Monday, April 20, 2009

Girl with Glasses

I started wearing glasses in third grade and did not move into contact lenses until I was in eleventh grade, late in the game if you consider the trials of adolescence and development of self-esteem at that time. I was bookish and studious, so it made sense stylistically that I wore glasses. But I also went to high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the fashion and make-up trends in the air (even with a strict dress code)were terribly sophisticated and seemed beyond my purview, like the fuzzy space of one’s peripheral vision when wearing glasses. The way that glasses frame and limit one’s clear vision annoys me terribly to this day. My father wore glasses too and when I was little his were quite thick, the Coke-bottle kind. My prescription grew stronger in tandem with technological breakthroughs in lens-making so I only wore thick lenses for a short time; I liked large frames and they were tricky with the heavier prescriptions. I still have most of the pairs from my childhood, but they are so out of fashion that they cannot be worn in public.
I still think of myself as a girl with glasses even though most of the people I currently know or interact with have no idea that my eyesight is shoddy and that I wear lenses. This was true as early on as college, but even then I had a residual sense that I looked at the world from behind a protective and distancing lens, the way a teenage girl with glasses might find it impossible to think that she is pretty or that others might see her as so. I still remember the first time I walked out in a storm with contacts on; the world was truly then for me more wondrous and beautiful than it had been before. On the rare occasions that I need to wear glasses I am surprised at others’ surprise that I need them. I am usually in a bad mood as well, trapped again and not able to see the world as widely or clearly as I would like to. It is always a bit of a mystery to me – do people perceive me differently once they know? How am I affected by how I perceive myself with my memories?I could go on about glasses and/or I could spin out the metaphors: seeing, lenses, frames and framing, clarity; all of these could be illuminating lines of rumination. But these reflections really take me somewhere else; to thinking about how our physical characteristics and limitations shape the way we experience and understand the universe. I know that my being left-handed is significant to almost every movement that I make and that my height affects everything from the ease with which I move about in my kitchen (greatly helped by wearing wedge clogs) to how easily I tire at parties or in crowds, where I am forever looking up at others. Yes I am vertically challenged (the PC language is thanks to Gary Trudeau’s Class Day speech at Yale in 1991); the funniest moment of awareness was the day I met a friend’s outspoken and inquisitive nephew. He looked me up and down and pronounced “You’re awfully short for a grownup”. Some of these characteristics are easily observable; others are not. There are characteristics that are not physical and perceptible only to those with particular kinds of awareness or sensitivity. Still other characteristics only exist in the mind’s eye, where we remember our past experiences and sometimes forget to separate them from current reality. Consider the stud or bombshell who still feels like the mousy or obese child that they formerly were. I think that in America, with our cultural myths about independence, pioneer spirit and the like, we often have a hard time taking such differences into account in a way that feels comfortable; limitations and inequality of all sorts are hard to square with some of our collective beliefs. And yet those very differences do sometimes require that we adjust things for different individuals. As well, these characteristics and the combinations of experience (that stud that used to get bullied…) lie at the heart of so much of human creativity and genius. Because of my poor vision I learned early on to recognize people’s entire beings, not just their faces. I would startle people by recognizing others at a distance, like the time in DC that I stunned my roommate by identifying the gait of someone walking a block ahead of us. He was a childhood friend I had not seen in almost a decade. I am certain that this habit is why I have a secret gift for mimicking others – facial expressions, voice and body language. I like to think as well that it is the joy with which I can now see so widely is related to my interest in the big picture in every sense of the term. And that my poor eyesight combined with my love of music bred a keener sense of hearing. There are more connections and consequences I am sure and I hope to come upon them in time, startling at their distinct beauty, detailed and crystal clear as raindrops, snowflakes and bolts of lightening.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

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