The meaning of one discarded photograph

For Christmas my sister gave me The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. The book intrigued me from the moment I unwrapped it – and this despite having spent the entirety of my adult life recoiling from self-help books.

It is indeed a remarkable book. It does what it says on the tin. It is in fact life-changing. My distillation of the argument, which the author calls the KonMari Method, is this: we in the (post-)industrialised world have too much stuff. This stuff drags us down and imprisons us. We accumulate and possess blindly, without understanding our motivations.

The antidote is to tidy up seriously, and to retain only those items that spark joy.

Kondo leads us through her method: her order of discarding by category (clothes, then books, then papers, then komono [miscellany], and finally mementos); her imperatives (among others – don't share process with family members; touch every object before making a decision); and the results she expects from readers (more beautiful living spaces; happier and more responsible clients).

In January I began the process seriously. I tore through my possessions. I made a slight adjustment to Kondo's method in that I discarded miscellaneous items before papers and books. Given all the paper (newspapers, brochures, and my own writing and notes) and books (guidebooks, travelogues, fiction, and so on) in my living space, I knew that the miscellaneous objects in my life would be easier to tame. Aside from that, I committed to the book's method as fully as possible. I even began to fold my clothes along KonMari Method lines.

The process was pretty easy. It felt good and right from the beginning. At the start I discarded so many of my clothes that I began to wonder what I would be left with at the end. I wondered why so few of my clothes sparked any joy at all. What was wrong with me? But I was ruthless. I continued. An old winter jacket, an expensive gift, no longer fit me. Why was I holding on to it? And what about my maternal grandfather's bathrobe? My grandfather died in 1995. I'd held onto his bathrobe for almost twenty years and not once had I worn it. Its emotional weight was a great distraction. I'd felt that allowing it to find another home was a type of disloyalty. No longer.

By the end of the process I recycled volumes of paper and electronics, gave away 50 bags of books, households items, and clothes to Oxfam, and threw away those objects that were neither recyclable nor of potential use to anybody else. The upshot: I now live in a space that engages me. Objects have breathing room. All my papers, books, notebooks, and files are well-ordered. There is a place for everything, and nothing is crammed or cramped. It is a deep pleasure to spend time at home.

There were other benefits to the effort. As my discarding process continued, psychological value often trumped spatial benefit. I had great insights about various familial models for storing objects – how, for example, the retention of well over a ton of paper (interoffice memoranda, multiple copies of articles, letters from students, handbooks, manuals, multiple paper drafts of articles) represented a version of security to my father, a safe-guarding of his ego in the form of his life's work; or how another relative effortlessly casts off objects she doesn't need – healthy, right? – by giving them to people – oops! – who often neither want nor appreciate them.

As I expected, mementos were the hardest things to sort through. Old photographs were particularly difficult, even given the family tradition of taking seven bad photos of the same thing – a chicken, a lake, a monument, a cross child. One night, exhausted but determined, I threw away a photograph of my father posing in front of his old workplace in Vienna in the mid-2000s, a good two decades after he last lived in the city. It wasn't a very good photo; he'd obviously asked a passer-by to take it. The next day I tried to reconstruct the photo – the faint smile on my father's face, his raincoat, the pedestrians in the background. I deeply lamented having thrown it away. How could I have tossed this thing away, this pure sign of the way my father treasured Vienna and his time there? A few weeks passed. The pain didn't disappear. It hit me that the depth of my regret was an important reminder of how much I miss my father, a reminder also of our shared affection for that complicated, strange, and atavistic city. After it was discarded – and in fact, because it was discarded – the photograph gained another life.