Message keeps getting clearer
radio’s on and I’m moving ’round the place
I check my look in the mirror
I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
— Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark
I belong to a weird subset of humanity that reads decluttering books even though we’re already pretty decluttered. At least I hope there’s a subset that does this, and it’s not just me.
It began nearly 15 years ago, during a rainy afternoon at a bookshop on Islington Green where I was searching for decorating ideas, having just moved into a new home. The previous owner had left us his old sofas. I was grateful for the seating, but my spirits dipped every time I saw them – garish, boxy, with tired springs and grease stains on the armrests smelling of fried cod and chips.
I came across a small book tucked away on the bottom shelf of the Interiors section, called Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I wasn’t particularly interested in feng shui, but the mere mention of clearing clutter always stirs something in me. (I do hope that subset exists; perhaps we could create a support group.)
Proust? Chaucer? Shakespeare? Pshaw. My life changed reading the words of Ms Kingston. A short book written in a snappy tone, she gets to the heart of why we hold on to things, and how to let them go. It made enormous sense to learn how my environment corresponds with my mind and life.
A freelancer in film production, finding a job in London after five years of working in India was proving difficult. I used the lull to do up my new home. I started by donating the sofas, preferring to sit on the carpet instead of holding on to them for fear I might never get anything better. As Kingston advised, I was making room in my life for the right things.
The next morning, I got a job offer. Coincidence? Okay, yes, but a delightful one – it was from Working Title, the makers of Four Weddings, Notting Hill and the Coen Brothers’ films. The feature I was offered took me back to India, but I got promoted to line producer. I was also able to get a terrific new sofa.
Release release release
Over the years, my response to most crises (hell, to everything) is to streamline my belongings and tidy up. It’s not that every time I give things away I’m flooded with job offers, but rearranging my space definitely gives me clarity.
More than organising though, it’s getting rid of things. In the act of letting go, much more than old, outdated stuff is released. It means not holding on to musty ideas or how things should be, but only how they are. I feel lighter, recharged and open to change. A periodic cleanout is one of the most powerful things I can do to engage with the present and reinforce the direction I want my life to go in.
I’m aware that organising my physical surroundings is a transference of the mental turmoil I wish I could tame as easily, but at least I’ve learnt that Stuff doesn’t bring me happiness. Also, I have really tidy drawers.
Because of my membership to this subset of humanity, I continue to read every other book I could find on the subject. I have an unofficial PhD on the topic by now. Most books are entirely dismissible (too complicated, too forced, too annoying). I have found only three more titles to be worth reading. The most recent is by Marie Kondo, called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a multimillion-copy seller in her native Japan and around the world.
Kondo’s approach is very Japanese in its anthropomorphism, giving her an unusual and appealing edge. Her somewhat kooky tips include understanding the purpose our belongings have served in our life, and releasing them with thanks.
When feeling out of sorts, this is the kind of book that soothes me – and makes me spring into action. Reading it recently, I decided to declutter my clothes. Clothing falls low on Kondo’s emotional scale, so she recommends starting here. In my case, I can discard old love letters and photos easily. I can thin out my book collection without trauma. But clothes are my most emotionally charged and complicated possessions, and not just because of fluctuating dress size.
My wardrobe is a manifestation of how fractured I still feel moving between my different worlds. I have clothes for when seeing relatives in Dhaka, and different ones for when I’m with friends. I have clothes for London, and for Boston, and ones for wearing in Bombay (these being the four places I frequent the most). Looking at all my clothes together brings up uncomfortable issues I don’t like confronting.
Still, as per Kondo’s instructions, this is where I begin. I pull out every item from my closet, and review each one by one. I start sneezing somewhere in the middle, indicating some of the items have not seen daylight for months. I coo a “thank you” to those I discard, feeling slightly demented, relieved I am alone in my room so nobody can hear me talking to fabric.
Without the gratitude part, I have winnowed my wardrobe countless times, especially after a big move or life change. Following my corporate days, it took several months to realise that the smart tailored office dresses or the fancy stuff for attending film premieres were no longer required.
Moving from London to Dhaka a year and a half ago required shedding the bulk of my wardrobe of woollens and tights, boots and fake fur.
Yet, for all my decluttering, my wardrobe bloats up again. Reasons for expansion are either from trying to assimilate to a new place or from wanting a new life. Both require some experimentation and many mistakes.
