January 19, 2010

What Nothing Teaches

The following article was written in 2007, just after a very happy occassion--my second marriage, 16 years after the end of my first. I found it on an CD where I'd saved some of my writing and thought I'd share it. At this time of winter, especially after the nothingness of snow blanketing everything and really amounting to something beautiful, and the blank slate of a brand new year, it seemed apropos. I wrote the following with the idea of a larger piece, a book perhaps, entitled "What Nothing Teaches."

On Saturday afternoons when I visit my son Bryce, especially in the early summer months . . . especially when the air is just warming up, yet not laden with moisture . . . I keep the windows rolled down on the one-hour drive over and tune into “This American Life” with Ira Glass. I love the program, the way a story is woven, up down back forth, through the circumstances of an individual. Not dissected as in Vanity Fair. Not marketed and sensationalized like CNN or “Dateline.” Simply told, much like a welcome guest tells an interesting story. Think Meryl Streep as Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa: “I tell stories.”

A good storyteller invites, rather than seduces with sensationalism or bullies with fear. A great storyteller not only captivates with plot, but with the art of description. The words themselves and the sounds of the syllables create an audible prose that elicits a response from the reader: intrigue, disgust, anticipation, empathy, pity, anxiety, peace, jealousy, understanding . . .

Today is not a Saturday, but a Wednesday. And I am not Ira Glass; not a gifted storyteller, noted journalist, or best-selling author. I’m a woman who works with words and lines and color for a living. Who treasured books as a child and now more accurately values them as an adult.

I am a mother of two sons, a sister to two women, a daughter and, most recently, a lover and wife. I’m an editor, designer, friend, client, patient, painter, vendor, customer, consumer, crocheter, baker, movie watcher, dog lover, writer. I will be even more things as life continues to unfold itself before me and as I say yes to it.

I love flowers, houseplants, yarn, make-up, good stationary, my husband’s laughter, our dogs’ personalities, my younger son’s compassion, strength, brains, style, talent, skin, voice, and humor. My older son’s tenacity, creativity, sensitivity, eyes, eyelashes and quirky pragmaticism.

I treasure my mother’s encouragement and my sisters’ belief in my abilities. In my youngest son I see the future extending like gently rolling farmland on a spring day. I won’t live to know it all, but I trust it will be there and he will make it his own wonderful story. That alone makes me happy.

With all this, there are still a few times a year I must silence the ringer on the telephone, head to the couch or bed, and lie there for an hour or two (with two small warm dogs) stunned, thankful, and bewildered. Anxious – even fearful – a dozen emotions at once in a mix that gently blends as I relax. And all these feelings and thoughts and memories and hopes become one thing, but even that one thing is not my soul. It is, however, my story.

In my story I walk down the coldest, longest, concrete and marble corridor to a stark confining room of Plexiglas, metal, and stone; down a hospital hallway to give birth; down an aisle as a too-immature bride. I walk into a store, twenty-nine years later, a middle-aged woman who knows something about herself, and love, and who is found by a man who will love me, and who I can love and build another life with. I’ve walked into dog pounds, county jails, doctors’ offices, courthouses, X-ray rooms, psychiatric hospitals, operating rooms, banks, nursing homes, car dealerships, airplanes, and post offices more than I wanted to.

I haven’t painted, written, photographed, organized, questioned, or documented as much as I wish I had. But there’s still time.

I love this time in my life. I love my family and my place in it. How did I get so lucky?

Of course, I don’t like everything. Although I once wrote a poem with lines about my memories, which “tap, tap, tap with unselfconscious ease/until I learn to cherish every one/that’s made me what I’ve finally become/someone who though once seemed so small/saw herself and forgave all.” Now I can be more forgiving of others because I’ve had enough time with myself to recognize my imperfections. And, like choosing the right haircolor, Clairol Nice-and-Easy #105G, or the best dress length (just below my knees), I’ve learned how to recognize my assets.
But back to the couch . . .

When I am there, and the mix of happy and sad thoughts and memories begin, sometimes tears form and creep along my Cover Girl-covered face, and, moments after they wet the pillow I’ve rested my head on, I fall asleep. And in sleep there is no heaviness, no sense of dread, no fear of what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone. No pressure, no memory, no want, no regret. I walk down a mental hallway of nothingness, and, in that brief moment of time before my dreams begin, I learn what nothing teaches.

Nothing is the silence before you say words that will change someone’s life forever.
Nothing is the pause before someone says “I love you” back. It’s the lack in your bank account, or in your heart. It’s what you didn’t get from your parents. Nothing is the emptiness, but also space. It’s lack, but also freedom. It’s the opposite of more, but not the same as less.

Nothing is what existed before you painted that painting, wrote that letter, baked that pie. It’s a blank slate. Nothing can hold promise or acceptance. Nothing includes everything we could have said and done, but didn’t.

Nothing is not very memorable – we seldom remember what we didn’t do, unless we are filled with regret. Then nothingness taunts us like a schoolyard bully. But then it is more of a something than a nothing.

Personally, I have an affinity for nothingness. It’s everything I don’t need. The nothingness is the white space that makes everything else in my life appear more vibrant than it otherwise might.

In A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (Doubleday 2007) Guo describes a Buddhist stra, given in the book in Chinese letters and explained in English as follows: “it means the emptiness is without form, but the form is also the emptiness. The emptiness is not empty, actually it is full. It is the beginning of everything.” When I read this I knew that I was not the only one to value nothingness (oh naive Midwestern girl still inside of me). Or to contemplate it.

Perhaps part of appreciating all I’ve experienced and “gone through” is valuing the
nothingness. I can only describe the nothingness to you by the something surrounding it:

The person who could have been angry at me, but forgave instead.
The not waking up on time and going to the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11.
The date who said “I could rape you” but didn’t.
The man who said “I could kill you” but didn’t.

The letter I threw away before sending.
The candy I didn’t eat.
The slap I wanted to inflict on my child, but didn’t.
The hatred I chose not to feel.

The resentment I knew I couldn’t let take root.
The television show I didn’t waste my time watching.
The street I didn’t go down that might have taken me somewhere not best for me to be.
The harsh words I didn’t say.
The words I heard and chose to forget. When I forgot, there was nothingness, and that nothingness was good for me.

I don’t know where these thoughts of nothingness will lead, and how they tie in with the idea of a good story; but there’s something there that holds my attention. And like so many somethings and several nothings in my past, I feel compelled to look closer.

Have you thought of nothing? Do the things you haven’t said or done ever take on the same significance as something that existed. Did you ever find emptiness to be “the beginning of everything”?

Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed. - Blaise Pascal

--Janice Phelps Williams. © 2007
Image at top of this article is a colored pencil drawing by Janice Phelps Williams, copyright 2007, all rights reserved. For similar images visit http://www.gallery.janicephelps.com/.

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