The Brood: The Seen, the Unseen, and the Flutters in Between

Friends, it’s been a week. I realize it is only Tuesday, but a week it has been nonetheless. The months between the first day of school and Thanksgiving break are some of the most stressful of the year in our family, with our four kids in three schools and two parents with four jobs.

So on the one hand, I’m sorry I’m not coming at you today with fresh content, but on the other hand I’m not sorry at all, because I’m here to promote something awesome which is the REAL LIVE SICK PILGRIM ANTHOLOGY that you can purchase and read both in digital and analog form. It is, dare I say, a perfect autumnal read, as it is warm-hearted but rife with melancholy. It pairs brilliantly with cookies a cup of tea or mulled wine. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll figure out what we mean by “Catholic Spiritual Autobiography.”

To whet your appetite, I’m sharing an excerpt from my own essay, which I wrote in 2018 for Sick Pilgrim’s “Why I Believe” series:

The theater is tiny, dimly lit, with carpeted benches rather than seats. 

I perch, legs curled sideways, ankles crossed. Eyes squinting, tinted glasses askew, my head at an ugly angle, I am a crooked woman with crooked eyes, crooked sight. 

One film after another. Jugglers and swordsmen. Pointy-breasted showgirls. A rattlesnake. A painted cave. Pina Bausch, dancing en pointe with cow flesh in her slippers.

My neighbors gasp and sigh. They exhale wonder, and it fills the room like incense. 

Me, I am tense. Teeth gritted. Stubborn.

I am nearly forty. Over the last decade and change, I have followed the schematic established by my upbringing and my religion to exemplify a fruitful life of womanly faith. I have made the marriage, joined the church, borne the children, prayed every appropriate prayer and yet at 39 I am  dry, cynical, and so desperate for something new that I end up traveling from Detroit to Los Angeles, where I walk from my AirBNB to LACMA and pay thirty-five dollars to view an exhibit of art that my eyes, literally, cannot see. 

3D pop art, film, and photography, all are images printed or projected onto flat surfaces in such a way that they trick the human mind into perceiving dimensionality. I cannot see the illusion of a third dimension. This is not surprising, because I cannot see the reality of it, either. 

To see in three dimensions, one needs two functioning eyes, placed at a slight distance apart, with the ability to focus synchronously. The brain takes those two differing perspectives, finds their convergence, and creates a picture with depth. Binocular vision, it is called. Species with binocular vision are excellent hunters, because they are able to accurately judge distance and depth, both from a fixed point and while either subject or object are in motion.  Humans have binocular vision, as do eagles, and wolves.

I don’t. A quirk of genetics gave me a weak eye and a stronger eye, misaligned. Crooked eyes.

In baby pictures, you can see a smiling, already spectacled version of me with one brown eye focused on the camera, the other turned inward toward my nose. “Lazy eye,” they called it, and more specifically “amblyopia complicated by hypoplasia”, a medical phrase I memorized as a child in the event that I ever needed an excuse to call in sick. 

This was in the early eighties, and although patching (a treatment where a child wears a patch over their strong eye in the hopes of strengthening the weak one) was tried, ophthalmologists had little hope that any intervention could coax my two eyes into working together. The surgery I had when I was thirteen, tightening the muscle of my weak eye, was only a cosmetic success. My eyes appear straight, mostly, only betraying their handicap when exhaustion or stress get the best of me. 

As a result of this weakness, my brain only ever learned to process one image at a time. It chooses the clearer picture from my right eye, of course, giving me a field of vision that extends only one hundred, maybe one hundred twenty degrees. The picture my mind sees is always flat as a photograph, often with the tip of my nose the rims of my glasses blurred around the edges, and a haze of light and shadow always hovering over my left shoulder. This is the result of what biologists call monocular vision

In many cases, species with monocular vision gauge distance through something called motion parallax, which is the speed at which objects appear to move in relation to the movement of the observer. 

To understand motion parallax, picture yourself as a child, sleepily gazing out the window of your parent’s car. The dark shapes of trees and telephone poles whip past. The street sign in the distance appears to approach you slowly. The moon on the horizon stands still, like the hands of the clock while you’re waiting for the school bell to ring. The brain understands what all this means. One moving quickly, the other more slowly, while the third remains fixed. Your brain roughly triangulates distance from that distinction. Near, farther, farthest. Parallax.

