(Apologies to the band Sisters of Mercy for the title. “Vision Thing” is my favorite song by that band).
I was about eight years old when I saw stars for the first time.
We didn’t know my vision was so bad until I was sitting at the rear of the class in the second grade. I asked to be moved to the front, and still couldn’t see the blackboard.
There were many reasons we were poor (or at least broke) but none of them were known to me at the time. What I do know is that my first pair of glasses, purchased by someone in our church, potentially my second-grade teacher, changed my world.
More than that, she, whoever she was, gave me a new world.
She gave me a world that was more than imaginary, more than explained. I understood, finally, that it was real. Like Helen Keller learning that those figures being traced on her hands meant things.
My father was an astronomy and geology teacher. I learned rappelling down the stairs of his observatory, at the age of five. (Another story for another day.) We spent hours in corn fields, looking up toward the stars, while he pointed out the various constellations and, occasionally, explained the stories behind how the constellations were named. And I couldn’t see a thing.
For years I thought he was making all that stuff up.
I had seen the moon, through a huge telescope. Had even seen the bunny. But seeing the moon through a telescope at the age of five was approximately the same as having a book read to you, aloud. Like seeing an Eric Carle drawing, or Shel Silverstein, or Dr. Seuss. Just about that real.
I gathered much information from other sources over the years. We had quite a few books, and access to libraries, and I was encouraged to read everything I could find.
Seeing is believing, they say.
But those who say that are those who have seen.
I’m a photographer and writer. I write mostly about things I observe. (I do truly admire people who can write about things they haven’t personally witnessed, with some degree of verisimilitude.)
I didn’t realize, until my wife pointed it out to me, that I probably became a photographer, a documentarian, because I spent the first few years of my life unable to see in the usual way. She cried the first time I told her this story.
When I was in college, where I studied both writing and photography, both branches of my professors referred to me as “Detail Man.” Essentially, if there’s more to be seen, I want to see it. But more than that, I want to show other people what I see.
It’s a vision thing.
Many optometrists, over many years, have confirmed that my eyes aren’t shaped like those of normal people. Instead of being almost round, mine are distinctly cylindrical and twisted. They see the world askew.
What I see as “normal” is not what you see. It’s not that I’m wrong or that you’re right. Our vision is, quite simply, different. We view the world in different ways. My lenses aren’t the same as yours, so of course, we have differing views of the same world.
There is vision, that connection between the eyes and the brain, that allows your consciousness to collect visual information.
And then there’s vision.
Supposedly the blind have vision of a different sort. And sometimes visions, too. I’ve read that people who were born blind sometimes dream about things that they can accurately describe in visual terms. I believe this to be true.
When you can’t see, you start to see things.
I used to believe it when people told me that having 20/800 vision, almost legally blind, was a handicap. Sometimes, when my children hide my glasses from me while I’m sleeping, it can be a true handicap.
Try finding your glasses without your glasses.
Yes, I’m a photographer. Yes, the lenses can get foggy, or dusty, in a literal sense.
Had I not been born with abnormally shaped eyeballs, would vision have become so important to me? Would I have become a photographer obsessed with detail? When it comes to photography, the size and shape of the lens determines the eventual image.
I truly don’t know whether it’s form or function, nature or nurture, absolute necessity or some kind church lady’s intervention, that formed my eyes the way they are. For good or ill, my lenses are not like yours.
But we can, like that woman did, use kindness to help others to see – quite literally.
J. Daniel Cloud is a Hattiesburg-based writer and photographer. His progenitor hand-ground the 12-inch primary lens for the telescope through which he first saw the moon. The eyeglasses came a few years later.