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.