The in-between

There’s a wonderful Japanese word, ma. Ma, like many Japanese words, is hard to define, because there’s a nuance to its meaning that doesn’t have a direct corollary in Western culture. Ma is a pause, a negative space, a purposeful interval, an emptiness, a gap. Somehow, those words can’t quite do it justice, as we in the West tend to take words like “negative” and “empty” to have pejorative connotations. But in Japanese thinking, it is this very negative space that gives definition to what is surrounding it; the emptiness is what gives new shape and meaning to the whole.

Sometimes it’s actual physical space – we have a lot of exquisite prints in our apartment, and one of my favorite is of a half-moon and abstract birds, all in tones of gold and rust and oxidized copper. The moon hangs in the upper right corner, and the birds inhabit the left side, and between them (and taking up a majority of the print) is loosely-defined empty space. Except, every time I look at it, I realize that it’s not emptiness at all – the space is what defines the relationships between the figures, is what creates balance and meaning in the work.

I’ve also been thinking about this idea of ma in context of what I do. One of my favorite pauses is that moment after the reverberation of the final note has faded into the hall, that wonderfully rich and spacious silence before the applause. Sometimes you can almost feel the collective intake of breath in that moment. For me, that moment of hush between sounds is one of the most exquisite experiences in music.

Last week I went to see the Royal Ballet during a trip to London and by chance caught a dancer I’ve long admired, Sarah Lamb. She’s beautiful to watch in a general sense, but there’s a particular quality I adore about her dancing – the way she uses stillness. It takes skill to turn gracefully, but even more to stop it gracefully in a moment of suspension before continuing to the next step. And she has a way of placing her foot…just so…a perceptible pause before she stretches into an arabesque. The stillness between movements gives context to and defines those movements.

When contemplating ma on a different scale, I’ve thought about the larger empty spaces of life. I have a love/hate relationship with flying – I’m uncomfortable flying no matter how much I do it, and I intensely dislike the claustrophobia of sitting in a metal tube. But at the same time I embrace the sense of suspended time when I’m on a flight. Hurtling through the air, something in me feels very quiet, even tranquil. It’s a moment of repose after a busy week, before the next bout of business starts, and it’s that sense of pause that allows me to really take in what has happened and to fully anticipate what’s about to come.

And finally, there is metaphorical space. Every year I approach the end of March with quiet anticipation, knowing that the 29th will mark another year since my father’s suicide – 22 and counting. His absence is palpable, even all these years later; his death split open a space in me that remains unfilled. For a long time I expended an undue amount of energy trying to fill in that emptiness, or hoping it away. It took me many, many years – until fairly recently, in fact – to realize that by focusing on the sense of lacking something, I was trying to create meaning in that space, a futile task. Instead, I’ve gradually been able to fully accept that the father-shaped hole in me is one of those negative spaces that helps define my experience in the world, helps define my understanding of myself. It is a ma that makes me who I am.

2 thoughts on “The in-between

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