In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo recommends fully cleaning your own space (assorted knickknacks/pile of sweaters/thousands of spiral bound notebooks/office supplies/teaching files) rather than tackling your partner's space (concert t-shirts, crumbling paperbacks, reporter's notebooks). The idea is that if you set a good example, your partner will fall in line.
In theory, it's a beautiful idea.
On Saturday, W. helped me with the scary shelving unit at the back of the garage. A few short months ago, the shelving unit wasn't even visible--it was merely a dark shadow emerging from behind stacks of empty cardboard boxes, large Tupperware bins that serve as a sort of clothing hospice, and a heap of recycling we were going to bring in "next weekend".
Now the shelving unit is visible again, and it turns out for the last five years or so, while neither W. nor I has managed to venture back there, it has been quietly accumulating masses of cobwebs. They hardly resemble the shiny spiderwebs that occasionally appear on our front porch, spun overnight in what seems to be a burst of optimism. These webs are heavy with dust and thick as clumps of dryer lint.
In the dim lighting of the garage, they give us pause.
We begin with the paint cans, which I'd mostly identified already, in previous weeks--matching and labeling or drying and tossing. From the beginning, I try to establish order, designating: a keep pile, a donate pile and a trash pile. But whenever I find myself engrossed in one task or another--squirting down a dusty plastic bin with a half-gallon of all-purpose cleaner, say--I turn back to see that a new pile has appeared, one that defies the categorization of "keep, donate, trash."
"What's this?" I demand, after stubbing my toe on a giant container of windshield wiper fluid--one of three, each full to the top with a blue-blue liquid. "Keep or donate?"
"That's the undecided pile," W. says.
No, no, nonono, I interrupt. We're only touching things once. We're making a decision on the spot. My explanation is less eloquent than Marie Kondo's, and more practical, too--it leaves out the weirdness of things having feelings or the idea that something like windshield wiper fluid might "spark joy".
"I use the Will DeBoard method," W. explains. "Touch twenty times, move to a new spot, and make a decision three months later."
I can almost hear MK's gasp.
We uncover, in that back corner, enough dust to make us open the garage door, exposing our still considerable pile of junk to the neighborhood. Under the dust is a mini-hardware store of DIY supplies, purchased at a time when we had more manageable lives with defined "days off" each week. Sanding supplies, a tub of varnish that has leaked, spackle and wood filler that has hardened into cement, C clamps from a project I can't remember. It turns out that we have two cans of WD-40 and three tubs of Drano, as well as seventeen cans of black spray paint.
"What's that?" I ask, pointing to something on the third shelf, fully visible from my vantage point on the other side of the garage, but not to W., standing directly in front of the shelf. "There's something back there. It's kind of ghostly looking."
W. bends down for a closer look. It is ghostly-looking, whatever it is or was--wrapped in cobwebs, dust particles shining in the light from the open garage door. "I don't see anything," W. says, inching slowly backward. In the next moment, he decides something in the backyard needs his attention.
I wrap my arms up to the wrists in plastic bags and attack the third shelf. Wedged in the back is a crumpled pile of painter's sheeting and one of the giant floor sponges we used in the process of refinishing our old floors.
Marie Kondo references the way things feel when they aren't confined, but allowed to relax in a natural state. There's a particular passage about why socks should not be balled that is (unintentionally, I'm sure) one of the funniest things I've ever read.
[Here it is: The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled.... Store the socks on edge, just as you did for clothing. You'll be amazed at how little space you need compared to your 'potato ball days,' and you'll notice your socks breathing a sigh of relief at being untied" (Kondo 81-83).]
But in that moment when I free the giant orange sponge from its trap of cobweb-covered sheeting and it seems to literally breath a sigh of relief, I think I finally understand.
W. pronounces us done rather early in the process, forgetting his new piles which are now scattered around the garage--a tub of Prestone, a mysterious item in an Old Navy bag, dried-up sticks of plant food. We've now created the problem of having numerous empty Tupperware containers, and for the moment I make a new stack along the back of the garage. It's safer to donate those as well, before they mysteriously fill with other crap we don't need--but that's a project for another Saturday.
In the end, we step back to look at our work, admiring the lack of cobwebs and the two empty shelves, and we feel pretty damn proud.
Also, I'm feeling optimistic. I know enough not to push it at this moment, although I feel strangely invigorated, like I could roll up my sleeves and empty the contents of an entire closet into the hallway and sort, sort, sort, Marie Kondo-style.
W. wraps a dirty arm around me, and I smile.
Maybe tonight we'll go through his concert t-shirts.
Paula Treick DeBoard