MYSTICISM: Fifteen Ways of Seeing the Light — (12) Migraine, by Peter Friederici

From the Georgia Review

 . . . the natural limitation so flight sempiternally deny the satisfaction of desire.  For this is the inherent irony of vision, that it reveals to us the space beyond our bodies, and the shortness of our grasp.  Visual perception makes it possible for us to grasp for what is beyond, and, at the same time, to realize that we cannot reach it.”
—    F. Gonzalez-Crussi, The Five Senses

It begins with something as slight as a glimmer from a smoothed stone reflecting the sun, or the gleam that bounces off a milk-white chunk of quartz in a wash bottom.  Sometimes it’s the rays of the sun itself, caught by accident in the corner of the eye.  Always the result is unexpected: I am stabbed by a spear of light.

The afterimage remains on the retina, a glowing patch of green or orange or yellow that floats and bobs and is as real as it is insubstantial.  It lingers and grows.  It’s as if a piece of the distant landscape had slipped its moorings and gone to look around, except that I can’t quite get a fix on what’s loose.  It’s always toward the edge of my vision, and floats off as I shift my eyes.  It’s as annoying as finding a ridge in an otherwise smooth panel of wallpaper.

The midday light is far too bright, even shrill.  The heat pounds.  I can’t quite focus on anything.  It’s as if there’s too much information coming in with the light reflected from each glimmering grain of sand and piece of stone.  The floating chunk multiplies, two, four, eight, dozens, as if all the mirages held captive in the hard desert landscape had broken free.  They zip back and forth like tiny sci-fi spacecraft or gather into bands that twist and writhe like snakes.  They grow thicker.

I squeeze my eyes shut.  It doesn’t help.  The fuzzy images remain.

Migraines are caused by the abnormal constriction and dilation of arteries that carry blood to the brain.  No one really knows why this happens, though red wine, chocolate, menstrual cycles, stress, and genetics are all suspect.  Most often there is no way to predict them, except for their immediate precursors — most notably the weird visual phenomena.  In my case I usually blame the too-bright light of noon.

Sometimes the floaters can be anything I want them to be.  Here comes an ocotillo wand, waving its red flowers, and here comes a storm of hummingbirds to hover around it.  Here come some of the national flags I used to love to color when I was a child: is it Gambia?  Sierra Leone?  They are red and green and black, African.  Here come Germany and Sweden.  There’s Argentina: blue, white, and sunshine yellow.  It’s a United Nations of headaches out here in the creosote.

If you are quick enough in catching a migraine as it starts, you can sometimes avoid the splitting headache that follows the visual effects.  There are drugs for this, of course, though lying down with eyes closed in a quiet place also helps.

The sand feels warm on my head under the dappled shade of a big blue paloverde tree.  A shade-rimmed wash is one of the best places to spend a sunny desert afternoon.  Colored lines pulse through my vision, echoing my heartbeat.  A bit of the bright afternoon filters scarlet through my closed eyelids.  Thousands of ceiling fans are spinning, up as high as I can look.  If I look closely they transmute themselves into lists of all the things I need to do.  They have nothing to do with photons or the sun.  They are lies of light, or at least of the way my body processes light, but there they are all the same.  I want them to stop as much as I want to feel their cooling breeze.

There is nothing else to do with a migraine but wait it out.  The sun arches over, more felt than seen.  My entire body is all eye, taking in the heat.  Above me a verdin perches near its spiny nest, as spherical as the earth, and sings its clear three-note song: si-pa-pu, over and over again, reciting the Hopi term for the for the place where the world began.  This is the center of the earth, to the verdin.  A black pinacate beetle scrabbles in the loose sand by my right hand.  Nothing exists but this present moment.  Linger, you are so fair, said Faust.  Go, you are so foul, I feel like saying, trapped in the present with my brain and body doing what I don’t want.  It’s profoundly disconcerting to lose control over what you see.  Even if the pain never arrives and squiggles were designed to remind me: here you are, encapsulated, separated from the rest of the world and very much on your own.  Remember that.  Have a nice day!

With time the colored lights and ceiling fans pulse and shrink and fade.  Shadows lengthen and the light deepens: it’s mid-afternoon.  You can read this in the way the glare of the midday sky and sand fade away.  It’s as if the desert were a photograph slowly appearing in a tray of developer, brought back into substantiality.  Colors reemerge.  I sit up and rub my eyes, sopped and exhausted as some dried-out husk.  My skull feels delicate, fragile as an eggshell, and I am relieved that the encircling rock-ribbed ranges don’t waver anymore.

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