The Uses of Not

The Uses of Not

Artists and interior decorators know the meaningful impact negative space can make. It is the high ceiling, the white canvas around a complex shape, the emphasis of that which is not the center of attention. And sometimes, they play with this concept. What can the piece be if the negative space is the focus, when more is actually less, when the absence centers us and brings us something we hadn’t expected? It is Rubin’s vase, Escher’s tessellations, the Japanese garden.

I reflect today on what Ursula K. LeGuin translates from the Tao Te Ching as “The Uses of Not.” I am often focused on what I need to do, who I need to be, the things I must provide. My best friends share, half with laughter and half in lament, about their chronic exhaustion. They are the best and brightest among us, and we are all tired. Why? Who whispered in our ears that to be of value we had to give it all? I question if we should want the brass ring if the contest emaciates us in the process.

I was very tired yesterday evening. I pushed through a long day of work and back-to-back meetings with that five o’clock hour shining like heaven from my pit of darkness. That peaceful light was an illusion, however, since leaving work means clocking in as a mom, holding down the fort as my husband, Alex, walks the dog, planning for dinner, sneaking in some laundry or dishwashing, and also choosing between quality time with Alex, relaxation, reading, writing, and exercise. I squeeze so much of my favorite parts of life into the last hours of the day. Most of what I live for happens after the sun has already descended.

Somehow, I pushed myself to a yoga class. I knew my body needed to move after sitting still for so long. In those sixty minutes, our teacher led us through a series of asanas, or poses, designed to help us reconnect our minds with the reality of our bodies. She encouraged us to set down the busyness at the edge of our mats and, each time our minds reached out to pick that busyness up, to gently bring our attention away from there and back to our breath.

I found myself expending effort to unweave exactly the mindset I’d worked all day to knot together. The efficiency and rapid multitasking I used from 8:00 to 5:00 were crowding into the rest of my life. I felt guilty when not accomplishing two things at once or missing items on my personal To Do list. I constantly calculated the opportunity cost of choosing one priority over another. I needed to carve negative space back into my day. The air moving in and out of my lungs was the focus.

Hollowed out, clay makes the pot.

Today, as I plan my day and week, I am working to protect moments of rest throughout my schedule. In those minutes where I am not obligated to do anything, I can replenish my resources and strengthen my mental acuity for the realities of my professional life. I bring my best, most empathetic and strategic self when my wick isn’t burned down into the candle wax.

What about you? Does rest feel like a luxury that you need to deprioritize for more urgent matters? Is it a reward that you crave once the work is done? What if the work is never done? Perhaps you, too, could be sustained by the reminder that rest is not a reward, and it’s not meant for occasional self-care. It’s a basic human need. And living without it is diminishing our creativity, our empathy, and the core quality of our lives.

Color Commentary

Color Commentary

Oh god, the ship lap. The careful, muted walls covered in shades of gray, or rooms baptized in splashes of whitewash. For years HGTV proselytized the gospel of earth tones with home renovation shows. It was an aesthetic reborn over the years as farmhouse or shabby chic (even when the homeowners lived in the suburbs and had no agricultural experience). The original goal for decorators was, no doubt, to design spaces that felt organic, homegrown, and natural, but now the rustic trends were just tired and overused. As I traipsed through the drab housewares collections in home decor stores looking for a spark of inspiration, I could only ponder, Why did we erase the visual variety and spice from our homes?

The Pantone Color Institute, an organization that influences global color trends for fashion and design industries, announced two colors would share the title for 2021 Color of the Year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. That’s right—gray and yellow. After a year of worldwide illness and death, economic loss, and collective suffering, even the trendsetters had one foot in the grave.

I, for one, saw my share of loss and sadness over the course of the last year, and these depressing hues reflected the sentiment back to me. In the mornings I stood in the closet vacillating between a worn hoodie or a pale sweater. What goes best with stained sweatpants? The options were bleak. And then, I had a revelation: I’m too interesting for this shit. I want color back in my life.

Cultures the world over embrace a hodgepodge of vibrance—from traditions like the Hindu festival of Holi to Japanese New Year, Ghanaian kente cloth to Indonesian kebaya. So many people celebrate the sumptuous messiness of bold color, and yet here we were in the United States buying prairie dresses in faded taupe to match our exhausted souls.

I needed a refresher on how to color clash. I turned to the Internet’s sartorial sherpas and began to collect photos of Instagram influencer Baddie Winkle and the iconic Iris Apfel. I pinned snapshots of playful street art and crafting kits. I’d had enough of the constant sadness, and as I scoured online stores for their chunkiest acetate necklaces, I decided I’d like to dress like a veritable birthday cake.

Give me the beaded earrings that look like multicolored sprinkles. I choose the shoes emblazoned with lemons. I proudly donned a turquoise scarf with a peach jumpsuit and ordered a loud, overstated botanical print blazer. More is more, I thought as I looked around for other ways to infuse joy into my surroundings.

