Columns

2017.08.23 Seeking Clarity With Candy 

Former Observer reporter and current English teacher Heather Walker offered a column this week about something that’s been on her mind for a long time.

Sounds good to me. I’ve been derailed by a pair of grandkids for the past week.

By Heather Walker

 “Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.” Those lucky enough to find themselves in the “path of totality” of Monday’s eclipse might have seen that Life Saver in the sky. Morenci residents saw something more like a crescent moon. 

The quote comes from Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse,” one of my favorite essays to teach. It describes Dillard’s surreal experience witnessing a total eclipse in Washington State’s Yakima Valley in 1979. To clarify the otherworldliness of the event, Dillard noted that “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” It made her temporarily insane.

 The Life Saver comment was significant because it was the first thing Dillard heard after the eclipse that made sense. She said she “grabbed that Life Saver and rode it to the surface,” apparently back to lucidity.

I can relate. Anyone who has ever had ocular focus issues or “wonky vision” (as I can best describe it), has probably taken a turn with Life Saver Cards. The ingenious, yet simple cards display four pairs of red and green circles (i.e. Life Savers) at increasing distance from one another. The vision therapy calls for you to look at the space between the Life Savers until wonky, binocular madness takes over and you see four circles. The trick is to pull the two center rings together into one focused BROWN one. It takes some practice. A lot of practice. But when the imaginary candies merge perfectly into one—ahhh—it’s like releasing a knot of tension in your eyes and brain.   

I got pretty good at my Life Saver Cards and after a few months, hardly needed to use them. My optometrist told me this was because my eyes were finally working together. Which was nice. 

The weird thing is, a few months later I experienced a nearly identical physical release from a completely different process. It was late in the school year, and my senior honors literature students were digging into some college-level literary analysis. We had read Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” and we were plodding through some fairly difficult analysis—comparing Willie Loman to Adam (of Adam and Eve fame), looking at the entire story through the lens of both the American Dream and the Tragic Hero—I think there may have even been some Freud or Jung somewhere in the mix. I’ll admit, it had been a while since I had dug into a master’s thesis offering five different, yet simultaneous, approaches to literary analysis. My brain was, well, a little wonky.

And then all at once it became clear. The ideas made sense, the sentences flowed from one complex suggestion to another with ease. The red and green Life Savers fused into amazing brown ones in the center of my brain. And I felt physically relaxed, calm and satisfied. 

I believe the experience is related to overcoming what psychologists refer to as the uncomfortable state of “cognitive dissonance,” a condition when our thoughts are inconsistent with our beliefs or attitudes, and sometimes even our realities. I tell my students it’s when something is so frustrating that it feels like your brain is peeling apart from the center and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Being able to “see” both literally and figuratively, being able to have an “aha!” moment that solves a problem or to understand why things are the way they are—or even to come back to reality after a phenomenon as absurd as a total eclipse—these things have a sublime psychological, as well as physical effect on us. Nothing feels better than clarity. 

In these uncertain times, I think many of us are feeling desperate levels of cognitive dissonance, or perhaps more subtle, generalized wonkiness that eats away at our nerves. 

What would any of us give to find that Life Saver of confidence and ride it back to the surface?