Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Final Frontier

Every year, I have a word that comes to me at the beginning of the year that helps define my year. It often comes to me starting in December as I am starting to think about the year to come and what it might continue to mean as the year goes on (and beyond). This has apparently been a hashtag trend - #oneword365 - for several years, as I learned from reading the blog of Canadian author Sarah Bessey, but I was doing it before it was trending, as I started my habit seven years ago with the word "peace" for 2010, which was followed by "joy" (2011); "roots" (2012); "sustainability" (2013); "simplify" (2014); "solidify" (2015); and "unify" last year in 2016.

"Unify" seems ironic in retrospect considering not only how divided everything seems now in this current political climate (more on that in a future post), but also some of my current feelings about my own life. As I explored what that word "unify" might mean in my "state of the union" blog post early last year, I thought about the concept of unification in the context of my marriage, in church, and in vocation. Although I am more unified in my marriage than I perhaps have ever been, I definitely feel the distance between me and church, as well as an internal anguish regarding my vocation.

Perhaps that internal angst contributed to the fact that I struggled as I entered the new year to determine what my new word might be. Nothing seemed really clear at first, and I entered the year at a bit of a loss as to what the new year might hold. Then I had an idea for my birthday party which unexpectedly led me to my word for 2017.

Adulthood: The Final Frontier

For the past decade, I have hosted themed birthday parties for myself. In the past, I have featured themes such as 90s, tropical, "Saskatchewan" (when I was living in Victoria), "meat" "Freaks and Geeks" (come as you were in high school), and, most recently, spies, but I was slightly stuck as to how to celebrate my birthday this year.

Then it came to me: Star Trek had just celebrated its 50th anniversary; Star Wars was about to celebrate its 40th; Firefly was about to observe its 15th anniversary, as well as the half-century mark before it was set (in 2517), and it was quickly clear that the theme for my party would be "space". We had a great night with some fantastic costumes, space-themed snacks and board games, and my first (and final) viewing of Spaceballs (which has not aged well at all, by the way) to cap off the night.

I quickly realized, however, that not only was I enjoying the process of planning a party, but I was also observing the process of entering the beginning of my mid-thirties. There was an unexpected significance to this birthday that I had not felt since I turned thirty, and it was having a deeper effect on me. As I was planning for my party, I started to realize something interesting: not only was "space" to be the theme of my party; it was to be my word for the year.

"I'll go runnin' in outer space"

I have always been fascinated with the idea of space since I was a kid. I read books about space, and I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was eight years old. I was in S.P.A.C.E. (Saskatoon Public AerospaCe Education - they really had to force that acronym) Club from Grades 5 through 8, which culminated in me commanding a simulated mission to Mars and talking to an actual Canadian astronaut while he was in orbit.

My early love of the concept paved the way for what has been a lifelong enjoyment of the exploration of space and aliens. That includes visual media from "Pigs in Space" on The Muppet Show to every Star Trek movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey to the rise in recent years of critically acclaimed sci-fi movies such as Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival. It also includes books (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), board games, and even music (the trilogy of "astro-pop" albums released from members of Five Iron Frenzy as Brave Saint Saturn).

But even though my thoughts about the word "space" started with the idea of outer space and spaceships and aliens, they did not stop there. As I started to think about the possible meanings and impact of the idea of "space", I started to realize that there are several different permutations of the word that might have some ramifications for my journey over the coming year, and that only one of them was connected to these science fictional ideas. I ended up with five different thoughts about the idea of "space" and how it might connect to my life over the rest of this calendar year.

Inspecting spacetime

One interesting concept that I started to consider was the connection between space and time - the idea that they are not only related, but that they are actually indistinguishable. I'm not a physicist, so I'm not going to try to explain the point in any great detail, but suffice to say that "spacetime" is the best way to think of the relationship of the two - one is the other. Many creators have played with this idea of the relationship between space and time - the most notable in my recent memory was Christopher Nolan in Interstellar - but it's really hard for us humans to grasp the concept, since the current theories generally involve calculations that necessarily occur in dimensions above our own.

I suppose, to see the metaphor through, that it should come as little surprise that I have struggled with understanding the relationship between space and time in my own life, much as it is an almost incomprehensible scientific theory due to our dimensional limitations. It seems like space and time should be one and the same in my life, but it often feels as though they have a perpendicular or even an inverse relationship in my life. I might feel as though I have one and not the other, or at least that having one is not necessarily a precursor that I have the other.

