more on negative space


first edition cover of the classic Virginia Woolf essay, wikipedia

Hi Reader. I’ve felt a little quiet this week. This week at the Wee, Small House there have been fevers and, especially for the eldest child, Fun Lessons to Learn (probably only the parents of young ones will understand this reference to the classic Berenstain Bears video). Well, maybe not so fun. But lessons to learn. There have been brief poetry moments, for which I’m grateful. Today, one of the feverish ones and I are playing paper dolls, for which I’m also grateful — who knew I’d still get to cut, paste, and color clear into middle age!?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of negative space from last Friday’s quote. A friend wrote to me after I posted it and asked: what did I think it meant to create negative space in a life?

I wrote back that, for me, creating negative space in one’s life means making room in your life to be truly yourself. Creating this space probably looks a little different for everyone. It might mean putting space between yourself and people who are toxic in your life. It might mean saying NO to things that you really don’t want to do, or that drain your energy. For creative types, it probably also means making room in your life for your art. For everyone it probably means making room in your life for the people and activities that you love and that nourish you. For me, it partly means getting up really early to have my first cup of tea in a dark and silent house where everyone else is sleeping (known affectionately at the Wee, Small House as “mom’s warm-up time”).

I also think creating negative space in one’s life means having some time and space that is empty, unfilled, unscheduled, unclaimed. This reminds me of a phrase I heard once: “I am a human being, not a human doing.” I think it’s important to have time to just be.

As easy as it is to say I believe all this, it’s quite another thing to make it happen. This is my Year of NO, but I’m still coaching myself through every single volunteer request: No, Molly, you cannot drive the Brownies to Ronald McDonald House. No, you will not use one of your only completely free days of February to chaperon an all-day field trip.

Even harder was a decision I made recently to actually GO AWAY from home for a writing retreat where I will be completely by myself for several days. I don’t think I’ve been completely alone for more than a few hours since 1999. Since the nineties, people. During most of that time, I’ve been the primary caregiver to one, two, and then three young children 24/7. There’s a whole body of research (some of it is here) on caregiving and everyone agrees: Caregiving is rewarding but stressful. During this stretch of time we’ve also had other stresses as a family — chronic illness, cross-country move, a very sick child. And I’m an introvert — someone who gets her energy from being alone, from silence. Let’s just say there’s kind of a premium on alone time and silence in a house with three children.

When I told a wise woman in my life that I was just feeling burned out and overwhelmed, she asked me: What do you think you need? “I need to go away!” I blurted this out without thinking. She said, I agree.

My friends — secular and writerly — urged me to go. You need this! they said. Just go — Husband and the kids will be fine. They said, This (meaning writing) is your life’s work. Go away and do it. And of course I know they will be fine, but I really struggled to give myself permission to do this. Should I really spend the money to go off alone — what about a family vacation? Should I inconvenience other people so I can have this time and space? And Spiteful Gillian just had to chime in too: “Who are you to go on a writing retreat!? You don’t even have a book!” (Precisely, Spiteful Gillian, precisely!)

Deep inside, I knew I wanted and needed the time and space this retreat would give me. Eventually, and remembering the phrase that I’ve been living with — radical self-care — I went with that. I created some negative space to look forward to.

The day I booked my trip was one of the happiest days of my life. I’m not exaggerating. Right up there with wedding day and days the kids were born. And my feelings of being burned out and overwhelmed, while not gone completely, are made easier to manage by the fact that I know I am going to have some time and space soon, that I’m going to have a room of my own.

So, to get back to creating negative space — sometimes it’s in small ways: not going on the field trip. And sometimes it’s in bigger ways: running away from home (wait — did I say running away? I meant going away 😉 ). Either way, it may not be easy to create that space, but whatever negative space you need in your life, I hope you create it.

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