Poems start at around minute 9…If you need or want to skip over my reading of the essay. (!)
Poems start at around minute 9…If you need or want to skip over my reading of the essay. (!)
As an older adult with severe double vision, no depth perception, and “convergence insufficiency,” I saw a special Vision Therapy trained optometrist for about a year. The experience I write about below happened just before I ended treatment.
Early one morning, well before day lightened behind the fence of trees to the east, I went to move my snowed-in car to make way for the plows. As the automatic door opened, letting me out into the cold, I could see that falling snow against the street lamps made sparkles and sparks. I headed towards the car, thinking of nothing but the cold. Then, brain clicked, like the flip of a switch, and something in my vision changed. Instead of seeing the snow fall in a sheet, curtain-like, in front of me as I always had before, I now walked inside it, as if in a snow globe, separate flakes plummeting around me, each on a different plane, riding a separate moving point in space as it fell.
Startled, I blinked my eyes, thinking the curtain would close in again. Nothing. I looked down at a snow-covered bush next to me on the sidewalk. The ends of its bare twigs were lightly mounded, contrasts heightened, the whiteness of the snow and twigs gently vibrating with laser-etched clarity and precision of detail. I can only describe what came over me then as a feeling of connectedness, of affection for the universe. I smiled as I stood there, realizing that I was seeing depth, I was seeing space, and the spaces between things, for the first time. At least for the first time that I could remember, for the first time since who knows how long. That was all, and it was everything.
I had a dream once that I never forgot, a dream in which I actually ate chocolate. I tasted it and I swallowed it, and in which I stroked a cat and was able even in the dream to feel the soft silkiness of its warm fur. Both of these acts, though in reality mental, not physical, took enormous effort, even courage. I felt, while sleeping, that if I were to break the spell of whatever made these experiences “forbidden,” neurologically speaking, something would happen. It was not clear to me at the time of this dream whether it would be catastrophic or miraculous, and as a result, while I managed to push through those barriers, even in sleep, my apprehension, indeed my terror, was immense.
This experience in the snow felt very similar. Space, I saw with sudden breath-taking enlightenment, is not negative. The “negative space” artists speak so passionately of doesn’t exist. Space is a real, solid kind of stuff that gives definition and substance to matter. In fact, if space, the medium that surrounds everything, changed the ordinary boxwood in the snow before me into a burning bush of miracles, what couldn’t it do?
Now, I must admit that contemplation of snow-covered shrubbery and buried cars and yellow street lamps, among other things, in sub-freezing temperatures has never been my favorite way to spend an early morning, yet it was a long time before I went indoors. When finally, rubbing my hands to warm them, I made my way to my computer to jot down some notes, I put my fingers out and, was immediately taken by the fact that my hands went outwards into space! The very sight of the keyboard elevation made my heart ache. What could be lovelier than the fact that keys themselves protruded above the keyboard? The words were palpable and delicious, not just with possibility but with reality: outwards, protrude, elevate, above. My typing fingers — they hovered in a tangible space over the keys, and I could see that there was a space between my fingers and the keyboard. Indeed it was a small miracle the way space gave form to those small squares, indented just slightly to fit the pads of my fingertips! All this was too much for me and alone in my room I found myself laughing aloud. Suddenly, the entire world was friendly.
I went around my apartment. Look at this! Look at that! I couldn’t pry my eyes from things. Dish towels announced themselves, as their threads stood up, cupped and rounded by space, each one loved into being by the fact of the empty air that surrounded it. Folds struck me as the most beautiful objects I had ever seen. Folds in terrycloth fabric differed utterly from folds in other fabrics. Even paper bent around an angle, embracing a fold, allowed sculpted space on each side to nearly bring tears to my eyes. Who would have thought that material, bent, could become a form of such magnificence?
And on it went. Doorknobs yearned, reaching out from doors into space. Bookshelves provided welcoming recesses, intimate and implicit with corners, as if saying, Come in, we will protect you. There were delicious concavities in every spoon! My circuit of the room over and over would have been ridiculous, had not everything been so lovely, and so thoroughly devastating.
Snow-covered bushes computer keyboard, a hand extended into the air — I understood in an instant that it was space, this lovely positive space, that sculpts the entire world, just as a sculptor carves stone. I knew then that it is only because most people get so used to depth perception all their lives that they lose all ability to perceive the beauty of space, to see how much space quite literally embodies.
Later the vision faded and as my eyes relaxed, my ability to see “3-D” was lost. But I still remember, towards the end of the experience, how as I looked into an empty wastebasket I was bowled over to understand that it had a rounded interior. The sheer “interiority” of it, the fact that the space inside it implied roundedness so matter-of-factly that I did not have to feel it to know this– why hadn’t I understood any of this before? It struck me as a terrible failure and yet the most transcendent discovery of my life. I knew then that if the world was charged with the grandeur of anything, it must be a positive, optimistic Shaper of things and that this Shaper is the world’s, the universe’s, Creator, which we instead call, as if it were nothing, “empty space.”
Could it be possible that most people will never have an opportunity to experience such overwhelming love for spoons and doorknobs and computer keys or even for hands above the paper or every possible human nose that sticks out into space? If so, it might even be the reason we humans have let ourselves destroy our environment, the most precious matter in the Creative Space around us.
Because we did not understand how space is our Creator, we have destroyed it and ourselves in the process. How could we have done otherwise? We did not know because we could not see. And if we could not see, how could we know the truth: that Space is Love that creates the world and makes us and all matter beautiful.
with thanks to Susan Danberg, OD
In vision therapy, she says to think
of the eyes as if on string:
your mind must haul them together
hand over hand to see a round world.
Can you make red and green
become one color,
without losing fall or spring?
To see straight,
you must go crooked
cross your eyes a little,
and look into the corners of the world,
see what is hidden there:
sometimes a face
will float up in the emptiness.
Before the mind’s eyes
can see as one,
your right finger must become two
and move as two and feel as two
though it is still only one finger.
Soon you will understand
the secret: how space, embodied,
loves all that it touches.
Yes, a hand reaching out
is a thing of beauty, yes.
Have you seen the trees
for the forest, the bright ones in front
and those in the dark farther on?
They whisper: there is no negative space,
only a shapely void– delicate
as a squash or a pale Arctic lemming.
The full bowl of day spills
Let your eyes fill
with all that is left behind,
adoring everything hollow.
*published in www.collectivedreamartsmag.com in slightly different form, but thank you very much Kayla Bowen!
And now I highly recommend that if you want to see the two art pieces of mine that Kayla chose, as well as another poem, go on over to the website and sign up for a digital copy of the magazine. Also because there are some other wonderful pieces of work there too. I was amazed. Some of them moved me to tears…
Hey, we all dream, don’t we? And this is really a remarkable undertaking. Beautifully done both in art and writing (and I would say that whether or not my art and poems were represented…).
SPACE, MATTER, LOVE
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
December, first snow, 2009
Who hasn’t said, “You don’t know what you are missing,” when speaking of something she believes another ought to experience– sky-diving, say, or a certain exotic brand of coffee or the pleasures of her favorite restaurant. Because I was unaware for years that I lacked depth perception this was literally true: I did not know what I was missing because I no longer remembered what I had lost. I had in fact no idea there was anything to lose. But with prisms in my glasses, and after months of vision therapy and eye exercises, experiencing 3-D, or stereopsis as it is properly called, was as spectacular as it was elusive of description. Nevertheless, I am nothing if not a writer and so I do my best to put it into words and show you.
Early this morning I went to move my car from the snowed-in parking area and found myself at 5 a.m. alone outside. The street lamps next to the building were on. I could clearly see snow falling against the dark sky as I headed towards the lot. Suddenly there was a nearly audible click in my brain and everything changed. I felt as if I were in a snow globe, inside the snow, separate flakes plummeting around me, each on a different plane, riding a separate moving point in space as it fell.
