Laurel Wreaths: A Brief Hydrosol Encounter, Essay 9 of #52essays2017

Two glossy green Laurel leavesThis brief and admittedly drunken hydrosol encounter with laurel (Laurus nobilis) was inspired by Cathy Skipper’s Hydrosols class at the School for Aromatic Studies.

Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.

I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.

Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.

For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.

I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.

I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.

First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…

Pink Pelargonium capitatum flowersThen I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.

Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!

“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”

Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.

“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”

Apollo seated with lyre wearing laurel wreath.Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.

I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”

 

*This is a drunken essay 9 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America” here*

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Adulterated Rose or, The Smell of Regrettable Youth, Essay 7 of #52essays2017

The guy with the hard metal name was beautiful in my degenerate eye. Beautiful with a girlfriend. And a Volkswagen bus. This was around the time of the earthquake of ’89, when the influences of flower power still loomed large in San Francisco. I’d been pining for so long and then he said they’d broken up. We climbed into his bus and he put rose oil (adulterated, I recognize in my mind’s now more refined nostrils) under my nose and kissed me. When I give myself a little credit, I remember thinking it a cheap trick. I was young, but I knew enough to recognize that when it was over the smell under my nose was gone.

Red and white vintage VW bus model.
Sheet Metal Car Camper Vw Bus Volkswagen Model Car

The guy with a name that reminds one of welders, returned to his girlfriend and told her what we’d done, which made her hate me. That hurt too. I then glimpsed adulthood, where quotidian comfort trumps experimental romance.

Then I moved from my mom’s place in the Richmond District to 1462 Haight Street. Out the front door to the right was Ashbury and below a diner. Lazing on Haight Street, breakfast eggs and potatoes stick in the craw. It is this stuckness of regrettable youth that stinks like All You Knead. To live above a mediocre diner, to smell its unclean smells, and still to eat there is a kind of willful anosmia.

Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Similarly, being 19, mostly ignorant and a masochist, I adopted the scent of fake roses, bought for 10 bucks down the street in a crystal shop or some damn woowoo place, as my own. Not sure if I made the connection, but I still loved the smell after the encounter with the guy named for a metal that was the material of which the VW bus that had so briefly cocooned us was made.

Recently, long since those days of low self-esteem and unrefined judgement, I’ve had the pleasure of smelling real rose oil, bought in a precious one milliliter vile, Rosa damascena, and it is sweet and innocent–pink flowered and pure. It is warming to the heart, not meant to bump you upside the head with a reification of sex.

These days I often look to aromatherapy books when I’m feeling grumpy . Keville and Green tell me that it was the poetess Sappho who dubbed rose the “queen of flowers”:

“The fragrance of rose inspired poets and lovers throughout the ages, and it has been used to ‘open’ the heart and ease grief, heartache, loss, and sadness. … Employed for relationship conflicts, envy, anger, and intolerance, it is comforting, supportive through crisis, and an aphrodisiac. It also helps alleviate depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, and lack of confidence.”
Vial of rose oil on white background.I need to save my pennies for another tiny vial!

And yet, sometimes I feel guilty for my greedy nose, and wonder if it is, even now, worthy of the holocaust of hundreds of flowers. In Aromatherapy I read that it takes up to 60 rose blossoms to produce just one drop of essential oil.

Roses are difficult to raise organically, must be handpicked, and do not have many essential oil glands, so it is often adulterated.

In the essential oil of rose, or rose otto (usually distilled from Rosa damascena) there are hundreds of distinct chemical constituents. At the risk of boring you, but in the interest of proving my point, I will include a few here (from Essential Oil Safety): Citronellol (16.0-35.9%), Geraniol (15.7-25.7%), Alkenes & alkanes (19.0-24.5%), Nerol (3.7-8.7%), Methyleugenol (0.5-3.3%), and so on…

Many more exist in trace amounts, which gives rose its complexity, roundness and depth. Unfortunately, chemists working in the flavor and fragrance industry tend to ignore this fact. They isolate major constituents and reconstruct simple versions of a complicated fragrance. The distinctly rosy constituent geraniol, for example, can be added to rose oil to extend it, but in the process, flattens out the scent.

