Dining In Complete Darkness – The Blind Cafe Experience
last night, my husband and i had quite the unusual date night. it was one where it didn’t matter what clothes we wore, how our hair looked and we sat with four strangers at our dinner table. oh, and it was in complete darkness. i’m not talking like “oh wow there’s barely any light in here” darkness. i’m talking like “omg i can’t see my hand a centimeter in front of my face” pitch black. this was a pop-up event put on by The Blind Cafe in portland, oregon.
first a little about what they are doing and the purpose because it’s incredible (and they are a colorado-based company so yay!)
according to their website, “The Blind Cafe’s mission is to use the concept of darkness to inspire and initiate ‘positive social change’ in the lives of everyone who participates in our programs. We seek to entertain and educate persons on how to relate to themselves and others with a greater sense of compassion and offer an experience that inspires them to think, feel and behave beyond their visual conditioning, social etiquette and their cell phones.”
they also have this note, which is important: “IMPORTANT NOTE: We are not simulating what it is like to be blind! You will get an insight into blindness by hearing the stories of our awesome blind staff and participating in a discussion together but you are NOT going to experience what it’s like to actually be a blind person, that’s just not possible to be in another person’s shoes.”
as we approached the building where this event took place, we passed by windows that looked like this:
i started to feel my pulse quicken and my throat get a little tighter. this was going to be dark. like dark dark. this was going to last two hours. they said there would be wine…
we entered the building, heard a little bit more about what to expect and then were invited to have a glass of wine while they finished the rest of the preparations. these were the rules:
after reading number two, all i could think about was being halfway through the dinner and then having to pee so bad but not being able to. i chilled out on my liquid intake. number four “…wait until you’re called into the darkness” made me sweaty.
after milling around for a while, slowing sipping on my wine, it was time to start. rosh, the founder shared with us a few details. the food was already on the table and there may or may not be a spoon. he said it would be normal to feel a little uncomfortable once you get in there (cue my anxiety flag raising even higher) but take a few deep breaths and be present. ask the person you came with or your table-mates to help you through the feelngs. you could also call a blind waiter over and they would just be with you until the anxiety subsided. if you really needed to leave, they would help escort you out. at this point, i’m feeling about a 5.5 on my 1-10 anxiety scale.
we lined up in groups of six and then had a blind waiter lead us into the darkness. we grabbed a hold of the person’s shoulder in front of us (thank goodness that was my husband for me). we navigated a few small sets of stairs on our way into the darkness, passing on instructions to the person behind us as to what to expect. the woman grasping my shoulder was visually impaired so i tried to be extra clear since she was using me to guide her instead of her cane.
as our human train passed the heavy curtains and rounded the second corner, it was as if a cloak of darkness was draped over me and secured with a rope of anxiety.
the moment i could no longer see, no matter how frantically my eyes searched for even the faintest glimmer of light, my anxiety shot to 9.3 (10 is full on panic attack). it was high. i felt sick. i felt sweaty. i felt like i wanted to get the hell out of there. i grabbed my husband’s shoulder, desperately grasping for stability, both physically and mentally. i tried to stay engaged and not just space out into myself. i forced myself to feel (most of) the fear. i reminded myself i was safe, this was the point of this experience and millions of people are blind 24/7 – not just without sight for a few hours.
deep breaths and not running away – those were my goals.
our blind waiter helped us find the table (with only banging my thigh two times on other tables) and our chairs. after sitting, i searched frantically for my husband’s hand to squeeze. i felt more grounded sitting. my anxiety reduced to a dull roar.
here is what it looked like inside:
fine, i didn’t really take that photo inside because i follow (some) rules and had my cell phone completely off but it truly did look like that.
we were encouraged to start eating. um…are there utensils? someone at our table found a spoon and said it was on her plate as opposed to next to it. i searched around my plate, filling my fingers and under my nails with various types of foreign edibles. success! my hand found the spoon.
i was feeling pretty great about locating my spoon until i realized i had no idea what i was about to eat. i have the tastebuds of a six year old so putting unknown food in my mouth is not on my top 500 things to do list. i found a section of cut potatoes so that started things off in a positive way. someone said they found orzo on their plate so i tried searching for that. the spoon wasn’t any help so i started using fingers to poke around. at least no one could see me, right?
instead, i stuck my hand in hummus. that was okay though because hummus is on my list of things i like to eat! i eventually found the orzo and took a few bites of that. soon after, i encountered a nut of some sort, walnut perhaps? i found i was very hesitant to bite down on hard things because i didn’t know if it was truly edible or could break a tooth or something. this is a privilege i had never considered before now. i brought many empty spoonfuls to my mouth throughout the process of eating but i did notice that the flavors felt bolder and i paid much more attention to the texture of the food.
after a while of eating and conversing with our table mates, two of the blind waiters shared their stories and then opened the floor for questions and answers. questions were asked about how they navigate public spaces, pick out clothes, find people attractive and what their favorite thing is about being blind. that was an interesting question. the names of the two guys who did the Q&A are escaping me (sorry!) but one of them answered that his favorite thing about being blind is that he is constantly forced to face the unknown. he literally doesn’t know what is in front of him but he keeps moving forward anyway.
that made me tear up. how powerful. how positive. how freeing it is to shed tears without judgement.
next we experienced live music – the beautiful voice of rosh and his guitar. no distractions of checking facebook, judging what the singer was wearing, or basing our reactions off of those around us. it was a unique and powerful experience. it allowed me to feel and experience in a way i have never done before. it was overwhelming and naturally, (for me) i had tears rolling out freely. at first i wiped them away rapidly but then again realized no one could see me so i might as well just be, exactly as i am.
the evening wrapped up in an unexpected and meaningful way that i will not share here because i want you to experience it for yourself. The Blind Cafe is in portland for tonight and tomorrow night doing two shows each night and i would highly encourage you to attend one (find tickets on a sliding scale here). it will be like nothing you have ever experienced in your life. they also do pop-up events in austin, TX/ san francisco, CA/ seattle, WA/ boulder, CO and you can find those dates at The Blind Cafe.
although the beginning of my experience was intense and scary, the overall impact this evening had on me was profound. like the important note at the beginning, in no way does this replicate what it would be like to be blind, because that’s not possible. it did help give me a better understanding of how many things i take for granted by having sight and dispelled stereotypes that were floating around in my mind about people who are blind.
i woke up this morning feeling extra grateful to open my eyes and see light. so many times we get distracted by all of the things around us to see, both good and bad. i encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the senses you do have and how powerfully they shape our world. it gave me a new frame of reference for darkness and light.
have you or would you experience something like this?