The Need to Empty Ourselves

“Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.”
Rebecca Solnit

I feel a compulsion to push breath from the corners of my lungs to the corners of the earth. Sometimes in a shout, a visible breath. To unpack everything I am until it forms clouds.

To become what poet Ocean Vuong calls a “torso of air.”

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night – sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. the boy, beautiful

& gone …

From “Torso of Air”

"Sky 7" by Santeri Tuori. Featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 7” by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, 2011-12. This piece is a pigment print mounted under acrylic made by multiple exposures superimposed, aesthetically appearing like both oil painting and photograph.

Hemingway once said he felt empty after he wrote. Early in his career, he’d write from his top-floor Paris apartment, empty his being, and then walk downstairs back into the world.1

Around the same time in a vastly different space, Nan Shepherd, an underappreciated Scottish writer of our communion with nature, said she fell asleep on a mountain and found “moments of quiescent perceptiveness with nothing between me and the earth and sky.”

Mountains are natural spaces to empty. They are still, eternal and vast, welcoming anything we devolve.

“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent” wrote Annie Dillard in her sojourn to Tinker Creek, using words similar to Shepard:

You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.

Both women knew that mountains receive everything from us. Mountains, plains, empty spaces. And yet, many people find these vistas disconcerting. These scapes demand more than we can give.

"Sky 21" by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 21” done in 2014. Tuori’s photographs are taken in his native Finland, capturing the beautiful, textured atmosphere that exists where the air is clear. But without any reference points, the sky becomes air.
Most metaphors of life contain the concept of fullness, having, abundance. We pulse in energy, passion, feelings—things we hold within physically and metaphysically. In fact, it is the ravaging of our thingness within that articulates the worst illnesses. The vernacular for tuberculous was consumption, literally our self being consumed. Now we use similar words with cancer, it is ‘ravaging’ or ‘waging a war’ within.2

Surely, an empty person is missing something, lacking. It is the limitation of Western culture that the focus on having rather than being disallows emptiness.

The fantastical Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami admits he has sought a void every day of his adult life.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. […] The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pas away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.

Murakami, born and raised in Japan, owned a jazz bar and wrote on the side. When he turned 28, he sold his bar to devote himself full-time to writing.

With the writing came the running. The two were well-suited – “the whole process […] focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon” could be said of either.

In Pilgrim, Annie Dillard went into the woods with feelings of emptiness and “an open palm.”

Like Dillard, Murakami makes a distinction between emptying and being empty. Murakami extols the state of emptiness. He understood what many of us arrive at inadvertently: being empty expands our possible fullness.

I think about a line from Christie Watson’s memoir on nursing in which “Nursing is a career that demands a chunk of your soul on a daily basis. The emotional energy needed to care for people […],” Watson writes, “I have felt spent, devoid of any further capacity to give.”

And yet she does give. Daily, weekly, the book tells us so. How? Did something become renewed? Did something fill that emptiness?3

We cannot expand outside our own boundaries when we hold fast to those boundaries. This scream, this urge to exhale – maybe it is a necessary compulsion that accompanies change. Or anticipation of change.

One of my favorite poets, Mark Strand, an American sage, once talked of oblivion, forgetfulness, the fullness of forgetting, the possibilities of forgottenness, all aspects of emptiness.

O is for Oblivion. I feel as strongly about it as I do about nothing. Forgetfulness, the fullness of forgetting, the possibilities of forgottenness. The freedom of unmindfulness. It is the true beginning of poetry. It is the blank for which the will wills.

The freedom of unmindfulness. The blank. I want to exist in that blank. In the void of Murakami, the oblivion of Strand, the empty palm of Dillard, the quiescent perceptiveness of Shepard…

Is there even such a thing as emptiness?

“In my opinion there have not been any ‘empty spaces’!” wrote British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. “Space is an active & tangibly appreciated, dynamic—it is a reality asking for the relationship of the human figure or sculpture to perpetuate its dynamic.”

