I have begun to notice the term “negative space.” I’ve seen it several places lately, usually in reference to art. I doubt the term is cropping up any more frequently than it ever has, though; I’m probably just noticing. The same way your own name jumps off the printed page at you, negative space has been catching my eye.
My husband is a tactful guy. He’s measured and thoughtful, and much more likely to suggest something than to insist on it. But this summer he practically forced me into an eye appointment. If he had tried this earlier in our marriage, I might have bristled at him. But his honesty turned out to be more reassuring than indiscriminate positivity could ever be. I needed some help.
I have read that negative space is a vital component of art. The play between positive space and negative space–the work’s main object and its surrounding space–informs with dimension and perspective. My reading says that without negative space, the main object lacks meaning, and that balance is the key. This sounds right.
But my ophthalmology appointments tend to be a deluge of negative information. The message might be encrypted in medical detail, but the punch is the same: we have no cure, we have no treatment. Yes, well, I don’t see the point in going if there’s no treatment. I take the– if you can’t help me, at least don’t bring me down– approach. In the end, I tell my husband, you live life in your own headspace, and the insight I gain from an eye exam doesn’t improve the quality of my headspace. It just throws me off my game.
It’s a fair point, I think. My vision is decreasing, and in some ophthalmologic consistency with “the medium is the message,” my doctors concentrate on what I cannot see. The tests that they send me for are the ones they know I’ll fail. They order scans that will show the malfunction. They measure, analyze, and quantify my negative space. They may be doing their job, but it’s depressing. I leave oddly ashamed of my failure. It doesn’t matter that it’s irrational. Still, I read that the use and study of negative space is vital, increasing the appeal of a composition through subtle means. Maybe that’s true, but this praise assumes the existence of enough positive space, and if balance is really an essential element in all this, then my ophthalmology appointments need some tweaking.
I have avoided seeing an ophthalmologist for years. In rebellion, or an attempt to control some aspect of this, I’ve looked for optometrists who would be willing to do a quick refraction and supply me with disposable contact lenses. I’d wear a single pair for months, to delay the next appointment. I know. Bad for the cornea. But it left me alone to manage my disease, and that was the point. I can run my own headspace. The problem with this plan, I know now, is that it created an exhausting undercurrent of thought. I tried to remember how everything looked, and tried to make peace with it being gone. I stared at the things I thought would be most difficult to remember–colors, shadows, water–and wondered how my husband could ever describe these things to me, and whether the descriptions would make any sense when I couldn’t see, or couldn’t remember seeing. It was my way of working ahead, to blunt the trauma of going blind. It didn’t work, by the way. I may have changed it a bit, but it was still a unbalanced picture. Sure, negative space is vital, but only in proper proportion. And assessment of proportion requires perspective–impossible to achieve from inside the painting.
My husband didn’t just find me an ophthalmologist. He got me an appointment with a retina specialist at Wilmer Eye Institute, a division of Johns Hopkins. I’d never been to Wilmer before, but from the school of “past performance is the best indicator of future performance,” I was expecting my ophthalmological information to be delivered clinically. The gravity of the topic, the ripples of personal affect, the emotional weight of blindness were handled by my previous ophthalmologists with astonishing detachment. Stunningly unhelpful. So, I braced for a clinically exacting experience at Wilmer too. One that would yield a file of disturbing data, delivered at a safe emotional distance for the comfort of my doctor. Bastard.
I tend to translate bad appointments in my head. Narrow visual field means no driving, eventual cane. A comparison to my previous visual field test reveals my rate of loss. A quick calculation can reveal whether I’m likely to see my kids’ graduations, grandchildren, wrinkles, if retirement travel might include seeing Paris or just smelling it. I could still go for the bread. I could wear my hair in a bun. I could probably fix a bun with my eyes closed. I’ll try that when I get home. I won’t even need to flip the bathroom light. Ever. Geez. Lower power bill? I’ll end up spending it on Uber. I really should be living somewhere with better public transportation. When I zone back in, I realize I’ve missed the lecture on rods versus cones, or something about the macula. It doesn’t matter. Sort for meaning as you walk to the elevator. Sure, the buttons have braille, but how will I find the buttons? I read that negative space may be used to depict a subject in a chosen medium by showing everything around the subject, but not the subject itself.
My latest appointment was different, and I’m grateful. This team of doctors asked me what I needed. They asked me about my life. We still talked about the details, but it wasn’t crushing or disorienting, because the details weren’t the point. For these doctors, the details were just the raw data they needed to begin a larger process of care. With no rush, they shared a perspective on my situation that I hadn’t been able to find. I’m hopeful about the state of research now. The details about my vision have context. They infused the worrying implications of my disease with some hope. I thought I was there to meet a team with astounding knowledge of the retina. I was, and they do. But it was their balance of knowledge with compassion that changed my perspective. This appointment actually helped.
There is an art to being a physician, apparently, and some of its power lies in its ability to balance us. It’s taken me days to get used to my new outlook, and it feels like Christmas. I didn’t realize how hard I had been working at coping until these doctors made it feel safe for me to stop. With one conversation, they turned off a humming undercurrent of thought in my head. I hadn’t even realized was there until it was gone.
I didn’t sleep the night after the appointment. I sat up on the window ledge at the hotel. I wasn’t thinking. In truth, I was blank. I just looked. By sunrise, I was staring at an angle of light created on just one side of a steeple. I’ve seen steeples before, and sunrises, but this one was different. Beauty wasn’t bittersweet anymore, because I wasn’t trying to remember it, or picture it gone. It was just pretty.
There have been dozens of these adjustments in the last couple weeks, and they all boil down to the same thing. Negative space isn’t crowding out the positive images anymore. And it took other people, presenting positive and negative space in artful proportion to restore a balance to my worldview–a balance that skewed so long ago, I couldn’t sense the change, and didn’t know it had happened. I’m grateful for the art in healing.