Finding white space amidst a surfeit of treasures.

Finding white space amidst a surfeit of treasures.

Fall is a busy season. For my family, it’s back-to-school time, serious sports time, and conference season.

Because Will and I are either (a) gluttons for punishment or (b) feeling adventurous this year, we’re packing up our family in the midst of this already-crazy time and heading to NYC. We’re still homeschooling, and we’re deliberately cramming in trips like these while we still can. We may not have this flexibility next year.

In this packed season, my mind keeps circling back to something Gretchen Rubin said years ago about work/life balance:

For me, balance is not a helpful metaphor because it implies that I have ample time to float through the day, with everything very calm. But it’s not my reality. My reality is very busy and packed. When I think of my life crammed, I cram it with the people I want to see and the things I want to do. It also helps me recognize my priorities. I can’t cram everything in. My experience is that some things have to fall away.

This image of cramming my life with the things I love appeals to me: I don’t find “balance” a helpful metaphor, either, and goodness knows my life is packed. For years, this has been a helpful—and certainly apt—metaphor.

But what I’m finding of late is that I’m unable to sustain it long term.

There are days—even weeks, maybe months—when cramming every available moment feels right and true, even gloriously indulgent. (Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”)

But as a lifestyle—as my default setting—it makes me frantic.

It reminds me of when my first kid started preschool, and I was a stay at home mom, and those three hours every Tuesday morning were the shortest hours of the week. I ran around in a mad rush (sometimes literally) trying to pack everything I possibly could into that three hour window. I loved and looked forward to those mornings, but my heart starts racing as I remember.

During our packed autumn, my mind keeps returning to something else I read several months ago.

Like so many women, I’ve fallen into the habit of re-reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea every summer. The book is a little different with each re-reading, because I am different.

In one of the chapters, Lindbergh writes about how things gain significance when they are surrounded by space. On her vacation island, there is lots of space. Lindbergh contrasts this with her life back home in Connecticut, where her life is full. In her words, it lacks the “quality of significance” that her island getaway has:

There are so few empty pages in my engagement pad, or empty hours in the day, or empty rooms in my life in which to stand alone and fill myself. Too many activities, and people, and things. Too many worthy activities, valuable things, and interesting people. For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well. We can have a surfeit of treasures—an excess of shells, where one or two would be significant.

This season is wonderfully full, but it’s on the verge of being exhaustingly so.

I’m enjoying it while it lasts, but I can already see what I need—what my family needs—soon, in the brief window of time between our crazy fall and the onset of the holidays. We need white space: empty pages in the engagement pad, empty hours in the day, empty rooms in our lives. If this isn’t exactly possible, then emptier. Less packed, less crammed, less full.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful—but only for a season.

I know many of you have wrestled with these kinds of issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts about good things and white space in comments. 

P.S. Spinning out, and I take the long way home.

Books mentioned in this post:

47 comments | Comment

47 comments

  1. YES YES YES!! I fluctuate between go,go,go to craving some super chill, unscheduled time to just be. I thought I was the only one & am super thankful to read that I am not! Thank you!!

  2. Karen says:

    I love this. If I cram too many weeknights and weekends with too many activities–even things I really want to do!–I end up paying the price. When my kids were younger and off for the summers, we had an hour of “quiet time” most afternoons, where they could read, color, daydream, whatever, on their own and with no electronics. It was good for all of us and they still remember it. Empty space is essential, too!

  3. mmm … cramming only works for so long. And then something’s gotta give.

    The more white space we gather around ourselves, the more full our cup is to share with others …

  4. I don’t know. I re-run a blog post every November about how I’m not into simplifying Christmas. Christmas is fun! Likewise, I like having a full life. There are an abundance of good things going on, and I’d like to enjoy as many as I can. And the funny thing is, even how “busy” my life is some days, I find there is still open space. It could be busier!

  5. Ana says:

    White space is important for me, but what I’ve realized is that its ESSENTIAL for my kids, at least at this age. So while we love our go-go-go times, I try to make sure there are some free afternoons/evenings mixed in there so they can just play & be together (and I can catch up on all those little things that get, rightfully, ignored when life gets full).

  6. Desiree says:

    I’m sitting right now, holding my newborn baby girl while my other three kids have unstructured play time. It’s wonderful to have the ability to spend my time like this. I do however crave structure and often feel like my kids are missing out because I don’t have them signed up for every activity and play date available. I know once my oldest starts school life will shift and I will enter the season of crazy 🙂 Savor the white space while I can.

