the choices in my spending. I can soak in the emotions and memories that clothes evoke, make peace with them and then say goodbye to items feeling a sense of closure and gratitude.
It helps that I decided to take the plunge and read Marie Kondo’s crazy-popular bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and then the follow-up, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On The Art Of Organizing And Tidying Up. I want to do a more in-depth review, but I will say that Life-Changing Magic is quietly yet deeply eccentric in many ways — and also touchingly sincere and sweet. If I had to nail down the appeal of the book to so many millions of readers, I think it’s because Kondo is successful at bringing out the latent “spirituality of stuff,” in an almost animist way. (Kondo, in fact, once worked in a Shinto shrine as a temple attendant, and strangely, this makes total sense when you read the book.)
This sounds unbelievably woo-woo, I know — and there is a deep streak in me that is very punk-rock “UGH MATERIALISM.” But this is different. Materialism, to me, is using the purchase and consumption of things to elevate status, fill a hole in one’s self or otherwise boost an ego. Buying things is aimed at amping up one’s self — and sometimes making others feel small in comparison. In other words, it comes from a profound sense of scarcity or “lack” within ourselves, and we use “stuff” to fill those feelings of emptiness or inadequacy.
Kondo, though, spotlights a different emotional dimension to our material goods. She recognizes the profound emotional attachments and memories that we often unconsciously imbue our possessions with, and the way psychological weight accrues around them — and her method of tidying actually foregrounds those feelings. Basically, the biggest criteria you use to decide to discard something is whether or not it “sparks joy” — and in Kondo’s work, you hold every item you own and ask yourself this question.
Again, it sounds really woo-woo — “joy” is one of those words that rouses disdain in a lot of people. But if you look at how many people in the world are restless, discontented, unhappy or vaguely tortured by life, most people truly have no sense of what inspires joy in themselves. So asking the question again and again — as you would if you follow Kondo’s method to the letter — is actually a profound inquiry.
Ach, but I digress! Wasn’t this supposed to be a post about cleaning out closets? Basically, I went on my Kondo tangent because I couldn’t help but incorporate some of her techniques and ideas into the process, which perhaps slowed things down in some ways. Some of her tips did help keep the process from overwhelming me: she advises sorting by category instead of location, for example. (Basically, instead of cleaning out the bedroom closet, you gather all your shirts from all over the house in one place and sort through them.) This actually helped keep me organized during my closet clean-out, because I worked on one micro-category of clothes at night after the baby went down: I’d do long-sleeved tops one night, button-downs the next, short-sleeved t-shirts after, etc.
The “sparking joy” bit was harder, though. I decided to give the whole Kondo process a try: I’d hold up the item I was examining and ask if it “sparked joy.” And, boy, did I feel weird doing it. It was awkward for a number of reasons: first, asking someone recovering from post-partum depression (or any sort of depression, I think) about joy is like asking a color-blind person if they can see neon pink. Depressed people can’t even fathom hope, or joy, or any of those rainbow emotions. It made me sad sometimes that asking myself if something sparked joy was so hard. It had been so long since I felt joy — the last time I could remember feeling true joy was meeting my son for the first time after he had been born and looking into his eyes for the first time. So asking a workout tank-top if it “sparked joy” in me felt…impossible.
But I kept going. This is going to be super-embarrassing to reveal on the Internet — but hey, why not? — but Kondo advises if you’re having trouble deciding if something sparks joy, you hold it in your arms against your heart and pay attention to what your body does. Do you kind of relax and feel a warmth in you? Or do you feel kind of…nothing? Again — this is super, super dorky — I decided to try it when I felt really flummoxed. I’d hold something — say, a grey sweatshirt with neon stitching — and take a breath. And then I’d listen to my body.
