Empty Spaces in our Lives

My interest in the meaning of empty spaces in our lives was recently piqued.

I came across an article by a New York photographer, Lynn Saville, about her series of images titled “Vacancy.”  Saville began the series in order to pursue her interest in images of vacancy as they reflect the economic distress of our times. Think of the once vibrant city of Detroit, Michigan in the United States and the photos we now see in the media of boarded up homes and empty storefronts and vacant lots. The images of emptiness and desolation are meant to reflect the ravages of the worldwide economic recession we are experiencing.

But then Saville began to see a kind of beauty in the emptiness, or, as she described it, a sense of “secret plenitude.”   At first, the mind may see only what has been abandoned, the remaining spare signs of previous daily occupation.  But gradually over time, Lynn Saville also saw “hints of renewal and re-creation.”  She came to appreciate the shifting nature of vacancy and the richness of the “secret plenitude” of the empty spaces.  The emptiness itself became more of a living phenomenon to her, and the muted colors and angular surfaces and textural contrasts and reflections of light in the spaces she photographed continued to speak to her of their inner life.


And then I began to think more about the meaning of the empty spaces we all have known in our own lives.  I remembered back to a garden tour of southern Europe that we took back in the 1980s.  Those were the early years of airplane hijacking.  One summer, out of fear, people in large numbers were cancelling European tour reservations.  Our tour took place as planned only by combining the few remaining registrants from several other tours into one group.  When we got to the big cities and tourist attractions of southern Europe, the “quiet” of places was astounding.  I recall in Rome, for example, only one wing of the massive hotel we stayed in was occupied; all other areas were closed off and empty.  In Monaco, when our coach pulled into the cavernous underground parking lot, ready to house literally hundreds of coaches full of travelers, ours was one of only 11 coaches that were there.  Of course the “up” side of the situation was that we did not ever have to wait in long lines to see the local attractions.  But the “down” side was the pervading eeriness of the empty spaces we were in; the sense of human disconnection and absence of usual daily patterns of activity was strong.

We also experience emptiness or vacancy In our everyday lives,.  For most of us, when we move from one location to another — apartment to apartment, apartment to house, house to house, house to condominium, house to retirement facility, etc. — we have, by definition, empty spaces on both ends of this relocation process.  We empty out the place where we have been living and furnish anew the place where we are going.   Often there is a deep sense of loss that accompanies the moving out phase of the relocation, followed by an anticipation and excitement engendered by the moving in phase. One empty space represents a form of loss and the other empty space represents a new beginning.  We can see a kind of beauty in the new space, and, as Saville has said, a “secret plenitude” waiting to unfold.

There is another kind of emptiness that occurs in the life spaces of many of us — that is, the emptiness that results from the dismantling of a childhood home. The writer Olivia Judson described such a process as much more than thousands of repeated decisions about the fate of each of the items in the house; “The dismantling of a house is also a dismantling of the people who lived there.  Especially if they lived there for a long time.”  And, she added, “Especially if they are dead.”  My brother, sister and I had this exact task to carry out in 1992.

My parents built my childhood home before I was born, so it was the only house I ever knew in my growing up years.  They were together in this house until my father died at age 84.  My mother continued to live there alone until her own death seven years later at age 91.  And that’s when we had to face disposing of all the objects inside the house and putting the house up for sale.

The dismantling of my childhood home was a shattering experience.  Judson said, “. . . when someone is dead and belongings are all that is left, dispersing those belongings feels like an erasing of that person’s physical presence on the earth.”  For us, sorting through the contents of the desk drawers, closets, cupboards, and bookshelves was the most wrenching.  This was the little stuff of everyday life —  all so key to remembering not only who my parents were, but also the everyday happenings across those years and to understanding how we ourselves fit into that story.

Little by little, during this process, the emptiness took over.  Well, the desk drawers are done.  Have you finished the front hall closet yet?  About half of the kitchen cupboards are done — mostly the ones with just dishes.  What about that little drawer in the kitchen with all the odds and ends?  What about the game cupboard in the dining room?   And then the furnishings.  Does Debbie want the dining room set?  What are we going to do with the piano?  What about that antique table that was Dad’s writing table? Does anyone want Mom’s sewing machine?

As the emptiness grew, the indoor spaces looked less and less familiar.  The rooms seemed both bigger and smaller at the same time.  The sounds of our voices and our footsteps echoed off the bare walls as we wandered through the nearly empty rooms, still not quite ready to let go.

Finally, we were ready for the guys from the auction house to come and pick up what was left.

And then, finally finally, I heard Ed saying quietly, “Come on out to the car now, it’s time to go.”

Years later, after the house changed owners for a second time, the new owners were the relatives of a friend of mine.  Sue came into my office one day, eager to tell me about what the cousin had discovered in the house.  In the kitchen, by the door that opened into the garage, we had had a growth chart of extended family members — hand written in pencil right on the wall.  At some point in time, as redecorating and repainting occurred in the kitchen, the wall chart had been preserved under a hinged board.  The new owners had not known it was there until accidentally discovering it one day. They were excited about this piece of the past that remained in the house.  For me, their discovery brought back a surge of memories and a sense of comfort.  All the belongings of my family were long gone from the house, our family’s presence “erased.”   But here was evidence that not quite everything had been removed. The penciled-in measurements of growth and height for me, my sister, my brother, my cousins, and ultimately the grandchildren were still there — testament to the lives of our family and our history in the house.  And on this earth.

Lynn Saville, “Eloquent Empty Spaces,” The New York Times, November 3, 2013.

Olivia Judson, “Home, Dismantled,” The New York Times, February 16, 2014.

4 thoughts on “Empty Spaces in our Lives

  1. Betty, as always, you’ve so eloquently captured thoughts and feelings of the awful task of clearing an empty house. A wonderfully comforting piece to know that others have shared that experience. Alison x


  2. Betty, You always articulate so eloquently everyday phenomenon, and I can certainly relate to the closing of parents’ and one’s own homes, and the associated immediate empty feeling. While they are the foundations for transitions to come, the treasured memories continue to be very real and comforting. Nowadays I spend much time reflecting on the occupational emptiness of prison cells, for many, if not most of those who are incarcerated, and how willing they are to shed themselves of those spaces that are primarily confining and mostly devoid of meaningful activity.


    • Karen, Thanks so much for your comment. I had not really thought of prison cells as empty space — but that is a powerful image — plus your phrase “occupational emptiness” seems profound. I want to remember that. Betty


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