A few months ago I spent some time with a baby. It got me thinking about a painting in my house. The baby is a six week old lump, eyes dilated, warm and deboned, whose major skills seemed to be sleeping, eating and pooping. Roughly in that order. After noting her smell (powdery), her manner (snuggly) and her affect (oblivious), I started thinking: What will she remember of her life? What will her parents be to her? What will she do with all the stuff her parents own? I know that most people do not have such morbid thoughts when holding a baby.
Sometimes I write about our relationships with the things we own. This means that many, many people have suggested that I read Marie Kondo. In case you haven’t, you’re supposed to get rid of things that do not “spark joy.” My inner economist likes that her approach deals with loss aversion (we are more attached to what we have lost than what we do not yet have – see also: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) by shifting presumption towards disposal. But I’m not storing my socks vertically. Or speaking to my shirts. And although, like Kondo, I’m an all-in declutterer (one room at a time, no wandering off to leave the task half-done), the fundamental animism of her method doesn’t speak to me. I am extremely averse to overt branding. I relate to the “brand allergies” of Kayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. But I will not cover up the labels of my detergent bottles so they do not “shout at me.” This seems a bit much; surely I can just look away?
I think that I have much in common with Kondo. Things, in general, seem to torment her. They must make their case or be banished. For me, no matter the cause of my sadness, I can feel better if I banish some stuff. I like an empty countertop. Some days I feel impossibly burdened by stuff. It’s not that I want to pick up and leave, but that it would be super hard if I wanted to. A military childhood imposes such discipline. Growing up, it was understood that everything we acquired needed to be moved every few years, so we weren’t to do much in the way of accumulating. Somebody would need to lift that box; somebody would have to pay for it to be shipped. The portability imperative seeps into you, influences every decision you make long into adulthood. Or else you refuse it altogether and decide that you will dig in absent outside orders, as my mother did in her later years.
These are first world problems. Kondo’s getting rich on a middle-brow version of affluenza. It’s a sweet spot: exporting the Japanese minimalist aesthetic to a society that takes comfort in its accumulation by watching Hoarders. “It could be so much worse,” we say as we buy something else from Amazon Prime.
Perhaps you have a house. Perhaps you read the glossy magazines, the tip-filled websites that armies of style mavens and merchandise wizards propagate, ostensibly, to help you achieve the kind of beauty and grace that will make people compliment you on your taste. Are you someone who needs to be complimented on your taste? If you are, in the immortal words of Flava Flav, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” If not, you probably still have a dim understanding of the ecosystem’s map. You may not have “taste,” but you have “a” taste. Or perhaps, at the most basic level, you have graduated beyond Blu Tack to the adult practice of hanging things that are in frames or on canvas. Like all of life’s pursuits, the business of decoration has levels of obsession. How you assign worth (social worth, not monetary value, in case you’re the sort of person who gets those confused) to these levels may depend on the number of times you’ve read Hal Foster’s masterwork Ornament and Crime.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you’re decorating. Unless you are a psychopath, or incarcerated in an especially restrictive institution, you probably have things hanging on your walls. Some of these may be pieces you love. Perhaps they speak to you and bring you happiness. Some may be art that you just like – they don’t “spark joy,” but just look good in a particular place, or are the proper size. And then there’s art that you hate. Or, at least it’s not to your taste. I have a painting like this. And yet it is hanging in my house.
The reason why begins with our shared human experience, whose CliffsNotes read something like this: You’re born. Your father’s hands seem impossibly huge. Your mother loves you to distraction. You learn right from wrong, good from bad, tasty from not. You navigate furniture you learn to treasure, hewing to norms you internalize but may later reject. You may dye your hair. Or get a tattoo. You’ll come to terms with your family, or you won’t. In any case, the odds are that you’ll bury them. This means they won’t have to die alone. For you, there are no similar guarantees.
When their story is over, you may end up staring at a painting you don’t like.
It is not an ugly painting. I have lived with ugly paintings before – you learn to glide your vision right past them, the way Linus says he bleeps over the Russian names when reading Dostoyevsky. There are paintings that I love but would never hang in my house, ranging from the kind of “art” generally sold around Jackson Square in New Orleans (though I have an amazing painting from there, a beloved gift from my husband) to the kitsch people buy to remember Key West. Then there’s the expensive stuff. Lucien Freud: too disturbing to contemplate over morning coffee. I love Damien Hirst but would prefer that my home not contain preserved animal corpses. A mummified bird once lingered in the sad corner of my dead mother’s basement. I paid someone to remove it to an inglorious afterlife.
