Tidy Up Your State of Mind - Olivia Stren

Tidy Up Your State of Mind

The Kit


A few weeks ago, I turned 40. At the dawn of middle age, I have spent too much time bemoaning the passage of time. My mother is French, so nostalgia for all that is irrecoverable has proven both hobby and birthright. (I know, I shouldn’t blame my mother. I’m too old for that now.) I should not despair: A recent study piloted by the University of Alberta found that people are happier in middle age than they are in their late teens or early 20s. I shared these musings with a particularly fabulous friend in her early 40s: “You know when I had confidence?” she replied. “When I wore a belt for a skirt at 21 to go to nightclubs.”


Those partying days—when I used to shower at midnight to go out—are long gone. And I’ve made peace with that; in fact, the prospect of clubbing now strikes in me an unholy dread. I have a toddler and a husband now and a career in which I (attempt to) juggle writing and teaching. But if I have not arrived at the kind of ever-grateful, advice-dispensing, wise- person-on-the-mount season of life, I did expect to have at least mastered certain other things, especially now that I’m a parent. At this age, I hoped to have a sensible probiotic regimen, the ability to locate important documents without flirting with a nervous breakdown and a less conflicted relationship with both my closet and French pastry. So, in the interest of happiness, peace and other things (like health and not dying), I decided to engage in some serious self-improvement.


In the past year, spates of bestselling books have been released, designed to cash in on our collective unhappiness. Amy Cuddy’s Presence theorizes that changing your posture and body language can make you happier; Angela Duckworth’s Grit posits that what determines success and fulfillment is not talent but rather the ability to persevere and finish projects; Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, advises that changing habits will make you a better, happier person. And there’s Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has sold more than six million copies worldwide and has been spun into a Japanese television drama: I particularly love when Kondo states that if the inferior, disorganized among us can finally clean out—or “energize”—our closets and learn the correct way to fold socks, we will find peace and joy.


I should mention that I have so far lacked the grit to finish any of these books. They are currently sitting next to my bed causing guilt—and clutter. I am an Opener, not a Finisher, to borrow a piece of Rubin-ese. After what I have read, I can say the books have managed to make me feel Worse Than Ever Before—like a sort of hunch-backed slob who immediately needs to take up Pilates and flossing, a more respectful relationship to hosiery and a more ruthless affiliation to cosmetic samples. Maybe it’s time I made peace with my own deficiencies?


Instead, I chose to summon the grit to pursue some of the proposed regimens. I followed Kondo’s counsel and dug through the rouge-mottled depths of my cosmetic bag, excavating never-worn eyeshadows fit for the glamorous nightclubbing I never really did. I went through a woolly, well-pilled pauper’s grave of J.Crew trouser socks, maternity tights, scratchy drugstore stockings I bought when I couldn’t find the over- priced Swiss pair of Fogal tights buried lumpily behind them, the ones I likely failed to locate because they were joylessness folded. As I held a pair of tennis socks, attempting to re-fold them tenderly and appraise their ability to spark joy, as Kondo advises, I wondered: How do I feel about these socklets? When will I ever play tennis again? Furthermore: What is joy? Shouldn’t I know this by now? Maybe I’ll know sometime. But “sometime,” says Kondo, means never. As I sat next to an Annapurna of socks—a growing sockpile of spending-related guilt—my 17-month-old son proceeded to remove the nearby floor grate and cheerily toss my socks down into the abyss, waving “bye-bye!” and clapping with delight as each sock disappeared—irrecoverable.


This scene sparked joy. It also sparked panic, that Leo might have sent himself down the vent along with my footwear. Energized by fear, I decided to move on to my handbag, where I hoped my missing passport might lurk. (Kondo counsels her clients to empty their purses every night, so this would never happen to her and is a compelling reason why she must be happier.) I disembowelled my bag, and while I didn’t find my passport, I did find an appointment reminder card for a doctor’s appointment that I had failed to remember, part of a breast pump and what looked to have possibly been a Cert at some point in the late ’90s. Since Rubin divides people in categories in her book, I learned that I’m not only an Opener, I’m also an Obliger. This means, essentially, that I’m lazy and won’t do anything unless I’m accountable to someone else (e.g., I won’t take up Pilates unless I hire a trainer). Unfortunately, I’m also an Overbuyer, which means I can’t afford the trainer. (I’ve spent too much money buying too many purses that inevitably will end up hosting geriatric Certs.) Thankfully, I’m also a Procrastinator so I’ll have a panic attack about my insolvency some other time. After all, I’m still young. Right?


Well, the other day I went out for a coffee with my mom and, to my horror, the 17-year-old barista looked at my 74-year-old mom and said excitedly: “Oh my God! Are you her mother? You both look like you’re the same age.” My mother, who frankly does look exceptional, beamed with delight. I did not.
Perhaps I am old enough to stop caring about those irreparable things—collagen-rich, belt-as-skirt-wearing youth—and instead finish dealing with my sock drawer. But I’m too tired. I recently began to read Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Revolution, which posits that we are all in the midst of a sleep crisis but are all too sleep disordered to acknowledge it. So I can only conclude that I’m not old, I’m just exhausted. I need to summon the grit to tidy up my sleep routine, which has devolved into the disarray of toddler-related sleepless nights. Maybe I should just buy a new pair of pyjamas. (“If you are a woman,” Kondo says, “try wearing something elegant as nightwear.”) Or maybe I should finish Huffington’s book. But at the moment, I can’t find it.

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Olivia Stren

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