  7. Sarah Alves says:

    I love this post. I, myself, am so in need of white space these days. Every weekend, for the past four weekends, has been filled with travel or visitors. I still have two more weekends to go before I get to indulge in some emptiness, and I know I can make it. I have tried to give myself small patches of quiet time, at lunch in between work projects, at home in the evenings. The simple act of reminding myself that soon, this busy time will be over also helps. Fortunately/Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever.

  8. Katia says:

    Anne, thank you so much for writing this! On social media in the recent years, there has been a lot of ‘inspiring’ material that tells us to ‘stop the glorification of busy.’ I find this instruction confusing, as I have never thought of a crazy-busy schedule as glorious or enjoyable in any sense. Yet, busyness is a fact in my life, between my 9-5, the yoga classes I teach, my children’s extracurricular activities, etc. Some days for me are blissfully crammed with the people and things I love. At other times, the days that are packed with extra work and too much giving make me feel constricted. So, I create that white space to which you’re referring, scheduling it in, re-evaluating my daily schedule and choosing to let go of something that, at this time, overfills my plate. To me, that is the definition of balance.

    • Krista says:

      I understand the statement “stop the glorification of busy” from the viewpoint of feeling as though my quieter life is seen as…less important, less fruitful and less thriving because I don’t cram it as much as some. Which is fine, but cramming life for the sake of being busy just to be busy, with no margin to breath, how is that more important or fruitful than mine?

      • Katia says:

        That’s also my understanding of it. Life does get busy. It doesn’t mean that one person’s busyness (or lack thereof) is any more or less important than someone else’s. I agree 100%.

        • Krista says:

          Yes, exactly. I guess I’m just a bit tired of hearing the refrain, “Life is so busy! But, busy is good!” That’s what I hear a lot from a few people in my life. Well, if life is so busy constantly and stressful to boot, maybe it’s time to look for ways to create margin.

          I feel very much at times as though it is a competition. I’m asked what’s going on in my life and then after they’ve listened for a moment, they come back with their list which is twice as long and twice as important. Or laugh and say, “I wish my life was as easy!”

          That’s the glorification of busy to me and it’s not fun!

  9. Ellen says:

    I’m a white-space-required person. I have friends who are not, but I most definitely am. I never thought of the word “balance” as you and Gretchen have defined it. I like your take on it. Since I am an introvert as described in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I refresh and re-energize with time alone, to reflect, to rest, to ponder, to *be*.

  10. Jessica says:

    I need white space too, a lot of it. But my life is also often crammed. Some seasons I feel at capacity with a lot going on, and in some seasons I feel just as at capacity with less. I think for me, it depends on the type of activity. If it’s work that energizes me, I can go non-stop. If it’s things that suck me dry like errands or sporadic tasks, I feel hassled by life much more easily.

  11. Susan says:

    My mother first gave me Gifts from the Sea when I was in college and working at the beach. I liked it then, but as I’ve grown older, I love it a little more each time I re-read it. There’s always something new for me to discover — like hunting for shells on an empty beach in the morning.

  12. Sarah R says:

    We have two kids, a first grader, and 3 year old in preschool 3 days per week. They are both just starting organized sports. We limit it to one sport at a time, and we truly enjoy making time for practices and games. This has allowed our son to join Cub Scouts, and he has really loved that.

    Another absolute key thing we did was purchase a second home in Florida as a get-away from our frigid Wisconsin winters. We bought in 2009 and it has been a wonderful decision. Since our son is in school now, we go down over Christmas break, Spring Break, and the end of August before school starts. It is spaced out wonderfully and always give a scheduled break in the midst of what can be crazy.

    • Anne says:

      “Since our son is in school now, we go down over Christmas break, Spring Break, and the end of August before school starts.”

      That sounds amazing.

  13. Debbie says:

    LOVE THAT BOOK!!! Keep it in my Audible collection and listen to it often!!! Thanks for the reminder to keep some time open to just “be.”