This painting sits squarely at a puzzling intersection of values: high sentiment and low currency. It is a simple still life of casually arranged white flowers in a clear vase on a white tablecloth. They light up a dark background. The frame is gilded to a point that approaches ostentation. It is signed by the artist, Juan Ignacio Sardi. A small gold plaque along the frame’s bottom edge helpfully displays his name. The untitled work is surprisingly large. It hung in the dining room in all of our homes. The leaky propane-heated wreck “on the economy” (as they say in the military) in Spain where we adopted a stray cat imaginatively named Gato. The featureless house on base in Rota. The giant, sprawling coal-heated mansion in a tiny English village. The Lubbock ranch home. Albuquerque’s in-between rentals. The yellow brick house where my mother died on the couch while folding laundry.
It does seem like the kind of picture you would hang in a dining room – peaceful, even a bit atmospheric, grand but not pretentious, monochromatic but a bit romantic. In short, art that doesn’t take away from a room. In the right context. Right now it hangs in our guest room, the golden frame clashing queasily with our unfortunately mustard-colored walls. There was already a nail in place, and I worried about the way our cats might decide to interface with things made of canvas (violently, if our couches are any indication), so there it sits. I don’t go into the guest room very often, so I don’t have to look at it. If nobody looks at art, is it still art?
In Kondo-speak, I’m not quite ready to “thank it for its service.” Mostly because I’m still trying to figure out the nature of its service. While your parents are living, it’s awfully hard to learn to know them as actual humans with hopes and dreams. Oddly, one of the best things I’ve ever seen about this is a profane cartoon involving Burt Reynolds.
Once your parents are gone, your last chance to know them is through the things they left behind. I’ve been sorting through their things for years. But it wasn’t until I thought about selling the painting that I realized I’d never considered what it meant. It has always been so fully in the background – the way a parent can be if you’re not conscious or careful.
I stare at the still life. I do not understand it. What is there to understand? Table, vase, flowers, cloth. I think of the chaos it has overseen – just three years ago, a wake complete with lobster salad and cheesecake, the time we stuffed everything into the garage to make the home seem serene, driving the chihuahua to Colorado, the cat to the vet. Their deaths. The day before closing when the hot water heater leaked, the awkward holiday meals. She would have been able to see the painting from where she died on the couch, just around the corner against some florid, dated wallpaper. Did it give her comfort? Was it background that it escaped notice? What was its service to her?
Standing in the guest room, I notice for the first time that the flowers have already begun to shed a few leaves. How have I not seen this before? Both the not-noticing and the wilting seem bittersweet. The painting exists outside of time – flowers always about to wilt, tablecloth ever a little rumpled. It’s also deeply embedded in time and context. How will I know if it’s sparking joy? What is its service to me? Then I realize that I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Kondo’s gotten in my head.
And then I get it. Marie Kondo doesn’t understand what objects are for. Or, more to the point, she has a fairly specific and crassly utilitarian understanding of what objects are for. They exist to serve us. Once they do not make us happy, they are released into the waste stream to serve someone else. So much of Kondo’s appeal is anchored in the valorization of the liberal humanist self, fully empowered to choose and deserving of all the service objects can provide. It’s such an appealing understanding of the world, just a little removed from the “dominion” philosophy used to justify activities like murdering and eating other animals. We want to believe that objects exist to serve us; even that art, somehow, exists to serve us. And that we should be filled with joy all the time. I get why this is popular. The alternative is pretty bleak – a de-centered self, a self shot through and constructed by the vagaries of time and chance. So instead we believe in “The Secret,” or the prosperity gospel, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or we decorate.
Montgomery, Alabama is a tough place to live. We moved here eight years ago and saw it as a big adventure: Strange new city! Lots to explore! Over the years, our gee-whiz optimism diffused gradually. First there was: “there must be more than this,” then “hey, stop talking bad about our city” wagon-circling, then “let’s rattle this cage and make it better,” to “let’s talk about something else for a little while.” The background radiation of persistent racism is palpable in Montgomery, where there’s little in the way of live music and vegetarian food. As for public transportation, we’re famous for our buses, but not because of their efficiency. But we were determined to make it work.
