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Trusting the Dark

When you are blind, people’s first questions generally aren’t about your inner life. Assuming they make it through the first strained minutes of realizing the utter foreignness of talking to someone whose gaze has drifted into the clouds, their questions are generally centered on managing the worldly things: traveling, cooking, working a nine-to-five. The exceptionally bold might ask about family relationships or, tentatively, whether the absence of a scrap of make-up on your face is an aesthetic choice or a concession to the alien demands of disability. What it all boils down to, these little curiosities from the most well-meaning hearts, is “Don’t you mind? Isn’t it at least a little terrible being in the dark all the time?” This is oddly considerate of them, and a deeply human consideration. No one bothers to ask whether the night-birds mind murmuring and chattering long after the sun has set. No one wonders out loud how the wolves manage for food having nothing but the moon as a guide. Yet we, as humans, are stymied by the idea that another human might walk in the dark. The psychological reasons for that are entirely beyond my qualifications to explain, but if I were a betting woman, I’d have to say it’s because we, as humans, are thoroughly terrified of our own imagination. We’re scared out of our wits of what might happen if the world before our eyes gave way to the world in our heads. I’m telling you this, not because I think blindness needs to be understood (there’s quite enough awareness literature for several lifetimes), but because I don’t want you to be afraid of the world in your head, the world of your felt experiences and other senses, the world you co-create when you think all you’re doing is daydreaming. Blindness drops you headlong into that world, and you begin to discover that, far from being formless and void, that dark world is rich and fertile and scattered with stars.

People have tried all kinds of ways to simulate being blind. Children close their eyes to play hide-and-seek, adults wear blindfolds and are led, frightened but laughing, in “trust walks” for team-building, and good-hearted charities pretend to understand by offering experiences with occluded goggles. I used to wonder why, but the more I watched people participate in these games, the more I realized how deeply exhilarating it was for people to be open to darkness. Darkness gives us permission, permission to explore, permission to germinate, permission to create without the glaring lights of comparison.

Darkness is the world of the entirely uncharted, and what child hasn’t wanted to run boldly into unknown territory, discovering and playing and seeing how we move in this new world. The old rules don’t seem to apply, and we’re free to explore sounds and textures and ideas and imagination without concerning ourselves with the overtly visible and allowing ourselves into the subtleties of the other senses. One evening a few months ago, while I was out for a walk, I heard the emphatic, throaty hoot of an owl in our neighborhood. We don’t usually have owls in our area, and I didn’t have anywhere pressing to be, so, guided by my ears, I followed the owl’s voice. I followed it all over my neighborhood and into the next, exploring as I went the smell of one house’s rosemary bush, the decisive click of my guide dog’s nails on the pavement punctuated by the slap of my running shoes, the weightless joy that comes from breathing fresh, slightly chilled air scented with woodsmoke. I followed that owl for the better part of an evening, giving into all of my senses in a way that those of us who walk in the dark enjoy the most. If I had been able to find the fellow-creature with my eyes, that certainly wouldn’t’ve made the experience any less delightful, but I would’ve deprived myself of the pleasure of using my senses as a compass.

Our senses are, of course, a flawed compass. We tend to think of due north as “things that are pleasing and simple for me,” but here again is where darkness can be instructive. Darkness does not allow us to only use our senses to float airily through the world exploring beauty, though it is certainly an incentive. Darkness forces us to grow, to work, to change direction, and, more often than any self-respecting blind woman will admit, to fall. Blindness is not just our velvet-dark adventurous side, but our soil, the black earth where we are nurtured, tried, and grown. Germination is not pretty. There’s very little striving, very little to be inspired by. For the first month after I planted my first herb garden, I was wistful and embarrassed because the whole thing looked like a waste of time, just a little patio planter of dirt, staring up at me accusingly. What I didn’t know was that the process of growth started well below the surface, in darkness. When we are plunged into the black soil and are expected to grow, the experience can be a shock. The vulnerability of it alone is enough to send any red-blooded human into a tailspin, the exposure of knowing that you might be a lone traveler, that others walk by light and don’t know another way, that if you’re not extraordinarily careful, you could be subsumed into the dark, have it become your identity. This is where I remind you, with the gentleness of experience, that soil does not cover a seed to smother it but to nurture it. While you are growing, you will be fed. Walking in the dark can feed creative passions, it can feed a desire for learning and a need to build community. The earth is endlessly creative, imagining constant new varieties of beauty and intelligence, yet never once have I heard soil say, “This one of my creations is so much better than the other one.” Creating from the darkness means creating without comparing, without holding your creation up to the light and finding it wanting. It means creating out of that vulnerability, that exposure that threw you into the dirt in the first place. There is a depth to that kind of creativity, a reality that doesn’t have the brittle sheen of knowing it will be compared to another. I can always tell when I hear a piece of music or feel a sculpture or read a novel created by someone who has traveled in the dark, someone who, though not blind themselves, understands fully how darkness incubates the inner world, someone who is quietly unafraid.

When I’m asked, with the best intentions, about the nuts and bolts of travel and movement and relationship, I want to answer, because those questions are important, but I often wish I could answer the question that is always underneath, that pulsing, unspoken, “Don’t you mind? Isn’t it terrible?” Yes, in the sense that all beautiful things can inspire terror because they invite us into the world of the senses and imagination, because they demand our absolute openness and tender courage, because they expect a certain amount of pruning and falling if they are to be understood. Once you feel yourself nurtured in the darkness, the rest is easy. There is nothing truly esoteric about blindness. Our own human nature already knows how to do the rest. The desire to know, to explore, to fall again and again into the soil, to be pruned back to make room for beauty, all of these things were accessible to us before we even opened our eyes.