"I don't want the last thing I see to be a pile of old Wired magazines," Jessica said. Down from the bookcase and into the recycling they went.
I had known what we were doing all along, but I hadn't really let myself accept it until she said that. We were making a space for her to die. We were doing the ultimate tidying.
Of my numerous faults, a capacity for clutter isn't one of them. Long before Marie Kondo became a global icon for her KonMari method and her bestselling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," I had internalized my own directive to put maximum attention into the things that, as Kondo says, "spark joy," and ditch the rest. My aesthetic is functional, if not fully minimalist. I recoil from gifts that come with an expectation of dusting. I have no sentiment toward old lamps. And it sounds like heresy to most of the people I love, but I don't even keep every single book I've ever read. Yet, conversely, I have carried a sizable chunk of concrete from a Philadelphia demolition site — as prized as it is heavy and impractical — to every home I've lived in for my entire adult life.
Since her first book published in Japan in 2011, Marie Kondo's famed tactics have developed the kind of cult-like following usually reserved for gluten-free diets. Today, they've spawned countless imitators and homages, from the "The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k" to "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning." If Kondo's books aren't sufficiently motivational, you can sign up for seminars in implementing her techniques, or, if you've evolved to a higher plane, train to become a certified KonMari consultant yourself. And of course, a Netflix TV series has been announced as well.
KonMari principles deviate from many traditional decluttering strategies (and a whole lot of The Container Store's raison d'etre) by suggesting that your life can improve not by adding more boxes but by having fewer things to put in them. It requires the practitioner to do heavy emotional work, lovingly reconnecting with items that inspire, and gratefully releasing those that don't. Are you prepared to gently tell your old sweatpants you're breaking up with them? If not, you might not be ready to KonMari.
It's that imperative to give your stuff serious time and attention and respect — even the junk you're ditching — that makes Kondo's mission resonate so deeply with so many people. And it's what motivated Jessica and me, as a last act of our friendship, to do our own version of it.
Jessica was a professional career coach and an exceedingly proficient amateur pack rat. We had met in our cancer support group, but our relationship was based on so much more than disease. Our daughters were the same age. We'd unknowingly socialized with overlapping friends for years. We shared a love of travel, theater and suede shoes. We also had compatible differences, which proved useful to both of us. She was good at finance; I was good at baking. We advised each other on both. Then, a few years ago, she helped me negotiate through a tricky freelance project. I, in turn, offered the thank you service of sorting out the sky high pile on her desk.
I arrived early in the morning, a coffee in my hand. We picked through junk mail, through handouts from her daughter's school for events that had passed, through magazines that had sat unread for a year. As the hours ticked by, we ordered food and drank wine while I fed old receipts through her high powered shredder. We moved bags and bags into her building's recycling room. Photos of her family and mementos revealed themselves. Her closet still bulged, and she still had to weave through bins of miscellany to make her bed, but when I left that evening, we both felt triumphant. The before and after photos were straight out of Pinterest.
Then she was rediagnosed.
The last two years of Jessica's life were full of raised and dashed hopes, of adventure and advocacy and a frustrated understanding that her time was limited. I couldn't change that. I couldn't give her a moment more of her future. All I could do was help her arrange her past. I could bear witness to the narrative her artifacts could tell. Marie Kondo says that if you sincerely commit to her program, you'll never have to declutter again. I can attest that this is definitely true if you have a late stage disease.
It took a really long time. Saturdays upon Saturdays, through changes of seasons. Sometimes Jessica's health was relatively good, and she'd don her wig and we'd go out to break for lunch. Sometimes she was so fragile she could only rest on the couch, a tiny Roman senator issuing a thumbs up or down to old ticket stubs and ribbons. She had kept everything. And we went through everything.
Much of it was incredibly mundane, and undramatically disposed of. Presentations for long-ago jobs. Dusty old magazines. Worn out flip flops and bras that had lost their shape. Other things were harder to let go of, although she did. The expired film, still in the package. The discontinued MAC lipstick that was an essential element of her early career look. The birthday party goody bags her daughter had never even inspected. Styling tools for hair she no longer had.
And then there were the buried treasures, just waiting to once again spark joy. We found a blown glass orb she'd been meaning to hang in her window for years, and we hung it up. We found the image of her future husband reveling with friends at the fall of the Berlin wall, a picture that had later crossed her desk as a photo editor. We found the scrap of the T-shirt she'd worn backpacking in Tibet, and we framed it. We found a box of her old cameras and put them on the shelf facing her bed. We emptied storage boxes and cleared paths in her apartment. We packed up books she'd never get around to reading and wheeled them to the Goodwill. We cleared her closet, and she gave me her suddenly too-big black peacoat. I pinned a silk flower on it and wore it to London the week after she died. I wore it all through this past winter, the first winter of all the winters without her now.
I was a good archivist. I sat with her and listened to her stories, watching for which ordinary objects would transform themselves into priceless artifacts. But the last time I visited, we didn't clear, we didn't declutter. The next empty space in her home would be the biggest of all.
Then later, when I was ready, I did a KonMari for myself.
I did it alone, and it took far less time. I have almost nothing from my childhood and a very tightly curated collection from the years since. Still, I opened up my document box and peered at the seemingly random assortment of items within. The metro card from my first trip to Paris. The only letter the boy I'd loved in college ever sent me. So agonizingly, obviously platonic in its content, so painstakingly scrutinized for encouragement regardless. The hospital bracelets from my daughters' births. The takeout receipt from the day the towers fell, when we were too catatonic with horror to cook. It looks like nothing, until you notice the date at the top. The movie stub from the day I learned I had cancer, along with the notes I'd hastily scribbled on the back on an envelope when my doctor called. A speaker's badge from a lecture. Finishers' medals from races run. A picture of the grandfather I don't remember. I threw out a photo booth strip of a younger version of myself with an ex-friend, along with a magazine blurb about a man who dumped me. I kept the rest. It all has no value to anyone else. It's the story of my life, just as Jessica's beads and scraps and broken cameras were the story of hers. Some of it is joyful and some of it is tragic and some of it is boring.
In my day-to-day, I still believe in most of the principles of Marie Kondo's method — even if I will absolutely never be able to properly fold a single item of clothing. I try to invite things that I love into my home, to pass along the things that don't, to stay reasonably on top of the endless deluge of stuff that wants to pile up everywhere and to emotionally detach from the explosive scene in my teenagers' bedroom. But Jessica showed me that the magic of tidying up isn't just selectively editing your possessions so you're left only with the ones that spark joy.
I touch the things that connect with who I am and who I've been. I touch old notebooks with addresses of places I used to go, and random observations from a time I didn't need to tweet them. I touch an old subway token from when I moved to Brooklyn. I touch a photo taken by someone I loved, and I see that love on my face. I touch a coat that used to wrap around another woman's shoulders, and I miss her. The value of all of these things isn't just in the amount of joy they can elicit. There are all kinds of sparks. Some of them will break your heart. But all them are life-changing.