I looked at a bush with its bare twigs, the ends of which were mounded with snow. The contrasts in it were heightened, with the boundary between the blackness of twigs and the white snow crisper than I’d ever seen it. Everything was silent. Along with the exquisite clarity and precision of detail, a rush of affection for the universe knocked me breathless. I stood there smiling. Had I ever seen anything more beautiful than what space had done to this bush with its twigs of snow? This was not the negative emptiness of which some art critics spoke so passionately, but something positive like an embrace. It is difficult to convey what I mean by this: when we speak of space we usually mean the empty gap between masses, between physical entities or things that matter –after all, isn’t that why we call them matter? But in this instance, I meant space as sculptor of reality, and as artist and sculpture both. Space was the loveliest thing I had ever perceived. It had mass and, by virtue of its own volume, gave substance to the objects surrounding it.
But I could not yet put all this into words. At the time I just smiled, and gazed at the bush and twigs and sidewalk and streetlamp in a kind of dazed wonder.
I went back inside to write at my computer. Just as I sat down and put my hands out — out! how lovely that my hands went out into space, I thought – the keys on the keyboard drew my eyes to them. My heart ached at the sight of the fraction of an inch between each key and the computer. The space that was their height above the computer took on a numinous quality that would not let me withdraw my gaze. My typing fingers too. Not only that, but the sheer fact that they were above the keys, the space between fingers and keyboard, then the way embodied space gave form and substance to the small squares –indented just slightly to fit the pad of a fingertip – all this made me laugh with tenderness and delight. I was full of bubbles. Why, the entire world was friendly!
I circled my rooms, hypnotized by space, by how space made everything important. How profoundly dishtowels spoke to me, saying, Towel, Towel. The threads stood up, cupped and defined by emptiness, each one loved into being by the artistry of space. Terrycloth folds were utterly different from a fold in paper and yet that folded paper, bent on an angle around a “shapely void,” struck me as infinitely loving. The sculpted space on each side of the fold was so exquisite it brought tears to my eyes. On I went. Doorknobs yearned, reaching out from doors into space. Bookshelves provided a welcoming recess, intimate and implicit with corners, as if saying, Come in, we will protect you. What a delicious concavity each spoon was, a miracle! My circuit of the room would have been ridiculous, had not everything been so lovely, and so thoroughly devastating.
Mere words hardly serve to describe how I perceived. I felt seized by joy, by delight and yes, by an overwhelming love for all that my eyes alighted on – snow-covered bush, computer keyboard, a friend’s hand extended in comfort. I know that most people understand the first and last, but few are mesmerized by spoon or towel or indentation of computer key. This troubles me. It is easy to love nature or one’s friends. But I suspect overpowering love for every literal thing is not prosaic. Space sculpts the world, and I was abruptly and unexpectedly given the gift to love all of it. Surely such a gift is available to everyone, yet it seems inaccessible, except largely to those crazed by either drugs or illness. Or to others who have regained, even temporarily, long-lost depth perception. Perhaps because so many have always seen space, they have lost the ability to perceive how beautiful it is and to feel how it embodies.
Later these visions, these perceptions faded along with my new but brief ability to perceive depth at all. But I remember near the end looking into a certain receptacle and being bowled over to see that it had a rounded interior. The sheer “interiority” of it, as well as the fact that it implied roundedness so matter-of-factly that I didn’t have to feel it to know it: why hadn’t I understood before? It struck me as sad and yet the most transcendent discovery of my life. If the world was charged with the grandeur of anything, then that something was the positive, optimistic Shaper of things, their Creator, which we instead call, as if it were nothing, “empty space.”
This is a tragedy and not merely for the individual of normal vision, but for humanity, most of whom will never experience a love for spoons and doorknobs or computer keys or hands above the paper or, by extension, love of every object and every nose and every creature in this world, of every thing and all matter, which is shaped by the Space that loves us. This may be the reason we have done what we have done to the environment, the precious matter in the Creative Space around us.
Because we could not see and therefore could not feel how space is the Creator and loves the matter of the world, we have destroyed it, and ourselves in the process. How could we have done otherwise? We did not know. We did not see. And we could not feel the truth: that Space is Love and loves the world and makes us, and all matter, beautiful.
You would think that one of the many different pairs of glasses, with some specialized lenses or prisms or bi-focal, or tri-focal or something would help me see through the confusion as I state it in the title above of “dancing and doubling” of images and scenes and texts, oh, especially text, both on-line and hard copy…Or perhaps it simply matters more to me that I cannot read, especially because in two weeks or so I have three or four readings coming up in the space of one week and I fear that I will not be able to simply see my poems on the page. If that should occur, and I do not manage to have each and every poem by heart, what will I do? It so happens that Dr O, or Mary will be at two of the readings, so I can alert her to the problem and ask her to be prepared to (hmmm?) take over for me, at least until it seems that I might be able to resume — though why I could resume I don’t know, since the problem simply recurs immediately and it is only my ability to cope that matters, and by coping I mean my ability to navigate a page of text that has literally gone wild on me, with one line rising up upon another, obliterating it or merging with it, or most commonly simply interspersing with it so I cannot quite make out either one separately and can only try to peer at the paper sidewise as if that could help me parse them out. It of course does nothing, and the words do not separate themselves into readable lines. No, more likely, the words themselves interact and disperse into bits of words or letters, which themselves dance and double and shimmer.
Oh, it feels hopeless to discuss the matter of vision and what to do about it should I have trouble two weeks from now. So much could happen in those 14 days that nothing is predictable. For instance, I am managing to write this now, without a great deal of tortuous movement and agonizing, though not without trouble — so at this very moment, I could see myself getting through a poetry reading without surrendering to virtual blindness — at this hour of, hmm, at 1AM is it morning or nighttime? Well, I slept from 7:30PM until 11:30PM...Half the night, enough to “take the edge off” my sleepiness. At 11:30 then, for the first time all day, I took a Ritalin, though I had gotten through from 6:30AM -7:30PM of the previous day without any (why? just to prove I could, but without accomplishing anything too). So why now, at 11:30PM? Why in the middle of the night, which to most people would seem the least logical time?
Why? Because I wanted these hours, my time, to be productive, and for that I had to be truly awake and alert, not merely marginally so. (My touchstone of true alertness for years has been how interested I feel…I now know that in my natural state I am never bored, so when I feel a sudden lack of interest in my usual pursuits, that’s when I know I’m getting sleepy. There is no earthly reason why I should have suddenly lost my ordinary passion or fascination, no reason, except that I have become sleepy and sleepiness persents itself as a lack of focus and interest, i.e. as boredom. I am not really bored, I mean only that as a younger person I associated boredom with sleepiness and so whenever I fell asleep doing something I thought I liked, I took that an as indication that I “didn’t really enjoy it after all,” that obviously it bored me. Otherwise, why else would it make me fall sleep? Despite my initial feelings of interest, I evaluated each choice against the proof positive of my falling asleep (which happened whenever I did anything sedentary, including studying), “proof” that I was — the greater truth — bored by it, “proof” that as John Berryman’s poem about “liking valliant fine art” suggests, I had few “internal resources.” Each time I went in for something I thought might spark an interest or fascinate me, as indeed the initial consideration of it did (I cannot give only a few examples, because even just starting in college the choices overwhelmed me, like a penny candy display before a child who has only five pennies to spend. Likewise, there were too many courses and directions I wanted (passionately) to explore, rather than too few. And I could see myself enjoying every one of them, from philosophy to geology!
