The Joy of Open Space

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I’ve been an on-and-off insomniac for much of my adult life. It started my first year of teaching, when I spent nights anxiously rewriting lesson plans in my head, trying to create the most whiz-bang learning experience of my students’ lives. (Little did I know, at that time, that most seventh-graders do not consider English class the most whiz-bang experience of their lives. In fact, use of the word “whiz-bang” automatically discredits it from any consideration in their Top 10 life experiences.)

Once I finally settled down as a teacher, a more vicious stress hit: infertility. I spent entire nights in paralytic worry. Will I ever have children? Will Josh and I grow old in a quiet home, just the two of us? We were blessed in 2009, when that problem resolved with the birth of our triplets. And, of course, as all parents know, there is nothing more relaxing than a newborn, right? My worries had only begun! Despite the exhausting work of caring for three babies, I often found myself unable to sleep when my head hit the pillow.

I tried all sorts of higgery-jiggery to induce sleep: counting backwards from 500, drinking warm milk, limiting screen time. One mental exercise, though, sticks out in my mind: imagining myself in my ideal environment. What’s strange is that, despite my efforts to place myself in various exotic locales, my mind always conjured the exact same image:

A woman in the midst of a prairie, leaning on a fence. She rests her head on her arms, which are folded across the top fence-rail, propping one leg carelessly along the bottom. Her long hair is pulled back casually. She gazes off into the distance, toward the faint outline of a mountain range. Far behind her, somewhere, is a house, all by itself, alone in the vastness. She turns to me and smiles, then stares back in her original direction. 

I became obsessed with her.

Who was she? Why was she so calm, so peaceful? I wanted to be her. Would I have to move to Montana? Stop wearing make-up? Learn how to saddle up some dogies? (Learn what “saddle up some dogies” means?) She became my own little Mona Lisa. What was that smile about? Was she taunting me? Inviting me? What did she know that I didn’t?

As I’ve minimized so many of my physical possessions over the years, something about this woman has become clear:

My fixation with the image isn’t so much about her, it’s about the space.

She is not the most important part of the picture. The vast emptiness around her is.

I’ve realized something else, too. As I slowly shed the burden of my stuff, I became more like her. I didn’t need to move to Montana or some tropical island in the middle of nowhere. I created a peaceful environment right here in suburban Dayton, Ohio by creating more open space in my home. I’ve said many times, to people who’ve inquired about my minimalist habits, that the reason I do it is because it makes me feel calm. I no longer look about my house anxiously, fearing that my stuff will swallow me whole. I feel at peace. No vacation required.

I believe everyone feels this way when they encounter open space. Take my classroom, for example. As I started creating open space in my home, I did the same thing at work.

I remember the day I donated a large red rolling cupboard to a new teacher. When my students came into my room and saw the bare corner, they were astounded. “What did you do?” they asked. “It feels different in here.” Some didn’t say anything, though, and simply walked over to the space, raised their arms and twirled slowly in a circle. Let me remind you, these were 12- and 13-year-olds. Arms-up twirling isn’t their typical stance. Yet, confronted with the unexpected joy of open space, they could not help but adopt the universal body language of wonder and happiness.

There is something in all of us that attracts us to open spaces.

I bet if you asked 100 people to imagine their ideal environment, 99 of them would name something that involved space (a beach, a woods, a field, a river, etc.). I doubt anyone would describe their ideal environment as a crowded shopping mall or a basement bursting with boxes of old memorabilia or a living room stuffed with toys and magazines. Yet we consistently place ourselves in these environments every single day. It’s no wonder we long for vacations!

Vacation is not just a break from our daily routines; it is often a break from the overwhelming stress of our stuff.

So I have a challenge for you: imagine yourself in your ideal environment. Got an image? Good. Now, create it. In your daily life. At work. In your house. With your family. It is possible.

And in case you’re wondering, I have been sleeping better lately. I’m not sure if that’s due to minimizing or not. But I do know that the image of the woman on the prairie no longer mystifies me. Nowadays, when she turns to me with that secret smile, I know exactly what she’s smiling about.

Cheers to more open spaces! 

PS Interested in creating more open space in your home? (And more importantly, in your head?) Check out my FREE Minimalism Starter Guide!

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