Tidying, Japanese-Style

Well, I’m in Canada. Finally. Sort of. For the most part.

Some of my stuff is here, but most of it is still kind of en-route… basically it’s at an uncle’s house in Oregon and I plan on making small trips to get up here bit by bit. The hubs had only sorta moved in back in April, mostly waiting for me to come so that we could both really settle in together.

Not surprising, though, is that a few spats have occurred regarding the number of things we own (though mostly him) and how much space we now have to put them. This sort of thing has happened plenty of times before with us, but this time we mean business: this is basically the apartment of our dreams, and it’s the last place we plan on living before buying up our land and heading off the grid, and we don’t expect that to happen for at least another 10 years down the road.

How did we get here?

Well, I married a collector; he collects toys and memorabilia from his favorite franchises (mostly 80’s stuff). And when we met, I was a collector too. Or at least, I was trying to be… sort of hard when you’re in college and wind up moving 6 times in as many years, having to almost start over every time for a number of reasons, some legitimate, and others not so much.

And in a roundabout way, global warming happened. The BP oil spill. The disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet. Memories of the weather patterns in winter being different back home, growing up, than what they are now. Memories of hail storms and Santa Ana Winds that don’t seem to happen anymore. Bisphenol-A happened too. And rising gas prices. Then, the dawning realization that humanity was making a huge mess and refusing to clean it up. And then after that, the understanding that only certain, special, parts of humanity were predominantly responsible for that mess.

So I started doing a lot more reading about all sorts of subjects that an environmentalist might find useful. The waste stream; food production; conservation; green tech; social alienation; advertising; capitalism; colonialism.

And like my about page says, I eventually found Bea’s Zero Waste Home via an episode of the How Stuff Works podcast, in which they talked about refrigeration, and the feasibility of living without it. Her book was mentioned more or less in passing, but after doing a bit of my own research and happening on a copy at a local bookstore, I bought it and was hooked.

It spoke to me as someone who was deeply unhappy, and was for a long time. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression in 2012, which validated many, many, years of feeling just slightly “off”. Not sad, but distant and somewhat hopeless; I was prone to bouts of explosive anger, was a chronic complainer, and sometimes found myself so inexplicably mad, frustrated, and self-loathing, that I would cry myself to sleep and wake up despondent.

Ever since I could remember, I’d felt like a square peg in a world full of round holes. Very little about the outside world or the dominant hegemony of society ever made any sense to me, and I had a very hard time imagining myself as an adult navigating that world. Not being able to imagine any kind future for yourself takes its toll, and as a child and teenager I roamed around in some very dark places, flirting with self-harm and suicidal ideations. What’s interesting to me is that I was never in a place of despair and trying to escape by hurting myself or ending my life; I think for me, those were some of the only ways I knew how to reconcile my lack of an imagined future with the real world. If you’re 12 or 13 years old in the US and can’t picture yourself being 30, or having a job, or a household, then what is there to imagine? I couldn’t picture myself existing under those terms. So, nonexistence, death, is what’s left. In a sad and twisted way, that was the only way (along with artistic self-expression) that I could prove to myself that I was a real person that was capable of having a future, even if that future was truncated by something terrible– that terrible thing was something that I at least knew could probably prove my realness when it seemed nothing else would.

In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve come a cross a lot of literature, academic and non-, theorizing about what depression and anxiety really are. But one of the proposed explanations that has always stayed with me is that depression is a symptom of the alienation that our capitalistic society has constructed. Without which we wouldn’t have such a need for things like self-help books, beauty products, drugs, and countless other products designed to capitalize on that inexplicable gnawing emptiness that seems to characterize and propel so much of Western civilization.

The author of the piece, The Problem With Society Isn’t Greed. Greed Is a Symptom of a Deep Need Going Unfulfilled, nails it:

All aspects of our culture conspire to strip us of our connection and belongingness. Let me name a few more:

– Religious indoctrination into self-rejection.

– Schooling that keeps children indoors, fosters competition, and accustoms them to doing things they don’t care about for the sake of external rewards.

– Hygienic ideology that fosters a fear and rejection of the world.

– Immersion in an environment composed of standardized commodities, buildings, and images.

– The alienating effects of living among inorganic shapes and right angles.

– Property rights that confine us most of the time to our homes, commercial environments, and a few parks.

– Media images that make us feel inferior and unworthy

– A surveillance state and police culture that leave us feeling untrusted and insecure.

