Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Craving White Space in a Carnival World

Over on my stamping blog, I talk a lot about something called white space. White space, which doesn’t have to be white at all, is simply the empty space in graphic designs and art. Think about GAP advertisements, the old ones where a single model, dressed in stylish clothing, was surrounded by white. Now, contrast that image with the latest flyer from Target, where white space is in short supply. It’s hard to focus on any particular deal in the Target ads because there are so many crammed on the page, and they all scream loudly at you and compete for your attention like game hawkers at a travelling carnival. “Step right up, folks!” You’re not quite sure what to look at first.

The GAP doesn’t make that mistake. Their ads are like a Zen garden with a single rock, surrounded by neat and tidy sand. You really notice the rock. Your eye can only really go to the rock. And the rock looks good.

Life needs more white space.

At least that is the argument of Leo Babauta, author of a blog called zenhabits. His post on white space hit home with me. Where is the white space in my life? Certainly I make plenty of room for white space on the cards and scrapbook pages I create. But what about the rest of my life? It seems messy and cluttered and crazy, with all sorts of pretty and colorful and (often) important things competing for my attention.

I crave white space. But since I have a brain that is hard to shut off, a broad range of interests and a hefty curiosity to explore those interests, two small children, one grown husband, a golden retriever puppy, and chronic insomnia, the metaphorical white space of my life gets quickly filled with stuff. Instead of being a nice, clean GAP advertisement, my life feels like a carnival of fast rides and relentless music and whirls of color and pattern and motion. It has LOTS of stuff in it, and I love most of that stuff.

And therein lies my conundrum.

After reading Babauta's article, I realized that a desire for white space motivates my desire to purge my home of junk. But the difficulty of such purging frustrates me at every turn. A lot of the junk in my house simply isn’t mine to purge. It’s George’s or the boys’ junk. While I can certainly exert some parental authority over the boys’ junk, George is unlikely to take kindly to my tossing his stuff, even if he’s not touched that stuff in twenty years. It’s his, and he’s very territorial. But then, so am I. If he ever entered my craft room with an eye to purge, I’d go nuclear on his butt.

So no matter how hard I work at it or how much time I spend organizing and cleaning, my house will NOT have enough white space. The only practical way to fix this incongruity between desire and reality is this: create pockets of white space in my house and life by making my own little Zen gardens of peace and simplicity.

Recently, I purged my clothes and wrote about it here. No longer are my drawers and closet full of mess. With more than enough storage space (I’m utilizing less than half the space in my drawers and less than a quarter of my hanging space), choosing clothes is an entirely pleasant experience now.

My make-up drawer needs another purge. I did this about two years ago, and what a pleasant way to start each morning! Since then, gradually, clutter has taken over again, and it’s time to re-instate a little white space. My car, my craft room, my silverware drawer, and my bedside table are all places where I can make room for white space.

This piecemeal approach to white space seems worthwhile to me: a happy compromise. If my whole life were a Zen garden, I would most definitely get bored and lonely and start craving the carnival. But with zones of white space where I can breathe and not feel crowded or confused, perhaps I’ll find a little balance throughout my day.

Babauta's article also talks about creating white space in schedules. We don’t have to schedule every minute of our lives. In fact, not leaving white space in our schedule is downright unhealthy. We all need time to relax and unwind, regroup and center ourselves. Even God took a break on the seventh day of creation. Yet so many people act like there’s something wrong with blanks in their schedule.

Adults have always engaged in the rat race of careers to varying degrees depending on the nature of their career, but when did parents start projecting their own rat-race schedule onto kids? Children run from activity to activity in a rush to gather “experiences” or “skills.” For some children, it’s a different activity each day of the week. Other children do one activity that requires all seven days of the week. When do they eat dinner or do their homework? How do they get the twelve hours of sleep kids need? When do they spend time with their immediate family? When do they have a chance to relax and simply be children?

I remember hours, days, weeks, months of my childhood spent mostly in the company of other children or by myself, being creative and using my imagination and laughing and playing and moving free of structure and close adult supervision. I also remember nightly sit-down meals with my family. These are memories I treasure. Somehow, I learned to play nicely on a team without ever being on a “team.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t do organized activities or sports, though I would like to see the organizers of sports for children recognize that they sometimes go overboard with training and schedules. I just think that kids deserve down time, some time daily to rest and to be creative in whatever way their spirit moves them, without grown-ups supervising and coaching and expecting a good performance from them.

They need some time to breathe.

Don’t we all need time to breathe?

White space doesn’t have to be alone space, either. Often, it’s just an opportunity to relax in good company, with no agenda or expectations. I sometimes try to make coffee dates with friends who cannot find an hour in their schedule for weeks or months on end. I know exactly how they feel. When I found myself last week thinking I’d beg off of a regular coffee group because I was just too busy, I slapped myself (metaphorically) and went anyway. I was glad I did. It was an hour of peace and laughter and fellowship that lightened my heart and, ironically, made me more productive the rest of the day.

Take an hour to sit and breathe, and get more done in less time the rest of the day. What a concept!

