The Art of Seeing
“Look at that heartless child!” my Mother said. I was three years old, and I had been crayoning next to Mother until she got up and walked into the mist on the other side of the room. Then the mist had turned into blazing orange light, very beautiful. Mother had screamed, and I heard my Father come and the bright light went out. That was when Mother said, “Look at that heartless child! I could have died in that fire and she just sat and calmly watched the whole time!”
I couldn’t understand, but I felt deeply guilty, knowing I must have done something wrong. In many other ways I seemed to be at fault. Although I was in a secure and loving home with parents, a grandmother and an older sister and younger brother, I was beginning to realise that in some mysterious way I was different from other children, and I lived in fear that I would be found out.
I used to go to the back garden, and peer at the ground for dandelions, wondering at what point the life of the dandelion began. I looked in the grass for smaller and smaller green buds and on opening them I found tiny new dandelions getting ready to be born, but no matter how I searched I could never find the exact moment when the bud itself came into being, and I wondered where its life came from.
At home, Mother used to go to a room upstairs that she called her Studio. When you went to the walls you could feel lots of paintings there, stacked against the wall. The oil paint smelled rich and musty. Mother held a brown wooden thing which she called a palette. When I peered at it I could see lots of coloured paint on it in heaps like bright little mountains. One day Mother was painting my portrait. She told me to sit near her in the chair. She had a large white canvas in front of her. There were lots of brushes in a jar near her. She took a brush out and hit the canvas. Then she leaned back. Then she leaned forward and took another brush. She kept hitting the canvas as if she was angry with it. After awhile my legs ached from dangling down from the hard chair. At last I sighed and said, “I don’t want to be a mother.” “Why not?” asked my mother. “I don’t want to have to paint pictures all the time.” Mother laughed and told this to Granny.
In spite of my remark to Mother, I did love to paint and draw. Bending over my drawing I could see clearly to put in all the details I loved but when I looked further off everything was blurred. But I could see sparkles from shiny things. A candle flame always had a halo of tiny sparkling lines surrounding it, amazingly beautiful. I loved anything I could pick up and examine like pieces of broken glass which I found on the road by tracing their rainbow sparkle. I collected them and called them my ‘jewels.’ But after awhile I grew unhappy with them. Why could the rainbow only be seen in certain lights, under certain conditions? I wanted it to be there always. This longing began to drive me to set down the images I loved. Now I spent all my time in painting and drawing in my wish to create something beautiful that would be more permanent.
At school I never knew what was going on, so I was treated as an idiot by the nuns and put at the back of the class. I learned nothing there, but sat and drew pictures of fairies all day in my exercise books. Luckily my grandmother was fond of teaching and from her I had learned to read and write and do sums.
At eight years old, in the confusion of a large household with yet another new baby’s arrival, I was old enough not to be much supervised. Retreating from the outer world I neglected my appearance, and arrived at school with hair unbrushed and rumpled clothes, becoming the object of derision and bullying from the other children. I avenged myself by imagining that I were a fairy princess, and at any moment could throw off my grubby school uniform and reveal a dazzling dress of diamonds to astonish them all!
Then one day everything changed for me. It seemed at first like any other day. The class was going through a weird ritual that they had often done before. The rows of children would all say numbers in turn. When it got to my turn I tried to join in and said a number, but whatever number I chose would make everyone laugh for some reason. In the middle of this game the bell rang for fire drill. As we filed out past the teacher’s desk I saw to my surprise that the top of her desk was a white blur instead of brown. I put out my hand to see if it were snow. No, it wasn’t wet and cold. I peered over the desk and saw large cards printed with sums. They were easy sums, I did harder ones with Granny.
Waiting in the playground I was puzzled, thinking over the cards I had seen. None of the sums had answers on them. Could there be a connection between these sums and the numbers that the children had been saying?
We filed back into class, and a strange feeling grew in me, as if my stomach knew something that was too big for my head to hold. The number game began again, they were going down my row; it was my turn.
