I Don’t Care What Marie Kondo Thinks of My Space
Staring out from behind my laptop perched atop a small table in the middle of my studio apartment, I can see most of my belongings. There are bookshelves containing stacks of books on pornography, feminism, and art. I see plants, candles, crystals, tarot cards, and art prints thoughtfully interwoven with these stacks. Below, on the table where I type, an overdue bill with the remnants of its torn envelope sits atop my great-grandmother’s crystal ashtray. Inside the ashtray, a mix of jewelry and pens shares space with a disposable camera and a half-smashed pack of cigarettes that clearly endured a holiday party season. The ashtray serves as a kind of catchall, but it could never catch the collection of papers, notebooks, and odds and ends that sit between the table and the covered surfaces on either side—a printer and a freestanding air conditioner that were not made to be surfaces at all.
Out of my apartment—which is comprised of a main room, a separate kitchen and dining area, a walk-in closet, and a bathroom—I run three businesses. These businesses require me to have many belongings. My designer/illustrator/artist identity requires me to have more pens, markers, paints, paintbrushes, and miscellaneous art supplies than you can imagine. My pole dancer identity requires me to have a lingerie, costume, and fitness wardrobe, along with a collection of eight-inch heels that take up a good deal of my closet. And my magazine/shop owner identity requires me to possess a large collection of paper, merchandise inventory, and packing and shipping supplies.
Why do we put minimalism on a pedestal, and why aren’t we talking about its opposite: maximalism?
So when I started watching Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix, I couldn’t stop wondering how Kondo would view my space. I could follow her directions on folding clothes, but how are you folding a wardrobe full of garters and underwear that have shapes and straps in places you’ve never (and I’m assuming here) seen, Marie? How are you keeping that complicated collection orderly? And do I desire my space to be orderly in the first place? Why do we have an inherent understanding that “tidy” is the goal? Why do we put minimalism on a pedestal, and why aren’t we talking about its opposite: maximalism?
Are maximalists simply “messy” people, or is there a difference? Would you think I was a messy person by the frequent disorder of my space? Or would you agree that I am simply a person who requires many belongings, but can’t afford the appropriate size of real estate to contain those belongings and doesn’t have the time to constantly keep that difficult equation in check?
If this conversation about mess and disorder evokes shame, it goes much deeper into our ancestral and emotional trauma than anyone is talking about. Because if shame is involved, so is its big brother, stigma. And stigma is something we can eradicate. Maybe it’s time we tidy up our ideas about mess.
I’ve always perceived myself as a “messy” person. This likely came from my upbringing with my mother, who has always perceived herself as a “neat and orderly” person. Growing up, I remember my mom yelling at me if I’d left a single spoon in the sink when she got home from work. I now understand this came from her own upbringing in a low-income, blue-collar Jewish home in Philadelphia—and from our low-income beginnings as a family, when she was putting herself through chiropractic school during my elementary school years. The way we ascribe value to belongings is always tied to our beliefs around money as it relates to self-worth.
In any case, as I was coming into my own as a creative kid, I always had my hands in a project. Drawing and painting turned into beadwork by age 12, and I had my own jewelry line that I would sell at craft shows. All through high school, I sewed and was headed for a fashion design major in college. But the feeling of not being able to leave any evidence of my existence in any part of the house other than my bedroom was stressful. I remember how much strain this put on my relationship with my mom. If I missed one bead or one thread on the floor when cleaning up, it was Armageddon. “There are beads everywhere!” she’d yell. “Your things are everywhere!” Years of this pattern made me equate being a creative person to being a mess to being a burden on my family and society. If this sounds intense, it is. When you’re a kid, that’s how trauma works. And it’s why therapists have jobs.
Because that’s what being orderly meant: being respectful. As a ‘messy’ person, I was a burden.
As I got older, moved out of my mom’s house, and then out of living situations with roommates into my own places, I got to see the real me. I was messy, but when I lived with another person, I tried to keep shared spaces orderly out of respect. Because that’s what being orderly meant: being respectful. Minimalism was the prized lifestyle, as seen on blogs, Pinterest, and other social media. That seemed to be the goal.
