In the article we publish today, the outstanding Peruvian visual artist and writer Luz Letts shares very personal aspects of her story and life. She generously and openly tells us how she turned challenges into opportunities by valuing her differences and turning them into her greatest strengths.
The Other Paths
Written by Luz Letts
My hands are different. I am missing some bones and muscles; my wrists can’t flex, my thumbs are skinny and small, and they don’t bend. However, I was fortunate.
Early in her third pregnancy, my mom felt sick. Her gynecologist prescribed thalidomide, pills developed in Germany as sedatives and nausea relievers during the first three months of pregnancy, widely used in Europe and especially in England. What was not known, and was only discovered after a few years, was that thalidomide causes congenital malformations during the first months of pregnancy. In my case, thalidomide only affected my hands, while many other babies were born without arms, legs, or both.
My thumbs are skinny and small, and my fingers are long and straight, somewhat angular. I have marked scars around my thumbs. Adults never ask. I notice that they look at them with curiosity, sometimes with discomfort. The children do ask curious questions. I tell them that I am a distant cousin of Young Scissorhands or that I have amphibious genes. They laugh because they don’t believe me and ask if they can touch them.
When I stretch out my hand to say hello, it’s hard for me to move my thumbs fast because they don’t bend and have no strength, so they dig into the palm of the person I’m shaking hands with. Other than that, they are always very well-behaved. Sometimes they make it hard for me to open locked doors or rugged latches. They are also not strong enough to hold a good glass of beer that slips and, when it falls, creates a big commotion. I usually use my index and middle fingers to avoid those bad passes. That finger combination has saved me despite being banned from using them as an alternative.
When I was three years old, I had surgery on my hands to tidy up the muscles and secure the bones with pins. After the operation, the doctor suggested tying my index finger to the middle finger on both hands to prevent me from using my index fingers as thumbs. That way, I would be forced to use my little pointy thumbs, which would perhaps develop their almost non-existent thenar muscles. My mother and grandmother tied them tightly for most of my childhood. That didn’t stop me from drawing. I drew all the time, it was my favorite game, and I never thought I was copying what I saw because I drew what I imagined.
When I was eight years old, I went to Colombia to have my eyesight operated on by a famous oculist. I was cross-eyed. My eyes had initiative; they looked from different angles when they felt nervous or weak. My mother knew when my temperature rose because my right eye would talk to my ear and my left eye to my nose. It didn’t happen all the time. It was just that loose muscles sometimes wouldn’t move the eyeballs. It happened when I was distracted, nervous, or very happy, well, almost always.
I remember in full color when the nun at my childhood school handed out the passport-size photos taken of us. She always smiled as she named the student whose turn was to pick up the picture at her desk. Suddenly, she stared at the image that followed without mentioning the student’s name, her face stopped smiling, and she turned to look at me. “Well,” she said, “too bad!” Indicating that I go pick it up. My footsteps echoed around the room. I picked up the photo. I had come out cross-eyed, but my big smile betrayed that my picture didn’t know it. I am very fond of that photo because it taught me that what others see doesn’t always match what I see inside. Learning that led me to create very lovable and protective worlds.
The ophthalmologist in Colombia instructed me to wear a patch over the less open eye to exercise the muscle in the other eye. With my fingers tied and one eye bandaged, I was pretty conspicuous. With my other eye and significant effort on the part of my right thumb, I made a portrait with the pen and paper the nurses lent me so I would not get bored in the clinic. He looked the same. Tall, with his white coat, long face, and round glasses.
I see double most of the time. We all see double. That’s why film directors or photographers close one of their eyes and stretch out their arms to clarify the perspective of the photo or shot. Painters do it and so do target shooters. It helps us to pinpoint what we see. It is an attempt to merge the vision of each eye into one. When you are cross-eyed, the difference in the angle of vision is much more significant. If I have both eyes open, one may look up and the other to the side. What happens is that my brain registers the perspectives of each eye separately, like birds. That was explained to me by my current eye doctor.
When cross-eyed children undergo surgery after they turn five years old, their brains register each eye’s vision separately. Then I realized I was not expected to see objects around me fidgeting and shaking. Thanks to my eye doctor’s explanation, I knew I could have two points of view at all times, which is very practical if we assume it metaphorically.
I think of the animals that have eyes on each side of their bodies, like some curious fish, or how clever the little birds are that can find the seeds in the grass and check the cat simultaneously. I also think of Newton, who had the apple fall on his head. What would have happened to the theory of relativity if the only thing that mattered to him was the bump the apple left when it bounced on his skull? The other view – that of the evolution of the species – is the most accurate example of how problems can always find a solution or, better said, evolve because genetically, we humans come from chimpanzees and, much earlier, from an amoeba.
My hands are different. They developed, searching for the best version of themselves, like plants that grow among stones or at the edge of sidewalks yet bloom and even bear fruit like the aguaymantos. That would be a nice metaphor, but I think the adversity of evading stones and cement was not the case for my hands or eyes. On the contrary, I was fortunate because having different characteristics is a way of underlining what we all are: unique. No matter how life is wrapped up, it is always an opportunity, and problems, whatever they may be, must always be looked at from different perspectives.
If you want to learn more about Luz Letts and her art, we invite you to watch the interview we did with her on our YouTube channel by clicking HERE.
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Other readings about inspiring women:
Self-knowledge & Life: An interview with Katia Condos y Muss Hernández
Arianna Huffington, a World Class Innovator and the Importance of Sleeping Well
Isabel Allende’s Creative Process, “Violeta” and her Commitment to Women
Elena Favilli, Francesca Cavallo, and the “Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls” book series.
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