I am milling around in the foyer of the Alberta Abby with about a hundred and twenty other people, sipping a small plastic cup of wine and looking for a number 2 taped to the wall. I am to stand under this 2, with anyone else who might be holding a 2, so that when the time comes we can be lead into utter darkness.
It is a small space for how many of us there are. People chatter excitedly. An older woman stands by the entrance, occasionally pointing across the hall to the restroom, encouraging everyone to use the facilities while they still have a chance.
We group around our numbers, squeezing into a narrow passage along a short staircase. We read over the handout we’re given. As the the wine goes, we each other questions. Do you think we’ll sit at long tables? Or small ones? Will I sit with my people? Or with strangers? Will there be several courses? Or just one big feast? Will we strain and strain to see? Will we be frightened?
I learned about eating in darkness years ago, while regrouping with a friend who had spent a semester studying abroad in Berlin. I don’t remember if my friend’s dinner was specifically billed as an empathetic experience, but the here the event is very frankly called The Blind Cafe, and is designed as a sort of immersive learning experience. From their website:
The Blind Cafe’s mission is to initiate ‘positive social change’ in the lives of everyone who participates in our programs. We seek to entertain and educate patrons … about blindness, the value of active listening in community settings…
Today it is my turn. And soon enough we file down the stairs and a member of the non-sighted waitstaff gets our attention and asks us if we are ready.
When we hit the darkness I drop my bravado and grab hold of T’s other shoulder.
Everything seems incredibly close, claustrophobic. Then it opens up. Amazingly.
I find myself blinking a lot, trying to focus. Squinting. Closing my eyes. Opening them wide. Nothing. There is complete and utter darkness. I turn my head from side to side, to point my ears in different directions and hear the echoing cacophony from different angles. Trying to get my bearings as best I can, guessing at the vastness of the place.
We stop, and are unmoored as the front part of our line is ushered to their chairs. We wait for what feels like a very, very long time.
I feel my server’s hand on my shoulder. I reach for and find his hand. And I hold it.
“There are four chairs. You are number three. You’ll count the chairs. This is number one. “ He places my hand on a chair. “Count”. I do, aloud.
When I reach my chair I reach for and find T’s shoulder to let him know I’m there.
“Are you doing okay?”
We have been coached to buddy up and check in with our buddies periodically throughout the evening, as we will not be privy to the facial expressions that may indicate struggle, worry, fear, or discomfort.
We came as two couples, but T’s partner has been seated at the opposite end of the table, so the four of us just ping each other, and whoever else we are seated next to, whenever there is a lull in the conversation. At times we are yelling over the din. There is a lot of yelling generally in this spacious room, we have no visual confirmation that the person we are talking to is paying attention. And it seems none of us can do a very good job of differentiating one voice over another in the cacophony.
I reach forward for my food, which will be in front of me.
Once we get settled in talk becomes surprisingly mundane — it’s all light conversation with the occasional exploration anecdote. T starts talking to the students across from us, new to Portland, suggesting activities. It’s almost normal. But we’re there for at least forty minute before T realizes he’s sitting next to a wall.
I grope around for the plate of bread our handout told us would be at the center of the table. I discover that I am unsure where exactly the center of the table is. The accuracy of a quick glance is replaced by lengthy timid searching with the fingertips, and again and again I find a plates of other patron’s food instead of bread.
Anthony whispers that he thinks he might be getting used to the light. And that there might be a faint light-bleed, because he can see the table.
I hear that N and the woman across from her are waving their hands in front of their faces, plates. And every so often I do see a faint, faint, faint white table.
And I pretend I don’t, because it disappoints me.
One of the women across the table asks for the last piece of bread, and we perform an across-the-table bread hand off and are immediately successful. This despite the fact that I’m not exactly sure how far away from me she is, nor how wide the table is.
The food is impossible to identify. It is sort of church gathering picnic fair.
I find a bean amongst the elbow macaroni noodles. Anthony holds his plate from the bottom and announces to the table that the plates are in fact the sectioned kind, with three compartments. None of us had noticed.
Knowing the meal is vegan, I bite into what I know cannot be chicken. I search for more, in vain.
