Monday, August 1, 2016


Joy points upward, according to Marie Kondo, whose name is now a verb and whose nickname is being trademarked and whose life has become a philosophy. In April at the Japan Society in New York, she mounted a stage in an ivory dress and silver heels, made namaste hands at the audience and took her place beneath the display of a Power­Point presentation. Now that she has sold nearly six million copies of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 86 weeks and counting, she was taking the next logical step: a formal training program for her KonMari method, certifying her acolytes to bring the joy and weightlessness and upward-pointing trajectory of a clutter-free life to others. The humble hashtag that attended this event was #organizetheworld.

Upon entering the Japan Society, the 93 Konverts in attendance (and me) were given lanyards that contained our information: our names, where we live and an option of either the proud “Tidying Completed!” or the shameful “Tidying Not Yet Completed!” In order to be considered tidy, you must have completed the method outlined in Kondo’s book. It includes something called a “once-in-a-lifetime tidying marathon,” which means piling five categories of material possessions — clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous items and sentimental items, including photos, in that order — one at a time, surveying how much of each you have, seeing that it’s way too much and then holding each item to see if it sparks joy in your body. The ones that spark joy get to stay. The ones that don’t get a heartfelt and generous goodbye, via actual verbal communication, and are then sent on their way to their next life. This is the crux of the KonMari — that soon-to-be-trademarked nickname — and it is detailed in “The Life-Changing Magic” and her more recent book, “Spark Joy,” which, as far as I can tell, is a more specific “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” but with folding diagrams. She is often mistaken for someone who thinks you shouldn’t own anything, but that’s wrong. Rather, she thinks you can own as much or as little as you like, as long as every possession brings you true joy. (...)

By the time her book arrived, America had entered a time of peak stuff, when we had accumulated a mountain of disposable goods — from Costco toilet paper to Isaac Mizrahi swimwear by Target — but hadn’t (and still haven’t) learned how to dispose of them. We were caught between an older generation that bought a princess phone in 1970 for $25 that was still working and a generation that bought $600 iPhones, knowing they would have to replace them within two years. We had the princess phone and the iPhone, and we couldn’t dispose of either. We were burdened by our stuff; we were drowning in it.

People had an unnaturally strong reaction to the arrival of this woman and her promises of life-changing magic. There were people who had been doing home organizing for years by then, and they sniffed at her severe methods. (One professional American organizer sent me a picture of a copy of Kondo’s book, annotated with green sticky notes marking where she approved of the advice and pink ones where she disapproved. The green numbered 16; the pink numbered more than 50). But then there were the women who knew that Kondo was speaking directly to them. They called themselves Konverts, and they say their lives have truly changed as a result of using her decluttering methods: They could see their way out of the stuff by aiming upward.

At the Japan Society event, we were split into workshop groups, where we explained to one another what had brought us here and what we had got out of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Most of the women at the event could not claim “tidying completed!” status; only 27 in the room did, or less than a third. One woman in my group who had finished her tidying, Susan, expressed genuine consternation that a bunch of women who wanted to become KonMari tidying consultants hadn’t even “completed tidying!” How were they going to tidy someone else’s home when they couldn’t even get their own in order? How could they possibly know how profoundly life could improve if they hadn’t yet completed their tidying? (...)

During her lecture, Marie demonstrated how the body feels when it finds tidying joy. Her right arm pointed upward, her left leg bent in a display of glee or flying or something aerial and upright, her body arranged I’m-a-little-teacup-style, and a tiny hand gesture accompanied by a noise that sounded like “kyong.” Joy isn’t just happy; joy is efficient and adorable. A lack of joy, on the other hand, she represented with a different pose, planting both feet and slumping her frame downward with a sudden visible depletion of energy. When Kondo enacted the lack of joy, she appeared grayer and instantly older. There isn’t a specific enough name for the absence of joy; it is every emotion that isn’t pure happiness, and maybe it doesn’t deserve a name, so quickly must it be expunged from your life. It does, however, have a sound effect: “zmmp.”

Joy is the only goal, Kondo said, and the room nodded, yes, yes, in emphatic agreement, heads bobbing and mouths agape in wonder that something so simple needed to be taught to them. “My dream is to organize the world,” Kondo said as she wrapped up her talk. The crowd cheered, and Kondo raised her arms into the air like Rocky. (...)

