I only thought I loved my totally decluttered life.
I’m standing in the very back of Home Depot, contemplating drawer organizers. White plastic, acrylic, bamboo, three vertical compartments or four, $5, $25—it takes five minutes of considering country of origin, the presence or absence of BPA, the dumbly manufactured look of the things (“Am I a white plastic person?”) before I make a decision. I go bamboo. In some cool, minimal room, Marie Kondo is surely tsking.
When Kondo’s cult book (and subsequent movement) hit the United States a few years ago, not only did I drink the Kool-Aid, I brought pitchers of the Kool-Aid to every potluck in town. In the winter of 2014, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up out loud to my husband in bed. We celebrated Christmas by kicking off a three-day purge, following Kondo’s program to a T (actually, many Ts that had accumulated for years and no longer brought us joy) and ridding our loft of thousands of books, garbage bags of kitchen gizmos, and wine boxes of college notes. Our apartment was open and uncluttered before we KonMari-ed; after, it was austere.
And I liked it. I liked opening a drawer and seeing spoons resting bowl to bowl on a carefully folded cloth napkin. I liked telling my best friend and my mom and my sister about the ease with which I could choose an outfit. What I liked most, though, was thinking I’d risen above the need for material goods. I liked how having nothing made me feel like I had everything. I was empowered.
I was so empowered that, when my husband and I had the chance to move from Amherst, Massachusetts to Los Angeles for a job, I jumped at it. It’s expensive, people warned me. You’re going to miss your loft. Expensive was fine, I thought. An apartment is an apartment. I was sure that, no matter what size space we found, we’d pared down our possessions enough to make life work.
Of course, we hadn’t. When the movers arrived at our studio apartment, our belongings filled up the 100-square-foot space. Gone were more books, winter clothes, the food processor, my desk. Gone was the projector we used to watch movies. Gone was the nightstand. There was no need for it when going to bed required climbing a ladder.
The two of us, along with our 10-pound Chihuahua, had to fit in that space. It was too small to even throw a dog toy. Often, we kept the front door open. It was a courtyard apartment with a view of a Moreton Bay fig tree that looked like the tree of life. From our couch, we could watch the palm trees darken against the sunset. On more than one occasion, a neighbor knocked on our open door.
“I can’t believe how cozy you guys have made the space,” one woman said. She’d lived in the unit before us, just her and her cat. “I couldn’t even.”
It was cozy, but this summer, when a bigger unit opened up in the building, I leapt at it. I drove to Home Depot, ready to buy whatever: an air conditioner, a tower fan, the drawer organizer. That’s when I realized it: Stuff can help. Life is better when you’re not sleeping in a lofted bed, when you have more than a couch, when you have room to iron your clothes, and when you have things like, oh, say, cabinets and drawers.
I bought nice new sheets and an organic wool topper for the bed that no longer needed to be five inches from the ceiling. Was it a relapse? A shopping spree? A binge? I felt guilty until I realized maybe stuff had never been a problem to begin with. Maybe I hadn’t needed to tidy up to make space in the cabinets.
These days, I’m happy with the stacks of books sitting on the coffee table. I don’t mind the drawer organizer or the doughnut-shaped toothbrush holders I got from Muji. These little comforters bring me as much joy as an uncluttered desk (which I now have room for again).
“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the furor of purging, it is easy to forget that life cannot be simply a process of getting rid. Some material comforts are just that—comforts. Like taking the time for self-care, furnishing a home (or an apartment or a bachelor unit) requires making good decisions. And if those decisions take place in the back of Home Depot, so be it.