On Kathleen Norris and White Space
Rethinking your mundane
[No, this is not a racist rant about white anything.]
My client frequently talks about “white space.” What they mean is that extra computing capacity available with many of their industrial tools. The tools are designed to accomplish some process over and over again, but it turns out there is a mini-computer buried in each tool that can do other things as well. I’ve been writing about the other things those mini-computers can do—they bring a sort of intelligence to ordinary tasks.
The whole discussion has me thinking about Kathleen Norris and her defense of the time we spend doing dishes or laundry or brushing our teeth. She claims those are more like sacred moments than they are boring time wasters. That’s because in those moments where we go on auto-pilot as we do that same old thing yet again, our minds are actually free to play or to make connections between the bits of life we’ve been experiencing. To Ms. Norris’ way of thinking, that daily floss may well lead to epiphanies—even connecting with God—if approached with openness.
As a writer, Ms. Norris depends on those automatic moments as well as the fallow moments:
“But I do detect in the quotidian…[meaning daily or ordinary], rhythms of writing, a stage that might be described as parturient, or in labor, about to produce or seems almost unbearable, stretching out before me like a prison sentence, when I seem most dead inside, reduced to mindlessness, bitter tears or both, that what is inmost breaks forth.”
If there is a birthing process for thoughts (full disclosure: as a male my closest experience with birthing is watching our kids get born), I’m pretty sure it has something to do with staying open during our mundane boring moments. If we fill up our mundane moments with entertainment and Facebook and Twitter, we risk staying in that fallow place.
In the delightfully-readable book A Philosophy of Walking, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014) Frederic Gros writes short essays about writers and thinkers who wrote while walking. Like that great dark cloud Nietzsche, who scrambled up mountain trails and paused to scribble his gloomy reveries. Or Thoreau or Rimbaud or Kant—writers and thinkers accustomed to spooling out the thorny stuff while ambling about. These writers made a habit of using the mundane to tease out the thoughts they were working on. Because when you are walking, you really can’t do anything but put one foot in front of another foot. And your own personal white space (in your own personal brain pan) is free to think thoughts and connect dots.
As we move deeper into this constantly-connected age, I wonder if the wise among us will learn how to preserve their mundane tasks precisely because that’s where meaning keeps coming from.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston