What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)


Proud Maisie is in the wood,

Walking so early;

Sweet Robin sits on the bush,

Singing so rarely.

‘Tell me, thou bonny bird,

When shall I marry me?’

–‘When six braw gentleman

Kirkward shall carry ye.’

‘Who make the bridal bed,

Birdie, say truly?’

–‘The grey-headed sexton

That delves the grave duly.

‘The glow-worm o’er grave and stone

Shall light thee steady;

The owl from the steeple song

Welcome, proud lady!’

Walter Scott

Chapter 1: The Seen in the Thaw

I spoke those words, ‘Let’s see’, to Liv in the hope, if not the trust, of something happening that would cast me with the white pebbles of sight or the black stone of blindness.

It fell out less plainly, or less directly. There is a kind of resolution, but it’s not white, or black, or even grey. It is black overlaid with a new variety of white, you might say. I shall try to explain. I wrote what follows in the late spring of 2009.

This is what actually happened next.

Art the masseur, I should say, broke me down into pieces and made me drink something that tasted of guavas and hot rubber. After any strenuous massage at the hands of those who know the body’s connections with itself, I was given sometimes as much as an hour of seeing, and often a near-night of sleep. These things became, throughout that time, impossible to set a price on.

More than ten years ago in a suburban supermarket I bumped into a friend who paints on silk. She happens to be the second wife of an influential and lucid atheist. She is an actress as well as a painter, used to making something new where there was something else before.

I was bunging stuff into my trolley, being familiar with my own tastes and those of my children, my spirit dimmed yet excited by the anaesthetising greedy glare of the supermarket. She was taking more care, handling her purchases in a fashion more mannerly, like one not wholly familiar with some aspect of the chore, as though she might be undertaking it for someone else.

And so she was. Her shopping trip that day was executed for the woman who had been married to her husband before she was and who was now, in the last stages of mortal sickness, too unwell to shop for her own groceries.

God might have been let slip, seen off, even, from the declared, indeed renowned, intellectual orbit of the household. The graces of private moral consideration were however very likely reinforced rather than diminished by this large overmastering dismissal. Illness was making its demands upon family life and causing new domestic shapes to be made. A net was being set for safety, in a system acknowledged to be without certain consolations.

I was often to think of my friend doing her predecessor’s messages in the months that were to come, and as my husbands’ wives did much for me.

Ten years or so later than that observation in the bright supermarket, in the late June of 2007, I finished dictating my short memoir, What to Look for in Winter. I didn’t know what to make of it, when it was over. It didn’t feel as it had when I finished the others, the books that had come down my arm and not out of my mouth.

I had little sense of its weight. Talk flies away, while words, written, are at least a bit more tethered. The silence left by words, uttered, is for the talker, in this circumstance perforce a monologist, often a self-disliking silence, sweetened only by relief at the falling away of the sound of one’s own voice. The negotiations between thought and page are grosser, at any rate in my own case, when spoken, than those accommodated by the hands moving under silent orders that have not been confided even to the self, when the writer may have planned the journey but the mind may take detours or unpack maps of quite another route towards the posited destination. Is that the place, after all, where you want to end, let alone end up? It’s perfectly possible that the mind has decided to travel by air, or water, or to the stars, and that it decides to travel beyond the planned destination, or to stop short of it.

The unconscious mind is more explicitly present in a room where a writer is working apparently alone (though almost certainly with one or more invisible collaborators) than when he is working with someone else, the typist, in the room, waiting to trap the spoken words.

Or so it has been for me during these years since I began to go blind in the spring of 2006. Let me remind you now, for fear of offending any more conventionally blind person who may by some means be reading these words, that I am ‘functionally blind’, that is my eyes work quite well but my brain has decided that they must be shut and that its self-allotted job is by no means to permit them to open. My own brain is powerfully good at its task of interdiction.

So, having become trapped in a sightless head, I decided to try to talk my way out of it by speaking my little memoir. A talking cure where the typist is the neutral presence and the reader the eventual listener or, perhaps, if he or she cannot read in the conventional way, or has come ‘blind’, to a recording of the work, its eventual hearer. A reader hears things in his head more than he listens to them, since the sound made is often silent though uttered in the reading mind, having been fed through the translating eyes.

In the carrying out of my project, I was as encrypted and self-subverting as I have learned to be from habit and by training, temperament and taste.

