I was skeptical when I saw the pretty little book with the title The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — and even more so when it hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
As a former editor of women’s magazines, I thought I’d read everything there was to on decluttering. The articles always made everything look so easy and beautiful and fueled many a trip to The Container Store where, inevitably, I’d buy a bunch of plastic crap to throw stuff into and forget about it.
What could this book offer that I hadn’t already heard? And what could be magical about it?
Part philosophy book, part how-to guide, the central concept behind it is that you can’t do piecemeal organizing. You must approach it in more of a sweeping purge-like style.
While that may sound counterintuitive — surely, a little at a time will preserve your sanity right? — it’s anything but.
The problem with “a little at a time” means you never really finish; and that means you never experience the joy and ultimate peace of mind that comes from a job fully well done.
To see if it really held up, I spent an entire Sunday reorganizing my bedroom’s large walk-in closet. My closet can best be summed up as: a receptacle for clothing hung with no rhyme or reason, overflowing boxes of my child’s art projects from toddlerhood through second grade, bins of old correspondence, bills, tax papers and stray items like hats and purses.
Just being in it stressed me out. How was I going to actually find the fortitude to go through it all, with the intent of throwing out a lot and finding true homes for the rest?
I began with the clothing because it felt like the lowest hanging fruit. After arranging things by season and then type (skirts, shirts, dresses, etc.), I then tried on everything that I hadn’t worn in over a year. To my surprise, there were some great work pants I’d forgotten about which simply needed dry-cleaning and several suits that I no longer needed or liked which got sent to charity—at least three trash bags full of stuff.
Then came the bins of journals, old love letters, photos from my entire life that I’d never put in albums. This went much more slowly, but in a good way. I savored the memories of first love, got teary over letters from an uncle (now deceased) who’d written me while he served jail time, and cried over the picture of a friend’s daughter who died at 3 of cerebral palsy.
I raptly devoured a journal I’d kept in my 20s, when I’d first moved to New York, and was flooded by intensely articulated former dreams (apparently I’d wanted to open a Bubble Tea shop before they became all the rage!), by affirmations to leave a dysfunctional relationship (I did), and by daily descriptions of a young woman from a small town tackling the big city, making a lot of mistakes along the way, but living moment-to-moment with great feeling.
In here, too, was an incredibly long email (when email first started!) from my college boyfriend to his and my family when we were living in Taiwan for a year. In his signature style and wit, he told the story of how the two of us attempted to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for some 20-odd Chinese and American friends — with no stove and a turkey from the market that hadn’t been de-feathered. The comedy of errors tale took me back to one of the most formative years of my life, between graduation from college and my move to New York, to the vibrant smells and sounds of a foreign land.
Then came the artwork: my daughter’s early finger paintings to her more detailed pencil drawings, and everything in between. Her first funny looking letters and words like “Ma.” It was all in there; her abstract collection from preschool to a lovely series of chalk drawings she’d just done recently. There were also sketches of her done by her dad; beautiful visual vignettes of her in ballet clothing or as a little naked cherub. A special pile was reserved for framing.
I also found $100 in cash. Go figure!
While all of this was overwhelming on some level, it was also deeply gratifying.
I’d reached into my own messy soul and pulled out the pieces of it that had shaped who I was. After an hour or two of reading and recollecting, I knew which things I’d keep (and where they’d go) and which I was ready to let go of — the latter of which stirred an emotional current that I’d been holding back for years.
Afterwards, I felt an uncanny peace, like I’d not just organized my stuff, but the very essence of my life. It was so obvious: if you don’t prioritize the moments of your life, you’ll forever live apart from them.
When I was done, I looked into a closet that was not just decluttered but that had a sense of quiet and ease to it — just like my state of mind. I stood in it, happily twirling around, knowing that everything had a perfect place. Had I done only a bit of it on that Sunday, I’m certain I would never have arrived at this place: spent but satisfied.
A month later, my closet is still fabulously neat.
It’s hard to make a mess when something looks so tidy. Pictures have been framed and hung and old clothes cleaned and worn again. I actually find myself just walking in there from time to time, for no reason at all other than to breathe deeply and let the serenity of its space wash over me.
Is that truly magical? Perhaps not, but it’s one of the closest things to it.
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