Inhabiting the ‘White Space’: a guest post on life between stories by Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris

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It’s a joy and an honour for me to be publishing this guest post by painter, designer, calligrapher and healthcare artist Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris in The Place Between Stories. I came to know Sarah through another guest post, ‘Walking Out of the Gallery Scene’, which she wrote for the blog of the global Walk On, Walk Out (WOWO) community. The short first paragraph of that post leapt out at me like a hand mirror catching the light:

“I would like to tell an inspiring story, but I find myself in the uncomfortable in-between state of having walked out of the old, and not yet having hit solid ground in the new. And perhaps this story needs to be told as well for others who are in a similar position.”

For this was exactly where I still was, and now of a sudden jumping with excitement to find someone speaking up so publicly, with such clarity, and the courage of vulnerability, for the missing stories of those of us who’ve left some old life situation yet remain in limbo, for whom the decisive next step just isn’t emerging from the clouds of self-doubt, anxiety, inertia and emptiness, no matter how hard we might sometimes wish for it or try and force it on.

Sarah’s post inspired me to comment in solidarity, and to put myself on the WOWO map, as someone interested in fostering a deeper understanding of these states of betweenness – which the WOWO community calls ‘the trembling’ – and helping to support people who find themselves within them. From here, Aerin Dunford of WOWO contacted me, asked to share my recent ‘Looking After The Blind’ post, and also alerted Sarah to it. The flowering of that connection is recorded in the treasure trove of comments and beginning conversations that you can find underneath ‘Looking After The Blind’. Thrill and relief spill over at the renewed discovery of not being alone, of finding unexpected others who can listen deeply to us in the place between stories, because they are somewhere that is like that themselves.

Sarah shares here her story of a life blessed with the periodic instinct to withdraw from conventional success and find her own inward way towards purpose and conviction. The candour and immediacy of her writing need no further introduction, except to note that she’s chosen a voice which addresses me directly. Like a blog comment, or perhaps a letter, which above all invites the conversation to be continued. By myself; by any and all of us who might be reading this.

Thank you, Sarah, for this invitation.

Celebration with rocket

Celebration With Rocket, oil pastel collage by Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris

Cat, you wrote on your blog in the post ‘Looking After The Blind’, of a dawning realisation that the personal crisis of meaning you found yourself in was somehow linked with larger movements going on in society: the collapse of the exploitative consumer-oriented culture and the systems linked with it.

I feel that as well. And I wonder if it helps or not to know that one’s own difficulties in finding a meaningful path are bound up with a societal (some say planetary) paradigm shift! The one thing it has done is make me feel less alone, and less ‘wrong’ (as if by withdrawing from selling as an ultimate goal I had failed at being a useful member of society).

When I was 27 I left a successful career as a graphic designer, calligrapher and fine artist to join a spiritual community in Scotland. I essentially volunteered 6 years of my life and skills.  And though it cost me the career edge that most of my professional colleagues were building up from age 27-33, I gained the foundations of social consciousness that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

Throughout my 40-plus years of professional life, I’ve been fortunate to find ways of using my art to serve a purpose larger than my own career goals. I was a healthcare artist for 15 years doing creative projects in hospitals. From that experience I wrote a book, Chocolate Rain, on a creative approach to activities in dementia care, which is now published in several countries.

The question for me is, ‘How can I use my energies and skills to help build a kinder, more humane, more connected, imaginative, soul-filled way of life in the midst of this massive systems breakdown we’re experiencing now?’

I guess the other thing I’ve managed to pinpoint in the last few months is that I’m in a parallel transition – more like an initiation really – in life phase. At 63 I’m feeling very different in terms of what is still possible in my professional life than I did at, say, 40. I don’t have the energy or drive to throw myself into new initiatives requiring continual effort (against or outside the system) to ensure that they survive.

Some days I wake up feeling utterly directionless and disconnected.

I don’t really know what’s next for me, or if I even want to keep repeating the compulsive search for a clearly defined ‘next role’.

You and I discussed the phenomenon that in a prolonged ‘between’ time, it is as if there are preparations being made for the new situation. Beside transformations inside oneself, events and people gather, the landscape changes … If we can stop ourselves from grabbing onto something – anything! – just to escape this discomfort, perhaps it is that we will eventually change internally enough to merge with a new situation where we will thrive.

