Tidying the playhouse

Still Life with a Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen Van Utrecth, 1642

Hey, happy new year. I’m back. I am banal and topical.

I have spent the past two weeks reading Marie Kondo, reading about Marie Kondo, and tidying up.

She tells you to start by visualizing why you want to tidy.

Ugh! I hate this part. What brings you here? I dunno, so I can breathe, move on, do other things. Light, space, air. Clean desk.

I need to face: the horror of the toy closet, which also contains towels, some of my father’s photo archives and his computer and scanner; the horror of the storeroom in the garage, which contains his genealogical papers, various items of my and my daughters’ clothes to be gotten rid of, the requisite cubic feet of paper products that give our household a sense of security (or do they?), a panel of stained glass that came with the house, cans of paint, my childhood dollhouse on a work table that could be a desk on which to put the scanner. The storeroom is a room we talk about converting into my office.

The sad irony is that I store a milk crate full of drafts of stories and novels in our laundry room, which I bitterly describe as my office when I feel that I have hit some kind of middle management glass ceiling in the Department of Laundry. There is a desktop for folding that is covered in clothes. My actual desk, in a hallway, seems to collect bank statements and random papers. My actual vision, if I were going to digress on Pinterest, would be a clean work surface with a jar of flowers on it and a view of the woods.


Or perhaps a view of Central Park. Or W. 61st Street.

These are the floor plans of an apartment that I was sent by a Manhattan real estate company that has somehow gotten my name. It’s a good design. It could be our pied à terre after we win Powerball.

I am drawn to the idea of a capsule wardrobe and yet I still have clothes from high school and college. And lots of letters. And drafts. And postcards. And books. And old cell phones. And a CD collection. And some of these things bring me joy and some don’t. I had lots of friends who were able to sweep a school year into a trash bag every summer. I never could. I envied them the confidence to move on to the next phase of their lives and pitied them the foolhardy way they had discarded their personal histories.

The real estate agent sends apartment listings along with market analysis, as if the only thing standing between me an a bijoux 1BR for 3M was a failure to recognize a great opportunity.

And these apartments are roughly 600 square feet big, or rather small. Even if I could scrape together the funds, I would never fit into it with all my stuff. You’ll notice there is only one closet.

The KonMari approach is connected to economic theories that my husband and I have discussed over the years, so the thinking behind it equates to very rational principles, but then she’s got this Pee-Wee Hermanesque  habit of thanking her stockings or a screwdriver for their service. You’re hugging your sweater to hear it speak to your heart.

Seriously, Marie Kondo and Pee-Wee Herman are almost the same person.

His Playhouse appears cluttered and manic, it’s filled with the kind of kitsch that was so endemic in the ’80s, which were spitting distance from the ’50s; it does not have the minimalist aesthetic one imagines for Kondo’s living quarters, and yet everything has a precise place and an important role and all of his things bring him joy and he communes with them all (Globey, Chairry, Conky, Magic Screen.)

Watch Pee-Wee make breakfast in the opening credits, then read Marie Kondo’s description of what she does when she comes home and unpacks her handbag. It’s eerie.

Sparks of joy

Watching the videos brought back Saturday mornings in college when we parked our hangovers in front of the television to enjoy Pee-Wee in all his campy glory and Ralph Bakshi’s trippily reimagined “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.” The world was changing and starting to speak our language.

I also notice that Globey, both in voice and manner and the creaky way his head spins on its axis, is very much the predecessor of The Moon from “The Mighty Boosh.” See video clips below.

I attacked the horrific toy cupboard at Thanksgiving, dumping out boxes of Playmobil and Barbies and American Girls and their apparatus. The girls helped me to choose what goes and what stays. As groovy as they are, I  decided to sell Dawn and her friends on eBay. I snapped pictures and counted minidresses.

“Because looking at them makes Mommy sad,” I overheard the Younger Daughter tell the Older. Kids read you better than you read yourself. I sold the lot. No regrets. I hadn’t realized it, but they did make me sad.

This was the first moment where I thought, right, keep going. Then I started reading about Marie Kondo. Then I bought the book and spent the weekend going through my clothes and filling bags and snapping more photos because the Younger Daughter and I thought we would try selling on a website.

I have not yet experienced sweater-hugging sparks of joy but I was able to let two beloved but moth-holey cardigans go into a charity bag by silently thanking them for the memories they held. One was from when the girls were babies. It was soft and warm and comfortable, but cut in a way that let me feel pulled together. I wore it to the park and to work. The store it came from was located on the steep, narrow street I walked up from the tube or the bus. It had a tiny bay window in which was displayed a celery-colored suit that I admired the first summer we lived in London. I think it was in the sales that winter, but I realized I didn’t want to own it, I just liked to see it. This could be yours, this could be you, but without having to let it and that person you had been go at a later date.

I moved, in sequence, from clothes to books. As I put books into shopping bags for the library book shop, something waved to me from the edge of a dust jacket. A baby scorpion? I took it outside and crushed it. This is significant, something about ridding the house of poison or the hidden dangers of keeping things you don’t want; the book was one I had permanently loaned out, which had been returned, and since it was a really good book, edited by a friend, I had taken it back, but not, tellingly, alphabetized it with the rest of the fiction. (Yes, I alphabetize fiction and spices.) It was on a shelf of random hardcovers, several of which joined it in the shopping bag, never having been appreciated or loved. Or maybe it is safer to leave things as they are and the scorpions undisturbed, but that doesn’t sound right.

I share a “free to good homes” note in our work newsletter, for the extra dolls and the marble run that had been boxed up, ready for its next destination for at least a year. People respond within minutes. I act fast and get a note that evening that the children in aftercare loved the toys and this is exactly the point. That morning they languished and dragged me down, by evening they were back in play.

Yesterday, I moved on to papers. I threw out instruction manuals and old utility bills. This will be a hard stage. I can’t fathom putting all the paper in one place. Does the milk crate with the story drafts count as paper or sentimental objects?

The vision as starting point may change. And fitting into a 600-square-foot apartment is not, even now, the real goal, but I think a working space for each of us is. At the same time, I am aware that all over the world, people are in terrible situations where they have nothing but what they can carry. There is something sickening about the thought of people in homes laden with unwanted consumer goods. Think of a fairy tale, where the hero is cast out into the world with only the acorn in the pocket, the crust of bread, a magic word. Whoever you are, whatever your situation, use what you have. Pass along what you no longer need. Joy, whatever sparks it, wherever it resides, flickers, flares up, dies down, travels. None of it is guaranteed to last or reside in the same place forever anyway.

Enjoy the videos.


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