My husband had recently completed some drywall repair in our dining room as part of ongoing home improvements, and I came to him with a request: Give me your blessing to paint a wall pink. The other accents and color schemes in our home included blue, white, gray, green—cool tones traditionally associated with masculinity. I argued that the right shade of pink could also be neutral, that it wouldn’t be the chalky Pepto Bismol pink he feared. I was cooped up with a husband and a male dog, pregnant with a baby boy. I’m surrounded by penises! I exclaimed. Let me have this wall! He reluctantly agreed.

I waltzed out of the house to retrieve paint swatches that afternoon. After carefully contrasting them against the blank white space, I chose a color that would both act as a statement and coordinate well with the adjacent art in the room. A quick call to our neighborhood hardware store confirmed they could have the shade of blush available within an hour.

I prepped the space with painter’s tape and drop cloths, and I removed my festive summer scarf to protect it from inevitable drips and splashes. After pressing play on an upbeat Spotify soundtrack I cracked open the gallon of Creamy Peach. And as I submerged my paintbrush, I also dipped into a brightly-colored well of hope.

Feelings Are For Feeling

Feelings Are For Feeling

“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

Desmond Tutu

“Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

Tibetan proverb

These are difficult days. It’s been said multiple ways by many people over the last six months, but I cannot get away from the fact that this season in American history and culture feels dark. We are suffering, collectively, from both known wounds—systemic racism, wealth inequality, and a general capitalist scarcity mindset, for example—and new ones, like the life-threatening nature of COVID-19 and our country’s lack of empathy towards the elderly, the differently abled, and the immunocomprised. Some in our circles are demanding angrily that the government relax restrictions on group gatherings, citing the massive impact on the economy and their offended sense of freedom, while others are terrified for the lives of their friends and families who could be killed by reckless individuals passing on the invisible death.

This isn’t news to you, I know. You’re feeling exhausted, too.

For me, the darkness has me turning inward more frequently—I have an altered sense of what feels urgent and important as compared to this time in March. In the early months of the pandemic, there was concern for my fellow man, but there was also a sense of adventure—that I would have the chance to test my mettle, like a child playing war. And when the novelty wore off, along with the affirmations that I would maximize my time at home to advance my own enlightenment, I could no longer hide the fact that my life, our lives, are and will be irrevocably changed.

In the previous post, I mentioned the concept that trauma is not what happens to us, but within us. This is doubly true, but the reality is that some days I still feel resentment at how many craters life has left in the lives of myself and my friends, in rapid succession. The meteor shower falls disproportionately, and some of my loved ones are still scaling the residual bluffs created by giant, falling debris. It’s disheartening to be in the process of deep personal transformation just to have more trauma interrupt the journey.

I have one dear friend who survived the loss of a child just to have this damned virus take her father from her way too soon. Another had to fold her business just as she was taking the leap to take additional professional advancement courses. Several friends who had to scrap their plans for weddings and baby showers, canceling or delaying the well-deserved celebration of life’s joys. Folks laid off in droves or working part-time hours, grateful for some small paycheck while also balancing homeschool education for their kids. Teachers wearing themselves ragged to adapt their curricula, trying to hit an ever-moving target of in-person, then remote, then partially remote scenarios. It goes on. Pain is surely creative.

Nothing is right or just, and I am angry. I feel helpless to protect the people I love. And I know that this righteous anger is also a convenient distraction from my own worries and fears; a new job prospect collapsing into dust, searching for a new job and training remotely, the emotional rollercoaster of familial and ethnic identity discoveries, and maintaining important relationships despite physical and geographical barriers.

My husband and I have been telling each other our dreams lately, usually right after we’ve stopped snoozing our alarms on alternating schedules, and we have a few minutes to lay in bed, awake, warming to the idea of consciousness. It’s been a melange of fantastical scenarios that scream STRESS! Missing the train for an international trip due to lost passports, gaining consciousness in an unfamiliar house and learning you’ve been drugged, running from violent dissidents with explosives, horrible scenarios in which we lose our beloved dog. Our hearts are full of loss (both real and imagined).

As Glennon Doyle would say, “Feelings are for feeling.” So, I’ve given myself space to feel the anger and the hurt, but I also hear my inner child, the optimist, the one who is usually out front waving the “Hope!” flag. She’s been quarantining, too, and she needs some time in the sun. A chance to dance like a goof in the front yard just to make the neighbors laugh.

In late 2019, I read “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” It is compiled based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was enlightening to hear from two spiritual thought leaders on the ways they approach hope and happiness amidst the shifting sands of fortune. I discovered the quotes above from that book and jotted them down in my Notes app, unaware that they would come in handy in this moment.

There are little things I’ve attempted to do to harness this chest-baring bravery—thrilling in the casual conversations shouted across backyards and parks with friends who distance socially, working on loving my body for its abilities and intuition, as opposed to how it appears in photographs, investing in new books and media subscriptions to continue expanding the diverse, creative ideas in the world, buying stamps to send postcards and books to pen pals across the country. I’m learning that hope is an exercise in endurance. Refusing to only feel the sad feelings or the hard feelings, and scraping the barrel for the remnants of joy. Savoring them when they are there. Lapping up gratitude where I didn’t know it flowed before, and trying to give others the opportunity for thankfulness, as well.

So far, it’s kept me breathing. I hope it keeps you breathing, as well.