In Praise of Small Spaces

"'This is fine,' replied Candide, 'but we must cultivate our garden.'"

-Voltaire, Candide

Click for Photos"It'll be like living on a boat," a friend remarked upon hearing of our plans to move to a tiny cottage in rural England. Looking out my office window at the expanse of field and garden stretching beyond the horizon, it now feels more like a toy submarine, at the depths of what my wife's Aunt used to call, "England's green aquarium."

This is not the first time we have downsized--going from California to London was a huge lifestyle shift. But when I tell American friends that our Victorian cottage in the countryside now measures 500 square feet in total, they understandably laugh, since they often have bigger garages than that.

But then, when I describe our narrow strip of garden that stretches back almost 300 feet, in several stages, past apple trees and tall poppies to a honesuckle-clad archway leading into a final, secret garden with its Monet-like profusion of wildflowers and a single wooden bench--well, then they want to come visit. As an American poet, the Walden-like aspect of retreat also appeals to me immensely.

Furthermore, I know that creativity often springs from constraint. Force your thoughts into the tight little "rooms" of a sonnet (which is what "stanza" literally means in Italian) and the language becomes more interesting than if you give yourself indefinite space to ramble on. A concise poem is a more elegant poem. And, as I am discovering, a life with conscious constraints is often a more elegant one, too.

One definition of "elegance" might simply be quality over quantity. When we had lots more space, we had greater potential to unconsciously accumulate lots of stuff. But then I found myself spending more time managing the stuff around me than I wanted to, instead of focusing on the stuff within me.

And so I am learning to take pleasure in the little cultivations of a simple life. A poem comes present line by line, and a garden takes shape snip by snip. Already the results of this recent fierce pruning are beginning to bloom.

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