Cultivating Mental Green Space

I’m sitting in Schenley Plaza, a spacious green lawn in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Oakland is a busy urban hub overflowing with universities and colleges.  Their presence means that there’s a lot of green space here: grassy plazas, parks, wide sweeps of lawn, and lots of green nooks between and around buildings.  Places where the proverbial student can tuck themselves in with a book and pore thoughtfully over its contents, in a pose worthy of dozens of college brochures.

I love finding these little patches.  There’s nothing like turning a corner and finding an unexpected garden in the middle of the city.  These are the places I go on my lunch breaks, toting a notebook or a netbook or now a Neo2, whatever writing tool helps me get the most work done.  Sometimes I tuck myself in with a book and read someone else’s words.  Sometimes I just sit and admire the view, breathing slowly.

There’s already been a lot written on the value of green spaces by people much more versed in urban planning & civil engineering than myself.  I couldn’t break down the Quality of Living metrics for you.  But I do know that their presence gives me something insubstantial but immeasurably valuable:  a visual and emotional break, a patch of beauty and serenity in the middle of the urban bustle.  A space to breathe.

I need green space to write.  Not necessarily in the physical world (though that’s always nice to have); I need to cultivate *mental* green space.

green space
This garden is on a wide grassy lawn crammed between the two busiest streets in Oakland.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m a magpie brain.  I’ll find all sorts of other things to distract myself with if I’m not careful.  Give me free time and I’ll try to fill it up with chores and craft projects and TV shows.  Or even worse, I’ll get sucked into the neverending  black hole that social media can be, spiraling endlessly downward to the lightless gravity core.  And when this happens—as it’s been happening a lot lately—I find it even harder to work up the momentum to sit down and write.  I get stuck on a sentence and suddenly I’m looking at my phone.  I’m not sure where a story should go and suddenly I’m reading a long-form essay on the Political Scandal du Jour.  And I still don’t know where the story should go because I haven’t taken the time to step back and breathe.

Stories can stew in the back of my head without me giving them much conscious thought.  But to really get into the nitty-gritty of shaping and building and detailing, or just to play with new ideas and see where they’ll go, I need that quiet time when I put aside everything else and just let my thoughts run around the park.  Suddenly I’m moving through the world in the most productive haze, doing mindless chores or just taking a walk while mumbling about a character’s background or deciding what the most vital conflict is.  Ideas flower, and my feet find the path and follow it eagerly.

Call it negative space, or downtime. Call it Dedicated Musing Time or, heck, call it Miracle Jenny’s Miraculous Green Space Productivity Program (patent pending).  But we shouldn’t be afraid of giving ourselves that space when we need it.  Of putting the phone on the other side of the room, taking a deep mental breath, and having a nice long think.

I know that’s what I need to do.  So I guess it’s time to start covering busy mental parking lots with mulch and grass, to plant little gardens, to aggressively carve out spaces to just breathe.  And my thoughts can be like toddlers let loose to chase each other over the grass, or the man in gym clothes slowly yoga-ing himself into a pretzel, or the day camp kids chasing a giant 6-foot tall beach ball wherever the wind takes it, or even the occasional college student curled picturesquely over a book.

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