Every day we’re faced with the decision of how and where to focus our attention. Sustained attention may be the most endangered resource in our modern age. We often forget that we have a choice about how we spend our time, as well as how we use technology. No one is requiring us to live harried lives in a reactive state, constantly struggling to stay on top of emails, texts, deadlines, and our overfilled schedules.
Writer and poet Christian McEwen understands the relationship between time and imagination better than anyone. Her new book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down makes a potent plea for us to live deeper, more deliberate lives. McEwen shows us that making art isn’t about squeezing yet another activity into an already overflowing schedule. It’s about making time for play and scheduling fewer activities and slowing down—creating what McEwen so eloquently describes as “a rich sufficiency of time.”
Though McEwen currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, she grew up in the Borders of Scotland “in a big old-fashioned house” with “beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens” and “a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill.” “Marchmont was a kind of paradise,” McEwen writes in her book.
We climbed to the top of the huge Victorian wardrobe, and leapt down, squealing, on the squashy beds. We seized the cushions from the sofa in the music room, and ran and skidded on the polished floor. We threw ourselves at the house with everything we had, meeting it, head-on, with our entire bodies…
There was breakfast and lunch and tea and supper, all at regular intervals. There was church and tidy clothes and remembering to do your homework. But there was silence too, and solitude, and calm, where clocks and watches mattered not at all: lying in the long grass behind the raspberry canes, listening to the roo-coo of the pigeons, self dissolved in wonder, lost in light.
Christian McEwen (Photo by Jo Eldredge Morrissey)
McEwen is a reader’s reader and is skilled at weaving in the work of other writers like Virginia Woolf, William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, John Berger, Walter Benjamin, and Adam Gopnik. Her bibliography alone is worth the price of the book. Drawing on the stories of artists as diverse as Meredith Monk, Frida Kahlo, Walt Whitman, and Auguste Rodin, World Enough & Time is an intelligent, poetic antidote for anyone suffering from what McEwen calls “hurry sickness.” (And who among us, doesn’t suffer?)
I’ve been savoring Christian’s book all summer long and was delighted when she agreed to share an excerpt from World Enough & Time with Gwarlingo readers as part of my new series, The Complete Creative, an in-depth series that will examine practical topics like money, social media, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing, as well as a range of deeper, more complex subjects like fear, procrastination, technology, community, time, and limitation. (If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo).
Christian works as a freelance writer and workshop leader. She has taught poetry to teachers through the Creative Arts in Learning Program at Lesley University and also worked as a writer-in-the-schools through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative and ALPS (Alternative Literary Programs).
Her most recent anthologies are Jo’s Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit & Real Life (Beacon Press, 1997), and, with Mark Statman, The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing (Teachers & Writers, 2000). A collection of her poems, In the Wake of Home, was published by Meadowlark Press in 2004.
If you enjoy the below excerpt, I encourage you to pick up a copy of World Enough & Time. It’s the perfect book to keep by your bedside, and it would also be a worthwhile selection for book clubs and other group discussions. The book is available now in trade paperback from Bauhan Publishing, as well as on Kindle and Nook. You can also purchase a copy through your favorite bookstore on Indie-Bound. (More trade paperbacks will be available at Amazon soon).
Christian McEwen was born in London and grew up in the Borders of Scotland. (Photo by Gerry Cambridge courtesy the Scottish Poetry Library)
From Chapter 8 of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
The Space Between
When you are lost, go deeper into the woods. -Maia
Empty and Alive
In the fall of 2006, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a map explaining where to find tranquility. Among its defining categories were the ability to hear bird song and to experience peace and quiet, to see natural landscape (including natural-looking woodland), and to be able to identify the stars at night.
Tranquility belongs to a long list of shadowy essentials to which our culture pays lip-service, but to which we are mostly oblivious, among them, rest, sleep, silence, stillness and solitude. What I am describing is a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly.” That ease, that spaciousness, is ma.
The western world is filled with things, crammed to bursting point with noise and movement and color and excitement, which to us mean wealth and vigor. From childhood on, we learn to distrust all the varieties of ma, and to replace them, as far as possible, with their opposites. We value action over stillness, light over shadow, sounds over silence. But in Asian cultures, such quiet resonance has value in and of itself. It is seen as generative, sustaining, something one can trust. As Lao-tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Twenty-five hundred years later, Lin Yutang declared that a room, like a painting, should be k’ungling, or “empty and alive,” explaining that it is the unused space that makes a room habitable, just as it is our free time that gives our lives their shapeliness and ease. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese character for “leisure” should be made up of “space” and “sunshine” – the pause, the attitude of relaxation, is what creates the gap that lets the sun shine through.
It is easier, perhaps, to write such definitions in one’s private notebook, and agree wholeheartedly that they feel right, than to include such luscious emptiness in one’s daily life. And yet it is unquestionably true that people are able to work better and more creatively when they are calm, unharried, free of stress, and that this is, at least in part, a matter of choice. “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his intellect who does not at least chequer his life with solitude,” wrote Wordsworth’s friend De Quincey, and Kafka too has much to say on this: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Maruyama Ōkyo, Pine Trees in Snow, between 1781 and 1789. (Image courtesy the Mitsui Memorial Museum. Click to Enlarge)