The Space Between the Notes

I have a friend who works as a chaplain providing spiritual support for people in mental health crises – as an aside, I’ve been wondering what the difference is between a spiritual crisis and a psychiatric one, but that’s a whole different article. Anyway, he was telling me about someone who asked him what he thought a good symbol for God would be. One of those questions meant to start a conversation rather than seek an answer, the querier had an answer: electricity. Which I think is a pretty cool answer – energy, the thing that animates. My chaplain friend said this answer got him to thinking symbols don’t have to be physical tangible things [like rocks, or goats] but if the horizon is open to other options his vote would be for beauty.

Beauty. I think he’s definitely on to something there. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and thinking beauty doesn’t happen in isolation, beauty needs to be seen. Somehow I think beauty is about some kind of communication. There’s a line in a Harry Manx song (Make Way for the Living) that always catches me: “the flowers bloom for no-one’s sake, and yet…” And yet… Never has so much been said by three little dots.

sunlit leaves
When I think about my own symbol for God (with beauty brewing in my mind) I get this image, the most extraordinarily beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: I was walking in the woods one spring evening and as I passed through an aspen grove the sunlight filtered through the new leaves and lit them all up like stained glass. Doesn’t sound like much but it was a heart-stopping moment for me, so struck by the beauty of it I was brought to tears. And when I think of it as a symbol, it’s a kick-ass one (at least in my brain). Setting sun – nice to look at, freshly opened new spring leaves – pretty; but the light through the leaves – stellar!!!

It’s that coming together that is so powerful. I was watching an interview with Bill Russell on the Daily Show and he told a story about asking the Dalai Lama about how he reconciled spirituality with reality (the Dalai Lama’s answer was that it came on gradually and took 30 years – a great comfort to me who hasn’t even been an adult for 30 years; I’ve got lots of time). But the idea that even the Dalai Lama has to reconcile the two is remarkable; it isn’t one or the other, it’s the place where they meet. Roger Penrose grapples with the same issue in The Large, the Small and the Human Mind when he tries to reconcile the Platonic perfect world of mathematics with the messy physical world it manifests in.

And there is mathematics in beauty. The golden ratio, the 2:3, 5:8, etc. that is used in art, and is so appealing to the eye, is based on Fibonacci’s sequence (totally a math thing!). We use it in flower arranging all the time, where the flowers are one and a half times as high as the height of the vase. If you don’t follow this (or another ratio based on Fibonacci) it looks goofy and out of balance. We have an intuitive sense of beauty, but it’s actually based on math.

The platonic and the physical, the divine and the human, it’s in the space where they meet that all the juicy stuff lies. Space – that’s the key ingredient, and art brings it to us when it leaves things out. Negative space in flower arranging is the place where you don’t put anything; when form draws your eye to the place where there is nothing, but there wouldn’t be a nothing if it wasn’t for the something that created it. Some of the most powerful moments in music and dance are the moments where things just stop for Butt Dancea heartbeat, a little bit of emptiness in all that movement and sound. I watched a Mia Michaels contemporary dance piece on So You Think You Can Dance (known as the Butt Dance) that exemplifies this – Google it! A simple, silly little piece, but in the moments where everything slows down…wow. And it’s wow, not because of the stillness alone, but because of the movement the stillness happens within.

So, maybe it’s not a symbol for God, more the place where you’d find God; but my vote would be to look for God in the place where things come together, the space between the notes. Where the sound and the silence meet. You need both to make the music.

10 thoughts on “The Space Between the Notes

  1. Valerie wrote:
    ” We have an intuitive sense of beauty, but it’s actually based on math.”

    Yes, we do have an intuitive sense of beauty and composition. But our intuition came before math, and I would suggest that mathematics simply offer a definition or an explanation for our generally agreed-upon intuitions of beauty in design.

    It is also of worth to note that any rule is made to be broken, and beautiful design can also be found that flies in the face of the “golden mean” and such mathematical proportions to beauty. In fact, it can be fun to deliberately design a painting (or a floral display) that contradicts the mathematical rules of beauty, and yet is beautiful and pleasing.



  2. This is such a synchronous moment. At supper tonight, my daughter. son, his girlfriend and I had a short discussion about our spiritual beliefs; the difference between a theist and an atheist, and the difference between being lost and still searching. One comment was that “It doesn’t matter what you believe. As long as you stay open.
    There have been numerous times that I’ve had to search and choose symbols for God, as a liturgical artist, and there have been many times as an clay artist that I’ve found God while working quietly in my studio. Actually it is these times God finds me and something magical happens. And again, it’s about me staying open.

    Staying open also invites breaking rules and finding beauty there. I like that thought, thanks Bob.

    I’m a real believer in the power of negative space. There is an sculptor who plays with negative space very effectively, Michael Snow. He finds a way of finding relationship in the negative space.

    Maybe that’s another symbol for God in the negative space; relationship.


