I’ve just finished reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.

I haven’t yet begun to tackle the first step, which is to gather all of your clothing into one place so that you can touch and hold each item before deciding whether or not it “sparks joy.”

That’s not in quotes because I don’t buy the concept. I get it. It’s just that I have to do this with all of my clothes, all of my books, all of my ephemera, and I can’t seem to detach myself from the “joy” that’s tied up in “memories.”

Marie Kondo would say that we need to drill down to the primary purpose of a very thing. Letters, for instance, serve their purpose the moment you open them, read them, reply to them. After that, there’s no reason to hang on to them. (The writers among us are shrieking, I’m sure.) I’m also willing to bet that Marie Kondo does not keep diaries. (I picture her mental space being clean, uncluttered, perfectly Zen-like in that she concerns herself with the here and now. This sparks a moment of envy for me. What must it be like, to feel so unfettered to what’s in the past?)

A partial collection of my diaries. Marie Kondo would say to dump them all.
A partial collection of my diaries. Marie Kondo would say to dump them all.

But maybe there’s room for interpretation. Take, for instance, this shirt:

Me and Pops in Buenos Aires. Credit: George Chen


I love this shirt. In fact, I am wearing it as I type. It sits snug around my biceps when the sleeves are pushed up, and more snugly across my shoulders than it used to (I have been swimming a lot). It has two chest pockets that I never use, because who wants lumpy boobs? It has tabs for when I want to fold the sleeves up and a tiny check pattern that I find both utilitarian and charming. Its button placket never ever really lies flat, no matter how many times I run the iron over it. (Which is, admittedly, almost never, because this is a shirt that looks better when it is rumpled.) It has good cuffs on it that I don’t button. I am more apt to let them flap, or roll the sleeves up partway, because this is also a shirt that feels better when it is half-done, like brownies and blondies: Better when they are half-baked.

My point is this: This is a shirt that sparks joy, but only partly because of its very being. It sparks joy because of where it’s been.

This shirt has been with me to at least eight different countries. I almost always pack it. It is far from being the shirt that makes the most sense: On a recent trip to Cornwall, England, where it rained down my neck and sideways at least four hours of each of the last 9 days I was there, it didn’t dry until I found a tumble dryer. And who takes a button-down traveling, anyway?

Marie Kondo, she of the anthropomorphic bent, might also say that the shirt likes to go traveling. That it finds its way into my baggage each time, that I would miss it if it weren’t along. I like this idea, but–it complicates things.

Because this shirt, and others items in my closet, carries with it joyful memories. In the photo above, it was in Argentina, then Antarctica, with my dad. In other photos in my facebook feed it is in Taiwan, looking cheery in a café next to a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years; it is in Death Valley, at our wedding rehearsal dinner; in Claremont, hosting a dinner for friends; on a beach near Falmouth, Cornwall, looking sheepish because its fabric has failed to conceal the fact that my swimsuit is still wet and so there are embarrassing wet patches over my chest. Oh, well. It was still a damn fine day.

This shirt is almost always a shirt I am looking for. I wear it hiking; I wear it to the pool; I put it on over jeans and I tuck it in when I’m feeling the need to be neater than I usually am. I wear it out to walk the dog and for dinners in. I wear it probably once a week.

Maybe this is what Marie Kondo means by the need to hold each item before you can decide whether or not it sparks joy. Because when I put on this shirt, I imagine I can feel the grit of the Mojave; the crisp starchiness worked into the fabric from sea salt; the smoke from a steak dinner with friends. I think I can smell a story, like they say a dog can construct an entire narrative of who’s been where and where they were before, just from smelling one spot.

Is that joy? Are our memories tied up in each item? Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. But I’m keeping this shirt.

What item do you hang onto for its memories? Tell me about it below. 



  1. I just recently donated my first pair of high heeled shoes. I purchased them in nineteeneightysomething from John Wanamaker’s at the Cross County Mall. I wore them once, probably for Prom or Graduation and maybe one other occasion. They were black satin pumps with a simple harlequin pattern of tiny multi colored dots, barely noticeable at a distance but to me they were special and had magical power like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. These shoes signified adulthood, grownupness and legitimacy to me at a time when I just wanted to be taken seriously. I could walk with confidence and make my own decisions in those shoes. Now that I am actually an adult and while the shoes still “fit”, no actual walking can be done in them without permanent nerve damage. They have sat unworn for over 30 years! Gasp! Am I that old? Off they went to the Salvation Army!

  2. Amalia! I love this story. Thank you for sharing it with me. I think we all must have a pair of shoes like that around someplace. I think, so long as you can tell that story (and still recall the pain factor of those shoes!), the shoes have definitely served their purpose! xoxo

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