“Let me tell you I am better acquainted with you for a long absence, as men are with themselves for a long affliction: absence does but hold off a friend to make one see him truer.” -Ovid

The too-long pause in the comedy routine. The darkened silhouette against the deepening magenta, violet and goldenrod hues of a perfect summer sunset. The uncomfortable midnight groping for a light-switch that has moved somewhere it ought not be. The infinite horizon punctuating the perfectly abrasive dampness of sand between toes at the beach.

Photo By Annie Leibowitz
The white milk and bathtub frame the face of actress and comidienne Whoopi Goldberg.

The ending.

The loss.

The death.

Negative Space – the thing that does not exist so that other things may be viewed more clearly by the absence.

This was a concept drilled relentlessly into my psyche during the time in my life when I thought I would be the travelling-nomadic-photographer type right out of college. And then I saw something missing in my studies. So, naturally, I changed my major to something completely unrelated. When my studies did not quench the thirst in my soul, I dropped out and followed my heart across the country.

My grandfather is dying. From a brain tumor. He’s 90 years old, and has lived a long life surrounded by people who love him. His wife, my grandmother, passed about two years ago. He’s expressed the desire to remarry, and at almost a century old, his still-red hair and quick wit could render defenseless the guard of any lady he set his sights on-he’s been quite the eye-candy amongst with the widows at his church. Every time I’ve called back home, I hear how popular he is with the nurses watching over his care, how charming he is still with one eye removed and a sickly pallor brought on by the radiation treatment. But truthfully, I think he misses his wife, my grandmother, and the presence of a loving, life-long partner, the one that has pledged to be for him. Perfectly healthy and robust before, the youngest of 13 children who all lived into their 90s, it seems the void left in the wake of her departure has caught up to him.

I am sad to know he will not be around to see me get married, have kids or life milestones, but the thought of his leaving has heightened awareness of all that he has taught and given me in our time together. I can see these things more clearly through the lens of loss, of absence. Of the negative space framing them.

Most people have been exposed to the idea of negative space through the image that bears either the mirror image of two faces in profile or a vase, depending on how you look at it. (Pictured left.) Truly, this is a concept not limited to the fields of art or design. But that is not to say that the negative space in a person’s life is only defined by loss, but rather the waiting, the yearning, the aching, the enjoying, the celebrating, the next step and the sigh at the end of the day.

The space under the Christmas tree. The time spent waiting for a birthday or vacation. The shameless bribery of ice cream in exchange for giving “Mommy 15 minutes of peace and quiet for a bubble bath.”

But instead of allowing those spaces to just be, we fill those voids with stuffandjunkandthings to the brim, so that when something comes along worth having, we have no space for it and have no choice but to let it pass us by.

Or maybe it’s what we don’t say that matters. Maybe it’s the words of love left unsaid that frame the problems between two people. Maybe its the unspoken words of anger that make the a disappointment more obvious. Maybe it’s the time apart that punctuates the strength of a relationship between two people.

Consider the size of the atom. Start by thinking on the scale of really small things. Start with Kate Moss. Just kidding. Let’s start with a grain of rice (Basmati, for those of you who are curious). A grain of Basmati rice measures about 7 millimeters, or  7×10^-3 meters. The diameter or distance across for a red blood cell is about 7 micrometers, or 7×10^-6 meters, which is a thousandth the size of the grain of rice. And then there’s the atom. The diameter across, measured by where the electrons orbit the nucleus, is approximately 10^-9 meters, or on the order of a thousandth the size of that red blood cell. However, the inside of that atom is between 10^-13 and 10^-15 meters in diameter. That’s up to a thousand trillion times smaller than the grain of rice. The

Basic Diagram of an atom

space between the electrons and the nucleus? Its just that, space. Every tiny particle that makes us up is mostly nothing.*

So when you take this into account, most of the “stuff” on the planet and in the known universe is mostly nothing as well. Yet, our lives, our very existence would be intimately different if this were not the case.

Negative space.

This is not the time to have an existential meltdown, or a crisis of self worth if you were secure in your identity as a person of “substance.”

This is the time to think of the solider leaving a lover or family behind while going off to war. This is the time to think about the parent dropping off their child for their first day of kindergarten–or first year of college for that matter. This is the time to think about how the curves of a lover’s lips would be less beautiful if there were no space to part them. What happens on the other side that absence or cannot be defined without the space in-between.

Photo By Richard Avedon

*No comments from the peanut gallery concerning subatomic particles, forces, energy and the like. The scientific reference, is of course, grossly simplified for illustrative purposes.