I would not want Marie Kondo to come to my house. Although the queen of tidying, now with her own show on Netflix, seems utterly charming, there is no need at all for her to come and help me create piles of my possessions and then leave me to sort through them until the early hours of the morning.
It’s not that my house is especially well-ordered and organised, nor that my drawers are full of well-folded t-shirts. And I most definitely have more than 30 books — although to be fair to Kondo, she doesn’t tell clients to cut back their libraries to that number, but just tells them that’s how many books she has in her home.
No, I don’t need Kondo advising me to chuck out everything that doesn’t “spark joy”, because I have Shula Levy instead. Like many of North London’s versions of Kondo, she is Jewish. There does seem to be a fashion for Jewish women to retrain as declutterers (Shula was previously an accountant). Maybe we’re good at it, because the job involves equal amounts of grit, charm and bossiness. Where Kondo breathes mindfully with her clients, Shula remains upbeat and cheerful while prising your hands off ancient DVDs and dusty suitcases full of clothes that fitted in 1989.
More importantly, she is Dutch, No nation has tidier cupboards. Once a year, on King’s Day, everyone takes part in a national pavement sale, getting rid of old stuff and making money at the same time. When I moved there in 1999, my mother told me about a Dutch friend of hers who’d moved house one morning and “by the afternoon she was unpacked”. This was an unthinkable feat in our house, full of dark, stuffed cupboards and “safe places,” generally drawers into which things just disappeared. I lived in Amsterdam for eight years, and learned to keep my house looking as neat as the natives— on the surface anyway. But my underlying lack of order was never eliminated.
Back in London, I called in Shula to help sort out a storage unit, filled with old furniture and boxes, that we’d hired and filled when we had the builders in, and never got around to sorting out. Every month we’d pay the storage bill, and occasionally we’d go and look at the stuff, shrug hopelessly and go through a box or two. After a year or more of paying for this storage, Shula arrived, took one look, and said “We’ll sort this out in a day," to gasps of amazement from me. She put out boxes — for charity shops, recycling and rubbish — adding just one for things I wanted to keep. And we started.
It was miraculous. Some of the boxes in the storage unit had been packed for more than 10 years. We’d put them in storage when we went to live in Amsterdam, and never unpacked them when we returned to London. They were full of books. I love books. They are a source of comfort, education and entertainment and they most definitely have a place in my home (six bookcases in fact). I write books, thus adding to the world's clutter problem. I read and re-read a lot. We Jews are not called the People of the Book for nothing.
But when I opened up the boxes, there was almost nothing I wanted to keep. Pregnancy manuals, feminist tracts, forgotten novels. I was happy to throw them out, especially when Shula showed me an app which meant I’d get £40 for a box of second-hand books.
In fact, one thing that she does that Kondo doesn’t seem to, is incentivise the whole process by selling off your unwanted goods. Old stereos, ancient suitcases, all generated cash which covered much of her fee.
At the end of the day, I had a box of treasures, things I’d forgotten I’d ever owned. Joy was well and truly sparked. But even more joy was sparked by seeing her Mini full of stuff to be recycled and donated to good causes. I felt a huge burden, financial and emotional being lifted.
For what is clutter, after all? A mixed-up version of our past, which obscures the present, overwhelms our living space and stops us seeing what we need. They can be a physical manifestation of repressed emotions. How many of us (like the lady in Kondo’s second show) go shopping when we want to feel better? And how much stuff do we hang on to to make up for other, ghostly losses in our life?
I knew the storage unit held precious and important things from my past — I had no idea what they were. Poignantly, much space was filled with boxes, big and small, used in the past to keep things organised. Unlike Kondo, Shula didn’t suggest that I thank the wicker baskets or plastic boxes for the role they’d played in my life. But I did find the whole experience an emotional one, and surprisingly profound. Fear of loss, plus inertia had stopped me clearing out the space, and tackling the job involved a lot of saying goodbye, not to objects, but to different times of my life.
Watching Jewish mother Rachel Friend, on Kondo’s first show, took me back to life with small children, feeling disorientated as my husband set about bread-winning, while I took on most of the domestic responsibility. Friend’s anguished face, contemplating her home, her tension (especially around husband, Kevin) vibrated beyond the screen. There was a lot more to be unpacked than their over-stuffed cupboards. I worried for Friend, even as she assured Kondo and the audience that the process of tidying up had transformed life and marriage.
But she told Jewish website, Kveller, that all was well: “It’s been nice because now we know how to do everything and we’re not coming down on each other,” she says. “Now, when there’s something to put away, instead of, ‘I’m going to wait for him to do it,’ or ‘I’m going to wait for her,’ it’s like, ‘I’m just going to put this away because it makes me feel better.’”
A few months after Shula helped me clear out our unit, the storage warehouse burned down. If that had happened when our stuff was still there, I’m sure I’d have felt haunted and regretful. I’d never have known exactly what I’d lost. But, thanks to Shula, that didn’t happen. By applying her methods to the rest of my house (a work in progress), I feel more joy and less burdened every day. It's just taking rather longer than it does with Marie Kondo's clients because I don't have a camera crew keeping me working on my clutter piles all night long.
And I’m not alone in my war against stuff. I’ve handed on Shula's number to at least a dozen friends.Seems we all need a down-to-earth version of Marie Kondo.
Shula Levy can be contacted at www.outofspace.london