That was true for me the unexperienced but so far as I knew or thought about it, alert freshman. I still believed that my falling asleep at the movies and during classical music concerts and even simply listening to music I couldn’t sing along with, or in classes where I was not allowed to knit while I listened to the teacher…
For me the senior, there was no longer any penny candy in the display, only a few largely indigestible rounds of “hard tack” that were the very few requirements my “major” required for graduation. I’d actually chosen my major (“Ancient and Medieval Culture” because of its very few requirements and because I’d already fulfilled most of them without meaning to. But the fact that I graduated at all in 1975, that remains a mystery. I had only 27 Brown credits, with a 28th I was fighting for for Spanish taken at the Yale Summer Language Institute, which Brown had warned me in advance it would not grant credit…no matter how well I did. This was their policy, and since Brown only required 28 credits, one credit per full course, rather than most schools bare minimum of 32 or 36, they felt they had a right to insist upon all 28 credits all coming from Brown. I don’t want to go into this here, but I did graduate, and I do not know how or what happened, only that a friend called me after my advisor told her to, and while I had no cap or gown and did not attend, I recieved a diploma, Phi Beta Kappa and my advisor’s encouragment (so much for how well he knew me) in my new life as a pre-med student…More sedentary than ever, more proof I was bored, and more ambivalence about what I had chosen for my lifetime career…
But for the most poignant example, because for me the most painful, take that for years, in fact for as long as I remained an active, if amateur, field botanist (from age 19 until age 39 or even 49 or so, when Lyme disease laid me low), I assumed that while I was devoted, enthusiastic and extremely, even uncannily talented, someone who could recognize and spot a plant I’d never seen before and know everything there was to know about it that one could possibly learn from a glimpse at a guide book, then later a taxonomy chart, and any brief, say 2-page, description as to its medicinal or gustatory uses. Yet I also “knew” that I could never learn plant physiology, or anything technical o biological within plants, such as genetics (important if I want to explore taxonomy) or biochemisrry (important for just about everything else). I knew this was true largely because they “so bored me, they put me right to sleep.” And so, despite an IQ of around 165, so I’d been told, I felt I could not study botany more deeply than the literal surface of plants, because it would put me to sleep…i.e. I was so inadequate in my internal resources that a deeper pursuit of understanding bored me to sleep…
Can you can imagine how I felt, coming to self-understanding of such a dismal sort? And believe me, I was devoted to honesty, at least about myself, to myself.
But I have strayed widely, and perhaps have so diverged from my inital topic, which I vaguely recall started with an image of glasses, as to have rendered it irelevant… Hah! But let me see if I can wend my way back. My discussion of glasses no doubt was in reference to whether or not I could successfully accomplish the poetry readings coming up in 2 or 3 weeks. Which somehow lead to a discussion of my being up at — well, it is now nearly 3AM, so I am awake and alert, having taken Ritalin 2+ hours ago, and I do not feel I have mis-used it, writing this. A discussion of being up and taking the Ritalin, no doubt. Taking the Ritalin… and (althought what follows seems relevant, it was in fact written earlier than all that precedes it) –>
feeling for the first time all day (meaning the entire 24 hour cycle), during the hours when I usually am the most alert and productive, I could not bear wasting time, not even in service of proving to Li that I could in fact forgo Ritalin. (Sure, I am able to do without it, I am not addicted to it I can prove that, if necessary (though to combine doing without it, along with taking Zyprexa is singularly cruel and unusal punishment. The Zyprexa is incredibly sedating for me, so I could never use the intellectual powers it endows me with, simply because I am too sleepy taking it (this has ALWAYS been the problem, and was one reason why Dr O always increased the Ritalin when I took Zyprexa, rather than attempted to decrease it. Another thing that Li does not understand was that Dr O never decreased my Ritalin or made any effort pro forma to do so. For me it was simply one medicine in her armamentarium, and if it worked the best, so be it. She was not even averse to giving me Adderal when and if I told her I wanted to try it. She was completely agreeable to anything I needed in the battle for alertness, and never once accused me to abusing drugs or worse absusing her willingness to prescribe for me. In point of fact, she was right. Why should she accuse me of anything, when all I wanted was what she wanted? As much alertness and “on” time as possible, within the limits imposed by my narcolepsy coupled with the super-sedating effects of Zyprexa. It was because of her absolute trust in me that I felt I could trust her, i.e. trust that if we lowered the Ritalin dose when I did not need it that would not preclude raising it again, if I needed it again. Because of that trust, I could tell her when I no longer needed the dose she was giving me and it was in that fashion that we cut it down from a high of some Adderal plus both ER and regular Ritalin five times a day — this was when I was taking some 35mg of Zyprexa — to only 20 mg of regular Ritalin PRN, of which I rarely take all 5 pills. And she was right, I never got addicted…In point of fact, I was not even habituated, as we discovered as I went on cutting back and back.
One thing Dr O always understood was my need to feel secure in terms of this medication, not to feel that I was ever in danger of its being taken away from me because a new doctor had decided I was either addicted or for the umpteenth time and without proof decided I didn’t have narcolepsy. I do not know how to convince anyone but Li at a minimum ought to listen to the taped Voice of Narcolepsy at the New York Times Health section…These patients speak well on behalf of those ordinary people with my condition, Narcolepsy without Cataplexy. So many docs are unwilling to grasp the notion that many many people suffer — and suffering it truly is — from TRUE narcolepsy, even though we do not have cataplexy. Despite the numbers cited, I myself believe that the reverse is true, that N without C is far more prevalent than N with C…And that better tests, shorter and more discriminating diagnostic tests than long stays at a sleep center will find that Narcolepsy is more comon than people ever thought. (Every time I tell someone I have narcolepsy, they tell me of a ceertain person in their family who falls asleep “just like that”…but was never taken to a sleep specialist etc). Few people and fewer doctors are aware that the falling asleep with one’s face falling into a plate of spaghetti is just a myth, and that narcolepsy has many different faces, just as anxiety, or ADHD or schizphrenia does…Why so many seem satisfied with that myth, and do not question it is beyond me, but they don’t, or it is the rare internist or primary care doc who bothers to question the received wisdom that questions the patient’s motives in asking for Ritalin, rather than the doctor’s compassion in failing to so much as take a sleep history or approach the patient with an open mind…
Dr O knew that I had for way too long been treated as a drug addict when in fact I needed the precise medication other docs considered merely placative. She refused to go that route, and never made it an issue. Even in the hospital, every hospital I went to, she was able to persuade them to give it to me…It was only Li who was not committed to my taking it, disbelieving perhaps that I have narcolepsy (again, again! Why must I put up with this? Is it worth it, or should I go elsewhere, perhaps to a sleep medicine clinic to handle my Ritalin instead of trusting Li to do so…because clearly he cannot be trusted to believe me, to believe Dr O, to believe anything, or even to want to find out!). Why now, when I could have/should have (except that I have spent all the day in a kind of avoidant daze) gone back to sleep, if necessary by taking a dose of Xyrem, as prescribed, why did I take Ritalin at 1AM and stay up writing especially since Li is trying to “wean” me off the Ritalin?
WHY indeed? Why the f–king hell is he trying to “wean me off the Ritalin in the first place, when it was helping me function so well that most people had no idea I had a disability at all? Why question my meds when they are working so well? I’d say to anyone who wants to then interfere, merely for the sake of not using a “potentially addictive drug,” for Chtist’s sake, don’t break what is nicely repaired already. It doesn’t seem necessary, given how well things were going in general. And when they fell apart, I told everyone and him what was wrong: the ABs needed to be changed. I have said that again and again, ever since the hospitalization in February, but nobody is listening to me. I told Dr L then and there that the Bicillin and the Minocycline was not a good combination, that for some reason the two ABs were inadequately treating the three toughstone symptoms, cardinal symptoms in my case, in the sense that if they are taken care of, I seem to be safe from a relapse, but if they are still present, I am not. In point of fact, every single time one of these three symptoms appears or fails to disappear, I eventually wind up in the hospital, either in the spring or in the fall, without fail! (Did I make it through this past spring, or was that when I was in St F/Mt S and trying to tell them that the Minocycline/Bicillin was not aduquate even then? I’d have to look back to see…)
Anyhow, stopping the Ritalin may seem to be fixing something that wasn’t broken, but instead is rather to be breaking something that was functioning extraordinarily well…I mean, if I was writing and doing art and relatively happy and content, why ruin that by stopping one of my essential medications as an outpatient, just because the in-patient docs thought I ought not to take it there? I think Li is in fact trying to stop it for just that reason, because it seemed to be unnecessary inside the hospital, just because there, under those hothouse conditions, having no requirements but sleep, I “did okay.” But doing okay “inside” which is to say, within the protective walls and given the constraints (to say “constraints” is barely a euphemism) of that sort of an institution is scarcely the same as to do okay or even well outside those walls. I didn’t need to stay awake there, or do anything there, and in fact could sleep at will. And so I did, much of the day in fact, every day! If I then needed to sleep at night, well, I could ask for “something for anxiety” anytime, though in point of fact, I mostly could sleep then too. Much of the three week stay was spent sleeping, and when I did not, I was so paranoid that sheer fear and that adrenalin rush kept me going. Near the end of my stay, I became somewhat manic, hypomanic clinically as Li diagnosed it when he saw me. I couldn’t shut up and my speech was — and I felt this as well — pressured. That is a very good word for it, indeed. There was an internal feeling of pressure to get words out in a rush, an unpleasant need to say things, as if they had especial importance and absolutely had to be expressed, even though if I thought about their content, which of course I could not really do in such a state, there was in fact nothing particularly urgent to them.