And — it kinda worked. The items that truly, truly made me happy felt like hugging an old friend. A tiny, shapeless friend, perhaps, but a friend nevertheless. These items made me feel like a kid again. They made me feel warm and safe. They made me feel like I can conquer the world. They made me smile. I didn’t have to “think” or “figure out” if something gave me joy. I just had to listen to the instinctual reactions of my body and heart, which sounds sentimental but is a lot tougher if you think about it.
So I didn’t complete my closet cleanout very quickly. But I did finish it. And I learned a lot about myself in the process, in all kinds of ways — I realized a lot of “fashionable neutrals” don’t inspire me as much anymore, but I also made peace with saying goodbye to aspects of my past I’ve outgrown.
There were some practical wardrobe management things I picked up, too. I’ve purged my closet before, so it was fairly well-curated to begin with. But going by category forced me to tackle those clothes I don’t see as “wardrobe” — but still take up valuable space in my house and subconscious. I tackled stuff like workout clothes, bras and underwear and that ever-nebulous “loungewear” category that functions more like sartorial purgatory for a lot of us.
Loungewear, actually, was the bete noire of my wardrobe — easily the unruliest category of clothes. I have a bad habit, I realized, of “demoting” items as loungewear when I no longer wanted to wear something but felt bad in some way about getting rid of it. I was fond of putting old t-shirts and long-sleeved knits whose designs no longer resonated with me into my loungewear — but also things that I didn’t truly enjoy wearing but felt obligated to hold onto. That James Perse t-shirt I bought in a color I didn’t truly adore. A knit Rick Owens shirt that was, like, fifteen years old and shaped more like a Comme des Garcons one now. A long-sleeved wrap sweater that my mom gave me five years ago.
But what I noticed when confronted with all of my collective loungewear in one place was how woebegone and sad-looking all the clothes were. It was like the Island of Unwanted Clothes. My loungewear castoffs were the material representation of obligation in my life, heavy and shapeless and finally revealed as oppressive once I compiled it all together. And ugh, did I really want to sleep or feel cozy in my home wearing things that weighed me down with obligation? Isn’t obligation a quality I want to let go of in my life? So I finally just let these clothes go, thanking them for educating me on what did or didn’t bring me joy and then donating them.
Once I purged loungewear of all the things I truly did not feel joyful and content about, I felt a lot more freer in mind, like a strange hidden weight had been excised from my life. I used to keep my “loungewear-as-crapwear” under my bed in a storage box, but now there are literally no more monsters sleeping underneath me. Heck, I don’t even have “loungewear” anymore — to bum around the house, I just wear my workout sweatpants or leggings, one of the striped tops I love to wear and/or a sweatshirt or hoodie. Or I wear pajamas. And in terms of those goofball items that people tend to hold onto in a wardrobe, well past their expiration date — sweatshirts from college, weird mascot t-shirts that charmed your heart — feel more appreciated and honored, because I’ve acknowledge that they do bring me (wait for it!) joy.
Cleaning and decluttering your closet is worth the effort. But what I do think is even more valuable is the exercise (and meditation, in a way) of asking yourself if something small and humble like an item of clothing sparks joy. Basically, if you follow Kondo’s method, you ask yourself this literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of time. How often do you get the chance to ask yourself a simple and profound question every day — and give yourself the focus and attention to listen to the innate answer within yourself? The repetition and ‘humility’ of this simple, dorky exercise is likely what people subconsciously respond to when they like Kondo’s method so much.
I’m not sure I would call cleaning my closet “life-changing magic” in terms of enchantment or bliss or wonder-inducing. But what I’ve discovered is how small, tiny changes and shifts in life add up — in relationships, wisdom, wellness, intellectual development and so many other areas. When you clean your closet and take true time and attention to regard each item you own, you ask yourself many, many times those questions that great philosophers and seekers ask themselves, albeit in a smaller-scale, personal way: Who am I? What is joy? How much of myself is in the past? How much of me lies in fantasies and dreams? How well do I accept and honor my present? The answers just might surprise you, and might even be found in a pile of cast-off “loungewear.”