Everything in Its Right Place

How I learned to finally let go and throw away the things that don't make me happy

In her best-selling book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," cleaning consultant Marie Kondo recalls volunteering to straighten up her grade school classroom. When I was pretty much the same age, I was already leaning towards becoming a huge slob, starting with my resistance to make my own bed.

I didn't understand the point of making it in the morning when I was just going to climb back under the covers the same evening. When my mom ordered me to do it, I did a half-assed job. And the rest of my room followed suit: artwork and books were strewn everywhere, a cup of water lingered on the nightstand for weeks, crumpled Kleenex grew like moss under my pillow. I was a regular Oscar Madison.

Not surprisingly, the mess only grew as I got older. In retrospect, I realize that it was all rooted in my inability to throw things away. I attached sentimental meaning to everything, and kept it all—every postcard my mother sent from her annual vacations, every doodle that my father jotted down on scraps of paper. I needed mementos of everything that had ever happened to me. If I went out to eat, I came home with napkins and matchbooks bearing the restaurant's name. If I read a book, it went back up on my (increasingly cramped) bookshelves. I couldn't see the forest for the trees.

Strangely, though, I didn't think of myself as a messy person. On the contrary, I saw myself as a neat freak, trapped inside of a messy, softhearted tornado. I always tried putting things in order—my home, my desk at work—to no avail. I bought plastic boxes in bright colors, tried various other storage solutions and subscribed to Real Simple. But life continued to be one hot mess.

There were two turning points for me. The first came during an argument with my partner. It was one of those things when someone finally says something they've wanted to say because they're in the middle of a fight and it just comes flying out.

"Luisa," he said in a serious tone, "you are a slob."

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I was aghast, angry, offended. Me? A slob? Then why was I constantly running around straightening things up, trying to put everything in its right place? How could I possibly be a slob when I tried so hard to be neat?

My partner's observation gave me something to think about, but because I'm very stubborn, I dug in and, in the ensuing years, just got messier. I became that distracted woman who reaches into her purse and gets a wad of gum covered with granola stuck to her fingers.

The second turning point came after I was bemoaning the constant state of clutter in our apartment with a friend.

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"Have your read 'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up'?" she asked, and offered to loan me her copy.

I was immediately taken with the book; small and hardcover, with thick pages and a simple cover that depicted a cloudy blue sky, it reminded me of a diary. Eventually, I returned it to her and bought my own copy so I could fold down pages and highlight passages.

"Discard anything that doesn't spark joy," is the book's touchstone. Japanese consultant Marie Kondo runs her own business in Tokyo utilizing her "KonMari" method of cleaning and organizing. At the center of this philosophy is learning to let go, to throw away the things we don't need, the things that don't make us happy.

When I started reading the book, I doubted I could ever really go through my belongings with the zeal the method requires. I had gone through my closet and my childrens' drawers, I told myself. I had pared things down as much as possible. And I was still surrounded by a mess.

But I stuck with it. I took every item of clothing out of my closet and spread it out on my bed. "What things will bring you joy if you keep them as part of your life?" is the question Kondo wants you to ask. I was initially stumped by this, but gradually began to get it.

The clothes that bring me joy are peculiar to me, and that's OK. The blue flannel shirt I bought at a stoop sale brings me immense joy, whereas a $160 Banana Republic jacket leaves me cold. Before KonMari, I'd rationalize. "Don't throw away that jacket you paid so much money for," but now I was ruthless. The jacket didn't bring me joy. I never wore it and when I held it in my hands, I thought about the fact that I had spent $160 on something that didn't suit me at all. The jacket went right into the discard pile.

If I found something special I was parting with, I put it in a separate pile to give to a friend or family member who might appreciate it, but I was careful—Kondo warns against giving others the burden of holding on to your unwanted items. I also went through my children's clothes, with an eye towards what might give them joy while remaining practical. Because of gifts and hand-me-downs, my kids had tons of unnecessary outfits, most of which I donated to a church.

I discarded stuff in the order Kondo recommends, saving my sentimental items for last. That was where I truly mastered the art of letting go. Getting rid of the matchbook from a noodle shop where I'd had a special lunch with my mother 10 years ago was not the same, I now learned, as throwing the memory away. My mother and I would always have that lunch, the closeness between us, the confidences shared. They were not contained in the matchbook. It was the same for every little keepsake I picked up. It was not the memory, it was just an object that I no longer needed.

Of course, I allowed myself exceptions, especially when it came to my kids and their belongings. Since Marie Kondo didn't have children when she wrote the book (she has since had a baby), she may want to add some revisions once she has dealt with the agony and the ecstasy of, say, ten gazillion Legos that need proper storage.

So I haven't exactly become Felix Unger, but the neat person I swore for years was hiding within me, has finally emerged. I empty my handbag at the end of every day, ensuring freedom from chewed-up gum encounters. I keep the papers in our home to a minimum, throwing things away daily. Our living room is now bright, airy and open, with plenty of room for our family to gather. And when I open my closet door, I see my $1 blue flannel shirt and smile.

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