Well, I am getting tire finally of writing here, and yet I have not finished. I quickly then let me summarize. Because of this recent pressure of speech, coupled with some manic energy put into actually cleaning up this place, and getting more painting and such done, though still hypo manic not truly manic, Li felt something ought to be done to “bring me down” — I am not quoting him so much as quoting the idea…Anyhow, first he suggested stopping the Ritalin, which was okay temporarily, since I already felt enough adrenalin and did not want to add more to my own felt pressure of speech and heart beat. But I had and have no intention of this being anything but temporary…Then he wanted to increase the Topomax, which he said would also decrease the pressure and help hypomania, at the same time that it might help any appetite increase that came with our adding back some Zyprexa, which in his opinion, and of course Elissa the RN’s insistence, was the best drug for me…So far they have only gotten to 2.5mg but even Li has suggested 5mg if I will agree. Now that I have summarized the pharmacological plans for me (including with this, the ultimate decreasing to 0 of my Ritalin) Let me say right here and now, that I will not stand for a rigid “fixing” of the Ritalin problem…
Below I have summarized a few absolute requirements for a psychiatrist, if I am to trust him or her, or continue to see him or her:
One requirement of any psychiatrist I see is that he agree the Ritalin is a necessary medication for an illness, which is narcolepsy, with which I was diagnosed by a sleep specialist at the Sleep Disorders Center at Norwalk Hospital (records available) and it needs to be understood between us that he will not in the middle of therapy decide suddenly to meddle with it (unless I agree and do so not under duress, or decide myself not to take it); it needs to be understood absolutely and without any fishiness or unspoken mistrust, that I am NOT a drug seeker, and that I have narcolepsy, a genuine neurological disease, which needs to be treated, independently of any other illness I might suffer from, so that my being given Ritalin is not dependent on whether or not I agree to take any other drug like Zyprexa etc. though taking Zyprexa might in fact influence the dosage of Ritalin needed.The Rx needs to be permanent as well as flexible according to my needs, which may increase as well as decrease as the ilness waxes, wanes and responds to other drugs and illnesses. Ritalin, however, is never to be used as some sort of bargaining chip…
Argh, Icannot write another word, and in fact, I feel as if I am giving up on a personal letter I was writing to a specific someone. If you are that he or she, you know who you are…I do not!
Rest assured, or at least rest. If I made too many typos and other errors of eloquence or diction, I shall clean them up tomorrow, so reread this then, if you read this today…Be forewarned, it will change between the two times.
Added on Oct 31.
I have decided not to redact the above, but to leave it as is, with all its typos and lacunae and infelicities of grammar and thought. I was writing spontaneously, as I believe was evident enough and I don’t see why that is not adequate for a post once in a while. I would just like to add a clarifying detail or two. What I think I forgot to explain was that between the post on Zyprexa/cancer treatment I experienced a three week hospitalization, which happened very suddenly, though of course, as I mentioned, my visiting nurse had been alert to the possibility of it, even perhaps the inevitability, for at least two weeks…If you understand that, some of this discussion and the one to come above, will seem a little more undersandable.
I will now go to a new post and continue there.
The following may repeat some of what I have written before, though expressed rather differently. I “purloined” it from a letter I wrote to someone I once knew, who I hope will forgive me if he ever visits this blog and recognizes it here.
Life continues to present many challenges, which both the poetry book and Mary’s introduction to WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS illuminate , I suppose, in some detail. But among the thrills and wonders of these last few years of recovery are two that are related to one another but which I would never have dreamed of in relation to me.
I speak of vision, one — of depth perception — and two, of art. I don’t know if you have heard of the recent science memoir by Sue Barry called, Fixing My Gaze, in which she describes her strabismus and her work in vision therapy. Apparently the book has become quite popular, at least around here, after a review in the Hartford Courant (Barry lives not far from Northampton, MA). Strangely enough, I have been writing for the past year about, among other things, my own experience in vision therapy trying to achieve stereopsis . I believe I must have had “3-D vision” at some point, since I did not have strabismus as a child. At least not to the same extent as Barry, and I think I did when very young “see” what others said they saw through those Viewmaster toys (you must remember those binocular viewers with the “3-D” slides?). My later lack of 3-D vision never bothered me, apparently, and I never knew that I was missing anything, until I developed frank double vision about four or five years ago. My optometrist told me I probably had had unrecognized intermittent exotropia since childhood, but that my eye muscles had been somewhat stronger then and so my vision had stayed single. She could not say however if it had indeed been binocular, that is to say that I had used both eyes in seeing.. In any event, it was only when I was given prism glasses in 2008 and in February suddenly experienced brief, brief flashes of stereopsis that I understood what most people see, what I had in fact gone for so long without seeing. The world was suddenly, achingly more beautiful than — well, than anyone else seemed to recognize:
The first time on the Broad Street Green I passed the huge tree with its bark “sticking out” I was stunned, stopping dead in my tracks to stare at the reddish burnt sienna ridges that had suddenly leapt out at me. Stark, knifelike and jagged, the crusty surface was backlit by an early setting sun in such a way that it all seemed limned with light. A gentle roughness edged the troughs and depressions. Spawned from the cortex wood, the bark strained and stretched. I could scarcely believe how the air gently touched and tasted each indentation and projection of bark — as if saying, “I love you, I love every inch of you and my kisses, my airy bearhug proves it.” Just as surely as I knew the air loved that bark, I knew that space, the “emptiness” that cups and holds everything in its place safely, adores matter. This struck me as neither bizarre nor even uncommon, only obvious. What was strange and unfortunate to me was the fact that no one I spoke to about this experience seemed to know what I was talking about…
I cannot tell you (or anyone else for that matter, except perhaps Sue Barry, or Oliver Sacks) how much “space loves us” and everything it touches. Space is what gives us as a gift to ourselves..And when I saw it, saw space for the first time I fell in love with matter, and with the hollows and shapeliness of everything. I wanted to do nothing but gaze upon the world without touching it or or talking for at least a week…I wanted to walk around in silent solitude, experiencing space without interruption, to see without the interposing of frivolous conversation how incredible it was that you write words with pens held above the paper; that when you see a sign or a billboard, there is — and you are as certain of this as of any delusion —the knowledge that there is flatness to it, and that “more space” lies beyond it…Someone’s nose which reaches out in space is far more interesting than their voice, and the way a hand extends outward can be the most lovely thing seen…Indeed, I would tell people quite spontaneously how beautiful they looked, the way their noses projected from their faces, or their hands suddenly coming out at me…
Oh, it is so impossible to convey the sheer — well, even now there are no words for this, no words beyond that single inadequate word, beauty, for which there seems to be no useful synonym. All I can say is that while I felt no better about myself, I certainly fell in love with the substance of the world! Who can say, What is the matter with the world? Seriously? All is the world is the matter, and that matter is more exquisitely lovely and worthy of being preserved than even many principles — Free trade, capitalism, rugged individualism above socialism in any and all forms etc — Americans feel they have a right to hold so dear…
As for Art? In my cooler moments I reduce it to “medicine”, to symptomatology…thinking perhaps this amazing talent, so unexpected and newfound, has merely to do with the Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or seizure disorder with which I was diagnosed after having ECT about 3-5 years ago. I don’t know. (I read in SEIZED by Eve La Plante that not only are there personality changes but one can acquire sudden artistic abilities and interests, almost full-blown after developing TLE..so who knows?) Perhaps not. In any event, (I should mention that this is my theory little mentioned to anyone at all…Not sure to whom I should talk…) starting in 2007 I took up lifesize papier mache sculpture in a serious way, and just a week ago suddenly, VERY suddenly, discovered that I could paint portraits, just like that…I had never done a portrait before, rarely even tried to draw, had always said I couldn’t draw or paint for beans. Then one instant I felt drawn to paint (with which I had always decorated my papier mache, with swirls and colors but not true representational painting) and to doing “real art”. I “decided” I would paint a young man, and then went ahead and fearlessly did so (see first attachment)…Since then I have done one portrait a day. Some imaginary, some from photos…And I have no idea, had no idea I could do so at all! Frankly, ditto the sculpture, though I am getting used to that ability now that I have several to my name…(see two other attachments for examples of earliest pieces).
