21 March 2009

Dialog in the Dark

I experienced something akin to blindness on Saturday at Union Station's Dialog in the Dark. The exhibit was a tour led by a visually impaired guide who directed 10 sighted people through a series of pitch black environments where we learned - or at least tried - to experience the world without sight. Everything in the exhibit is in complete darkness; it is disconcerting to say the least. The design for the exhibit logo is insightful - a faint light shining from beneath a closed door. This is precisely what my eyes were fawning for in those first moments in the acclimation phase when they slowly dimmed the lights to nothing. It was nearly impossible to convince my eyes to stop expecting to see just a little bit of light somewhere.

Sheila was our guide and she was excellent - so secure and helpful as we all faltered. We moved awkwardly with our new best friends, the canes. Tapping (wrong) instead of sweeping (right). Reaching out for something - anything - what is that? Bumping into one another, calling out for our friends or partners. Is that you? I relied very heavily on the feel of Sergio's corduroy jacket to confirm that it was him near by. I can only imagine how silly we all must have looked.

Which brings up the theme of inevitably imagining how things looked. I believe that one goal of this exhibit is to encourage experience through other senses besides sight. And that did happen, without a doubt. But everything I experienced through the other four senses I translated into images that I had previously gathered by sight. So that in the farmers' market environment, Sergio directed me to a rose he had found, and when I smelled it and touched its petals, a slide show in my brain erupted: images of Mema's roses in full bloom, Mema in her garden, single bright pink blossoms alone, the trellis in Mema's yard, clusters of pink petals on a tablecloth, the thorns. I saw it all in rapid fire succession.

And a new slide show came into my head with each tactile stimulus - the plush toys (images of bright orange, bright yellow), the coffee beans (images of mugs, my canister of beans at home, my coffee pot), the head of garlic (images of my kitchen, my knife, my cutting board). Each item evoked so, so much. And in the city environment when we were crossing the street, passing behind (and bumping into) an old Volkswagon Beetle, I pictured the Beetle in my head and it was yellow. Pale yellow. Very pale. I asked Sergio what color the bug was and he had also seen it as yellow.

In the Dialog in the Dark Cafe environment - still in total darkness - we had the option to purchase a drink or a chocolate bar. We had come prepared with our single dollar bills. Someone accustomed to darkness - Andrea - stood behind the bar and took our orders. We paid and then made our way clumsily back to the booth where all ten of us gathered to chat. I asked everyone what color they thought the VW bug was but they did not respond. Sheila said she didn't know and hadn't thought to ask. Another person in our group asked Sheila if she'd always been visually impaired and she said that she'd been blind since birth. And that made me think - I wonder what yellow looks like in Sheila's mind?

When I was little, I used to love a story book called Knots on a Counting Rope about a little boy who is blind. One passage in particular used to haunt me then and has stuck with me until now - the passage where the little boy who is blind tries to understand what "blue" is. I worked my brain like crazy as a kid trying to imagine "blue" without seeing it. I came up empty handed then; I do now, too. Even if Sheila had known for a fact that the VW bug was yellow (or whatever color it really was), what did she think of when she thought of it? What do any visually impaired people think of when they think of things? I can't imagine what's on their internal screen, if there isn't a slide show like what's on mine.

In some respects, I did still experience the world keenly and differently through those other senses. Maybe the absence of visual stimulation is what cleared the way for all those slide shows. If I'd seen the rose with my eyes, would I have seen all those memories in my head? Would it have been emotional? Elsewhere in the exhibit we learned that the nerve pathways used by our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the part of the brain that processes emotion. Would the smell of that rose been so emotional if I'd seen it? If I'd seen it and it hadn't actually been pink?

I don't know. I could have asked Sheila a million of these questions. Did she know that her shawl was an animal print shawl? What does "animal print" look like to her? Or "look" like? Does she know what the color black is? Is black the color she "sees."

But she had already answered so many of our questions. I couldn't detain Sheila long enough for this manner of inquiry. She thanked us for coming and we thanked her for guiding; she turned away and swept her cane until it found the edge of the mat and then she followed the mat's straight edge out of the end of the exhibit and back around to the beginning.


LO said...

I believe your tour guide lives at the far end of my block - either that or there is more than one blind Sheila working at this exhibit! She and her guide dog ride the MAX to and from her job - on a different schedule than I, but sometimes I see her at the bus stop. I also see her in yoga class at the gym from time to time, and marvel at her abilty to do sightless yoga poses that completely flummox me.

Last November 4, she, her blind husband and a sighted neighbor who had driven them to the polls, stood in line behind me at 6 a.m. as we waited our turn to vote. Everyone in line was chatting amiably, moving forward slowly, when Sheila suddenly asked who had brought the doughnuts. I looked around, seeing no such thing, until finally I noticed a white cardboard box on a chair parked at least 20 feet away from us. An aroma that was imperceptible to me was quite clear to her, and the neighbor pointed out that Sheila's other senses were much more sensitive than ours, presumably to compensate for the one sense she lacks.

I worry about both her and her husband walking on the sidewalk to the bus stop and back home. Our street is lined with sweet gum trees that drop those horrid spiny balls that are impossible to keep swept up and will send you (or me, anyway) tumbling if you step on them the wrong way. I don't know if she can smell the spiny balls or if the guide dog steers her clear of them, but both Sheila and her husband seem to have far fewer problems with them than I do. Maybe seeing the dang things just intensifies my annoyance at them, and thus their presence in my consciousness.

In any case, it's amazing to contemplate the ability of humans to adapt to a range of conditions when we must.

Emily said...

Linda - WOW! I'm sure it's the same person. What a small world. She mentioned voting - said how glad she was that they've made it possible for the visually impaired to vote without assistance now - about how she never liked having to trust a stranger to do it for her. Can you even imagine?

I wondered about yoga, actually. On the day of the exhibit when I was imagining all of the things I do - things like blogging! - that I can't imagine doing without sight. And yoga was one of the things I wondered about.

Love the donut story. So interesting to imagine people in the same place experiencing the world so differently from one another.

Thanks for sharing and further enriching my Dialog in the Dark experience with these behind the scenes images.