“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.

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“To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.” -Bernadette Devlin

Lately, I’ve been noticing how all the things in my life that make me unhappy can be boiled down into a simple category: what I lack. Relationships. Health. Character traits. Posessions. Achievements. Habits. The voids in my life are catching up with me.

And the simple truth of the matter is wallowing in these voids, these “nothings” does absolutely, well, nothing for me.

Zip. Zilch. Zero.

Nothing.

It’s amazing how much the baggage of so much nothing weighs, and once you notice you’re carrying it around everywhere, you realize how much space it takes up in every aspect of your life. In fact, it gets in the way. It’s the elephant in the room, and in my case there’s a whole herd of pachyderms.

I’ve recently started playing video games again after my friend and roommate introduced me to Skyrim. Yes the one with the dragons. Part of what attracted me to giving this storytelling medium a second chance for myself personally is that this game pretty much lets you do what you want, at your own pace, when you want to. You create your own character from the beginning. You select which skills you want to learn. You collect things. You explore. You sell the things you collect on you explorations to make money and buy other cool things. And indeed, all these things are necessary to continue in the game, but you craft your experience quite uniquely. It’s non-linear, organic feeling keeps you engaged. The game physics are believable (unlike Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball) and the limitations of the character, reasonable in a world where magic is real.

But if this entry is anything, it is not a review.

My point in bringing this up is, of course, illustrative. You can only carry so much “stuff” on your travels. The types or armor and weaponry you select define your skill sets and carrying capacity. They also force you to approach confrontational situations or puzzles in certain ways.

In order to collect some really cool items, sometimes you have to let go of other somewhat cool items that you can sell for cash. In order to carry more things, maybe you choose less armor and use archery or magical skills instead. Maybe you carry a shield, and maybe you decide to unleash your fury with dual wielding attacks. Maybe you enlist the help of a CGI friend so they can share the burden of fighting and carry your stuff. But whatever you choose, you can find a way to be successful provided you understand the benefits and drawbacks of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the manner that you’re doing it.

Same thing applies in the real world.

In order to collect cool experiences, you must decide to free up time, and maybe enjoy fewer material possessions. Or, if you are a fan of the creature comforts, maybe you instead decide to work a lot. Whatever you value.

This can be applied in less literal situations as well. Maybe in order to get the relationships you want, you have to give up bad habits that keep you back. Maybe in order to get the job you want you have to give up the one you have, or give up time to learn new skills. Dropping that baggage and kicking those dang elephants out may be the best thing after all. There’s more room for more interesting things that way.

Ok, so now I’m ready for newer, bigger and better things. Allons-y! Away with the baggage! But wait just a moment…

Here come’s the hard part: all your baggage is there because it’s useful. It’s helped you through situations before, protected you, comforted you and benefited you in one way or another. And you’ve made a place for it to stay. You have a system! You know which piece stacks on top of which other piece for maximum baggage toting efficiency!

All of a sudden you are confronted with a new situation in which you can collect a new COOLER item, achievement, or experience, or being with somebody who may actually be GREAT for you. Except, there’s a teensy little catch: you have to remove one or more pieces of that baggage to make it work, rendering your system useless. Completely and utterly useless. This can be and usually is frustrating. It requires figuring out, patience, time, and negotiating. New systems are made. Maybe new baggage will be acquired. More may be lost.

Perhaps efficient baggage management isn’t such a desirable skill after all. Perhaps the “letting go,” the scary, uncomfortable bits, are the times of greatest authenticity and growth possible in a lifetime. The mess is real. And these messy times hurt. I simply hope I leave this life, many years from now, with a net loss of baggage instead of a net gain. Maybe it gets shuffled around a lot, but I think it’s for the best.