I stood up. The feeling in my stomach shot up through me like lightning, splitting my head in two. In that enormous flash, all the pieces fitted together at last and I understood! “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I shouted, laughing with joy because so many things were clicking into place at once; I had been blundering all my life in a fog, but other people could see clearly. I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t clumsy; I just had bad eyesight. It was more than a solution to a mystery, it was as if light was pouring down into my head. I saw that things made sense, that the world had meaning.
The teacher, Sister Marie, was very angry. Now I realise that if I had cried when saying I couldn’t see, she might have been sympathetic, but as I was laughing she assumed that her least favourite pupil was having a joke at her expense. She said witheringly, “Of course you can see!” “I really can’t!” I said earnestly.
She marched down the aisle and yanked me to the front of the class by my ear, pushing me into a front seat. “Now you can see!” she snapped. I saw that she was indeed holding up a card, just as I had guessed. It was a thrilling moment. This is what had been taking place all those times without my knowing! Unfortunately the card was still too blurred to read. “I still can’t see.” I said apologetically, knowing it would annoy her even more. It did. She slammed the card towards my face shouting. “NOW can you see?”
Just before it hit my nose I read the numbers ‘6 + 7 =’. I pushed her hand away and said, “Yes, and the answer’s 13.” To my surprise she stood completely frozen, like a statue. Then she backed away as if I were a dangerous animal and said in nervous voice as if she were afraid of me, “Don’t move! Stay there! I’ll be back!”
I heard her hurried footsteps leaving the room. In a few moments there was a lot of noise and bustle and a swirling of black veils. My next clear memory is of sitting in a room where a man in a white coat asked me to read the letters on a chart. “What chart?” I asked. His voice sounded amazed as he said, “Can’t you even see the chart?” Neither he nor anyone seemed able to believe that for eight years I had lived and gone to school with so little sight. I had kept my secret only too well but at last the fog of irrationality had rolled away, and there was hope because I could begin to make sense of the world.
However I was to discover that this was not an easy process. Accepting this new reality was difficult. I had lived too long in a misty world and it had taught me habits of isolation. My first adjustment came on the morning when my spectacles arrived by post. Mother announced to the family, “Brigid’s glasses have come! This is a wonderful moment for her. For the first time in her life she will be able to see clearly!”
I could sense the whole family watching as with trembling fingers I opened the metal arms and fitted the glasses on my nose. I looked up. Up until that moment I had seen only one thing distinctly at a time, framed against a background of subtly coloured mist. Now everything rushed at me at once, clamouring for attention. I saw stains on the wall, dirt on the baby’s bib, the baby’s face, a teacup on the table, the buttons on my sister’s dress, Mother and Granny beaming at me, the pattern on the carpet, my brother eating his corn flakes, the canary in his cage, cracks on the ceiling, the window, and though the window I saw the street, and the neighbour’s house and beyond that the alley where we played and further than that a multitude of things. It was too much to cope with- I burst into tears.
It was some time before my eyes could adjust to the whirling kaleidoscope in front of them, but over time my eyes learned the trick of selecting the thing that was important, and letting the rest be in the background. However, it was not just the difficulty of adjusting my eyes to the glasses, there was the even greater difficulty of adjusting myself.
Over the years, cut off in some measure from communication with the outside world, the imaginary world I had spun for myself had become a cocoon that protected me from the teasing of the schoolchildren and the nagging of the teachers. Now that my glasses were opening up the real world to me, I felt uncomfortable. Ostrich-like I had assumed that when I couldn’t see the other children at school, they couldn’t see me. Now that I saw their faces and eyes I felt threatened and vulnerable, I wanted to go back to living in the comfortable old cocoon. It was to take me years to catch up with reality.
Now all children are given sight and hearing tests, so the hope is that no child with bad sight will have to suffer what I went through, and yet my experience did give me a peculiar benefit. Due to my being driven into myself, I practiced drawing all day long throughout my childhood and invented my own fantasy world. What better training for a Visionary Artist?
See a response in Readers' Letters: About ‘The Art of Seeing’
Painted by the artist at a point in her life when she was told she might go blind. Fortunately this has not happened