Hepworth’s forms often contain the enclosure of negative space, manifested by a piercing, a hole, a thing missing. Critics have speculated that the emptiness within is a maternal, spiritual gesture, a commentary on the unknown. I think it was Hepworth’s way of putting something within, even if that something is merely space.

An emptiness is a space that shall be filled. As we empty ourselves, exhale, shout, and push everything out, we might leave it. And walk forward, without.

But it does not mean we cease to exist.

"Sky 6" by Finnish photographer/artist Santeri Tuori, featured in "The Need to Empty Ourselves."
“Sky 6” by Finnish photographer Santeri Tuori, 2011-12. The subtly amazing aspect of these photographs is the vantage point, as if Tuori took them from within, not below, the clouds. If I emptied yourself into the air this is how it would appear. Learn more.
Historian, memoirist, and wanderer Rebecca Solnit observes:

‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan:shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

Footprints, shells, and photographic images are shul. Empty remnants. These words are shul, I am no longer the person who writes them.4

But as the poet Vuong reminds us, your body is more than a portion of night sealed with bruises […].” You are more than what makes a footprint. You are more than a shell filling and emptying.
You are the entire process.

Shout. Exhale. Empty. Exist.

A Sense of Wonder

“A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Rachel Carson

Wonder is a beckoning. A come-hither. A lure that pulls us onto a path of knowledge. Wonder is the deliverance from a staid adulthood and a wrapped-up existence.

Wonder is best felt not explained.

Wonder is as simple as watching cows.

Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play. They amble into view from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful walk, and it is an occasion, like the start of a parade.


So often they are standing completely still. Yet when I look up again a few minutes later, they are in another place, again standing completely still. Now, in the heart of winter, they spend a lot of time lying around in the snow. Does she lie down because the other two have lain down before her, or are they all three lying down because they all feel it is the right time to lie down?

Short-story writer Lydia Davis fills pages with observations of neighbor cows. Pages propelled by wonder. By a desire to learn, to know. What are they thinking? What motivates them? What do they think of me? She asks indirectly, seeking to cross what divides animals and us.

Wonder is communion. What else can it lead to?

Natural History Museum, London. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Britain’s Natural History Museum was designed to house the enormous collection of natural specimens overflowing at the British Museum. It was conceived by Sir Richard Owen a creationist, who wanted a “cathedral to nature.” Owen had to lobby Parliament to remove items from the British Museum. In 1881 the British Museum (Natural History) opened. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

“The wonder is,” observed Annie Dillard, a pioneer of nature wondering, “—given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all[…].”

Why is there beauty at all?

German economist and humanist E.F. Schumacher believes that curiosity is the name for that which expands our world beyond what is essential, beyond our biological constraints. Into a state of being rather than having.

It is, Schumacher continues, what separates us from the unyielding despair of met biological needs and nothing more.

Writer and biologist Rachel Carson develops a lovely case for wonder in our young years, perhaps because child eyes are closer to the earth?

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

Although she spent her life connecting humans to the environment, Carson’s most beloved project, “The Sense of Wonder,” contains line after line of the simplest, purest wonder as she takes her infant nephew into wild scapes.

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in a rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy[…].

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The museum’s first director, Sir William Flower, was a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Flower created the main “Hall of Wonders” that featured dinosaur skeletons designed to surprise and inspire the visitors. In 2017 the dinosaurs were removed and replaced by “Hope” a blue whale who died off the coast of Ireland in 1891. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

I walk around the garden at night with my bundled baby. Oh the things we get up to in the wakeful hours. Does she sense the outdoors? Does she too feel joy?

Schumacher argues that an indescribable factor “x” separates us from animals, minerals, and everything else that is not divine or human. It seems to me, that “x” is ignited by wonder. It is encapsulated by wonder.

