Tip #148: Illusions of sparsity.
I have a theory that each of us, depending on our tastes, or habits, or customs, is comfiest with a particular ratio of stuff to space in the place we call home. Whether we live in 250 square feet or 2,500 square feet, I’d hazard the guess that we’d want that home to be more or less the same percent full. The theory goes that someone who likes a spare kitchen table top is going to like it as well in a spacious home as a tiny one. Someone who finds a certain kind of ecstasy in opening a closet and being able to move the hangers freely on the rod, is going to want to experience rapture whether the closet in question is tucked into a tiny space under the stairs or exists as a room of its own.
Everyone’s ideal ratio will be different and life in an imperfect world means that most folks won’t enjoy their perfect ratio all of the time. My point here isn’t about prescribing which percentage full is the right percentage full and then feeling miserable about our failures (though masochists, feel free), it’s about identifying what that percentage might be for me (or you), and trying to maintain it as best as possible.
The maintenance bit can be hard, especially for folks who cherish relative sparsity but who find themselves in a relatively small space. For one thing, ten books on a small shelf takes up a greater percentage of that space than ten books on a massive shelf and sometimes you have ten books to love, size of shelf notwithstanding. And then, of course, families grow and apartments do not. Apartments and houses and the places that most of us call home typically exist with firm, physical boundaries. No matter how much we might try to cram objects (or people) into our homes, it’s not bursting seams we come up against, but solid, immoveable walls. The ceilings only go up so high and the walls extend only so far.
I write about the concept of gatekeeping quite a bit in my book, so I’ll try not to rehash that all here, but welcoming a fourth human into our home has gotten me thinking about how to honor my own limits for filling up a space while making sure we have what we need for a growing family. An infant is a tiny human with mostly tiny needs. For the moment, we haven’t really had an onslaught of anything but dirty laundry. (And we wouldn’t want to throw the literal or figurative baby out with the bath water.) Still, honoring my ideal percent-full requires a certain amount of vigilance and a certain amount of creativity.
Rather than only abandoning boxes of belongings or children curbside, as we navigate this latest transition, the most helpful practice has been revisiting what we keep where. There are places in our apartment where I prefer a far smaller ratio of stuff to space and others that I don’t mind having more filled. Over the past month I’ve done some shifting around, filling up some small corners of the apartment, while choosing to maintain the sparsity that I find calming in other, more visible or frequently used places. I can live with a kitchen table that has a pair of candlesticks on it, and maybe a small vase of flowers, but add much else and I start to feel crowded. Give me a lamp and a book on my bedside table and I’ve hit my percent-full limit. But where there’s a door to close, on spaces like closets and cabinets, I can squeeze in more without feeling squeezed myself. I don’t mind so terribly, for instance, when a linen closet shelf gets filled to the brim with cloth diapers, but I do mind when a dresser drawer becomes impossible to open. Cramming baby bottles onto a shelf already full of cups makes the space feel chaotic, but rearranging the contents of the cabinet to make a dedicated space for bottles, and I can breathe easier, even if that cabinet is more full than I’d otherwise hope. And if moving another wine crate under the bench means maintaining a neat entryway and gaining easy access to the diaper bag, and swaddles, and baby wraps at the same time, well then I’ll take it. Everything’s temporary, anyway.
I’m finding that the more I clear out the more I want to get rid of stuff, to find room to breathe, but I’m also beginning to worry that I’m feeling this way because minimalism is in and not because I truly want sparsity in my life. I worry that I’ll get rid of something only to lament it’s loss later. Any tips on knowing when to stop or on letting go of the anxiety associated with clearing the decks?
I’ve been wondering this as well! Minimalism is definitely the “in” thing and although I can see its benefits, I’m not sure how “me” that really is.
It’s been so interesting for me to navigate writing about my own approach to living as minimalism as a concept has crept into the zeitgeist. When we moved into our tiny apartment in 2011, it became clear to me that part of what made living there tolerable was a more general tolerance of/appreciation of living with relatively few things. Personal preferences aside, of course, what’s been comfortable and peace-making for me wouldn’t necessarily be the same for everyone. I think the best general rule of thumb is to stick with your gut, regardless of trends. And definitely, I’d never advocate parting with things that you really love.
