Finding Balance in Empty Spaces

If moving taught me anything, it taught me this: We have a lot of stuff. Even after getting rid of a ton of stuff, we still have a lot of stuff.

I spent a year cleaning every closet, cupboard and drawer to purge the excess. My space was mostly organized and clutter free, I thought.

Then, we moved.

Our movers, God bless ‘em, only transported the big items, like furniture and appliances and a few things we managed to pack in boxes before they arrived. We moved the rest. It took us two weeks of daily carloads in two, sometimes three cars, to transport it all. I wasn’t expecting to move for two weeks.

It was not fun.

That’s when I felt the full mental weight of our material possessions. When I carried them out of my old house, one item at a time, drove them across town one carload at a time, and carried them into my new house to find a place to store them, one item at a time.

I thought it would never end.

Clutter seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Our things were spawning baby things. Just when I thought the old house was empty, I would open a door or a drawer and find more stuff to pack. Just when I thought I had broken down the last box at the new house, I’d round a corner and find another one. I was like, “Is this some kind of joke? Is someone messing with me? What could possibly be in here that I think I need? Would anyone miss this box if it mysteriously disappeared?

(No. The answer is no.)

So, even as I unpacked, I did an about-face to take items back to my car to donate. Many items didn’t even make it to the new house. I just stopped at The Goodwill and dumped it all—entire carloads. This was stuff that made the cut in my big Declutter project. By the end, I didn’t even care. I just wanted it out of my life.

All that hard work paid off, because now, I’m looking at this.

Empty walls

Empty storage

Empty Shelves

Empty Hooks

Empty Cabinet

And it doesn’t end there.

Because I dedicated every spare minute of the last year to the updating, decluttering and selling of my old house; and also to the building, decorating, and moving into my new house, I suddenly find myself with this:

July Calendar

Compared to this:

March Calendar

Granted, that’s school year month vs. summer break month, but still. Lots of blank spaces there.

I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name. (Sorry, that song has been running through my mind ever since I started writing this post. And now it is running through yours. You’re welcome.)

The funny thing about empty spaces, is that they beg to be refilled. Like dragging a stick through the sand, the water naturally rushes into every groove. When I see an empty surface or shelf or wall, I’m immediately looking for something to place there.

Maybe this old photo.
Maybe a new photo.
Maybe these flowers.
Maybe this knickknack.
Maybe a stack of books.
Maybe a piece of art.
Let’s go shopping!

When I see a series of empty squares on my calendar, I’m immediately wondering what I should schedule there.

Find a ministry.
Start a project.
Take a class.
Get a job.
Produce!
Produce!
Produce!

Society’s pressure to produce is so powerful, isn’t it?

If we’re not rushing, we feel lazy.
If we’re not hurried, we feel unproductive.
When we don’t have every day planned down to the minute, we feel guilt.
Even as I write this post, I feel guilt for writing about having free time.

A few evenings ago, I took a walk down my driveway to get the mail. As I returned, I stopped to notice the deer in the field and the rabbits running through the thicket. I watered my pots of flowers and straightened the chairs around the fire pit. It sounds so relaxing, but I felt myself rushing through the process. I had to hurry and get to the next thing. Except there was no specific “next thing.” I had nothing else I had to do at that moment or that evening. This realization brought a strange mix of relief and angst. Like I could finally breathe because of freedom in my schedule, yet suffocated because I CAN’T JUST DO NOTHING!

Can I?

*(Before you answer that, let’s just define our term: “Nothing,” as used in this blog post, does not mean literally No Thing. Nothing means life with three kids and a husband who all need love, attention, transportation, food and clean clothes. And also, the afformentioned house, which needs periodic cleaning and straightening, as the husband and children all tend to live in it and disperse their dirt throughout. So, “Nothing” means “nothing, in addition to all of that”.)

Well, last week, because I had nothing* else to do, I worked a puzzle with my children, all day. Because I had absolutely nothing* on the calendar, I was able to go pick up some kids and bring them back to the house to play. Because I’m not rushing from this appointment to that appointment, I’m able to sit on the front porch each morning with my coffee, and each evening with my family, and cook dinner, and read books, and have real conversations with my husband. I’m writing more. I have time for friends. I’m more joyful, more patient, more thoughtful.

Front Porch Wrting

The other day, when I took my daughter to run errands, she stopped several times to fiddle with the straw in her milkshake (I actually had time to stop and buy her a milkshake!). I stopped and waited.

“Sorry I’m taking so long, mommy.”

“That’s okay.” I smiled. “We’re not in a hurry.”

We’re not in a hurry.

We’re not in a hurry.

For the first time in forever, we’re not in a hurry. I’m not running like a crazed woman with a stomach ache and an eye twitch, faking nice.

Sometimes, I actually get bored. (Gosh, the guilt in typing that is palpable.)

Do you remember the last time you were bored?

I KNOW! ME NEITHER!

I don’t like being bored. But I like that I CAN be bored.

There is a clarity and gentle balance that comes with all these empty spaces. When I open a cupboard, I don’t dig past five things to find what I need. When I enter the room, the walls are clean and simple, so I can see the beauty of our trim work and our floors and our furniture. When I wake up, I don’t have that overwhelming dread of “I have no time.”

It’s so nice.

I wasn’t expecting such a sharp contrast, because I’ve always tried to keep an uncluttered and unhurried life. But something has shifted since the move. It feels more foundational. While, I realize I can’t always control the clutter and the hurry, I’m learning that I may have more control than I previously thought.

I don’t want to be quick to replace all the stuff. The activities, the wall hangings, the gadgets, the clothes. I want to enjoy the empty space a little longer. I don’t even know if I have permission to do so. I feel like I’m doing something illegal. Like the Busy Police will come and arrest me, and make me get a job. A very stressful, time-consuming job.