I hope you won’t mind all this “Wow is me” stuff…I’m not usually so impressed with myself, I assure you. However, while I am at it, I want to send you three newer poems. I actually dislike most of the illness poems in the book, and want you to see what I have been doing more recently, since the DIVIDED MINDS book was finished in 2003. I hope these poems speak for themselves. The “Epithalamion” one got a lot of chuckles, and ought to, when read properly (best out loud). I read it at my twin’s wedding. “To the Reader” will be the first poem in my second book, the opener, though perhaps not as “welcoming” as “How to read a Poem”. And the vision therapy one is about what I have been doing in order to regain stereopsis. Which by the way really works, vision therapy that is, despite the skepticism of most ophthalmologists, who never bother to try it out, just condemn and contemn it out of hand, because it is done by ODs not MDs….VT has to be continually practiced though or like me you can lose the ground you gained after a while. Now I struggle to gain it back. I vow to keep practicing. I do not think I can go without the exercises not after having gotten my eyes to do what they should do. It is so discouraging now to be back at nearly square one, I must admit…
I don’t know what happened, but I don’t believe I am seeing depth any more, or very rarely. I discovered this when I looked at some shelves, and again experienced the sensation of the incredible beauty of space, which told me that I was not in fact used to seeing it. If I were, I would not marvel so.
I immediately started the vision therapy exercises again, in part to test myself, hoping to reassure myself that I could still do them easily. In fact I cannot keep both my eyes “turned on”, even doing so-called pencil push-ups. During these, you wear red-green glasses and look at a white pencil held at eye level and about 12 inches away. The idea is to slowly bring the upright pencil to your nose, all the while keeping it “one pencil” i.e. not doubled, and the white color as red and green (due to the bi-colored glasses). When I do manage to keep both eyes on looking at the the pencil, the pencil itself goes double and blurry. Also, another exercise, when I manage to get both eyes on by holding a finger up and focusing on another object held behind it (the finger should double), then I notice that the background is crystal clear with jumbled intersections near borders, even though I know from experience that they ought to blur if I am seeing 3-D.
Then there is the Brock String, consisting of three balls on kite string tied to a door knob and extended out maybe ten feet. The red ball is 6 inches from the door, the green midway from it, and the yellow ball six inches from your fingers holding the other end at your nose. The idea is to focus on each ball, and see an X form in the string in front of a single ball, then switch seamlessly to another ball, over and over. Well, I do the green and red without too much trouble but forget the yellow ball (the near one). I cannot do that one at all, or at least very rarely. I see two balls and cannot bring them together; the X simply crosses and keeps on going until the balls appear at each end of the X rather than in the middle. It is only when by chance that I start out seeing one ball that I might be able to keep it that way, but then I discover that it is because I only have one eye “on” after all…or that one eye is dominating the other.
I never did get new glasses, the one Dr D prescribed at the end of my Vision Therapy when my eyes had so improved. I imagine there is no point in getting them now, since they were for better vision, right? But is there anything more I should be doing, except restarting the exercises? I wonder…I wrote to her by email, but received a weird “Auto reply” that said only that she would not respond at this time…Did not imply that she ever would…So now I am essentially on my own and I only remember those two exercises. If there are others, I don’t do them. But I do turn my eyes on by looking at my fingers, one in front of the other, several times a day, which is, I think, helpful in its own right, even if the effect never lasts and the desired doubling is small.
I guess it took several months the first time I did this, so I can’t expect miracles this second time, even though I do anticipate that it will take a somewhat shorter amount of time and less effort to get “space” back. After all, my eyes and my brain already know what they are looking for. But it doesn’t bode well for the 3-D phenomenon staying or sticking permanently without continued practice, or at least without continued vigilance…I would hate again to fall into the “not knowing I don’t see it again” non-awareness trap. I did subconsciously understand as I painted the goose that something was wrong, but I somehow refused the knowledge I ought to have looked square in the face. I guess I did not at that time want to know that I wasn’t “getting” the full pleasure from the experience that I ought to have. It might have spoiled it for me, maybe.
Now that I am free, however, I can concentrate on my exercises, and make jewelry, which uses these skills. And see how long regaining them will take. I hope not long. But I must be patient and let it happen as it happens.
On Thursday I will see what I hope will be my last shrink and then I will choose from amongst the three that I have interviewed, though I doubt highly that #1 will be among the real choices. I will certainly count #2 and hope that #3 also provides some real choice. The first is female the second is male, so there are some real differences between them, the female also being an APRN and the male an MD, which is not necessarily a plus. However, we will wait and see, until after I have met Dt Whats his name and have some idea what he is like. Wish me luck. I have my last in-person session with Dr O on Wednesday so I’d better make up my mind soon.
On Tuesday, the day after the big snowstorm in this New England state, I managed to make my appointment with Dr D, vision therapist-optometrist. I had thought that the problem, which was that I was having trouble reading due to the letters becoming jumbled and dancing around the page again, was my “constant or near constant exotropia” come back to haunt me. After three weeks spent largely in one small room in the hospital, a good part of that time using either glasses without prisms or at one point no glasses at all (because the lens had fallen out and I had no screwdriver to fix them with) I thought I’d “lost it” i.e. everything I’d spent so much time learning in VT.
Dr D did an exhaustive exam, or so it seemed to me sitting in the chair, my eyes getting wearier and wearier (!). However, when she was through, I was surprised to find out that the exotropia was actually quite a bit better, that in terms of my depth perception, I needed nothing more than to restart the exercises and perhaps spend some time looking at anaglyph pictures with red/blue glasses again — to reestablish the habit of seeing 3-D. According to Dr D I had all the ability to perceive it that I had had when I left her.
So what was the problem? Well, so far as she could determine, my right eye seemed to have become more myopic than before, enough so that I needed a new prescription. She seemed to feel that it was because of this that my vision felt jumbled, especially after reading a little while. Indeed, when she gave me the card to test my near vision, I could see every line quite well, as I usually could, since I have excellent near vision. But I knew that within minutes of reading a page of text, either in a book or more especially on the computer, I would begin to have difficulty (as I am even now as I write this). She felt that the increased medication was likely the culprit, and that if it was to be kept at this level, I should probably have my glasses changed to accommodate to it.
So all’s well that ends well. I left feeling a good deal cheerier than when I went in, knowing that I did not need to begin all over again, but only to do a tune up by myself, and get a new prescription if my meds are not going to be changed any time soon. (I may wait and see about that, since I do want to reduce the Abilify to a “humane” level, rather than keep it so high for good…I did well on 20mg for 18 months; I don’t see why I would need to stay on 35mg permanently just because of one relapse…Surely the increase need only be temporary…)
Tonight, I started “showing my brain” it could perceive the 3-D images that my eyes already see. I looked for my white, marked pencil for pencil push-ups, but couldn’t locate it, nor could I find the Brock string, though I had carefully stored both somewhere. (Lord help me, I am always doing that: packaging important items carefully with labels etc, putting them away for safekeeping, then promptly and completely forgetting where the hell I put them!) So instead, I put on my red-blue glasses and went to the internet site where I knew there were useful anaglyph pictures to get me started. If you happen to have red-blue or red-green glasses, perhaps from a three-D movie or graphic, you might like to check out this particular site, where the shots of Barcelona, and especially Gaudi’s work, are spectacular: http://www.3djournal.com/001/gal_Barcelona_3D.php
I was pleased to find that after some initial difficulty, I was soon able to resolve many of the photos into layers of depth, even a couple of pictures that before now I had not been able to see as three dimensional. What is more, upon taking off the glasses and looking around me, the world changed: suddenly, amazingly, the magic was back…Space was present again, holding things in its embrace, embodying even the flat surfaces of things, so that they now implied the substance that lay behind.
