Through A Glass Darkly

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It’s been almost a year since I posted words here. And with another year gone by, comes increasing clarity and maturity of who I am and what I am called to be/to do. I am taking this next year to articulate this identity – in both a broad sense of reality as well as in an intimate space. I plan to explore and define the ‘theology of being a doula’. But to understand any sophistication in such a concept, maybe even as a doctrine, there is a story to be told, to simply set the stage for how said theology has come to be known. And how it possibly applies to us all. Here’s a bit of how my story of becoming and being a doula begins:

I grew up in a small house with a big picture window. Our house was situated atop a high hill directly facing a T-intersection. The wide window was located in the living room and offered a panoramic view of the neighborhood valley. The landscape view seemed to stretch out from our front door. The scene included numerous rooftops, tree tops and other such suburban/urban features. As a wee lass, I spent countless hours loitering by and looking through this glass movie screen.

A baseboard heater ran along the wall beneath the big picture window. I often stood on it as a little girl to prop myself up and get a better look outside. On more than one occasion, the heating channel detached itself from the wall and my dad would have to reattach it, reminding me that, “It wasn’t installed to be a step stool”. Just the same, I continued to step up and look out with wide eyed wonderment. I loved to watch the everyday events of cars driving by, urban wildlife poking around and folks out and about like the mailman on his route or neighbors active in their yards. I never tired of my past time posts. My younger brother sometimes joined me and together we scouted out the scenery. You could say we were being nosey, but we had a bird’s eye view of the world; and I was fascinated by all I saw. Who knew staring out the window could be so entertaining? It was reality TV at its finest hour – live, unedited and in 3D. I was an active participant observer, poised to look, watch and wonder. This childhood habit has carried over into adulthood. I spend a lot of time riding trains and buses; and I still never tire of gazing out the window, watching and wondering…even while underground aboard the city subway, I stare out into the darkness. There is still something to be seen if one takes the time to look. There are doorways, vents, graffiti and adjacent tunnels lined with steel ribs that disappear into the void. Such things represent something shrouded as much as something to be known or at least the possibility.

During my childhood, in the late afternoon hours, I could frequently be found by the living room window craning my head to the right to peer down the street, anticipating my dad’s truck headed up the street on his way home from work. Once spotted, I would quickly announce, “Daddy’s home!”, and scramble out the front door and down the twenty-eight front steps to greet him curbside – I on the sidewalk and he still in his truck with keys not yet out of the ignition. There was something about my dad’s homecoming that was not just excitedly anticipated but reassuring. He always came home with a smile, no matter how bad his day had been.  I think his tireless optimism is a genetic gift. He says it’s a supernaturally inspired choice. It’s probably both. This aspect of his personality I did not inherit but I have tried to imitate it – easier said than done but I try.

As a youngster at home, only occasionally would someone outside my house spot me watching from the other side of the glass. They usually waved or smiled or said to the company with them, “Hey, look at that kid up there”. They’d chuckle to themselves and keep walking. This unexpected experience of being seen by someone else somehow made me feel ‘caught’ – as if my benign peak at the world wrongly interrupted the natural balance of things. My instinctive reaction was to hop down in a dash, duct beneath the window sill and then slowly pull myself back up to catch a glimpse once more. I would then try to be less conspicuous by only allowing my forehead and eyes to peer out above the window sill. Nighttime always proved my look out attempts to be a bit more difficult, due to the simple fact that it is much easier to see through a lit window when outside in the dark looking in then it is to see the other way around. My mom would catch me trying to look anyway and instructively say something like “keep those curtains closed, everyone can see in!” After all, we were the ones at the top of the hill with the big window. I don’t even want to think about the sights and scenes the neighbors or anyone outside looking in saw when our sense of awareness was turned off and all the lights turned on with curtains opened. Sometimes it feels like it’s less intimidating to see then to be seen. That is, unless a person wants to be seen. I guess it depends on one’s perspective and sense of control in the situation. Vulnerability isn’t always about being exposed against one’s will. Like when my mom would add, “Turn the lights off if you want to keep looking”.

By turning the lights off, the inside darkness seemed to mysteriously merge with the outside darkness. This made it easier to see things, though the night time sanctions muted the sights to be seen. The evening atmosphere offered a shadowed reality. All the vivid colors of objects made obvious to the viewer by day were transformed to darkened hues at night because of the lack of light. Only the dominant details and outlines of images could be identified. The quasi-clandescent experience of things not easily seen in the dark is proof to me that some things in life can only be known in part; but that doesn’t make them any less real in the existential sense.

