Eyes to See
by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Heather Sundquist
I remember being on an elementary school field trip to a museum. We stopped in front of a painting that the docent explained was created by a technique called pointillism. She said that the art was made by thousands of tiny dots, which together created a larger image. This astounded me. What was she talking about? I had to get up close and see for myself. I dislodged from the class lineup when it was time to move on and walked right up to that painting, blatantly ignoring the “Do Not Touch” mandate, and pressed my small, freckled nose right into the canvas. She was right! Tiny pinpoint dots were everywhere. I stood there much longer than I should have, until it was discovered that I was not in line.
I have always loved the idea of things that look different when you get up close. I like that about art, I like that about relationships (some of the time, anyway), and I definitely like that about people and the stories of their lives. I am a girl who likes to take a deeper, longer look—at everything. Which is why it PISSES me off that my eyesight is going down the tubes. I am a forty-something cliché with pairs of readers stashed everywhere, tucked around my house, in every purse, even in the center console of my car. If I start to wear readers on a chain around my neck, you will know I have completely given up. Or at least I no longer care what I look like, because I literally cannot see myself.
At first I did not want to believe it was middle age, because who really wants to face that, right? So when I originally went to the eye doctor for the first time since grade school, I blamed my blurry vision entirely on my iPhone, because I was squinting at the damn thing all day. This was before I enlarged the text font size to such an extreme that the people sitting ten rows back on an airplane can see what I’m saying. The doctor, without any discretion or basic human compassion, replied simply, “How old are you?”
“Well, I just turned 41,” I said at the time.
I have always loved the idea of things that look different when you get up close. I like that about art, I like that about relationships (some of the time, anyway).
“Clockwork,” he said. “That’s when it really starts to go.” I was not amused. I left the doctor in a huff and tried to avoid the inevitable. I stuffed my new prescription in the depths of my purse and forgot about it. I used the flashlight on my cellphone to read menus in “dark” restaurants, certain the lighting was an issue, not my eyes. I used the thumb-finger screen enlargement to zoom in on every single photo on my phone, just to see it at all. And I tried to be subtle about screen-shotting everything else that I needed to enlarge, which soon became pretty much everything. It was only a matter of time until I was digging out that prescription and getting a pair of very nerdy, semi-cool, tortoise shell progressive vision eyeglasses. I tried to rock them, twisting my hair in a bun and inhabiting my writer persona. In any case, I think less squinting was a good call for my crow’s-feet.
Glasses worked fine, for the most part, if I always remembered them. The only time they didn’t work was when I was running. Or on my mountain trek last summer. It is not helpful to carry readers on a long run, just to see the pace and mileage on your running watch. Or to put readers in your backpack and fish them out to put on your sweaty face every time you need to consult a trail map. This was madness.
After my 46th birthday, I turned myself back into the eye doctor and asked about contact lenses for the first time ever. Keep in mind that I Do Not touch my eyes. I am a semiautomatic, rapid-fire blinker. No one can put mascara or eyeliner on me but me. And if I try to curl my eyelashes, I will blink so hard while they are clamped in the curler that it’s very likely they will all pull out. So I knew that putting a lens directly from my fingertip onto my eyeball was going to be a long shot.
The technician took me into another office with some lenses to try, and sat me in front of a mirror. It was not the 10x magnifying mirror like I have in my bathroom, so I could not really see my eyes without my readers on, which did nothing to help the situation. She demonstrated the technique by jabbing her long, glittery nails into her cornea and pinching her eyeball until the lens popped out, then she poked it right back onto her eyeball again. “That’s how you do it,” she said, smacking her gum. “Your turn.” I swallowed a lump of fear and nausea. My armpits were sweating and my hands were clammy.
I sat there, valiantly trying, for over two hours. My eyes were as red as my worst allergy attack ever, and the skin beneath them was irritated. I looked like hell. I felt worse. I did get them in, finally, and they sent me on my miserable way with a three-day trial supply and a bottle of solution that felt like acid. I was already afraid for bedtime, wondering if I would ever get them out.
Being able to see was miraculously, wonderfully…awful. I loved not needing glasses, but I did not like noticing people’s chin hairs, wrinkles, gray hair, food in teeth, or booger crust. I did not like seeing myself in HD every time I looked in a mirror either. After three brutal days, I decided this was not for me. I chose to embrace my blurry vision and consider it a gift of age, a soft-focus lens to keep my life, and the people in it, beautiful.
Sometimes looking too closely isn’t always the best way to see.
Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2017