Fewer forces, or so it felt to me, were at work upon the spoken than had been upon the written words, when I had written my first books in the conventional way. The spoken words were less refined, more coarsely hatched, the pressures upon them all but social, the misgivings and selections temporary and local, necessarily predicated upon what I wrongly or rightly felt that the typist might endure, or even be entertained by.

The sense of invocation, paradoxically, was lacking, when the words were spoken. A fruitful uncertainty was seen off by the transaction. I was fairly certain that much of what I value and seek in fiction and attempt to transmit in my own writing could not have existed had I tried to speak fiction as I spoke that memoir. I wasn’t sure that this quality was present in the memoir.

Still, my agent sent it out, and I was happy when Jonathan Cape offered for it. I was fifty-two when I finished dictating it.

In the months and now years of compromised sight, what has borne me up now that I cannot read words from the page with any continuity has been the written word, spoken. I have listened to books. This is very far from reading them.

My gaze, like that of Actaeon upon the naked goddess Diana, is refused. Many of my new or fresh thoughts came, in the sighted past, to my brain through my eyes, in reaction to what I saw or to what I read. The thoughts that lay in the new dark within were in danger, without the eye-fed light from outwith my closed brain, of knotting up. My eyes had brought in the light that kept my mind open, or as open as it was. Now that my brain refuses my gaze to me (my brain absolutely will not open my eyes; I do it, when I can, manually. I would rather mention this blinkingly between the curving lids of parentheses), the thoughts can be like hunting dogs in my mind and tear and tear at my jittery gaze, my dear and dragged-low sight, tear at it constantly.

I sleep poorly. Inside my head carnage repeats itself daily; by night it is bloodier, since the vocabulary of image and event available to nightmare seems crudely vulgar and sensational. It is also predictable and banal. I may dream architecture and colonnaded freedoms, but my nightmares are of body parts, humiliation, fear and leakage.

I suppose we know so well what to scare ourselves with, having made the limited and powerful selection without words before we could speak much. Most of us saw before we spoke.

The most intimate consolations have been offered by two writers who did, as it happens, dictate much of their work, Henry James and Marcel Proust. The length of breath, the precision and extent of steer, the understanding of the pictorial and the want of illusion, that acceptance that we are very little but all in all to ourselves and all that we ourselves have, that breakage can be less sterile than some forms of wholeness, are in both cases such that each writer in his own fantastically atomised fashion does reflect the fabric of thought while seeming for the duration of one’s immersion in his art, to hold up or to reveal the richest losses of time.

Each of these great consciousnesses could be said to have married itself and within this solitary generous hermaphroditic union to have fertilised its own internal world with a rich inward folding, with the apparent arrested liquidity, the look of layered softness, of some sea-rubbed rock. Retirement from the world, in the cases of these two more than sociable men, by all accounts matchless companions and talkers, superabundant writers of letters, was not a sterile fugue but a necessity in order for the travail of making to be protected, fostered, brought to multitudinous birth. Both teach compassion through clarity and that style, far from being extraneous embellishment, is the transmitting currency and current between reader and writer.

Both writers suffer from being smart names to dismiss. Rather, they do not suffer, being beyond existence, which is suffering, but potential readers are discouraged, which is a wanton deprivation in a diminished world. Eyes are voluntarily sealed in the name of clear-sightedness. Most dismissal of either writer takes place without the fatiguing commitment of investigation. A superstitious hope of ingested glory goes with the dismissing. Just as if you eat the heart of your gallant enemy you may be held by some onlookers to grow in courage, you may be accounted rather a stayer if you contemn the immensities of In Search of Lost Time, or something of an exalted spirit if you belittle the heights of the later James, decrying the rainbow-rich mist as wilful fog.

Thus you may bag the medal without enlisting, never mind getting anywhere near the heart of the engagement.

That is not to deny that the problem is there, the other way about, where the artists’ names are not there in their full suggestive lightness and potential but mentioned with the thumping self-satisfaction and positioning of a name-drop, as though the adducing of one or other of these two, let alone both, settled something in this world instead of adding other worlds to it. You know the stakes are high when Proust or James is brought in to settle one of those questionnaires about the best works of the twentieth century. You also suspect that no one wants to talk about it much any more but rather to set a monument upon the question, adding a stone with the partisan reader’s name upon it to the cairn at the top of what can be regarded, or so the implication is, as a mountain range un susceptible of scaling save by, well, such people as that high-breathing cultural referee.

It is now May 2009, almost a year since I thought I had ‘finished’ What to Look for in Winter and, if anything, the frost has taken a tighter grip on my eyes and upon my life.

