Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.

Clean evergreen trees and empty spaces, on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris, can represent open spaces of our minds.  The slight rise of the earth can lead us upward to new directions.

Create space this season

This column appeared as a feature article and photograph on November 21, 2000

"Are we having fun yet?"  That's what a psychologist friend called a series of pre-holiday workshops she offered in Exeter one December.  She recognized that many people do not consider the holiday season fun.  For some the December holidays bring back unhappy memories.  Others may find that although they enjoy the celebrations of family, friends, and church, the season is simply too crowded.  They associate it with fatigue.

If you're a parent, every organization or activity your child or children is involved in may have a holiday party requiring input from you, such as gifts, refreshments, driving.  A friend who is a physician in a pediatric specialty in Boston says that she doesn't schedule non-emergency appointments between Christmas and New Year's.  Why not?  "Because people are so exhausted from the holidays they cancel those appointments," she says.

What do we do about this?  We often vow to make the season simpler, but this may be easier said than done.  We can simplify by saying no to some of the events and material expressions of the season.  There is another way:  looking for possibilities in the empty spaces.  Looking for openings.

Empty spaces?  There's a metaphor for this in Japanese art.  In Japanese paintings and drawings of various periods empty space has been as important as representations of people, buildings, mountains, or trees.  Art scholars and historians often point out that while Westerners think of empty space in a painting as a void, or the absence of important things, Japanese see empty space as the presence of potential or possibility.

We may understand, in theory, that literal or figurative open spaces open up possibilities, but how do we actually do this in this season so crammed with  semi-obligatory activities and things?  We can create empty spaces, and we can find ones that already exist.  Something like this happened one Christmas eve when I was about ten years old.

At that time we lived in a house near the top of a hill.  From the back windows of the house we could see an orchard, a field, other houses in the distance and, lower on the hill, a Roman Catholic church, called The Church of Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted.

One Christmas Our Lady's, as my childhood friends who were members there called it, decided to broadcast the Christmas-eve midnight mass over the landscape, using loudspeakers.  Outside the church stood a tall lighted tree.  At age ten I was intrigued with this planned sound and light show.

On that Christmas eve at 11:00 p.m. we were awake and active, my parents having given a Christmas-eve party for friends.  (Unlike most people we knew, my family did their Christmas churchgoing on the big day itself, driving 10 miles to Trinity Church in Boston to accomplish this.)  From our windows we could see parked cars as far as the eye could see.  The mass, with music, started, and we could hear it in garbled form. The outdoor tree shone.  Light and sound streamed from the church.  Then, suddenly, darkness and silence blanketed the landscape.  Our Lady's had blown a fuse.  After an interval a few candles or low lights appeared at the windows.

The people at that service must have experienced these two aspects of the season:  the sound and light and then the quiet.  My friend Lois and her younger sister Ginny were probably there with their parents.  The girls probably giggled and Ginny may have said to her mother, "Since the lights are off can we go home now and open our presents?  It's almost Christmas day."

People at that church found an unexpected empty space:  darkness and quiet, with candles.  An invitation to the mind and an opening of possibilities.

How can we create space for ourselves in the holiday season?
--If invited to too many holiday parties, skip one.  Persuade an organization to give its annual party at another time.
--Decide with friends and family to exchange fewer gifts, possibly giving the money you would have spent to a charity.
--Take vacation time during those days;  go away.

How can we use the spaces that are already there?
--When standing in a line and feeling pressured, try being completely present in that moment.  Think, "I am here in this place at this moment, and I see and hear these things...."  As in meditation, this can lead to discoveries within.
--Skip some holiday preparations and get extra sleep.  Sleep experts tell us that Americans, from adolescence on, are chronically sleep-deprived.  Give yourself the luxury of becoming fully rested and discover what this does for mind, energy, and spirit.
--Look for visual imagery as a metaphor:  Look through bare branches at the scene beyond and ask yourself, "What does that represent in the way of future possibilities?"

The accompanying picture of bare stylized trees suggests this.  I took the photograph last March on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris.  Those clean evergreen trees and empty spaces can represent open spaces of our minds.  The slight rise of the earth can lead us upward to new directions.

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