Spreading joy while tidying up at home
Decluttering guru and author Marie Kondo brings her message of only keeping objects that ‘spark joy’ — and thanking those you discard — to Cambridge
Marie Kondo, plush with fur earmuffs, a pink scarf, parka, and Uggs, stares up at a cold Cambridge sky in camera-ready wonderment. Piles of snow flank her, towering over her almost childlike frame as she walks up to the red door of the Logan residence. She peeks through the window on her tip-toes, a Japanese camera crew hovering behind her. “Konnichiwa!” she calls, a sing-song greeting from Japan’s angel of neatness.
Kondo, author of the best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” has visited her fair share of homes, but this is her first professional visit to the US. For two weeks, she has organized her way through San Francisco, New York, and Boston, because she “wanted to see what the difference would be” between US houses and Japanese houses. In each city, she has taken private appointments, sitting with families and bachelors as they folded clothes and tossed old photographs.
Kondo, a former Shinto shrine maiden, has always cleaned. She stepped out of recess to organize classrooms, spent hours cleaning her bedroom as a child, and sneakily threw away family junk when they looked away. But it’s more than aesthetics for Kondo. For her, objects play an influential role in your well-being, beyond utility. They are characters in your life, animate co-habitants who feel happier on hangers or go on holiday when they stay in your drawer.
“The objective of cleaning is not just to clean, but to feel happiness living within that environment,” Kondo said, with the help of a translator, in her first interview with an American journalist.
“So if you personify each of the objects and be thankful for each of them, then you can actually live in that happy atmosphere within the environment you want to be in,” she continued. “So this cup might be an ordinary cup, but by loving it, you might be happier using it.”
This “KonMari method” is wildly popular in Japan, where Kondo regularly does variety show segments and has a very successful consultation practice. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold 2 million copies worldwide, and the American edition has been on The New York Times bestseller list for the past several weeks.
Her fans swear by the philosophy behind her style of cleanliness, which involves only keeping the objects that “spark joy” in your very being, and thanking the items you choose to throw away. KonMari is less about the ends and more about the means: The result is a space that is completely your own, and therefore completely joyful. Closets often resemble bento boxes, colorful shirts and pants like slices of tuna and rice. The rest is up to you.
Claudia and Chris Logan live alone, with two kids practically out of the nest, but Otti Logan, a 16-year-old student at The Foreman School in Connecticut, happened to be home for winter weekend. Claudia, a children’s book author, and Chris, an architect, both take pride in their rustically manicured interiors, apologizing for almost nonexistent mess as they show Kondo and her interpreter around their home. As cameras follow the three through the house, Kondo says exuberantly in Japanese as Yuki Kihara translates: “This room is really full of joy, I can feel it.” Claudia beams.
“I read about Marie Kondo in the [New York] Times, and I said, ‘Claudia, you have to read about this woman, because she does exactly what you do,’” Chris recalls. Upon meeting Claudia, the similarities are clear — she glides through her home tidying, even in clear nervous anticipation of Kondo’s visit. Once Kondo arrives, Claudia punctuates sentences with: “I love your book. I really love it.”
Claudia became an absolute devotee of the KonMari method. Her family attests to Claudia’s devout cleanliness, even before Chris introduced his wife to Marie and her self-described “magic.” But Claudia’s interest in Japanese culture drew her to Kondo, and after reading her book, she was in love.
On the blue corkboard of her kitchen, the Cambridge author posted 10 photocopied covers of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Her house, with its hardwood floors, narrow staircases, and photo-ready dining areas, is only cluttered with people — friends and neighbors Claudia has invited to witness St. Kondo in action.
Those in the Logan home, loud and laughing in anticipation, hardly notice Kondo in a corner, sitting in her floral dress blooming at her calves with a cup of tea. Her film crew clomps up and down the stairs, sopping up b-roll and close-ups of everyone, including Kondo. She seems unaware of the people around her, perfectly content to sit in a room she described as “sparkling with joy.”
Kondo decides Otti’s room upstairs needs the most KonMari magic, so she and the high school athlete start piling clothing and stuff on her rarely used bed: purple totes full of electronics, blouses, button-ups, tape, cans of paint, stuffed animals, shorts, socks, sweaters, sheets, underwear, until the pile leaves no blanket visible. Through the process, Kondo bats her eyelashes, waves her arms over piles of clothing like a ballerina, arms outstretched for a plie. When Otti’s closet and drawers are barren, Kondo asks Otti to hold each item in her hands and ask herself if the item sparks joy.
“Um, I like this shirt, I want to keep this,” Otti says.
“Spark joy,” Kondo whispers to herself. The declutter maiden doesn’t say much in English, but when she does, she nods with pride and accomplishment.
“Can you say ‘thank you’ to these clothes?” the translator asks for Kondo.
“Yes . . . thank you,” Otti responds, hesitant.
“Thank you!” Kondo repeats. She communicates with smiles and nods, quiet breathy giggles and delicate fingers. She graces the joy-sparking with pats of approval as Otti clears the clutter from her bedspread. For each dismissed skirt, Kondo places her palms together in prayer with a swift bow.
For Kondo, tidying is a ritual. It’s sacred. She exudes quiet serenity, a shrine maiden for cleanliness without a hint of insincerity.
“If you fold your clothes in the formal spark of joy, you can actually make the joy last longer,” Kihara translates. She demonstrates how to fold in the KonMari style, creating little vertical blocks of color that stand unsupported, creating a little village within drawers.
“Use the palms of your hands when you’re folding. It’s like communicating your passion and love for the clothes.” Exuding love seems inevitable for Kondo, and those disciples on her heels, the cameras, all of Claudia’s friends and family waiting for Kondo to emerge from Otti’s bedroom, feel the same compulsion. The patron saint of organization tends to spark more joy than the clothes she’s wearing.
Marie Kondo’s top tidying tips
1. “Before you start cleaning, imagine what kind of lifestyle you want to have. By solidifying the idea of how you want to live, the cleaning becomes a lot easier.”
2. “Have gratitude for the things you’re discarding. By giving gratitude you’re giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”
3. “The objects you decide to keep, the ones that gave you the spark of joy? Treasure them from now on. When you put things away, you can actually audibly say, ‘Hey, thank you for the good work today. . . . By doing so, it becomes easier for you to put the objects away and treasure them, which prolongs the spark of joy environment.”