Thinking inside the box

Something there is that doesn't love a [box]," said the poet ... or words to that effect. "Square" has a similar problem.

"The box gets a bad rap," said my friend Paul on the phone the other night.

His lament was based on the phrase "thinking outside the box," which he had been pondering. "Box" seems to be "square" cubed, a volume of status quo, even discreativity.

"What is that all about?" Paul said. "Myself, I can't bear to throw away a box. They're full of too much potential."

I understand what he means. Corners of my house are stacked with an assortment of boxes too good to cast off: card boxes, candy tins, book mailers, matchboxes. Boxes within boxes. I can't part with them, even if I don't immediately know what to do with them. They are vessels. They will contain something; their usefulness is not at an end just because they are, for the time being, empty. A box is open to usefulness, attending usefulness, waiting to have usefulness thrust upon it. An empty box is full of expectation.

For years I have enjoyed recycling old wood into new boxes. For instance, an old oak desk abandoned in the basement of our house. The solid oak was beautifully grained, if marred. But it had a history and value beyond wood. Unknown, but imaginable, people had used the desk. One could ponder the letters written, contracts signed on its surface, the conversations held across its level top. It was calling out for new life. So I sawed up the wood and made several nice boxes for presents to family members.

Once I used the cabinetry of an old upright piano that I found languishing curbside one trash day. Its mahogany veneer was intact, even if the innards could no longer carry a tune. With a little persuasion from a crowbar, I went home with materials for a lovely box. It now houses my sister's bridal bouquet and tells more stories than could a piece of new mahogany: piano to trash to bouquet case. What fortunate wood.

Boxes contain ideas. They highlight them, frame them, safeguard them. Thinking outside the box may, in fact, be like "playing tennis with the net down," as Robert Frost said in his indictment of free verse. A box, however, actually stimulates invention. Confines can add focus.

A recent case in point: the parent at my school who donated hundreds of little white cardboard boxes. A photographer, his images come back to him from the lab as slides in perfect little white cubes. He couldn't bear to throw them away, but storage was becoming a problem. An elementary school like mine thrives on such treasure. And so Pax, our art teacher, shifted into high gear, putting simple ingredients to work transforming the two-inch boxes into elegant, jeweled containers. Tissue paper and magazine photos, postage stamps, miniature figures, buttons.... All kinds of debris lurking in pockets and drawers found its way into the box-gluing process. The humble boxes are now objets d'art.

Then along came Tish with miniature books. Tish is the reading teacher.

"I have just learned how to make the world's quickest book," she said, unfolding a two-inch packet that articulated itself like an accordion into a small chapbook.

The grandparent of one of her students had passed on the technique. By using some cloth tape, a strip of paper folded a few times, glue, and some cardboard, she produced a wonderfully versatile blank book. Ready for drawings, paintings, writings - but a beautiful object in and of itself.

"I'm going to have my class make these," she said gleefully.

Books. Boxes. Ingenuity struck again. Soon the little boxes were opening into little chapbooks, with the potential for more: A short text could unfold out of the box with room left over for three-dimensional installations. A mini-book report, complete with diorama from the book? A tableau of characters, scenes, and objects from the narrative could be installed neatly within the confines of eight cubic inches. A box, let's not forget, is a volume.

Today the conversation widened to include four teachers, marveling at the possibilities suggested by the little box and the little book.

"Why don't we package the package?" said Nada, the third-grade teacher. "We could come up with 10 uses of these little boxes and make a kit: box, tissue paper, and glue, 10 ideas for $1.50. Sell them at the Christmas fair."

That's a lot of content per cubic inch from the humble box. The mere box. Is it any wonder? A box is a thing of beauty in and of itself: concise, symmetrical, orderly, simultaneously definite and indefinite. Thus, thinking inside the box is awaiting the movement of the imagination on waters within a space already prepared for occupation.

Thinking inside the box is a standpoint. Thinking outside the box might just be a mere view.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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