UR Here: Seeing Tiny Places

Bad eyesight and new reading glasses. Just another step along the way of middle age? Yes, but last month, they also sparked in me some new thoughts on place.

I’m of a largely geographic bent when it comes to place. That is, I believe a large part of “place” is what’s “out there.” When I was in graduate school, deconstruction was all the rage. For the Foucault-minded, “reality” was little more than infinitely self-referential language. By extension, “place” could be nothing more than a linguistic construct. Maybe my vision of place is an Oedipal rebellion against my graduate training.

Regardless of whether it’s only language or not, a lot of people want to make “place” out to be a state of mind. Which it is. To an extent. I’m no essentialist, but I do believe there’s a “there” “out there.” Much of what’s “out there” is what we interpret it to be, but I think the unique challenge of place is to explore those connections between mind (and, I believe, emotion) and matter, between interpretation and geography.

And so it’s kind of funny that a new pair of reading glasses brought me to the next step of my own thinking about place.
Even if we do believe in a geographic “out there,” there are questions of scale and limits. When is something too big or too small to be a “place”? Geographer Yi-fu Tuan suggests it’s contextual. A place can be as big as “Spaceship Earth” as seen from an Apollo space module or as small as a chair in the corner of the room. One question I’ve often asked myself is, “How low can you go?” What is the smallest location that can still be a place? What is the geographic horizon of place?

My “discovery” through bad eyesight has been a long process. I’ve been terribly nearsighted since grade school. Glasses have been part of my life since 4th grade. As I moved into my later 40s, I started to fall victim to the double-whammy of farsightedness, too. My bifocals became trifocals. Eventually my bifocals really didn’t give me the precision I wanted to see really close things, like threading a needle, or reading tiny print, or seeing whether the new state quarter was from the “D” or “P” mint for the kids’ collection. So I’d just take my glasses off and bring what I was trying to see right up to my eyes.

I do a lot of reading. But as my eyes have become more uncooperative, I’ve found that even reading through my bifocals has become less comfortable. In the past year or so, if I was hunkering down for a long reading session, I’d just take off my glasses and bring that book right up close to my face like a TV-show nerd.

I discovered that I really liked doing this. I’ve always loved enclosed places. Even though I also love the wide, flat expansiveness of the prairie and plains, I also thrive in dark, enclosed spaces. I was an inveterate under-the-blanket-with-a-flashlight reader as a kid. I also concocted an enclosed area in my bedroom with a chair and a lamp that I called “Cozy Corner.” I loved to while away the hours under the dark, embracing, ground-sweeping bowers of the old pine tree in a vacant lot in my neighborhood. So when I took my glasses off and brought a book up to my face, my memory banks flashed that old “Cozy Corner” feeling right through me.

Certainly getting lost in a book is getting lost in another place of sorts. Literary critic Lawrence Buell cites fictive or virtual places as one of his “five dimensions of place-connectedness.” But I’m not just talking about a nearsighted method of transporting myself into my imagination. I’m also talking literally about being in the physical book, or me and the book comprising a kind of minimalist, yet infinitely rich place. With my glasses off, my poor vision blurs everything around me. It is just me and the book within this small slice of geographic space.

Since I enjoyed this “place experience” so much, I sometimes have tried it with things other than books, particularly food. If I take off my glasses and bring a bowl of ice cream or noodles close, I suddenly see the creamy details of melting dairy edges meeting frozen middle, or the gentle contours of pasta lying abed each other. Being in this small, private space that reveals the subtleties of my food is a special place I had never thought about visiting before.

Certainly there’s something Zen-like about all this, in many ways it’s about being in the moment. But that’s not mutually exclusive to the geography of closeness. They intertwine to create both being and place.

I visited the optometrist recently for my annual checkup. Since I had more or less abandoned my regular glasses for intensive bouts of reading, I asked about readers. Like my computer glasses, which give me my middle-range lens in a larger singular unit, I figured the expanded field of vision of readers might make them more conducive to languid reading and more comfortable than shoving a book almost literally to my nose. The optometrist confirmed my suspicion, and she even added a little magnification to my new lenses.

And so I love my new reading glasses. I put them on, and the larger world about me dissolves into fuzziness. My vision becomes crystally connected to the book in front of me. It’s just me and it, in this tiny, intimate space, even snugger than my childhood “cozy corner.” It is about the smallest “place” I can create, and it is both comforting and inspiring.