I’m in the second hour of staring at the 10-feet tall stained glass window in my living room, pausing occasionally to glance at my computer, removing my glasses periodically to wipe tears from my eyes. When we designed our house, we built this room to showcase this window, situated so that the rising sun would stream through it in every season. It’s my favorite detail in my home.
And I’m seeing it for the first time. Like Dorothy post-tornado, I’m suddenly in the Land of Oz. The section I thought was flat beige is actually a brilliant blend of gold, mustard, citrine, straw, and goldenrod. What I always saw as blue is in reality a mixture of indigo, slate, cornflower, teal, cyan, aquamarine, and verdigris. I know these colors now, using the palette on Wikipedia’s “color shade” page as my matching guide. I say the names aloud, alerting my hippocampus to file this Technicolor terminology in my memory bank.
Magenta. Azure. Fuchsia. Persimmon. Burnt sienna.
I’m learning a vibrant new language, listening and speaking with my new eyes.
You might remember from previous columns that I am one of the 1 in 200 women who are colorblind. The gene for color blindness is located on the X-chromosome, so it’s quite unusual for a female to be colorblind. Basically, the rods and cones in my eyes are inefficient at absorbing photons, those tiny particles of light that allow us to perceive color. This leaves my visible spectrum painted in muted shades of grey and brown and blue.
I generally forget I’m colorblind until someone points it out. Like the salesman at Sherwin-Williams when I asked for white paint; he was baffled that I couldn’t differentiate between pearl, antique white, ivory, cream, and something called steamed milk. My daughter will often check my Insta photos before I post, as I tend to over exaggerate the color when I edit. Sometimes being colorblind is a parlor trick; people delight in asking, “What color is this?” as they point to something that I will invariably state as grey or brown. The weirdest experience was at a dinner party where someone tried to convince me that female colorblindness is a myth and I was probably just being dramatic. But most days it is simply my truth, how I see the world.
The problem now is that I realize what I can’t see as much as what I can. The company EnChroma reached out after reading about my colorblindness and offered to send me a pair of their glasses (as 95% of the colorblind community is male, I’m guessing they were excited to see a woman writing about it). EnChroma developed an optical lens that selectively filters out certain wavelengths of light. My sort of color blindness occurs due to an excessive overlap of the green and red color cones in my eye, causing hues to become indistinguishable. My new glasses increase the contrast between those red and green color signals, allowing me to truly experience color for the first time.
Hence, the crying and the staring. This elation is more than a brain flooded with dopamine, more than a neural dance in my occipital lobe. The great sage Ferris Bueller reminds us that, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” I don’t want to miss it, want instead to dive deep into hue and shade, tone and depth, absorb every gorgeous detail in the landscape around me. This opportunity to see the world through a different lens is a gift, another cosmic wink to be awake in my own life. It asks only that I look.
There’s much to be said about looking up, about paying more attention. It is, after all, what mindfulness is all about. Can we be present with curiosity? Can we notice what is happening without trying to change it? Can we stay awake to the miracles around us without defaulting to autopilot?
Neuroscientists believe that most of us have present moment awareness only about 47% of the time. That means that we spend more than half of our waking hours ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or simply lost in thought, looking around with blind eyes. But color is a mindfulness gift, regardless of how we personally perceive it. It only takes us looking up and looking around.
I probably won’t wear my glasses all the time, as they sent me the “fitover sunglasses” that make it appear as if I had just had my eyes dilated. But I will no longer turn a colorblind eye to the art on my walls, the stained glass in my windows, or the garden in my backyard. If the eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, I plan to keep mine wide open.