Every Twenty Minutes for Twenty Seconds

February 10, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Robyn Tait

Jagged flashing lines suddenly appeared on the left side of my vision, so I had to stop my long stare at the screen and lie down on the plump leather couch, palms pressed into my eyeballs, willing them to relax. Visualizing a flow from the firm round orbs down the optic nerve, exhaling into my brain, soothing the frayed synapses.

I had been up before dawn first silhouetted the mountains, hours sliding by as I sat immersed in the writing and rewriting of memoir—hotfooting through the cracking stones of memory and completely forgetting to look up—to take my gaze off the screen and out the window, picking out Freemont Peak, or Sacagawea.

Only the morning after my daughter left for New Zealand, I’d overdosed on caffeine, not water, lack of sleep, and loss. The piece for my graduate Autobiography class, in which I felt I must excel to hold a place amongst classmates younger than my children, was due. The urgency of the work and the longing for perfection kept me glued to the screen. I’d had deadlines before, and the perfectionism isn’t new—the excitement of discovery locked me in. Adrenals pumping anxiety.

Too much screen time. The writing, the research, the Zoom classes, the weather app I must check every day to know how my children in all three countries fare, the New York Times daily virus updates, the emails, the texting—the Covid connecting.

The ophthalmologist I rang the next day, to see if I was going blind assured me, I wasn’t. She diagnosed ocular migraine—often preceding the more familiar headache, which. . . thankfully, stays away. Her advice, Remember the rule of twenty: every twenty minutes look up for twenty seconds and focus your eyes twenty feet away. I knew this, but had forgotten, so captivated by the memoir’s lure.

They say ocular migraines are caused by an unknown combination of factors, and list caffeine, dehydration, alcohol, screens, stress, even chocolate as possible culprits. A malfunction in the brain. As I saw patterns of family narrative revealing themselves, my visual cortex sent pulsing crenelated patterns floating through my vision. Stopping me in my tracks. I could not read.  How can a writer write if she cannot see?

The mind and body are one. As often as we think to divorce the body and live only in our heads, the body hangs about, and mostly we like it, but not its limitations. Scarily, it kept happening—five times in three days. In the back of my head neurons firing randomly, so that on the first day zigzag lines surrounded odd shapes of “unseeing,” scintillating scotomas on the left side of my vision; and then later, false eyelash lookalikes scudded across, the jaggedness gradually softening, becoming water in a fish eye, washing the edges. Almost trippy distortions, if you’re not terrified your retina is imploding.

Our third eye: the Tibetan lamas’ eye of spiritual vision; the yogis’ sixth chakras of insight and intuition. Representations of Shiva and Buddha show their third eye open in the center of their foreheads—a sign of their enlightenment.  This far seeing eye is said to correspond to the mysterious pea-size pineal gland deep in our brains. It regulates our sleeping and perhaps our hormones, responding to patterns of light and dark. Descartes named it the seat of the soul.

Some say the third eye helps us see the underlying patterns in our lives, focusing our autobiographical dredging: the patterns of narrative, the patterns of leaving; the crossing of seas; the deep grief of loss. My great grandparents’ left their stone croft in Shetland for the southern hemisphere in 1913, never to return; I flew back northwards in 1987, New Zealand to Washington DC; and now my daughter wends her way back south, Wyoming to New Zealand, 2020. Such alluring tragedy, a deep familiarity in its pain. Are we locked in its cycle? The opening of the third eye can cause migraines and visual disturbances. How much did my inner search tear open the generational scarring, the looking inside?

The answer is the same – less screen time, less coffee, more water, no wine. And from the ancients, still the mind: meditation. Follow that tear and dig deeper. The memoir a harpooning whaleboat, spearing and dragging those deep fish to the surface, boiling the blubber and smelling it reek.

I gaze out on wide water at sunset, and feel the dancing light soothe my screen addled brain. I will meditate so I can continue to fish.

Robyn Tait is a native New Zealander and adopted American, working on her MA in English with a focus on Creative Nonfiction, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before sitting at her computer so much she used to teach yoga.

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