Negative Space

by Rachel Creager Ireland


Because I have some financial pressures squeezing ever tighter, I designed this flyer to promote my massage therapy business. I showed it to several people for their reactions, and got one or both of these comments from every one of them: What table? and Take the text off the image of the table you’re referring to, and move it into the empty spot at the top right.

Clearly it wasn’t an effective flyer. But the idea of putting the text in what I’d intended as open, clear, negative space irked me to no end. The whole point was to show expansive, uncluttered space, like your mind when you really relax. Some people are compelled to fill every hole. Maybe I should put big arrows pointing out: This is the table you will lie on. And, This emptiness is your mind during a massage. The fact that I couldn’t communicate this idea to people who already know me, and know massage, discouraged me, and I set the flyer aside to move on to other efforts at promotion (which, incidentally, failed more pathetically than the flyer).

That was several months ago, and last week I was making a feeble attempt at decluttering the office, when this flyer rose to the top of the pile. My daughters found it and started asking questions about it. Why hadn’t I ever done anything with it? I told them that it wasn’t effective, and they agreed. They had been among those who originally critiqued it, after all. But I kept coming back to my irritation. Some people think they have to put something in every unoccupied space. If there’s a corner, they have to stick something in it. If there’s space on a shelf, they have to put something on it. (My own house has a dearth of horizontal surfaces unfilled with crap.) If there’s an open minute, they have to do something. Why can’t people just allow what is to be?

But upon further reflection, it isn’t that people do these things that is bothersome. As my twelve-year-old pointed out, some people function well that way, and they get a lot done. She suggested there is a balance to be found. She’s right. Maybe I should be more like them. I get very little done, and have no excuse when I don’t know what I did at the end of a day, or a week. Maybe I should try harder, push myself a little more.

Truly, though, I know that isn’t the answer. It doesn’t make me more effective, it just makes me unhappy. I don’t know why pushing doesn’t get things done for me, but it’s always been the case. Hence the ineffective flyer and the hours I spent designing it. Hence the promotional efforts I made after that, which took more hours and also came to nothing. I wanted to will a busy practice into being, but that’s never worked for me. Rather, I usually look back and it looks like I got what I needed, if not what I thought I wanted, and it didn’t come through effort but through allowing, choosing with intention, and accepting with gratitude what came to me. Why do I say I should be more like someone else? I know it’s not true.

I imagine people thinking I should be busier, try harder, adopt a better work ethic. They often ask me, “How is massage going? Keeping busy?” It’s what the Midwest is all about: the highest and most frequent praise people speak of anyone else is He works really hard. If I’m honest, though, I can’t think of anyone ever telling me directly that I should be different in any way. It could all be my imagination. It comes from me.

I had a vision of how things could be, of expansiveness and light, uncluttered and free of expectation, thought, or intention. Another name for this is peace. I could share that with others, but instead of receiving it, they mirrored back to me my own excess thinking, expectations, judgements, and willfulness. Isn’t it always that way, with the things that bother us most? Those are the things we don’t want to see about ourselves, that we try to push away, that keep coming back to gnaw at us until we pay attention. Hello old friend, Shadow.

I don’t know how I’m going to manage my debts. I may or may not expand my business. I will not be presented the highest praise bestowed in the Midwest. There is another statement, though, which describes me; it has yet to be elucidated. It is something about self-knowledge, higher understanding, effortless balance, peace. When I get there, I will know, and I won’t need other people to tell me.