What do I mean by that statement, that space embodies flat surfaces so that they imply the substance that lies behind? Well, there is a book behind a flat book cover, no? Without the ability to see 3-D, one would not be able to know, without being told, that something was a book, and not merely a picture. The “bookness” of the book, the substance, the three dimensionality can be seen because of what space allows us to see, the continuity of a surface beyond the visible front. When I had not the same 3-D power of vision that I have now, I did not in fact see this continuity, so that unless I “knew” that a surface was a book, and therefore had the substance of a book behind it, I could only perceive the flat picture/cover presented me. It looked no different to me whether a picture, flat against the shelves, or a book, cover facing outward, and I would not know which it was, if I were not told. Of course, there can be monocular clues, clues like shadows and shading, clues like the oval on the top of, say, a glass or the curvature on the top of a book’s spine, versus the flat line of a picture. All give hints, but barring those freebies, space and depth perception are what tell most people that an object has substance, are what implies continuity beyond what is visible. Without the ability to know objects continue in space beyond what is strictly visible, you do not see the same object that the person with depth perception sees, much as you might believe you do. You can only know what you are supposed to see, say, the book, and then see it. But you do not first see the book, and then know it.
For a better example, take that palm plant I used to use as a touchstone for whether or not I could see properly. I knew it was a palm plant, yes, because it had long and multitudinous leaves, a mass of them. Now maybe I would have noticed this anyway, being an amateur botanist all my life, but what I did not do because I did not see them, was try to count the leaves, or find out where they were attached…Was there one stem or several, was it bush-like there, or similar to a tree? Looking never occurred to me, because it was just a jumble of green. I needed to be told what was there, in order to see or even notice it. Without that information, it escaped my vision; I failed to see, I failed to so much as think about it.
But that was before, now it is different. Now, and tonight in particular, the magic was back and sudden 3-D-ness made everything suddenly pop. Once again, I am filled with thanks for my original loss of depth perception, simply because in the regaining of it, I experienced, I believe, a sense of beauty that may be unique to those who, like me, have had to learn or relearn depth perception in later life. It is not something I regret in the slightest. If I missed it for some large part of 56 years, it doesn’t matter at all, because I have gained so much — well, I have no other word for it — magic now that it makes up for every minute when I didn’t have it or know what I lacked. After all, the past is gone, the present is all we have for certain, and the magic is here and now. I’m more grateful for it than I can say.
I combined two subjects in my heading –and they are related — in order to “recapture” as many readers who might come back looking for an entry after three weeks of nothing…
I’ve been in the hospital. Yes, a relapse of schizoaffective disorder, due, I think, to stress, poor sleep, worse eating and terrible time management, in tandem with a flare-up of the underlying infection of Lyme disease (for which I’d had a positive Western Blot test as late as 2006, five years into treatment).
I was in fact overwhelmed, sad, depressed, tired and sick of it all. I wanted to write and do my sculpture and it seemed as if everyone wanted many and more pieces of me and my time. Despite all the successes of the past year, I felt hopeless to change things On Effexor, after a long two and a half weeks, my spirits rose and my hopelessness diminished. I was able to unblinder myself, removing the brimmed hat I wore day and night, and enter the world again (in terms of mood, the affective part of the disorder).
In terms of the schizophrenia aspects of the disorder, this hospitalization was brutal. I heard my name, my full name, being called 100 times an hour, on any given day. When people spoke to one another within my view, I could see (and heard it) that every word spoken between them was my name, and nothing more. The entire ward had nothing better to do than to persecute me by saying, yelling, whispering my name.
Then one day something that really scared me, they whispered, “I’m choking myself. I’m choking myself. Pam, start choking yourself. Start choking yourself.” Always, almost always before this time, when faced with such “command hullucinations” I blindly obeyed the directives of the “dictator-voice,” too afraid to do otherwise. This time, rather than obey and do as he or they insisted, I ran out of my room. I looked up and down the hallway for anyone — anyone! — a mental health worker, a nurse, even the ward secretary would do. No one .
What to do? What to do? I raced back to my room, stood just inside the doorway. No, I could not stay, not with this voice assaulting my brain. I had to find help. Somehow. Then I heard someone coming down the hall, briefly stopping at every room to check on its occupant: the mental health worker “on the floor” which is the say, the one who was assigned to do fifteen minute checks that evening. Stacy, with the long dreads, was just the person I needed.
“Stacy,” I whispered urgently when she came nearer. “Stacy, I need to tell you something.”
“What is it, Pam?” she smiled.
“They’re telling me to start choking myself.”
“They are, the people who talk to me, the voices if you need to call them that.”
She frowned. “You aren’t going to act on that, are you. Now, come. Let’s find your nurse and see what he can do for you.” Then she took my hand and led me up the hallway to the medication room where Paul was doling out nighttime pills too early for my taste. “Paul, I think tonight, Pam needs her antipsychotics early. What does she have?”
He told her what I was taking, and they murmured together a little. I assumed they were discussing what I’d just told Stacy. After I’d taken the pills, Stacy again took me by the hand and walked me down the hallway to my room.
“You gonna be all right now?” she asked.
I nodded, dubious that the meds would do the trick, but hopeful in any event. I knew now that I could in fact ask for help and be given it, that I did not have to obey the voices not even when they demanded action.
But that was only one of many, many incidents. I won’t bother to recount them all, or even just one other, not right now. All I want to say is that the voices never did let up until the final weekend, due to stress caused by a very disruptive patient. It was only the weekend before the day I was discharged, when she’d been booted out, that the ward was tranquil enough for the voices to diminish, and then by Monday begin to cease. Yet even at the very same time, another problem reared its head…
This is chronic neuro-Lyme: plots abounding, exaggerated startle, acute dyslexia, increased paranoia and rampaging ideas of reference…I had them and worse in 2000 during the massive psychotic break at Y2K and I had all or most during this hospitalization in a diminished form, when the antibiotics were changed and failed to protect me from a recrudescing infection.
Now, why or how does Vision Therapy tie into this? It is related because while in the hospital, that closed-in space with blinds on the windows so the view is largely obscured, I lost my ability to see 3-D, to perceive depth and space. I even lost my ability to read or untangle letters on the page or properly read the words on a computer screen. I noticed this one day when I looked to see if the pen was clearly above the paper, and found that I could not easily say that it was, that I was deducing it from the overlap and the shadows. Occasionally, depth perception would flicker on then off, and it was delightful, but most often I found it was off, and decided to let it be. I knew how to restore it, that it could be restored, and that Dr D would help me if I needed help. So I figured, the worst would be I’d have to re-train my eyes, but the best part of that would be the thrill of re-entering the beauty of the borderline between 2D and 3D.
In the follwoing posts I plan to describe the Vision Therapy sessions that help me regain my depth perception, and also in others discuss aspects of schizoaffective disorder, the schizophrenia aspects as well as what I know about depression.
I gave up driving at night many years ago — I simply could not see properly, and it seemed to me that I often saw things that were not there, or mistook vague shadows for the wrong objects, which was unnerving at best and dangerous in more than one instance. As time passed, I simply designed my life around this lack of night vision and planned to be in before sunset unless I had someone else do the driving. It never occurred to me to ask a doctor what might be wrong with my eyes. Nor did any doctor ever inquire as to why I could not drive at night, even when I said as much…It seemed to be simply accepted and acceptable to all, that I, starting at age 35 or so, should be unable to see well enough to drive when it was dark. Perhaps because I was already disabled and unable to work this seemed relatively unimportant to them, perhaps because I was a psychiatric patient it seemed to them somehow “reasonable” or understandable…Or perhaps because I myself showed no particular distress, only acceptance. But this was later not the case, and yet still the MD eye doctors remained aloof and uninterested, dismissive, as indeed my ophthalmologist largely was about my double vision when he couldn’t solve it immediately. It was only when I spoke to my optometrist friend, L, that I felt taken seriously. Not only did she immediately tell me to come see her in the office, that we would get to the bottom of the problem, but once we did, she put prisms in my glasses then encouraged me to see Dr D for vision therapy, knowing how important the chance of regaining stereo vision was to me.