I soon reach a point where I can no longer tolerate seeing a stuffed closet (admittedly, my definition of “stuffed” probably differs from other people’s as everything I own would fit nicely inside a medium-sized suitcase).
Holding on to anything – not just clothes – that’s no longer relevant has to do with an attachment either to the past or the future. I’m not at all sentimental – I never sigh over the good old days or get nostalgic of how I’d worn those shoes to that party.
But I do see that I make decisions based on my worries about the future. The declutterer’s biggest angst comes from the question, “What if I need this some day?” I’m a great deal better about this than I used to be. There were times I had half my wardrobe dedicated to a parallel life – one that imagined my living la dolce vita in some sun-soaked Mediterranean universe, not my reality of freezing Boston.
The cure for this “what if” scenario, Karen Kingston says, is to keep only what we require right now, and to trust that what we need later will come to us. The more I’ve practised this, the more I see that it really is about trusting the universe. Fear makes us hoard, while trust lets us relax and let go.
Until recently, I was stockpiling toiletries and cosmetics in case my favourite eyeliner or lip balm ran out. Now I know that (a) I can find an adequate replacement wherever I am in the world, and (b) it’s more fun and eco to discover a local version instead of blindly clinging to something from an earlier phase of my life. Moreover, (c) the minute I stockpile a product is when I inevitably discover something new that I’d much rather use. Them’s the law.
I’ve learnt I don’t need a lot of clothing. Nobody else is sitting there counting the last six times they spotted me wearing the same thing. If they do, I’ll tell them it’s a French thing. Seriously, watch French films and notice how even for stories taking place over a long period, the women wear the same few outfits on rotation – cinéma vérité indeed.
I want my wardrobe to evolve with me. I don’t follow fashion, but neither do I want to look like a relic from a bygone era. Owning only a few things means replacing the items slightly more frequently thanks to wear and tear; this keeps me somewhat updated. I also want to actually wear everything I own, and not pull out something from the back of the closet to find that it now fits funny.
I got rid of piles and piles of things. I admit, saying farewell to my clothes did change the experience this time. Before, I would berate myself for having wasted money on something I rarely wore, adding a bitter note to the valuable exercise.
Instead, as per Kondo’s advice, I acknowledged the useful role each item played – whether teaching me that this colour or shape didn’t work for me (I have broad shoulders; wearing skinny jeans makes me look like a turnip), or giving me a boost when I first spotted it, or for having been useful for many years but now it was time for its retirement. The whole process feels positive, even enlightening.
I forward this advice to a friend going through a breakup. Instead of reproaching himself for his “poor choices” (as he saw it), I recommend he thank the relationship for what it has taught him, and to let it go with gratitude. (I so love how this decluttering advice is for life, man.)
Kondo’s emphasis is on what we choose to keep, and not just on what we give away. I like this very much, even if I feel like Tony Leung’s cop character in Chungking Express empathising with his kitchen sponge as I show gratitude to my socks for protecting my feet.
As for my wardrobe – everything now fits and feels like me. I get favourite pieces mended and altered. Issues about where I live and what I like to wear and feeling free, etc etc, also come up as expected, and I feel braver facing them.
My closet is considerably lighter, with space between the hangers, colour-coded, rising to the right (read Kondo’s book to appreciate why). Everything in it is cherished and, yes, thanked. Kooky perhaps, but I feel great.
Has having fewer clothes helped me?
Yes. And because I donate the discarded items, others benefit as well.
Is it maintainable?
Yes, provided I don’t move to Mexico and decide to go for a whole new look.
The ultimate test: has it elevated or depressed me?
Totally elevated me.
Verdict: so much fun, I wish I could do it all over again.
“Happiness is not found in things you possess, but in what you have the courage to release.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne
Here are my four favourite books on decluttering clothes and everything else, in order of when I first read them. Each came to me at a time when I really needed it, and helped change everything, each having a different take on the subject.
What they do have in common is explaining that the purpose of life is not to keep decluttering. It’s to remove all the stagnant stuff no longer relevant to us so that we may focus on the important things.
I’d recommend Kondo’s book the most. If you’re fine with a bit of woo-woo, then Kingston’s as well. For my fellow subsetters – oh wait, if you’re like me, you have already read them. Get in touch and let’s geek out over this!
Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I like her blog too.