As a kid, my bedroom window was located along the same wall as the big picture window; and coincidently, my bed was positioned against the window wall with my pillow centered and eye level to the window’s ledge. At night after lights out in any season, I’d lie on my bed with my head propped up by elbows and peer out into the evening darkness. I relished the silence, listening to the simple sound of nighttime nature; but I also loved being a proverbial fly on the wall to all the other happenings outside my window.  The neighborhood park entrance was half a block up the street. In the summertime with my window opened, I absorbed the seasonal sights and sounds of mostly teenagers walking up and down the street – guys dribbling basketballs or carrying boom boxes with music blaring and girls gossiping about whatever and whomever. I doubt they ever noticed me watching their adolescent antics from behind my darkened screen; if they did, I doubt they ever cared. But if I felt conspicuous, I lowered my head to my pillow and turned my attention to the sky. I can still vividly recall trying to find the red blinking light of the radio tower along the horizon. The tower was located at least two miles away across the valley on another hilltop. The flashing bulb was so tiny from that distance and I felt so proud of myself when I found it. I’d watch it blink on and off-on and off for who knows how long until sleep was inevitable and my eyes would close for the night. Finding the little red light became a bedtime routine throughout my childhood until that fateful season, the winter during fourth grade, when I would no longer be able to see it. I would try but my efforts would be in vain. My focus, at that point, shifted from lying on my bed and watching the world outside my window to staring aimlessly at anything while I lay preoccupied with thoughts about myself, trying to make sense of what was happening inside of me. I had enough awareness to know something had changed but not enough to know how to articulate it to anyone, especially my parents and ultimately myself.

In the middle of fourth grade, my eyes seemed to just suddenly stop functioning as they once ‘normally’ had. For the next five years, from age nine to fourteen, no one could really explain why this sensory dysfunction occurred. The doctors initially tried and offered my parents their best- educated-guess explanation. But their preliminary professional opinion would be wrong and the ramifications of their misdiagnoses would have a lasting and profoundly painful effect on me. The doctors noted they did not ‘see’ any problem with my eyes in a medical sense but rather prompted my parents to consider my psychological state as the cause for my sudden vision loss. Their inability to detect any plausible physical reason for my vision trouble seemed to leave them with the expert opinion that my sporadic eyesight was due to what they labeled a “psychological disturbance”. The fact that I could see some things but not other things was puzzling to all involved. The conclusion was that I was lying or being rude in my selective seeing, especially since I shifted my eyes a lot and seemingly was able to focus on one thing but then disregarded another focal point. I now know, as do the doctors, that it is extremely difficult to assess why sometimes the eyes work fine and other times they do not when it comes to visual impairments. The eyes are extraordinarily complicated. There are many factors that influence these effects – lighting, familiarity with settings and situations, not to mention how the visual field is affected by any particular visual disorder. Who knew the 1980s would prove so archaic for both doctors and little girls to articulate, what decades later, seems so simple to explain. As a teenager during  extensive testing at the national Institute of health in DC, I would come to understand how the loss of my central vision required my eyes to shift peripherally to compensate. Since then, these eye movements have become an intentional and trained effort to optimize the vision I do have. Though prior to my NIH diagnostic experience, it was suggested by the local doctors that my sight impairment was selective, implying an underlying psychotic (psycho-somatic) problem. An accurate diagnosis would not be achieved until the umpteenth consultation in the middle of ninth grade at NIH, which conclusively determined that my visual problem indeed possessed a physical and even genetic origin. A key factor in re-examining the cause of my vision loss was that my younger brother (wired so differently than me – he was an extraverted and athletic kid) developed the same symptomatic features when he turned nine. This was the same age I started to show the same kind of symptoms. I hadn’t been lying. It was official – I wasn’t crazy. And yet, the real psychological damage was made official. My sense of self had been undone by the doctors’ misdoings. In my retelling of all this, I do not intend to undermine medical attempts to do right. I’m just saying sometimes they are wrong. And when medicine fails, it requires deep soul healing to reinstate faith not just in science but more importantly in metaphysical resources. Psychology, as a practice, is all about providing soul healing. ‘Psych’ as a root word means ‘soul’. But in 1985, even the psychologist’s attempts proved misguided to help me heal. I was raised from birth in a Judea-Christian family and was guided to understand who I am according to who God says I am – Jesus loves me. This simple Sunday school song and sentiment formed my identity and context for how I am connected to something/someone eternal. This definitively divine identity would save my life more times than I can count. Ironically though, when I told the school psychologist that Jesus loved me, I loved Jesus and Jesus was my best friend, she decidedly told my parents that I had been brainwashed and I needed intensive psychological deprogramming. It is only in recent years, and even as I script these pages, that I can admit the pain as well as acknowledge and celebrate the healing that has occurred, is still occurring and will continue to occur in the midst of my loss – until Jesus comes to take me to an eternal home. Life and living is a process as much as it involves processing all that occurs. Regardless of what has been done or undone, grace is a required response. Who I’ve become as an adult is directly connected to these childhood experiences, best interpreted by grace. Redemption is a curious thing. My insatiable quest to not only figure out what is really Real and True but also find the beauty in all areas of life, yes even pain, has become my personal passion as well as my professional pursuit. Redemption looks life directly in the eye and declares that every beautiful and scandalous aspect is worth interpreting through eyes of love. I often remind myself and my clients that if Love was not stronger than pain, the human race would have died off long ago. Redemption reassures me that I can keep living and smile about it too.

