Quelle Surprise: A Celebration of the Unexpected

For a while now, I’ve been promising On the Blink readers that I’d celebrate my 40th subscriber with a special entry, a post revealing previously unknown, securely guarded facts about blindness that will shock and amaze. Well, it turns out that On the Blink is celebrating its 41st subscription, so I’m going to unveil one of the most treasured and controversial secrets of blind culture.

Blind people love surprises.

Let’s be honest—blindies just can’t get enough surprises! Whether it’s an unexpected hand on my shoulder, an enthusiastic, unannounced hug, or a sudden flip of the lightswitch that throws the room into terrifying brightness, I live for these moments when my limited vision obscures the key details of life—when comprehension is thrust upon me without warning. Some people remedy their uninteresting lives with motorcycles, leather jackets, or custom tattoos. Not me.

When you have limited vision, surprises are a recurring theme, a cozy companion that visits with intense regularity. If I’m feeling bored with life, I simply have to wait for a moment of distraction, a morning when I didn’t get my coffee, or a crowded environment, and something unforeseen will happen.

Once, during a diversity training, my blind friend Dan and I were discussing the routine surprises we experience. He said, “When I buy soup, I just pick a can off the shelf—whatever feels good—and take it home. Good thing I like surprises.”

In exchange I regaled him with the time I bit into a piece of lemon meringue pie, only to discover that the chef had thoughtfully garnished my slice with a twist of lemon. Many of the surprises in my life are food-related.

Other surprising encounters often involve a person’s desire to share an experience with me. For example, someone will place something into my hand and order, “Feel this!” Regardless of my inclination to feel the proffered object, I’ll find my fingers curling around a Peruvian horned melon or a skein of yarn. On rare occasions, someone will decide that I need to experience a pregnant woman’s belly, and my hand will be mashed against the curve with infinite goodwill.

During a recent trip to the craft store, Katie decided to see how many times she could surprise me. As we stood on the yarn aisle, she called my name and gently tickled me under the chin with a feathered flower on a stick. Later, she took a skein of soft yarn and rubbed my arm. Each time, she moved with unprecedented quietness, cleverly choosing objects for their silence and softness, things that failed to rustle or jingle. Among the yard decorations, she made me feel flower-arranging foam and pebbles of different sizes. She tickled me again, this time with a fake fern.

Of course, I live by the principle of reciprocity: I’m determined to surprise others as often as they surprise me. I’ve found that I can do this best by becoming suddenly capable—surprising others with my untold abilities.

When Christina and I were shopping for sweaters, we had the pleasure of completely baffling a saleswoman. Christina told me she wanted a turtleneck, so I felt along the rack of sweaters, pulling out the ones I thought she’d like. The saleswoman approached us and asked, in broken English, if we needed assistance. I explained that we were looking for turtlenecks, and I pulled one off the rack. “Like this,” I said.

“How did you know?” she exclaimed, her hand flying to her heart. ‘How did you know that was a turtleneck? You can’t see it!”

I didn’t have the heart to explain low vision to her—I didn’t want to overwhelm her. So I explained that I was feeling the neck of the sweater to determine what kind it was.

“Amazing,” she breathed. “You can tell what they are by feeling them!”

Other times, I surprise people by appearing in unexpected locations—especially when I know where I am. Strangers regularly approach to warn me about obstacles I am in the process of avoiding, while acquaintances blurt, “You’re near the edge!”if I’m standing on a curb or step. I feel gratified when observers say, failing to mask their shock, “You really know where you’re going, huh.”

Perhaps the most amusing surprises are the cases of “mistaken identity” that occur daily. The bushes that turn out to be people, the people that transform into garbage receptacles, the signs that materialize out of thin air as the light shifts, all lead to one of two mental refrains: “Oh, that’s what that is!” or “How or when did that get there?” In a constantly shifting visual reality, I learn to become comfortable making mistakes. Seeing an unoccupied chair as a student doesn’t make me feel as foolish as others would think. Instead, it gives me plenty of reasons to laugh at myself: once I’ve discovered what an object  truly is, I can’t help but laugh at the absurd transformation, at the times I’ve brushed against a shrub and said, “Oh excuse me ma’am.” Such surprises feed my poet’s imagination.

For me, the dearest surprises are small moments of unexpected consideration. Earlier this week, on my morning walk through campus, I found my aural environment invaded by the drone of several pieces of lawn equipment. As I passed the library and headed toward my building, I slowed my pace. The air was blurry with a fine mist, and the lawnmowers were loud. However, when I started up the sloping sidewalk between the library and my building, the nearest lawnmower went silent. I could hear the machine idling nearby, and I realized that the maintenance worker had diminished the noise for me. As soon as I had passed safely through that bright, confusing space, and was nearer to the elevator, he resumed his work with the roaring machine.

I carry that gesture with me.

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