“There is no love of life without despair of life…” – Albert Camus
In art, negative space is the term used to describe the area around a subject. Negative space informs and completes the object and sometimes it is used to become the ‘real’ subject of an image.
Negative space is important in a good composition. Often I will turn one of my art pieces upside down and sideways to force myself to really see it and to ensure it is somehow balanced between the positive and the negative.
I have found myself pondering this concept as we enter this season of light and darkness. Like negative space, darkness informs and defines the light. But the reverse is true as well; the light delineates the darkness. We cannot have one without the other.
Together they describe each other. Shadows, whether painted on a surface or experienced in our lives, add depth to every composition.
Grief is nothing we would wish on anyone. And yet there can be strange blessings hidden within each loss.
I feel I have received many dark and glittering gifts. It was a horrible honour to have spent those final moments with my mother, to have marked the vigil with my father as he panted through the hard work of dying. To weep with Kathleen as she once again discovered she was dying; each time the shock of the news felt as fresh and awful as the last time she’d forgotten.
I carry all of these things carefully. I like to hope that these painful gifts have kept me open and vulnerable and more able to be present with other people’s pain, although I cannot pretend to understand the scale of tragedies that some people have to bear.
But I have to be careful. My default wiring tends toward a sideways slip into the dark. I’m not sure if it was because I grew up going to funerals or that our photo albums were stuffed with black and white images of dead people. Maybe it was Mom’s preoccupation with the radio’s daily funeral announcements. It could be a genetic marker or maybe I simply absorbed the anxiousness of my parents. Whatever the reasons, I recognize that it is easy for me to default to my Mennonite hard-wiring with its go-to tendency toward depression.
Too often I wake with an unnameable dread, a strange residue from dreams that linger…shadowy curtains of existential angst. Blessedly, it is mostly fleeting. It can be brushed away with coffee, laughter, walking, writing, art, conversations and meditation. As a result, I would mostly describe myself as a grateful and fairly content human being, and most especially, one who likes to laugh at the irony of the fact that we’re doing all this within the context of the infinite.
Seriously. Have you looked at any of those Hubble telescope images and really thought about how tiny we are in relation to all that infinite space? I look at how infinitesimal I am within all that cosmic dust and am struck with the realization that everything is completely pointless and therefore everything we do is an outrageous act of courage.
How can it be anything less than bravery to create meaning out of infinite stardust?
Anything that connects us to life is brave and true; frying onions in butter, sinking into the baptism of the bath, petting a purring cat, baking cookies or scrubbing the sink. All are sacred. These are nothing less than holy tasks and offerings that only ask us to be present, to pay attention, to take notice. It is within the noticed moments that we are most alive. Those moments of presence and awareness bring meaning and become the memories that make up our lives.
But even so, this is the time of year when many of our losses hide in the chill of the long winter nights. I remind myself that all of this, the dark, the light and the shadowy in-between states, are exactly what gives us depth and makes us real.
The morning’s first communion of coffee can be nothing less than an incredible act of bravery in the face of sorrow. I think of refugees and others who have survived losses and terrors that we can’t begin to imagine and yet…they still get up and face the day.
Samuel Beckett summed it all up in seven words, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
So with all my heart and the best of my energies, I add light to each day: I light another candle or belt out a chorus in the car. I dance down the hallway and keep playing with paint and glue. I manipulate that negative space and illuminate a moment, a conversation, a painting, a connection…
We are not alone if we reach out.
Hold someone’s hand today. Look into someone’s eyes. Hug a little longer than usual. Be the light to someone’s darkness.
Take the time to congratulate yourself for your continued bravery. Be especially kind as we enter this Christmas season. Everyone is struggling with something.
Let us continue to be courageous and remind ourselves that as much as it can hurt, it is only by daring to love that we can truly be alive.