*This is the second in a two-part series on what it means to be “Framed in Space.” See last week’s essay for the quotation from Anne Morrow Lindbergh from which the phrase “framed in space” derives. This first piece spoke to the need to allow our possessions room to be “framed in space,” to not own so much that we barely know what we have. This week we’ll look at how we regularly need to be“framed in space” ourselves, how we need solitude if we wish to be creative or accomplish our purpose.
"We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void. Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone any more. We can do our housework with soap-opera heroes at our side. Even day-dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life. Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen. It is simply there to fill the vacuum. When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place. We must re-learn to be alone.” ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
When Anne Morrow Lindbergh took a solo vacation to the beach, away from her family with a husband and five children and the pressing demands of her professional writing career, she did not intend to write anything that she would publish. She was there to clear her head, to get some space, to refill her empty well. Reflecting on sea shells, she began to write what was at first only for herself: a collection of shell-inspired essays intended to help her process her life and her manner of living it. Gift from the Sea is the beloved, wise and contemplative book that resulted from Morrow Lindbergh’s quiet days alone by the ocean.
*Recently, as I reread passages in Gift from the Sea, a diminutive touchstone book in my life, I found Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Her Room” coming to mind in its stark simplicity with the single conch in an airy room, filled with little but solitude. My talented writer and professor friend, Natalie, recently wrote an evocative poem drawn from this painting, and not long after reading her beautiful verse, my family visited the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine where we were able to see Wyeth’s original.
Gift from the Sea speaks to our tendency to fill up a void with noise, whether visual or auditory. If we possess an airy room like “Her Room,” (shown above and based on the bedroom of painter Andrew Wyeth’s wife), many of us are tempted to quickly set about filling it with items. Before long, the elegant, natural beauty of the conch becomes lost amid the myriad of items surrounding it. When we find ourselves alone or poised to be alone, we might be prone to promptly book up our calendars until there is hardly one spare moment for caring for ourselves, for connecting with spirit, or for cherishing those dearest to us with loving presence. We might seldom let the stimulation stop, continually playing music, podcasts, or movies or tv shows to fill what would be quiet moments. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh notes, we were better off when silence and solitude was filled with daydreams. Our ability to constantly have noise running in the background is no boon to our mental health or creativity. And if we have any desire to create, to be artists of any kind, or even simply to achieve whatever it is that is intended for us, we have to allow ourselves opportunities to be “framed in space.” We have to have time apart from sources of over-stimulation and separate periodically from the crowd.
Most of us, no doubt, have noticed that we make busyness a badge of honor in our culture. To be perpetually productive and on the go seems to carry social clout. Unfortunately, Christians often over pack their schedules in their efforts to be helpful and to be certain they are eagerly serving others. Too many of us worry we are being selfish if we take time apart to quiet our souls, to refresh, and to reconnect with our source. Yet, Jesus himself did all of these things and with regularity. He even took time apart during critical moments when some might have accused him of being irresponsible to leave his disciples and the crowds alone. Jesus stayed true to his higher purpose. He knew that he had to have time apart to rejuvenate, to stay centered on God’s will, and to have the strength to see it through. The forty days he spent in the wilderness easily could have been viewed by those closest to him as selfish and excessive. Why leave your family and your work for forty days to wrestle with God in the desert? It sounds too “heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” Jesus knew this time apart was necessary in order for him to get and stay clear about his mission, no matter how it might have been viewed by observers. He retreated for those forty days and emerged ready for his public ministry.
Jesus also encouraged his followers to take time away from the clamor of the masses. Mark 6:30-32 tells us, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest for a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.’” Can you relate to that scenario: coming and going and not even having time to eat? Few of us can’t relate to that, sadly, today. Before choosing his disciples, Jesus spent the whole night alone, knowing He had a critical decision to make. He knew he needed solitude to receive direction on choices that would impact his whole ministry.. And of course, before his crucifixion he prayed by himself in the garden and pleaded with God one last time about whether he really needed to go through with what was expected of him. He took time to get abundantly clear on God’s will, to summon the strength for resolve, and he didn’t try to do it in the midst of a sea of followers.
Edward Pusey, the English Anglican cleric and Oxford University professor of Hebrew, often spoke and wrote about how we hearken to the inner voice of spirit through quiet moments away from the fray:
“He speaketh, but it is with us to hearken or no…It is a secret, hushed voice, a gentle intercourse of heart to heart, a still, small voice, whispering to the inner ear. How should we hear it, if we fill our ears and our hearts with the din of this world, its empty tumult, its excitement, its fretting vanities, or cares, or passions, or anxieties, or show, or rivalries, and its whirl of emptinesses?”
“The din of this world.” “Its empty tumult.” “Its fretting vanities, or anxieties, or show, or rivalries,” its “whirl of emptinesses.” How fascinating that Pusey was writing this in the nineteenth century when we consider how painfully well it describes modern life. So much vanity, so much ego, and so much frenetic activity driven to appeal to both. So many empty pursuits. To be attuned to what matters and to hear from the spirit requires stilling ourselves. It calls for quietness and time apart from life’s commotion. I am reminded of the analogy made in Matthew 13:22 (NIV) between sowing seeds among thorns and allowing the cares and pursuits of this life to choke out truth: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” To reprise Morrow Lindbergh’s words, “Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen.” The cares of life and the lure of riches or ego, all the trappings of modern life that detract from
spirit rather than draw us to it, these are the thorns that choke out the truth of who we are and who we are meant to be.
It’s no wonder that monks and nuns have inhabited cells that, in their sparseness, appear austere and ascetic. The simplicity of a pure white cell, all but emptied out, allows the worshiper to draw close to God, unencumbered by distraction. The monastic space affords the inhabitant the right atmosphere for staying clear on their purpose. Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While many have pointed out a certain elitism in this remark about money, what Woolf was getting at was that a woman needs to be gifted with at least a certain amount of time and freedom in order to make art: time and freedom that money often makes possible. A woman who is so busy working three jobs to make ends meet unfortunately is going to have a very difficult time finding time to write. It is possible, but it will be extremely difficult. And Woolf's observation underscores that a woman needs a space to sit and write in quiet stillness. She must be given the chance to be “framed in space.”
In what ways would you benefit if you made sure you were "framed in space" at several points this week? How would you use that solitary time? How might it feed your art or your calling? What can you do to ensure you have moments of solitude this week, this month?