I have abstracted myself from that life for two months in order to find a way of thawing it out.

How have I managed to get to where I am now from where I was then?

And which ‘then’ would that be?

And why should you care?

I will answer for the moment only the third question. The frost, in some form, is waiting there for us all. My account of how I failed to help myself, while trying as far as I could tell very hard to do so, may make you feel smug. In an age of self-help books, here is an account, to warn any reader, of almost exemplary self-unhelp. May it inoculate you against the same sickness, or against it in so acute a degree.

What connects my blindness, the atheist’s wife and the living words of dead men? I have come to an island to find this out for us, you and me. I have fifty-six days left in which to do it.

During that time, I hope to finish this book, and to set in the ground that I roundly hope will be melted thereby the bulbs whose flowering will I also hope compose a short novel, as vivid as energy and compression under silence can have made it.

I have set aside the whole month of May, writing a minimum of eight hours a day, to write the first draft of this second layer of memoir.

At present, I can see when writing if I hoist my forehead up with the flat of my left hand as I laboriously and inaccurately type with my right, and when my eyelids get wise to this and clamp insistently down, I lift them with my thumb and little finger, dedicating the latter to my right eye, the thumb to my left. My eyes fight back and weep to be shut down and left in peace. They are hot and dry and hard. Their white goes to leather. They leak thick tears. These tears are ineffectual lubricant. They are so hot that sometimes they make you feel like crying.

Meanwhile the bottom of my face works and strains and munches and contorts as it reaches for some kind of comfort let alone rest. It is not pretty. Quite often I dribble. I swear (my condition, blepharospasm, has a contiguity with Tourette’s Syndrome). I was never before a swearer. The features of my face have thickened, the skin over them coarsened as I pull at my mask in the attempt to free my thwarted struggling gaze that I know is in there somewhere. There are surprising batches of wrinkle and hard elbowy flesh on my face as though it were a long-used handbag or a tired dog. The dog likeness is made closer by a couple of twitches and a tremor that is worse in company or sunlight. My eyebrows are a tangle of argufying bristles, like moustaches. Along the crevices of my muzzle, where I grimace in the reach for settled sight, the skin is irritated, red, flaking and psoriatically itching. I bare my teeth such that strangers comment, and babies, after whose company I hanker, hide their faces from this witch. Those teeth clench and grind and gurn away, trying to find settlement for the reaching eyeballs lying above them, to catch the wind of sight and set aloft my eclipsed brain again.

I haven’t seen what colour my eyes are for months. I know that they are green. I’ve looked into no eyes for years. Humans read one another with their eyes well beyond, within, through and behind words. I’m trying to find new ways of doing this deeper reading.

There is something wearyingly unimplicit about the social life where little can be left unstated and understood; understanding being, with the word’s apparently negative start, a perfect example of what Keats called negative capability, the magnetically attractive force of what is felt to be present in the unadvertised, the swell of beauty lying within what is not bound or bounden.

As far as I could, I avoided contact. This can worry and upset the small number that remains of persons who can endure you, or who are bound by piety or affection to do so. I terribly regret that.

If you think like this, you are likely to be straddling a cruel gulf into which you will decisively fall, and from which I am typing these words to you.

So hard is my brain lobbying to shut down my eyes that it makes up a headache in protest at the wrenching I’m imposing on my eyelids. Something has gone wrong in High Command, up here in my head. When I ask my brain whether it would like to come to bed, it replies that it has a headache.

In fifty-six days, I am to be the subject of the second half of a procedure that is quite untried but that has led to some relief for fourteen possessors of my condition. The other one has died, not of the procedure, but in the way of things. Most people with blepharospasm are women, yes, and most are older than I am. Which isn’t to say that I won’t die.

To my shame I have far too often and too routinely consulted means of doing so undetected in these last three years. I don’t like to mention it, as the thought of my children having to outlive such a step pains me for them in the way that perhaps only the child of a suicide can know. If I can help it, my children will never know that particular shape of loss.

The procedure is called a Crawford Brow Suspension. In January, the muscles around my eyes were cut and stripped out. The effect is to toughen up the eyelids. Mine don’t feel tougher, actually: they hurt more than they did. They are thicker and mauver than normal eyelids. They feel and look swollen. They are shiny as though I have painted them with nail varnish the colour of certain small hard purple turnips. Where many women might put eyeshadow, I have scar tissue. So powerful continues the brain’s imperative to the lids to remain in spasm that they force themselves shut with muscles extraneous to the lids themselves, muscles that the brain conscripts to effect its strange censoring.