However, I wasn’t an overtly smiley kid. I loved to laugh, still do, but not as the instigator. It wasn’t that I was born to be sad but I’ve been described as the serious type who is always scoping out and processing the scene.  In fourth grade, my class was seated alphabetically, which placed me in the last row at the back of the room since my last name began with ‘W’. I didn’t mind so much being back there. I often preferred this vantage point. I guess I felt safer along the rim of the circle and not all cloistered in the middle. It allowed me to quietly observe the scene while still feeling included in the situation. After all, I’m a bit introverted, though I do love being around people. Early on, I seemed to make a better spectator than center stager. I never liked being the center of attention or the main attraction, though this preference would shift some as I became an adult and became more confident in myself and skills. As a child, however, I was the shy one who was a-o-k lingering along the edges. I was fine with my classroom arrangement. So, I gladly took my seat like a good little girl and made good grades as every good girl should.  But that winter in fourth grade, something changed. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard anymore when seated at my desk in the back of the room. I could barely decipher what was written on the paper right in front of me on my desk. I stopped responding to across-the-room social queues. My grades plummeted. I remember taking tests and ‘sort of’ seeing words and made my best-educated-guess as to what the question was asking based on what I could see and I answered accordingly. But my answers were usually wrong. I can recall just handing in blank tests and mumbling something about simply not knowing the answers. My teacher took the blank tests and then graded them accordingly. My nine-year-old brain was not computing the whole scenario at all. What was I thinking? Handing in blank tests? I was a smart kid, not to brag. I was an avid reader, a sponge of knowledge. This behavior was not like me. I was a compliant kid, shy but polite and attentive. Ignoring others and disregarding social prompts the majority of the time, especially when interacting with adults, was not my style. But again, my young mind was so confused, not able to make sense of what was happening inside and outside of me. So, I just shut down altogether. I relied on the adults and docs to figure it out for me. My compliance, once a virtue, became a vice that seemed to make me mis-step many times after that. Such vicious cycles began the long journey of distrusting everything and everyone. What could I really see? Who could I really trust?  The whole experience was over-stimulating as much as it was about not understanding what was happening.

Prior to a proper diagnosis, I became increasingly skittish at asserting myself in any way for fear that I would say or do the wrong thing or perceive something incorrectly. I felt paralyzed. Being embarrassed seemed inevitable on a daily basis. Being called on in class activated panic. I stared blankly at the teacher when prompted to read from the blackboard. I’d look aimlessly down at my desk when asked to read from a book or page right in front of me. I had no answer. My selective mutism only exasperated the situation. Near and far, all perspectives became a fuzzy blur of bewilderment. I had no vocabulary to describe it. I became the ‘weird girl’ who stared strangely and was socially awkward. My well-meaning parents scolded me for not looking at someone directly when talking or interacting. I would exclaim, “I am!”, but my response was reprimanded as sass and not acceptable. I would try in vain but that just invoked more scolding and evoked more anxiety that I was disappointing people I cared about. The ironic fact is that I was looking at them in my own way. Due to losing use of my central vision functioning, I unconsciously shifted my eyes to the side and even downward to see from my peripheral vision field. Despite the fact that one’s central vision capacity comprises only 10% of one’s total vision function, all the important mechanisms of seeing are located in the centralized area – i.e. focusing, depth perception, color recognition and lighting measures. I had no clue about any of this as a kid. So, I pressed my nose against the pages of books in desperate attempts to decipher something, anything that resembled the right answer. This behavior caught the attention of adults that I was simply in need of glasses. Yes! Such a simple solution! Unfortunately, as I sat in the optometrist’s office staring, the giant E was all I could see despite any lens he clicked into place to improve my focus. I remember how angry he became, firmly reminding me to tell the truth. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, how could a kid walk unassisted into his office, hop in his examining chair all by herself and that not be able to read the vision chart projected on the wall? Everyone was confused. My parents did not appreciate his hostile manner, so another doctor was consulted. This time, a gentler approach took place but simply confounded my parents more. My mom was asked to step into the hall and was told that I was faking. A psychiatric assessment was strongly advised. Though before leaving, a prescription for glasses was also recommended to aid in some kind of placebo attempt to correct the problem. This proved anything but helpful, except to help give my persona an even more awkward look. I wasn’t just the weird girl; I was now the weird girl with huge glasses that would have been equally as useful for a mannequin. Every developing adolescent fumbles to find their footing through puberty; it’s all par for the course, right? But I felt like I was being asked to walk on water and I was sinking like a rock, fast. As parents (of the few friends I had) became informed of my distressing diagnosis, they cautioned their youngins not to play with me anymore – lest my presumed psychosis was contagious? Ignorance is not bliss. It’s taken a long time to forgive such ignorance and segregation but I have no better option. Resentment is an imprisonment of one’s own construction. It is its own handicap that can be remedied through forgiveness, in order to find real freedom to keep living and loving oneself and others. I possessed my own ignorance at the time that needed to mature, as did the grown-ups around me. The developmental process spans a lifetime. Children become grown-ups but growing up never stops occurring. I reconcile these flash backs as growing pains. Sometimes it feels like I’ve awakened from a nightmare, whose noxious residue lingers in lucid life, but I’m no less inhibited to greet each new day and stretch my limbs to reach for hope and ground my feet on the one thing that continues to remain concrete and unconditional – Jesus loves me.

