A Single Shadow

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It was a rather plain ranch-style house in a modest suburban neighborhood. Two car garage facing the street, basketball hoop centered over its door. Concrete path to the front door. Lawn out to the sidewalk. Nothing special, though the property did have one distinguishing feature.

In the front yard, a tall pine tree edged upon the large lawn. Its base was about a yard in diameter. An expanse of coarse bark stretched from gnarled roots up more than ten yards, without a hint of foliage. There, a branch reached timidly out to a yielding sky. Only a handful of other limbs, sparsely needled, followed its lead for another twenty yards. It was not a particularly attractive tree, but it solidly conveyed its place in a history longer than that of the suburban homes around it…

My mother remarried when I was eleven. In the process I had been uprooted from a comfortable social circle, and replanted into this house in an unfamiliar city. I wasn’t thrilled by the changes, but I really couldn’t complain. Instead of my mother and I sharing a room in my grandmother’s small house, I now had a room of my own. In spite of being painfully shy, I figured that I would find a way to fit in… not that I had a choice. It took awhile, but I was eventually able to adequately assimilate.

Occasionally, on warm evenings, neighborhood children would gather in our yard for a lively game of hide-and-go-seek. As the designated seeker leaned facedown against the pine tree, hands shielding peripheral vision, and began counting down, children would scatter in all directions to hide behind various obstructions.

Not me. I would simply walk ten or so paces toward a fence that bordered the neighboring house, and lie down. You see… this tree stood in such a way that it caused the bright light from a lamppost across the street to draw a single stripe diagonally across the lawn.

Nestled on the cool, moist grass, encased within that dark shadow, I would casually watch the seeker find each hider, one-by-one, almost tripping over me at times. The contrasting brightness of the surrounding light enveloped me with invisibility. Since I would always wait until nobody was looking in my direction before getting up, this secret hiding place was never discovered. The other players, startled by my sudden reappearance, would accuse me of hiding in the house or otherwise cheating.

It was a subtle thing… observing from within the middle of everything, while being entirely unseen. Just a slight shift in perception. But, at those moments I felt utterly disconnected from those around me. My young mind visited a perplexing, exciting, and slightly frightening realm. I was right there, in a central, exposed place. And yet, nobody noticed me. How could this be so? Well, it’s about how darkness naturally obscures color.

There are two types of photoreceptors involved in sight: cones and rods. The cones in most people’s eyes are excellent at analyzing detail, determining depth, and perceiving color. But these very important sensory inputs have a weakness: they require quite a bit of light to be effective. This isn’t a limitation during most of our waking hours. However, when light fades, the rods in our eyes must carry more of the workload.

Rods, which have no color perception, are really good at night vision, motion detection, and peripheral vision. While rods are far more numerous and sensitive, cones dominate most people’s daytime visual perception. For most people, when the cones cease to contribute much to vision, spatial acuity diminishes. My vision is somewhat less impacted, as I rely less upon my color-deficient cones. In other words, I have super-rods! I tend to be much more comfortable in darkness than those around me.

Were it not for the particular angle and brightness of the streetlight at that time of evening, my huddled form would, of course, have been obvious to everyone. I’m used to relying more upon the rods in my eyes, but the light was bright enough that everyone else was in full cone-mode. Through a quirk of personal perspective, this dark slice of reality was, at those moments, visible only to me.

What enabled me to see so clearly into this alternate reality, and what kept others from being aware of it? I didn’t connect it to colorblindness at the time. I wondered if there was some fundamental flaw in my ability to connect with others, or if everyone had vivid shadow places… perfectly obvious to them, but wholly invisible to others.

While neither of these wonderings explained the the situation, both eventually proved to be true. ​There are times in youth, when comprehension dawns, but does not fully rise to the surface.

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