We’ve been living under a quarantine for a little over 2 months now, and it’s had me thinking a lot about stillness, idleness, and pause. When I first heard of the possibility of a lockdown in any sense, my first thought was: “but what will we do? How will things just… stop?” I think in one way or another, this has to feel the same way for the rest of the globe, too. Each day of the news is filled with empty streets, airports, coffeeshops, and train stations. Everyone is stuck at home—some alone, some with loved ones—in some amount of idleness. Many have lost jobs and are not able to work. Others are asked to work from home and, maybe like me, are feeling tired and and unmotivated. Either way, our country is facing a large moment of stillness, of pause: economically, socially, culturally. I think there’s so much we can learn here.
In the world of design, one of the most common terms we throw around almost aimlessly is negative space. It’s the space in between objects, foreground and background, which allows our eye to move around. Massimo Vignelli has even pointed out that the letterforms we design with have black space and white space—and that often we focus on the black imprint of the letterforms, when really it is the whitespace around each letterform which gives shape to those letterforms. Similarly to music, it’s the space between the notes which defines the succession and emotion of the song. Robert Poynton, in his book Do/Pause: You Are Not a To Do List relates negative space to the way we use time, the way we pause. Our society is used to hurrying, and to productivity. I find it to be such a strong idol in my own life, an I think this is because it is so acceptable to work hard and to be proud of it—especially in the midwest! I know that in my own work, I often become sucked into the idea of completing tasks—of getting to the next thing. And not only at work, but at home. Whether it’s things to do around the house, or how I spend time with Katey and Arlo. But Poynton asks an important question:
“…our children can easily become just a stream of endless tasks: feeding, dressing, getting them to school or football practice or dance class, doing homework, bedtime story and so on. In the midst of all that, do we allow ourselves time to actually be with them, to enjoy them? …In general, we don’t pay much attention or give importance to the spaces in between all the tasks.”
Certainly amongst this quarantine, thinking about this space between is one of those things which I feel blessed to have found out. These moments of space, whether cooking, reading with Arlo before bedtime, or taking a short walk can be smaller pauses within this larger pause of quarantine—breaking up space and allowing for pockets of rest and reflection. My own heart is learning how to enjoy this new slowed down pace. But Poynton takes a nuanced approach to exploring the idea of pause, and clarifies that the idea that we must choose between fast and slow is a bogus choice, and while doing so we can miss the many possibilities of understanding how pause relates to our cultures and habits, or how it can be used as a tool. I highly recommend the book. There’s so much here that’d I’d love to write about, but it’d be better for you to just read it.
Kenya HARA, in his book White explores a similar concept of emptiness. Yet in the prologue he clarifies: “This is not a book about color.” Instead, White is an exploration of HARA’s own culture, an attempt “to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic that produces simplicity and subtlety through the concept of white.” In many cases a blank, white page in a book denotes the concept of emptiness. It is not filled with anything—not even a page number. But HARA points out that emptiness doesn’t mean “nothingness” or “energy-less”, “rather, in many cases, it indicates a condition, or kaizen, which will likely be filled with content in the future.” He provides another example:
“A creative mind, in short, does not see an empty bowl as valueless, but perceives it existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content which will eventually fill it; and this creative perspective instills power in the emptiness.”
How do we see this quarantine? Is it a negative state? A gap that takes place inside of our “normal” course of life? Is it capable of being filled in a meaningful way, like an empty bowl to fill with fruit? In my own life, I find that want to fill the bowl quickly because I’m afraid of it being empty—that I might then be forced to see the inside of it. So I fill it with gardening, writing, yard work, house projects, or watching movies with Katey. And while these are certainly valuable things in their own right, I feel challenged to take a step back to consider how these moments of pause can be carried with me no matter the circumstance. I think these examples of pause and emptiness from Poynton and HARA are important not only because they reveal the reality of these concepts in our country’s current state, but because they reveal the beautiful potential of this time to be filled in a meaningful way.