Reading, Week Two

from Sight Unseen:

Try this. Picture the world as I see it. My world has a whole in its center. The central region of my retina, the macula, no longer functions. So when light entering my eyes hits the retinas, only the cells on the periphery, and a few good cells scattered around the center, send messages to the brain. In the most common form of macular degeneration, now called “age-related” but once called “senile” or “wet,” abnormal blood vessels form behind the retina. These leak and damage the delicate photoreceptor cells. In my form of the condition (which is rare and, some feel so different from teh common form that it deserves a different name), there are no leaky blood vessels. My photoreceptors seem to have been genetically programmed simply to give up the ghost. I have no memory of this. It happened when I was about ten years old, and probably very gradually, perhaps even cell by cell. Whatever the cause, the damaged cells do not regenerate or grow back. As my most recent ophthalmologist put it, patches of my retinas are entirely “worn through.” The affected area is small. The whole macula measures about 5 millimeters across its diameter. But it contains a higher concentration of photorecptors than the peripheral areas. More important, the macula is densely packed iwth the sensitive cone cells that allow for the perception of fine details. So I lack not only central vision but also the visual equipment designed to perform such tasks as reading print or recognizing a face. In effect, I have an extremely large blind spot in the center of my visual field” (pages 98-99). 

Peripheral vision exists to give you a general sense of your surroundings — the forest, not the trees. It allows you to see things coming at you from all sides, and to avoid obstacles as you move through space. When I walk, my lack of central vision is less noticeable because it is less necessary. My blind spot precedes me like a giant flying jellyfish. Large objects — fire hydrants, people, cars — fall into it several yards away, then reappear a few feet in front of me. I aim my eyes straight ahead, straight into the floating blob, but I remain conscious of what surrounds that black center. When I look down I cannot see my feet or what’s directly in front of them. So I lift my eyes, and my feet and what’s in front of them emerge from my blind spot into my peripheral vision. I get a general sense of an obstacle here or directions there, though I can’t necessarily identify it as a rock or a roller skate.

People often ask me directions — apparently I look like I know where I’m going. My directions tend to mystify people because they’re too topographical. I may not know street names, but I retain a memory of the contours of land, of architectural features, of landscaping. Peripheral vision is not only the side-to-side view but what’s overhead and underfoot. I give details about the periphery of the route, where trees or building close in overhead, where the sidewalk narrows or widens. I tell people to keep going to the top of the hill, or to cross the street at the corner when the street begins to bank to the right. Since bodies of water tend to be low points, I say, “head toward the river,” even in cities where this is not a commonplace idiom. Sighted people are apparently oblivious to these aspects of their surroundings. They keep their eyes gripped in taut focus, scanning for road signs, house numbers, numbing their other sense. I say, “There’s a red awning, a blue door.” They’re speechless. My landmarks are not theirs. And when I ask directions they say, “it’s over there,” gesturing in a general direction. “You’ll know it when you see it” (pages 104-105). 

philosopher/mystic/activist Simone Weil in her famous essay, “Attention and Will”:

What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

The capacity to drive a thought away once and for all is the gateway to eternity. The infinite in an instant.” I’d like to change this one slightly: “The capacity to drive a thought away for a moment is the gateway to eternity. The infinite for an instant.

philosopher Frederic Gros on Interruptions:

…one never truly walks alone: Everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams, the impact of your feet on the ground: a whole rustling murmur that responds to your presence” (A Philosophy of Walking).

poet Marie Howe on observing and not looking away:

It hurts to be present, though, you know. I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them. Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. You know I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. Uh, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason….We want to — we want to say it was like this. It was like that. We want to look away, and to be, to be with a glass of water or to be with anything. And then they say well there’s nothing important enough. And then it’s whole thing is that point (On Being Interview with Marie Howe).”

poet Marilyn Nelson on Noticing each is:

Crows/ Marilyn Nelson

What if to taste and see, to notice things,

to stand each is up against emptiness

for a moment or an eternity—

images collected in consciousness

like a tree alone on the horizon—

is the main reason we’re on the planet.

The food’s here of the first crow to arrive,

numbers two and three at a safe distance,

then approaching the hand-created taste

of leftover coconut macaroons.

The instant sparks in the earth’s awareness.

writer, professor of Environmental Biology, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer and paying attention as the gift of gratitude:

Every one of us is endowed with the singular gift of paying attention—that remarkable focused convergence of our senses, our intellect, and our feeling. It’s so appropriate that we call it paying attention, for it is perhaps a near-universal form of currency—it is exchangeable, it is valuable, and it incurs an expense on the part of the payer, for attention, we all know too well, is a limited resource.

What should be our response to the generosity of the more-than-human world? In a world that gives us maple syrup, spotted salamanders, and sand hill cranes, shouldn’t we at least pay attention? Paying attention is an ongoing act of reciprocity, the gift that keeps on giving, in which attention generates wonder, which generates more attention—and more joy. Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgment of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. 

Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible.

This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction. Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action (Returning the Gift).”