Lately I have been thinking a lot about the difference between space and emptiness. When it comes to our lives, one condition is supposed to be freeing, the other scary and sad. We’re told space and freedom will come when we get clear on what we want, when we prioritize and commit to doing fewer things with more purpose. I’m finding, though, that once you begin to simplify your life, the growing pains don’t always feel like freedom.
Over the last year or so, I’ve spent a lot of effort in clearing away, in discarding what I’d come to see as unhelpful baggage. The primary change has been how I approach work, of the day job variety. I’m one of those types who is perpetually unhappy with a standard 9 – 5, especially if it involves a desk; I was also under the misguided but not uncommon impression that the way I make my money has to justify my existence.
Breaking that belief took me a decade, but I finally did it. I started a business that’s decidedly unromantic (I’m a housekeeper), but it supports me, and it gives me space.
The mental room where I used to nurse my stress and, honestly, my angst about work has been cleared out for other things, primarily for writing. I had thought it would be an unambiguous relief. But my hard-won breathing space has started to feel like something else – emptiness. And now illness has cracked that space even wider.
My fear is that I am essentially an emperor without clothes, that there’s nothing to me underneath the mental and emotional bracken I was so eager to prune away. The fear comes when I sit down with an empty page or computer screen. It comes when I see friends and have no office problems to hash out, no anecdotes about coworkers or clients. After all, it really wouldn’t be fair, or interesting, for me to gossip about the state of my clients’ bathrooms. And chemo is a bad conversation-starter.
It feels a bit like being inside a never-ending awkward pause: eyebrows raised, precarious smile, ‘Soooo…?’ What now? The space opens, and there I am, worried that the naked truth is I’ve got nothing good to say.
But maybe this state of things is only to be expected at first. You empty a room of its clutter, and for a while it’s defined by what’s lacking – the gaping shelves, the dark spots on the wall where old pictures and stuffed notice boards and clouded mirrors used to hang. So you clean and put up a fresh layer of paint, and you stand back. Then, slowly, you start to see the potential.
Maybe I just have to resist the urge to drag a bunch of new clutter in, and settle into the emptiness for a while. Even if it’s not comfortable.
Perhaps that’s the only way to allow what’s important to seep in and claim the space.