Walking in the Plains

The American artist Rockwell Kent once wrote: “These are the times in life — when nothing happens — but in quietness the soul expands.” He was living in the northernmost regions of Alaska at the time, doing his art and surviving.

I would like to see my soul expand even when lots of things are happening.

I had cataract surgery on my left eye. Even as Byron Pareja, Jimena’s husband, drove me home, I could already see how much farther and clearer I could see. Came home, collapsed for two hours, wrote, did laundry, and in evening time I picked up a book and couldn’t read. Everything was a blur.

My condition of keratoconus complicates things a bit, I know that up front, but instantly I felt unmoored. What’s happening to my vision? Have I exchanged improvement in distance vision at the cost of my near vision? Will I be able to read books again?

I’d been told by my highly-trusted surgeon that it would take 3 weeks for the eye to heal, and that during that time the vision will change not just from day to day, but even at different times of the day. I knew all that, but Wednesday night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, kept awake by the winds outside, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t read books. I’d read before going to sleep all my life, what will happen now?

Night voices whispered: There is Kindle, after all. You’ll get one and magnify the letters; they’re lighter than books, right? But it’ll mean looking at another screen again. Or I’ll get books on tape, I thought. The libraries have decent collections, I’ll do the best I can with what they have, not the worst thing in the world by a long shot, other people go through so much more.

I fell asleep at 5 in the morning, woke up a couple of hours later, opened my eyes, looked towards the window, and knew that everything had changed. No blurriness, in fact the eye was better than ever. I picked up a book and knew that, yes, things were still healing but I was going to read my fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in books, real books, for at least a little bit longer.

Later that day, driving back after a reassuring follow-up with the surgeon, I wondered why I’d freaked out so much. Granted, surgery made me tired, worn, and achy. Lying back and letting a laser do its thing on your eye requires some surrender. When you get home you find your eyes listening to someone else’s orders, not yours.

When I was 12, a doctor told me I was going blind. I’d been prescribed a pair of glasses, but he found that my vision was still deteriorating. They hadn’t discovered keratoconus yet, a condition I would later remedy by wearing contact lens. Fear of going blind has lurked in my mental backstage all these years, though I’ve been able to see very well till now, at the age of 74.

I shook my head. After all these years of meditation practice, and I could still freak out over nothing! Zoom up and down like an elevator, lie awake with anxiety, crack a few cynical jokes to myself.

When that happens, you can actually feel yourself contract. It’s as if you’ve shrunk two sizes, your body curled up, shoulders hunched against your head, the world dwindling down to the size of a blanket, not an inch more. You’re aware of it, you understand what is happening, you shut off your brain and take deep breaths, but you seemingly can’t shake off the blanket.

The next day there was joy, but I look askance at these radical ups and downs, dependent as they are on ups and downs. I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s words: “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”

And becoming the ocean can’t be conditioned on those times in life when nothing much happens, as Rockwell Kent said, in the outermost frozen, numbing reaches of Alaska.

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