194. empty space?

Every time I begin writing a post, I am filling empty space, not totally but significantly. As the black words spill onto the barren white background, my eyes fix on the black foreground and release the snow white canvas behind. I’m on to consciousness making and doing language– constructing words into phrases and sentences, mapping something new. That’s where the pay off is, right? In the black ink of communication. But today I’d like to focus on the empty white space and celebrate it. It’s gonna be hard, I know, to let go of the black documentation of reality and slide into the slipstream of other consciousness. But that is what I am proposing; so loosen your security seat belts. And before departure, Blogaceans, you might ask yourselves “Why would I want to go there?” Perhaps because the black ink reality has worn you thin and has squirted into your eyes like an octopus’s escape trick. So read on.

Let’s begin with the margins around this entry. If there were no margins, your eyes would have a hard time finding where to start. They would fall off the page’s edge, so to speak, into frustration.  But I bet you forget them just as soon as you have found the first word in the upper left hand corner of the page. Your anxiety does not rise because you have found the start button and you can maintain cognitive control. Otherwise you could have something like a pane of glass that has no top or bottom, no front or back to it, or so it seems.  In any event you are only going to look through it and not gaze upon it, so what difference does the orientation make?  That’s what I’m talking about, Bloggisatvas, the awareness of the transparent, unfilled space.

Imagine the Grand Canyon. We think of its deep walls and the Colorado River crashing through it. Think again of the air, the gap, the clear margin between walls that allows you to see the millennial record carved into stone.  It is this gap that was once an eroding riverbed washing away to silt in the Gulf of California. Helicopters and birds fly through this space now. This void, however,  is the vehicle for our astonishment as we look through it unconsciously. And I want to meditate on and celebrate this space that may be empty but is not lacking. To fill this void would destroy it. To pave it would reverse the narrative of time, and warp nature. No one would do that, would they? How about damming the Colorado River so we can use every drop of water out west? Unthinkable… wait, that’s happened over and over again. But, but wait a second, no one would do that to the Grand Canyon, would they?

Years ago the movers and shakers of my little town were financially aroused enough to develop the last piece of open ground within the limits of our humble town. It lay there empty and fallow from their lustful perspective, simply behaving like agricultural land when it could be fertilized with tax breaks and rerouted roads and turned into glorious shopping malls and housing tracts and fast food restaurants that would employ thousands in low paying jobs. For many years the adjoining township refused to allow the construction of an interstate ramp, which would have opened up the development of this last piece of empty space. The townies fought in court for many years against the townshippers as the land continued to escalate in value. In a last ditch effort the township supervisors obtained a historical landscape designation that would temporarily disallow development. I believe such designations are used to keep Walmart from building a superstore in the middle of Gettysburg Battlefield or in front of Mt. Rushmore. The local township view was lovely but not so historically valuable. Eventually its special status was overruled. Financial lust won again. Is anyone surprised? Law almost always sides with money.

Today in that empty space we  have the ubiquitous  type of strip mall that has flourished in the last fifteen years. It has the Staples, the Pet Smart, the Kohls or Gap or Old Navy, the Red Robin, the TGIFridays, the Panera Bread template that you see off of every interstate highway in the country, arranged in the same order so no one gets confused, i.e., has to think or evaluate. I’m sure you recognize the layout because there is bound to be one of these strip malls located near your town, wherever you live in the USA. This sort of development continues to be the rage, but I would compare it to strip mining. It’s all about the now and lacks respect for the past, the downtowns across America that were not tax free zones, and the future, when the next fad turns these strip malls into old Hollywood fronts. When the grass grows through the forgotten pavement of these ghost malls, your grandchildren will ask you what that ghastly thing was. Will you say, “It was a good idea at the time”  as they blip and bleep on their electronic devices in the back seat of your Denali? Suburban blight, rural ruin, big bucks…. One thing is certain: the next great idea will storm through, and corporate America will happily sell your children’s heritage back to you for a good price along with a long term service agreement.

For me, I want to refocus into the amorphous void. I don’t need what Madison Avenue is selling. I never did. When advertisers persuade you that your view is empty, your canyon void, your space wastefully wide open– stop them there. Just before the carpeting pitch, the mall dream, and the highest good to the highest bidder argument comes spewing forth on forked tongues.  Instead, just fade, surrender to the white space canvas of peace. Sanity lives in the margins, the gaps,  the greenways and the voids we hold dear.

