My birthday gathering has wound down a bit by now. The background noise from adjacent conversations is no longer shout-inducing. People have relaxed beautifully into each other despite (or perhaps because?) of the fact that they’re wearing ridiculous outfits and drinking hard apple cider on a cool Saturday September evening. I find myself standing in a small cluster of seniors. Maybe we’re too old to rage, or we’re settled in, or the future is looming (as it seems to do on birthdays), because the air between us becomes pensive. “What advice would you have given to your first-year self?” I ask. “What did you really need to hear back then?” Nina McKee’s answer stays with me. “Space,” she says. “I would have told my first year self to let there be space.”
Space was one my biggest worries as I contemplated moving back to the US from Chile. There, my life had converged perfectly to gift me long stretches of unaccounted-for time. I had left the demands of homework, extracurriculars and friend groups on the tarmac in Chicago. Classes, once I knew what they wanted of me, were less work than Wellesley’s. My only activities were group acrobatics and drum classes that I could skip. I didn’t have that many friends, especially at the beginning. I spent large percentages of every week walking, on jostling buses or on gently swaying trains where reading was either impossible or much less interesting than the sunset.
Since I was a little homeschooled kid who could spend hours squirming around on the floor looking up at the ceiling, I hadn’t had time like that to deliciously squander. High school meant sports and diversity club and Quaker youth retreats crowding out school. College meant a frantic race to squish classes and Frisbee and politics and friends all into my rushing, careening, extreme existence. Anxiety, stress, or perhaps pressure eventually wound me into a tighter and more swiftly tilting Savannah planet, but it was only four years! I had to take advantage! There was so much catching up to do!
By the time I got to Chile, I felt intellectually spark-less, physically exhausted, politically drained and like I’d had to forsake real human connection to get there. It was a dead place, but in Chile I got to start over. It was full free-time immersion from the get-go, as I spent my first 5 days in an empty house inhabited by full-time workers who I only saw in the evenings. I knocked around, chatted brokenly with the woman, basically a family member, who comes to clean and cook. I’m not sure what I expected when I cut my brain off from the external stimulation overload that I’d been feeding it for the past 7 years, but it was a felicitous surprise. Words started to stream out! I couldn’t keep up with them, actually. They sparked and crackled, eddied and swirled, dipping and bobbing in and out of my consciousness. There was never enough time to write them all down, but at least some jostled their way out.
As I came to know Valparaíso better, find artsy events to show up to and friends to sometimes go with, the large blocks of time scrunched smaller and smaller. I started to get anxious again. Blessedly, summer break found me tramping through internet-less sheep-full expanses of southern Chile and then the only daytime inhabitant of a Brazilian house. I wrote until my hand cramped and I collapsed exhausted and empty onto my 2am pillow. Satisfied. Full to the tune of the words that no longer strained to be let out.
As the following semester ground along, I found my time squeezed tighter again and eventually the word torrent became a trickle. Then, returning to the US, I was too overwhelmed by reverse culture shock to write just one thing, too busy squeezing a year’s worth of visiting into two short weeks, and so wrote nothing. It took until my first weekend of Wellesley for the sparkle to return, shine and then fizzle again to silence.
It’s September 26th, two days after my birthday. I’m kind of bad at decorating my room, and I am feeling self-conscious about this big blank wall as I prepare for my party. Hordes of really cool people will see that I am apparently incapable of taping up even a measly poster! Oh horror! So, before everyone shows up, I tape up white cardstock and deposit pens nearby. As people ebb and flow and swirl together, I glance over and see friends drawing rocket ships, binary branching trees, Georgia O’Keefe-esque flowers, Buddha-esque babies. The result is more quirky, more random, more unique and more affirming of life than I ever could have imagined.
I don’t know what all of the drawings mean, and I don’t know that I’d call all of them exactly conventionally aesthetically pleasing. I do know, however, that creating more blank spaces, whether it’s physical, temporal, emotional or whatever-al, has left me more healed and whole than anything else. Every day, they are a reminder of the wonderful things that happen if we give ourselves space to doodle, process, self-define, collectively create and just plain be.
Since I pretend to have no answers, except perhaps for myself, I’d like to leave you with some questions, creative questions, because if we don’t create space for ourselves, no one will do it for us.
What do the quiet people have to say, you know, the ones who only talk after a pause has crept in and settled itself comfortably in the conversation? Digging deeper, what does the quiet part of yourself have to say?
How are you going to affirm being a human being today (not a student, not a friend, not a partner, not an employee…. a human being)?
How did it feel the last time you asked someone a question in a conversation and listened with compassionate eyes until their river of words ran dry?