Charlie Chaplin was supposed to be performing silly gestures on the large screen in the auditorium. At least that’s what my classmates and I had been told by our teacher about the movie we were watching just before the winter break. Or was it the day before spring break? Does The Tramp have a designated season? No matter — he is only relevant to this story because of what he represents in the longer narrative about my ability to see. I was in the eighth grade, sitting on a wooden seat that folds down to accommodate the occupant, in one of several dozen rows filled with the thirteen and near-thirteen year olds, and as the film reel flickered high above us onto the wide screen on the stage, I was hit with a startling reality: I couldn’t see. The black and white masses bled into one another creating, in the wake of their forced union, pulsating figures of grey shapes for which no other name but “blob” would fit. What was Charlie doing? Was he dancing? Bouncing? Running away from comic villains? For half of the movie, I sat quietly, stunned by this realization — a combination of anger and bewilderment consumed me: hadn’t I been able to make out the details of Spartacus and Ben Hur that were shown just months earlier on the same screen? Had I been squinting then, too? (And no, I can’t quite explain my middle school’s penchant for showing impressionable schoolchildren epic-length films featuring aged or long-dead actors resurrecting the tales of ancient Rome.)
Once the stupefication wore off, I asked my teacher if I could visit the nurse’s office. I was thankful in that moment to have built up a lifetime of trust in the form of obedient student behavior. She let me walk myself there. I can’t remember whether I pushed or pulled the door, or whether there was a door at all, but I recall the nurse asking me to sit on a cold, metal stool, hold a spoon-shaped piece of thick plastic over each eye and read the letters arranged in lines of decreasing size from top to bottom on the opposite wall of her small office. My eyes failed me, let me down when I needed them the most. An eye test! And all I could read was the large E at the top of the chart.
Within days I was outfitted with contact lenses. The eye doctor I was taken to by my mother treated adults, mostly, and was convinced that I, being a teenager, would not want to wear glasses. He insisted, to my mother rather than to me, that I should just start wearing contacts from the beginning. I was torn. I had secretly harbored fantasies of being a proud owner of eyewear, and displaying such hardware in public. So on they went, these tiny, bendable, plastic saucers that were tinted just enough to be seen and handled, but not enough to affect the appearance of my dark brown irises. For those who haven’t worn contacts, the phrase, “You won’t be able to feel them” will seem like a bald faced lie. It isn’t. And just like that, these flexible plastic discs disappeared into — or rather onto my eyeballs and, barring a handful of incidents when one went missing somewhere into my eye socket, sight has been a managed and manageable part of my life. Laser eye surgery, with its promise of being able to wake up sighted, intrigued me, but only momentarily. At some point in my deliberations, I began to appreciate my less than 20-20 eyesight as a gift — the ability to not see, to obscure, to redouble my efforts in honing the other senses. The option to visually check out (an option I have selected on more than one occasion during group classes such as zumba — in other words: the ability to be aware without risking a glimpse at my lack of coordination).
To put it simply, I had a handle on my sight.
Oh, but the fates are funny and they play with the very things you not only hold dear, but take for granted.
Yesterday was a delightful day, an easy day spent in the company of friends and a visit to an enchanting bakery (that I will blog about later), that included hearing about interesting and thoughtful research about teaching and literacy taking place in Tanzania, and a stroll through the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the way to pick up my new glasses at a local eyewear retailer (a far cry from the old ones I had been relying on for evening reading, when my contact-wearing eyes would tire, the same that M said made me look like one of this country’s founders; this comparison was not made as a compliment). What happened when I slipped off my contacts and placed the new specs onto the bridge of my nose can only be explicated in the following hurriedly composed prose-poem:
The world is a funhouse, no mirror required.
Circles bend into oblongs,
pillars and buildings appear miniature,
and squares have not retained their structural integrity.
Turning my head quickly is only an option
If I don’t care about interrupting the path of an oncoming car,
or bike or passer-by.
The man at the counter sees me,
I am visibly reeling, trying to strike a balance between
giddiness at this strange sensation and
being perturbed at the possibility that my prescription
has been botched.
It takes a while to adjust, he says in my direction,
looking past me, and then
looking at me expectantly because he is ready to close out the account;
It’s because you just took off your contacts,
he tries to convince me.
Bollocks! I want to exclaim,
but then I remember I’m neither British nor
the protesting type.
At his request, I lean in toward him over the counter between us
and he assesses the fit.
They fit, he says. They look good on you.
I can’t disagree.
Another stroll around the store while he and his co-worker,
whose very short hair defers to her
shoulder length copper earrings,
keep an eye on me.
Blinded by my own vanity, I accept the glasses and
walk out the door onto the sidewalk
full of hurrying walkers who have no time for people
waiting for their eyes to adjust.
I know how they feel; I was one of them just ten minutes earlier.
Twenty-four hours have passed.
I feel my optic nerve. I don’t know what it’s doing,
but its presence on my consciousness is
But it’s the height that unnerves me the most.
The pavement below appears to be miles away,
I feel seven feet tall,
or what I assume a seven-foot-tall person might feel like,
less a sense of towering over things and more like
soaring, unbounded, or
not merely inches, but whole feet above the ground.
This part I like.
I’m going to give it a week.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to embrace my inner Gulliver,
in this suddenly-new, Lilliputian landscape.