Photo by Rami Efal

I was in New Hampshire for 2 days to see a good friend, and when I left yesterday to start the 3+ hours of driving I left behind a bag that included my eyeglasses, among other things. Since I wear contact lens as a rule, that wasn’t such a big deal except for first thing in the morning and last thing at night, when I revert to eyeglasses to give things a rest. I will get the bag back with glasses on Saturday.

But today I went to an eye surgeon to begin the process of cataract surgery. He reminded me of my Keratoconus, an eye condition affecting the corneas that I’ve had my entire life (long before it was even diagnosed). He told me to stop wearing my contact lens for 10 days and then come to see him so that he could get a more accurate measurement of the cornea of my eye.

That meant I would have to depend on my glasses, which provide only partial improvement for my vision. Once I get them on Saturday.

I told myself it was no big deal. When you tell yourself that something is no big deal, chances are it’s a big deal.

I started wearing glasses at the age of 8 and promptly hated them. I was sure that my vision would end up being the fatal flaw in my body and life. I became even more certain of that when an eye doctor examined my eyes when I was 12 and promptly told my father that my vision was getting weaker because I clearly wasn’t wearing the glasses. This was not true, but my father, relying more on the doctor’s word than mine, returned home angry and told the family that on account of my negligence, I will turn blind by the age of 25.

Instead, at the age of 25 I was seeing 20/20 with contact lens, and it was then, in the midst of a routine check-up, that the doctor diagnosed that I had Keratoconus, which had just recently been discovered. I was his first patient with this condition, and he was beside himself with excitement.

That condition is actually remedied through the use of contact lens, which I was already wearing, glasses providing much less improvement, and I have seen very well all these years, owing many thanks to doctors who took excellent care of me.

But deep in my mind, there’s the fatal flaw. I drove home today thinking of what it would be like to wear glasses for 10 days, giving me only partial vision. You could work, I told myself. You could drive locally, walk Aussie, do laundry, and read (with some eyestrain).

But you’ll be vulnerable. You’ll feel naked.

It’s as if you suddenly discover that your skin doesn’t cover all of you, there are crevices or spaces that are open and revealing—of weakness, of faults, of not being up to snuff.

I have good health, a fine body and reasonably clear mind. That’s more than some of my friends can boast of, I don’t forget that. Still, the what-if voices arise: What will you do if … How will you manage if …?

I am fine, I tell myself, pushing it all away. Everything is fine.

The teacher Frank Ostaseski, who suffered a number of strokes, said that his sense of vulnerability is that it makes you more permeable, more aware of how interdependent you are rather than some untouchable (and untouched) fortress. That can be a source of inner strength regardless of how it looks to the rest of the world.

I’m reminded of Bernie’s and my last visit to the Auschwitz/Birkenau retreat in November of 2017, a year before he died and 2 years after his big stroke. One evening, as we all gathered, we formed a fishbowl council in which 5 people form a small circle in the middle, speak their truth, and then leave to make room for others to come in. Bernie took his turn to speak in the inner circle, and when he finished, he began to walk away.

We hadn’t noticed that he didn’t have his cane. We offered to bring it to him, but he waved it away, and instead he tottered towards us. The council stopped, everyone grew silent. I knew he wanted to do this himself, but I could feel my toes curling, my body inclined forward, ready to spring up to catch him if he fell, or at least help him make his way.

But something held me back. By then I was pretty sure he didn’t mind showing his nakedness to people who’d long admired this founder of the retreat, the weakness of a body that couldn’t do what a three-year-old could. He wasn’t just teetering on his legs, but on the edge of the fake cliff we call individuality, his fragility blazing as strongly as his dharma talks years ago. That lurching walk, right step, left step, right step (he had no feeling in his right foot), his feet banging heavily on the floor because of the lack of control, was among his greatest teachings.

Tomorrow I will drive to Ogunquit, Maine, to spend time with my friend, Zen teacher Cynthia Taberner. And Saturday I will begin my visual “fast,” peering at the world through glasses that will give me only an obscure view of roads, words, people’s faces, television.

“Just as long as you don’t mistake me for the illegal Chihuahua,” Aussie grumbled.

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