Isolating a single constituent of rose is like isolating a personality trait, and claiming to know something about the whole person. I doubt any of us would like that very much! Nobody wants to be thought of as only gregarious, only proud, only smart, only funny, only a pain in the ass, only pretty. A flowers unique essence is made up of many things, just as we are, and to pin a couple of trope constituents on a formula created in a lab and slap the term rose on it, is as unconscionable (and comes from the same sad impulse) as bigotry and the creation of stereotypes.

Artificial aromas and flavors are so one-dimensional. And we’ve grown used to it. Eat a cherry flavored candy and you may name it as such, but what resemblance does the cherry flavor candy have to the real thing? Almost nothing. And unfortunately so many of us are weaned on such artificial flavors that we must be reeducated. Even “natural” flavors ought to be suspect in our noses as what is meant by “natural flavors” are organic compounds isolated and reconstituted to create a one-dimensional and highly duplicable taste. Cherries taste all kinds of ways in nature but only one way in a Skittle.

Before I remove my teeth from this subject, allow me to worry the bastards over at Febreze.

I don’t know if you’ve witnessed their ad campaign centered around the tawdry word “noseblind,” but let me just say that as a blind person (extremely tolerant of the liberal use of blindness as a metaphor), I find this term infuriating. I am blind. It is not a great thing to be, but it works its magic in its own particular and mysterious ways. Don’t take it away from me because you are lazy, because you know no actual blind people, or because you fancy them so far away that they would not even be watching, sorry listening to, television.

Why not nosedeaf, thank you very much. Certainly viewers would sniff at the thought of it!

You, Febreze, peddlers of terrible synthetic smells, coiners of mean and unnecessary words, create that which you profess to mitigate. I’ve walked into stores scented with your fruity monstrosities and fell to my knees, praying for anosmia. Anosmia is by the way the word you are wanting, and I suspect a willful ignorance, and kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, who may be put off by a word they do not know, keeps you from using it.

AAAH! Sometimes I truly hate this world with so much contriving that the very truth one professes, is in fact its opposite. And people eat it up. With their thought deafness and their mind blindness, and, above all, their tastelessness.

Quit being satisfied with the fakes, people. Demand the real. It may cost more, but as I mentioned in Sandalwood Love, there is nothing wrong with embracing the scarcity and complexity of precious things. I think it is not going so far to say that if you can’t appreciate these things in a flower, how can you recognize them in a person?

Rosa damascena postcard by resolute

*This is essay #7 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “1984: Late to the Party Again” here*

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The Voice of the Turtle, essay 3 of #52essays2017

Ganymede the turtle close up2:10 My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

2:11 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

2:13 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

 

I.

There is a burbling box in the bedroom of our friends’ house in which lives a red-eared slider named Ganymede. I cannot see this turtle and have never touched it, but I hear it jump into its water when I enter the room and swim excitedly. I hear its tank’s pumps work ferociously and spout fountain-like when the water evaporates and I fill the tank until the pump returns to a soothing swooshy hum. And I hear it chirp in the night.

I like to say I turtle-sit, but truthfully, most of Gany’s needs are fulfilled by Alabaster, who feeds it and cleans its tank by fishing for detritus. For me, this turtle named Ganymede is but a collection of sounds and a glowing box. There was a time when I not only saw red-eared sliders, but also handled them regularly, with little pleasure on either side.

II.

I believe I would not feel so much for Ganymede if I had not the visual and even more, the tactile memory of the red-eared slider. When I was a kid I volunteered for several years on the Nature Trail in the San Francisco Zoo, handling the animals brought out from the Animal House to be touched by other kids and sometimes their parents.

Before we took our first animals for the day out to the trail, we cleaned cages and performed feedings–some more unpleasant than others. One of my least favorite morning chores was feeding live crickets to the red-eared sliders. This was done by pulling toilet paper and paper towel cardboard tubes from the cricket bin and shaking them out into their turtle doom.

When assigned to turtle station in the first round of the Nature Trail, we’d put the turtles, snapping and scratching, into their carrying case and lug them out to turtle pond, which sat atop a blustery little hill. It was generally a cold and thankless station to man.

