Essay: “Lightspending”

My essay, “Lightspending” was published in the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The essay is part of a larger collection: blind writers responding to John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness.” Here is how the editors introduced my essay:

“Michael’s essay is a narrative of personal experience. It is pegged to Milton’s sonnet only in the oblique reference of its title and the images of light that she weaves throughout the piece. Still, it is a consideration of how light is spent — one freed of religious overtones in a way that Milton could probably never have imagined.”

Read my essay here.

Read the complete responses to Milton here.

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A Brighter World

I’m celebrating the last week of winter break with some mother-daughter time. Today Mom and I are honoring a yearly ritual: back-to-back appointments at the eye doctor. We arrive at the office, sign ourselves in, chat with the receptionists, and take seats in the first row of uniform waiting room chairs.

On the mounted television, two QVC women banter and beam about fashionable lighting accessories. Praising the colors in an elaborate Tiffany floor lamp, one says, “It’s got shades of red and honey, and some turquoise from the stones at the top. I can even see purple—is that purple?—Yes, and some smoky gray there in the middle.” Before I can contemplate the idea of such an intense array of colors on one product, the inner office door opens and a woman calls our names. We gather our things and head down the familiar hallway.

“You can go first,” Mom says as we enter the examining room. I deposit my purse, cane, and scarf in a chair along the wall and aim for the seat of honor: a tall, high-backed leather perch with thin, rigid arms and a metal footrest. I take the seat and remove my glasses, making the room bright and blurry.

Both Mom and I surrender our glasses to the woman who escorted us to our room. She disappears for a few minutes, then returns with the glasses. She updates our medical information in the computer and then begins to examine me.

First, she hands me a dark plastic circle on a stick and asks me to cover one eye. I cover the left, the weaker eye, and she flips off the lights. At the far end of the room, a small square screen flares to life. She asks if I can distinguish any letters on the screen.

“I see an E…and nothing else.” The high-contrast capital E appears, right-side-up, bold against the pale screen. In theory, other letters float below the large E, but I’ve never been able to see them. I only know they exist because I’ve heard Mom and my siblings reading them aloud.

I use the plastic eyepatch to obscure my right eye, the good eye, the reader. Now I struggle to focus my left eye on the screen. I can still see the E but it’s less bold, more blurry. Nevertheless, I convey my success, and my examiner makes a note.

She then flips on the lights and hands me a small card with rows of numbers in a font I don’t recognize. It’s an ugly font, sans serifs—chosen, I suspect, for its squashy, difficult appearance. The lines of numbers decrease in size down the length of the card. She asks, “How far down the card can you read?”

I examine the card carefully, knowing my answer will change as my eyes gradually understand the card’s organization and font. “The third line—No, the fourth. No…” I wait and adjust the card, bringing it close to my eyes, then holding it farther away. I use my bifocals. “With my bifocals, I can read this line here.” I point to a line near the bottom of the card.

“Good.” She makes a note. “Switch.”

I repeat the procedure with the left eye and, unsurprisingly, can only read the second or third line of text. I know the numbers are there, but they’re fuzzy, hard to follow. I explain that I rarely read with my left eye: “It just keeps me in three dimensions.”

The woman laughs and takes my plastic eyepatch. “Time for dilation and pressures,” she announces, her voice calm and professional.  Lowering the  overhead lights again, she treats my sensitive pupils to rapid, cursory flashes from a bright handheld light. Then she offers me a tissue and orders, “Take off your glasses.”

I obey and lean my head back, steeling myself for the discomfort of numbing drops. I open my eyes as wide as I can, resisting the urge to squint and blink when the large, shining droplets fall against my lashes. The numbing drops land wetly in my eyes and immediately begin to work. My eyeballs sting and tingle; I blink a few times and blot them with the tissue.

To measure my eye pressures, I rest my face against a huge machine on wheels. My chin and forehead slide neatly into the machine’s accommodating spaces. Once I’m in position, I see a bright light coming toward me; the light skirts my central vision and dances around the periphery, replaced by a dull blue circle. Seemingly lit from within, the circle comes closer and closer until it blots out everything else. Something brushes against my eye, but I don’t feel it: the nearness alone tells me I’ve been touched. This time, my right eye is uncooperative; able to clearly see the approaching machine, my eye dances around, fidgets. The left eye awaits the touch of the dull blue light with sagely nonchalance.

My examiner notes my pressures—well within the normal range—and wheels away the large machine, parking it beside the sink on the right wall. She returns to me, administers the dilating drops to my tingly eyeballs, and tells me to trade places with Mom. Mom takes my vacated seat, and the preliminary exams repeat: the only notable difference being that Mom can read several rows of letters on the chart.

Once Mom’s dilating drops are in, we are directed down the hall to a small dim room, the “dilating dungeon.” We remain there for half an hour, waiting as our drops take effect. My drops work quickly, transforming my vision. My surroundings are bright, shiny as if colored in high contrast. Up close reading is impossible because the dilating drops blur my vision. I can’t read the time on my phone or the book in my purse—Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. I shouldn’t have brought such a tempting choice to this place of temporary illiteracy.