It’s amazing how calming a clean, ordered space can be. This is one of the things I would tell my younger self. Now, as I navigate adult life and motherhood/marriage, I find myself trying to balance my need for relative calm and sparsity with the needs/desires of the other three people with whom I share life. It’s always a balancing act, but I have loved watching each of us navigate it in our own ways. As you say, everything is temporary. I love that. And your writing is lovely. Amy
Lovely post and beautiful words! We moved from a 1900 sq ft house into a 900 sq ft condo this past Autumn. My husband, son, and I find our new home very comfortable but we had to get rid of a lot of things in order to feel that way. It’s not a place where we can keep extra canned goods or multiple towels *just in case* we have friends visit, which allows up to keep only things that we use on a daily/weekly/monthly basis and love. Every so often we have to clean out items that have made their way into our home but that we don’t feel the need for. It’s the simplicity and cleanliness in which we find our calm.
I too find that there is a connection between an organized and tidy home and mental well being. I know I get very anxious when there is clutter amiss.
Thank you for the validation! I, too, like a certain percentage of stuff — clear tables and not a lot of clutter. Husband, on the other hand, is not so neat. When we moved out of our Massachusetts home of 23 years, guess where most of the “stuff” was? It was in the garage and basement — his turf. Piles and piles of stuff. To be fair, he was doing a lot of carpentry for other people so he was buying in bulk. It’s an ongoing negotiation, but one, I might add, that has lasted for 35 years or so. The conversation will continue I’m sure in this new house.
But one word of advice to add to your already brimming store of wisdom. One bit of “hoarding” that I was guilty of was of saving what seemed like every piece of paper either of my sons had made a mark on. When we were getting ready to move, I asked them to come home and sort through what they wanted to keep, promising to hold onto it for them. Neither wanted to save much of everything. So, of course, I went through it all. Sometimes tears fell and other times, I had a good laugh. Each now has one slightly -bigger-than file-sized plastic bin that will survive anywhere and can easily be picked up and transported whenever they have the room and the will to take them off our hands.
Please keep writing, Erin, your posts and Instagram photos are an oasis during these troubled times.
I can so relate Judith. Piles of things don’t bother my dear husband. He doesn’t seem to see them. (Although he is bothered when he can’t find something). Our negotiation is his learning to accept that I can’t breathe with too much clutter. He is kindly working on the garage right now, clearing out, taking out storage units we don’t need, etc. It is an act of love I appreciate so much. It’s amazing how much we are still learning together after 25 yrs.
This post really resonates with me! I live in 625 square feet, with my husband and two daughters. My husband and I moved here before we had children and the space felt perfect for us. After welcoming our second daughter, my husband and I both started getting rid of a lot of stuff, to make room for our daughters’ things.
Now, they have their own room and my husband works in the other, 90 square foot bedroom. I kind of think of the living room as my space, where I work and can keep things sparse and neat. All of the toys are kept in the girls’ room and that change made such a difference in my life, making room for me to set up a sewing table.
Earlier today, my husband and I were talking about how grateful we are for this space. Decluttering has totally been worth it to make room to comfortably fit our family of four and we imagine we’ll live here another five years!
I’m always so encouraged and inspired by your Life in a Tiny Apartment posts!
I don’t particularly need sparse–I guess I’m somewhere in the middle–but clutter does drive me nuts. Lately things in my own tiny apartment have felt more toward the cluttered side of things. It’s time for another purge. Funny how that always happens a month or two post-Christmas.
This is so interesting. I live in about 650 square feet in Paris, with just a husband and two cats, which must sound like paradise. But said husband is unable to get rid of (or do )ANYthing, so it is honestly like living in a storage unit. It makes me crazy, but I have no control over my space, can’t eliminate any of his junk. we have a space that could be beautiful but instead is a storage unit. Nothing uplifting to say here, just the place that life has brought me.
I love stopping by your little space here so much Erin. Inspiring and calm, please know you are well loved.
