'A certain vibrant emptiness'
Hello to my favorite day of the year
No resolutions from me, just habit-hopes. I have in mind certain habits and practices that I hope I’ll stick with—all of them things I’ve stuck with before, for good long stretches, and then let slip. It happens. You duck a curve-ball, you adapt, you cope, and sometimes that means your good habits of sleep and creative practice and well-managed screen time go (to quote Mrs. Pomfrey in All Creatures Great and Small) flopbottom. Eventually things settle down and you can go back to your wiser ways of living.
I’m fervently hoping right now is one of the settling-down times. But last year’s major upheaval began with an unexpected landlord email on the morning of January 3, and, well, I know better than to make assumptions about how long a stretch of clear weather might last.
It’s lovely and clear this morning (literally and figuratively)—and that’s enough!
The flopbottomed good habit I worked to unflop last week was no screens (except Kindle) at bedtime. I know quite well what a mistake it is to let myself fall asleep to Britbox or a movie—that’s just begging for an hour or more of uncomfortable drifting and startling back awake. Incredible self-sabotage, but so tempting! I’m hooked on 35 Days, a suspenseful Welsh drama that is even more disruptive to sleep than a murder show in English, because I’m stretching my Welsh comprehension by listening first and then quickly reading the subtitles before the next person speaks. It’s a pretty good exercise for language learning, but catastrophic for sleep. And yet there I was in early December, absorbed and exhausted.
So. It was an easy call to return to the sensible habit of reading myself to sleep. If I pick the right book (no thrillers!), a few paragraphs are all it takes to conk me out. (Actual reading, the kind where you do exciting things like stay awake and comprehend and finish a book, has to happen earlier in the day.)
Ten days (and maybe seventeen paragraphs) later, I’m feeling pretty secure about the restoration of that good habit. So this morning I undertook habit fix number two: stillness and writing first, puzzles much later.
I love Duolingo (how else could I understand one Welsh word out of every seven on my sleep-destroying drama?) and look forward to doing my lessons each morning. I have firm rules about what I can and cannot do on my phone before breakfast, but allowing Duolingo and Wordle into the can category has created a lot of mission creep. Poetry before screens, I tell myself, but once the phone is in my hand, it’s really hard to resist a quick peep at email or my to-do list. Which of course is murder on a contemplative, creative state of mind.
I have a feeling there are people out there (a few particular friends come to mind) who don’t have to make such a thing out of this habits-and-practices business. People who go to sleep or do their puzzles in sensible ways, at sensible hours, without having to deliberately cue-routine-reward themselves into the tiniest of habits. If that’s you, what is it like? What do you have to prod yourself to do (or not do)?
The right book for this morning felt like Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down.1 It proved the perfect pick. I dipped into passages I’d marked on a previous read and found this, which seemed custom-made for my New Year state of mind:
In the fall of 2006, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a map explaining where to find tranquility. Among its defining categories were the ability to hear bird song and to experience peace and quiet, to see natural landscape (including natural-looking woodland), and to be able to identify the stars at night.
Tranquility belongs to a long list of shadowy essentials to which our culture pays lip-service, but to which we are mostly oblivious, among them, rest, sleep, silence, stillness and solitude. What I am describing is a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly.” That ease, that spaciousness, is ma.
In contrast to this notion of spaciousness, McEwen describes a contemporary way of living that is “filled with things, crammed to bursting point with noise and movement and color and excitement...” The holidays, much?
(Our holidays were lovely—truly merry and bright. But I do have a way of cramming my days with noise and movement and color and excitement, and not just in December. I’m all too well aware that spaciousness doesn’t happen by accident.)
Christian McEwen sees me coming a mile away:
It is easier, perhaps, to write such definitions in one’s private notebook, and agree wholeheartedly that they feel right, than to include such luscious emptiness in one’s daily life. And yet it is unquestionably true that people are able to work better and more creatively when they are calm, unharried, free of stress, and that this is, at least in part, a matter of choice. “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his intellect who does not at least chequer his life with solitude,” wrote Wordsworth’s friend De Quincey, and Kafka too has much to say on this: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Emphasis mine. That’s the bit that made me laugh out loud this morning, as the first pale glimmer of apricot light appeared out of the blue dark. It’s true: if I see an empty container, I’m eager to fill it. It’s like the Seinfeld bit at the car rental: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation.” I know how to admire the luscious emptiness, I’m just not so great at holding it.
But I’m brilliant at fresh starts! Here’s to giving spaciousness another go. How about you? Any habit-hopes for the next little while?
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