Living with Empty Spaces
I’ve been downsizing of late.
A few years ago I sold my beautiful 1835 sea captain’s house. It was the right thing to do: the house was taking more of my time, energy, and money than I wanted to give it. And I purposely chose a very small cottage in the next town over as my next nest, since one major decision at a time was all I felt I could handle.
Going from a three-bedroom house with a large kitchen, a generous library, and two lovely bathrooms to a one-bedroom cottage is a feat. Where did all this stuff come from? Remnants and memories of my stepkids living with me were everywhere; what to do with them all? How many sets of towels does one actually need? Yes, that antique whatever-you-call-it is beautiful, but really, what do you do with it?
My home was decorated in a sort of Victorian-medieval mashup, which meant lots of colored paint and wallpaper, and plenty of things on those walls—artwork, tapestries, framed old manuscripts. Lovely in an old house, but there wasn’t much wall-space in my new digs.
I held a sale. I gave away so much stuff that I can probably go into any home in my community now and see something that used to be mine there. I donated my great-aunt’s art collection to the museum at RISD, where she taught for most of her career. And I moved.
Deciding what I wanted to keep in the new space was an oddly freeing process. What did I really want to see when I wake up? When I work? When I relax? Arranging my environment that way, I found for the first time in a decade that there were some empty spaces on my walls.
And for the first time—probably in my life—I didn’t feel a need to rush to fill them. I put up the things I really wanted and looked at the empty walls and it actually felt good.
There’s been a lot of chatter—both positive and negative—around Marie Kondo and her tidying method, her admonitions to only keep those objects that give you joy; but there’s something to all that. She’s channeling, perhaps, William Morris, who wrote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Once you have that criterion in mind, everything seems to fall into place.
There’s a metaphor there, of course. Living with empty spaces means that there’s always the possibility of something new, something different, something unexpected, because you’ve left room for it. Living with empty spaces means appreciating what you have and knowing that you’re not overcrowding yourself. Living with empty spaces leaves options open.
I’ve been thinking about that as I write the next book in my Sydney Riley mystery series, and the notion of empty spaces is working there as well. Oh, no, I have plot holes! Oh, no, I’m really not sure where to hang the different components I’ve decided should be in the story! And now I look at those empty spaces and am not panicking. They’re telling me more about the story than all the “stuff” I already have there.
It’s okay. It’s okay to live with empty spaces, whether on walls or in books … or in life. It can be, in fact, the most freeing, exhilarating, and creative thing you can do.