What Happens in the Margins

For those of us who are planners, it can take a lot of restraint not to plan our days and lives down to the very second, so that nothing is (theoretically) left to chance. Of course, planning helps us make sense of where we’re headed and how we’d like to get there. It can help us tackle our to-do lists and meet our goals. Planning can make it easier to collaborate with others and can give us the sense that we’ve got some handle on the chaos of life.

But as Erin Loechner and Sarah J. Bray have explained so well, over-planning can sometimes be the death of creativity, motivation, and inspiration.

When Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir in verse first appeared in 2011, I loved it immediately just for its title, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is itself a quotation from Thoreau. The timing of its publication felt particularly serendipitous to me, as I encountered it while trying to emerge from what had felt like a very long hibernation.

A brief glance at my calendar from September 2010 is enough to make my present self hyperventillate. Every single day of that month is planned down to fifteen-minute increments, with a few hours sometimes allotted for sleep. My calendars for the following six months, however, are mysteriously blank.

It shouldn’t have been so hard to realize that my life was bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, I was too busy to take the time to notice (or care), and it took a crisis to slow me down. In fact, a simple, quiet illness brought me to a full stop.

My memories of those next few months are dim, but I can call up most vividly the grief I felt as all the things (good and wonderful things, mostly—just too many of them) I had planned so well were pried from my sleepy hands by fate and loved ones.

For much of the time that I spent flat on my back, I thought I would mark my recovery by the moment my life (and my calendar) returned to what it had been. I thought I would know for sure that I was really well again when the pages of my life were filled to the edges. That moment never came, and it was not because I didn’t get well (I surely did). It was because I fell in love, in those months of quiet emptiness, with the margins.

While I was still mourning the bright and busy calendar that had been wiped clean, the things I had crowded out of the disappearing margins of my life began to trickle back in. After years of wishing for more hours in the day, I knew what it felt like to have more time than I could ever need. All of a sudden, there was space for curiosity and wonder and reflection. A few deep and heartfelt friendships finally had room to grow. In the midst of all that quiet, I began to hear the sound of my own voice again and to really listen. I also learned to receive help and love, even when I had very little to offer in return.

For all those months, I worried constantly about the fact that I couldn’t doing anything “productive.” Instead, I was mostly lying still while my body repaired itself and the quiet worked its strange magic on me. By the time I felt like myself again, I was a different self altogether—one who knows the joy of fullness and hard work and the equal value of guarding and loving and noticing what happens in the margins.