I watch Marie Kondo—organizer extraordinaire—on her Netflix special, ‘Tidying Up’ and I feel myself burrow deeper than expected into the pile of blankets on my bed. Kondo is affable, sweet-natured; I am easily drawn into her uncluttered movement in unexpected ways, and some of it makes me feel as intended: lighter, free. But something else tugs at me while I watch—something deeper and heavier, and I know it is the kind of heavy that Kondo would encourage me to unburden my life of.
Purging clutter—no matter how small—is more complex than I could ever explain to Marie Kondo, even though I desperately want to.
Most of the 42 years of my life have been spent in poverty––only the last 10 or so years has my bank account shifted upwards, even if my instincts remain rooted in poorness. I think back to just 16 years ago when I was broke and freshly living on my own with a 1-year-old in an affordable housing program for single-mothers and I sold my previous engagement ring so I could pay my bills. Then I turned to my vast book collection and started selling those off.
The books broke my heart the most, if I’m being honest.
I’ve since been able to build up my life with a few nice items in my home—a beautiful dining room table, a vaster collection of books, some framed art. If you were in my home now, I might worry about you seeing the cluttered history of my poverty and all its trauma—because pieces of it are still there—but you could never convince me to part with it.
Like the blanket my brother used to get tangled up in as a teenager, his foot sticking through the trim that had separated in a loop. It is pink and baby blue; I’ve never even washed it, but it stays neatly folded in my hall closet, a talisman to the boy who never made it past the age of 17.
Or the five bins full of charred trinkets and photos and a wallet and a diploma in my garage, all that’s left of a life that meant so much, even if we could only ever afford so little. Each object like a gateway to my existence—proof of a life I’m so disappointed that my world now will never know.
Maybe such emotional clutter weighs me down—I don’t know for sure—but so many times all of it has held me up: the cheap porcelain bell from Kmart, the tin can ornament I made in 3rd grade—each sat in a window above my mother’s kitchen sink. That kitchen and sink and window are gone now from a house fire that took so much, even though I insisted on dragging my fingers through the ashy remains of what was left of my parent’s meager home for anything, any portal into our messy, poor, depraved history because we were the only ones keeping a record of all the joy that truly existed there.
Each smoke-ridden, melted piece of no good ephemera I pulled from the remains I wanted to hold up and shout to the world, “Look! There was love here!”
Next to the ashes of my parent’s home was a burned out storage shed which held a soggy box, water-logged from the fire department’s futile attempts to save something. The box was filled with reams of typed yellowing sheets of paper––the legal files of a lawsuit for a surgery my mother had that left her partially paralyzed when I was still in kindergarten. I couldn’t even pick up a piece of paper and read it without the possibility of it disintegrating in my hands. I saved it all anyway, hauled the whole soggy mess back to my home and have spent the last 7 years learning how to preserve smoke–and–water damaged items. My mother’s medical lawsuit victory—paltry though it may have been—was a record worthy of preservation. I needed to hold onto and carry forward this history for my mother, soggy box and all.
And yet, so many things that I never knew would hold so much space inside my heart, simply disappeared inside those ashes: my father’s prosthetic leg that squeaked when he walked, my parent’s book collection that originally turned me into a reader, the game board my father made that we played so many games on, knit blankets, an old mirror, my father’s tools. There wasn’t much left for me to gather inside my arms—no picking and choosing of keepsakes to fit neatly into my life now.
I watch Marie Kondo instruct people on her show to hold their items and ask if the object gives them joy, and I wonder what she’d do with a person like me, holding onto a burnt wallet, a porcelain bell with its paint burned off, my brother’s torn blanket, my mother’s legal papers, asking me: do they bring me joy?
Oh, it’s not just joy, I’d tell her—it’s an encouragement to keep going, that I survived; it’s a connection to a past which loved me so deeply that it will never stop and never let me go and I don’t have the privilege to toss the few items that remain into a box and even if I did, you better believe fate would land that box right back at my door, the joy contained within so great and irrevocable and unable to exist anyplace else in the world.
Cammie Clark is a Creative Nonfiction student at UCLA, currently workshopping her memoir about being raised by disabled parents while living off the grid in Yosemite National Park. Clark’s work has been published online at The Rumpus, Salon, and Medium, and in print for several Bay Area newspapers including The Oakland Tribune, Tri-Valley Herald and East Bay Times. She lives with her husband and teenage daughter in the small town of Sunol, whose only mayor was a dog named Bosco.