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Seeing in Depth, the refelective part

September 19, 2011

This is the rest of the essay I wrote in my early twenties about seeing in 2-D. About 12 years ago, prompted by the fact that children in my Sunday School class could not tell who I was calling on, I asked my current eye doctor, who is a specialist in childhood strabismus, if anything could be done to correct my disconjugate gaze. He repeated what I already knew: that it was about thirty years too late to be able to acquire the ability to see depth. But he thought there was a good chance he could tweak my eye muscles to improve the appearance of my gaze. Since congenital strabismus is a birth defect, it wasn’t considered cosmetic surgery and insurance paid for the surgery.

I emerged from the surgery with gaze that is probably 75% better than it used to be. It is even better now that my aging eyes require bifocals during my waking hours. Only people who have known me for a very long time remember a day when my eyes went their own ways.

*****

circa 1987

I wonder, now, how I survived nineteen years in the innocence of my conviction that others would know my eyes were different only if I told them. Rationally, I reveled in the oddity of my monocular vision. I loved to befuddle listeners with the prospect that the world could exist in only two dimensions, not three, brandishing perception without depth like secret wisdom known to a chosen few. Early on I learned to retreat to that insular tower to explain my inordinate fear of heights and of flying objects (footballs, Frisbees, a pencil loaned and flung from the far side of the classroom) and for my inability to catch or hit, even though I was the fastest base runner in elementary school.

In moments of startling self-honesty, I wondered what was wrong with the other two or three of us last-chosen ones. What if I could judge how fast and high a ball was coming and still could not hit it? Mercifully, those moments were few, bubbles breaking the surface of thought on moonless nights and forced back down in the quarry of the non-rational, where a great questions swam in dimensions of depth unknown to me.

I was a freshman in college when I saw my eyes for the first time the way that others see them. Somehow, I survived the incognizance of childhood inquiries, the virulent sameness demanded in adolescence without someone asking me the question I faced one November night over a cafeteria entrée.

“Are you talking to me?” was the puzzling reply to some question I had asked.

Of course I am, I wanted to say.

“I mean I can’t tell. Who are you looking at?” the now-faceless person persisted.

“You,” I answered.

“Oh. Sorry. I couldn’t tell. Do they always do that?”

“That…” I led, the word like a toe feeling the way for my whole body in a dark space.

“Your eyes. You were looking at me with one eye and over my shoulder with the other. It was weird.”

Either my monocular vision explanation was convincing or my embarrassment was apparent. The issue was dropped. But I had not known, and I lay awake in bed that night unnerved. My sight had betrayed me. No longer would memory be a dedicated repository of history and the not-remembered, the height and width or absence of people and events. Meaning surfaced like a strange new dimension, infiltrating, informing, and in the first of many such moments, I cringed away from the air prickling bare skin beneath my clothing.

My journals from those days, however, indicate that I was no more aware of those feelings than I had ever been and that I reacted to my wayward eyes as I would have to a new mole appearing on my face: either conceal it, or accentuate it as a beauty mark. Hidden in a study carrel in the library, I spent the next three semesters reading textbooks half a line at a time. Left eye. Right eye. Left eye, right eye, imprinting on my eye muscles the feeling of following each other, like a toddler learns “LMNOP” follows “HIJK” long before he understands what the song means. Every day I stood at the sink in the dorm bathroom, looking into the mirror with one eye, the other eye shut, focusing the closed eye on the center of the darkness inside the lid. Then I’d relax the wince, slowly opening the closed lid, correcting my gaze as I went until both pupils stared straight back at me, holding my own gaze with sheer willpower until one eye or the other gave up and looked away.

Publicly, finesse became my cover when my eyes refused to cooperate. In biology lab, my ability to look into a microscope with one eye and simultaneously draw protozoa with the other eye was always worthy of others’ comment. I was actually alternating sight one eye at a time but didn’t mind that it looked otherwise. I also took secret satisfaction in successfully faking my driver’s license eye exam. The viewing box was set up so that typically sighted people would see a string of letters like the Snellen (“E”) chart on a doctor’s wall. But with both eyes open, half of the letter blocks appeared blank so I had to read left eye, right eye, left eye in order to recite them to the examiner in order. But only the person who designed the test and I knew that. I passed with a perfect score every time.

Thus began the process of trying to will fraternal twins to be identical –when they were already nineteen years old. Most often I settled for my eyes simply appearing normal and by the time I graduated from college, I had a reputation for being a great listener, my unwavering gaze at close range mistaken for empathy instead of will. Later I realized that my best friends were the handful I could talk with or listen to without maintaining eye contact. Later still, I became fond of deep talks in dark rooms; shoring up appearances required too much effort to simultaneously speak of anything real.

*****

The text I posted in Part I, explaining monocular vision, falls here.

*****

On a psychological level, depth perception is known as intuition: the ability to sense dimensions that are unseen; to look at a picture of an apple and recognize the grain in the paper beneath the image. Some psychologists posit that intuition is an inborn personality trait, a hereditary predisposition like the gene that crossed my eyes in utero. Others say that intuition can be learned. I have wondered, during reflective seasons in my life, if I had been born with perfect sight, I might have escaped the havoc the irreconcilable can wreak on a child’s mind. And sometimes on moonlit nights, when I entertain the memories that bubble up from the depths of the quarry, I close my mental eyes rather than relive those moments again in multidimensional color.

*****

I’ll close this little series with one more post: a few lessons I’ve taken away from my childhood differences that resonate in new ways now that I am the mother of children with differences.

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