The Universal Notebook: The life-changing magic of making a mess

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One of my daughters is reading and mastering the rituals of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” by Marie Kondo, a book that has spent 35 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list and sold 2 million copies worldwide.

I could have written that book.

Some years ago I wrote a little essay, collected in “Backyard Maine” (my long forgotten anthology that sold maybe 200 copies statewide) about the burden of the things we own and the liberating effect of lightening one’s material load. As with so many other things, I was ahead of the curve. I would have made a small fortune turning that 800-word essay into a book, but then I probably would have just spent my fortune on a lot more stuff that would need tidying up.

There is very little in Kondo’s little cleaning cult book I don’t already know from experience.

Her basic approach, for example, is to “sort by category, not by location.” When Mom and Dad went into a nursing home a few years ago and I had to clean out their house, that’s exactly the way I tackled the job – dishes and glass one day, photos and art another, tools, clothes, medicine and cosmetics, important papers, etc. Anything that didn’t fit into a category ended up on the curb with a “FREE” sign on it.

Another Kondo tenet is “What you don’t need, your family doesn’t either.” Fine, in theory.

But being the first-born of my generation, the law of primogeniture seems to decree that all family keepsakes and archives end up in my basement. It would take a better man than me to get rid of the boxes of old family photos, legal papers and military records, tarnished silver and unwanted china moldering away down there next to the cat box. I stored Nana Beem’s Johnson Brothers Historic American red and white dishes in a shed at the lake for a few years, but they have since found their way back to the basement. Apparently even the squirrels didn’t want them.

“Sorting Papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” is a Kondo commandment I take seriously, but I am defeated by my love for Carolyn, my lovely wife, who insists on keeping file cabinets full of fat envelopes stuffed with tax forms and receipts in case we ever get audited.

But before we moved from Yarmouth to Brunswick last fall, Carolyn and I did spend a long evening in the basement editing the childhood artwork of three talented daughters down to a single portfolio. The rest went in the hopper with the girls’ blessings.

I was merciless with my own papered past. I carted several trunkloads of Universal Notebooks and story files to the dump, jettisoning my professional past in the certain knowledge that no library in creation should ever be asked to house the Literary Estate of Edgar Allen Beem in perpetuity.

I was much less successful with our library.

Kondo advises, “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’” and “Books to keep: those that belong in the hall of fame.” Though I have regularly sold and donated excess books, when we moved we literally had a ton of books packed in dozens of banana boxes. When it comes to books, despite being a former librarian, I am a failure both as a writer and a weeder.

Kondo’s single selection criteria for what to keep is “does it spark joy?” But she fails to designate whose joy should be sparked.

I could easily live without the plastic tubs full of Beanie Babies, Playmobiles, Legos, blocks and Barbie dolls under the pool table. But there are five (and counting) grandchildren whose joy would be seriously diminished if I chucked them.

Kondo obviously did not have children when she was writing “Tidying Up.” If she had been a mother (and I understand she may now be), she might have entitled her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Making a Mess.”

Life is messy. Life is full of stuff we don’t really need. Still, I applaud the effort to simplify and purge, even as I wish my mother hadn’t discarded my collection of 1950s baseball cards. They’d be worth the small fortune I lost by not writing “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.