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Learning to See
Tevere MacFadyen
March, 2017

I had cataract surgery a month or so ago. After removing the cataracts in my left eye the ophthalmologist inserted a lens – an intraocular implant – to correct my vision. I have been profoundly nearsighted since I was about five years old; my mother used to say that she knew we had a problem when I couldn’t read the flavors on the menu board at an ice cream stand. Now I’m wearing glasses with only one lens, and I’m learning to see again.

The change has been truly transformational. With my right eye closed and my left eye open now I can easily read the fine print on the back of my ski area lift ticket, where it lists all the calamities the operators won’t be held responsible for. Before the operation, without my glasses, I couldn’t have made out the ticket itself, much less what was printed on it. I didn’t recognize my own children from more than a few feet away. I have a prescription diving mask that enabled me to go snorkeling, and once, after I’d been swept around the tip of a Caribbean island by a strong current, I had to clamber back over the sharp coral rocks wearing my mask and fins, like something out of a third-rate horror film.

Seeing is a big part of how I make my living, literally and metaphorically. Exhibit designers are basically in the business of helping people see: illuminating the invisible or obscure, focusing on what’s meaningful and editing out the clutter, making the difficult or complex clear and understandable. My new eye reveals details I’ve never seen before, an unfiltered world of almost shocking color and clarity. I find myself closing my eyes and opening them again just for the sheer pleasure of being surprised that I can see.

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization,” the author and naturalist Annie Dillard observed in her wonderful book-length philosophical essay A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simple won’t see it.” So I try to remember what it was like before my operation. I try not be so infatuated by what I can see that I lose sight of what I'm seeing. I try to pay attention.