On Making Space

On Making Space

May 05, 2016

More and more, I’m realizing how much work it takes to wall off moments of time for anything: writing, prayer, exercise, eating. This might be a personal shortcoming. Or it might simply be a reflection of my particular life stage—small child, early career, etc. But I suspect it’s common and, frankly, not exactly newsworthy. We’re busy and life is cluttered. Extra, extra. 

But I’ve been thinking of how one does the work of making time, of finding space. This post won’t be a how-to guide, mostly because I don’t fully know how to. I’ve tried color coding calendars and turning off email and telling people no from time to time. Really, what I’m interested in is the act of seeking out this space—in the instinct to do it.

At times, I feel a gentle pull to quit trying to find moments to write or exercise or read. Of course, sometimes this is laziness. Couches are comfortable. TV is so good right now. But often it’s not lounging that pulls me away; it’s other running-in-circles commitments. Sending an “urgent” email about email, perhaps.

What I mean is this: it’s incredibly easy to stay busy. In fact, I find it’s far more tempting to stay busy than to be still. It’s more immediately gratifying. My brain solves problems and checks boxes, but the hard, contemplative work is pushed deeper into the corner.

Something about this is counter-intuitive: my natural instinct is to check email rather than sit quietly in a chair? Shouldn’t I always be pushing for the path of least resistance—for stopping rather than going?

For me anyway, I’ve learned that the path of least resistance is often the minor but persistent busy-ness of life. I can keep myself afloat, emotionally and otherwise, by tending to these tiny smoldering fires rather than stepping back and pondering the whole landscape.

Here’s my current attempt at upending these instincts: make myself uncomfortable. To walk when I could have driven. To leave some of those end-of-day tasks until tomorrow. To sit on the couch with dishes not yet done. None of this directly creates time for other work I hope to do—writing, exercising, praying—but there’s a kind of reprogramming I’ve noticed in my brain. Time slows, somehow. Or I’m less bound to it.

Even today, as I sit in an old, cold building at the edge of my town’s main street and do the work of writing this post, I find myself scooting my chair back from the desk and watching the traffic cross the bridge above the now defunct train station, the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. I spot a faint Coca-Cola outline I hadn’t noticed before on a 100-year-old building a block away, and I contemplate the quietness of modern cars.

Sure, maybe you’ll say I’ve basically made myself more spacey. This could be true. But I think in the process I’m giving myself more space. Or I’ve at least begun to plant instincts in my brain to step back and watch, to think bigger thoughts.

As a writer, I know I’m now better positioned to spot what the poet Richard Hugo calls in his essay “Writing Off the Subject,” my “triggering subjects.” As a person of faith, I know I’m now thinking more about the world in holistic terms: seeing people’s faces, considering moths and lobsters, trying to spot hints of what Flannery O’Connor called “the action of grace.”

The trick, of course, is to meet the deadline for this post and still watch the traffic. This, it seems, is the trick with nearly everything: finding balance. But the pragmatist in me wishes to point out that the very act of watching the traffic today has helped me complete the post by the deadline. So, there.

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