When she enters a new home, Kondo says, she sits down in the middle of the floor to greet the space. She says that to fold a shirt the way everyone folds a shirt (a floppy rectangle) instead of the way she thinks you should (a tight mass of dignified envelope-shaped fabric so tensile that it could stand upright) is to deprive that shirt of the dignity it requires to continue its work, i.e. hanging off your shoulders until bedtime. She would like your socks to rest. She would like your coins to be treated with respect. She thinks your tights are choking when you tie them off in the middle. She would like you to thank your clothes for how hard they work and ensure that they get adequate relaxation between wearings. Before you throw them out — and hoo boy will you be throwing them out — she wants you to thank them for their service. She wants you to thank that blue dress you never wore, tell it how grateful you are that it taught you how blue wasn’t really your color and that you can’t really pull off an empire waist. She wants you to override the instinct to keep a certain thing because an HGTV show or a home-design magazine or a Pinterest page said it would brighten up your room or make your life better. She wants you to possess your possessions on your own terms, not theirs. (This very simple notion has proved to be incredibly controversial, but more on that later.)

She is tiny — just 4-foot-8. When I interviewed her, not only did her feet not touch the ground when we were sitting, but her knees didn’t even bend over the side of the couch. When she speaks, she remains pleasant-faced and smiling; she moves her hands around, framing the air in front of her, as if she were the director on “Electric Company” or Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.” The only visible possessions in her hotel room for a two-week trip from Tokyo were her husband’s laptop and a small silver suitcase the size of a typical man’s briefcase. She has long bangs that obscure her eyebrows, and that fact — along with the fact that her mouth never changes from a faint smile — contributes to a sense that she is participating in more of a pageant than an interview, which possibly is what it does feel like when big-boned American interviewers whose gargantuan feet do touch the ground come to your hotel room and start jawing at you through an interpreter. Her ankles are skinny but her wrists are muscular. When she shows pictures of herself in places she has tidied, before she starts, she looks like a lost sparrow in a tornado. On the other side, in the “after” picture, it is hard to believe that such a creature could effect such change.

Her success has taken her by surprise. She never thought someone could become so famous for tidying that it would be hard to walk down the street in Tokyo. “I feel I am busy all the time and I work all the time,” she said, and she did not seem so happy about this, though her faint smile never wavered. She sticks with speaking and press appearances and relegates her business to her handlers — the team of men who pop out of nowhere to surround any woman with a good idea. She feels as if she never has any free time.

I spent a few days with her in April, accompanied by her entire operation (eight people total). I attended her “Rachael Ray” appearance, where she was pitted against the show’s in-house organizer, Peter Walsh, in what must have been the modern talk show’s least fair fight ever. Kondo was asked about her philosophies, and she relayed her answers through her interpreter, but when Walsh countered by explaining why an organizing solution Kondo offered was nice but didn’t quite work in the United States, his response was never translated back to Kondo, so how was she supposed to refute it? She stood to the side, smiling and nodding as he proceeded. Had she been told what Walsh was saying, she would say to him what she said to me, that yes, America is a little different from Japan, but ultimately it’s all the same. We’re all the same in that we’re enticed into the false illusion of happiness through material purchase.

Kondo does not feel threatened by different philosophies of organization. “I think his method is pretty great too,” she told me later. She leaves room for something that people don’t often give her credit for: that the KonMari method might not be your speed. “I think it’s good to have different types of organizing methods,” she continued, “because my method might not spark joy with some people, but his method might.” In Japan, there are at least 30 organizing associations, whereas in the United States we have just one major group, the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). Kondo herself has never heard of NAPO, though she did tell me that she knows that the profession exists in the United States. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to anyone in particular, but what I’ve heard is that thanks to my book and organizing method, now the organizing industry in general kind of bloomed and got a spotlight on it,” she said, though I cannot imagine who told her this. “They kind of thanked me for how my book or method changed the course of the organizing industry in America.”

The women (and maybe three or four men) of NAPO would beg to differ.

by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, NY Times Magazine | Read more:
Image:Andrew T. Warman