In her new book Anne Bokma, author of My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful: One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life, sets out on a yearlong adventure to become a more spiritual person. She sings in choirs, dances with witches, picks out her coffin, tries magic mushrooms and learns to be more grateful. In
this excerpt she writes about getting rid of clutter in an effort to live a more simple life.

Author Anne Bokma. Photo by Lucy Mahoney.

With the arrival of the new year, it’s time to tackle a final task on my spiritual to-do list: simplifying.

The average North American home contains 300,000 items, more than triple what a home 50 years ago held. I count 136 ornaments on our Christmas tree, 31 dresses in my closet, and 50-odd containers of lotions and potions in my bathroom cabinet.

There’s a whole new crop of minimalists who have entered the mainstream to encourage us to have less and live more. This includes the popular podcast The Minimalists and books such as The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which recommends that each of us undertake a process of decluttering, known as döstädning, so that others won’t have to tidy up for us after we’re gone. But no one reigns more supreme in the organizing universe than Marie Kondo, the diminutive, eminently capable Japanese Mary Poppins.

Her KonMari method, outlined in her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has put millions into major organizing mode. What makes Kondo different from other organizational gurus is her spiritual approach. In her world, it’s a holy enterprise to undertake a household purge. She suggests starting with a prayer-like attitude by arising early to begin the sacred task of paring down your possessions, lighting a votive to sanctify the space, examining your heart to determine which items truly “spark joy” and elevating the mundane task of folding into a sacramental act by parsing your underwear into tight rectangles that can be stacked upright in a drawer, neat as a row of tacos. To ease the pangs of parting, she advises offering a nod of gratitude to your old concert T-shirts and ratty bras, thanking them for their valiant service.

Freeing yourself from clutter leads to a feeling of lightness.

She taps books to “wake them up,” folds clothes in an exacting way so they can “rest more comfortably” and recommends a formal goodbye to the goods you give away.

And the point is to give away a lot of your goods. Kondo claims her method helps clients reduce their possessions to a third or even a quarter of what they started with, the equivalent of seventy trash bags for a family of three. She offers the seductive promise that her method will bring transformation. She even makes the fantastic claim that slimming down your possessions will also slim your tummy.

Whittled down closets and waistlines? No wonder her books have sold more than 11 million copies.

I’m ready to be counted among Kondo’s legions of Konverts. Although I consider myself fairly organized—I rearrange my closet seasonally, for example— my clothes are suffocating from a lack of breathing room, my bookshelf contains paperbacks I haven’t opened in decades, and I feel dispirited every time I venture into the basement or garage.

I devour Kondo’s book in one day. According to her, major tidying only has to be done once in a lifetime. I’m in a merciless mood when I propel myself out of bed the next morning. Usually I hum and haw about what to keep and what to toss, but her simple question—“Does it spark joy?”—helps me make decisions quickly. As the KonMari method advises, I start with my clothes, heaping them in piles on my bed and floor. I swear I can hear my closet exhale in relief.

After stacking my clothes by category, I get to work, holding up each item and listening to the quiet voice within. The answers come quickly. The ripped red T-shirt I’ve been wearing to bed for the past year? Goodbye. Loose stretchy tops that are forgiving around the middle but make me feel frumpy? Nope. The six sparkly holiday tops I own? I rarely go to fancy parties. I keep just two. Four hours later, I’ve said goodbye to 131 items, about 40 percent of my wardrobe, and filled six trash bags to donate to a local second-hand store. When I put the remaining items back in my vacuumed closet and dusted drawers, they look beautifully pared down and organized.

Deciding what to keep and whittling down your possessions are cathartic exercises.

A couple of days later I tackle my books. The trick here, says Kondo, is not to get emotional. Don’t open anything. If you haven’t read a book yet, you probably never will. Those books you think you’ll read again? You won’t. Kondo says 30 is an ideal number of books to keep. I have about 250. Once again, I pile everything onto the floor and then begin the businesslike sorting. There’s no theme to the books I keep except that they are meaningful to me: a sappy book of Rod McKuen poetry from when I was 13, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare my mother gave me when I was 15, some fiction by my favourite trio of Canadian writers (Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro) and a favourite collection of Dorothy Parker stories and poems. After an hour, I’m down to 27 books, which take up two compact rows on a small bookcase in my bedroom.

Kondo’s directive when it comes to papers is pretty much “discard everything,” and so I do—copies of the newspaper where I got my first job, magazines where I worked, dozens of folders of notes for articles, bank statements, old bills, newspaper clippings, theatre and concert programs—it comes to another five bags for recycling. The komono (miscellany) category fills another two bags.

I clear out junk drawers, get rid of mysterious electrical cords and go through the bathroom cabinet and the kitchen cupboards. I descend with dread into the netherworld of the basement and the garage with the intention to heed Kondo’s advice to discard those things that no longer serve their purpose so that I can truly value the things that are important. Again, I’m practically flinging things over my shoulders: roller blades, ice skates, inflatable toboggans, a camping cot, picnic baskets, a bucket of water guns, extension cords, a broken humidifier, flashlights that don’t work, lawn furniture, luggage, two guitar cases and a large bag of grass seed.

I go through the bins of Christmas, Halloween and Easter decorations and pare those down by a third. When I’m done, I feel exhilarated. I also need to nap.

Kondo recommends tackling sentimental items last, after you’ve had time to hone your decluttering abilities. She says we fear that if we throw away special things, we’ll lose the memories attached to them. But “to put your things in order means to put your past in order, too,” she writes.

I let a lot of stuff go. But not everything—not, for instance, the poems my husband wrote for me in the early years of our marriage or the eulogy I composed for my grandmother’s funeral. I’ve kept almost everything my children ever made for me. I put a few pieces of their artwork in the garbage and then retrieve them. It feels like I’m throwing away part of their childhood. Or maybe my motherhood.

In the end I buy two large, clear containers with lids and fill them with their childhood keepsakes. One day my daughters can decide what they want to keep.

Finally, the photos. Like most mothers, I am the documentarian of our family’s life. There are boxes filled with old albums, framed photos on every shelf in the house and almost ten thousand digital images on my phone and computer. I begin by hauling the albums up from the basement and stripping the images from their sticky backings. I throw out about 400 photos, along with all the old albums themselves. I make a pile of images for each of the girls and put these in separate photo boxes. I promise myself that I’ll make a plan to start deleting and organizing the photos on my computer. Going forward, I resolve I’ll try to stay in the moment when something special is happening, rather than compulsively documenting it.

The things we own are a reflection of who we are. Going through everything, I can’t help but process the past and consider the various stages of my life: daughter, wife, mother, career woman and now as the middle-aged woman with a neck she doesn’t recognize and a future that seems less certain than she expected. As I sort and discard, the lyrics to Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide”—about sailing through the changing ocean tides and handling the seasons of my life—keep looping through my head.

I don’t love everything about Marie Kondo. Some of her decluttering directives are  baffling. She doesn’t acknowledge that some possessions, like the snow shovel, say, or the lawnmower, are never going to spark joy. Nor does she address the reality that our relentless acquisition of goods is choking not just our homes but, more seriously, the planet.

The real “magic” in achieving a life of simplicity lies in having less stuff. And when your home is clean and uncluttered, Kondo writes, you have no choice but to consider your inner state. “From the moment you start tidying you will be compelled to reset your life.” She’s right. A huge reset, I realize, is beginning to take shape for me.

Adapted from My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful – One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life, by Anne Bokma. ©2019. Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.