We’d open the door and watch the advance guard scramble out, scrabbling over one another in their hurry to be free. Necks stretched, red stripes flashing, they’d hurl themselves into the pond. Others hung back with noses poking out tentatively, pulling back when we reached for them. Still others were resolutely still as stones, until we picked them up and tossed them into the pond. Then all four limbs and head would pop out and start swimming.

Ah, Turtle Hill! It was a miserable station most days, especially for the morning and late afternoon shifts, when the fog was thick and penetrating, wrestling turtles who insisted on rushing steadfastly away from their happy pond towards unknown lands. Stubborn turtles! Our hands were wet and cold for two hours, hours that creeped by far more slowly than the turtles, who were in fact pretty quick on land though their grace shows in their true element of water.

III.

We’d have to let the kids touch them; then of course, they’d all be in the bottom of the little dark pond, and we’d have to reach in with our already numbed hands and grab a reluctant turtle with sharp nails and furious thrashing head, who would like nothing better than to snap at our momentary pupils and us.

But I liked the chatting and the feeling of power that came with knowledge and the answering of questions.

“What do we have here?” the parents would say as the child reached for it. Then I launched into my Nature Trail patter:

“This is a red-eared slider, a semiaquatic turtle native to the Southern United States, but now common in all parts of the world. The carapace, or upper shell, of this species can reach more than 16 inches in length, but the average length ranges from 6 to 8 inches….”

We had been given binders with colored pages: blue for birds, green for amphibians, orange for reptiles and pink for mammals. I was very excited to be a volunteer at the San Francisco Zoo. I studied hard and learned everything there was to learn so that I would be the most well informed kid with the most entertaining docent patter. I did not know that during my three years at the Nature Trail I would begin losing my vision to a degenerative retinal eye disease.

IV.

As I volunteered from age ten to thirteen, my eyes grew subtly worse. The first thing I remember was how hard it was for me to walk into the Animal House from the bright outdoors. I would be temporarily blinded and would stop short, blinking, until I could make out the silver line of small mammal cages on the right, and judge my direction accordingly.

One of my earliest and most vivid moments of self-awareness came when I was at the turtle station, looking for a turtle to pick up and offer to a visitor, and reached for a rock instead. I blushed, ashamed.

It was a strange aspect of my eye disease in the visually impaired years that when I touched something, it revealed itself to me in full, as the object it was in reality, not what I thought it was. Once seen, the rock could never again (at least that day) reappear as a turtle. But without movement or touch verification, I grew less confident in my ability to find and name things.

V.

I made the mistake of Googling “voice of the turtle” and find that the turtle of the Solomon text has been hotly debated for centuries. At Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange I learn that the voice of the turtle probably does not refer to a turtle, nor even a turtledove, but rather the generic creature that “‘creepeth upon the earth’ (Leviticus 11:29).” And that a possible candidate, the frog, may be heard to sing in the spring–“a perfect fit with the Solomonic context.”

The biblical scholars have not heard the turtle chirp, and do not believe in its voice. But, in the deep silence of the night, I have heard the voice of the turtle, the chirping of Ganymede, like the peeping of a solitary chick, and, even if others, even my lover, do not hear it, I am comforted by the tiny sound.

 

*This is essay #3 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read essay #2 “What I See/Saw” here*

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What I See/Saw I: Hallucinations (Essay 2 of #52essays2017)

I am blind, but that does not mean I live in darkness, and I’m not just talking metaphor here. These days the visionscape confronting me sparkles and undulates, with greater or lesser intensity, constantly, veiling the world beyond with simple and complex hallucinations.

pixelated closeup of Godin's eye with green filter

The brilliance of my visionscape is not less intense in a dark room than in a brilliant sunny outdoors, only there are maybe more facets to it: there is darkness around the edges that gets washed out in a white out of a brilliant day. The pixelated cosmos in which I dwell sometimes takes on a color scheme, as if the whole thing were lit by stage gels. Sometimes I wake up and find my day washed neon pink, other days are teal. Sometimes the palette divides into contrasting colors, red occupying much of the upper left quadrant and green the lower right, or other times it is orange and cobalt.

My recent forays into the wonderful world of aromatics has proved to be a way to take control of what had heretofore been quite out of my control. Apparently I’m not very original in my synesthetic reactions but it’s fun to open a bottle of lavender essential oil and see my world turn violet, or peppermint and watch it turn electric blue.