The second half of the operation happens six months later, and I thought, at the time seven months ago when I elected to have this operation, that it would be a good idea to have it the day before my fifty-fourth birthday, which is on the 1st of July. The secret notion I had was that I would wake up remade on my birthday. The plain surgical fact is that I shall wake up not capable of walking comfortably for the coming month or so. And blind.

The operation comes in two parts in case of vascular crisis during a macabre reallocation, since the second half of a Crawford Brow Suspension, six months or more after the first, harvests the tendons from behind the subject’s knees and inserts them, umbrella-frame-wise, beneath the forehead and the thickened, stripped eyelids. Some subjects report a subsequent difficulty with closing their eyes. Eye masks, like those used on long plane journeys, have been mentioned as being useful, as have partners, who may assist the subjects at close of day by firmly shutting down the now staring eyes of the once blinkered loved one.

I was chary of making the first part of this memoir and now I find myself writing a second, further to expose the first. It isn’t unlike that eyebrow-stripping procedure: phase one, the first bit of memoir, to toughen up and prepare for deeper digging; phase two, this bit, to do that deeper digging, in order perhaps to see more, and be on the move again. Or to prepare to do these things.

I very much didn’t wish ever surgically to interfere with my face and now am committed to doing it twice in a single year. It wasn’t particularly that I was vain, though I was, but that I didn’t fancy that shared look of terror and conformity that declares cosmetic surgery’s costly untruthful ghost to have passed. And I thought that I was interested by time and its effects upon a face. My children, too, had mentioned their misgivings about cosmetic surgery, the batched moms, the party lines of preservation. And it is expensive and self-necessitating; and I am a Scot and we don’t do that like of thing.

I no longer physically recognise my face. My body is another matter that I would rather leave aside for the moment, which may have been something of the problem all along. Scotswomen make crack dualists; we are at odds with our bodies often, especially if we have early been fingered as being possessed of a brain.

I took the train to Glasgow from King’s Cross. Since not noticing that my own house was on fire till I was nearly smoked, I have been staying at various places in London.

At Glasgow, I was met by the husband of my sister who is not my sister. So many of the relationships in my life are this kind of double negative adding up to a positive. As has been true throughout my life, quite little is what it seems, though much feels straightforward. I think this not unusual for people who make things.

I described earlier how I subtracted myself from home in my teens and added myself to the Howards in the Hebrides. Each of these islands is geographically, culturally and linguistically identifiably its own place. Smallness does not wear away individuation; rather the opposite.

I am here now, on the island of Colonsay, the place in the world where I borrowed a second childhood. I just sort of sank out of one life and emerged into another. It was not a kind thing to do. It may have set a pattern of which I cannot be proud and that my blindness may have given me the insight to break at last.

I’m renting a flat in the big house where we were children and where I learned, if I learned, to share and transmit. This flat is made from rooms that were once nursery bedrooms; the flat’s sitting room was the bedroom where my not-sisters Caroline and Katie ate Eno’s Fruit Salts off their fingers in bed, and on the wall as he ever was is an engraving of Sir Wm Hamilton, Bt, Professor of Logic at the University of Edinburgh, published, as it happens, on 4 May 1857. Today is 4 May. I began this chapter on the 1st.

Next to Sir William is a coloured map of the Western Isles of Scotland, done into the Latin as befits a Scots nursery: ‘Aebudae Insulae, sive Hebrides, quae Scotiae ad occasum praetenduntur, illustratae et descriptae de Timotheo Pont. Colonsay appears, lying on its side as is the whole of the West Coast, preserving the modesty of the usually incontrovertibly (though docile) phallic Mull of Kintyre, under the cursive word ‘Collonsa’. The part of the island where this house would be built bears the label ‘Killouran’. Oransay, the small island off Colonsay, appears to be designated ‘Gruonsa’, though that ‘G’ may be a ruptured ‘O’.

The bathroom of the flat contains a small modern plastic bath that just holds me. Once, in its place, was a cast-iron bath that held all six of them and me, with a heavy steerable cylindrical contraption between the taps that was the plug. The bath (and all other) water in those days came off the hill and was the colour and flavour of peat. Now it is clear, though it still comes off the hill down from the loch above the house.

