Thursday, 11 August 2016

Neat, Pray, Shove - Catherine Butler

Tsukumogami on the Razzle
My neighbour, who’d heard me moaning about the state of my house, recently lent me Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, to help me take my possessions (and, by extension, my unkempt self) in hand. The Kon-Mari method commands that you tidy all your possessions, and in a particular order – clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous and sentimental items. But, although the word “tidying” is in the title, the book’s emphasis is actually far more on throwing stuff away. Arranging what remains in the neatest and most sustainable manner is the (relatively) easy part.

The key to the method is to hold each of your possessions in your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, throw it away. No excuses about how “It may come in handy someday”, or “It was a gift from my favourite aunt”. Someday never arrives, Kondo sternly warns; and, as for gifts, they served their real purpose in the act of being given and received. Thereafter they are mere clutter, unless they truly spark joy in the present.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that utilitarian objects such as vacuum cleaners must be thrown out because – well, no one thinks of their vacuum with joy, do they? Actually, we should cultivate regard for such useful, and often beautifully designed, possessions, and recognize that they may indeed spark joy if we let them. In this way the method is about appreciating our surroundings as much as organizing them.

The Kon-Mari method resembles writing in many respects, especially in the masochistic pleasure involved in hacking away at a baggy first draft to a produce a polished final edit. “Does it spark joy?” is a question that could usefully be asked of sentences as much as of shoes. Besides, becoming more aware of everyday objects and experiences, especially the ones we slide heedlessly over, entranced by habit, is an excellent writerly practice.

Hmm. Okay, that last paragraph felt a bit like the gear-grinding moment you sometimes get in Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”, when the speaker, having talked at length about their recent outing to the Crazy Golf at Clevedon, suddenly remembers they’re meant to bring the subject round to religion, and adds: “Isn’t Jesus a bit like a putter?” Actually, the analogy with editing is a pretty close one, but I want to stick with Kondo for a bit longer.

I’m not at all surprised that her book became a best-seller, for it combines the appeal of a practical self-help guide and a kind of spiritual manifesto, and could sit happily in either section of the bookshop. It is made clear that by tidying one’s house one opens up possibilities within oneself too, decluttering mind and spirit, saving time and reducing stress of course but also letting go of aspects of one’s past that are holding one back. Kondo is Japanese, and I suppose there’s something rather Buddhist about the urge to reduce reliance on material possessions. Just as striking to me, though, is her recommendation to address one’s house and possessions directly. Thank your sweater for keeping you warm before tenderly putting it back in its allotted home for the night. When throwing something away, tell it how much you appreciate its having shared your house with you. This element of propitiation accords both with the Japanese concept of “mottainai”, or regret at wastefulness, and the Shinto belief that all objects have their own spirit. In particular it reminds me of the tsukumogami, the animated household objects who are said gain sentience after a hundred years of existence. According to one web site, these vivified sandals, scrolls, tea caddies, futons, gongs, umbrellas and so on, can turn nasty if neglected:

Most of the time… tsukumogami were discovered after a person had cleaned house, throwing out old hand-me-downs and other items that had been in the household for a long period of time. These items, having served the family for so long, would gain sentience after being thrown in the trash. Feeling disrespected they would come back to life, grow sharp teeth and bulging eyes, with impish little arms and legs. These creatures would then make their way back into the house to cause a panic.

Shinto shrines apparently still hold rituals to propitiate and console these spirits, but how much better not to let things come to this pass in the first place! (If you imagine that such beings are confined to Japan, you would do well to read M. R. James's short story, "The Malevolence of Inanimate Objects.") Perhaps, after all, tidying is a dangerous art. If you dare to venture upon it, you had best take precautions. At the very least, do as Marie Kondo suggests and thank discarded objects nicely for their service.

5 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

A richly-populated world ... contemplating that is a lot more fun than actually tidying.

Penny Dolan said...

Love this post! The malevolence of tidied & discarded objects is to take to heart and try to avoid. Laze on!

Catherine Butler said...

Sadly, Penny, neglected objects also have it in for you...

Cine Pakistan said...
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Emma Barnes said...

I read Marie Kondo's book and found the philosophy of it truly fascinating and enticing...sadly, a year on, my house is as cluttered as ever. I guess it's going to take practise...