The Blind Cafe

Last Friday I attended an
event for The Blind Cafe. I went with a dear friend of mine, and I wanted to
share the experience with all of you as it is such an interesting
concept. 

Here’s the gist-a community event where you purchase tickets to
a specific time and upon arrival you are greeted, introduced to all the
information you need to keep yourself and everyone around you safe, lead into a
pitch black room where you enjoy a meal, a Q&A, and a music experience all
in complete darkness and facilitated by legally blind individuals. 

We arrived about 15 minutes early, but the doors don’t open
until the time specified for the event, so we walked around the neighborhood
and found some swings to chill at. It was a nice contrast to begin the evening
by taking in all the glorious spring blossoms and greenery as I swung with my
head tilted way back and started at the world upside down. We chatted about our
first crushes (his a girl with a pink bow and a pink dress, mine MC Hammer). We
meandered back after a few minutes, stopping occasionally to entertain my whims
as I found bright, bold colored flowers in every direction I turned. 

As we entered the space (this event was held in what I assume
used to be church, but is now used for ecstatic dance and other fun and funky*
community events) *some pun intended hehe, we were asked to turn our cell
phones O-F-F, off. Not on airplane mode, not on vibrate, but actually,
completely, 100%, oh my goodness I didn’t realize how attached to this device I
am off. I took a breath, and decided I could do this. I turned my phone off.
Then we checked in and were directed up a little set of stairs where wine,
water, ginger ale, and dark chocolate were available. I still had to drive later,
so I chose bottled water, as did my friend. 

We were greeted by 2 of the event facilitators, both of whom
were blind and very pleasant to chat with. Both of whom, had more interest in
what I do than chatting about themselves, but then again, I’m guessing that’s
not very common haha. We hung out in this little area and were reminded a few
times that we should use the restroom before the event starts (as I looked
around and wondered how the people who bought bottles of wine would fare with a
2+ hour event). There were lots of puns and jokes about blindness that, in my
opinion, all held up pretty well. Of course, I’m pretty easy to entertain, but
still the banter was nice and eased that bit of awkward tension that comes with
a new experience. One of the facilitators mentioned that they’d be bringing around
a live alligator for us to pet later. haha. I thought that was awesome, but
obviously not getting the joke, I was informed that he was only kidding.
Boo. 

As a collective we stood there, awkward and unknowing,
chit-chatting about nothing in particular as the voices we heard aloud were
merely to cover the unpredictable experience we were all so hopelessly devoted
to pondering internally. We all tried to play it cool, like “I’m not
afraid at all. I’m super brave, and this is totally normal…” but inside, at least
for me, it was more like “What the hell did I get myself into? What if I
freak out in the dark? Am I afraid of the dark? When’s the last time I was in a
completely pitch black room? And with a bunch of strangers? What if someone
else freaks out? What if I have a panic attack? What if I accidentally do
something offensive?” And as the thoughts swirled like the water in my bottle I
was suddenly brought to my senses again as my ear caught ahold of a note so
soft and sweet that it actually put to rest all of the concerns of my unknowing
mind. It was the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl that brought the room to
attention as Rosh, one of the leaders of the event, greeted us all and
collectively calmed and connected us. 

He chatted with us a bit explaining how it was all going to
work, and asking us for the 11th time to “not be that guy” who only
pretended to turn off his phone. We learned that we will be lead into the room
in groups of 8, holding the shoulder of the person in front of us, and that a
facilitator would be around to check on us every 10-15 minutes, so if we needed
anything or if we were freaking out to wait if possible, and if not to simply
call out for help verbally (using the help of the voices around us if
necessary). He asked us not to check the time, check our messages, or do
anything that would bring so much as a needlepoint of light into the space. He
told us that food would already be on the table, so we should watch out elbows.
We were told there would be a Q&A and music at the end. 

I went to the bathroom in the brief moments in between this
speech and being directed to the event space. We gathered a group of 8 of us,
quickly made introductions before Rosh returned to bring us down, and I
immediately forgot the names of everyone. Crap. As we stopped at the top of the
stairs I gently placed my right hand square on the shoulder of whoever’s black
jacket was attached to the man in front of me (John, Paul, Ringo, Longhorn,
nope, still can’t remember). We were lead, slowly, then a bit quicker through a
thick draping, then through what felt like a dry car wash as the light began to
fade. By the third draping we walked through all light had disintegrated into
the weightless, timeless abyss that would be our home for the next 2
hours. 

We slowly, carefully, made our way to the chairs that were first
to the right, then to the left…then a little more to our left. I sat, and
quietly asked if my friend had found his chair as well. Without too much
trouble we seemed to all find our seats. I then began to explore the void in
front of me. Lucky for me, I was seated at the end of a table, so I quickly
found the edge and carved out my safe zone as I carefully nudged my fingertips
further about. Soon I found a fork, and ooh, what’s that, a spoon? A napkin,
plate, water bottle, a little to go soup container with a lid (thank goodness)
that had contents that swayed slightly as the viscous occupant found
equilibrium in the sloshing of my less than gentle swishing. I am apparently
not afraid of spilling things once I find it has a lid…this has proven to be
overly optimistic many times in my life, but tonight I somehow managed to not
spill. Yay me! 

