Tidying Up: Beginner Level

My husband was recently out of town for about ten days, leaving me home alone. I wanted to focus on my work-in-progress, and I did get a good chunk of it edited into close-to-final shape (yay!), though I didn’t do as much as I had hoped (boo). I also decided that while he was gone I would undertake some household clean-up projects.

I’m not good at keeping things in order, as I have written before. Moreover, my husband and I have different styles—he is neat, and I am not. I see right through clutter. It doesn’t bother me to sit in the middle of stacks of paper—I can still focus on the work at hand.

Plus, I know from experience that sorting stuff out gets messier before it gets neater. One must strew everything on the floor so it is all visible before it can be organized and stowed.

“I’m getting nervous,” my husband says, whenever he sees me strewing paper about, or if my old piles of paper start to teeter. He doesn’t deal well with the interim stage of chaos.

“Stifle it,” is what I want to say when that happens, but I try to just smile and say, “It’ll all be put away soon.”

Soon, of course, never comes soon enough for him, which is why I wanted to do my cleaning while he was gone.

I developed a long list of projects to do in his absence—sort out financial files (the ones not shredded in my last cleaning project), go through all our old computer peripherals and electronic gadgets to throw away or donate, organize my bookshelves and give away books I didn’t need, sort through files from boards and committees I’ve been on in the last decade, organize the documents I should keep from my time as executor of my parents’ estates, etc.

I started with my books. I had a pile of books on my bedside table that had been there for months (okay, make that years). I wanted to read them, but I usually turn to ebooks before I go to bed. I had two shelves of books I’d received as gifts that I hadn’t read yet. As well as two more shelves of beloved books I might want to read again. And books authored and autographed by friends. And textbooks left from law school and management programs. And half a shelf of French novels that I should really read to keep up my French vocabulary.

You get the picture. (It will have to be a mental picture, I didn’t take a photo of my bookcase before I started.)

tidying upI began by taking all the books off the shelves and piling them on the floor to sort. Imagine my surprise when I found a book I didn’t remember receiving—The life-changing magic of tidying up, by Marie Kondo.

Ironic, I thought, to find a book on tidying when I planned to spend a week at that activity. I opened the book—and was further surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn that the person who gave it to me was my husband. I’d stuck a little Christmas gift card from him inside the front cover. Even more ironic.

So Kondo’s book did not end up in my discard heap, and I read it in the evenings after I worked on my clean-up projects.

bags of books 20160809_093721

Bags of books (more than 100 books in total) waiting to be given to the library

First I learned that when “tidying up”, as Kondo defines it, there are two rules: (1) Start by discarding, and (2) then organize your space. Okay, I’d done that part right. When reviewing my books, after I spread them all out, I put about 100 aside to donate to our local library. Only when I’d made my “discard” decisions did I start putting the books back on the shelves.

Moreover, Kondo recommends starting with clothes and books. My clothes closet was in decent shape still, because my daughter and I did a major clean-out a year and a half ago. Kondo would have approved me starting with my books, I thought.

But then my approach began to deviate from Kondo’s. Does each item you own give you joy? she asks. If an item doesn’t give you joy, get rid of it. On one level, all books give me joy. On another level, there are books that I know I will never read, but I hate to not give them a try. Or at least tell myself I will give them a try.

And after all, I gave away more than 100 books. Isn’t that good enough?

Kondo and my husband would say no. I should have discarded every one of the books that I probably will never read.

But it would have to do. The bookcase looked better than it had. I moved on to the next project.

bookcase after 20160815_214521

My bookcase “after” tidying up. Not perfect, but definitely better.

I certainly didn’t get to everything on my long list while my husband was gone, but I made a dent. He has another trip planned in September, so I’ll check off more items then. Tidying up will not bring me joy, but I’ll keep plugging away at it.

Is it easy or hard for you to get rid of things?

P.S. After I drafted this post, I read a post by a writer friend, Jessica Conoley, who also just read Marie Kondo’s book. Here is Jessica’s take on tidying up.

Posted in Family, Philosophy, Reading, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. I wonder if the tendency to make piles comes with age, Theresa. I used to be extremely neat, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed all of the piles I’m building. It’s mainly things I’ve printed from the internet or articles to read. As for non-paper items, I’m very good at donating a bag of books, clothes, etc. every month.

    • Jill, I’ve filed in piles since I was in my 20s at least, so I can’t blame it on age. Donating clothes, etc., monthly is excellent — I do it about twice a year.

  2. Theresa, I always smile when I read your posts. This one especially resonated with me. My husband is on a business trip, and that is exactly what I look forward to doing when he is away.

    For me, cleaning my closets like you are describing is a stress reliever. Like you, I much prefer doing this when I am by myself. My kids learned early to stay away from mom when she is cleaning her closet because if I hadn’t worked out my stress by the time I finished my closet, I might start working on theirs, and who knows what might disappear.

    • Oh, but, Debbie, it sounds like you LIKE to clean! It’s not a stress reliever for me. (By the way, Kando says that discarding other people’s stuff is a no-no. Which is something my husband still needs to learn.)
      Thanks for reading,

  3. I did get one bookcase cleaned and organized this summer–now if I only have another 100 summers maybe the whole house will get the treatment. Maybe a fire might be quicker!

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