the eye’s geography


In 2018, I fell on ice in Edmonton and unknowingly the process of retinal detachment began as a result of the impact of that fall. I was lucky. Edmonton has a very good Eye Institute at the Royal Alexandra and when I realized that the shimmering I was seeing at the edge of my vision wasn’t just the result of being with my family and feeling really happy (though sore, as a result of the fall, which also cracked my coccyx), I was examined by an ophthalmology resident who happened to be working after hours on a Sunday evening and who realized something very serious was happening with my right eye. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about the experience and its aftermath, because I had emergency laser surgery to repair a tear in my retina once we returned home the next day and then another surgery about 6 weeks later after a second tear was discovered in my left eye. It was a stressful period as I went back and forth to the ophthalmologist and he used special equipment to examine the inner tissues of my eyes. It was also profoundly interesting. In Edmonton and in Sechelt, I saw images of my inner eye that were so beautiful I cried.

What I remember about her examinations: there was a moment when she was shining a bright light into the back of my eye and I saw a red desert landscape with long fissures transcribing it. I think this might have been what’s called a Purkinje tree, the view of my own retinal blood vessels interpreted by my brain using a correlative image from its stored hoard. Which is why what I saw resembled a National Geographic photograph of a dry and cracked desert surface. I saw ochre earth and deep crevasses.

Yesterday I had my annual visit to my ophthalmologist. I had the usual vision test with the stinging drops and then a series of photographs, called optical coherence tomography, taken of my inner eyes. When I met with the ophthalmologist after a technician had done the test with light waves, he had the images on his computer. In a way it was like seeing the surface of Mars.

surface of mars

The colours were similar, though my eyes had some areas that appeared olive green, like distant marshes. Each eye had the scar from the laser surgery and those reminded me of buttons. After the surgeries, I made a quilt to try to puzzle through what had happened to me and what it meant. The opening essay in Blue Portugal is about that. I called the quilt (and the essay) “A Dark Path” and in a later essay, “Anatomy of a Button”,  I also explore the process of coming to terms with the experience:

Now what? I’d come through the experience with my sight intact but with scars at the backs of my eyes from the laser procedures. Quite often I’d lay my hands gently over my eyes and imagine a life without sight. There are worse things, I know, but I thought of everything I loved to look at—tulips, birds in flight, favourite landscapes, the sky (particularly the late February sky at 6:30 p.m. on a fine day when it’s the blue of Maxfield Parrish paintings, sometimes with Venus and a new moon hanging silver above the Douglas firs), the faces of those I love (an increasing number of people because of grandchildren), prairie fields from a great height, flying from the coast to Ottawa and back, freshly washed sheets fluttering on the clothesline in wind, the chartreuse flowers on bigleaf maples, and so many more things—and I’d realize how grateful I was that I wasn’t blind. Sometimes I’d hold my hands over my eyes for a bit longer because I was crying.

This time, looking at the ethereal geography of my eyes, I saw other relationships: the pinky-ochre of freshly sawn wood,


the rich orbs of coho salmon eggs in the gravel of the creek near us after the fall spawning has taken place,


and I was comforted. Or at least I was until the ophthalmologist  told me that I had a situation. Remember, he said, I showed you this last year? The macula tissue on the right eye has a pucker. (I did remember but I sort of put it out of my mind.) Here’s what we were seeing last year and here’s what I’m seeing today. And today it’s a little worse. We’ll keep an eye on it (of course). He told me what to be alert to changing vision because the condition can lead to vision loss and even holes in the macula. When he mentioned one of the things to take seriously if it happens, I wondered if that was what I’d experienced last Saturday, when the vision in my right eye went wonky for about 15 minutes. He thought not. He said if it happened and regular vision didn’t return, then I was to see him immediately. I quietly noted this.

Our eyes are such magnificent organs. And we take them for granted, or at least I do. Oh sure, I sometimes grumble when I’m downstairs, about to thread a needle, and I remember my reading glasses are on my bedside table. I remember the decades when I didn’t need glasses to thread a needle or to read or to do any kind of close work. But now? I am perhaps too alert to my eyes. Is that a thickening I feel in the right eye? A heaviness? When I was swimming my slow kilometer this morning, I was thinking of windows, mirrors, the surface of Mars. I was thinking of how we contain the most extraordinary landscapes right in our very bodies and mostly we will never know them. And now? And now?

When I take up the quilt, I hear the silk rustling. It is almost alive under its top of patches and panels. Rustling like bird wings, something I could hear with my eyes closed. If I close my eyes, I hear the silk, the sound of rain on the roof, the restless movement of the cat investigating the boxes behind my desk. I push my thread through the holes in the shell buttons, two eyes side by side, tender stabs with a sharp needle. For a moment a tiny button hangs on the thread as I fiddle with a tangled bit, trying to ease it out. By a thread. We hang by a thread in this world of wonders and terror. On a path of indigo cotton, black silk streaked with gold, squares of grey flannel, linen the colour of midnight, these silvery buttons will make a small light for anyone walking in uncertainty, in hope, scarred or whole, the whole dark length.


by our fire, we are reading Dante’s Inferno…


chimneyThe other night—well, it was actually very early morning: around 2 a.m.— I was in my study working on one of the essays in a linked group (one of them has just been published at the Little Toller Books site) and remembered a passage from the Inferno. Luckily I had a copy on my desk, Robert Pinsky’s glorious translation. I found my passage, contemplated it, and read a bit more of the poem I hadn’t really thought much about in years. Yet it is so current in its considerations. The next day we were talking about stuff, the darkness of winter, the indignities of aging, etc. (as one does), and I suddenly said, I think we should read something together. What do you suggest, John asked. The Inferno of Dante, I replied. He blinked. And said, Yes, let’s. So we read the first Canto yesterday, each of us reading a page, then passing the book to the other. Our fire was warm and agreeable. Just now we read the second Canto. It couldn’t be more appropriate to everything we’ve been talking about and thinking about. To what I’ve been writing about in the small hours at my desk with my small desk light allowing me to see the keys of my computer and not much else.

I’m working on a quilt I’ve called A Dark Path and now an essay called the same thing. How good to read a poem that begins,

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough…

There aren’t many people you can read the Inferno with, on a January evening, in front of a woodstove fire. Passing the book back and forth, our voices were oddly at ease in the terza rima of a poet born in the 13th century.

O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit

Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
I commenced: “Poet, take my measure now:

Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.