Beyond or behind all the shimmering and swirling, I get glimpses of the world some people might call the objective reality of sight. That objective reality reveals itself to me now as blobs of light covered over by a fabric of swirls and pulsations.

For me there is no dark. No black. Never.

There is brightness and then there is more brightness. The light of a lamp lingers on my destroyed retinas for minutes, so that even if I have seen the lamp on–verified its onness by rolling my eyeballs to place the lamp in one of the chinks of far peripheral vision that still remain to me, when I turn it off, a blast of light remains to trick me, and sometimes, I must use my hand to verify that the bulb is not still making heat. But even when the physical light remnants disappear completely, there is the overwhelming perception of a pulsating kaleidoscope of pixelated light, leaving the dark room anything but dark.

The tears in the fabric of disease that remain to me to allow actual, external light to enter my visionscape are sometimes a help and sometimes a distraction. Oftentimes I can see points of light in my far periphery, lightbulbs in the distance that can help guide me in the right direction, but I cannot see the furniture that stands directly in my path. As I mentioned in my previous essay, my poor eyesight has never had anything to do with blurry vision. Always it has been a lack of information.

Much of what I see, especially in my peripheral vision, is undulating hallucinations that resemble the wavy floaters of the normal eye (as I remember them). They skitter randomly as sickle-shaped phenomena that are unrelated to external reality, and do not change much from day to night, light to dark, open or closed eye. In their crowdedness, and in their geometric breathing, they remind me of staring at wallpaper on acid way back when. I haven’t done any psychedelics for many years, I promise, but my visions have gotten pretty trippy!

One time, maybe five or six years ago, I was laying on my bed in the daytime in a hungover state, and suddenly a lurid parade of eighteenth century ladies jittered across my visionscape with painted lips formed into ironic smiles. They looked in my direction as they passed–an endless train of cartoonishly garish ladies moving across my field of vision. I remember feeling a vague sense of uncertainty but no fear. The vision lasted a minute or two at most, presenting (I understand now) my bored visual cortex with some much-needed stimulation. I had more vision then than now, but that was around the time that I think of myself as moving from being visually impaired to blind, so that although I could still see the bright window quite clearly behind the hallucination, and maybe a bit of the mirrored vanity beyond, I did not spend a great deal of my life looking at stuff.

I did not name this a hallucination or recognize it as such until my buddy Benjamin asked me if I hallucinated–that he’d heard on NPR about a condition that affects people that lose their vision late in life. That’s when I remembered the ladies in my bedroom and named it a hallucination. Since then I’ve had many more such experiences and have read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. “Silent Multitudes” is the first chapter of that book and is dedicated to the phenomenon.

Sacks begins the chapter by describing Rosalie, a woman blind for many years, who suddenly starts experiencing hallucinations and fears for her sanity. To his question “what do you see?” she answers:

“‘People in Eastern dress!”…In drapes, walking up and down stairs … a man who turns towards me and smiles, but he has huge teeth on one side of his mouth. Animals, too. I see this scene with a white building, and it is snowing–a soft snow, it is swirling. I see this horse (not a pretty horse, a drudgery horse) with a harness, dragging snow away … but it keeps switching…. I see a lot of children; they’re walking up and down stairs. They wear bright colors–rose, blue–like Eastern dress.'”

Sacks assures her that she is not losing her mind, but that she is experiencing Charles Bonnet Syndrome, named for a Swiss naturalist, who first described his father’s late-life visions and then experienced them himself when his own vision failed.

Sacks distinguishes between simple and complex hallucinations, which I have come to understand in my own experience. Under normal waking conditions, the simple hallucinations of undulating and pixelated designs breathe and skitter around with such constancy that I do not think about them unless I’m trying to put something into my periphery where I still can perceive some light and movement–when they seem to be in the way of my perception.