We began to adjust to the obscurity around us and find comfort
in defining boundaries of this new world, sometimes discovering food, other
times nothing, and once in a while, the comforting hand of another explorative
being. Realizing after a few minutes that I hadn’t blinked much, I asked
aloud to no one in particular “does anyone else feel like they haven’t blinked
in a while?” Getting at least one positive response made me feel a bit better.
My eyes continued to adjust, making every effort to find any needlepoint of
light to grasp onto in the shadowless expanse. With nothing to be found my
brain decided to make an effort sporadically bringing up color-like dots,
dashes, lines, and blurs. Like an unknown language penned in artificial light,
my brain created rifts and tides attempting to create meaning in the
meaningless.

After
several minutes of chit chat about what each of us was feeling, doing, and
seeing, myself and other woman at the table asked if others had begun to eat as
the two of us had been waiting for instruction. The
less-troubled-by-proper-etiquette people around us stated with obviously food filled
mouths that they were half way through the salad already. Realizing that the
etiquette for such an event is only self-induced as long as not imposing on others,
we followed suit. The meal we were provided was vegan, except for the hide and
seek bread and butter that we were encouraged to find and share as a table…ours
found the bread, but sadly the butter eluded us all…or perhaps the butter was a
myth- I mean if I tree falls….haha. You get it.

The
meal for this event was a salad with lovely crisp bell peppers and a dressing
of no particularly discernable flavor other than acceptable, something that may
or may not have been quinoa, and these little sweet fritter type things that we
collectively decided must have plantains in them. As it turns out, when I am
given food, even of the vegan variety, I will eat unabashedly and without
hesitation. It seems that when no one can see you, I still feel the need to
wipe my mouth as soon as I can feel I missed my target a bit, and conversation
in the dark is more come and go as there’s no one attempting to hold my gaze or
convince me with their expression how into this story I should be. I literally
could disappear at any moment and no one would know.

I
promised my friend no tricks for the evening, as I tend to be the type to once
in a while sneak up on him…at his front door…when I just texted him to meet me
downstairs. Hehe. I’m hilarious, I know, but in the dark I felt like too many
surprises might be a bad thing.

The
Q&A went pretty well after being brought back together with the lovely
singing bowl. We got to ask a lot of questions overall, including my less than
perfectly worded “How can we treat blind people with honor and dignity?” I was
hoping to get something more than “treat them like a normal person,” because I
already knew that. The only down side was when one woman decided to be “Too
Portland For Portland” and ask a question that eluded to her believing that The
Blind Café was discriminating against her because she was a woman or some such
nonsense. After a decidedly collective eye roll and internal long groan, they
answered that the only reason they didn’t call this woman before that man is
because they heard his name more clearly and the only reason they didn’t have a
blind woman as a facilitator was because they couldn’t find one, and that yes,
blind women likely do have different challenges than men, but that they weren’t
experts on that. Bingo pajama, that was irritating for me. No miss, The Blind Café
is not attempting to be discriminatory, it’s sort of in their motto. So much of
my view of feminism has been tainted by the version of feminism where they want
to feel equal and entitled at the same time. You can have your cake, but you
can’t eat it too. Ok. Sorry. Rant. Over. Now.

We
were then handed a basket of desserts to pass around which was fun. I was
handed ours first, and proceeded to fish out my little covered dish of some
sort of gritty vegan banana-ish pudding that sort of made me want to gag. I put
mine down pretty quickly. My friend proceeded to search around and gulped mine
right up (he’s used to vegan food). I felt bad because I tasted mine before the
far end of the table got theirs, and I may have ruined the experience for
others with my verbal disgust of this chalky, sand-like disaster. But I wasn’t
there for the dessert. I was there for the experience of going through basic
human tasks without the context of vision, which was fun and interesting.

After
dessert they played some live music, which was wonderful, except for the part
where Rosh (or who I assume to be Rosh playing) kept using self-deprecating language
when he would mix up some part of the music. In my world that sort of talk is
not to be allowed, and it really spoiled the experience for me. All I wanted to
do was go up and hug this man who felt the need to share his lack of self-worth
with us all when, from where I was sitting, his music was wonderful.

On a
side note I think I may have a learning disability around music. Many times in
my life I’ve had people be eternally frustrated by my lack of awe, rhythm, or
interest in most music. Don’t get me wrong, I like music. I listen to a lot of
music, but I don’t seem to connect with it as intimately as most do, and as I
proved to myself yet again this morning in Zumba, the rhythm is only gonna get
me if I turn into someone else who has it already as mine is wherever the
missing socks go.

They
had us sing along at different parts, and at first people were a bit shy, but
being in the dark I believe allowed people to be a bit bolder. By the end of
the singing it was like a beautiful church choir in the joint with loud, strong
voices in all directions.

At
the very end of the evening they did a thing with the thing that makes the
whole thing happen, but I won’t spoil that part for you as it really was
incredible and also because it would sound silly without having experienced it
for yourself.

All
in all I would say that if you have the ability to attend one of these events,
please do yourself and your community a favor and go. Feel the feels. Do the
things. Try. Experience what life is like without the input of vision. I have
learned from this that in the dark we are all the same color, shape, size,
height, nationality, and vulnerability. What really matters in this world is
that we recognize that even something simple, like closing our eyes to gain a
little insight, can open our hearts to the miraculous world of self, community,
and connection. While humility is something I will never master, it is
something I always want to strive for. This experience is one more reason I can
keep my feet on the ground, my heart open to the world around me, and my mind
open to new possibilities.

If
you would like to learn more and perhaps attend an event in your local area
please visit: https://www.theblindcafe.com/

Peace, Love, and Cuddles,

Samantha Hess