Though as a child and young teen, despite my inner increasing awareness to cope, outwardly I became more isolated and impaired to identify myself as anything but normal. I felt deformed and rejected; and there was nothing I could do to control it or rectify it. I tried, but kept failing. There was a critical juxtaposition of being aware but not aware enough, being able to see but not see enough. This theme of ‘not enough’ would embed itself in the bedrock of my psyche and has required nothing short of divine dynamite to unearth and remove it, to allow for a sufficient perception of myself to be reconstructed.

Since reading was so difficult (I would be a mid-teen before I discovered audio books…this was, after all, the 80s), I turned to music as a companion. I’d lay in bed for hours after school and over the weekend, listening to lyrics that swirled in my head and found their way to my heart. Poetry in all its forms as well as melodies have that way like water, finding the path of least resistance and seeping into the soul to solicit an honest response. The melodious words helped me feel human. By nature of music’s existence, it begs an audience to share dialogue or, at least, be heard. I could listen. I could do that well. I could even close my eyes to listen more attentively. With my eyes closed, I could focus more clearly, not just on the sounds and rhythms of the music playing but also pay closer attention to my own inner dialogue. Amid the darkness behind eyelids shut, competing images emerged. How did I want to see myself and the world around me when I opened my eyes? I refer to this internal conversation, contemplation and even competition as prayer. I never stopped believing Jesus loved me, though I doubted how and why. I had asked Jesus ‘into my heart’ at an early age; and so, I talked with Him there, in the deep caverns of my being. I asked all kinds of questions spoke frankly and yelled at times. I also allowed silence to linger, while not negating the sense of another’s presence. This experience has been my saving grace that, despite the darkness that shrouds clarity of seeing what is really true, I am not the only one in that darkness. Seeing is not the only sense needed to know that I am alive, I am loved and I am not alone. Sure, four out of five senses limits one from fully knowing; but there is the ability to know something nonetheless.

As an adult, I have blended my inside observations of myself with being an outside observer. I’m always looking at what’s inside me and around me. The narrow streets and sidewalks of Philadelphia, where I live, offer numerous opportunities to look up and in at each address as I pass by. Being a pedestrian slows down my pace of going to and fro. Being visually impaired demands an even slower pace, especially at night to avoid stumbles. Such a snail’s trail makes me more aware of each lit window. The light spills out to the darkened street to help me pinpoint my way and it also invites my gaze to scope the interior abodes of both neighbors and strangers. It’s like coming full circle to see someone who may not know they are being seen or want to be seen. I wonder what life is like for them. For a moment, I get a glimpse. There is always more to be known, so I keep wondering. Though I must turn my attention back to my path to keep an eye on where I go, to make it back to my own home safely. And when I crawl or fall into bed at night and close my eyes, I still pray. I still ask questions and let my feelings be known. I believe God is listening because I believe He is here, with me. Like the old song says ‘because the bible tells me so”. Such security is like a warm blanket that wraps around me in the dark and reminds me that I’m worth being known, being seen – even if I can only see through a glass darkly.

 

References:

  1. Artwork: pastel painting by Jamie Wasson, 2018
  2. The National Institute of Health
  3. The National Federation of the Blind
  4. Shout out to the Ronald McDonald House, who housed me, my younger brother and parents during our diagnostic time at NIH in DC
  5. Until We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

 

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