In my own process of seeing what I want to do with the rest of my life (and emerging in others’ transition stories), are parallel needs: a desire for reflection and solitude, and as importantly, a need for community.

Joseph Campbell defines the Wasteland as a place where people live inauthentic lives. ‘To heal it’, he says, ‘live an authentic life’.

What if tending the garden and our home and doing my art are already enough?

I am demanding a relentless honesty from myself (which I also recognise in your questioning, Cat) about where this drive to matter comes from. Learning to separate my sometimes desperate need to do something to feel worthy, from a genuine conviction that I have something worthwhile to give.

In a discussion I had with my husband about all of this, he offered that the roles we take and the projects we do might be far less important than who we are: that which we radiate out, which can give other people hope and help change consciousness.

So these periods require patience for sure. And to navigate them we need the courage to go against everything our current Western way of life advises: ‘Make a plan, outline the steps you need to achieve it, and go for it!’ I don’t just feel out of step with my own profession (where artists are being exhorted by internet gurus to hike up their incomes to ‘6 figures and more’), but the whole society’s manic obsession with money, marketing, and status.  I won’t even start on the tragic waste of consumerism and its impact on our lovely planet.

I do paint, and this is one place I feel on track and whole. I don’t exhibit though. In my choice to place my energy with new, sustainable, resilient alternatives, I can’t quite bring myself to fall back into the old gate-keeping-directed, greedy, elitist gallery world. However, for lack of a better way, I may relent for reasons of space (the canvasses are stacking up) and income!

But otherwise, I feel intuitively the need to hold still with the seeming inertia and uncertainty of not having a recognisable occupation. This time seems to be asking me to not only let go of external roles, but to release many of my usual approaches and behaviours in order to make way for an entirely different way of being: Let go of my will, let emptiness be there, accept this time exactly as it is, be humble, allow depression, allow feelings of failure, and most of all, trust that this process is leading somewhere new.

My friend Milenko calls this place the ‘White Space’ and his lasted 15 years. He said that nearly all his artist colleagues (who are, like him, working with socially engaged art) went through a period where their ego and next career moves became irrelevant, and from that cloudy space eventually emerged clarity, connections and new possibilities.

So we agree to be invisible for a while, years if necessary, to honour this process of deep realignment which signifies growth and ripening. And which often is painful, and can appear to be meaningless whilst in the middle of it.

I’ll end for now with this quote from the book Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze:

“Pioneers have to expect to feel ignored, invisible and lonely a good portion of the time. What they’re doing is so new and different that others can’t see their work even when it’s staring them in the face. These are difficult dynamics to live with, especially when you know you’ve done good work…This is why it is so important that pioneers work as community, encouraging one another through the trials and risks natural to those giving birth to the new in the midst of the old.”

So I guess your site, and the ‘Walk Out, Walk On’ site, the comments, guest posts and emerging dialogue between some of us who aren’t accepting the status quo this society dictates, are enabling us to find that community.

I hope so.

street art

‘Start Somewhere, Follow Everywhere’: with Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris in Pittsburgh

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3 thoughts on “Inhabiting the ‘White Space’: a guest post on life between stories by Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris

  1. This is wonderful Cat, having dropped out of graphic design at the same age as Sarah, her story very much resonates with me. She is brave enough to ask the question ‘what if tending the garden and our home and doing my art are already enough?’ which is on many of our minds on a subconscious level along with tentative questions ‘what if I am enough?’, ‘what if the world could be enough for me?’, ‘what if we could accept we have enough?’, ‘what if we could be enough for each other?’.

    1. Emily, what a heartening comment to read. (I’ve been using that word ‘heartening’ so much since this new landscape of kindred spirits opened up for me). By sensing the deeper significance of, ‘What if tending the garden etc are already enough’, you have hit on some of the core questions so many of us are struggling with.
      ‘What if I’m already enough’, is certainly, consciously behind that question. And I don’t know if you are familiar with ‘Soul of Money’ by Lynne Twist, but she also asks in another context, ‘what if I already have enough?’. And this ties in to the ‘Walk Out walk On’ book where communities with not much in the way of material or other resources are finding out that through their culture, relationships, and ingenuity that they do have enough to create resilient, healthy communities.

      Thanks for following my blog. I visited yours and instantly felt a connection in visual language and sensibilities. So glad you’ve joined in the conversation, looking forward to more exchanges. Your participatory and community work particularly draws me.

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