I lift my salad plate to my face and eat delicately, lips-and-tongue, craving any sort of pre-ingestion information, the while reflecting guiltily that a blind person could not do this.
I am sitting very upright, keeping my elbows very close to my body. I know vaguely where my fellow diners are, yet short of touching them I cannot be sure where their elbows or plates are. My water bottle is jammed between my legs, T says his is too.
N loses her water bottle cap in her food.
There are three sections on the plate and at least that many courses, but I can’t be sure. I spear a single leaf of cilantro at one point and also stray into a clump of raw onions.
Fortunately there is a salad. Carrots, apples, cooling elements. Unsure if there is lettuce.
There is a sweet potato with things, there is pasta with beans, there is the baffling main, and everything tastes rather sharp. Yet strangely underseasoned. Not much flavor, somehow.
Despite the low roar of sound it is actually very lonely at the table, I only really know for certain where I am in the darkness. While I hear my companions vaguely I don’t have the visual cues that a person uses to feel a part of the conversation while listening. I find myself smiling encouragingly at people as they speak, even though they cannot see me. So I start to tell them so.
I find myself wondering how the others are feeling. I can’t glance to see if they’re eating or just being quiet, waiting to be invited into the conversation in that clever way you do, by asking a more general question, or commenting on something a person is wearing. I have no sense at all of how the others are doing.
So I ask. “Are you doing okay?”
From the aisle where we came in a signing bowl sings out, indication that the Q&A is beginning. Our MC, Ross, tells us that he will ask the assembled panel to introduce themselves. They are four members of the uncertain number of blind waitstaff (more than fifteen, surely) who we have heard all the evening circulating and clicking their canes against the floor and chairs. They all say their name and briefly describe how they became blind. It’s a nice range.
Ross tells us he is blind in one eye, and doesn’t have great vision in his other eye, but is technically sighted. He’s been running the blind cafe for years.
Angel had sight until she was 11, when it gradually left her. Her visual memory is stuck in the 1970s. She likes to know what people are wearing, and is hungry for color. She wants to know not just whether a thing is blue, but if it’s a blue with green in it or just blue-blue.
Adrienne has probably never had 20-20 vision, and has very few visual memories. She can detect light (and sees blobby shadows in the light) but no color. She’s never had color and doesn’t understand it. She illustrates this unintentionally by saying she knows that blue is a warm color.
Trevor has a cranial/facial disorder that pushed his brain against his skull and affected its shape. He had several reconstructive surgeries to keep this at bay as he was growing up, and one of them inadvertently severed his optic nerve. He therefore went blind very suddenly, and had to go to a special training center to learn how to find his way in his new world.
Jim has a degenerative retinitis that meant a gradual blindness. He lost peripheral vision first and then gradually everything. He told a charming story about watching films in elementary school and becoming fearful when the lights were turned off. Many years later, at a French brail museum, He realized, “Oh! I don’t need to be afraid of the dark anymore!” He found literacy in touch.
Because raising our hands is futile, we are instructed to say our name aloud to signal that we have a question.
The questions indicate a sighted crowd scrambling desperately to see, and being unable to even imagine life without sight, despite the current circumstances. There are a few thoughtful questions about color, dreams, how to help loved ones cope with unexpected blindness. However, many of the questions seem a bit strange, and even borderline insensitive.
Q: How do you experience sexual attraction?
Q: How can you tell the difference between a radio and a television playing in the background?
Q: How can you tell day from night?
Q: If you travel how can you experience another culture?
(This last question was not answered directly so much as sparked a long series of delightful stories from Jim about hitchhiking in Poland and later breaking his cane on the subway in Lithuania.)
I find myself wondering: is it really because these people have never closed their eyes tight on a sunny day to feel warm sunshine on their faces, or are we just desperately longing (and therefore, aware) of the vision so suddenly robbed of us? Surely most humans know that there is a lot more to sexual attraction than looks.
However, I am quickly led away from these critical thoughts and at once tumble into I will later think of as the most fascinating part of the evening. Because once the Q&A starts and we leave the world of descriptive immediacy my brain starts feverishly trying to see.
