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Against anti-cluttering: it's not just about joy

Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Joy of Tidying Up urges us to purge the junk, dump the stuff, ditch the dirty, the unwashed, the unloved and the out of shape in our homes and closets.

"Keep only things that inspire joy," says the Japanese organisational guru in her manifesto that is, literally, sweeping the world and filling up skips and garbage bins.

I wept when I read of a Kondo disciple who threw out everything - bar a coat - that reminded her of the mother she lost as a younger woman. Someone I spoke with last week was devastated to discover that his mother had thrown out everything belonging to his late father.

My life is not 100 per cent joy. Nor do I want it to be.

I want to remember sadness and anger, and capture a moment that is only summoned by a scrap of handwriting many years later.

Some of my strongest memories have been triggered by a flotsam and jetsam of paper and things that decluttering experts would have thrown out years ago.

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Stuffed in the bottom of my Scrabble box are scores with the date and the place where each game was played. Often they're written on the back of an envelope, a takeaway menu or a ripped out page from a shorthand book with notes on the back.

A few weeks after my father's death in January I was playing Scrabble with friends and saw his familiar handwriting on the score of a game we'd played in Washington DC.

I'd won with 312, my partner Peter, got 308, while Dad, usually a great player, had trailed behind with 151.

On the bottom, he'd written Julie's Birthday Scrabble Shut-Out, and dated it June 17, 2001.

It broke me.

After his death, I'd re-read many letters from him, and looked at many photos of him as a young man and later with my family. But it was his handwriting and the caption that captured a perfect and typical moment of Scrabble-playing joy with him.

My stepmother, and his wife of 45 years, is a routine declutterer but she has kept every note that our family left on the kitchen bench.

In one, my father praised his then new wife's writing, but advised her to learn about paragraphs. Several paragraphs followed with grammatical tips couched in love.

Another touchingly formal letter that he had sent her parents - asking formally for her hand in marriage and explaining why he wanted to marry the much younger woman - was a tribute to a love that any parent would want for their child. Her parents agreed.

Last year a similar find was disturbing, a reminder of dementia's long erosion of memory. Buried in a pile of my late mother's stuff, presumably where she thought nobody else would see it, my mother had kept a list of birthdays. As her memory had faded, she'd crossed out and corrected the dates many times. Next to the unreliable aide-memoire was a magazine article on the early signs of Alzheimer's.

Over the years I have thrown - without much thought - papers, letters, photos and anything special in a trunk at the bottom of my bed.

A deep dive in my box can trigger a forgotten memory about a friend who I must re-discover.

Opening it another time, I found myself in love all over again with the little novels my sons used to write about cricket teams. Each fictional player's runs were recorded on the left side of the page.

I am all for culling crap, throwing out the soiled t-shirts, the clothes that no longer fit or are out of fashion, the broken chairs and the piles of bills and newspapers.

But if I threw out everything that didn't give me joy, I'd likely go to work naked, and that wouldn't be joyous for anyone.

Kondo also suggests we thank our things for their service as they leave the premises. I can just imagine the exchange:

Me: "Thank you broken thongs, you stopped the tinea!"

Thongs: "No problem Julie, but how about cutting those toenails a bit more often? Just saying."

I don't want my children to have to deal with stuffed rooms when I die. But I want to leave them a lucky dip of memories about how we lived, who and what we loved, where we failed, as well as our illnesses, divorces, births and deaths.

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