My brother Alexander who is not my brother is in charge here now, though his father, whom I call Papa, as all his children do, is completely alive. My not-sister Katie is Alexander’s assistant and right hand and her husband William is woodman, dustman, playwright, diplomat, angle-grinder, freight-sorter, mandatory representative non-native at community meetings, and maker of vital connection. That is he takes life and rebags its stuff into packets that people can enjoy and be fed by. The blindworm boredom dare not come near him.

I have come here to recuperate in advance of whatever comes next and to allow to settle the furious ineffectual seething of my inward life of this last year, and of too many of those years that preceded it. To some extent, too, I am getting myself, and the problem I constitute, out of the way. Where do you put a blind mother who falls over quite a lot and is not yet old enough to fold away for the winter with the barbecue and the swimming towels? It is I, not the children, who think like that, I know, and it’s no help to anyone.

Upstairs a family who have rented a flat in what used when we were young women to be called the bachelors’ corridor are preparing their tea. The father is talking. I cannot hear his words. It is not unusual for families to rent an annual holiday on the island over the whole transit of the raising of a family, whose progress may be followed through those irresistibly voyeuristic and eventually shaming comments books that are a feature of rental property. One is ashamed because one hasn’t recreated the idyll recorded by some family more ideal, better at spotting otters, happier within itself, than one’s own.

Or maybe that’s me, who have been playing at families all along, with deadly seriousness and an eye on the competition because I’ve so little idea of how it works, my darling mother’s surprising disembarkation having left me to improvise.

It is bath time upstairs. A tired young child is grizzling without commitment, nothing that a story will not sort. A radio is on. Water carries radio waves and I can hear enacted conversation, perhaps The Archers, under the living voices with their more convincing scoring for rests.

Outside, after a day of rain, the light is glittery. Through one window of the room where I am slowly typing may be seen the deep garden over and beyond a stream that is itself well beyond three swooping levels of lawn. Two huge trees, Cupressus macrocarpa, twisted by wind and time, hold the last evening sun till late (this is the North). Daisies and blossom smutch, sparkle and powder all the green lawn. Several surprising palm trees announce the passage of Victorian plant-hunters through this lush declivity, actually a geological fault, through Colonsay, this old small rock, nine miles by three, covered with green and surrounded by that light-reflecting north-western sea. I know these sights because my memory provides them, though I can with discomfort and a certain stiff pincering address hold my eyeballs bare to take them in, even if it is not the same as the absorptive wash that soaks all-gathering sight. But it’s something, and I do count my blessings.

I am unsure how good blessings-counting is for the character, or am I the only person who resents it when others tally your reasons to be cheerful for you? It’s hard not to observe that they are finding coloured veins in the rock that sparkle best in rain. Also, don’t lists with an uplifting undertow almost mandatorily make one gloomy?

A less negative aspect of blessings-counting came to me. Two electronic benefits occurred. I turned on a kettle, with whose product, hot water, I made a cup of Scottish Blend ferocious strong tea, with milk, and I received a text message from Claudia telling me of her doings today, and those of my son and Fram. I read the message by feeling my eyes and holding them bare, open.

Annabel and I also exchange texts most mornings. We have communicated daily for years. After all there are children in common. We are close friends who lead widely different days and may think we hanker for the other’s way of life, but actually probably favour our own. I like the detail of her day; she accompanies the emptiness of mine and does much spiritually to fill it.

When we count blessings as they occur, we have a greater chance of valuing them. I cannot remember when I have not, having lived at certain times of my life without one or other of them, been grateful for plumbing and electricity. Hot water almost demands a deity of its own before which to lay oblations of scented soap and rough dry towels.

Which leads me to the pattern revealed in sleep to me, not for the first time, but with the soothing power of pain relief. My actual father, the man who with his short-lived first wife, my mother, conceived me, liked to ask me when I was small, ‘Do you know how to make a fishing net?’

The answer is that you find a lot of holes and tie them together.

Upstairs the toddler is gurgling. Voices through pipes make of the largest house a shared familial linked system, those rooms of space connected by the web of piping, the moving webs of water telling their message through the darker parts of the whole constructed system. Water is making comment throughout the pipes of the old house. A hum, the inception of warmth, accompanies the low hint of heated water through them. Flushes fall back and rise again within the white bathroom walls.

The best way to tell it is perhaps to try to thaw out that declared winter and to attempt to capture now what may be the actual, not the fancied, scene in the thaw. It is time to see that what felt like a sentence to emptiness may be an offer of air.