Nicole Law learns to sit still and receive the lessons of silence.
I had half an hour before my dance class and wondered how I would pass the time.
I exited the crowded shopping centre where I was, which was abuzz with office workers ready for dinner with friends, and found myself on the main boulevard. The streets were a hive of activity and I was starting to feel overwhelmed with the noise and lights around me.
I spotted the steeple of a newly renovated church on the horizon and crossed the road, arriving at the entrance. The imposing structure was bathed in a soft light and the gate was swung wide open.
I ventured inwards, skirting the periphery of the building and admiring the repainting work that had been done. Unsure of whether the main building was accessible, I admired the cosy open-air prayer gardens and the gothic style archways.
I circled back to the entrance of the church and peeked inside. Save for the dull glow of lamps and a few people seated in the pews, the temple itself was empty. I pushed open the glass doors and went in.
The height of the building was not new to me; this was typical of the architectural style of the early 1990s, when the original church was built. I sat myself down at a pew reasonably close to the altar and continued to admire the detailed restoration work that had been done.
I find myself in a season of life in which a lot of the ideas I felt certain of have begun to shift and the continuous change and disruption have made me feel disconcerted.
At times like this, I often find myself sitting alone in churches. They are not only sacred spaces but also places of safety. Places I am drawn to in times of uncertainty.
I had never been into the building itself, before the renovation commenced. Yet, the soft lights had brought me here, despite my initial apprehension.
Sitting in silence in the pew allowed me to create space too in my own heart to rest in the knowledge of who I was, at that moment, instead of who I aspired to be.
Too often, our own hearts and heads are so crowded with ideas and expectations that we start to feel overwhelmed. Our ability to carefully assess the situation we are facing is impaired as we lack the necessary space to venture forth with objectivity. I am often guilty of ‘filling up’ space – specifically my schedule – for fear that, if I leave a section unfilled, I might fall behind of the curve, and so miss out on something important.
In the process, I’ve exhausted myself and been less able to show up and be fully present to the people in my life.
Why do we fear the emptiness that space entails?
Perhaps it is because we cannot define this formlessness. Or maybe it’s the discomfort we have with ambiguity.
I have learned that despite my best efforts, many of life’s events exhibit this formlessness and unpredictability.
Everyday, we consciously construct the spaces we reside in. Beyond the tangible physical space, we have the autonomy to carve out our own personal mental and emotional space.
We decide the height of the gates to our compounds – the boundaries we will draw between the accessible exterior and our interior world.
We measure out the dimensions of the materials and test their tensile strength by applying pressure or sawing off excess segments – an act of curating the various elements which make up our lives. We break down old walls in favour of expansion beyond the initial area covered – doing the difficult internal work to increase our emotional capacity.
We install new windows and sliding doors to flood the enclosed space with natural light – acknowledging our past hurts and traumas with the intention of accepting our experiences with a peaceful heart.
Most importantly, the house we build for ourselves continues to be built and rebuilt, much like the stop and start process of the renovation process of the beautiful church I found myself in.
Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, notes: “Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home.
“Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house… Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts – serious, sad thoughts – and not to dreams.”
And he concludes with this powerful reflection:
“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”
Living in this state of impermanence enables us to view space both as an empty canvas that need not be slathered with paint nor filled with unnecessary ‘furniture’.
The ground may continue to shift beneath our feet. The archways of our houses may start to slope downwards. The windows may be smudged with too many fingerprints trying to gain access to the interior. But there is always the possibility of reconstruction and rebuilding.
We have the tools to build the ‘house’ we want – let us remain open to the possibilities and poetics of the space we have been given.
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