    1. when Valerie first posted this i had no real comment on the space between. for me it is a cherished part of life something that seems too much to talk about… that confounding internal tension that i find inbetween (most likely due to being an inferior person ;-). i seem to be most desperately grateful when it is most unbearable. there are times when stillness and presence predominate but i think those times are not as common as feelings of unease. as soon as i start feeling comfortable in my life, it doesn’t stay that way for long before something changes to keep things going. so i look for silence and stillness. (is that why i like to make a lot of noise?)

      the main reason i felt to reply to your post was your comment about staying open. i have to agree. there have been experiences in my life that have taken years for me to even begin to process. openness allows for the wounding and openness allows for the newer understanding which may always be incomplete but i don’t wish for that to keep me from doing the work. because i care.

      thanks to you all


  3. i believe that numbers are a root metaphor, something very primal. so in addition to what you all wrote i would add that we tend to use numbers as a way of making sense of the chaos and to delineate our world. for some reason i thought of this from Yijing 49 abolishing the old – commentary on the symbol:

    fire in the midst of the lake.
    an image of abolishing the old.
    in correspondence with this,
    the superior [autonomous] person watches the changes of the planets
    and sets the calendar in order
    making the time of the seasons clear.

    Alfred Huang transl.

    (i offer the word autonomous as that is how i like to read ‘superior’)

    i think somehow with beauty and other intangibles there is a search for clarity and that clarity allows us to find guidance towards that and helps in a personal communication of the form. i think the clarity is found not through a search but through that space that Donna was talking about. speaking for myself i tend to search for the space or stillness.


  4. I remember this conversation well and I’ve been thinking about this too. As I read your post, a word that comes to mind – cross roads – and I don’t know why. But, somehow, that space where things mysteriously come together – the good / the bad, the unexplained / the evidence, the love and mercy / the judgement, the apparent contradictions that somehow come together to make sense (or not), the juxtapositions (is that the right word) that seem to be associated with God. The place where we can choose to embrace or go our own way.


  5. Nice work Valerie. I love your style of writing.
    I affirm Donna’s words. I haven’t thought about this topic for a while until I was reflecting on how death seems so tragic in our culture’s view. Depending on what you might call a “good death” there is a place for beauty as well. Now doesn’t that sound like a contradiction? There is something very sacred about those troubling times in life (or at the end of life) where it seems like time stands still and a person passes from this life into the next. We are so out of control (sometimes, or at that moment) that we have cause to think of how out of control we really are. We really don’t have a whole lot of say about when it happens or why, or what it might mean for us. Like it or not, death is one of those times we will all face whether it is ours or someone else’s. The moment it happens is like when the clock stands still, or the leaf opens, or the baby takes it’s first breath, or the sun casts its orange light across a sea of clouds, etc. etc. The examples are endless aren’t they? Because the Creator must be outside of time it seems to me that those “timeless” moments must be a bit of an image of the divine too. Cool things to think about. Thanks for offering this venue of meaningful thought.


    1. Wow, some really stellar conversation overall everybody, thank you. (Bob, cheers for breaking rules, thanks for reminding us of that)

      Perry one of the things I’m struck by in what you say is your listing of seemingly divergent things (death, opening leaves, baby’s first breath, sunset) as examples of the same thing. What I see in those in between moments is a place of transition, moving from one state to the next, one life to the next. That place where you are in neither one or the other, having let go of one life, but not yet grabbing hold of the new one. – that place of “confounding internal tension” as Dagmar puts it.

      Those moments in between have been some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever experienced. Grieving the loss of what I’m letting go of, simultaneously uncertain and fearful of the unknown that I am moving towards. But the most powerful too. It’s a state you have to be in to get from one place to the other. Like the trapeze artist who has to let go of one handhold, fly through the air, then grab on to the next trapeze as it comes by. That space in between is terrifying, but exhilarating – you have to let go of what you’ve got, and without ever being sure of what and where you’ll be grabbing hold of next.

      What I call a: Wahoo!/ohshitohshit moment.


  6. “But the idea that even the Dalai Lama has to reconcile the two is remarkable; it isn’t one or the other, it’s the place where they meet.”

    one of the questions for the Dalai Lama when he was here was “if there was one thing you would want to tell us what would it be” (something like that)

    his answer was “it depends on who i am talking to” (or something like that). a great answer. we need to hear different things at different times depending on so many things, state of mind is only one. we have different needs and aptitudes.


  7. Thank You very much My Friend for this. I’m still struggling with whether there is a God or not. Myself I think there has to be something out there. I don’t know if it’s God per se but something. It seems since I started my personal journey 6 mos. ago I seem I get inspirational, funny and other things from my Dear Friends & Family on my Facebook Page or by e-mail. It seems whenever I need it something always appears when I need it most. I think this is why I there has to be some Higher Power. You will never know how much I love & respect You & everyone who is either Family or Friend. It makes my Journey a little less arduous. Again Thank You. I also posted the article on my facebook page. Later Love Moi


    1. Thanks for passing it on via facebook! It’s a challenging search for everyone, and I love the conversation that comes along with this.

      I think everyone has their own model/metaphor for what they’re looking at or searching for; but like birdwatching, you’re definitely going to find more if you’re actually looking out for something.

      So proud of you for even starting the search, and sharing your thoughts with us. Thank you, it warms my heart.


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