As our son spent last summer with us before starting college, he decided to grow a few tomatoes in our back yard. The only problem was sunlight. We didn’t have any.
A big stand of bamboo arched its arms across what was once a garden plot, burying it in shade. With shears and pole saws, we began to hack back the overgrowth, inviting in the light.
The plan didn’t work out as we'd hoped.
Even with the bamboo in retreat, nearby trees kept the yard in shadow. A lone tomato vine we’d planted spent the season peering pitifully into the clouds, like a coal miner waiting to be rescued. It bore no fruit, stretching itself thin in the search for sun.
But our gardening scheme wasn’t a total loss. With the yard substantially cleared, a new world opened for us to watch from the dining room window. It’s been like rediscovering those secret gardens of children’s tales, the hidden spaces that lie beneath tangles and weeds until some attentive soul liberates them from slumber.
Opening the yard made me wonder if I might feel a similar lift from clearing more space inside our house, too. With both of our kids gone now, as my wife and I think of our home as a place just for us, the idea of scaling back seemed natural.
In a broader sense, of course, decluttering is all the rage. Only half-jokingly, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the glut of books about decluttering is creating clutter of its own. If you had to buy and store them all, your house would be more crowded than ever.
The Journal also published a dissent from decluttering by Kathryn O’Shea-Evans, who cautions against getting rid of too much. “Clutter gets a bad rap,” she writes. “Researchers have found that a muddle of objects can actually jolt creativity.”
I’m sure she’s right, though confinement is more what I felt this summer as we weathered the outer bands of Tropical Storm Barry. Being inside for a long while forced me to look with fresh eyes at what lines our rooms. I noticed a number of things that could easily go.
And so, as happens from time to time, I’ve started to cull. Near a spot by the front door, a small hill has formed — a coral reef of clutter. Here’s where I place books I’ll never read, shoes no longer worn, the electric shaver, still unopened, that I received a dozen birthdays ago. Eventually, the pile will be shoveled into a trunk and taken to charity.
Our staging area for this decluttering operation is the same spot where, in a distant yuletide, we once put our first Christmas tree. I still remember that lovely tableau of holiday abundance and wouldn’t trade the memory for anything.
With age, though, I’m learning that the absence of things can be a gift of its own.