America’s love for stuff began in the 1950s. Televisions, cars, radios, dresses, kitchen appliances, furniture: Americans bought it all because they finally could. The war was over, the suburbs were sprawling, and the call of Better Homes and Gardens magazine was almost deafening -- jiggling jello molds and shining silver toasters beckoning from between its pages. When I picture life in the 1950s, I see an all but flawless housewife, plastic over her couch, a perfect, red swiped Revlon smile on her lips. When the camera pans in, her divulged whisper is fashionable and simple: “having a lot of stuff is literally awesome. ”
And it happened in a flash. As the commercials promised, the American Dream was suddenly achievable to almost anybody with a paycheck, measured in the accumulation of stuff. The way to know that you had made it could be tallied by the hold of your hairspray, the wax on your Chevy, the blinding green of your garden lawn. Happiness was purchased in ice cream floats, whipped cream and cherry on top, served ice cold and slid down the diner’s marble countertop. In 2019, though we have advanced and working towards more rights for women, our love of stuff has remained has virtually the same. These days, our buying tactics come by way of a double tap on instagram and a click to a targeted ad (Facebook, are you listening?), but we continue to let the stuff we purchase shape and define our status. We have shiny new iPhones, the latest trendy stilettos, the perfect highlighter, and the most Pinterest-worthy living room decor. And though we have a relationship to consumerism that is widely varied… we simply still just have a lot of stuff.
Thank goodness we have Marie Kondo to help us sort through all of it and champion a different mindset.
The first time I tried out the Marie Kondo method of tidying up was a few months after I delivered my son and was frustrated with trying to find clothes that would fit. I was, very suddenly, and very fiercely, determined to get my whole house in order. I marveled at my own resolve as I heaped mountain after mountain of clothing onto my bed. The 1950’s housewife inside of me was a working-girl superstar, cheering me on with her glass of swirling red wine held high. “Yes girl,” she was yelling. “You GOT this!”
Perhaps it was the post-maternity blues or rush, but for whatever reason, as I went through my pile I was flooded with emotion. I was picking up clothing items one by one, shaken by the history woven into their designs. Here, the dress I wore when I first fell in love. The gown I wore to my graduation, pressed in crinkling plastic. The shirt I wore to my first day of college.
It didn’t just feel like threads and designs. It felt like little pieces of me, my friends, my loves, my life. I didn’t just have an accumulation of stuff. I had an accumulation of memories. Some of the ends were frayed, the colors slightly faded. But it was harder than I thought it would be to let a lot of it go.
Unlike the 1950s, our success is not as purely defined by accumulation as it was then. In many ways, stuff was piled into the home, and the home was made to be almost like someone’s living resume; a diorama of achievements. But today, as we’ve seen in so many of Marie Kondo’s Netflix episodes, our stuff no longer seems to accumulate on purpose. It sort of haphazardly sneaks in from everywhere at once; boxes of holiday decorations from the days when we were young, photo albums from our parents’ childhoods, souvenirs from family trips and high school celebrations. Our stuff is defined, as we are measured, by the experiences we have had. Perhaps it is due to the wave of social media, bringing upon us its deluge of FOMO-inducing ire. We show the bits and pieces of our lives we deemed fun or beautiful enough to post. We no longer keep our couch under plastic to keep it clean, we just crop out the stain.
But in a world where many disdain the constant click and post fad, it is a pointed indication to what we value today — the capture of experiences, the snapshot of memories, cultivated and preserved as an everlasting digital album. We snap our diplomas and our loved ones. We try to define ourselves not by the latest Viking oven, but by the lives we’re living. And in doing so, we walk around in a world catered by this experiential concern. Am I social enough? Stable enough? Going on enough vacations?
The sentimentality and concern extends into every corner of my home. I found myself, stuck on day four between pre and post maternity clothes and two boxes of photographs dating all the way back to middle school. And with a crying baby, I knew I needed some serious help from an expert in tidying up and storage ideas. Why did I save all of the stuff I did? What made it so important? In browsing through the stacks, thanking each item and putting them in the pile, I considered that they were only a symbol of that time in my life, not the time itself. If the momentous had become stifling, didn’t they cease to inspire with their original meaning?
I realized that this was true of most of the objects I owned. They needed to be tidied -- and some let go -- simply because they no longer carried their original message. The notes and the piles of old clothes, the school books -- all of it was taking up space in my apartment and in my mind. I had saved each of them individually, but never thought of them as occupying space as a whole. I never considered that someday it might be wise to let them go.
I began to let go of the objects, slowly, and I discovered what truly did matter. I found those things that I truly valued. Marie Kondo is not asking of us to let go of things that are truly meaningful, or to let go of the memories attached to them. She is simply helping us clear away the clutter of things that only bear the semblance of meaning. In doing so in my own home, my place was cleaner, more freeing. Easy. A breath of relief.
As Marie Kondo says, I inspire you now to figure out which items, which mementos, spark the most joy for you.
Believe me: if I can do it, so can you.