I see Anthony’s glowing table again, and think there must be a bit of light-bleed, yet I experience no change when I close my eyes — instead resolutely seeing the table just as I had done with my eyes wide open. Nor is there a difference when I scoot my plate from one side to another. I fancy I see a darker shape where I know Anthony is, taking up most of my lower corner right field of vision, and perhaps even some vague definition of people around me. But I cannot work out the shape of the room beyond T’s wall, try as I might, squinting, and my field of vision is immediately scrambled and it seems I am in complete darkness again.
Then I start seeing random glowing after-images — as though I’d just looked at a flashlight and then closed my eyes. Faint washes of color pass across my line of sight, then glow vividly, centering on a perceived landmark, and then slide in a different direction, as though trying to find something to land on. To hold onto in the darkness. At first landing at the far right, then sweeping across and jittering at the leftish center, and when I turn my head it’s clear there’s nothing to get hold of and my vision scrambles again.
There are precedents for what I am experiencing. In Bonnie Blodgett’s book, “Remembering Smell,” she describes being bombarded with pungent malodorous smells as her olfactory system was shutting down. She likens this phenomenon to a phantom limb — the brain testing all the circuits trying to work out what’s there. Similarly, in the first segment of Radiolab’s Pop Music episode, they discuss musical hallucinations experienced by those who have suddenly gone deaf. Jad Abumrad later experienced this himself in a fairly vivid way, shortly after recording this episode, and blogged about it.
I suppose it’s a sort of filling-the-void. And for me it is a large void. I give an incredible amount of importance to how things look — I imagine it’s how many artists operate. It is the primary thing I am paying attention to when I move about and interact with the world. I spend every waking moment of every day thinking about how things look and how I would depict them were I called upon to do so.
I pay so much attention to vision and how things look that I find it difficult to separate my other senses — touch, taste, sound — from vision. When I hear voices on the radio I imagine what they might look like, and often warm up in the mornings by drawing them. I cannot feel something without immediately deciding what it looks like. For me there is no such thing as disembodied texture. I suspect my perceived blandness of the food is purely a result of my not being able to see it. When the music starts about forty minutes later I can barely hear it, because I am so distracted by these visions of light and shapes, which at this point are getting quite intense.
Because precedent is one thing, but really experiencing it is another.
It is uneasy to sit in a completely blank room and watch as your brain fight desperately, determinedly, almost mechanically to define a setting that surrounds you. It is taking what little information I do have, interpreting that visually, and trying to find the corresponding external stimuli to pin it on. And again and again it finds none and starts from scratch.
It is trying so hard that I am getting a headache.
There’s a moment in Harriet the Spy when she is deprived of her notebook and feels that, in some strange sense, she is deprived of her brain a little bit. Like she can’t think properly without sorting her thoughts out on paper. I can relate entirely. People have accused me of inattention when they seem me doodling, when in fact (and I try to assure them) it’s quite the opposite.
It’s why I insisted on bringing my notebook into the total darkness, because I knew I wanted to remember key things about it. And while I knew it would be a vivid experience somehow it just wouldn’t sink in for me unless I had some way of writing it down. And (later) drawing pictures about it. It’s just how I tick.
Though of course, that’s not the point, which may be why I didn’t experience the music so purely, or why I was hardly able to pay close attention once the visions kicked in. In some sense I was probably doing myself an incredible disservice by clinging so tightly onto something as hopeless as writing notes, though it has meant I can describe all this so clearly to you here now. Refusing to just experience it directly, insisting on thinking about it made me have a very different experience than my fellow table members.
It’s like going vegan yet going through the trouble to make vegan cheese. Such a decision is a change in politics, not a change of appetite. We made a political decision to spend part of an evening blind, rather than adapt our sensory appetite to rely less on something we no longer had access to. So in some sense, it was impossible to really be as immersed as the organizers wanted us to be.
And I guess: we had the choice. Angel, Adrienne, Trevor and Jim don’t. Neither do the millions of people with vision impairment across the globe.
I don’t want to editorialize much more than that. I would be very interested to attend this again, to see if I could “let go” a little more.