Your words about welcoming a fourth human touched me so. I am on the other end of the journey, my youngest moved out this summer. Now 1000 sq ft (including a two car garage) suddenly feels so spacious. We’ve passed along many pieces of furniture and I’ve cleared out my children’s childhoods of drawings and doodles and mementos and so many little sentimental bits that I just couldn’t let go of until this fall. There were a lot of tears and happy memories. (The box of hand made by me!! Waldorf dolls…keeping those forever).
Now we have a guest bedroom, a closet for back packing gear, and a yoga/meditation/sun/plant room. It’s really lovely. I wouldn’t have thought when I was in the midst of loving raising young children, but this quiet now is so nice too. More sleep also. And sex. 🙂
Well thought out and well written post. I think about this all the time and you put it so beautifully in words…. It is temporary like you say. Personally, I love that exercise of rearranging things around me to fit my changing needs. even if it is my utensil drawer. Deeply satisfying. Best @greenmirchi (IG)
Curious if seasonal items, outgrown clothes of Faye’s, or other things not in current use are stored elsewhere–parents’ house, etc? Does the space we see hold all your belongings and items in storage? Either way, that would be an interesting post to read.
We have Faye’s outgrown clothes in a box in our closet. We’re pretty discerning about what we save so so far it doesn’t take up too much room! As far as seasonal items go, those just stay in our drawers and closets year-round. One of the benefits of a lean closet is not having much that needs to be stored separately in the off-season. As far as my parents’ house, I have a few boxes of books in a corner of their attic, but most everything we own is here with us (though not all in the three little crates you see in this photo!).
I am super impressed with you. In my own apartment I’m relatively good at only keeping what I need, but I have a bad habit of storing tons of stuff in my childhood bedroom under the guise of “I might need this someday.” Fortunately my parents have a big enough house that they don’t mind, but I’d be completely screwed if they suddenly decided they didn’t want my stuff taking up their space anymore. I do go through it periodically and donate stuff but not as often as I should!
Could you please write a bit about storage in kitchens?
Have done in a number of posts in the past, but stay tuned, cause I have an upcoming post about one kitchen-related storage item in particular!
Very very nicely written and well put.
But seriously: where do you keep your breast pump and all of its parts? Do you take it out and put it away every time? Where do you pump? I am a new mom too and making a pumping station seems crucial to me …
I keep mine in the cabinet. I do put it away every time I pump, but I also use a hand pump so its quite small and doesn’t have many parts. I still have my small electric pump, but I really don’t prefer to use it, so it’s still in a corner of the linen closet. I use a small hand pump and just run it through the dishwasher and put it back into the cabinet when I’m not using it.
In agreement and support of fuller closets and cabinets for more spare living spaces. As you said, sometimes getting rid of things isn’t an option. I’m now examining how to make everything more accessible and organized in these contained spaces. Somehow achieving a more functional closet is less daunting than trying to make a space more minimal 🙂
Totally agreed! I feel so similarly about the kitchen counter and the table in our wee Dumbo apartment, but I’m fine with the closets being fun. Now if ONLY there was just one more closet :). Congrats on your new addition!!
Not exactly pertaining to your post but was thinking about it and so I’m just going to throw it at you. Can you do a post on teaching our toddlers about what is important to keep and what we can let go (and not even bring into our home to begin with)? I have a two year old and she brings SO MUCH SHIT! into our home and it’s like pulling teeth every time I try to talk to her about why I have to throw this away. And yes, it is throw away because it’s shit! It’s not even worth donating! People just give her this crap all day and then she brings it into our home and by this time, it has become her special treasure. (Sorry for the rant, I’m just looking around at our sty of a home right now and she is to blame for a good 50% of it.)
Hi there! Navigating this ourselves at the moment, but I do have a few tricks up my sleeve, so I’ll try to get them into a post one day soon!
Thank you! And sorry for the tone. Was super frustrated (mostly at other people for giving her stuff) when I wrote it. I love my daughter dearly but I have a nine month old coming alongside her as well soon enough so I would like to get a handle on it before it doubles up. Thanks! And I look forward to the post!
Oh I remember this and it drove me crazy too! Part of our consumer society, so it is ongoing and you will need to constantly teach, negotiate. When they are little they will forget but that only lasts so long. I had a “no nature in the house” rule and that helped keep many “treasures” on the back deck. Every so often go through her stuff together and instead of focusing on what to get rid of, limit the storage area and focus on what she is going to keep. Good luck. I have one daughter who was sentimental and was awful at tossing stuff and the younger one loved to tidy her room and toss stuff.
