Hungover and pleasantly aimless on New Year's Day, I scrolled through Netflix looking for something soothing to watch. Not You—even though apparently everyone on my timeline was watching the Penn Badgley thriller. I was not going to pick Bird Box; the apocalypse will come soon enough. Sadly, I was clean out of Great British Bake Off episodes. And the time for was over for another year.
Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, though, had the promise of Queer Eye–like simplicity and redemption, exactly what I craved on this black hole of a day. The show features Japanese neatness queen Marie Kondo, whose (it came out in Japan two years earlier), persuaded swathes of readers that the "Japanese art of decluttering and organizing" would heal their souls.
In Tidying Up, Kondo visits American families and helps them to deal with the burden of their possessions—sorting, eliminating, and arranging them in a way that streamlines not only their stuff, but also their lives. Crying over regular Jo(e)s whose gigantic life hurdles could be cleared with the cheery help of a semi-celebrity: Nothing could be more suited to the biggest lounge-around day of the year.
As might be expected of a show focused on a woman whose superpower is folding, the show has a quietly tender tone. In the first episode, Kondo and an interpreter visit the Friend family—Rachel, Kevin, and their two young children. The Friend house isn't a Hoarders-worthy mess; it's just the home of two working parents and two children. Kondo visits each client family several times over the course of a month, bearing gifts (boxes to put miscellaneous items in), encouragement ("I can feel the spirit of this bedroom"), and instruction ("Take all the clothes from everywhere in the house and pile it into one big mountain").
Just one rule reigns in the KonMari method: Keep items that "spark joy" and discard those that don't, after thanking them for their service. That, plus a specific technique for folding clothing and linens that allows you to easily see what's in a drawer, pretty much sums it all up.
Shows of this ilk get mileage from straightening out quotidian disagreements and bumpy emotional roads via an achievable set of rules. Tidying Up does deliver on this; the Friends talk to Kondo about the mess in the kitchen, Rachel's distaste for laundry, and a lack of wardrobe space, and it becomes clear that domestic labor is a point of tension. Through the process of clearing out unwanted items, the couple bond over the task and recognize ways to work together on whatever they're arguing about. But as I watched the Friends work through all their shit, physical and emotional, something weird happened: I wanted to tidy.
This surprised me a great deal. Let me be clear; I don't like cleaning, and I love acquiring things. A chair in my bedroom is already "one big mountain" of clothes. Assortments of things loiter in tote bags around my apartment and I have enough dry goods to start a general store. Do not ask me how many lipsticks I own, or what organizational logic governs their storage. I didn't get into the KonMari craze at all when it originally landed in book form, even though I'm clearly a good candidate for Kondo's wisdom. Yet as Kondo systematically helped her clients comb through forgotten corners and cull excess, I did feel an itch to get up and do it myself.
Tidying Up was released on January 1, an aptly optimistic day for a show like this. But this sudden urge to tidy didn't have anything to do with a ritualistic new year's cleansing or a sense of chastened guilt. Mostly, it had to do with Kondo herself. Bright-eyed and patient, she comes from the cheerleading school of self-improvement, rather than being a stern scold. "Even my house gets cluttered sometimes," she'll say—a lie of kindness, in all likelihood, given that she writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that she's been thinking about tidying since she was in middle school. Her style is to treat a proliferation of possessions as something you can most definitely handle, rather than a source of anxiety, and to regard clutter as, well, fun. "I'm so excited, because I love mess," she tells one client.
Sifting through miscellaneous papers, filing some and throwing others out, I identified with one of Kondo's clients, who was doing the same on screen with much agita. Folding t-shirts per her guidance, I felt calm and focused, thinking, Keep that; Oh, haven't seen that in a while; Ew. By the time I had consumed six of the nine episodes, I had Kondoed my way through a chest of drawers, a random assortment of desk detritus, and...just a lot of stuff. I thought I'd get something out of watching other people eliminating their messes. But it turns out that the magic of tidying up is something that requires—and inspires—a little participation.
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