Macular Degeneration and the Unspotted Mind (part 2 of Immaculate Misconceptions etc,)

March 23, 2009

(Part One was about a packed dirt cave in southern Spain which was also a museum dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.)

I never saw the needles, except in my mind’s eye. They are part of a story, the central image, the thing I remember most clearly. Nine, ten, twelve needles, all in a row, stuck into the wooden mantel over the fireplace, each one with a thread through its eye and that long white thread dangling down.

Glory, great aunt Glory, couldn’t see to thread them so Uncle Johnny, whom I never knew, would do that for her, every morning before he left for work, and line them up, stuck into the mantel, so she could feel for them, find them, and do the day’s darning.

There was a name for her condition, but she wouldn’t say it, didn’t choose to admit it. She could see, sort of, around the periphery. She never looked at you directly but at your shoulder, or at the top of your head. It didn’t look like she was seeing. She looked confused, even disoriented, which was a little unnerving to me as a child. But she wasn’t confused. And she was always smiling. She was placing you in the periphery, along the edges of her eye, her retina, and she could see you, not well, but could make out your shape. And she could sew. Great aunt Glory. My grandmother’s sister.

Do you have any idea how many nerve cells are crammed into the tips of your fingers? A lot. More than in the rest of your hands, arms, shoulders, back, something like that. The tactile world, in large part, enters through our fingertips. Your eye has a ‘fingertip,’ a tiny yellow bump of a spot in the retina, directly opposite the pupil, that is similarly packed with nerves, in this case, light receptors. The center of vision, the center of focus, the spot that does most of the work of seeing. The size of a lentil, and if it is damaged, or detached, you can not thread a needle, recognize a face, or look your husband in the eye.

In medical jargon it is called the macula, which from Latin translates as spot. A good spot, an important one, one that needs to stay healthy, attached. Otherwise, macular degeneration, and the loss of vision.

But good spots are hard to come by. Generally spots are stains, and stains are, well, problematic. Just this week I spent an hour and three sheets of sandpaper removing stains from a newly exposed beam. Water spots, mold spots, dark age spots. Spots draw the eye. What caused that spot? Eyes focus on stains. There is usually a story behind a stain. Spots, unless you are a leopard, are added to something, something that otherwise would be spotless, even pure. Signs of activity, of injury, of passion, of age, leaking, dripping, spilling, water, urine, blood, you name it.

Or spots on a south-facing wall, the stains from cow dung thrown there to dry, to be used later as fuel. Missiles of dung, missives of dung, masses of manure spotting the wall, maculizing the wall. My chief source for all things etymological, Joseph Shipley, claims that the root of macula, ‘spot’ is an ancient Indo-European verb that meant ‘to throw,’ smeit, which besides macula also yielded missile, missal, message, and mass, as in the Holy Mass. Something thrown, something sent, to a friend, to a church, or against a wall. Through macula it gave us immaculate, unspotted, without stain. A clean slate.

The Church has claimed that all humankind is stained, that existence itself is spotty in some grand, overarching way, and that Jesus came as the great Stainremover, the Spotremover. And though never accepted by the entire Church and only made dogma by Roman Catholics in the 19th century, many Christians believe that for Jesus to have been such an effective stain remover his mother had herself to have been born without spots, literally immaculate, the Unspotted One, the Immaculate Conception. Thus Mary, when she was conceived in her mother’s womb, was conceived in a spotless, dripless state of grace.

Or such is the teaching. Ironic and beautiful and strange, easier to look at if we don’t stare directly at its center. Comforting and vague when seen in its periphery, with shifting shadows of guilt and sin and redemption, avoiding those ancient, weird, dung-colored superstitions about purity and cleanliness and south-facing walls that reside at its core.


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