In Which We Explore the Utterly Perplexing Art of Decluttering With Joy

organized-junk-drawer
Photo by Jose Picayo

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Every year at this time some dusty chamber of my brain unlocks, and out pop those lines from Tennyson. And then I laugh, because I am neither young nor a man, and in spring my fancy turns to something else altogether: cleaning.



But this spring my fancy is not turning lightly to cleaning, because I am trying to understand Japanese supernova Marie Kondo, who approaches organizing as a painstaking, solemn process of finding joy in every corner of your house.

I am the editor of a magazine with organizing at its core, and I happen to know that many Americans, in fact many of you reading this column, are complete slobs. The best part of it is that you don’t really care that much; your slobby nature bothers you the way your hair bothers you. As in: Eh, that’s just the way it is. And this is fantastic, because it means you have a sense of humor. You know that mess is just mess, not a metaphor for the lack of control you have over your mental health, intelligence level or chances of getting into heaven.

Kondo recently published a new book, her second, called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up ($12, amazon.com). Even though the book has charming little illustrations, this is a very serious volume for very serious people who don’t think it’s weird to throw out a screwdriver because it doesn’t spark joy and then try to use a ruler to tighten a screw instead. That’s what Marie Kondo did, and the ruler broke. And then Kondo was really sad, not because she recognized the stupidity of trying to tighten a screw with a ruler, but because the ruler had sparked joy.

Does anyone besides me think this is completely bananas?

Trying to follow Kondo’s advice is like, oh, I don’t know, listening to dolphins communicate or watching Star Wars in Farsi. I know something extremely important is happening, and I can almost understand it. But just almost. And it makes me wonder: Are all the people buying her best-selling books doing it … ironically? It reminds me of watching the March presidential debate when Donald Trump crowed about his manhood. I kept waiting to hear a voice say, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

I’ve been to Japan only once, and one of my favorite things about the trip was going into a store to buy a little inexpensive something and watching the clerk take 15 minutes to wrap it, like it cost $3,000. It was amazing, magical, perfect. I mean, I don’t take that kind of care in wrapping Christmas presents, even the expensive ones. So maybe the difference between me and Kondo is the difference between a slobby American with mediocre gift presentation and an elegant Japanese shopkeeper who will wrap any item carefully, even if it’s worth only $7.50.

Although I do spend much of my work life thinking about organizing, I am never ever everevereverever going to fold my underwear like origami, as Kondo instructs. I am also not going through my house (don’t even get me started on the garage) to hold each object firmly in both hands and wait to see if it sparks joy. Needless to say, Kondo did that, and now she uses a skillet to pound in nails (picture it, people) because she threw out her unjoyful hammer.

However, Kondo has given me an idea. Any organizing expert–including Kondo–knows the goal is not managing physical stuff but managing the stuff swirling around inside your head. (I’m looking at you, Alfred Lord Tennyson.) And so I’ve decided to eliminate a few things from my head that don’t spark joy.

First up: Hamilton. Although I greatly admire Lin-Manuel Miranda, I made the mistake of downloading the soundtrack, and it erased every other song in my mental hard drive. Now I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep because all I hear is “I am not throwing away my … shot!” Not joyful. Second: the college-admission process. We are approaching the time when the decisions roll in. No amount of organization of lists and forms will ease my worry about the outcome. And contemplating my son leaving home sparks joy only once I’ve had two glasses of wine.

Finally, I am spring-cleaning presidential politics from my life. For a while I liked watching the crazy way some candidates behave. But then I started to suspect the whole thing was just one long Kabuki performance, and I could no longer muster any joy.

This appears in the April 04, 2016 issue of TIME.