Saturday, January 16, 2016

Weekend reading: On Marie Kondo and David Bowie

Vieux-Montreal, December 2015

Yes, I'm serious.

First, there was this article in Slate, which argues that Marie Kondo's campaign against clutter is actually "a nonstop assault on the most basic form of human denial," that of our own eventual, inevitable demise: "The piles of stuff we might need someday are an argument that we will always be around to need them."

The article crystallizes something that I've suspected about myself but hadn't quite put the words to: I do tend to take on too much, too many projects, and the physical stuff that comes along with them (I'm thinking mostly of creative pursuits here, especially my shameful fabric stash). And in a funny, almost-hidden way, it's absolutely a bulwark against mortality. It's a way of telling myself: There will be time for everything.

Which brings me to David Bowie. It was striking how within hours of the announcement of his death -- a surprise to all but those closest to him -- pretty much the entire Internet had realized that with his last album, released just days before, Bowie had essentially written his own eulogy

I won't pretend here that I am a fan of Bowie's -- or a hater, either; I don't know much of anything at all about his music. (I am what is known as a musical putz, actually). If you, like me, are more literarily than musically inclined, there's also this: a posthumously published memoir by Paul Kalanithi, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while studying to be a neurosurgeon. An excerpt appears here in the New Yorker.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces of art have me thinking about creativity and the art that people make when they know they are dying. (N.B. in case it wasn't obvious: We are all dying.) I'm sorry if this all seems morbid, but there's actually a psychological argument to be made that thinking more about our own deaths will in fact make us happier

What does all this have to do with stuff? I have also sometimes allowed myself to acknowledge a sneaking suspicion that this very habit of taking on too much, and having too many planned projects (and the supplies that accompany them) actually hampers creativity, makes it more difficult for me to focus on completing any one thing.

And, sure, there's a balance to be struck here. I'm not shedding my entire queue, just trying to make it a little shorter, so I can focus more completely on the next thing. And acknowledging that some projects aren't going to come to fruition, and then letting them go, is actually producing a weird kind of optimism for me. For example I would love to learn to crochet, but let's face it, I'm not likely to work that into my schedule any time soon. So it doesn't make sense to stockpile a bunch of yarn and thread. But, maybe later in my life, who knows? Perhaps I'll have a crochet season. There will be time for everything.


  1. Ah, so much food for thought in this post, Sarah!

    I too, tell myself there will be time to fulfill all of my creative dreams --- one day! I don't stockpile or embark on too many projects at once but I do have a long mental list of what I would like to do. What I have always done --- even as a child --- was to start the next project just before finishing the current one. So I'd be a thread or two away from finishing a stitchery project and I'd take out a new one and get a thread or two done on that one before returning to the first to finish it up. By doing this, I had a continual line of projects going, and I distinctly remember thinking that as long as I kept this up, life would go on. (Because death never chooses a person when they're in the middle of something? Clearly I was a very odd child...).

    Based on my experience, this ---
    "I have also sometimes allowed myself to acknowledge a sneaking suspicion that this very habit of taking on too much, and having too many planned projects (and the supplies that accompany them) actually hampers creativity, makes it more difficult for me to focus on completing any one thing."
    --- is absolutely true! For me, too many things going on all at once makes me jittery and then I'm too indecisive to settle on which project to work on at any given time. Frugality also plays a role here: I don't pre-buy stuff because I know if it's going to take months to get started I may just change my mind and then the money would be wasted.

    I found myself nodding along as I read the Slate article on Kondo, not just with the denial part (which I think is a very astute interpretation), but in other areas as well. The screwdriver/ruler thing made me both laugh and shake my head... (I still have a Kondo post brewing (it's up next; hopefully it's coming soon)).

    And yes, I think that pondering death does indeed focus us and challenges us to make better choices about what we do with our time. I don't think it's morbid at all; I think it makes us more appreciative of life (or at least it does for me).

    1. Whoa, I sort of love the idea of having a line of projects going, and starting a new one just before finishing the last. You may have been an odd child, but I'm an odd grownup right along with you! It's really cool in a symbolic sense (I'm thinking of the Norns/Fates...if the final thread is never cut and tied off, life goes on) but I also wonder if it might also help motivate me to finish stuff? Hmmm...good food for thought there.

      Yes, I definitely get the "jittery and indecisive" feeling of having too many projects on the go. (Sadly, my frugality is not strong enough to compel me to forgo buying supplies ahead, though. :-) )

      And once again I'll say that I'm looking forward to your Kondo post! The screwdriver/ruler anecdote is in her second book, which I've just read, and though the author of the Slate article plays it for laughs, actually in context Kondo acknowledges her ridiculousness. It's a big part of her insight about finding joy in what's useful (a really important principle, but one that I think could be more explicitly stated in the book).

      Oh, and -- since we're pondering death -- I came across this article and thought of our discussion here, thought it might be of particular interest to you:

    2. Yes - the Fates and the final thread --- that's precisely it :) .

      That was such a poignant piece you linked to, Sarah. Thank you. I hope with all my heart he's right.