Pupils now wide and occupied with the absorption of excess light, Mom and I enter another examining room. This time, the doctor comes to see us, her long western skirt swirling as she moves toward me. My eyes catch the glint of her wide studded belt in the dim room. After a little small talk, she begins the most unpleasant part of her examination.

This doctor has been shining small bright lights in my eyes since I was two months old, and she knows how much I dislike it. She promises to make her exam quick as she aims her “mean little light” into my eyes. Because her small examining light casts such strong glare, I’m barely able to track her hand moving back and forth. I track a single finger, and she seems satisfied.

My dilated pupils can only handle so much light in this brief appointment. Soon, I feel like I’m living inside a lava lamp; bright splotches of color move lazily up and down in front of me. Doc gives me a few minutes to rest before starting the final portion of my exam: “Look up, now up and left, now left, now down and left, now straight down. Down and right, now straight to the right, now up and right. Now look at my light—I’m sorry, I know you don’t like it.”

Finally, she finishes the exam, declaring that all is well, and I can retreat to a dark corner of the room to nurse my funky vision. The next few hours will be a struggle as I navigate this new bright world with unfamiliar eyes. Luckily, Mom and I are heading to our favorite sushi place for lunch: I’ve memorized the menu and won’t have to do any reading.

Metaphor by Candlelight

Any linguist worth her salt will explain that the metaphors we use in casual conversation actively shape our perceptions of reality. We ride emotional roller coasters, package our ideas, hope our arguments will hold water, and cast our spells over the ones we love. These metaphors make our language rich and descriptive; they help us transform familiar stories and revive stale scenarios. Most writers rejoice in metaphors, especially as they take the first shaky flights in their newly discovered craft. The pen skitters across the paper, the hands cramp, and the engines of creativity roar to life.

While I am eager to embrace the wild descriptive potential of language, one metaphor invariably stops me in my tracks – the use of “light” as a signifier of goodness, knowledge, and superiority. We bring matters “to light,” we “enlighten” someone who was “in the dark,” and we call particularly intelligent people “bright.” Even periods of history proclaim these metaphors: The Enlightenment and The Dark Ages. God said, “Let there be light,” Milton considered how his “light” was spent, and Romeo contemplated his beloved Juliet as the sun – the ultimate light. In essence, “light” always represents something positive.

I’ve been troubled by this metaphor ever since I learned to name it. As an extremely light-sensitive person, I don’t experience a positive connection to light. Sunlight feels warm and invigorating, but it fills my eyes with a dull ache and washes out my vision. In general, light complicates my reality – rendering previously visible things invisible – until I feel like a foreigner in the most familiar places.

The metaphor carries more than physical associations, because “darkness” metaphors work in tandem with “light” ones. Often, blindness is described as “total darkness,” and people who have lost their vision are said to live “in the dark.” Blind and sighted people regularly employ these phrases, giving the impression that they are acceptable and accurate.

This “total darkness” is immense and impenetrable; it’s the kind of darkness we feared as children. For the sighted who think of blindness in these terms, the darkness holds unknown terrors and dulls the other senses. Yes, you may think that blind people have supersonic hearing and can smell hurricanes twenty miles away, but their darkness is a powerful force. It renders them incompetent, and it sucks the value out of life. People living “in the dark” are untouched by the kindness of friends and the empathy of strangers. They cannot draw happiness from the simple pleasures that sighted people experience. They can’t see rainbows or sunsets—and how can the joy of birdsong, the smell of nutmeg, or the sensation of silk compare to sunsets?

As long as we cast blindness as “darkness,” as the absence of “light,” we condemn those living with blindness to be eternally broken, waiting in the wings for Science or God to “lift the veil” so they can “see the light.” We build a prison of words and force blind people to dwell in it. Sometimes, they willingly cross the threshold—they pull the veil over their own faces because they don’t know that blindness can take a different name.

I prefer a candlelit blindness, a sense of vision loss that infuses the world with a dynamic golden glow. Like my real vision, candlelight is unpredictable but useful. I’m not interested in the bright flame of understanding, the blazing lightbulb of a new idea, or the constant beacon of truth. I know these lights would be too bright to bear. And like all great lights, even the brightest stars will burn out.

I want to cross out blindness as darkness and rewrite it as it really is: a condition that changes shape and form. The “total darkness” is eternal and constant, so unlike any human experience. If we must connect blindness to light, then we should connect it with candlelight. Let blindness convey something of the intimacy and gentle, flickering luminescence of candles. Let this new blindness bring to mind the smell of wax and burning wick, the sense of portable warmth.

It is time for us to step out of the darkness, to fold it neatly and lay it aside. Let it collect some dust on a library shelf while other metaphors take its place – metaphors that allow the experience of joy, competence, self-worth, and companionship. No one belongs in the dark.