Update: The Blind Cafe is no longer in business but this post still depicts what it’s like to dine in the dark.
Two years ago I challenged myself to do something that scared me every day for the month of December. I called it Fear Factor December. The activities ranged from small and mundane, like sitting through a horror movie without covering my eyes, to more interesting feats, like floating in a sensory deprivation tank. I remember the anxiety of being alone and literally in absolute darkness and how my experience amazed me. I walked away feeling relaxed and loved how without sensory perception, I felt like I was floating in outer space. In that December, some fears were conquered (being in the pitch black) and others remained a constant companion in my life (my fear of needles). So when South Austin Foodie invited me to be her guest to a night of dining in total darkness, I was intrigued but not exactly scared.
I don’t know why I was so confident. One experience differs greatly from the other. The only commonality between my floating in a sensory deprivation tank and dining in the dark is being in total darkness. Dining in the dark brings up many small anxieties, such as, how do you determine if someone is speaking to you, trusting strangers to guide you to your table, trusting your tablemates to not spill the olive oil when they pass it to you, the anxiety of navigating a plate with a spoon without being able to see what you’re eating, and so forth!
The Blind Cafe is a traveling non-profit organization hailing from Colorado. They aim to inspire positive social change through their dining events held in complete darkness and facilitated by legally blind speakers and facilitators.
So what’s the format to one of these events?
You show up at the venue. In our case, it was American Legion. Maybe you have some wine and wait to be seated. You’ll be section off with your tablemates and together you line up, hand on each other’s shoulder, the first person being led by a blind person into the dark eating area. It’s likely that you and your tablemates have never experienced walking in the complete darkness before, so you take baby steps. Your guide takes you to your seat and you feel around for a table in front of you to get your bearings. You carefully sit. Once everyone is at your table, you can begin eating a plate that has already been set for you.
I have never eaten in the dark before. The closest I’ve gotten is eating at the movie theaters. What I love about this experience is that it sheds some light (ha!) on the things our eyes have made easy for us. Like eating. I never had to think about spoon and napkin placement. Or where the food is on the plate. I never had to worry whether my utensil even has food on it. Frustrated and inept, I defaulted to using my right hand over the spoon. Unlike blind people, we were all afforded the peace of mind that no one can see us struggling to feed ourselves.
As everyone began eating, the blind hosts and servers introduced themselves and told us when they lost their vision. One person lost his vision when he was a toddler. Others later on in their lives. The blind speakers and facilitators began to start taking questions. They set the scene for a candid and kind conversation by already joking about their blindness. “If you have any questions, raise your hand!” Laughter. Then a clarification, “if you have any questions, just announce your name and then ask.”
They were asked about how they make fashion choices and keep their clothes sorted. (They have a sorting system that may involve the way they cut their tags or add safety pins to their tags. Or they just let their wives dress them. Or they rely on their fashionable friends and also FaceTime like apps where they can ask for help from their friends or volunteers.) I asked them how they learn to trust people without having sight to read body language. (They learned to read tones and energies, just as we do when we speak to people on the phone.) They were asked what was the biggest hardship they carry. (Everyone agreed that it was being seen as less than, or ironically, not being seen at all! Feeling invisible.)
It was a heartwarming night full of candor and human connection. I recommend this experience. If you’re in Austin, they’re coming back in February. I also saw upcoming events in Portland, Seattle, and Boulder. At the very least, it was a reminder that part of the human condition is the desire to be seen.
After the discussions and frank conversations, we then listened to a band called Constellation Prize, their lead singer also a blind person. It was good music. And I danced in my chair like no one was watching.
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