The light in San Francisco in January can be incomprehensibly warm and golden. My winter-lashed New England self was basking in its late afternoon glow as I sat with a friend in a lush Marina garden. Bliss. Then, in an instant, my eyesight went skiwampus.
That was 2018. After a lot of medical head scratching, a diagnosis was made. CCF—carotid cavernous fistula—is an uncommon vascular abnormality that has no known cause. Two neurosurgeries eventually eliminated excruciating headache pain and salvaged a narrow band of clear vision at the center of my visual field. But my peripheral vision remained a tangle of distortion. Even with custom glasses, the slightest look sideways could set everything off kilter. Specialists shrugged. Their only advice was to learn to live with it.
An artist with scrambled peripheral vision? That seemed particularly punishing and downright Jobian. But I took up the task of trying to adapt. I redesigned my studio and work space. Supplies were arranged close to my work surface, and I focused my efforts on smaller formats that would not require a stretch of my field of vision.
Meanwhile I thought a lot about eyes and what they mean.
Vision and Metaphor
Humans are supremely ocular. We rely on vision over all the other senses. Central vision, or seeing in focal mode, is what we use for detailed scrutiny of individual objects at high resolution. The peripheral, or ambient mode, takes in everything else. Ambient vision has lower resolution but its scope is huge. It is also what we use to maintain balance, feel our way through an environment and get the “gist “of where we are in the world.
Sarah Robinson, author of Architecture is a Verb, describes this dualism clearly:
Vision has a dual structure—two pathways that attend to different kinds of visual cues. What is referred to as the ‘where’ pathway deals with the perception of motion, depth, spatial features, position, figure and ground segregation and has lower acuitiy—it is lightning quick, sensitive to contrast, but cannot see colors. The ‘what’ pathway specializes in recognising faces, objects and colors. Without one kind of vision we miss high-definition details and without the other we lose salient meanings—we rely on the fluent integration of both kinds of vision. But we cannot attend to both kinds of vision at once. We cannot text while driving because the two activities call for two very different kinds of attention—one focused on the task, while the other involves more relaxed scanning, ever on the watch for impending perils.
This dual modality is analogous to poet Jane Hirshfield’s insight: “It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.” Vision is also correlated with the double nature of consciousness: the ambient mode is aligned with the preconscious, and the focal with the conscious.
Focal attention is overt in the way it deals with detail and edges. Peripheral vision is covert, taking in a range of information that is often processed unconsciously. When we navigate through an environment, fine detailed information is not as important as an overall sense of the space. As Robinson points out, “peripheral vision is the ‘playground of our unconscious imagination’ for its flickering, elasticity, evasiveness and openness to imaginative infill.”
What our brains pay attention to in the visual domain is both conscious and unconscious. We all know the experience of looking for an object that is right in front of us but we can’t see, or sensing that something is out of order even though there is no hard evidence yet. In researching perception and architecture, Robert Condia points out, “The better you see what you are attending to, the more blinded you can become to what you cannot see.”
In her book, Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way, Catherine Bateson writes, “Sometimes change is directly visible, but sometimes it is apparent only to peripheral vision, altering the meaning of the foreground.”
And then there are the other, non physical ways in which we “see.” The ancient concept of a third eye, located in the forehead, is one of many references to other ways of seeing found in non-Western mystical traditions.
This passage is by David Carse from his spiritual memoir, Perfect Brilliant Stillness, a book I love dearly:
what you see depends on how you look…
there is a seeing which is not seeing,
a seeing which happens without trying,
Subtle. It is lost, overlooked if there is positive movement, direct searching, active thinking, anything but profound stillness. Focus on it, and it is gone. All of the talking, all of the asking questions, reading books, meditating, thinking, focusing, seeking, is all counterproductive because it is pushing in the wrong direction, creating activity and turbulence and noise…there is a seeing which is not seeing, a seeing which happens without trying, without looking.
Asleep in the dream, the everyday activity is to look without truly seeing.
What is called for is seeing without looking,
the seeing happening without there being one who looks.
The poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, of Kabir and Tagore, is all about this, this sideways seeing, creating a still quiet openness where the subtleness which would be missed in direct seeking can present itself.
(Special thanks to Miriam Louisa Simons for calling out this particular passage on her site, The Awakened Eye.)
Accommodating for my limitations in the studio was harder than I thought it would be. After many efforts to redesign my work environment, my success felt only marginal.
What it comes down to is flow. For 50 years my way of working has been anchored in trusting the process, a reliance on intuition and accessing other ways of knowing. Those states can only be reached by letting go of the everyday world, by slipping out of self-consciousness. For artists who work like I do, the body and the art making go somewhere else. Anything that prevents you from getting to lift off—like the need to constantly monitor your vision—eliminates the possibility of getting to flow. Like texting and driving–or skipping and weeping–you can’t do both.
There is a happy ending to this very personal ordeal. Stepping away from my phalanx of high-powered medical experts, I discovered a quiet genius who had a different view. After examining my eyes for three hours, he assured me that he could fix my vision problems. In March he did just that.
So this is over. I’m a fully sighted artist once again.
Next, and then Next
Many have asked me what I learned from this experience. “Every tribulation also has its gifts,” one friend reminded me.
I don’t feel ready to craft a thoughtful and comprehensive answer just yet. As much as I have considered the scope and depth of vision and what it means to me, my experience still needs space and time—to be in flow perhaps—as it finds its way to the surface in its own, slow fashion.
Sometimes you can borrow from a friend while you are waiting for your own loaf to rise. That opportunity came my way with a lifelong pal and a gifted ceramicist, Ramah Commanday.
After living most of her life in California, Ramah bought a home in the Hudson Valley. “It is now my time to leave,” she told me. I made a similar migration to the East coast at 21 after sharing a house with her in Santa Cruz.
Ramah had scheduled her move just as Covid intervened. The safe bet was to rent out her new home, delay her relocation and stay in California for one more year. A few months later the Glass Fire ripped through Napa, destroying her home and studio in St. Helena. The only thing left standing was her kiln.
This is from her essay published in the New York Times, How do we go forward?
What this did unexpectedly was refocus me, without even my conscious effort in doing so. It refocused me on what I had, as opposed to what I had lost.
The intensity of that refocus really took me by surprise. I am as amazed as anybody. How can I possibly weep for an armchair when so many people have lost multiple members of their own families?
I feel braver than I did before all of this happened. This is a kind of resilience that is real, and I am not alone in it. Maybe I am more glad that I know these things about myself than I am sorry to have lost a bunch of stuff. If this is what it took to put me in this place in my life’s journey, this is what it took…
There is nothing I can do about the stuff that burned up. Everything has a life span. I can look at this as the end of the world, apocalypse, but really, our worlds all end when we die. And in the meantime, I am alive, I am still here, and what can I do about it?
Ramah’s words about her state of mind are a good placeholder for mine as I figure out my version of how to go forward. In a synchronicity that is both peculiar and poignant, Ramah was the friend who sat with me in that San Francisco garden when my eyesight failed.
And in the meantime, I am alive, I am still here, and what can I do about it?