The negative spaces wherein we exist
A week ago, I went back to Paris. I got off the train at the larger-than-life Gare du Nord, and headed to the metro. Line 6, to be precise. There were some seats available. Nothing unusual about this during the month of August, especially post-pandemic — public transportation has become much unloved of late. Making myself comfortable for the rather sweaty ride ahead, I took out my phone. No connection. Typical.
And so, I left my mind wander. I thought about my family. About my health. My friends. Work. It was probably the most reflective hour I’ve had in a long time. The most enjoyable too. Strange, given the oft unpleasant nature of the Paris metro.
And that got me pondering about where I’ve felt the most content over the past 18 months, since COVID all but burnt a hole through our collective reality. Surely, I must have been able to relax at least a couple of times as society crumbled all around us? And so I dug deep.
Strangely, small, inconsequential memories of a few lonely minutes in just as few quiet places crept forward. I pushed them away. I dug deeper. Obviously, my most cherished memories of the past year and a half must at least include my loved ones. Right. Right?
Wrong. Turns out, my most gratifying pandemic-era moments did come within the space of my own personal limbos, much like my time in the metro. Not necessarily ones were I was disconnected from my phone or computer, but from places and times which added absolutely no value to my life. In a lone train seat during a long commute. At a small desk in the middle of the night. Leaning on a wall while waiting for water to boil.
In the negative spaces of life.
These spaces are all around us, yet we tend to overlook them. Ever stood in a room that you’d just moved out of, before you closed that door one last time? That’s negative space. Ever waited in an office lobby for an interviewer that was 5 minutes late? That’s negative space. Ever sat in a car at your destination while a song finished? That’s negative space. And, despite its name, that space in our lives is truly important.
Hear me out. So much has been asked of us over the past few months. We’ve had to be fired, work jobs that felt unsafe, or commit to what feels like a lifetime of Zoom. We’ve had to ask everyone how they’re doing, all the time. We’ve had to home-school our children and check on our parents. We’ve had to keep up with the news, because what else was there to do. We’ve lived, laughed, loved, and we’ve died, cried, mourned. And all the while, we continued to be both audience and entertainer in the highly performative show that social media has us given a platform to create.
For all their mundanity, the negative spaces in our lives ask nothing of us. They’re not Instagramable, they’re lonely, and they bring very little benefit to anyone. They’re not important. Yet, they give us little luxuries. Space to be truly ourselves to start with. Time to reflect; or not. A rare moment to neither add nor subtract from a world which constantly requires us to do either.
And in doing so, they emphasise and give meaning to everything else we do. That’s the very nature of negative space, whether in art or elsewhere. These places and times help us recharge our batteries, and highlight all the happiness around us. Or all the sadness. They are the unappreciated glue that create a transition between everything and anything we’d put in a memoir — a new apartment, a dream job, a newfound love of music…
And for this reason, we should cherish these few places. We should preserve them too, because it’d be too easy to view them with contempt, as one would a dull, necessary evil. We have plenty of space in the world. But, as I’ve come to realise, we also have a scarcity of spaces which we can truly consider our own; moments we would never even think about sharing on social media.
The madness of the world is never-ending, and it seems to be getting gradually worse. There’s also so much happiness to be found, yet too little time to enjoy it all. I’ve found a way of making it all bearable. I get in the metro. I find a seat. I close my eyes. It’ll all still be around when I get home.