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The Joy of Stuff

We’re all supposed to be “detoxing,” “cleansing,” or “decluttering” our lives these days. Gastronomically, the idea is that you pare down your diet to its most basic essentials, and thus cut away pounds, potential illnesses, or any lack of confidence you might feel. Mentally, we’re told to step away from the chaotic buzz of work, social media, television, and life obligations in order to clear out the clutter in our heads and become more “mindful.”

And then there’s the house-oriented version of these words, most recognized in the popular bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Author Marie Kondo tells her readers that the stuff in their homes needs paring down in order for them to really experience joy and peace in their lives. Thus, we’re advised, “If [an] item sparks joy, keep it; if not, dump it.”

In practice, this can be more extreme than it sounds; Kondo’s method involves a categorical purging of one’s possessions, winnowing things down piece by piece until only the most “joyous” items remain. And, she insists, we must do all our tidying in one attempt: no bit-by-bit cleaning, no slow and meticulous purging. Perfection is not just the ideal, it’s mandatory—and it’s demanded immediately.

I can understand what Kondo’s going for, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense. Our house is under 900 square feet, so there’s not a lot of room for “extra” stuff. Before we moved, we did a lot of paring down. But we have held onto things that give us joy: in each room of the house, there’s an object that doesn’t quite “fit.” It stands out, perhaps not comically, but with an air of eccentricity. The bulldog bottle opener in our kitchen (a favorite present from my parents), the bright green-and-pink-painted ceramic pot in our office (a gift from Mexico for our daughter, purchased by our wonderful neighbors), the “Dear America” books on our shelves (the ones my grandma read aloud to me when I was 10 years old, the Christmas before she passed away from cancer): I keep these things around not for their usefulness or efficiency, but for the sweet memories and sentiments they offer, every day.

But alongside these joyous objects, there’s also a bundle of things I hold onto not for memories past, but because of the promise of memories or joys that could be. And I wonder whether Kondo’s method leaves room for that sort of thing.

For instance: all the newborn baby clothes our daughter has already grown out of, I’ve stashed away—for baby number two, or a needy friend, or a future cousin. There’s a closet stuffed with extra pillows and bedding and blankets, because when company comes, I want to be ready. We have a huge pile of extra seeds stuffed in a pot under a shelf in the living room, because no matter how much we grow in the garden, we want to grow more. And the pantry shelves are overflowing with cans and bags and bins, because we love to eat—and we like variety.

There were similar shelves in my childhood home, piled high with canned peaches, pickled green beans, and cinnamon applesauce. My grandmother had whole closets dedicated to her treasured linens and china—things that belonged to her mother, things she had saved for special holidays and seasons. In my father’s office, I remember a wealth of papers and books piled on every imaginable space. It was a place dedicated to knowledge and diligence, study and insight. If that office had been conspicuously tidy, it wouldn’t have felt the same—nor would it have been as productive.

Whether it’s because we’re dedicated homesteaders with canned goods stashed here and there, or whether we’re avid bibliophiles with never-enough bookshelf space, we glory in little messes because they remind us why we’re alive. They help us to reminisce, or to look forward. They’re beautiful in their way, glorious in their careless grace. They offer us moments of joy, little though they may be, as we go about our daily lives.

The millennial generation is especially prone, apparently, to forsaking things for the appeal of experiences, and for the current popularity of minimalism. As Holly Ashby writes for Collective Evolution, status no longer involves amassing material possessions, but rather in projecting a certain type of lifestyle—one built around bohemian grace, virtuous minimalism, and ecological or personal mindfulness. “As technology continues to advance, conservation and ecological issues become ever more stark, and the real, material world loses favour to the one that can be found online, the concept of ownership could find itself becoming ever more irrelevant,” argues Ashby. “With Millennials gradually falling out of love with their possessions, it could be the generations that follow them will pioneer a new way of life, away from the consumerist mindset that has defined the past few decades.”

Consumerism has definitely developed a bad reputation. And for good reason: Americans are all too often obsessed with “stuff.” But it could also be that our embrace of minimalism is a sign of affluence, not a shunning of it: as Arielle Bernstein pointed out last month in The Atlantic, there are a lot of people who’ve gone through perilous circumstances or intense bouts of poverty—and for them, the concept of “minimalism” or “decluttering” is often careless, a sign of wealth and security:

Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.

This reminded me of stories my parents told me about older relatives who had lived through the Great Depression. They became hoarders, with mountains of food stashed in their basement or piles of extra clothes and newspapers stuffed in their closets. They knew what it was to be empty and needy, to have minimalism forced upon them like an anxious cloud. And they never wanted to face that reality again. To them, ownership was a promise of wellbeing.

While we don’t want to become hoarders, there is an important role for physical things in our lives: we are, after all, physical beings. An embrace of the body and physical existence enables us to live productive, artistic, enjoyable lives. It’s what results in fruitful gardens and beautiful paintings, sumptuous meals and glorious music. If canned goods piled in the pantry, shelves stuffed with seed packets, and closets spilling over with extra blankets help you create—if they help foster fruitfulness, hospitality, art, and thriftiness—then they should be treasured and lauded, not discarded.

Sometimes I call myself a “neat freak,” but I have to admit it isn’t really true. Because I prefer a pile of dishes next to the sink, if it means there’s a homemade dinner in the oven. And I prefer a big mess of books and watercolors and sketch paper on the coffee table, to one immaculately clean but empty of curiosity and creativity. And I prefer a bed only halfway made, because it usually means we were too busy playing with our baby girl and making coffee to getting the bedspread perfectly straightened. These are the experiences that bring us joy, every day. And sometimes that joy necessitates—or at least excuses—a little clutter.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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