Life has a rhythm of ebbs and flows. Life’s pace will pick up again, probably. The Crazy Train always stops at the Cooper House, right on schedule. Who knows? Today may be the day my simplicity ends. Today may be the day tragedy catapults me into a tailspin of emergency or grief. I can’t control that.

But I can control our stuff. And I can (mostly) control our schedule.

So, for now, as much as it depends on me, I’m choosing simple. I’m bucking the culture. I’m resisting society’s pressure to produce. I refuse to pack full every possible space, both literally and figuratively. I will hide from the Busy Police and take my chances. I want to see what happens if we do this for awhile.

Years from now, when I look back on this time, maybe I’ll think, “Remember the summer we moved? Remember how relaxed and unhurried we were? That was nice.

Or, I maybe, just maybe, I’ll look back on this time and think, “Remember the summer we moved?

Rocking Chairs

“That’s when everything changed.”

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Balance Tip: Discover the Thing that Centers You

Not long ago, on an ordinary Tuesday, I was fluttering around my house, aimlessly. Oh, I was getting-‘er-done (sort of), but I was bouncing from thing to thing to thing, like a pinball: throwing in some laundry (ping!), checking emails (ping!), scheduling summer camps (ping!), answering texts (ping!), straightening the house (ping! ping! ping!).  But I wasn’t focused.  Couldn’t complete a task to save my life.

It was a weird, disconnected, pinball-ish feeling. Like I was on a treadmill. Yes, exactly like a mixed metaphor of a pinball rolling and bouncing on a treadmill! I’d been running at such a fast pace for the last year, my days and nights consumed with designing, building and moving into a new home. Then, it was over.

Except it wasn’t.

The people kept coming. The contractors, they’d start calling first thing each morning, and show up soon afterward. I was tethered to my phone and to my house while All The People finished up the details and connected phones lines and ran irrigation pipes and installed a satellite dish and hung blinds. For weeks, there were strange men coming and going, all day, every day. I never knew when or who—but, they were always there.  Lurking beyond my uncovered windows…

Men at Work

For a girl who finds comfort in routines, and who (very much) needs her privacy, this was all quite unnerving.

Finally, the day arrived where I had complete control of my schedule. A day where no one needed access to me or to my house. A day to reorient to my new surroundings, alone. A day to catch up on daily tasks and tackle piles of laundry and unpaid bills and unanswered emails.

But, oddly, I couldn’t find center.

Even though I had an entire day to slow down and focus, I was still running at that familiar, frantic pace. I was behaving as if my schedule was packed, even though it wasn’t. I was literally jogging from the laundry room to the kitchen and up the stairs. My mind was racing. Since no one was calling my phone, I had fake arguments in my head with every person who irritated me.   I started hyper-analyzing my flaws and questioning my worth. My brain was like a run-away train. A runaway pinball train on a treadmill.

It was bizarre.

Since I was racing against the fake clock, I decided to get a jump on dinner (ping!) before I picked up the kids from school (ping!). I grabbed my laptop, pulled up my recipe, and gathered the ingredients to set out on the island. I turned on the flame and drizzled oil. I lifted the raw meat from the package, seasoned it, and tossed it in the pan.

And from the second the chicken hit that sizzling hot oil, something in me shifted.

The aroma started to rise, and I felt immediate calm. I selected fresh basil leaves from the plant on my window sill and inhaled deeply. Gosh, I love the smell of fresh basil. I chopped, and stirred and poured. I diced and sautéed and deglazed. As the dish came together, my kitchen filled with sounds and scents and sights. I tested it, and added more salt and pepper, until it was perfect.

The kids are going to love this, I thought. I smiled.

Surprisingly, this single cooking incident set the tone for the rest of the evening. When I picked up the kids from school, I was joyful and relaxed. As I served the dinner, I was confident and excited for them to try it. Instead of questioning my worth, I felt good about myself for having dinner completed by 3 pm and for making something homemade and nutritious.

And weirdly, it triggered a creativity (cooking is an art!) that released me to hang a few things on the empty walls around my new home–a task that earlier that day felt daunting, overwhelming.

Cooking centered me that day in a way that truly surprised me. I was neither expecting it, nor seeking it. Honestly, I was just trying to catch up on one more thing I had to accomplish before the day got away from me.

I’ve always loved cooking. But that day, I paid special attention and discovered how it grounds me. There’s something about performing this ritual—the same ritual women and men have been performing since the beginning of time—that connects me to every other woman who ever lived. It connects me with every other mom today who feeds her family. It feels sacred.

Discover the Thing That Centers You

It’s settled: Cooking centers me.

Therefore, I shall henceforth make cooking a priority.

I don’t have time to cook from scratch every day. But on those days when I feel disconnected, disjointed, like I’m racing against the clock, but making no progress, I will take the time to look up a good recipe, chop an onion, warm up some oil in a pan and see what happens.

Maybe for you it’s not cooking. Maybe for you, it’s exercise (that centers me, too). Or reading historical fiction. Or having a heart-felt conversation with your best friend. Or sketching a picture. Or listening to 70s rock and roll. Or pouring a cup of hot tea and sipping it on the front porch. Or soaking in a hot bath. Or sitting in a salon while someone does your hair and nails. Or painting old furniture. Or tending your garden. Or prayer.

Do you know what centers you? Have you ever paid attention to what brings you down from Crazy Brain to Creativity? If not, it’s worth your time to discover it. And when you discover it, carve out regular time in your week to do it. It will change your entire day.  And the fake people you’ve been arguing with in your head will thank you.

 

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