Be that as it may, as to my lack of night vision I gave up a great deal because of it. I used to be a folkdancer and for many years it was a passion of mine, but when I grew unable to drive at night I had to give it up. I stopped visiting anyone after dark if I couldn’t walk there and back and I did not even go to the movies or grocery shopping, except when the drive was extremely well lit and I was willing to take a chance.
Now let me jump ahead to vision therapy. After my eyes “clicked” into place that afternoon/evening and even more in the days that followed I began noticing details and even whole objects that I had not seen before. It seemed that because my eyes had not before resolved certain details, like the boundaries between a near object and the background, which (and I know this sounds weird) had always been just a jumble and confusion of lines, not a crisp boundary, they simply ignored them. What that boundary defined simply disappeared for me. So, for example, if I were looking at a group of objects against a complicated background, the background and the foreground would simply mesh and much of the “picture” would be lost to my sight, to my understanding. A collection of plants sitting in front of a messy bookshelf might defeat any attempt to resolve it into more than a mass of greenery and generic books. I would not have been able to separate the plants into distinct leaves on distinct plants nor distinguish one book behind all the greenery from another. The meshing of lines and confusion of background and foreground would have made it all impossible.
THis is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not had this experience. Indeed, I cannot recapture it for myself, now that I have stereo vision; I can only remember what I saw when I did not have it. Imagine you are looking through an aquarium window and you see dozens of fish snoozing in perfect rows. You can see the rows and sight down them, 12 fish deep, counting each fish and see that there is space between each fish. But without stereopsis there is no space, and the consequence of that is tremendous: Without palpable space, there can be no perceived division, no distinction between the fish either, so that you actually cannot tell how many other fish are there, nor count them precisely. You might know, somehow, vaguely, that there is a “mass” of fish, but to say exactly 12 would be impossible, unconceivable to you without stereopsis. In point of fact, you’d have trouble resolving the fish into anything but a vague notion of a “mess o’ fish.” At best they merely overlap like sheets of paper, rather than sitting each in its own three dimensional pocket. At worst, you can’t tell anything more than that there are a bunch of fish in there. And I’d be hardpressed to say which was indeed worse.
So, once I had stereo vision, I finally noticed, in the sense that I literally could see the plant leaves, the fish and other things I hadn’t seen before. Another newfound aspect of vision was that the foreground became sharp when I focused on it, but the background blurred. I had heard about this phenomenon, but had never seen it before, wondered what people were talking about all my life. When “laser photos” were first shown at an exhibit on the New Haven Green in the early or mid 1970s, everyone was oohing and ahhing over the crispness, the lack of blurring of the background, how everything in foreground and background was so detailed…But I remember thinking, What is the big deal? I see that all the time. And I didn’t understand at all what they meant by blurring of the background compared to the foreground…It was all mumbo jumbo to me. Of course, since I didn’t understand, I simply remained mum about it. I figured, okay, maybe I didn’t get it, maybe I was too science-stupid to understand. I was in fact either an A student just out of high school science or a pre-med post-college student, but since I couldn’t figure it out, I simply chalked it up to my lack of intelligence and moved on. Had I understood the implications both of what I did and did not see, I might have happened upon the problem earlier in my life. (THough likely not a solution, since they were telling people at the time that stereopsis could never be regained in adulthood.
So, here I am, Jan 2009, newly stereoscopic, able to resolve details I could not before, seeing more of the world and even able to notice that the background blurs when you focus on the foreground, and I decide, maybe I’ll try to drive in the dark…just once. I don’t know why I thought it might be different, but I had the sneaking suspicion that I might resolve the darkness differently too.
I started up the car and waited for the lights to turn themselves on (so I wouldn’t forget to turn them off). Then with a little trepidation, I pulled slowly out of the well-lit parking lot. Immediately, I could tell the difference. For one thing the whole world seemed better lit now. I could see, well, details where before there had been only darkness, and confusing chiaroscuro. Streetlights defined things, rather than merely casting shadows onto them, and assisted my vision rather than merely making matters worse. I could see into bushes, could see branches and inside the hollows. Dark recesses, doorways became just that: recesses, doorways, and not just patches of darkness, black blurs to stump and confuse me. My sole difficulty lay with the headlamps of approaching cars — these as always tended to unnerve and “blind me.” I found however that if I concentrated on the road and the side of the road, I could see right through them, that they did not in fact blind me at all.
I once was blind to much of my environment and didn’t even know it. I thought at the time I started seeing Dr D that all I wanted was to recapture the experience of beauty I’d gotten a glimpse of when mesmerized by tree bark — the reason I embarked on Vision Therapy (no pun intended). I never dreamed that I would gain so much more vision and so much more functioning in my life in the process.
I stood inside the snow yesterday evening for the first time in memory. I stood inside the snow. Does that seem like a strange statement? Yes, I have been out in the snow before, though god knows it hasn’t snowed in southern New England much these past years so last night’s storm of whitefall was really something to behold. I was holding my breath at 2pm yesterday, because the forecast had predicted heavy snow starting by 11am and it still was only cloudy by mid-afternoon. Then a half hour later, I looked up from my computer, and lo the sky was white with skirling snow coming down so furiously you could barely see the horizon. Thrilled, though still convinced it would switch to rain mid-way through, I pulled on all the warm clothing I could find, plus two pairs of socks and a thick pair of clogs, mittens and my warmest coat: I meant to go outside in that weather. Danged if I was going to be anything but warm!
Well, I didn’t need to go very far from the door. No one else was in sight except for one elderly gentleman sitting inside the lobby near the Christmas tree, and someone already shoveling snow from the walkway. Neither paid me any mind, which was good because I was not there for attention. Actually, in a sense it was for attention, it was to pay attention to the snow, to really see it, that I had bundled up and gone out there. I thought there would be some need for effort or some, I dunno, some before, before I could see it, but in fact I was inside the snow, within the different levels, layers, depths of it before I knew it. I did know it, though. It was immediately and stunningly obvious to me that this was something I had “never” seen before, or not in any retrievable memory. What I remembered was that always before snow had fallen in a kind of whitish mass, a jumble of flakes more or less undistinguished from one another, because indisitnguishable from one another. I can’t emphasize this enough, how if you cannot perceive depth, you lose detail and even the ability to perceive certain structures because of it.
For instance, I now can easily see certain aspects of my palm plant that before were literally invisible to me, because I could not distinguish one leaf from another…and therefore could not see the details that defined these aspects. Just so the snow. Now, it is so clear to me that many many flakes were falling, and what size they were and even what texture they had. But I know that last year I might have had to guess as to all that, or judge it purely on the basis of the feel of flakes falling on my bare skin. Seeing the mass of white flakes falling would not have given me any more accurate information than that it was snowing a great deal. How many flakes fell per foot, or how big the flakes and what kind, I would have had no way of telling.