  14. Lauren says:

    I don’t think balance has to apply only to our daily lives, but to a larger span of time. I also believe that balance to one is definitely not balance to another. Some of my kids love to be busy while others need a quieter, slower pace of life. I know I have changed over the years to become a quieter person. When I was very young I had the privilege to go to sleep-away camp for two months every summer from when I was 8 years old to 12. The days were packed with activity and very structured but there was still time enough so that what I remember most about that period was the peace and beauty of nature, and the joy I got from being with the animals. When I was a teenager and when I was in college I ran, ran, ran! Those were very busy years and so were the early years with my kids. Now that my youngest is a freshman and I am approaching 50 (!) I find myself slowing down again and appreciating the quiet life much, much more than I ever would have just a few short years ago. I need quiet to pay attention to the things that matter to me these days, and so I am giving in to it. And how I enjoy it! There was a time in my life when I wanted to fill every hour with SOMETHING, now I just don’t. Balance applies to an entire life, not just a single day. Water always seeks its own level and nature always strives to return to homeostasis (sorry, biology major here!).

    • Anne says:

      “I don’t think balance has to apply only to our daily lives, but to a larger span of time. I also believe that balance to one is definitely not balance to another.”

      Yes and yes.

  15. Dorothy K says:

    Anne, I have been feeling what you articulated so well in this post. When my children were small (many years ago), I would occasionally feel guilty that we were not busier, but then I realized that busy-ness would happen before too long! Well, now they are grown and I am back in college while working full-time feeling wistful for those days of staying at home and having “margins” to my days. This period of my life will eventually end with a degree, but I’d like a little more balance right now, thank you very much :-).

  16. Every time I try not to schedule our weekends and just have down time, it doesn’t work out. I want to relax and read or recharge some other way, but my 5 year old doesn’t really let me do that. He wants to play with me. I keep the schedule full of playdates and other activities, so I am not disappointed when I don’t get to spend the down time the way I want to.

  17. Ellen says:

    I love the concept of white space and we try to prioritize it in our family life.

    We have daily afternoon quiet times, which we rarely miss. Often my older kids choose to stay in quiet time longer because they are absorbed in something, a sign to me that the time alone is so very necessary.

    We look at weekends with an eye to breathing space. If Saturday is packed, we generally want Sunday to be quieter.

    I try to make a practice of seeing each day’s activities in context of the days surrounding it. A full day might be fine on its own, but surrounded by packed days it becomes part of a marathon. I’m not always up for a marathon and try to adjust our weeks accordingly.

    Knowing that white space usually occurs frequently also helps me get through times when there is less of it – I can see the busyness as an exception, rather than a suffocation.

    • Anne says:

      “I try to make a practice of seeing each day’s activities in context of the days surrounding it. A full day might be fine on its own, but surrounded by packed days it becomes part of a marathon. I’m not always up for a marathon and try to adjust our weeks accordingly.”

      This is really smart. (We LOVE our daily down time too! We don’t always get it, but I pretty much always need it. 🙂 )

  18. Hannah says:

    Exactly my thoughts. Exactly. I can sustain jam-packed schedules full of lovely, meaningful things for only so long. And then I feel it coming, the inevitable crash into whiteness. It’s there that I can regroup and re-emerge.

  19. Faith R says:

    I LOVE the idea of having whitespace in my life. “Gifts of the Sea” is good for that. I nodded along to lots of bits in “the Best Yes” by Lysa Terkeurst. One of my best lessons about “balance” was from “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World” by JoAnna Weaver – she described it as a swinging pendulum – that when we swing hard into a season of business, then we need to swing into a season of rest. If we swing into a work or project that takes us away from our family then “balance” means swinging back into family when we are done. This has helped me because it is moving, not stagnant and my life is always changing. The first chapter in “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker is also SO good – she writes about what we keep and what we don’t in our lives – she uses the illustration of a balance beam – it’s a really good chapter.

  20. Grace says:

    So true! I can really related to this post after the summer I just had. My husband is a teacher, so he has summers off. This summer we absolutely packed in the trips and activities. Afterward I realized that we were out of town for every weekend except one. We loved what we were doing – camping trips with friends, a music festival, travelling to see family, etc – but it was exhausting. That one stretch where we were at home for a weekend felt like heaven because, just like you said, of it’s emptiness. I hope you guys enjoy your New York trip to the fullest and then manage to get some restorative downtime.