More than curiosity, wonder is an entrance to the possible. And impossible.1

Gaston Bachelard—the wonderfully imaginative man whose 1958 The Poetics of Space transformed concepts like nests, corners, even roundness into psychological spaces and existential boundaries—writes: “The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration.” Like begonia leaves, snail shells, and ammonites, some transcendent cosmic pattern knights them.

The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration. And since the inhabitant of a shell can amaze us, the imagination will soon make amazing creatures, more amazing than reality, issue from the shell. […] When we accept slight amazement, we prepare ourselves to imagine great amazement and, in the world of the imagination, it becomes normal for an elephant, which is an enormous animal, to come out of a snail shell. It would be exceptional, however, if we were to ask him to go back into it.

Did all of art, all of poetry, all of beauty, all of everything made originate from wonder directed at cosmic patterns and incongruous forms?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Darwin speculated whales might have evolved from land mammals (he guessed bears) later it was proven they share common ancestors with pigs and hippos. “Hope” is positioned in a feeding dive during which she would shallow mouthfuls of plankton. It is the largest feeding event of any single animal. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Certainly, science pulses with wonder. I love this passage from geneticist Paul Nurse when he describes how he was lured into biology.

It may have been a butterfly that first started me thinking seriously about biology. It was early spring; I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old and sitting in the garden when a quivering yellow butterfly flew over the fence. It turned, hovered and briefly settled—just long enough for me to notice the elaborate veins and spots on its wings. […] Like me, it was so obviously alive: it could move, it could sense, it could respond, it seemed so full of purpose. I found myself wondering: what does it really mean to be alive?

Our minds can contemplate the universe if we let it.

If you are a bit foggy on wonder, start with Annie Dillard, the naturalist, novelist, and all-around brilliant observer, who inhales the universe:

I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, ‘it’s cold again; it was cold before,’ but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, ‘it was cold this time last year,’ because the notion of ‘year’ is precisely the one you lack. Assuming that you hadn’t yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?

It is a sticky thing, wonder. A viscous thing. It is flying your way all the time like cosmic spitballs.

Should it hit you, stick to you, it might not leave. It might keep pulling you in. To cows. To stars. To cells. To anything above biological needs.

Davis continues to watch cows:

The third comes out into the field, from behind the barn when the other two have already chosen their spots, quite far apart. She can choose to join either one. She goes deliberately to that one in the far corner. Does she prefer the company of that cow or does she prefer that corner?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The Hall’s cathedral structure allows visitors to walk around the diving whale, wondering at her size, the way her bones support one another, what it takes to create and sustain such a giant. Learn more about this wonderful place or take an audio-tour with David Attenborough. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Wonder is the sticky thing that pulls us onto the threshold of comprehension and pushes us over the edge into what Carson calls a “renewed excitement in living.”

Find something to wonder about. Better yet, find something to keep wondering about.

The Word is Not Enough

“Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.”
Christie Watson

We seem to be existing in a space beyond words. Beyond language. The fear, the anxiety, the gratitude, the anger…

The word is not enough.

What happens when words fail us? What takes their place? How does this affect communication, moreover communion?

In many ways, language has always been a boundary against which we push—a “boundary of the unsayable,” American novelist Marilynne Robinson calls it.

Against it pushes Joan Didion when she tries to express grief at the death of her daughter. Against it pushes physicist Alan Lightman when he stretches himself in the universe seeking place and meaning.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at the Luxor Temple, Egypt. Hieroglyphs, from the Greek “sacred carvings,” utilized pictorial form to narrate and define. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind. Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. […] Sunflowers themselves are far more wonderful than any words about them.

I wish I could transport Mary Oliver to the space next to Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh painted sunflowers, his favorite flower, again and again. A man who spoke so many languages, had so many words on his lips, felt he needed to paint to express.

We act when we cannot say.

Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Karnak, Egypt. “But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place – not very often and always inexplainable.” wrote John Steinbeck. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Windows in London are full of rainbows. This country has agreed rainbows express what we cannot say to all the frontline workers who are saving our lives. A big arc of color, a small thank-you.

We make rainbows. We act. But how do the health care workers self-express? Do they make rainbows for each other?

English nurse Christie Watson admits in her memoir that the language of kindness is something practiced, day after day. It is something shown, not spoken. For how do you thank someone for returning your life? Returning the life of someone you love?

Watson shares a note she once received:

To the bereavement midwife. You helped me through the worst time of our life. We will treasure the memories you let us make during Annabelle’s short time. Thank you is not enough. But there are no words.

But we cannot always act. What if we have negative feelings, emotions? What if we hate and fear to the fringes of our body such that we pulse? Then should we act?

Anger is an outsized emotion, “the deepest form of compassion,” concludes poet David Whyte. “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect.”

When the word is not enough, violence becomes the act of expression. “Words!” they might as well be yelling, “we need more words!”

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Steinbeck continues “There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Will the words we use ever catch up to our need for expression?

“The human experience,” argues Erich Fromm, “is not describable.” In his 1976 work To Have or To Be?, the German social psychologist separates the human experience into “having” and “being.” In the having mode, everything is a thing, describable. But in the (more preferred) being mode, the word is not enough.

One could write pages of description of the Mona Lisa’s smile, and still the pictured smile would not have been caught in words—but not because her smile is so ‘mysterious.’ Everybody’s smile is mysterious (unless it is the learned synthetic smile of the marketplace). No one can fully describe the expression of interest, enthusiasm, biophilia, or of hate or narcissism that one might see in the eyes of another person, or the variety of facial expressions, of gaits, of postures, of intentions that exists among people.

The shortage of language, argues Fromm, stands between one person and another, stands between our communion.

None of these experiences can be fully expressed in words. The words are vessels that are filled with experience that overflows the vessels. The words point to an experience, they are not the experience. […] Hence being is indescribable in words and is communicable only be sharing my experience.

Human separateness, our desire to commune and connect with one another—is there anything more profound or urgent? The shallowness of words as vessels can never be overcome, argues Fromm.

But there is a means to understanding one another, what Fromm calls “mutually alive relatedness.”

“It is through this mutually alive relatedness,” promises Fromm “that we overcome the barrier for separateness.”

“Mutually alive relatedness.” I cheer at this term. I cheer the concept of this term.

Hieroglyphics at Luxor, Egypt. Featured in "The Word is Not Enough" in the Examined Life.
“The craft of art or writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for wordlessness.” The power of these carvings, what they express and how they still express today, prove Steinbeck’s point. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
It is a bit maudlin (even sinister), but it strikes me that humans in this pandemic have something that connects us in “mutually alive relatedness.” Not since the last world war have we ever experienced something so universal, so everywhere.

I might not read your anger or your sadness or joy—but I read your pandemic fatigue fluently. In the lines by your eyes. In the slope of your shoulders, the way you kick your feet forward when you walk like your skin holds you up.

Will this mutual experience upset our language and by doing so reinforce our human connection and communion?

American novelist Marilynne Robinson delights in the abundance of words and how they push the “boundaries of unsayable.”

France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. The old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allowed us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain.


How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them. Somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed.

Robinson believes that language evokes a reality beyond experience and beyond imagination—that our scientific forays into quantum mechanics, dark matter, and dark energy demonstrate “the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.”

Whether our reality outstrips our words or vice versa is irrelevant. They are in close pursuit.

Let’s not abandon language. It has been with us since the beginning.

But it is time we challenge language. New words. New things. New utterances. New hybrids. More understood, less misconstrued.

I am tired, sore, contracted, and retreating. Yet, I feel safe. And any minute, I’ll switch to being eager, enthusiastic, and energetic. But that happiness will be bound by fear and insecurity and, underneath it all, murky anger.

I do not have a word for this feeling. Yet.