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174. Shadows across the parking lot

PictureOutside my second story office window is a charcoal parking lot that holds maybe thirty spaces. Beyond that is the unspectacular three story beige southern wall of a large church. It looks like a rectangular cruise ship stuck in asphalt and concrete. A rusted green dumpster sits at the left side of that wall where the alley runs through north/south behind the church for easy trash pick up on Monday mornings. There is a utility pole exactly halfway between my window and the wall, with utility wires running horizontally across the townscape framed by my square window. Traffic rumbles up and down the poorly paved alley and zooms by the opening of Route 30, between the end of the church wall and what used to be the Salvation Army store. It’s the sort of view that only a New Yorker could love. In the upper left quadrant, blue sky completes the picture. Two streaks of grey-bottomed clouds stretch diagonally northeastward this October morning.

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Before noon the shadows run right (East) to left (West). They straighten out and move backwards as the day wanes. I look out on this intersection of boxes planted around the black macadam streets, trying to supply the missing beauty. It could be beautiful in an urban sort of way, but no one seems to want to put on shutters or hang a nice sign in front of their building. No plants or flowers are evident. The paint choices are tedious– white, beige, green. Not that it’s worth the effort, but I think a hipster urban decorator could easily jazz up this boring patch of boro.

In the left third of my view is a narrow opening between two buildings that reveals a green patch of unpaved ground. It’s a little gem of a park in the middle of downtown Chambersburg where a branch of the Conococheague Creek tumbles past the remains of an old mill wheel. I think of a cherished ruby presented in a stained old cigarette box; the heart of our town deserves better presentation. Instead, the prettiest spot in town is surrounded by parking lots and the backs of sad buildings. Poor planning, I think.

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That beautiful spillway was a primary reason for the rest of the town’s existence. But now it’s just an afterthought, after the streets were paved and lit. After the industry had come and gone. After the money had been extracted from the intersection of Commerce and Greed streets. Still, it remains defiantly beautiful, like a prisoner who grows younger and more vibrant behind bars, wrongfully convicted by impatient, aging jurists.

It’s a funny thing, beauty. It seems to be reborn every year if not every season. Take that rusty dumpster, for example. Last fall I was walking by it and noticed an intense bluish-purple dash of color against the beige background wall. Growing up out of the gap between macadam parking lot and concrete block wall was a purple iris which had somehow taken root. I imagine that funeral or wedding flowers had been dumped sloppily and a single tuber had found its way into the sheltering gap. I took a picture of it with my cell phone. This accidental drop of beauty spoke to me of hope.Image result for purple iris growing out of concrete pictures

Then there is the stream that cuts through our town. I walk by it every day and wonder why it is not esteemed. It could be and should be so beautiful, except locals dump mattresses and shopping carts in its pure waters. There is your basic littering and then there is raping and scarring a landscape. I think willful polluting of a pristine stream deserves more than a civil citation. But then, we’d have to jail the strip mining companies, wouldn’t we? I wonder what the land would look like if it could be returned to the First Nation folks for one hundred years. That stream would be honored, I’m sure, because it provides water and fish and game and direction and transport, i.e., life. But we don’t see that any more. It’s just that wet thing below the bridge.

Again, we have jewels, pearls buried in the excrement of swine. Like old relationships that are taken for granted, we don’t even see the beauty of our blessings. We are a faithless bunch. This town owes its birth to the Falling Spring that feeds the stream that nurtured it… and we have literally turned our backs on it in the pursuit of speed and greed. Now the town fathers look to the torrents of Interstate 81 for more. Prime farmland is paved over for gaudy strip malls and convenience stores. No expense is spared to grease the path of the big chains who promise concrete jobs and progress. We are now a mecca of box warehouses that supply box stores along the arteries of rail and roads. And this display of beauty is the equivalent of a bleached blonde Hooters waitress. Alluring? Yes. Real? No. Come back in ten years and check it out when it will be as sexy as a cigarette butt.

I’m thinking about trees in planters out there. Heavy pots full of flowers. Window boxes spilling out petunias and ivy and such. Spots of beauty that say, “I see. This matters. I am renewing this urban desert.” Now I’m wondering about setting these signs of hope outside my office. I can’t stand vandalism, but I can’t let vandals stop beauty and hope. Yes, I could certainly add two more flower boxes, two potted trees and a whiskey barrel of flowers. These will not be accidents or after thoughts, not prisoners but free exclamations of life being lived. Isaiah 55:

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”

I need to go to Lowe’s.