By Christine Jeske

Making Margins, Part 1

As I sped down my icy gravel driveway trying not to smash into the mailbox for the umpteenth time in a week, bouncing in my seat and praying I’d hit enough green lights to get to the park-and-ride and make my bus on time, I realized I needed more margins.

Margins, I have learned from graphic designer friends, make a visual design more appealing. White space draws the eye inward, gives a sense of peace, allows the mind to concentrate on what matters. White space makes a design beautiful, attractive, calming, provocative, memorable.

That’s what I want my life to look like. And to make that happen, I need margins. White space. I can’t cram activity, words, and busy squiggles into every square centimeter of my life and expect it to have any semblance of calm.

The problem is, that means giving up my tight grip on a certain expertise I’ve honed over the years. I am an expert at cramming things in. We have flown our life’s belongings over oceans enough times to know how to prioritize, stuff, lighten, and squeeze up to the nearest quarter pound and half-inch of airplane luggage limits. When I get asked to write ten pages, I can write until the last paragraph stops on the very last line of page ten. If I’m told to write 1,000 words, I will write 998, or maybe 1014 if the editor allows. I have calculated the nine minutes it takes to make it to the bus (if I jog the last block to the bus stop), and I leave home no more than 9.25 minutes before the bus comes.

I once took a personality inventory that labeled my personal motto as: “Anything’s possible.” I live that to the fullest, for better and for worse. I can always figure out a way to say yes to another project or opportunity. I can multitask, organize, and cram to make anything work — or give the appearance of working. I do not miss buses, even if it means some double-parking and sprinting.

But the price I pay is in stress. In losing margins, I lose the moments that make life beautiful. Margins are what keep me kind to my children, in love with my husband, able to listen, ready to serve, happy, healthy, learning, alert, alive.

Standing at the bus stop waiting for an extra three minutes won’t wreck my life’s order. I need to actively allow for those three-minute, ten-minute, and even three-hour gaps in life. I’ve heard it said that God is a God of the margins — he loves to enter into lives of marginal people, but he also slips into the margins of our life. But only if we leave space.

The question for me is how to leave that space. For all my good intentions, margins could easily just become one more thing to squash into my life and check off a list. “Stood at the bus for a minute? Good. Margins — done.”

Instead, I want more of what I’ve experienced in a few snatches of margin I’ve found lately:

  • Taking my daughter out to lunch after her orthodontist appointment in the middle of the school day instead of sending her back to a hurried cafeteria lunch.
  • Appreciating the paintings on coffee shop walls.
  • Skipping across a parking lot with my daughter.
  • Candles on the dinner table even for a rushed meal slipped in between my husband working late and before an evening engagement.

It’s a start.

But I want more.

So I’m taking up a challenge over the coming six weeks to spend time experimenting with finding margins. In six weeks I’ll write an article reporting back on how it goes, particularly as my semester as a student gets busier. Six weeks from now will I still be finding ways to sculpt Sabbaths into my weeks and months, hold back my pack-rat-of-activities nature, and make margins?

About the Author

Christine Jeske has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches anthropology at Wheaton College. She has lived in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa and authored two books, Into the Mud: True Stories from Africa and This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. She now lives in an old farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, three pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.  

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