Contemplating the Heavens

In fourth grade, I encountered a piece of assistive technology that looked like it belonged in a sci-fi movie. The LVES (Low Vision Enhancement System, pronounced “Elvis”) was a weighty headset that obscured the upper half of my face, resting against my nose with sweat-inducing foam pads. A battery pack of several pounds accompanied the bulky headset and contained all the controls for flying the device. I relied on the LVES for distance vision; it enabled me to finally read what was written on the blackboards of my elementary school years. Though it had a mounted camera that could be angled for close-up tasks, I mainly used the LVES to follow board-work during math classes. It also featured a neat cable that could hook up to a TV, allowing what appeared on the screen to appear on the two square-shaped viewing panels inside the headset. This feature was useful when my teachers showed films in class.

A state-of-the-art contraption in 1997, the LVES contained all the staples of many assistive devices today: inverted or adjusted color modes, adjustable contrast and brightness, several levels of magnification, and auto-focusing cameras. The LVES was on the inconvenient side of portable. Packaged in a thick black carrying case, it equaled the weight of an extra backpack. So it traveled with me to school and back home again; I rarely took it to social functions. I was used to living without accurate distance vision; I only acknowledged a need for far-seeing eyes in the schoolroom.

Later incarnations of the same technology were renamed and resized. By the year 2000, I was sporting a device called a Jordy (yes, it was named after the Star Trek character), which was about a third of the size and weight of the LVES, with improved magnification, contrast, and picture clarity. In 2002, the Jordy 2 was released—and the headset finally lost its hot, uncomfortable spongy padding because it was no longer needed. The Jordy 2 was compact, petite, and effective, and these new advantages won it a spot in my social pursuits as well as my academic ones. When my chorus saw Beauty and the Beast on Broadway in 2004, the Jordy 2 allowed me to zoom in on characters from my seat in the third mezzanine. To my sighted companions—who never had to rely on such technology—I bragged, “I can see Belle’s shoes!” The Jordy 2 accompanied me to many more performances fitting inside a large camera case, its batteries weighing around 4 ounces.

But the LVES gave me something that its later, more convenient cousins never did. One clear night, I took the LVES outside to gaze at the full moon. I’ve always been able to see the moon quite well without glasses, even if I can’t distinguish its exact shape or phase. It’s a bright spot in a dark sky—nature in high contrast. I can sometimes pick out stars too, if they’re bright enough. The night sky’s effortless inverted colors—pale splotches on a dark background—have always fascinated me.

So I stood in the backyard, wearing the LVES, and tilted my face to the sky. The brightness of the moon filled the square viewers inside the headset, and I turned the large clicking knob to increase the magnification. As the LVES took me closer, I began to see cracks and fissures across the moon’s pale surface. I went as close as the magnification would let me, and then I realized—with the slow dawning clarity of low vision—that I was looking at lunar craters.

I’ve never forgotten that fascination, that intense visual intimacy with space. I’ve never forgotten feeling transfixed by that moment, standing in the cool quiet of the backyard, looking at a moon so big and bright. The LVES made the moon defy depth and distance or me, and I was convinced that I could reach out and touch the cracks and craters, feel the smooth bright surface.

Since then, my experience of the sky and its colors has been varied and incredibly narrative. During all stages of the day, I often ask others to describe the sky to me. Unable to spontaneously identify sky and cloud colors for myself, I want to understand what makes sunrises, sunsets, and storms so remarkable. I want to understand the value of a clear blue sky, a cold gray day, or a crisp and bright winter sun.

Friends have told me that the morning is made of pinks and yellows, the evening made of reds and purples. On the morning rides to school, Dad explains how low-hanging clouds change the sky and how the sky predicts the weather. We swap adages about when a sailor should take warning and predict where and when the reliable summer rains will fall. In the evenings, Mom pulls me outside to see the harvest moons and supermoons that hover above our chimney, describing their shapes and colors.

I can make the best use of my vision at dawn and dusk, when the world is covered in a hazy half-light. My vision fails me in sunny circumstances—at the beach, on a bright day, at midmorning or mid-afternoon when the sun is waking up the world with merciless rays. Autumn and winter sunshine treats me better than the summer sun coveted by tourists, but I’m the most happy under the soft gloom of a gray day.

All my life I’ve heard of the beauty of sunsets, something that is invariably lamented when people speak of vision loss. Though I’ve watched the sun set a few times, I haven’t been able to appreciate the beauty of it—I couldn’t distinguish the bands of melting color and I couldn’t stare at the sky long because of the sun’s brightness. Recently, however, I’ve experienced two sunsets in very distinct ways.