Parallax is enough for most of us to avoid wolves, or sharks, or walking into walls, but it is not a tremendous help when it comes to playing volleyball in gym class, and it functions not at all when it comes to the illusion of 3-D in art or otherwise.

So, what am I doing here? Why am I spending an hour with art I cannot see?

Entering the gallery, I reassure myself that all experiences of art consist of the seen and the unseen. We each approach art a little broken, a little blind. Wide eyed, we ready ourselves to receive. We believe we comprehend, or we struggle and are frustrated.

A docent hands me a pair of red and green tinted glasses. 

Despite what I know to be true, I put them on and approach the nearest exhibit. Nothing. The same picture, only greener. I squint. Strain. Glasses on, glasses off. Cock my head this way and that. 

What if I hold the glasses out? Sideways? Upside down? Nothing. Of course, nothing. I am in a crowd of people delighting in an illusion, a trick of the eyes and brain, but somehow I am the one who is feeling ridiculous. I remove the glasses and pocket them.

Perception is subjective, so I have heard, so I try to value the uniqueness of my own vision as those around me gasp, reach out, laugh. Looks like fun, I think, then swallow my bitterness. Forget them. What do I see, with my monocular vision? Dozens of photographs mounted side by side. Blurred paintings, images and patterns, their tints of red and green slightly misaligned. My view, I tell myself, is as legitimate as any. There is no such thing as true sight.

A small boy next to me is elated as a screen shows a black and white clip of a mid-century ballplayer, pitching a baseball toward the camera again and again. His laugh pierces the veil of my philosophy. Spoilsport.

Some bird species optimize their depth perception by bobbing their heads. Up and down they go, their tiny brains rapidly calculating fine ratios of differentiated movement. 

Me, the hired soprano perched high in the choir loft at Sweetest Heart of Mary, I sway. 

My habit is to shift my weight to one side, then the other, then carefully forward and back. My field of vision swoops and soars. With my good eye, I follow the relative movement of the columns, the statues, the soaring arches and the stained glass. Quick as a bird, my brain processes what I can see, calibrates signals from my inner ear, measures the echo of my voice as it reverberates, and combines them all according to its own mysterious algorithm. 

I recognize what is below me, above me, before me. On my right side and my left. Enormity, obviously, and beauty, but mostly, empty space. Cold, still, and echoing, as imposing as the gallery of a vast museum. 

In hindsight, it was only a few short and long years ago when my throat vibrated and my vision swayed to the tune of my own devotion. I was like the rest of them, happily exploring this trove of finely curated wonderment. The light of the tabernacle reflected in my one good eye and I believed in infinity beyond the veil. Not long at all. Time moved me along despite myself, and for whatever reason, my sight is dimmer now. 

I still sing, of course. I am there as an artist, and I do my best for the devoted who remain. I sing, and sway, and search my own mind for what I have lost sight of, the convergence between what I see now and what I have seen. Jacob’s ladder, invisible once more. My middle-aged vision weak, narrow, flat. Maybe I’m just too crooked.

When Sweetest Heart of Mary opened its doors well over a century ago, it was a church built specifically to inspire and express the transcendent belief of migrant people. I am humbled, grateful to serve their memory with my own art. In my limited way, I appreciate all that they created in faith.

Still. It must look pretty cool in 3D. 

At the gallery I queue for fifteen minutes before another docent with another pair of glasses allows me into a theater. He explains that there are about forty minutes of film clips playing on a loop, a history of 3D filmmaking. I make some sort of vowel sound, indicating my approval but in no way hinting at the fact that I have attended dozens of 3D movies in my life and that, to me, they look like regular movies, only blurry.

I sit on a carpeted bench and watch. Ten, twenty, forty minutes. Again I am twisting, squinting, cockeyed. What has brought me here once more? Is it hope, or is it stubbornness?

I find myself shifting. Swaying. Doing my best to see what those around me cannot help but reach for. Convergence. Conversion.

Mickey Mouse. Errol Flynn. Pina Bausch. A butterfly migration.

That’s when it happens.

For a moment only, half a moment, I see. 

WHAT DID I SEE? I’m not telling! You have to buy the book! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

It was awesome, though. The thing I saw. It was deeply moving and perspective-shifting and spiritually nourishing JUST LIKE THIS BOOK.

Seriously, it is a really lovely little book.

Theresa Weiler is a writer/singer/speaker/seeker. She lives in the Detroit area with her husband and four children. You can follow her on Twitter @SometimesReese or on Instagram @realtheresaweiler.

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