In recent months my reading has included several books with Power in the title—The Power of Habit, The Power of Strangers and the Power of Moments. I didn’t consciously choose them because of the P-word—they just happen to cover topics I wanted to explore. But this approach to naming does seem to be a popular way to attract attention and convince your reader of the irrefutable benefits of whatever it is you want to espouse. And so today I am writing about something I want to uphold and explore—The Power of Space.
This topic has been simmering away for months now, co-existing with the resumption of a near-normal, post-pandemic life and it’s been making me feel vaguely uncomfortable. But it was forced to the forefront of my mind last week when I had a particularly busy day. A few years ago, before our lives changed and we applied the brakes, this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. There was my morning writing session, a Pilates class, visiting a friend in a care home about an hour’s drive away, shopping for food, and cooking a birthday dinner for a family member. Individually, each of these activities was pleasant and stress-free. There was nothing onerous about any of them but as the day went on I felt increasingly oppressed, depressed and at odds with myself. The problem was that they were jammed up against one another, leaving no breathing space between.
This was once my normal pattern. For many years I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air. I’d rush, grab a quick lunch, rush again, and nearly always find myself running late as I fought against the pressure of time. I often felt overwhelmed but I didn’t have enough insight to recognise what was causing it. Now those days are gone. The children have grown up and my time is largely my own. But the old habits are deeply ingrained and it took the pandemic to give me a new perspective. To make me stop and reassess. To recognise that while I subscribe to Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment, “Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he never said that you have to fill every moment.
We’re encouraged to be busy. If you ask someone how they spent their weekend and they reel off a list of activities, they will no doubt sound more fascinating than someone else who went for a walk and did a bit of daydreaming. I like being busy. I like variety, I like spending time with friends and family, and I like getting things done. It’s satisfying. But the pandemic unexpectedly provided a lot more space, and I’m finding that I don’t want to let it go. I want to do more daydreaming. I want to do a lot more daydreaming.
Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming isn’t wasted time. Our bodies may be resting but our brains are not. Suspend focused attention and your mind will wander, switching into what’s known as default mode network (DMN). It processes memories. It also makes unexpected connections which can generate creative ideas or come up with solutions to problems. We’ve probably all had the experience of having a solution turn up when you didn’t even realise you were thinking about it. It often happens to me when I’m out for a walk and never fails to feel like magic.
It’s all too easy to be switched on all the time. We get bombarded by things that hijack our attention and demand a response. It seems so natural to reach for our phones as soon as we wake up but it’s at the cost of staring at the trees outside, watching the clouds and enjoying the warmth of an early morning mug of tea. It’s at the cost of being still and demanding nothing of oneself. I’m grateful that when I was a child, boredom provided plenty of scope for uninterrupted daydreaming. I’m grateful that I wasn’t shunted from one after-school activity to another. I think that would have induced something similar to the suffocating oppression that I experienced last week.
I’ve also begun to appreciate the value of space in other contexts. Mike listens to a lot of Scandinavian jazz and points out the spaces between the notes that give it a reflective quality. And a different kind of jazz musician, Miles Davis, famously advised his musical collaborators, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” He was always looking for the ideal balance between the space from which the music emerges and the notes that we hear. Less is more. And I recently watched a couple of films by the director Wim Wenders. He muses on space. In Paris, Texas the camera lingers on a desert scene just slightly longer than you expect. Nothing is rushed. The space poses questions and invites you to create your own interpretation. It’s the polar opposite of a hectic Bond movie.
There is of course, a place for both. Too much space…not good. Too much activity…not good. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends and family who have talked about their wish to find a new kind of balance as a result of the pandemic. So I know I’m not alone in my thinking. And that means that even if you don’t feel this way yourself, there will almost certainly be people in your life who are struggling to work this out. Mindful activities like meditation or tai chi can help but for me at the moment, it’s a daily walk in nature that’s important. Together with my early morning tea ritual, some empty space in my diary and time unhitched from technology.
Space is freedom. Trust it. Give it time and see what emerges.
That’s the power of space—it’s the freedom to be yourself.
Photos: Mike Poppleton