When I graduated with my Master’s in 2012, Suzanne, a family friend and honorary aunt, presented me with an 11 x 14 canvas depicting a beachside sunset over the water. Knowing that I’d never be able to freeze a sunset long enough to see it—and that I couldn’t bring a sunset “up close”—Suzanne took a photo of a beautiful Fernandina sunset and had it transferred onto the canvas.

Now, on my wall, the picture radiates its warm dusky colors. The sun is a bright white and yellow ball in the upper right, its perfect circle smeared by passing clouds. The sky around the sun fades from yellow-orange to dark orange, then to gray-purple. The sun is reflected in the water below, rippling down the side of the page in bright flame. A dolphin and two boats inhabit the water, while blurred dark plants claim the foreground. Knowing that I wanted to write this blog, I asked Katie to describe the picture to me. She repeated the colors of the sky, being meticulous in her word choice, as I took rapid, confusing notes. Later, I reviewed my notes and gazed at the picture, trying to marry the verbal description with the visual reality. Though I can’t dissect the colors of the sky, I’m still amazed by the incredible life of the burning sun and the shining water.

The second sunset came to me purely through words. A week ago, Stephen and I were having dinner when he glanced outside and remarked on the sky. “It’s a perfect sunset,” he said with appreciation. “Can you see sunsets?” I explained that I could see them but that I didn’t really know how to appreciate them (mostly for the reasons I listed above). I asked him to describe this one to me.

He told me that the sun was bright, just getting ready to set, and surrounded by a patch of perfect blue sky. Bands of reddish-orange and purple tinged the edge of the sky—but the remarkable thing, as he said, was the sky blue around the sun. The strong contrast between the vibrant delicate blue and the intense, saturated reds and oranges of the sky’s edges—that’s what made the sunset so gorgeous.

I continue to be fascinated by the sky, though I prefer to gaze at the evening or night sky and avoid the glare of midmorning and afternoon. One day, I hope to go stargazing somewhere without the light pollution of a large city. I can’t wait to see what I could really discern in a dark night sky. For now, I’m content to look at the moon whenever she appears. I enjoy her in all stages, but something about the full moon is incredible to me. Perhaps it’s because she’s so bright and intense against the sky—I can see her so well. I never tire of looking at her.

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Green Tea, Green Time

I am sitting in a heavy, hard-backed chair, at a small bistro table, a few feet away from the stairwell. Tucked into the corner of the elevated sidewalk that hugs my department building, the table provides an ideal place for listening to the sounds of the courtyard below, the passing students, and the occasional birds. My large dark blue schoolbag sits by my feet, my cane lies folded across the table’s lattice top, and my bright blue thermos stands in front of me. With its subtle hourglass shape and sturdy handle, the thermos holds about 20 ounces of green-ginger tea. The early autumn breeze flicks the dangling tea tag against the side of the thermos, a soft shff shff shff in the quiet afternoon.

I pop the top and enjoy the resonant click of the plastic lid. The tea is piping hot, surprisingly welcome on a warm, breezy afternoon. Green-ginger has become indispensable to me; its spicy, fragrant flavor soothes my sore throat and relaxes my body. It’s a good tea for contemplation.

As I place the thermos on the table, I wonder how soon I should return to my office. Can I justify a half hour of quiet meditation out here? I decide that I can. After all, the green time will make me more productive.

Since I’m wearing my sunglasses, I begin visually exploring my surroundings. I can clearly see the stairwell, the rails, and the elevator doors to my left. I look to the right, where something dark and scraggly nuzzles against the side of the sky, its shape uneven and coarse. It must be a tree. I turn my head, and the corners of another building come into focus. Strong right angles and a medium unknown color set off the building’s roof.

Both the tree and the roof draw my eyes to the contrasting sky, the pale, translucent backdrop that makes each separate piece of this landscape so visible to me. I tilt my head back so that the sky fills my entire visual field. Through the dark glasses, I see that the sky is comprised of two textures: something sheer and slightly darker and something puffy with a shiny brightness. The puffy material stretches across the sky in patches—or does the sheer, smooth material stretch across the opposing texture? One of these textures must be clouds, but I can’t decide for certain which one.

I think about how often we invoke clouds in literature, film, and other art—how often we reference clouds in everyday speech. I remember countless scenes in novels and movies where two people—friends or lovers—lie on their backs in the bright green grass and find significance in the sky.

To me, the sky looks like an optical illusion, the kind where two images exist inside one frame. Is it the single vase or the two faces? Do the clouds lie along the sky or does the sky push through the clouds?