A crucial part of our big Montgomery adventure was the thrill of owning our first home. Not just any home – the kind of home you dream about, with built-ins, transom, high ceilings and all of the molding and baseboards one could possibly want (turns out these are super hard to keep clean – who knew?). Over the years, we’ve thrown ourselves into many home repairs and been thrown into many others. Someone once told me that when the world outside seems tough, you’ve got to garden your own corner of the universe. So I’ve gardened every inch of this house. Some of this has involved decoration.
And then death made me sad. More specifically, I was seized with grief. I’ve learned many things about grief in the last three years, but here’s one people don’t talk much about. You can’t decorate your way out of out of it. This knowledge reveals itself in stages:
- What am I supposed to do with all this crap? This is the part when you drive a truck across the country and dump its contents into your front room. You despair over the pile, secretly wishing that it will vanish.
- I am totally going to deal with all this crap. Here, you shift into hyper-organized mode. Who can wear these plaid shirts? Shred the taxes. Stash the photos.
- Hey, some of this crap is really nice. You remember that you love your mother’s china pattern, even though she worried that it might be “too masculine” for you. Keep a flower vase, a few meaningful trinkets from overseas adventures. They make you smile.
- I can’t bring myself to get rid of this crap. It gets hard. You start slipping. Soon you hide a painting you don’t understand in a room you never visit.
Grief cauterizes the ends of more feelings than you’d care to acknowledge. Songs that used to make you sad, if you really listened, just glide through your brain now. What hard-hearted person can listen to Missing by Everything But The Girl and not get at least a little misty? You, it turns out. Meanwhile your brain’s mad librarian begins to shelve memories erratically. It pushes some to the back while others hang in front of your eyes for days. A story told hours ago seems sepia toned while a 2010 car trip feels fresh. As time whispers its contrails into the unknown future, key events become less liminal. Someday you are surprised to remember that your first boyfriend is dead. Or that there was a time when you read all of Love in the Time of Cholera out loud. Or that it’s been nearly 20 years since your father blindly choked his last in an Albuquerque hospital bed, so you can’t now ask him what to do with his military duffel bag or ancient Soviet history books. You discover that there is at least one more stage:
- I hate this but can’t explain why. This persistent painting, this enigma, this flat representation – how did it survive when everything else disintegrated? You hate it for its survival. You realize that this is entirely irrational.
Memory is a close cousin to grief. They share some traits. Neither prizes veracity or cares about opportunity costs. You can remember something to the letter, feel it despicable, and still not regret it. Grief drags you along, makes you look even if you don’t wish to. Memory makes wishing immaterial. Memory is the major and triumphalist key that grief doesn’t answer so much as amplify beyond your set frequencies.
Memory and grief also share a common and contested territory: time. My still life, for all of its efforts, cannot exist outside of time. This is both an ontological condition and an ethical imperative. As T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.” Redemption requires assigned value. In turn, that requires a reckoning. As you leaf through through things, sorting them for various destinations along a foreign trail divorced from both grief and memory, you will feel lost. You will want to hold on to as much as you can. You will want to get rid of everything. The painting reminds you that neither option is possible or desirable.
The flowers offer no answers. Their stillness reminds me we cannot stop time. Why, then, search for joy? Shouldn’t we let it find us? And why demand service from objects? Would we not be better to release ourselves from this sickening dependency? The truth about our belongings is much more difficult than dreamt of in Kondo’s philosophy. They’re not devices to deliver joy. Our things are the breadcrumbs we deploy so we don’t get lost in time. If they have something to do with joy, it’s only because we load them with our baggage and the things expected of us. The idea that we can discern “our” joy from the joy manufactured and force-fed us by the culture purveyors would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.
I make my peace with the painting. Sometimes it’s okay to keep things that make you sad, or that you don’t understand. You can surround yourself with joy and not feel a bit of it. Every inch of your home can be servile and you can still want for more. Again, Eliot helps us to understand the predicament:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
When it’s time, I’ll give the painting to the baby. Perhaps she will have grand dinner parties under it, or contemplate it with tea in a quiet moment. Until then, I’ll hold on to it as a reminder that sometimes leaves fall without notice, without joy, and this can be beautiful.