In an intense season when I didn’t have the emotional elastic to flex or be gracious, my mentor told me to think about margins. “Think of the white space around a notebook page. Margin makes the writing legible, lets the eye rest instead of cramming the page full. How much white space is in your life right now?”
Oh. White space? The days were crazy full because I was learning the ropes at a new job, evenings and weekends were full of people around me, and what was margin?
Her words marked a pivot point for when I learned the value of claiming white space to live well.
Last month, July, marked a year that began a fast slide into a dark, oppressive tunnel for me. In the space of two weeks, I heard multiple pieces of devastating news that affected me and people close to me, and sadness closed in on me like heavy, noxious air that doesn’t lift. It smeared and blurred my days. I didn’t despair, but felt so, so sad. I heard about cancer, suicides, child prostitution, more cancer, refugees, and the dark didn’t go away.
It sounds melodramatic now to say it this way, but I felt blind to sunshine and deaf to laughter. I asked my journal When will the madness end, and how is it pity that stays His hand? Tears simmered just under the surface every day for months. I went through the motions of working, talking, living, but felt robotic and dutiful, operating out of scarcity, not abundance.
Light broke through now and then, thin golden hair lines that kept me from despair and told me that darkness isn’t the only reality:
- Writing poetry
- A friend’s confidence that heartache matters to Jesus
- Deep, restful sleep
- Vitamin D and mid-day walks even in driving snow
- Life-giving connections with people, unpredicted and surprising
- Golden moons and pink sunrises that took my breath away
In that age-long year, with its time warps of non-routine and aching social distancing, I found a cushion of comfort in white spaces.
Last summer, some evenings the madness lifted when I sat in the hammock on the porch and read or listened to the night sounds and ate round salted tortilla chips from Aldi. It wasn’t a balanced diet, but I didn’t know what to cook, and now and then eating a bowl of tortilla chips gave me space to breathe.
In the fall, my housemate and I painted our shared living spaces, the kitchen and living room, a pearly light grey trimmed with white. Before we painted, most of the walls were covered with stuff–my stuff, let’s be honest. But now the biggest walls are empty and we love it. I always liked our space, and now I love it even more. It’s white-on-white space. Welcoming. Rest. Calm.
I drive mostly in silence. It gives me a chance to close the whirring, jangling open tabs in my brain one by one. When I need music to feed me, I click “shuffle play” for my choral gems playlist, and I don’t have words for how those voices and harmonies calm me. Recently a counselor friend told me that in the weeks after the horrific shooting at Nickel Mines, the Amish community would gather to sing and sing for hours. I haven’t suffered the trauma they did, but I can see how the mind-soul-body layers of a person are aligned when we sing or listen to singing. Singing soothes and calms and heals me and gives me a buffer from the madness.
This past May and June, the heavy, dark air in my soul slowly lifted. The sun came up earlier. I heard myself laughing and singing more. A trans-Atlantic margin of white space to see siblings gave me a break and a re-set on multiple levels. I rode a bus between major cities in Jordan and watched new landscape and architecture slide past the windows and I felt more alive than I’d been for a long, long time. The sun pressed hard on my face in Greece, telling my body firmly that this is summer, summer, summer, and winter is far away. White space. Rest. And did I mention sunshine?
Now I’ve discovered the lightness of social media fasting. For a week in June, I took Facebook and Instagram off my phone. I was tired of the mindless scrolling and the numbing dopamine and I wanted to read more books and sleep more. It was a very nice week. Then I went to a five-day retreat with no internet access. For the first 24 hours, I felt fidgety because what if I was missing out on something important? Then the fidgets went away and I almost got high on the freedom of being disconnected from the outside world. It was looooovely! Now I access Facebook during the day because it’s part of my job, but when I’m home, I don’t need it except for the rare times I post something. I found an app that limits my Instagram screen time to 15 minutes a day, and I love it. Sometimes on weekends, I extend the time limit, but I love the white space this app helps me reclaim from the day.
My days and pages are still crammed and scribbled full of more than I can do well, and I still tend toward panic and anxiety and feeling snappy. I don’t enjoy talking about this part of my life and I can do it here only because I’ve first talked these things over with strong, safe people I lean on. Dumping all of my (most presentable) guts out on the interwebs like this has limited value unless it can spark a resolution in all of us to work hard at reclaiming space to breathe, rest, give margin around the madness.