My complex hallucinations (as Sacks calls those that have recognizable content, such as people or animals–nameable objects and exhibit the crowding suggested by the chapter title “silent multitudes”) usually come on in the early morning hours after a night of insomnia. They appear without any mental prompting and seem to have nothing to do with my psychological state, if the wakeful tiredness be excepted. When they pop up, it is as if a switch turns on and the whole of my visionscape shifts for a few moments into an outrageous circus of jerky, cartoonish acrobats, jugglers, horses, and countless other abstract big top-inspired shapes and unnamable creatures that tumble with great rapidity into the center of my vision and back out again, as if they are in a tangled loop that keeps repeating with subtle and complex differences. The quality is of a cartoon or of an old-school video game.

One creature that makes an occasional appearance in both the insomnia-inspired complex hallucinations and in my everyday jumble of simple hallucinations is a red Space Invaders critter that marches from my far left periphery towards my nose.

This is so frustrating to write about because it seems weirder and more bombastic than it feels. It’s easier to simply say, “I can’t see.” But onward.

Like the everyday hallucinations, the early morning complex hallucinations are also not affected by my eyes being open or closed, though, if the sky is lightening, a sliver might show behind without changing any of it), and I can look around the scene to examine the vibrating tableau, as you might scan a computer screen if it were placed too close to your face.

As Sacks writes:

“I observed with Rosalie (as with many other patients) that while she was hallucinating, her eyes were open, and even though she could see nothing, her eyes moved here and there, as if looking at an actual scene. It was that which had first caught the nurses’ attention. Such looking or scanning does not occur with imagined scenes; most people, when visualizing or concentrating on their internal imagery, tend to close their eyes or else to have an abstracted gaze, looking at nothing in particular. … one does not hope to discover anything surprising or novel in one’s own imagery, whereas hallucinations may be full of surprises. They are often much more detailed than imagery, and ask to be inspected and studied.”

I find this distinction between mental imagery and hallucinations very helpful, as I have struggled to describe the difference to friends. I also have very intense mental imagery, often arising from internal reflection or prompted by outside stimuli–a novel or movie soundtrack can stimulate this imagery, but this does not present at all like the hallucinations. And yet both keep me tethered to the visible world, to my visual self.

I’m so stuck being a visual person that it is difficult for me to write anything very interesting without seeing it with my inner eye. Yet my inner eye has been so disconnected from actual sight for so long, it may be that I and others ought not to trust it. This is the struggle I find in my writing, which is why I write this now: I doubt my ability to tell you what I see. Have I had any success?

 

*This is essay 2 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out essay 1 “In the Beginning Were the Eye Doctors” here*

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In the Beginning Were the Eye Doctors, essay 1 of #52essays2017

Before the base closed to make way for the National Park, Lucasfilm, and the Thoreau Center, my mother and I drove regularly through the Presidio to buy cheap groceries at the commissary or to the Letterman Army Medical Center for visits to the pediatricians and then many eye doctors. My dad was in the military, and as a dependent, I received benefits that extended beyond my parents’ divorce.

Letterman Army Medical Center photographed from above with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. (Wikipedia)

I loved the drive that took us through the Arguello Gate, punching our car into an enchanted forest of Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, and the Tasmanian bluegum, a eucalyptus all the way from Australia. I did not know their names then, or that these seemingly primordial trees had been planted but a hundred years earlier. Inspired by the success of Golden Gate Park and Planted by the U.S. Army, these trees were meant to beautify the windswept brush lands that were an eyesore to the San Francisco Bay newcomers. It was no accident that the sudden woodlands reminded me of the enchanted New England greenery I looked longingly at in my mother’s pictorial atlas of America. The easterners who came to take over the Presidio after the Mexicans did not appreciate the sandy bluffs blowing into their windows or the scrubby barrenness sweeping down to the bay. So they made that landscape familiar by planting thousands of trees. And in those trees they nestled their Georgian Revival buildings for my mother to point to, with all the authority of having, for a few years, been the wife of an officer, “That’s the house of a general.” Or “those are bachelor quarters,” and I was duly impressed. One of those exotic brick buildings is now a boutique inn for tourists looking to enjoy amenities and hiking trails.

but this was the early ’80’s, at least ten years before the base was decommissioned, and long before I had need to know that the landscape was man-made. To my keen young eyes, it looked ancient, as if it were what San Francisco looked like under or behind all the people and buildings–prehistoric, darkly enchanting and full of dappled light. I could not know it was all fakery beyond those gates, all artifice and make believe.

