Tidying Up

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Do you inspire me? Do you bring me joy?

These were the questions I asked of a pair of threadbare brown and tan argyle socks I held in my hand. When the socks refused to answer, I tossed them into a trash bag along with a dozen others that had remained silent too.
The forty pairs that answered in the affirmative I smoothed out and then folded carefully into neat rectangular packages before storing them on edge in my sock drawer. I was amazed at how little room they took up. What was once a drawer stuffed full of balled up “potatoes” and tied up “pretzels” that I pawed through like some sort of wild animal every morning was now neatly arranged, each pair displayed for easy access.

I was so amazed I did the same thing with my underwear drawer.

Yes, it has been a hard winter, but I’m not losing my mind by talking to socks. Rather than hibernate until spring, I’ve been tidying. It’s a concept my moonshine dealer Marilyn Margaret in western North Carolina turned me onto—a dramatic reorganization of one’s home that promises to lead to correspondingly dramatic changes in one’s lifestyle and perspective. She’s following a Tokyo tidying guru named Marie Kondo. Surround yourself with the things you love, Kondo says, and good things will happen. You’ll free your mind. And you might even lose weight.

It’s not a new philosophy. The nineteenth century textile decorator and society traveler William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. Practitioners of feng shui know that energy stagnates when clutter accumulates.

What’s interesting about Kondo, though, is that she tells you how to do it, step by step, category by category. After you purge, she instructs you on how to fold and store each remaining item. Millions have bought her books and people beg her to help them tidy their homes. While I am not one known to follow self-help gurus, I decided this one might be helpful after a pile of sweaters in my closet collapsed on me, bringing to light the fact that I owned three purple cashmere sweaters. Seriously, how many purple cashmere sweaters does one man need? The reality was I had no idea what was in my chest of drawers anymore. My closets were disaster zones.

I downloaded Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, fixed myself a big glass of bourbon and diet Coke and began tidying with a vengeance: belts, shoes, suits, shirts, and ties. Nothing was spared. I tidied the bathroom and the kitchen too, tossing crappy Tupperware, dozens of black plastic forks from Chinese food deliveries, expired cans of tuna fish, jars and jars of mustards. I even found my post 9-11 survival kit. I quickly filled seven large trash bags.

Kondo says we should only keep an item when we feel a thrill of joy when we touch it. But some things, I found, were hard to part with even when I knew I should. The pair of pink linen pants from Bergdorf Goodman, for example, that I’ve never been able to squeeze into but know in the back of my mind that I will one day. Or my cowboy boots, pulled from the back of the closet where they’d laid since last century, covered in at least an inch of dust. The black Burt Reynolds Museum baseball cap certainly brought forth a chuckle if not joy when unearthed from the bottom of a drawer. Each item forced me to face my imperfections and foolish choices. But I was strong and tossed them all.

Next up: books. According to Kondo, books are among the most difficult items to get rid of. And I am a literary lush. I like reading and I buy a lot of books. I surround myself with them. They’re an essential part of my design aesthetic. Some people like mid-century modern. I like first editions. Before paring down, I counted my library—695 books. It sounds like a lot and yes I had stacks of books on top of tables and crammed into bookcases. But there weren’t piles of them on the floor or tucked away inside the microwave I never use or anything nutty like that.

It took me many hours to hold and speak to each book. I decided to eliminate 76 of them. I never felt more Republican. And I truly felt some sadness for each book discarded. The lone exception was for Pat Conroy’s South of Broad, one of the worst books I have ever read. I was shocked to see it was still among my collection and I was thrilled to see it go.

I was, frankly, excited to see all the clutter go. While I’m not ready to report that tidying has changed my life, I can report that my clothes, especially my socks, seem to fit better and look better now that they are enjoying a proper rest between uses. My mind is clearer. There’s a spring in my step.

In the end, I have but one regret—that Burt Reynolds baseball cap. I can’t help but think it truly sparks joy. Maybe I’ll rescue it—if I can find it among all the garbage bags….