  21. Liza says:

    This right here – whitespace – is why we don’t do summer or winter sports with our kids. Our three boys play baseball and from February to late May/early June, we are at practices and/or games every day Monday through Saturday. And occasionally Sunday. It’s rare to have a night off. So summer comes and we do NOTHING. It’s glorious and goes by too quickly. Then school starts up again and we start fall ball, which is much less intense but still keeps us busy.

    This past summer was a bit different in that my oldest played baseball through mid-summer (both daytime at school and evenings with little league) and then did marching band for a month. This fall, the two younger boys didn’t want to play baseball. So fall has become the whitespace that our summer should have been and it’s so needed. We’re still busy because of marching band, but I don’t think we could handle the kids’ sports AND the marching.

    Our summers and winters of nothing are what sustain us through our springs and falls. If it weren’t for that, then our family as a whole would definitely crash and burn.

    • Anne says:

      “Our summers and winters of nothing are what sustain us through our springs and falls.”

      This is interesting—I’ve been wondering if our family needs seasonality along these lines as well.

  22. I absolutely need the white space, the margin in my schedule. Without it I feel frantic and unable to enjoy each thing as it comes to me. If my schedule is crammed, I find myself already planning the next activity without being able to rest in the moment I am currently experiencing.

  23. Sondie says:

    Does anyone but me remember when the TV used to shut off for the night? The national anthem played then your screen was filled with loud fuzzy noise your screen was a fuzzy blur that perfectly matched the noise? I know that is not what white space is but that’s the image I always get in my head with the words white space.

    I have learned after many years that white space…rest…does not always equal renewal. I need renewal as much as I need rest. I have toyed with rest, renewal and recreation since my early 40’s.

    I absolutely need empty spaces on my calendar, especially Sabbath days. The book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J Dawn is awesome when you are trying to find Sabbath rest and rhythm. I don’t agree with everything but it is still fabulous! it offers not just rest but renewal.

    I have been reading Gift from the Sea for 10 years and this quote has stuck with me through every season….”Instead of stilling the center, the axis of the wheel, we add more centrifugal activities to our lives-which tend to throw us off balance. Mechanically we have gained, in the last generation, but spiritually we have, I think, unwittingly lost. In other times, women had in their lives more forces which centered them whether or not they realized it; sources which nourished them whether or not they consciously went to these springs.”

    So gals I encourage you to: Know your springs…Go find them…Drink deeply from them.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve read Gift from the Sea more than a few times and I don’t remember that line about the centrifugal activities. That’s a great one—thanks for sharing.

  24. Emily says:

    Posts on this topic have been cropping up all over my blogosphere! I just read one here this morning: http://artfulparent.com/2015/10/why-we-dont-need-more-super-fun-art-activities.html
    Sounds like a lot of us are feeling this way lately; you’ve got good company!

    Well, I completely relate, too. As a fellow homeschooler, I find that there are so many great opportunities that I want to do them all…but when we do them all, I feel insane. (We don’t do things because we don’t want to “keep up with the Joneses,” either–we do them because we feel, as homeschoolers, we have this incredible opportunity to learn and grow and we don’t want to squander it!) But I am definitely feeling pulled in too many directions at the moment. We’ll see how this semester goes, but I have a feeling I will be making some different choices for next semester.

    Side note: From this post, it sounds like you might be planning to move on from homeschooling next year; I’d love to hear about your choices as you proceed, if you feel comfortable sharing. Thanks!

  25. Bonnie-Jean Newman says:

    We’ve been ‘forced’ into a season of doing very little outside the home due to sickness & injuries (fortunately nothing too serious!) and yet I still could relate to a quote I saw the other day saying “There’s not enough time for all the nothing I want to do.”

  26. Jamie says:

    My favorite part of this post is the title. Because at this point in our family’s game, every activity on the schedule is something we adore. But after only so long we feel it, too: the need for hunkering down and just being. Thanks for writing out what many of us feel.

  27. Tim says:

    I stopped using the word balance and started talking about blend. I can blend things much better than I can balance them. 😉

  28. Julie says:

    Once when my kids were school age and our schedule was like yours we had plans to go away for a fall weekend and then the plans fell through. We had already told the coaches and Girl Scout leaders and church choir directors and music teachers that the kids wouldn’t be at practice and when we thought if doing all those things it felt overwhelming and exhausting so we told no one that we were still in town and let the phone messages go to the answering machine-see how dated in just 15 years- and stayed in a played board games and had family time. It was awesome.

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