Hi Erin…. Loved your book…. and have followed your blog & Instagram accounts for awhile. Can you comment on how you deal with laundry for your growing family. Both my daughters have new babies, and after visiting them, I’m amazed at the number of times I ran a load of laundry for the baby. At the time I had my girls, I was lucky enough to purchase a used washing machine, but I hung our clothes on a clothesline. Living near the Pacific Ocean, the laundry didn’t always dry if we had a lot of damp fog. I hung those items on my wooden drying rack near the windows in the living room. So, it got me thinking about how you deal with laundry for your family, especially since you use cloth diapers… thanks for your blog.
Being city dwellers, our laundry situation is pretty particular to that kind of lifestyle! There’s no washer or dryer in our apartment (or building) and so we send our laundry out to the local laundromat for washing and drying. When weighing the cost of time spent in the laundromat ourselves (and therefore not working) and paying someone else to wash it for us, there’s no contest! We also use a service to wash our cloth diapers (more on that coming tomorrow!). And, especially with a new baby, we almost always have our little drying rack set up in the corner with diaper covers and bibs and other hand-washed items drying!
Cleaning defiantly makes everything feel better – I really need to have a sort out of all my stuff :\ x
Love the way you phrase this: that an organized, “full-enough” apartment is different to everyone. I had a roommate once who was SUPER into the sparse look in our place, to the point where we only had 2 chairs and 1 TV stand in this huge living room. It drove me crazy how empty it was! So I bought a couple of end tables and she got mad that it was “too crowded”. I had to confine my aesthetic to my room.
Now, fortunately my fiance and I are on the same page in terms of stuff. We have tons of books, which is one thing I believe you can never have too many of, and we love love love the way our overflowing bookshelves look (even though I know that would drive some people crazy). I also don’t like a blank wall. But at the same time, I cannot stand a disorganized closet or piles of mail on the kitchen table. To each our own!
Erin, thanks for this. It’s good to remember that just because I want my dining table and my living room spacious and free of clutter, doesn’t mean I have to pare down my art supplies to three tubes of paint and a paintbrush. My studio has bins and boxes on every shelf, leaving room in the middle for me to do my thing, which is mostly breathe 😉
You had a very interesting point in the beginning of your post that I had never thought about. I seem to wish to buy more certain items such as books, craft equipment and kitchen stuff, however, am annoyed at how much space they take and how cluttered things look. When some items don’t have a spot where they should be stored I get anxious as I feel it on the way. Maybe I should start looking at it with the more creative storage solutions goggles if I might find some piece in my small flat. Thank you 🙂
I like this theory, though I arrive at a somewhat opposite result: I can handle clutter on surfaces of thing I’m using or coming back to day after day, but I wince at overstuffed closets or other closed storage full of things I never or rarely need. True, I like to keep surface areas relatively neat for easier cleaning and ability to use the space, but I find when I’m reaching the point of saturation, it’s because I haven’t addressed a languishing task, rather than getting annoyed at a pile of books I’m studying/reading/working through. I think I’d rather see everything and confront it. My closets have an ideal percent-full, whereas my kitchen table varies on the cluttered scale.
ha! truth is, my tolerance for the unused or unnecessary stuff is pretty low no matter where it is! but if one place has to be more full than the other, i hope there’s a door!
Dear Erin, you’re minimalist created space is impressive and inspires me. Currently, my husband, our toddler, and I have been living at my in-laws for 17-months, 5 days, and 3 hours (but whose counting?) in their small master bedroom. Why? We’re saving money to buy a home in LA. It’s crazy that two profesional with PhDs and M.Ss have to do this to buy a house in LA. The room often feels like my living room, my kitchen, and our daughter’s play space all in one. I’ve thrown a lot of things out but I still feel crowded. Books. Toys. Clothes. Shoes. Flowers from Valentine’s Day. Sometimes it’s difficult to throw out the things I’m emotionally attached to. Thanks for continuing to I inspire me in creative ways to create a calming place.
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