place for everything and everything all over the place

What is your issue with Marie Kondo?” a respected colleague inquired the other day.

I have no particular issue with her personally, her show, her writing or ideas. Many of my friends touted her book a few years ago. There is some wonderful advice, and cleaning out physical clutter often helps us clear out emotional clutter, too. We Americans buy too much crap. And, this reminds me of years ago during one NCTAsia.org conference, the Eastern cultural notion of holding onto belongings, buying things of high quality that lasts instead of our Western consumer-trash was presented as an idea of cultural competency and contrast. Some have mentioned the backlash against Kondo is racially motivated, and there may be some truth in that. Americans consume and we expect the rest of the world to supply. Kondo gently but firmly makes us look at that.

Thinking back on my own rituals of cleaning up and out, during BFA days in my trailer/studio I took over–it was parked behind the print shop at the University of Delaware, abandoned. Since no one seemed to mind, I squatted all of my art materials there and created. It had running electricity, so my boombox played INXS, Robert Palmer, Peter Gabriel, and The Pretenders to my heart’s content. One of my creative rituals was to tidy up my dump of a studio before beginning projects. Part of the process to put the jars in a row, pick up litter and debris, pop paintbrushes in lined-up jars and cans, anything to avoid the big, blank canvas. Even when I learned the trick of coating the canvas with a wash of black paint and medium, (which I have since used as a writing metaphor with students), the act of lining things up still sits with me today. The challenge is even though I still often line things up, that’s often where I’ll stop. Instead of getting in the mental mud and truly, deeply cleaning, I go through the optics and mental trickery–the sad truth is I am overwhelmed, creative, and ebullient–so many things I want to do, share, create, think about, talk about and achieve–but then sometimes I just shut down.

The thing is– I need to acknowledge both my own stubbornness and agency when it comes to my stuff. My friend Sharon and I had a great conversation about this the other day. She is also an amazingly creative and intentional teacher. She creates the most incredible hallway displays and has an eye for theatrical and large mural-esque messaging. She has moved classrooms once in the 13+ years at my previous building. (I moved about 4-5 times during my 12 years there, and of course my big move to another district, so there has been some purging along the way.) People try to ‘manage’ her. And we both wish they would just stop. She knows how her classroom set-up works best for students and for herself. She holds kids accountable like no one I know (and I’m pretty good at it in my own way). But her desk area is undeniably cluttered. She’s too busy teaching, creating, thinking, and making to do much about it. But it does bother others. I’ve received that same message when an admin once looked around my thousands of dollars of books and essentially called it a roomful of crap. So–yeah.

And I just want to ask–“If this bothering you, how is that my problem?”

The issue is not whether or not I “Kondo” my classroom or home, the issue is other people’s comfort levels or discomfort, depending on their perceptions of my space, time, and creative energy. When they bring their bias and control in my space, I feel itchy and weird. I go to this immature place in my head, begin feeling stubborn and defiant.

My life is a mess right now. And I do take pleasure in the same victories, such as when I complete a grading task or fold towels. However, I balk and pushback a little too hard when others “tell me what to do.” In terms of my house, I’m lucky I can scrape enough together to pay the mortgage right now. We’re going through a rough patch. There are three other adults living in this house, all perfectly capable, and willing, to clean a bathroom, do their own laundry, and unload a dishwasher. But it’s taken 26 years of my emotional and mental labor to get them to this point. And I still have to say it out loud and ask. But in terms of the spaces where I work, play, rest and create, I’m doing the best I can. Back off, please. I know how good it feels to clean out a closet. My mother will tell you I’ve done this for years. I love to iron, straighten up, throw things away. I made a resolution once to put together all pairs of socks out of the dryer and didn’t lose a single sock for years. But now I have a husband who has his stuff, and two grown sons who also have theirs, and I’m not going to manage it along with my own. We’ve compromised that there are spaces in our home that require communal tidying, and all the other spaces are ours. In my classroom, I make it clear that I am sharing my resources out of love of creativity. Use accordingly.

Our little rituals of control help us when the world is out of control, and heaven knows it is so spun out now we are looking for any source of magic and joy we can squeeze out. And quite frankly, I’d rather be writing than cleaning out my drawers. You know you would, too.

Related Ideas:

How The ‘Scarcity Mindset’ Can Make Problems Worse

The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck In A Hole

Leave That Messy Desk Alone: Studies Say There’s a Benefit to Clutter

Marie Kondo’s show shines spotlight on women’s unpaid labor

One comment

  1. Ah! Thank you! I always think you give me too much credit, but then I hear myself think that and say ‘shut up’ to myself.

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