 

In fourth grade, I suddenly couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard from the back of the class. I told my mother and she made an appointment at the optometrist. I was excited. Getting glasses seemed to me to be very grown up. We drove to one of the bungalows that lay in covered strips with wooden steps leading up to planked covered walkways, almost like an Old West town. The building was dark and creaky. I sat in the big chair and looked through the tiny eyeholes in the cartoonishly huge lens machine. I could not read the small print on the chart. Still, no matter how many times the lenses shifted and the doctor asked, “tell me if this one is better,” (click) “or this?” (click) “this one, or this one,” the line did not reveal itself to me. I was a child who wanted to please, so I tried very hard to see a difference. “Maybe, a little better.” I’d say, but there seemed to be no difference in any of the shifting lenses–no better anyway, only worse. Many of the lenses made my vision blurry. I did not know how to explain then that my vision had not been blurry before. I have never lived in a blurry world. My eye problems have nothing to do with focus. It was always a question of a lack of information, of a pixilated visionscape, of television fuzz, but I hadn’t the words then, or even much of all that was to come.

The optometrist prescribed some glasses, though he sheepishly explained that he could not get my vision down to 20/20. They did nothing to help me see the writing on the blackboard.

We went to another optometrist and then maybe an ophthalmologist. Again, there was the same clicking of lenses with its odd attendant sensations of shifting air currents so close to the eyeball, with no luck. “Maybe a little better.” Or “worse,” was all there was for me to say. After a long time, the eye doctor called my mother in and told us that he could not correct my vision.

Perhaps it was that doctor, or perhaps the next, possibly to allay my mother’s fears or perhaps to mitigate his own impotence, said, “Her eyes are growing too fast for her body.” Or maybe he said that my body was growing too fast for my eyes. That satisfied us for a little while.

Finally, we were referred from the bungalows to the main hospital–the building that has since been demolished to make room for the Letterman Digital Arts Center–to see the head of ophthalmology. This was when my mother began to worry that something queer and a little scary might be going on. Though My vision loss was not very impressive, maybe 20/40 in the worst eye, the head of ophthalmology could not offer a solution either. He sent me out of the room to talk to my mother, to berate her for bringing me to him.

In response to my mother’s worried summery–eye doctors offering wacky opinions and no answers–this brilliant man spoke lamely and with spite, “Maybe she can’t see because you’ve been taking her to so many eye doctors.”

This summit of ludicrous subterfuge, this apotheosis of smug defiance in the face of ignorance has oft been repeated by my mother and myself (who was loitering just outside the door, listening) as the climax in our sad little detective story: What was killing my sight?

My mother, never good at checking her emotions, allowed her voice to rise with tears and said, “then why can’t she read the writing on the blackboard?” She would not accept another answerless dismissal. To his credit, he did not dig in, but relented, perhaps embarrassed deeply, though on the surface the coolness remained. He called me back into the room and took another look into my eyes, with his headlamp and magnifying monocle, and saw…something. I can only imagine that it was a blip on the landscape of my retinas, a suggestion of that dystrophy that would grow into eventual blindness, or it may be that he saw nothing, but suspected something, something remembered from medical school or read about in an ophthalmology journal. Perhaps it was a eureka moment that sparked the intelligence of this head of ophthalmology–an intelligence that had been momentarily dimmed by ignorance. Maybe it was then that he remembered a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), or maybe it was later, but, in any case, the diagnosis would be forthcoming, and one which I would use for decades.

As it turned out, my eye disease did not present like RP–I lost my central vision first whereas most people with retinitis pigmentosa lose peripheral vision first, so that as it progresses, they experience an ever more restricted tunnel vision. My disease progressed from the center outward, albeit jaggedly, leaving pockets of living cells.

Thirty some odd years later, I’ve learn that my cone-rod dystrophy is caused by a gene mutation that remains unidentified. In a world of rare eye diseases, I have a really rare one. As I write, my blood is going its second round of genetic testing, and it may be that I have a mutation all my own.

Back then, a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa was at least a name, a thing I could tell people, and it was rare enough and unique. I was strangely proud, so that when at the end of that first year, I was sent across the road to the Letterman Army Institute of Research (LAIR) for observation and experiment, I was excited. For three days they ran me through a battery of tests–from organizing little disks of gradient colors to a primitive electroretinography (ERG), putting me into a dark room to measure the electronic firings of the photoreceptor cells in my retina. The ERG is standard procedure at retinal specialists now, but they were just figuring it out back then.