I struggle with time and with space; sometimes, I feel as though I have time, but that I don't have space, or that even though I'm not very "busy" that life is still very "full". I have to constantly work on reminding myself that space and time are not at odds with one another or with me, and that I will find the space and time for the things that are important to me. I find that I tend to be better at that when I have a clearer sense of purpose and meaning, and that one of my struggles is in continually feeling as though I have to create those for myself, as exacerbated by my current vocational circumstances. For now, I need to remind myself that space and time are the same, and that I have the amount that I need of both.

The space between

Although I started off in the realm of sci-fi, I then started moving into (perhaps) more observable and relatable ideas of space. As I was writing, I started to think about the space bar and the purpose it, along with spaces between words, serve to create meaning in a linguistic sense: phonetically, semantically, syntactically, and contextually. In many ways, the spaces between letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs are as important as those things are themselves. We use "the space between" - a phrase that just made a bunch of you start humming this - to help us decode the meaning of the letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs; without those spaces, theywouldbecomealmostindecipherablegibberishthatourbrainswouldhavetoworksomuchhardertotranslateintounderstandableportions.

Of course, most of you were able to read that part of the sentence despite the lack of spaces between words, but that's in part because your brain can help you understand where the spaces should go and also in part because you have enough experience with words that your brain can work somewhat automatically to create meaning where it is difficult to see, much in the same way that we can generally understand short words even when the interior letters are mixed up - "mlik", for example - because our brains recognize the letters as a semantic unit and more or less automatically do the work for us. That said, I found that run-together phrase difficult to type without the spaces, and I found myself repeatedly having to delete the spaces I was unconsciously inserting as I typed.

So what does this have to do with my life? I think that sometimes we are so focused on the "words" of life - the times that are meaningful and when things are happening and moving and shaking - and not on the spaces - the pauses, the down times, the breaths - that are just as important for creating meaning in our lives. In graphic design, as in linguistics, the space - especially the use of "negative space" is just as important as what is put into the design, or the sentence, or the life, and I need to remember the importance of space on its own, not just as a way to get to the next thing.

I know that I can be so focused on trying to get to the next thing that I'm breathless and trying to fill or eradicate all of the spaces, and all that does is to make things more difficult in the long run. I think that we can learn to manage ourselves in those kinds of seasons - and they do happen - but that if we work ourselves for too hard for too long that we end up tired and exhausted and needing more rest than if we had just observed the spaces that were supposed to be there all along.


Then my exploration of "space" took me to the idea of the space between people, which was bolstered by my recent reading of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, a short book written by Rob Bell with his wife Kristen. The Bells discuss the space that is created between the two people in the covenant of marriage, which they call the "zimzum" - a term borrowed from the Kabbalah in regard to the idea of God contracting himself to make space for his creation - as a process they see as responsive, dynamic, exclusive, and sacred in a healthy marriage.

They use reflections on and stories from their own experiences to work through each of those ideas, but everything they talk about comes back to the concept of the "zimzum" - that space in the middle of a relationship. But as I read their conversation about space between people in marriage, I could not help but reflect on the idea that any relationship we cultivate has a common space, and that those spaces need to be cared for in a meaningful way.

I think that there are times in which we extend ourselves too far in our personal relationships, and that we try to create too many of these spaces with too many people in too many ways. I have begun to realize that I would far rather have stronger shared spaces with fewer people than weaker shared spaces with more people, and that in a lot of ways that the totality of relationships in my life is unfortunately a zero-sum proposition; there is only so much time and energy that I can put into relationships, and the time I put into one is time that is subtracted, effectively, from another.

This is not to say that I am cutting friendships or doing a purge of my contacts or that if you don't hear from me for several months that we are no longer friends; it just means that I am continuing to be more conscious and intentional about the spaces that I am creating with friends and family and what each of those spaces mean to me. I feel as though I am in a season in which I have less overall energy for working on those spaces, which I occasionally have to remind myself is okay. It's all part of making healthier space for myself in general.

Space oddity

As I considered these different scientific, linguistic, and relational aspects of space, my thoughts then returned to two applications of the idea of "space"  starting with "making" space. The very phrase has the connotation of intention, of purpose, and of craftsmanship - I am deliberately making choices in my life that lead to there being more space than there would be were I to leave it to chance or to cater to my every whim and wish. Space, in this mentality, is something to be aimed for, to be valued, and treasured, and it is worth sacrifice to achieve.

