The sunrise this morning is beyond description. Mom and grandma are perched on the couch, looking out the window at the horizon like children waiting for a mysterious visitor to knock on the door. Their innocence and wonder melts my heart and I join them. As the sun rises, it is pierced in half by a narrow thick cloud that creates two mini-suns out of the one. It looks like two egg yolks frying in the pan, or one egg dividing. I’ve seen this sort of thing in biology textbooks and through zoomed-in scopes but never at the macro level with my own eyes. We are watching creation, the origin of light, our eager anticipation is being rewarded.
Looking out the window with Grandma next to me, I wonder about the difference in what she and I are seeing. All of her life, Grandma has been told that she has beautiful eyes. They are still striking– a strong blue that hasn’t faded with time– but they don’t do what eyes are supposed to do very well anymore. Her vision is obscured with macular degeneration, a disorder that blinds the center of her vision. Living with this condition means that she must focus on one thing to see another. She lives her whole life on the edges, mastering the art of the periphery, playing a game of reverse psychology with her eyes. In each frame of vision, she sees less than I do, but it seems possible that she understands more than people like me who get to see what we look at.
Grandma is proud of her beautiful eyes even though she can’t see them herself. On its face, it seems absurd to value aesthetic beauty even after losing access to it, but it’s only as absurd as all other vanity. Vanity is based on what other people see, or what they think, or what we think they think about what we think they see, and that can no more be solved by the sighted than the blind.
It seems to me I’ve lived so much of my life trying to untangle that riddle. I stack up the layers of perceived perceptions and inferred implications and preemptive comebacks about the contents of other people’s minds. I’ve shuttled between the dual stages of pride and self-consciousness, basking in the glow of approval while worried about if it is real or how long it will last, then shivering in the shadow of neglect or disapproval. My clear vision grants me no peace if I focus on what others think. It is endless and varied and unknowable, like counting shadows on a rippling pond.
I wonder: if she could, would grandma trade Looking Good for Seeing Well? Would she rather be blind to her own beauty or have perfect vision with which to observe herself in a grotesque form? Would I rather know precisely what other people think if it revealed that I am constantly falling short? I think not.
Here’s another question I sometimes ponder: if grandma could restore her vision at the expense of another sense, would she take that deal? Life does-not-will-not-has-never worked that way, but what if? What precious gift would she sacrifice? Would giving it away be so much worse than having it taken?
When I contemplate losing one of my senses, I most often fear the loss of vision. But I once heard that the most important sense is the sense of Touch. Grandma still has that. She can still feel the stability of mom’s arms guiding her from car to door or from slippery sidewalk to railing. She can still feel the strength in my hands on her feet as I rub them as part of her monthly pedicure (a ritual that would never happen if she could see her toes well enough to care for them). She can still feel the bitter cold wind of the Lake Superior air and the warmth of the fireplace in our little cabin. Touch, while less appreciated than vision, must be more important because my wildest imagination has never even conceived of living without it. The loss of her vision must feel like the ultimate sacrifice, but she still has the sense that matters most.
I am looking out the window again. As before, I could swear that I see the water slowly churning, but now I know that it is frozen 8 inches deep with a foot of snow on top. I stare at a crease that looks like a ripple, it seems to be wavering as though in motion but the line never goes away, never folds back into the larger body as it would if it were truly moving. I am awed by this powerful optical illusion. I am observing the failure of my own senses. I’m half sad to lose the hubris that this realization reveals to me– it’s unsettling to confront my false sense of security– but there is something freeing in it too. My eyes are not perfect representations of the outside world, and even when they see perfectly they don’t see everything.
I have been here before, at this window, on this trail, searching for one thing but finding another, looking good but seeing poorly. I wonder if I can do it differently this time.
I focus and un-focus my eyes and set the waves to freeze and flow accordingly. It is what it is, but how I see it is up to me.