As a Manhattan resident, I lived in less than 500 square feet for nearly 10 years. Even after moving to Brooklyn—to a palatial 1100 square feet!—having a pack-rat husband and two young kids meant every inch of space was called in to action. We kept suitcases within suitcases, magazines under the coffee table, toys under the bar, and towels on racks that went up to the ceiling. I loved the challenge of figuring out where to store the slow cooker we got for Christmas (under the sink in the second bathroom). And I really loved purging. Many times I’d put all our random stuff in a box and just leave it out on the sidewalk – a small wicker basket, an assortment of fitness DVDs, a pair of pants from the 90s, and a stuffed animal – and check to see which of the contents had found a new owner throughout the day. (Ah, the joys of working from home.)
Fast forward to our new life in Providence, where we rent an ark of an apartment. We have easily double the amount of space we had before. And while it’s glorious to be able to bang pots around in the kitchen without fear of waking any sleeping children, the expanse has still taken some getting used to. It’s hard for me to relax at night because I’m always imagining that I’m hearing one kid or another whimpering at the other end of the house. But I’ve been surprised at how much I yearn to fill every nook and cranny.
Take, for example, our book shelves. We have two walls of them. Floor to ceiling. I was positively giddy while I was rounding up the boxes of books that we never even unpacked after the move to Brooklyn, simply because we didn’t have anywhere to unpack them to. All of my husband’s comic books, special effects magazines, and random reference books from his days as an artist for video game companies (Creatures from Under the Sea, American Battleships from the 1800s to the Present) saw the light of the day for the first time since we moved in together. All my books on yoga, charkas, and meditation, found a home together in their own little ashram of a shelf.
What I couldn’t believe was how much space was left over. Whole shelves, empty and white as Antarctica.
I wanted so badly to find something to fill those shelves.
I propped some coffee table books up so their covers showed (and they took up more real estate). I used framed photographs as spacers. I even set out baskets of yarn because they looked pretty. Still, the unused space taunted me.
It wasn’t until I caught myself thinking, “We just don’t have enough stuff!,” that I snapped out of the urge to fill every cranny. I had just spent the better part of six weeks packing up all our belongings, weeding out what we no longer needed, carting said belongings three states away, and then unpacking, reorganizing, and huffing them up and down two flights of stairs. I’ve seriously had it with stuff. Had. It.
I’ve made a conscious decision to look at those unused shelves and appreciate them for the negative space they provide. Now the books we love enough to cart with us wherever we may roam have a chance to actually be seen. And I’m trying to apply the same lesson to my life. Since we still don’t know many people here, our schedules are much more open than they were when we lived in New York. I do sincerely hope for us all that we make great friends whom we do any number of fun things with, but I’m also appreciating more the weekends when we have no plans whatsoever. So we have space to simply be with each other, as well as the luxury of dreaming up what to do that feels right for that particular day.
It’s been a great reminder that just because we get used to a certain way of being—even one that we take pride in—we don’t have to continue being that way in perpetuity. All we have to do is notice the old way and choose something new.
We’ll see how long those shelves stay empty, but for now, I’m taking them as a reminder to leave some room to breathe.
Congratulations to Sarah!
She won a copy of How To Train a Wild Elephant, a great primer on mindfulness, for sharing her technique for staying soft when a stressful situation is getting the best of her:
“I love sharing great literature with my kids–stories with meaning! So, when life is getting the better of me, be it the busy schedule or preschooler whining or two-year-old tantruming, I pretend that life is a story I’m reading them. I transform into the lovable character I want to root for. The character is above freaking out and saying horrible things she doesn’t mean–too busy making wonderful realizations that there’s no use. Much better to arm oneself with some healthy, self-respecting flexibility. And a bat (thanks, Dr. Seuss) for the pesky green-headed Quillian Quails.”
I’m not doing a giveaway this time around, but I always welcome your comments!
Take care and keep breathing,