Over the course of the New Year, I had the chance to spend some time in Boston with my college friends— twenty years after first meeting, we found ourselves at a Residence Inn and Suites in Burlington, MA- just a couple of exits away from our freshman dorms, where an indoor pool and free buffet breakfast were just the right set up for our circus of 6 adults, and 7 children aged 10 and under.
At some point in the evening, the conversation turned to the topic of minimalism and tidiness.
Between the three of our families, we estimated- we must have had enough clothing, food, and gear to last us a solid week.
One friend lamented the never-ending cycle of kids’ clothing— things that needed to be purchased, things that had been outgrown, stained or otherwise ruined— items that she held on to just in case.
Josh and I laughed, describing our basement like a baby item flea market—at last count, I think we had 2 pack n’ plays, 3 swings, a rocker, a bumbo, 2 strollers, and a partridge in a pear tree.
My friend piped in: “I just read an article about tidiness— it was saying how the rule is that everything has to have it’s place, and nothing can live on the floor.”
I’ll admit– she almost lost us there—as we all imagined our living room floors at home, covered in legos and baby dolls, and lost socks.
I told them about my friend’s home in Brooklyn, which like something out of an urban myth—is a home where three children live, and yet: they have so little stuff. I recounted asking my friend to tell me the secrets of her minimalism, and she said “It’s simple. One day I just got rid of a million things.”
The conversation circled back to a book that enjoyed a great deal of commercial popularity a few years ago by a writer named Marie Kondo—it was called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. I admit, I haven’t read the book straight through, but it has become enough a part of my social ether, that I have learned the basic gist of it.
Two main lessons, really:
First: if it doesn’t spark joy, get rid of it.
Meant as a maxim for purging our closets of dresses we wore once, or pants we might wear again one day—
this simple one liner reminds us that the thingsin our lives,
the material trappings are meant to be purposeful *and* pleasurable.
Even if it still has tags on it, and even if there’s nothing wrong with it, if you never want to put it on, or if putting it on makes you feel ill at ease—get rid of it.
Second: thank your stuff for it’s service, and then: get rid of it.
Kondo writes: “…when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
The conversation we had with those friends over NYE really stuck with me.
The refrain? “Get rid of it.”
Ditch the extra stuff.
Distilled down to its essence, what we were really talking about is how to focus on what really matters. How to clear away the physical clutter, and in so doing, perhaps find a little more emotional and spiritual space for ourselves and our family.
Ultimately, the metaphor isn’t so complex:
Our physical spaces are a reflection of our internal life: and so when our external life is untidy and overwhelmed, our inner life is too.
Travel writer and essayist Pico Ayer writes extensively on the topic of stillness and simplicity. In an interview with Krista Tippet, he recounts the experience of his home burning down. Everything gone, completely in ashes.
The night of this devastating fire, he recalls going to an all-night supermarket to buy a toothbrush and realizing it was the only thing he owned—literally the only thing.
The next morning with only a car and a toothbrush he decides to head up the coast to a Benedictine monastery. He arrives at dusk, driving down a narrow country road, and upon arrival, finds himself in a room with a just a bed, a desk and a small picture window.
He looks out that small window and can see a walled garden, and then beyond that, the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. With no more than a toothbrush, in this remarkably spare room, he has a realization.
I got out of my car at this monastery, and the air was pulsing. It was very silent, but really the silence wasn’t the absence of noise. It was almost the presence of these transparent walls that I think the monks had worked very, very hard to make available to us in the world. And somehow, almost immediately, it was as if a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes. And really, almost instantaneously, I felt I’ve stepped into a richer, deeper life, a real life that I had half-forgotten had existed.
How many of us can relate to that feeling? The feeling of release and calm of stepping into an empty space; the reassuring stillness of a perfectly made bed and not much else around it?
I know for me, the desire for clearer physical spaces is a direct extension of that inner yearning for spaciousness within.
The world we live in is noisy: along with the physical clutter of our lives, there’s the mental clutter: the 24 hour news cycle, the to-do lists, the constant nagging feeling of needing to be doing something else, somewhere else, other than where we are.
I think back to the first time I heard about Marie Kondo’s “Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”— and if I’m being completely honest, it elicited a bit of an eyeroll from me.
“Spark joy?” My stuff has to spark joy?
And “thanking my stuff for it’s service”?
But, if I let the cynicism fall aside, and remember how deeply felt the metaphor can be: isn’t that kind of the point?
If the physical spaces we inhabit reflect our inner lives— why should we hang on to things that don’t bring us joy? What is the purpose of a sweater that never feels quite right, or a pile of papers that we never intend to read?
And, if the things that surround us somehow impact us from the inside out— why not thank those running shoes that carried us those many miles, and simply- get rid of them? As Kondo writes, “When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.”
This instinct is not just a culturally relevant New Year’s resolution, but an reflex we see in our Jewish tradition as well. Think ahead to Passover: the metaphor and the practice are there too.
On our way to freedom, what do we take? Precious little: the clothes on our back, and a modest, unleavened bread we call matzah.
Passover is nothing less than an act of spiritual imagination, and so how do we prepare to remember that journey?
By ridding ourselves of the chametz: literally: the leavening- the food that is forbidden. But in that physical act of decluttering— there is a spiritual dimension as well: an act of getting rid of our own puffiness— getting rid of our extra stuff.
I’m reminded of a teaching by Lily Montagu, that appears in the study text section of our prayerbook, Mishkan Tfillah. Lily Montagu lived in the early 20thcentury, and is counted among those “women who would have been rabbis”, serving as the defacto spiritual leader and teacher of the London Jewish community.
Let us consider well, in the light of religion, what are the things worth bothering about. Perhaps we shall find ourselves bothering about mere trivialities—indulging in fears which have no foundation now and never will have any reality. Perhaps we are wasting our opportunities altogether or using them in a futile way. Let us pray for guidance, and let us remember that when all the rubbish is pushed to one side, there are many things which we shall have to bother about, which concern us immensely because they concern the wellbeing of the community as a whole… In spite of our absurd inadequacy, in spite of all our weaknesses, we can affect by our lives, the life of humanity in its progress toward God.
When all the rubbish is pushed to one side, there are many things which we shall have to bother about.
And perhaps that’s where our Jewish lives might intersect with the customs of this secular new year: a chance for us to both literally and spiritually push aside the rubbish, hone in on what brings us joy, and get rid of all that extra stuff. Then, maybe, just maybe; we might see more clearly that which matters most.
My prayer for all of us in this new year is that you will find spaciousness both within and without, that you will be surrounded by the people and the things that spark joy in your heart, and that in those precious moments of stillness you will feel a sense of wholeness and light.
P. 211 Mishkan T’filah