My friend Frances wrote to me about her first experience planting a vegetable garden in her backyard:

I noticed that I have to simplify all the abundance in my life – all the opportunities, the seemingly endless possibilities.

My garden gave me a perfect example of this. We have an abundance of vegetables growing in a small parcel of earth we prepared, removing stones and weeds, adding compost, mulch, fertilizer. Then, in this rich, good soil, we planted turnips, carrots, daikon radishes, lettuce, herbs, tomatillos, eggplant. They all started growing riotously – I couldn’t believe how you could plant seeds and then all this stuff would just come up with abandon. I knew I needed to thin those turnips and carrots – but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought maybe they would grow anyway – all of them. I couldn’t bear to take any out, I refused to intentionally rip out a single living thing. After all, isn’t that what seeds are for? I had worked so hard to ready the earth, plant and water the seeds – why should I start tearing things out by the roots? Why should I leave big patches of bare ground? I wanted to give everything in the garden – everything I planted – a chance to grow.

So I never did thin those turnips. I never thinned or pruned any carrots. And – they also never did produce any vegetables. Not one turnip did I get. Not one single carrot. Above ground, I had a forest of greenery. Below ground…nothing.

I’ve been reflecting on why I don’t want to thin the things in my life that I need to – things I just keep holding onto for dear life. But those turnips showed me exactly what will happen if I don’t create space for growth, space for life, space for spirit.

Thinning is, as Frances says, making space for life. “I couldn’t believe how you could plant seeds and then all this stuff would just come up with abandon.” We plant so many seeds, and they seem so small, so benign, they take up hardly any space at all. But everything, as it grows, needs space. Children, a home, a career, a project, a relationship, a community, a spiritual practice, everything precious, everything living needs space. And everything we hold dear also needs time. If we hold onto too many things, people, commitments, achievements, desires, as everything grows, each one takes something from the other. Soon, there isn’t sufficient nutrition, space, time, room for anything quiet or real to grow beneath the surface. It is all foliage and greenery above ground, and no authentic harvest beneath. Sooner or later, everything – all of it – dies from lack of nourishment.

What thin? How tidy life? (See exercise) Add honest conversation with those around us – family, friends, colleagues, how much can do, and do well, without thinning that which will never grow?

What can you let go of? One thing, beginning with the smallest thing. A book unread – can it be given to the library? An old postcard on the refrigerator, no longer current? An old appliance, never used? Old clothing, never worn, to the poor? What of projects that feel like responsibilities but bring joy to no one. Pick one thing this week, another the next.

A bestselling book – The Life-Changing magic of Tidying Up – has so captured this ubiquitous feeling of overwhelming clutter in our lives, that it has already spawned sixteen similar books that in some way either summarize, clarify, or expand upon the essential message of the original book.

The book is clear and straightforward. Its singular message can be simply defined in terms we easily understand: If you want to eat, you must thin your turnips.

The book’s appeal is understandable, but it personalizes a much larger issue. It is not that our homes are cluttered. When I was a ten year old boy, hearing my mother say, You’re not going anywhere until you clean your room, was not a revolutionary moment. Parents, children and homes have been producing clutter since the origin of parents, children and homes.

The larger issue, left unaddressed by this skillful but limited tome, is that our whole world is cluttered. Our jobs are cluttered. Our time is cluttered. Our minds, our hearts, our attention, our days are cluttered.

It is not our home but our lives that need tidying up. We can make our homes as clean and simple as a monastic cell. But if we still carry within our minds and hearts a corrosive, ever-growing to-do list, every day more impossible to complete in a day, a week, a year – at the end of the day, as our head seeks elusive rest upon our pillow, our inner world remains infected with a cacophony of disappointments, the cluttered remains of our best intentions littered with endless fragments of failure.

Even in a clean, spare, perfectly organized home, we will likely close out this glorious miracle, this luminous gift of a single, lived-out day of human life, bereft of feeling fulfilled or complete. Instead, we are increasingly frustrated, failed, demoralized, overwhelmed, defeated. We have spent our day planting, growing and tending a vast forest of foliage, greenery everywhere a most seductive proof of life, of growth, of abundance.

What if we must finally confess we cannot (as our culture keeps promising) ever really have it all. That despite whatever showy extravaganza of greenery we create, in the quiet ground beneath, we will find we have planted more seeds than our garden can bear.

Barren of nutrition or harvest, we will have nothing left to grow.