– A debt-based financial system in which money is systemically scarce: there is never enough money to pay the debts.

– A legal culture of liability in which everyone is assumed to be a potential opponent.

– Patriarchal belief systems that oppress the inner and outer feminine, confine intimacy, and make love a transaction.

– Racial, ethnic, and national chauvinism, that makes some of our human brothers and sisters into Others.

– An ideology of nature-as-resource that cuts us off from our connectedness to other beings and leaves us feeling alone in the universe.

– Cultural deskilling that leaves us as passive, helpless consumers of experiences.

– Immersion in a world of strangers, whose faces we don’t recognize and whose stories we don’t know.

– Perhaps most importantly, a metaphysics that tells us that we are discrete, separate selves in a universe of Other.

18 months after hungrily devouring Zero Waste Home, I know now that what I was sensing in its pages wasn’t an asceticism, but this.

The book came into my life at something of a crucial period. I was a few years out of school, living with a relative for very little rent, in a neighborhood I practically grew up in, and most importantly, I had a job. Like, a real, grown-up job. It still didn’t feel quite real, thanks to the aforementioned depression, but having a good-paying job was half the equation of adulthood. Moreover, I could afford practically whatever I wanted. I was  beginning to surround myself with furniture that wasn’t made of plastic, clothes that didn’t come from Target or H&M, foods from health food stores. I was acquiring so many nice, quality, things that I’d previously only been able to dream of owning.

So why was I still unhappy?

Bea’s book hinted at the answer in living her life for experiences, not things.

But as someone who had gone so long with so few meaningful possessions, how would getting rid of all my stuff help? Wouldn’t I feel just as transient and place-less as I did in college with all that moving around? I wanted to feel grounded!

I quickly learned that weighing myself down with stuff is not a substitute for having a sense of place.

I know that in my bones, now.

The problem is, how to reconcile this new understanding with finally cohabiting with my husband?

Well, I happen to have a friend who has a problem with acquiring junk; actually, both she and her fiance do, and they have for years, but it’s something they’re making a concerted effort to work on. So I told her about the issue, and she told me to get a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingAnd wow, I could not have gotten a better recommendation.

The author, a life-long organizing and cleaning aficionado, came up with a method called KonMari (based on her name), that she swears has worked for every single one of her clients since she came up with it. It is both rigid and subjective at the same time, and basically is as follows:

1. Going through your things category by category, and everything within those categories all at once, get rid of everything that “doesn’t spark joy”

2. Once you’ve gotten rid of the excess, put everything back in its place

I love this, and the hubs does too. There’s no endorsement of fancy, expensive, organizing gadgets and systems. (In fact, she actively disparages them.) There’s no emphasis on meeting quotas or other rigid systems that require you to take inventory of the number of X things you have. In fact, she encourages readers to think of our possessions’ feelings as we go about our day, and to talk to them.

That’s because the book is heavily rooted, intentionally or not, in Shinto philosophy, something both the hubs and I found to be very refreshing. We don’t want to get rid of stuff because we hate stuff, we want to get rid of stuff because we want to love that which really means the most to us, all the while giving us room to breathe in our own home, and fewer reasons to stay inside on a beautiful day. We want to respect our things. It’s win-win-win.

I feel like this is a big deal for someone like me. For the first time, I have a sense of who and where I want to be in the future; I can imagine it. I can picture myself living my ideal life, and I can know for certain that such a life will never again involve mindless consumerism, clutter, things that weigh me down, things that would tear me apart if I were to lose them. There’s a lot more to being alive than any of that!

I have so much hope for this new life, in fact, that I can see myself not being on anti-depressants at some point in the foreseeable future. If only I’d known sooner that my lifelong depression was caused in no small part by the culture and society that I live in; if only I’d known there was a way out.

But hey, at least I figured it out at all, right? And at 26 no less?

I thought that I’d done all the purging that I needed to do, that it was up to the hubs now. But reading Kondo’s book made me realize that I still had a ways to go; not just in terms of number of things, but psychologically as well. I’ve got some emotional housekeeping to do, you might say.

My mom is flying up to visit at the end of the month for Canada Day (and to bring my cat for me!), so I expect that hubs and I will have started “tidying” the KonMari way in preparation before that. I would love to do something of a “house tour”, Apartment Therapy style,  at some point after all the purging and organizing; that way you all can see our zero waste systems and decor aesthetics in action.

If you’re interested in reading Kondo’s book but don’t have the money to buy a copy, email me and I might be able to work something out for you. ;]