    3. I hope so too, Marian. But if a climate scientist is hopeful, well, that makes it a little easier for me to hope.

  2. Delurking to say Yes! Resoundingly! I can't completely get with Kondo's program -- have you read the book? Some of what she says and does is entirely too precious, to me at least, and I can't imagine any time in my life when I could have edited all of my house in one continuous sweep, as she insists is necessary.
    I'm currently culling and culling and culling, newly retired and getting ready for a huge lifestyle change which will involve not only a smaller space but also a move away from friends and from a small home on island waterfront to a condo in the city.
    And I'm so aware of how much STUFF I've accrued, and it's painfully obvious that some of its accumulation was fear-based, as some level, rather than abundance-based. Sure, much of it was intended to serve creative or my "intellectual/professional" life (I've been a Lit. professor for the last 15 years), but really, why did I need to buy my own copies of all these books. Why have I so much yarn? Will I really ever use all those paint brushes? Etc., etc.
    That said, I do want to buy the book by Kalanithi, having read several reviews. And I'm not quite a music putz, but Bowie was only peripheral for me, although I so appreciate his importance culturally, socially, whatever, in opening possibilities for so many.
    Currently packing for 2 weeks in Rome, after living out of my suitcase for 5 days in Portland, Oregon, and I know I can cull and cull and cull -- I took stuff to Portland that never got opened, but I really Needed! to have sketching, painting, knitting, and reading material. And despite my heightened awareness, and despite putting many books reluctantly but nobly back on the shelves, I still picked up enough at Powell's to suggest I'm a crazy speed-reader or will be gifting every one of my friends with multiple books on several occasions in the next few months.
    All of this is to say, obviously, in a long-winded way that I agree with you although I rather despair of doing any better than periodically re-setting. . . .And to say that I've been enjoying your blog since added you to my roll recently. Thank you!

    1. Hi Frances! Thanks for commenting and for your kind words about my blog! Yes, I have read the Kondo book -- both of them, in fact. I agree with you about her over-preciousness. However, I have come to see her as sort of a lovable kook rather than a stern task-mistress. So I just take what I can/what applies to me, while appreciating that she is a real outlier in the organizing/tidying department.

      I do chuckle a bit at the way some of her advice is very culturally specific. In her second book, she says that if you have a large collection of manga it is ok to just hold a pile of a whole series together, or touch the first/top one in the stack to see if it sparks joy. But she doesn't seem to realize that a person might well do the same with a stack of Jane Austen!

      I also heartily approve of your attitude about culling in preparation for a lifestyle change. That seems to me perfectly aim to have just the things you need for this next phase of your life. That's contrast to the way I often hear people of retirement age talk about paring down...they seem to be getting rid of things in preparation for death. Which seems sad to me. When I think about my mom (in her early 70s) I would hate to think that she spent time getting rid of things so that I wouldn't have to get rid of them when she is gone. I would much rather she spend that time actually living! (Acknowledging that children of hoarder-type parents might have a different perspective here.)

      I know exactly what you mean about Needing! things on vacation that you never actually use. I am the queen of taking notebooks, embroidery projects, and watercolors on trips and then never touching them. I think there might be an analogy here to the advice for packing clothes for vacation that says not to pack a bunch of things that fantasy-you would wear, just pack what you actually wear. Except that in this case, maybe the goal is not to forgo packing the watercolors because our schlubby old selves won't use them, but instead to figure out how to turn our real selves into the selves we fantasize being on vacation. Does that make sense? I haven't quite put my finger on this yet, but you've got me thinking.

  3. There's so much to think about here! Thank you for all the rich links, and for the richer questions. A few years ago, I decided I needed to buy a sewing machine. The one I had was more than 20 years old, and I hadn't cared for it well. It occurred to me, considering how long I'd had the first one and how old I am, that it was highly likely I'd never buy another one.


    Although that sounds morbid, it was strangely liberating. It gave me permission to buy the machine I really wanted--which (unlike the previous one) gives me joy every time I use it. It's given me permission to reframe many of my decisions about things. I get Kondo's words about things bringing us joy in ways I never would have in my 20s. It has also gotten me to reframe my decisions about how to spend what creative capital I have. I read a short, wonderful blog post by Chuck Wendig in response to Bowie's and Rickman's deaths with a line that struck me:

    "People ask why I work so hard or why I’ve been so single-minded to be what I want to be and that’s because I don’t want deathbed regrets. I don’t want to get there and then look back over my shoulder and look at all the closed doors I wanted to open. I don’t fear death; I fear purposeless death. My work, my writing, is very explicitly motivated by the reality that I could get gored by a moose tomorrow, I could get crushed by a bulldozer in ten years, I could get prostate cancer and die in my 60s like my father, I could get pneumonia (again) and die when I’m 99. It’s coming. I know it." (

    I have been thinking much, for at least a year, about what to create and why (the real topic of my blog). Although it is true that none of us knows how long we have, when we get to certain ages we can know with certainty how much time we for sure don't have. I'm finding there are some real gifts in that.

    1. Oh, that's a really nice post, thank you for pointing me to it, Rita. Yeah, the idea of creative capital being limited, while uncomfortable, can actually be helpful -- creativity out of constraints, after all.

      And I like the idea that this kind of morbid/liberating thinking can help us be better about stuff. Even if you're not thinking, "Well this is the last X I'll buy so better make it a good one," it's useful to think "How many more X's do I want to buy in my life anyway? Better make this one count."

      More broadly, I recently came across a pretty amazing/fascinating/sobering visualization of "how much time is left":
      The one about books especially got to me!
      Though I don't really agree with his implication that in-person time is the only meaningful time spent with loved ones.

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  5. Oh, and look at what just came up in my FB feed:

    1. That's really interesting! It would be nice for society as a whole to encourage people to think about these things earlier in life. But I do think we also need to cultivate our individual understanding of why things last or are likely to last (this might be me being skeptical of the "curation" phenomenon in general, though!).