It sounds like silly clickbait, first-world problems. Staring at my own headline, I find that I am its greatest critic. Yet, four shots of espresso into my Friday evening, knowing that I need to write something, I find that I must write about the growing number of black contractor trash bags in my home (both filled and soon-to-be filled).

It started last weekend. No, rather it all began a few weekends ago, like a frantic romance, in the bedroom. I hadn’t been sleeping well, even without the midnight latte, and having already drawn on prayer and tea, feng shui was next on the list of panaceas. So I changed my sheets, moved the bed, bought 2 nightstands (for symmetry), stashed away the piles of clothes, and even got a little fake plant. All of this of course resulted in necessary dusting and organizing, which subsequently led me down a path of questioning and procrastination:

  • What is this?
  • Where did I even get those?
  • Why is this even in my bedroom?
  • Is this the real life?
  • Is this just fantasy?

Failing to answer most, I started piling things in the hall. It was a common drill. Clean one room and messy another. Eventually things would be placed in a box, moved to the basement or a closet, pseudo-categorized, and never touched again.

Where did I go wrong?

The problem was value. While I realize one could argue that items stashed in the backs of drawers and hidden in boxes likely have little to no value, this wasn’t about my placement of value. It was about an inherent, objective, societal, placement of value. I say that, not to place blame elsewhere, but to acknowledge that I had given up control of my home. There was, of course, a heavy dollop of pride and stubbornness as well.

The reasons were plentiful. I had spent money on some thing, and certainly did not want to be wasteful. I planned to use another. I had nowhere to store this thing, and didn’t want to clutter the rest of the house. Even the things that I knew I didn’t need, I thought, “I can sell that someday.” A day which assuredly never comes. Garage sales mean baking in the sun while haggling with strangers. Two things I hate even more than cleaning my bedroom. Craigslist requires meeting the world’s rejects in parking lots, and hoping you’re not tossed into the back of a van.

8 years in this house, having come from a small apartment and welfare, and somehow my life is being overrun by things. It’s like a middle-class rendition of the Great Gatsby (minus the parties and secret affairs unfortunately). I realized that I needed a change before I ended up floating in a kiddie pool, so I turned to my closest friend, Amazon.

Guess I read self-help books now.

The AI apocalypse is already upon us, and Amazon’s algorithm is proof of that. It often knows what need before I do, and in this case she recommended The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō. I grabbed the audiobook so I could listen in the kitchen. There’s something relaxing about preparing, seasoning, and vacuum-sealing pounds of steak, chicken, and pork. I’d need that relaxation considering I’ve reached the point in life that I literally purchased a book on “tidying”.

I’ve finished the book already. It’s a short read, or listen. It has its quirks. The book’s Japanese author is a bit overly excited when it comes to tidying, and I note her ethnicity here because some of the concepts are notably cultural and often Shinto-based in ideology. So if you’re unable to occasionally laugh and see the underlying message behind religious precepts, stick to the bountiful infographics based on the book available on Pinterest or the many videos on YouTube. All-in-all I found the author to be honestly self-aware, and her excitement does translate well to audiobook format.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, though informally written, is actually a studious approach to the topic. Marie addresses the various cleaning and organizing techniques we’re taught growing up, and highlights the multitude of quotes on the topic that appear on social media and in magazines. Rather than simply delivering her own methods as pure truth, she tackles the aspects of other methods in-depth and honestly. Her practicality resonated strongly with me, someone who is all-too-jaded by the sun-washed living room photos I see online. Doing things like “cleaning one room at a time” has left at least 6 other rooms of my house a mess at all times. She draws comparisons between these lovely quips and fad dieting. I agree.

Bulk trash day may be my new favorite holiday.

Marie’s first step is discarding, discarding by category (an important distinction). I’d often cleaned, like most, garbage bag in the corner of the room. It collected trash and unwanted items as I went. I’m now a firm believer that that was wrong. By performing this act on its own, it is much harder for items to sneak their way into later obscurity. Marie’s criteria for keeping an item is “Does it spark joy?” Notably, she does not list criteria for throwing an item away, only criteria for keeping one. As someone who has accumulated wealth, items, and emotional baggage for the last decade, this was opposite my typical way of thinking. Armed with this new approach, internal dialogue such as this ensued.

“This dress shirt fits well, why would I get rid of it?”

“I don’t know, maybe because it’s purple and you wore it to a wedding 3 ex-girlfriends ago?!”

My clothes filled 3 large garbage bags. I’m almost ashamed that I accumulated so much clothing. I am not a stylish guy. I just “cleaned” my closet a few months ago. There was however the shirts I loved that were simply too worn, the shirts that were fine but didn’t fit right, shirts that simply weren’t my style but were new, and of course the ever-present guise of “not being wasteful”. I filled an entire box with books, hilariously notable because I read almost exclusively on my Kindle.

Only a few categories in and I’ve already put 10 bags, 1 box, and 2 pieces of furniture out to the curb. The house is a disaster. Discarding by category means gathering everything in that category into a single room and laying it out. Organizing is another step entirely. Yet I can already see potential in the space being cleared. I can actually walk into my closet. Maybe I’ll move my cryptocurrency miners in there so my clothes are warm in the morning.

The things you own end up owning you.

The act of discarding may be freeing, but it’s also tiring. Nowhere was this more obvious than with my books. I do not consider myself to be a sentimental guy, and most of my books I happily keep in the cloud despite disturbing EULAs, but the books I did have were primarily references for my college research and other projects. Some were outdated to the point of irrelevancy. Nonetheless, boxing them up for the curb had a certain finality to it. It was an acknowledgement that certain acts of my life were over, and that some things simply never came to pass (looking at you, books on happy marriages).

While the decision to discard based on “Does this spark joy?” is easy, letting go is not. Nonetheless, closure is never something that simply comes to you. It’s something that you give yourself.

There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

By now you’ve either already purchased a copy of the book for yourself, or are still waiting for me to reveal the magical pearl of wisdom it bestows. If you’re in the latter group, I understand, and I can see how all of this comes across as just another droll life-fix and Amazon affiliate link. I’m going to up the ante and even recommend that you get the app for tidying in this fashion. It has an excellent checklist to help you through the process. The simple fact is that knowing what to do and doing it are two very different things. That’s why the Bible has been around for hundreds of years, and we still have authors explaining how to live by it. What seems simple, something like tidying, is often more complicated upon actual execution. What The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing offers is a grounded, practical, method to actually perform something that most of us have been doing half-heartedly, half-assedly, or altogether wrongly. Is it life-changing? Maybe.

I am only a few categories into discarding, and I usually do not offer this kind of review or praise on something so fresh, but I think that the commitment which comes with discarding possessions in bulk warrants an exception. Even the writing of this post is somewhat inspired by my discarding of old college books on writing, a sort of “Hey, I used to like doing that. Why did I stop?” realization. I dare say, even my 10-year-old has enjoyed cleaning in this way. Given free-reign to discard/donate clothing he does not like or wish to wear (even if  it’s relatively new) resulted in far fewer arguments and even inspired straight-forward answers regarding what he likes to wear (he’s not much of a T-shirt guy, doesn’t like jean shorts, and prefers that moisture-wicking performance material above all else).

Any book that has the potential to give me a cleaner home, an opportunity to make peace with my past, encourages me to write more, and makes sense of my kid, gets a solid recommendation from me.

Nicholas Garofalo

Nicholas Garofalo

Nick is the technical wizard whose workings keep the gears spinning. His cross-discipline skill set and heuristic approach to problems ensures that we run like a well-oiled machine. The man himself is fueled by Red Bull and black magic.