Every year, Apartment Therapy has the January Cure. It’s a month-long challenge where participants undertake the task of cleaning their homes inside and out. From small, measured changes like cleaning out one drawer in 10 minutes to larger tasks like reorganizing the kitchen, the challenge offers you an opportunity to re-evaluate your own space and see it in a whole new light.
This year, the Cure (as it’s lovingly referred to by participants) happens to coincide with Netflix’s new slew of shows around home organization. Specifically the rise of and continued obsession with Marie Kondo’s Life-changing magic of tidying up.
When the tiny, neat little book first came out, it sparked a debate all over the internet and on both sides of the fence. The most vocal critics were those people who simply refused to tidy up their libraries, according the KonMari method. Others wondered what it means to have possessions spark joy. And others yet, were completely taken by the neat folding methods and spotless surfaces. I read the book and then promptly gave it away the next time I decluttered.
The show (and I’ve admittedly watched the entire thing) revolves around American families who are overrun with mess. Marie goes into their home, advises them to go through their things and get rid of a lot of it. At the end, we see the satisfying (to me, and I’m sure to a lot of people) results of clean spaces.
Part of the reason, I think that people struggle with tidying up is how deeply our external environments are tied to our inner states of mind and our histories.
There are plenty of people out there who write about the immigrant experience as one of having little and keeping everything that was useful. There’s certainly that need for a lot of people. You never know when you’ll need something. It’s likely why so many of us keep old yogurt containers for storage. Utility simply can’t be underestimated.
But it also goes the other way sometimes. The need to rid yourself of things to make your existence lighter because you can’t be in one place for long. I mostly only have myself to use as the example here.
Before the age of 10, I had moved over a dozen times. More often than not, it meant starting in a whole new place all over again, with only suitcases. This meant I only took a few meaningful things with me as we moved. When we made the final (almost) and largest move to Canada, I took just a few things with me: a doll my aunt had given me, a glass tea-set, a few books.
My family has since then, mostly led a fairly spare life. We declutter often (I have already given away two bags of clothes in this new year), we don’t get attached to things very often, and we mostly “make do.” I’ve inherited the “make do” gene from my mother and for the longest time had only an 8-inch frying pan until it got too absurd not to have a real one.
The impulse to sanitize and control my environment is strong. When I’ve had a bad day or am waiting on news, my first thought is to grab the vacuum or the Clorox wipes and clean something. Anything. It’s become my way of exerting some agency over my environment when I can’t control my inner anxiety.
Perhaps there is a luxury to being able to get rid of things. A lot of articles have talked about the privilege of it as well. You have to have things in the first place. And the show is a really strong example of people being buried in their own privilege.
But for those of us for whom excess doesn’t denote luxury so much as heaviness, the show has another appeal. I’ve enjoyed it, not because all the things that you’re left with spark joy (this is, again, a privilege, to be able to get joy from your things). But because now there’s a psychological levity. When you get rid of all the stuff, you only have yourself. You have to deal with what’s left behind and sometimes, the people with too many things don’t recognize that at the bottom of it, is just who they once were. When you’re not hiding behind walls of unfiled papers, you have to deal with your trauma, your relationships and most of all, your own mind.
I now live in a beautiful home that I bought myself. It offers me the permanence I didn’t have in the first decade of my life. It’s filled with too many of the things I love and plenty of things I have because they’re useful. As I was going through one of the January Cure exercises of decluttering my living room, I put all my knick-knacks into one bag and decided to live without them for a while. There’s always a mild sadness with putting those sorts of things away.
But I realized that if I had to - or better yet - if I chose to, I could still live without those things without feeling lack. It has little to do with joy, and much more to do with survival. And, I think, there’s a comfort in knowing that.
Some things to think about if you’re thinking of cleaning house:
The January Cure on Apartment Therapy
On steeping bags of tea, twice by my good friend Sameer Vasta
The case of giving away your books on Quartz