In my most recent visit to the ophthalmologist, after dilation and numbing drops a technician laid thin wires along each of my bottom eyelids and taped the ends to my cheeks and forehead to keep them in place. The thin wires were then connected to thicker ones that in turn made their way into a computer. But that first ERG, a lab rat was I, laying in the dark for many hours with my eyelids held open by grotesque contact lenses from which the wires sprung. That had been perhaps the scariest, but also the most important test I underwent at LAIR, one that likely contributed to the current state of the art technology that even suggests the possibility of a near-future cure.

I subsequently did a presentation on the experience. By that time, I’d moved from fourth grade to fifth grade, and in my private girl school, that meant a change in uniform, from green plaid bib dresses to sailor-style middies and pleated navy skirts.

My presentation on retinitis pigmentosa and my battery of testing at LAIR, with its photographs and little moments of humor, like when I described looking into a contraption to click a button when I saw (and did not see) a tiny red light move into and out of my visual field, as resembling nothing so much as staring for hours into an illuminated toilet bowl, got a laugh from my classmates. I also got some pointed questions from my teacher. Perhaps she, along with my other teachers, was concerned, but they did not let on. It was a small school and I was a scholarship child in a sea of very rich girls, so there was perhaps a lot of feeling sorry for me going on. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just my grown up self who feels sorry for that little girl who tried so hard to make light of something scary and totally out of her control. Out of even the control of her mother and teacher’s and eye doctors too.

Image of Godin's retina in 1983

The progress of my eye disease has been the degeneration of my sight–progress and degeneration have thus been strangely confused in my mind since I was a kid. And today, it is not clear to me whether this long eye progression of sight to blindness, the slowest of calamities, akin to aging in its relentless and somewhat boring degeneration, has diminished or enhanced my life experiences. But human existence being what it is–complicated and fleeting–I imagine the answer must be both.

 

*This is the first of #52essays2017 written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read more about the project and the woman behind it HERE*

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Winter Wonder Maze: My first week without a home of my own and blind

I wish I could claim “winter wonder maze” as my own term for Alabaster‘s mother’s incredible Xmas installation–involving 42 trees, countless elves, Santas, snow babies (little snow men), thousands of feet of garlands, lights, a train set, and whole mountain ranges of glistening cotton snow, but I can’t. It was he, with whom I set out vagabonding, that comforted me with the coinage.

Winter village with train set in front of TV playing scary movie with closed caption, "We're gonna come find you. I promise."

I had been struggling with my inability to navigate the path to the kitchen which cuts through the living room–the nexus of Xmas décor–not only because there are so many obstacles but also because in order to do so one must pass between the watchers of the giant TV and the TV itself. Moving slowly and uncertainly as I do, prolongs my status as obstruction on the one hand and moving picture of interest on the other. I told Alabaster that I could not bring myself to do it. He reminded me that it would be easier when the Winter Wonder Maze came down. But that will not be until January 2.

It was Alabaster also who, when I apologized for not being more present because I was concentrating so hard on just getting around the house, made the connection between what I am experiencing and John Hull’s struggle in Notes on Blindness, which we saw last month at Film Forum.

Towards the end of the film, Hull and his wife and kids travelled from England to Australia to spend time with his parents. He had not been seen by them since the final calamity struck in England, and their shock and awkwardness regarding their adult blind son combined with his feelings of incompetence in an unfamiliar place, made the visit one that was uncomfortable physically and psychologically, gladly left behind and never to be reenacted. In the film, the trip to Australia represents a climax of struggle for John Hull, after which Hull experiences such a sense of relief that it leads him to his ultimate acceptance–almost embrace–of his blindness.

It’s true that I, like Hull, feel a little helpless and useless in this unfamiliar environment, but it is different insofar as Alabaster’s parents only know me as a blind person, and seem mostly curious and accepting. On our first full day here, his mom took me on a touch tour of the house so that I could feel the elves and Santas and trains and villages with church steeples set in snow. The biggest obstacle to my comfort is that I’m really bad at being a blind person. While I feel ok stepping slowly around the several Xmas trees and candle-laden tables in the basement living area to get from the couch where I sit writing to the bathroom, I prefer it if no one is watching me play this very unexhilarating game of pinball.