In the same way that "space" has a lot of different meanings, so too are there different ways of making space in our lives: relational; physical; temporal; emotional; psychological; even theological, perhaps. There are definitely benefits to making space in our lives in many of those areas. My friend Leah wrote a short reflection in mid-January about the positive results to some changes she has made in her life to make more space for herself, her family, and her relationships, and I am both grateful for her writing, as it encourages me to pursue the kind of peace that she exudes in her stories, as well as for being a beneficiary of some of the space that she has created in her life.

Yet I find myself wondering how to do it. I have a sense - as I have for years - of the kinds of things I can do to make space in any of those various senses - getting rid of physical things, clearing off to-do lists, removing items from my various wish lists, deleting apps from my phone - but for some reason, I struggle in the process, as I tend to start making space, stopping before the space is made.

Maybe it's that I actually do not know how to finish the process, or that I just get busy or distracted, or that I am still holding onto the things that fill up my space as pieces of my identity. Or perhaps I subconsciously do not want to make space because space invites the unknown, and the unknown is unexpected, uncontrollable, and uncomfortable. The whole process and point of making space is thus rooted in vulnerability, as it involves taking something that is, so to speak, making it not be, and leaving it that way, giving up control and agency in order to prioritize the "not-doing" in your life.

Of course, there is a part of me that has an idea of what could fill the space, but I suppose that defeats the purpose of making space in the first place. The notion is not to make space for the sole purpose of having it filled, but rather to make space for the sake of space - or for the sake of the kinds of experiences that can only be had in a space of having space. I think of the Jewish prophet Elijah after the encounter with the prophets of Baal; he went and hid in a cave (not necessarily with the best motivations, mind you), and in that cave he encountered God not through a storm or a wind, but in a whisper. God is in the spaces.

Enough space

The final reflection I have is about finding "my" space in life (not MySpace, which is apparently still a thing). I have struggled for a couple of years in finding my space in many different areas, including vocation and church. I have some spaces that have been or are mine, but I struggle with not feeling as though I have enough space - or enough of my spaces. I know that I am feeling the loss of some spaces, such as church, but I'm also not quite sure what to do in regard to the absence of those spaces.

The shift that I need to make, however, is the kind of shift you need to make when looking at a stereoscopic (3D) drawing; it's making the shift from the spaces that aren't there to the ones that are. It is not about focusing on the spaces that I do not have, but instead focusing on the spaces I do have -  in my daily life, my relationships, and my community. If I continue to see the spaces I don't have, I will not be able to appreciate the spaces I do have and the things that are available to me in those spaces.

It's the same kind of shift I made recently in viewing the Hartford Whalers logo; I had never seen the "H" in the middle for some reason - perhaps because I had never looked for it, but also because I did not know to look for it. As soon as someone pointed it out to me, it was obvious what was happening with their use of negative space to form the "H", but I would not have seen it without having it noted for me. In the same way, I think that this process of thinking through the idea of "space" as my word is the equivalent of having the "H" pointed out - now I'm thinking about the space and how it's used.

Spaced out

So that's what I have been thinking about "space" over the past month since my birthday. As you can tell, it has been a lot to process, and I am nowhere near the end of that process. I'm still working on making space and finding space and working on the spaces in relationships and using space and time well and allowing for space in my regular life - but it's hard to focus on space. It takes a lot of devotion to the idea, whatever permutation of it you choose, to learn how to value and preserve space.

The main challenge, I find, is in not filling the spaces, but in letting them be spacious. I find myself wanting to move to the next thing or solve the problem or do something, but that's not always the right thing to do. Sometimes - and this is one of those times - the best thing you can do is make the space you can and allow yourself to be led into and in the midst of that space.

I know that for the year to come the guiding questions that I will be asking myself about my life are related to space. Do I need more space? Where can I make space? Does this take too much space? Does it lead to space? How do I find space within my circumstances? Is this "my" space? What do I need to to make more space? How do I appreciate the space that I have? And how do I make the shift to looking at the "negative space" in my life? I know right now that it's not going to be an easy shift to make, but I'm glad at least to have this space in which to work through some of those ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts but I'm feeling excluded! I believe I suggested space as your b-day party theme, "since you've already got Jayne's hat". I may have said Firefly instead of space, but give me some credit!😁



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