Now you see it, Now you Dont: Blindness and the Nostalgia of Visual Memory

Just the other day, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and sipping my coffee, expertly avoiding work, and suddenly I paused on a friend’s tweet describing a perfect sunrise captured in a photo while jogging. I read and reread the tweet, closed my eyes, tried to mentally pull the image into focus, and as I did, I felt a twinge somewhere deep inside; I wanted to see it. I had that fleeting moment—one that comes far more often than I’m generally willing to admit—in which I wished I had a switch that would allow me to turn on my eyes for five minutes, even five seconds a day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to live without my sight, and at the risk of sounding complacent, I think I’ve adapted fairly well. Those who know me can attest to the fact that I’ve embraced my blindness like a quirky personality trait, and I’m generally the first one at a party to dust off the Stevie Wonder jokes. Yet I realized something in that moment the other day, trying to remember just what the sky looks like at sunrise. One of the questions I often get—the one that makes me far more uncomfortable than most—is usually along the lines of: “If you could see anything, anything at all, what would you want to see?” Having been born with partial sight, I find the answer to this question difficult to try to unpack. You would think, wouldn’t you, that I’d want to see all of the things that have come into being since I lost my sight, because I’m aware that the world looks different now: Facetime and webcams, touch screens and HD TV. The truth is, though, that the things I want to see aren’t necessarily the things I’ve never seen before. I’m curious to know how things look; I’d love to be able to appreciate the clarity of watching my favorite film in high definition rather than, as a friend once put it, “all weirdly pixelated”. Yet I don’t feel like my imagination is lacking in filling in the gaps.

What I want to see, what I sometimes wish I could see, are the things I remember seeing—the things in my memory that I haven’t quite forgotten, but that naturally, with time, fade around the edges: sunshine on the water, rainbows, autumn leaves. It’s a kind of…visual nostalgia, I suppose, and I think that as I grow older, and layer upon layer of dust obscures those memories, it’s a longing that is entirely natural. I think that, having had some minimally usable vision, I sometimes inhabit two worlds: the one in which I see, and the one in which I don’t. Sometimes I think I want to return to those memories, take them out, dust them off, look at them again (literally and figuratively) because I have some deep, unspoken longing to reaffirm my experiences as a (partially) sighted person, to confirm that that world I inhabited was real.

I’m no longer sure to what extent my imagination has colored in the blind spots in my visual memory, but maybe that doesn’t matter. We’re all guilty of revising the narratives our memories tell. No memory is entirely accurate. Our memories are a kind of image-text of a literary biography. The basic facts are verifiable, but we’ve colored in the gaps with details that might be true, or might just be stylistic flourishes intended to reinvigorate the memories for ourselves when we relive those moments.

Question: what is your most vivid visual memory?

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1 Comment »

  1. The deep woods in spring where the bright new green is pushing the crisp freeze-singed brown out of the way – that earthy moist smell of new growth, the pollen grains on the skin and insects careening into you, the chattering of squirrels and their wildly scamper everywhere; here just beside you then darting off in chase, the abundance of bird calls if you can be still and listen to their music floating on soft winds whirling, dancing and teasing amid brush and thin brittle branches. Woods ferns uncoiling. I’d miss that sight of tender new green.
    And those sunsets or rises that are painted with such glory word can’t describe.
    Great post to make all of us think and appreciate. Thanks
    Hoppy on to Easter!

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