Yesterday all that changed. I saw that I was actually inside snow, not looking at a curtain of snow, but within an ocean of it, with snow all around me in every direction for many miles. It might sound strange, but the very act of looking through the spaces between the flakes, the sort of weird tunnels that space made as the flakes fell, was extraordinarily beautiful. It is not something I think that most people see, or perhaps can see, having gotten too used to stereopsis (depth perception) or never having lost it. If there were some way for me to lend others this experience, or have them learn to see it from my persepctive, I would share it, as the world is astonishingly beautiful, and everyone should have the opportunity to perceive it, though without having to lose stereopsis to do so. I suppose that is what the various 3-D movies and anaglysh photos of fantasy scenes offer (to view anaglyph pictures you utilize red/green or red/blue lenses for the 3-D experience). One goes to a 3-D sci-fi movie to be wow’ed by the special effects that are so stunning, and there one appreciates the beauty of that “world” — but does it rub off onto an appreciation of the beauty of this one? Alas, I doubt it. I doubt that viewers of the movie understand that this world is as 3-D as the movie is, and that what they see in the world is as wonderful as what is in the movie. No, this world is simply too prosaic to be seen. It truly is a matter of seeing with new eyes. Which is what I have. As I told Dr D, she changed my life with her Vision Therapy, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
I just received word that a third poem won an honorable mention at New Millennium Writings. The first two will be in the volume just now to arrive in my mail box this week. The latest one will be published sometime next spring. Old readers may be familiar with all three, but since they will be in my book, We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders, and have all been published on-line before, I will showcase only one here for now. (One was the “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual” that I already posted and the other was “The Prayers of the Mathematician” which also won the 2001/2 BBC World Service Radio International Poetry Contest.) Here is the poem that just won the HM — it is not a new one, by any means, but it is one of my longtime favorites. It concerns a friend from high school who committed suicide while in college and I was left to wonder why (along with her sister and her parents).
THREE, FOR THOSE LEFT BEHIND
1. Grieving and Staying
The dead do not need us
to grieve or tear our hair
or keen extravagantly.
Stepping free of flesh
a double exposure (one ghost
rising from bed, another napping
at mid-day), their spirits follow
the curves of their late bodies,
rehearsing again and again
what we’re always too late for.
Just so, my friend Susie,
scrubbed clean of life’s debris,
twenty years later returning
in my dream of the dead
returning and I can’t let go
my guilty retrospection,
the arrogant suspicion
I could have saved her.
Now, though I know no dream
will return her utterly, I cling
to this one: Susie and I at twenty-one
standing before two doors,
how she points me towards the one
where a celebration is taking place
then disappears through the other
marked No Exit, as if it has to be,
as if it’s fair, as if either
of us in this world
has ever had a choice.
2. At the Lake, Under the Moon
In memory, the moon’s always a new dime,
glinting off the dark chop, ticking the night away
ruthless and indifferent as a parking meter.
As always, the lake shimmers, ebony splashed
with silver and we’re sitting there at the end
of the dock, thirteen, dangling our bare feet
above the water’s coruscating skin. We barely
ruffle the surface but it’s enough
to shatter the still shaft of moonglow,
potsherds of mercury, dancing tesserae, a mosaic
of light illuminating the water.
Is it possible we don’t yet suspect
how things must turn out? We shed our clothes
to swim shy and bare-skinned, silvered bubbles
rising to the surface like stars
of the wayward constellations
by which we’ll navigate our separate lives.
What we know is this: the sleek water
rolling off our skin, the frangible sand, schools of
glowing nightfish nosing amid algae.
We can’t guess how fate will interpose
its coups and tragedies, how far in ten years
we will have traveled from that night.
I never got to say good-bye.
I scatter your white ashes,
moonlight over dark water.
3. In My Dreams You Are Not Silent
Time heals nothing
but the space left behind
is filled, little by little,
with the critical minutiae
that make a life: shirts
at the cleaners, supper
in its pots, a half-read book
overdue at the library,
lying open, face down,
on the table.
I went to vision therapy today, something I have undertaken in an effort to learn to experience stereo vision, which is to say depth perception. Once my double vision was resolved, thanks to my optometrist friend, Leora, (and not the ophthalmologist, who basically threw up his hands in frustration and gave up) who found the source of the problem in “convergence insufficiency” and exotropia, or a tendency of my eyes to go outward rather than to converge on an image or object…once that was resolved, I was determined to find a way to learn to perceive depth, something I had not known I lacked until Leora so informed me.
I looked it up on the internet, and spent a long time at sites on “stereoscopy” and 3-D images, which I was unable to see, largely because they required two colored glasses, though I would not at that time have been able to see the images anyway. But it was not until I found the site on Vision Therapy that I learned that children regularly learned to “see 3D” by dint of such methods. But what about adults? What about someone who hadn’t seen depth in who knew how long? Could I learn stereo vision, would vision therapy work for me?
It turned out that Oliver Sacks had written an article just two years ago on the very subject of stereopsis, or the ability to see and perceive depth via binocular vision. Not only that but the article featured a woman dubbed “Stereo Sue” who, in her late 40s started vision therapy after apparently having not had depth perception since infancy, if then, and within two sessions had a breakthrough.
Suddenly,”doorknobs popped out” at her…astonishingly, she began to have stereo vision and depth perception in almost no time at all, even though doctors had always told her it was hopeless. Once a critical period in childhood had passed, they said, it was too late. The brain was fixed and stereopsis could not be learned. Well, she proved them wrong and soon she was standing inside of snowfall, rather than watching it fall on a plane in front of her, swimming with light-giving marine organisms and perceiving them swimming around her.
Reading this made me even more determined to try to find a way to learn stereo vision for myself and I was thrilled to learn that a certified practitioner of Vision Therapy worked in a town just across the bridge from me, an easy drive away, one even I could accomplish with a little practice. So, with Leora’s encouragement, I wrote Dr D an email and eventually gave her a call…and soon I too started this therapy for my eyes…It consisted of eye exercises mostly, various ways of learning to converge my eyes properly on an object or image, to improve my eyes’ tendency to go outward. Dr D taught me how to make them go inward – to converge – so I could keep them under my control even if on their own they would wander outward. That way I could control whether I saw with stereo vision or not.
I neglected to write about the experiences that in particular made me most desperate to learn to perceive depth, and that was what happened quite spontaneously while taking a walk one day. WIth my new prisms in my glasses, I happened to be striding around the Green, which is exactly a mile in length and so a good lap for walking, and identifying trees as I walked, when I happened to notice the bark on a particularly old and enormous maple. The bark just glowed, its furrows like brain sulci carved deep, chestnut with a reddish undertone, and the ridges a greyish brown, warty from the effects of weathering. These stood out in such brilliant relief that I was dumbstruck and mesmerized. For the longest time I could not move from where I stood, gazing in wonder. That bark was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. The way space curved around each splinter of exposed cortex and every nubble of weathered bark literally made me shiver with delight. The whole expanse of it shimmered. I could not drag my eyes away. Finally I realized that passers by were staring, wondering why I stood stock still, gazing at the trunk of a tree (probably no one noticed at all, but such is my self-consciousness even at times like that). Fearful of being questioned, I made myself walk away, and the loveliness before my eyes vanished…until I reached the next tree, which likewise grabbed me by the heartstrings and held me tight. What was going on? Why was tree bark suddenly so incredibly attractive, so astonishingly beautiful to me? Then I understood: It was space, I was seeing depth, and space was defining the bark. The loveliness of space gave to bark a brilliant beauty that I think I alone could perceive because I could see space as no one else seemed to.
Indeed, as I described the experience to others later that day and that week, and as I re-experienced it, always with trees and bark (to see each leaf hanging from a tree in its own pocket of air stunned me into laughing with joy, it was that overwhelming and disarming…) I wanted so much for someone to share this with me, but no one seemed to care or understand. Instead, they only got impatient when I stopped to “see” more closely, to look and experience the space around a tree or the grass. I was devastated. I wanted to take a week away from everyone and every obligation, to do nothing but look, and feast my eyes on whatever they beheld. The experience was breath-taking and unlike anything I had ever undergone before in my life. It was also lonely. Only Stereo Sue seemed to have understood and might have appreciated where I was at, so to speak, and she was not anywhere nearby.Not that she was or is far. I believe she is only a state away, within driving distance in fact. But that doesn’t make much difference when you don’t know someone!
Anyhow, it was with that partial ability, and fleeting and unstable experience under my belt, that I went to Dr D as I’ll call her, to see what vision therapy could do for me.
(To be continued tomorrow as I just lost a good part of this and it is now too late for me to continue)
Life with wings
Artwork, data analysis, and other projects by Jon
My Life is Art, My Art is Life