Mind the gap
action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and
when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate
the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender,
shaky kind of place where you could live.” –Pema Chodron, In the Gap Between Right
In late October of 2003, I spent 12 hours a day at Mission Hospital helping my mom and stepfather reconcile in their minds and hearts and guts and bank accounts the unambiguous death sentence he had been handed, rather abruptly, by a doctor with some significant deficit of Marcus Welby, M.D.’s empathy, manners, and comforting good looks.
In addition to the shock, disbelief, denial, regret,
anger, awkwardness, pain, resignation, fear, horror, and rage, rage against
going into that good night—all those predictable stages you must move through
quite quickly if you only have 37 days left above ground—there was also a lot
of just plain mundane logistical stuff to deal with: driving, parking, meals, powers
of attorney, quick Last Wills and Testaments typed out in My Best Fake Legalese
on my computer at 2 a.m. and witnessed by a somewhat surprised man from Destin,
Florida, and his wife, Myrtle, who just happened to be visiting Myrtle’s
brother Marvin as he recuperated from hernia surgery in Room 212, and now
forever memorialized on the last document my stepfather ever signed, his last
act of agency before succumbing to the dangerous and swift train ride down (or
up, as the case may be).
These pedestrian activities didn’t measure up to the significance
of a life’s end, but the need for convenient and covered parking doesn’t stop
just because your world has, I guess. That’s why so many kind folk can get to
making jello and marshmallow salads and squash casserole at the passing of a
congregant; it’s something to keep busy with when the other stuff—acknowledging
our own mortality, for one—is just too scary, too angry-making, too futile and
impotent and fearful and mean-spirited and desperately, irretrievably sad. It’s why Boards of Directors can spend 10
minutes authorizing a three million dollar expenditure and 2 hours talking about
parking spaces. We go where we can in those moments of sheer dread and
Since Mama can’t walk very far with those two metal hips and other accoutrement, every night after our hospital vigil in that cold, pristine room, I deposited her in a lobby straight chair while I searched for the car and drove up to fetch her. One night she opened the car door in mid-sentence, never having been one to wait for an audience to start talking. “That revolving door says the oddest thing as people come in,” she drawled in her Southern accent. “I listened to it over and over again and it has a little recording of a nice man’s voice that says, ‘This Door is Roast Beef; Please Do Not Push.’ Every time I go through it, that’s what it says! Why on earth would it say that to me?” she turned to ask, plaintively, her big eyes bulging behind plastic-framed glasses so large it appeared she was protecting her corneas from a welding arc or, perhaps, an unexpected total eclipse.
I honestly had no idea.
The next morning, we listened as we entered for our vigil: “the door is slow speed, please do not push,” the voice said to us. “See! See!” Mama yelled, cupping her hand over her hearing aid. “Well, I’ll be to bury. Why on earth does it say the door is roast beef?”
Why, indeed? Perhaps there is a gap between what we hear and what is.
My first time in London, I heard the ubiquitous announcement in the Underground: “Mind the Gap.” (A precursor to my mother’s revolving roast beef, my friend argued that the shouty voice said “Mine’s a cat.”)
I read that “Mind the Gap” originated on the Northern Line where the gaps between the curved train platforms at Embankment Station and the train itself were particularly large; evidently, early in the history of Tube-line building, the companies had to build their railways beneath public roads, so sharp curves were required. Allegedly, the slightly-off-putting gap at Bank is so large because the tunnel diggers of the time had to swerve a lot to miss the Bank of England's vaults. (Money is the root of all gaps, as it turns out.)
I do wonder about gaps, those liminal “spaces between” that we fear and avoid and act awkward in, like those 37 days in which my stepfather stood with one foot on one side of the gap and one foot on the other. What’s appropriate in those spaces, those moments in life when it’s almost time to go, but not quite, so you don’t have time to start anything new, but it’s too long to sit idle? When you’re neither here nor there?
Where are my liminal spaces, those places where boundaries dissolve a little and we stand there, on the threshold, getting ourselves ready to move across the limits of what we were into what we are to be. A marginal place, a transitional one, a quality of “in-between.” Thresholds and transitions. Where are yours? And to know where those gaps are, must we first know where our edges are?
When we resign from a job, we’re immediately in a
liminal space—dead to those we are deserting, but not yet gone, suddenly
uninvited to management meetings as if irrelevant, like a Monty Python
character crying out, “I’m not dead yet!” A transgender space is a liminal one,
isn’t it, caught between genders in a world intent on people staying on one
side of the gap or the other. When we’re
between cultures or countries or cities, suspended in midair in a metal tube,
we are in the gap between two worlds. When between life and death, we are there
where our boundaries are dissolving. In that way, there is much to learn from
those dying if we walk toward them and not away. Mind that gap; shorten it.
There is an in-between space or gap between me and you, between intention and impact, between belief and tolerance for other beliefs, between perception and preconception, between Self and Other, between promise and delivery, between what I heard and what you actually said, between life and death. How large is it?
We must mind the gap between who we believe ourselves to be and who we desperately want others to think we are. The shorter the distance, the healthier the person.
We must mind the gap between how we see the Other and who they believe themselves to be. The shorter the distance, the healthier the community.
And we must mind the gap between how we see our stakeholders and how they see our organizations. The shorter the distance, the healthier our business.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
When we hear “mind the gap,” it doesn’t mean “don’t go over it.” The gap is something we must traverse if we’re on the London Underground, in order to move forward. The same is true in life. Mind the gap between Self and Other, that place where weeds can grow. Mind the gap between roast beef and slow speed, between what I hear and what is, between two hard places. Spend some time in that tender, shaky, liminal kind of place in between. Mind the gap, not to avoid it, but to measure and walk toward it. Find those edges.