Getting started

3 Aug

The  retina (from Latin rete, meaning ‘net’) is a light-sensitive tissue lining the inner surface of the eye. The optics of the eye create an image of the visual world on the retina, which serves much the same function as the film in a camera.

One Sunday morning my retina detached, or rather, it tore. I didn’t know this; I am not very knowledgeable about the geography of the body; I have only the haziest notions of the parts of the eye and no idea where the retina is situated. At the time I was brushing my teeth before walking down the Allenby St steps to meet a friend at St Mary of the Angels where we liked to listen to and sing the Gregorian chant, carefully following the black squares on the four-lined stave:

As I lifted my head to put my toothbrush back onto its stand, I felt as if someone had slowly poured a bottle of sepia coloured ink over my right eye. The slowness was strangely beguiling. The part of my eyes that could see registered how dark swirls like oily sperms swam lazily to the bottom of my eye and settled. After a period, perhaps a couple of minutes, they subsided; the darkness passed. I was surprised rather than alarmed. The bathroom was at the bottom of the house. It was a dark room.  A few more blinks,  and the misty greyness would be dispelled once I went upstairs, blinked again and set off down Kelburn Parade.

It was a crisp beautiful day. The wind was quiet, the light bright and clear. I am very myopic; I wear strong transitional lenses, and on this day the light seemed sharper than ever, and my eyes were unusually watery. But something was different – that hard clear light should have revealed hard clear outlines and colours –  the stained glass in the Hunter building,  the Tip Top sign on the side of the dairy on Salamanca Road. Instead, my streaming eyes and the irritating blurriness, which no amount of blinking seemed to dispel, coated the outlines of all I saw in shifting fuzzy haloes.

I’m a fast walker; I love the downhill sprint from house to church, and it was only a few minutes before I was at  The Terrace glancing at the villa where I once learned my never-to-be-divulged TM mantra – it  floats back to me as I wait for the lights to change. I recently learnt that every mantra is supposed to approximate Om, the eternal syllable.

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I remember the ceremony thirty years ago. We were five aspirants shuffling in socks with incongruous white handkerchiefs on our heads towards our instructor, a small bespectacled man with zealous eyes, who stood before a table with a candle and a photograph of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. One of us was a Turkish woman who, after receiving her mantra – we gathered afterwards for a celebratory cup of tea – asked if she could have another  because it was the same as the Turkish word for toilet. Our instructor was serenely implacable; he sipped his tea, placed his cup delicately on its saucer and explained that our mantras were exquisitely dove-tailed to our particular natures; it was simply a matter of will and intention before the Turkish word for toilet dissolved into the universal music of Om, and that if repeated with the correct intonation, Om would vibrate to the centre of her  soul. The Turkish woman looked doubtful.

The lights changed; I crossed The Terrace with a cluster of Sunday strollers and walked towards the Allenby St Steps. Wellington is a city of terraces divided by strips of steps – there are always edges to stand on and look at the city, the hills, the harbour, especially if you walk. I’ve climbed these steps since I was eighteen – I love how the houses on either side never change – are still ungainly, untidy and ivy-strewn, still with their rickety fire escapes, banging gates and smelly bins. I like how the steps are egalitarian – their height, tread and narrowness make you acknowledge the other as you pass and you never know whom you’ll meet – priests, poets, politicians and composers, not to mention drifts of students on their way to and from the university. I like how they offer you a gash of the other side of the city – the fountain in Oriental bay, the pines on Mt Victoria and how, as you descend closer to town, you almost hover over the church: much as an angel might swoop down to listen to the choir master directing his forest of pipes.

That morning I nearly tripped. The slope of the path as it led to the first flight of steps seemed to rise up so suddenly I had to grab the smooth iron rail to stop falling. I was still blinking, still trying to convince myself that the kaleidoscopic, shifting, now clear, now blurred world would settle and sharpen and that I’d negotiate my way through it much as I always did.

I blinked, I held the rail; I went down the steps. At that time of the morning, the sun was hidden behind the houses, there was moss on the concrete, the usual smell of bins; it was cool. The haloes I’d seen round the trees faded, my eyes stopped streaming, but the fuzziness persisted. The walls and windows of the houses seemed to lean slightly to the right; I kept tilting my head slightly to find focus. Half of the sight in my right eye was a perplexing moving greyness:  flakes, some white, some darker rose and fell like a smouldering fire or storm that had nothing to do with me except that it was happening inside my eye.

Something was wrong. Before I’d looked up in the bathroom, as I brushed my teeth less than an hour previously, objects – my bed, the books on the table beside it, were anchored and clearly coloured; they had their familiar outlines and their equally familiar shadows. But after that sensation of someone – someone? – pouring  ink indolently over my right eye, objects were loosened, lost their fixity and form, and  this loosening of otherness had the effect of loosening, lessening me. I didn’t like the way the concrete beneath my feet rose up to meet me; I didn’t like how continuous blinking failed to reposition. I didn’t like the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sensation.

On the last three steps, three fragments:

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Steph Matuku

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