Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Minimalism is not animism, so don't throw that baby out with the bath products

Some people are turned off from KonMari-style decluttering because of Marie Kondo's Buddhist worldview. They get nervous about holding up a sweater to see if it sparks mix religions, that sounds a lot like reading auras. And they definitely don't thank their shoes for a good day's work. It's like the Zen cookbook that recommends asking the carrot how it feels like being seasoned today.  In our Western view, shoes and carrots do not have feelings.

But it's an interesting question: can you encounter a philosophy, use its good practices but disagree with some of its fundamentals? That comes up often with Charlotte Mason: can you embrace her educational principles without giving credit to the Holy Spirit? Tough call, because she drew on philosophers, writers, and educators both inside and outside of the Christian tradition; but she believed that God's Spirit inspired all such insights. I think it's hard to pull off a secular CM education and not miss something vital, but there are those who disagree and do it anyway.

So, is there a non-Buddhist version of KonMari, beyond the cliche of not talking to socks? Are there places in this philosophy of tidying where wisdom crosses cultural and religious lines?

Thought One

One reviewer said that "spark joy" is simply asking who we are, what in our lives made us acquire these things, and who we think we would like to be from this point on. What are our true priorities? In Anne Tyler's novels, including her latest one, Clock Dance, characters have a habit of disengaging themselves from their built-up, overstuffed lives...running away for awhile to gain a new perspective. Sometimes they return home, sometimes they don't. Since running away is not always practical, we need to find other ways of looking at ourselves, and one way to do that is by examining our homes and possessions. If we can climb out from under harmful stories or false expectations, and begin to "know ourselves" (I think that's Marcus Aurelius oops, no, Plato talking about an inscription at Delphi), we may not want to live any longer with stuff representing those stories. The author of Goodbye, Things says he did not really want to read hundreds of books,  that he was not enjoying his large camera collection. For him, those things were props that said "I want to be that person." For other people, belongings from the past say "I was that person, and I am still that person. Or, I will be that person again."

Someone else (I can't remember who) pointed out that it's easier to ask what things in your life might "spark more joy" for someone else. Kitchen utensils and bedding might spark joy for a refugee family or fire victims. When we downsized, I let go of many large toys and books that families with  younger children could use. The dollhouse my grandfather built was a pivotal one for me, because holding on to it said that I stilll recognized the work he had put into it, and also remembered the fun that our girls had playing with it. But, in the end, it was a large, cumbersome wooden object that we could not possibly use or fit into our apartment, and it would not do anybody any good sitting in storage for someday-grandchildren. Time to let go.

Sometimes, ironically for Western objectors to animism, we hold on to objects because we're afraid of not having them around. They are emotionally powerful, imbued with the history and meanings we give them. Books are often like that...we want to hold on to the exact book someone once gave us, or that we bought for a quarter in a little secondhand store. I have my share of those. But perhaps, sometimes, it wouldn't hurt to lean a bit Eastern in our ways of letting go. Have a little goodbye party, if you need to. Be Miss Sadie and have a hat fashion show before you give your new friend all your mother's hats.

Thought Two

A big part of KonMari is finding homes for everything that remains in your home. That implies not only that you have good reasons for keeping whatever you do keep, but that you can find enough space for that number of things. It's like admitting that you're never going to be tall enough to pull off stiletto heels: you have the floor space and cupboards that you have. As I've posted here before, right now my wardrobe limits are four drawers, half a closet, and (currently) a suitcase that is holding a few transitional summer things. When the t-shirts are folded, and you see them all lined up in the drawer, you can't imagine either that you don't have enough shirts, or that you would be able to put more of them somewhere else. There is a sense of gratitude, of contentment, and of order.

Recently my daughter gave me a zippered case that she wasn't using, that she thought I'd like. She was right: it is just the right size to store the small amount of makeup I own, and it fits perfectly into the dishpan which fits in the cupboard under the sink in the bathroom. It's such a pretty design that yes, it does spark joy when I pull it out. I don't need more than that.

Thought Three

Christians have been instructed to live lightly here; to set their hearts on things above; to view their time on this earth as full of delights, but still only as a taste of what is to come. That doesn't mean we should all become nomads without possessions, or that having just one of everything is always best. We are instructed to show hospitality, and that implies that at least some of us should have extra forks and plates, extra beds or blankets. I think that sometimes God even leads people to buy houses with extra rooms, or to buy a van rather than a small car. What that does not give us is permission to pack those spaces with clutter and garbage, things that don't work, things we never really needed. (I do know people whose garages are piled high with donations collected for others, or whose pantries are stocked against emergencies, and those are different matters. One point Marie Kondo makes is that even hospitality or disaster supplies should be kept current and useable, and checked regularly for mildew, mice, moths, whatever.)


I read a comment that blamed Marie Kondo for causing a recent increase in the amount of stuff given to thrift stores and thrown in garbage dumps. That's like criticizing a weight-loss trend for a resulting downturn in fast-food revenues. And if there is a glut of donations right now, I think it's due more to demographics than KonMari. Baby Boomers are all downsizing, and their kids don't want their stuff.  Drastic dumping is a sad symptom of our consumerist culture, but it may be the only way some people can get free and start fresh. Don't blame Kondo for overstuffed houses; just thank her for getting them cleaned out.

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