Saturday, February 22, 2014

Clear Vision

Recently I’ve been having trouble with my contact lenses. I’ve worn them so long – over 50 years –
that most of the time I don’t even think about how different the world looks when my vision isn’t corrected. Like many people, I’m extremely near-sighted, and I also have astigmatism. So what I see before I put my lenses in is not only generally blurred, but consists of overlapping images of different sharpness. My hard contact lenses (Rigid Gas Permeable) deal nicely with these problems. For decades, I waltzed through life without having to wrestle with how clearly I can see.

I’d heard about the importance of looking away, blinking, or even using lubricant eye drops while working for long hours at the computer. Apparently we don’t blink as often as we normally do when we’re staring that the screen. That “tired eyes” sensation is not due to fatigue but to dryness. In my case, this was made worse by the natural drying-out of eyes with age (and the hormonal changes of menopause), and made even more worse by the number of hours I normally wear my lenses. Wearing them daily – washing my hands and putting them in every morning; washing my hands, cleaning them, and leaving them to soak every night – had become so much a part of each routine, I never thought about it. That’s one of the good things about habit – I reliably got my teeth flossed and brushed, my night time medications taken, and all the other daily self-care things. The down side of such habits is that they’re hard to break or to modify. So when my optometrist advised me to take them out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, I blithely and optimistically agreed. I set out to do so with all the good intentions in the world. The problem was that there was no time in my daily routine that I could easily and automatically add this contacts-lens-break.

The other problem, perhaps even more of an obstacle, was that although I do have a pair of back-up spectacles (I’m wearing them now), the prescription is old and my vision has changed, so they don’t give me good correction. In addition, the lenses are so thick, they distort objects, the most disorienting being the keyboard of my piano, which appears to be bowl-shaped! So, naturally, all my good intentions went by the wayside.

Earlier this winter, I noticed that my eyes were burning and feeling scratchy, even when my lenses were clean. I attributed the irritation to the particulate matter in the air, because we live in an area where many people heat their homes by burning wood. I went about my life as the symptoms got worse. Finally the inevitable happened, a flareup so painful that I sought medical help. Both my primary care physician and the ophthalmologist I consulted assured me there was no damage to my corneas, only what’s called “contact lens overwear.” 

I looked up “contact lens overwear” on the internet. It’s always a risky thing to consult that vast, unregulated body of knowledge and superstition, but I found sites that appeared medically trustworthy, looked at the terrible things that can result from this condition, and got properly terrified. My optometrist checked the fit of my lenses – nothing wrong there – and created a new prescription for distance spectacles. Therein arose a dilemma, because if I wanted to use my old frames, which fit me well and are of good quality, I’d have to leave them for several days. Which means I either have several days of incredibly-blurry-vision or wear my contacts for those days. I’ve left my contacts out for long enough that the symptoms have resolved, but.  But my eyes have lost their tolerance, and I haven’t been able to wear them for more than a couple of hours a day. It’s entirely possible that I have been rushing the process and I won’t take up any more space whining about it. The logistics will work themselves out, one way or another. The interesting thing – the cool thing – is how the physical aspect of vision mirrors the creative aspect. We think that “seeing clearly,” whether in writing (or any other imaginative endeavor) or in everyday life, is not only desirable but necessary. (Certainly, when driving it’s a good idea to see clearly!)

When I was little, I’d lie in bed after I woke up, imagining figures in the shadows and folds of my curtains. The blurriness made shapes run together because the edges weren’t clearly defined. I saw animals, heroic people, monsters, dragons, castles – pretty much whatever people also see in clouds. Think of how many games are based on seeing patterns, and the importance of ambiguous shapes that can be interpreted in many ways. The Rorschach Ink Blot Test may have originated as a tool of psychiatrists, but it’s also great fun to “find” things in the blots.

I wonder if the blurriness of my physical vision promotes a different sort of coherence. Sharp edges (“Good fences make good neighbors”) may interfere with seeing how objects – people, dreams, lives, goals, landscapes – flow together and are connected. When objects are indistinct, we bring our own imaginations to our discernment of them. When driving a truck, this is a recipe for disaster. When contemplating our inner journeys or those of our created characters, it’s an open door to deeper meaning. We use the word “see” to mean the physical and physiological processes of vision, but it also means to understand, to comprehend. It’s not a passive process, but one that demands active engagement. A certain amount of ambiguity is not only inevitable but helpful. It’s said that no two people read the same book because we experience those printed words through the lens of our own history, emotional state, associations, education, dreams, and more. Stories that are mystifying can be frustrating, but ones that are mysterious are delicious, in large part because we the readers or listeners or viewers get to fill in the blanks, guess what’s lurking in the mists, invent explanations, and so forth. The “clear sight” is not the photographically faithful image, it’s the resonant connection between inner and outer truth.

Painting by George Cope, 1879.

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