Being clean isn’t just about tidying

My journey from being a messy person to a clean person took a lot more than just sweeping and organizing — it required a critical look at all the things I own.


by Julia Kerrigan, Editor-in-Chief

I used to be a very messy kid. I never saw the surface of my desk, never folded a single T-shirt and had a drawer filled with my “spy tools,” which ranged from ciphers to the occasional stray candy cane. I remember a distinct day in middle school where I looked around my side of the room (I shared it at the time) and thought, this is absolutely not working. I couldn’t see my favorite books on my shelf, couldn’t quickly access my binoculars and could never find the right shirt.

I resolved to be clean for the rest of 2015. I had to force myself to tidy up every night and find homes for knick-knacks that previously lived on my floor, which felt agonizing. That year I had learned about entropy, the tendency of the universe to move toward chaos. It felt like I was going against that cosmic directive, but for some reason, I didn’t hate it.

In fact, being neat made me feel great – every time I walked into my room, I let out a contented sigh. I realized that being tidy is less about organizing what you own and more about moderating what you own.

What made it all especially worth it was catching my mom on the stairs and saying, “Here, look at my room!” which I did almost every night without fail. I’m not sure if she pretended to be impressed every time I showed her all my books and clothes tucked away, or if she really was astounded by my sudden shift in organizational habits.

If you’ve ever gone through the same shift, you know that your former messy self is never really gone. She lurks in your subconscious, looking for surfaces to place random items on and unseen parts of your room to hide a pile of clothes. She finds you in unexpected places. Messy beasts don’t browse the aisles of Target for storage solutions, right? Wrong. Those storage solutions let me keep more papers, organize more knick-knacks and tuck away more random objects I never use but keep out of some sense of obligation.

In 2015 my mom showed me a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” The author, Marie Kondo, asks the reader to hold an object to their chest and ask if it “sparks joy.” I didn’t think much about the catchphrase, but with Kondo’s growing popularity due to her Netflix series, I have begun to reassess how I think about my space. Kondo also encourages people to declutter items by category, not space, and to fold tee shirts in a revolutionary way the lets you see every single shirt.

Through Kondo’s decluttering method, I’ve realized that it’s not any messy nature that creates clutter around me, it’s my habit of collecting and keeping anything that could have significance later. I’m a pack rat, a magpie and an archivist rolled into one. Messy Julia has been gone for a long while now, but Collector Julia needs some attention, especially because in six months I’ll be going off to college, which will be the first time I’ve ever had to move in my entire life.

What does it mean for something to spark joy? It can be hard to distinguish at first. I held a pair of athletic shorts in my hand and could think of nothing but their practicality. They’re shorts, what more could I ask for? I wasn’t sure if I was mistaking their usefulness for joy, until I realized that usefulness was a joyous thing. Gleefully, I put them on my keep pile. By the time I got to the desk I’ve been filling with things since birth, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what joy was to me.

When I opened one drawer I wanted to sink into the floor and quit this decluttering business. I have kept almost every letter that’s been given to me that has handwriting on it. Something about having a little piece of someone’s handwriting has always been super special to me. For a moment I thought that maybe Marie wanted me to toss them all in the recycling, until I saw the scissors at the bottom of the drawer.

Decluttering isn’t about tossing things out, it’s about maximizing the amount of joy the items in your life can bring you by paring them down and treating them with care. Did I care about the corny greeting card exteriors of all those letters? Absolutely not. I took to them with scissors and carefully cut out each and every note, and carefully pasted those into a journal. Now I have a clear drawer and a great collection of handwriting sitting neatly on my bookshelf, which has far more empty spaces now that I’ve taken in the books that were just “meh” and traded them in at Half Price Books.

My decluttering process would’ve been easier if I had focused on all the awesome things I was keeping: so many striped shirts that make me grin ear to ear, a beautiful anthology of Greek Myths and everything else I could want or need. Getting past the first few hours of grimacing while putting childhood chapter book after childhood chapter book was all it took.

I don’t see myself stopping this habit anytime, so to any future roommates: watch out, because you might wake up and I will have decluttered half our mugs and all of our coffee table books.