Ironically, we often need to schedule these times of white space in order to see them as important and valuable to our whole lives. We can’t wait to find white space in the busyness of the day. Schedule family meals, take five minutes to sit at your desk at work and breathe deeply, taste your food rather than gulping it down. White space is really just about focusing on something simple yet important in a relaxed and peaceful way.

If anything positive comes out of the recession, I hope it’s a renewed sense of balance between white space and the carnival of life. Many people can no longer afford to play all the carnival games and ride all the carnival rides, and even those who can still afford the full carnival experience seem to be re-evaluating what’s important in life. Perhaps slowing down and savoring the white space in our lives will help us regain some perspective.

How do you make white space in your life? Your children’s lives? Do you feel you get enough white space? Why or why not? What could you do (or not do) to claim a little white space?


  1. I purge on a monthly basis to keep from being overrun with stuff, and I'm fortunate that my husband and my kids support those efforts. Our international moves and living in a house with limited storage (by American standards)helped us develop good habits.

    One of the things I loved most about being an expat was having my schedule and my identity wiped clean when I moved to Belgium. I was finally free of all the expectations people had for me and all the activities that had accumulated over the years. Maybe all those volunteer and social activities were beneficial and/or enjoyable, but dropping all of them cold turkey was a gift. Having NOTHING on my schedule at all was uncomfortable, but I resisted the urge to fill my time with all the things I'd filled it with before: church stuff, school stuff, suburban mom stuff.

    That's when I discovered cardmaking and moved from there to art making. That's when I returned to creative writing, and that's when I expanded my social circle beyond the people in my community to people online and made some of the best friends of my life.

    After 30 years of being a "do gooder," I dared to say no to most volunteer work and to church membership. My big gripe being that too much of my volunteer efforts went to sustaining the organizations I belonged to and not to actually helping individual PEOPLE. I was tired of feeling I had to attend events and participate in a scripted way to be validated. I no longer organize fundraisers; instead I simply donate funds. I no longer belong to PTA, instead I have become involved in the lives of two kids from slightly dysfunctional families in my neighborhood and support them and their education in my own way. I no longer work in the soup kitchen but I support the food pantry. Instead of belonging to women's groups, church groups, and other volunteer organizations, I support people in my community in my own way.

    This makes it easier for me not to be overrun by other people's agendas and ideas and schedules and to have family time siphoned off into organizations, but it also makes the person who goes against the grain of our over-scheduled, institutionalized culture.

  2. It's time to purge "stuff" again, but have you noticed how quickly that white space fills up again? Does the old stuff spread out or does your mind just start physically or mentally fill the white? We're retired and I can schedule space but the time just seems to fill and I don't know why.

  3. V, I hear you about sustaining organizations rather than people. That's why I run the meal ministry at my church...I avoid all church politics and messiness this way, and concentrate on helping individual families who need some comfort food. Stephen Ministers work one on one to help individuals in need (grieving, dying, dealing with all the stressors they might have), and the idea of doing that really appealed to me.

    It's so important for people to listen to the call of their hearts and respond to the world generously in whatever way feels right to them. Sounds like you're doing just that. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    Barbara L., I wish I knew why, too. But it does force us not to become complaisant, doesn't it!

  4. I need white space and I make sure I have it in my life. It's easier for me because I am single and have no children, so my time is my own and I control how much clutter surrounds me. I methodically cleaned every closet in my apartment this summer, purging and organizing what was left. For days after cleaning, I'd open a clutter-free closet and just get a thrill of happiness.

    I need alone time. I love spending time with my family and friends, but there are times I just need to be by myself and daydream or read or watch TV or just breathe.

    I'm pretty sentimental, so I do have things that I can't purge, but I try to keep things organized or neatly displayed. I'm not saying that I'm always successful with that.

    My craft closet is organized, but it is in need of purging. I didn't get rid of enough stuff this summer when I organized the closet. I have too much patterned paper that I'll never use and stamps that are no longer my style. I'm having a harder time getting rid of that. I'm thinking it's time to find a place where I can donate what I know I won't use.

  5. Francie,

    You may wish to consider donating craft supplies to your local Boys/Girls Club of America. I have done that in the past. I also have sent rubber stamps to a friend in Texas who runs the art program at a cancer camp for kids ages 6-16 years old. If you'd like her address or more info, I can provide that. You can e-mail me via my Web site.

  6. I LOVED reading this! So glad I found it! At 50 something, I have found the need to purge so one by one I am going through sections of my house and donating things I just don't really need or want anymore. The recipients of my "treasures" are so grateful for the goodies and i am grateful to get rid of the clutter and excess. I guess subconsciously i was creating white space!!!

  7. love your post, Susan!

    the first time I've heard about white (empty) spaces was when I read 'Clear your clutter with Feng Shui' by Karen Kingston many years ago.

    This book is my survival kid - every time when I need to get rid off things and don't know how to start I reread this wonderful book again. I need just a few pages to get in a thrown-away modus.

    I am just on that point to need more white spaces around me and can't hardly wait to get started.

    Enjoy your day,


  8. Kathryn / WorkGetsInTheWayTuesday, February 15, 2011

    In the interest of honoring all "White Space" everywhere, including here in the comment post, I will simply say,

    Susan, you're my hero!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!