Once alabaster’s dad came downstairs just as I hit the couch on the far side near the bathroom, but on the wrong side. So with him looking on, I had to negotiate around the couch, Xmas tree number 33, hit the glass cabinet (gently and as a comforting reference point) to slide into the bathroom with a sigh on my side, and some little congratulatory remark on his.

Godin in red, hand on hip, standing in front of winter wonder mountain village on top of mantle.

I work hard to do my slow bumbling thing out of the sight of others, which is why traversing the path of the TV and train room to the kitchen is unbearable, and I generally hop on the Alabaster train. This is not necessarily less embarrassing than going it solo, but simply gets it over with quicker.

Other parts of the sprawling house are easier to traverse because they are less spectacle inducing, though it must be said that the architect was stingy with right angles. The stairs into the basement living room where we work ascend towards the front door so that it is just a matter of turning the corner to the left to slip down the crooked little hallway to our bedroom on the main floor. Well maybe not so easy, for there are several fickle Christmas wreathes extending from the wall like the human-arm candelabra holders in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

When we first visited a year and a half ago, it was springtime. If I wanted to get to the upstairs living room or kitchen I would follow the ungarlanded rail guarding the stairway and hit my comfy chair to sit and experience TV with one ear and listen to social media with the other. Or, I could turn right at the end of the railing, following the path of the mantle, into the dining room (which in other seasons is decked out in a nautical theme) and continue on into the kitchen, thereby avoiding the whole discomforting road between the couch and the TV. Unfortunately, that path is closed to me until the snow melts.

I guess this all begs the question why I’ve put myself in this position. Why have I left my comfortable Astoria apartment where I’d been shuffling from room to room for nearly 17 years, for parts unknown? Our plan is to be hobo artists for a year and then settle somewhere–maybe back to NYC, but probably not. And although I could not imagine taking this trip by myself at this point in my life (both for practical reasons as well as reasons of the heart), the experience is, by design, unsettling. A learning experience. Will I succeed in feeling more comfortable moving through the world as a blind person at the end of it? Will I be better at it? I don’t know.

The fact is that I never imagined staying in that Astoria apartment for so many years. I did not even imagine staying in New York for that long. When I arrived in New York to attend grad school, I had academic stars in my eyes. I thought I’d continue to move east for a while, slipping into some professorial path that involved feeling at home in many cities of the world. I’d already moved from my home in San Francisco to New Orleans to New York, and forayed to Paris during my first two summers in grad school, but then the adventure–at least as a forward moving trajectory–stopped.

Many factors changed my destiny and my mindset: my distractibility, my blindness, my ambitions, academia, downtown performance, karate (specifically a talent show night that put being a comedian into my head!), and a feeling that academia was not exactly what I had wanted when I was a kid, but seemed the most likely.

Strange to say that the ADA has done great things with education regarding blind people since 1990, but less in what is possible after school. Getting a college degree and continuing onto grad school seemed the least resistant, most doable path for me.

Blindness forced a desire for comfort and stability that was not in my nature. When I was a visually impaired teenager, my biggest fear regarding the high probability of future blindness was a loss of independence. These days I’m not so independent physically, but my mind feels quite free.

Although I did not pursue a career in academia, the mission remains the same: to think expansively about blindness as both a physical experience and a metaphorical  construct that is in dialogue with some of our most fundamental conceptions of humanness. From my dissertation to my short-lived standup endeavor                                                                                 , my solo show to this article, I attempt to expose and collapse distinctions between these two ways of thinking about blindness, to trouble the waters between the literally blind and the figuratively blind, seriously and with humor.

But how can I continue to fulfill this life’s work if I close myself up to the world? I think the comfort of living in the same place for so long made me less open to humanity in all its particulars. So I’m out here in the wilds of Colorado, not yet having an adventure in the ordinary sense, but priming myself for it.

winter wonder maze view from front door, including  descending stairs , with garlanded  rail and Christmas lights extending into the distance.

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