As a non-minimalist, or “messy,” person, I was a burden. A person who didn’t value her belongings, a person who didn’t value her space or the people in it, a person who didn’t value herself. But, on my own, I had no one to prove anything to, and so I was able to let myself rest in my natural state. The process of keeping my space orderly had been previously motivated by beliefs stemming from shame. On my own, I had no one to impress and no one to shame me for it.
But living in disorganization didn’t necessarily feel good or allow me to be my own best creative self. I was still under the influence of the idea that minimalism was superior, and there was no alternative. I was unknowingly aiming for a goal that didn’t resonate with me personally, and therefore I was destined to fail at it.
I was unknowingly aiming for a goal that didn’t resonate with me, and therefore I was destined to fail at it.
Last summer, I did a program guided by the book The Artist’s Way. The aim was to uncover the identities, artistic and otherwise, that have been buried underneath the behavioral conditioning imposed by families, societies, and peer groups. In evaluating myself and my environment through this process, I came up with three observations:
- Artist = burden. My identity as a messy person, or non-minimalist, and my identity as an artist are intertwined. If I sacrificed one, I would have to sacrifice the other. Though my messy identity held a lot of shame, I had to fight for it or lose my artist identity that meant everything to me. Being messy equals being an artist. And since being messy is constantly being treated as a burden, I, as an artist, am a burden.
- Neglect of space = neglect of self. The way I would neglect certain trouble areas of my space was consistent with the way I would neglect areas of my behavior and intangible self that held shame. (A key area affected was my financial self, where I had a lot of avoidant tendencies that led to years of debt.) It was a form of self-punishment borne from subconscious self-hate. This was ingrained so subtly that I only noticed it as I consistently put more love into neglected areas of my space and, surprisingly, started feeling like I was also handling myself more lovingly.
- Maximalist ≠ messy. Maximalists are more likely to be messy because they naturally have more belongings, but they’re not inherently the same. Owning the identity of “maximalist” over “messy” removes the stigma, which removes the shame as it relates to the identity of artist.
The ideas of “mess” versus “organization” are often talked about as permanent binary states of being. But we, as humans, and our spaces, as physical manifestations of our humanity, are constantly in motion. We should look at ideas around mess and organization as a spectrum, similar to the Kinsey scale on sexuality. Allow yourself to experience the process of getting messy and the experience of getting organized, rather than committing to either as a state of being and integrating it into your core identity. Because I believe the latter can cause harm on either side of the scale.
On the heels of Kondo’s theories inundating conversations in creative culture, there’s a resurgence in talk about how mess may serve creatives and the creative process. And I may have agreed with those ideas for most of my life, based on the beliefs I was made to feel were true. But now, I realize that our spaces are constantly in flux, always breathing, as long as we are breathing in them. When we switch our perception from a “state of mess” to “the process of getting messy” and “the state of organization” to “the process of getting organized,” both have value.
Viewed as processes, both mess and organization can act as therapies that benefit the creativity of unique individuals with unique histories, perceptions, and preferences. And both can cause damage when internalized into a person’s identity, prompting feelings of shame for being one and not the other.
I am a proud maximalist, in my space, my style, and my artwork.
I don’t know how Kondo would react if she were ever to visit my space. But I don’t care much anymore (although, actually, I would love to learn how to fold my very complicated lingerie collection). I don’t need validation, and I don’t accept shame. Being messy isn’t tied to my identity as an artist or creative person anymore. I am a proud maximalist, in my space, my style, and my artwork.
I make more time for organizing parts of my house that frequently get neglected because that feels like a loving act for myself and conducive to my creativity. But I also will forever be making a mess with my hands in art projects, leaving the evidence out for days or weeks if necessary. And that is also conducive to my creativity.
These days, I rarely find myself rushing to clean my space before another person comes into it for fear of judgment. The state of my home is just a reflection of whatever moment I’m in, in the constantly living, breathing spectrum of my environment. And I’m proud of wherever that is because I’m no longer leaving any part of my space or inner self neglected out of shame. And recognizing that, as Kondo would say, “sparks joy” for me.