Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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Stephen Kuusisto to appear on PBS News Hour

Image: Logo of PBS News Hour

Tonight the PBS NewsHour will air a segment about my new book Have Dog, Will TravelThe piece features an interview with Jeffrey Brown whose reporting on literature and poetry is well known to book lovers across the nation. Jeffrey is also a poet whose first collection The News is available from Copper Canyon Press. In our time together we talked about poetry, civil rights, disability culture, dogs for the blind, the field of disability studies, and the power of literature to bring people together around social justice movements. And yes, there’s a lovely dog, Caitlyn, a sweetie pie yellow Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The program airs locally, in Syracuse at 7 PM. Check your local listings.

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Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Disabled and Alone on Campus

I’m a blind professor and the other faculty don’t know me. Oh they recognize me alright but that’s a different matter. One may acknowledge any sign—a traffic cone or ceremonial ribbon—they’re designed for limited provenance. “Stop!” “Go!” “Ignore!” My blindness (and that of each visually impaired student I know) is a sign to be ignored.

An icon is a sign that calls for reflection: the Statue of Liberty or the holy cross. Unfortunately the disability access signs one sees in parking lots and alongside electric doors are not icons. They designate “access” which means “here’s how you get in” but nothing more. For the non-disabled faculty these signs mean: “You’re here. Now don’t ask me to think about you.”

When a sign is just a sign it allows for habitual overlooking. Scofflaws know this. I’ll never forget a rough edged student at the University of Iowa who told me speed bumps had no meaning to him. (He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

In higher education disability access signs are advertisements to the faculty to ignore the disabled.

Consider my story (such as it is): I teach now at Syracuse University where I hold a prestigious professorship. I’ve been tenured at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University. I am, by all measures, “having” a distinguished career in academe.

What’s ironic as hell is that these institutions have not been hospitable, though I’ll give a shout out to Ohio State because they’ve a progressive and talented ADA Coordinator named Scott Lissner who was always there to help me and all other disabled solve accessibility dilemmas.

But this has not been the case elsewhere and over the past few weeks I’ve struggled to get accessible job related documents just as I’ve struggled almost every month over the course of my nearly eight years at Syracuse University.

One of the ironies at Syracuse is that the university was in the forefront establishing the field of Disability Studies some thirty years ago.

When I tell faculty (who are largely without disabilities, or at least none they’ve publicly declared) about my problems I’m mostly greeted with shrugs. Sometimes I get a note saying “that’s too bad.”

And these are the progressive faculty who should care.

Silence means that accommodation signs are just there to be ignored.

Moreover, as every disabled person involved in higher education knows, if you keep speaking up about inaccessibility you’ll be labeled a malcontent.

Pejorative labeling attaches to accessibility signs like lamprey eels to fish. “She can’t get accessible materials because she’s difficult somehow. We all know that.”

Inaccessible software; inaccessible PDF documents; inaccessible handouts in meetings; inaccessible video conferencing and presentations; building after building without accessible directories; a bureaucracy without a system for resolving these issues….these are the daily realities for the blind in higher education almost everywhere.

The silence of faculty around the nation about disability is a direct reflection of the privilege most have—not needing accommodations themselves they’re free to overlook the signs on buildings. They’re just signs, not icons.

Listening to St. John’s Passion

St. John’s Passion. Love and forgiveness are the same. Bach knew its grand scale. I will take today to listen to this oceanic music over and over. I’ll give my sore heart what it so craves.

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Christ is for me a vision of blood and bone embracing the stars. Love is what we’re designed for.

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I will not fail. Not in this regard. This love, hair, flesh, crooked foot, mystery.

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O great love, love without measure.

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I too wish to cradle the world in my arms.

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

Believe in Your Own Flight and the Flights of Others

Alert, gravid, a bit edgy thinking of the republic where I reside, wondering if it’s possible for 21st century Americans to acquire the self awareness required for true citizenship. I’m not a pessimist. I don’t believe Facebook and iPhones have destroyed our body politic. I don’t think the polarization of the so called left and right are inevitable and permanent. American history proves otherwise. And yet, at its best, citizenship is about informed discernment, knowing what you think and why you think it. These days it seems few Americans routinely ask “how did I acquire this position and what might be wrong with it?”

On the right people think anything that smacks of socialism is bad. On the left they think the profit motive is bad. Meanwhile the nation runs on both.

How to not hold one’s head? Take a walk in the winter garden. The earth smells of damp pears.
There are tracks of animals in the snow. I feel a tremendous, terrible freedom under my shirt.

I’m going to ask questions. And here I am, walking on ice polished by the wind.

What’s required to be optimistic?

I’m a believer in life much like proteins “are” life.

There’s a smell of smoke from my neighbor’s house.

Today he is believing in life.

Be in your own flight but believe also in the flights of others.

Of or Pertaining to Always with Disability

No one knows that disability is not any of the things we say about it. Not even the critical disability studies scholars (who believe in narrative’s capacity to affirm and deconstruct social realties) fully understand what occurs inside human beings. Last night, speaking to a group of Muslim students about the Persian poet Rumi I talked about the hidden powers of love that are inside us and can be apprehended in others when we are awake. I spoke about Islam as a faith of spiritual wakefulness to love. Why am I writing of disability in this context? Each disabled being is unique and cannot be known to herself or others without the power of love. I am “on” about this today but it’s in all my written work. Love is from the time of inner voyages. It’s from the shaman’s age. It’s knowing the shadows on the walls in the dark. It’s not a set of protocols. It is never written in rehabilitation plans or accommodation requests. Love isn’t included in the airline’s policy toward disabled passengers. You won’t find it in the legislatures. But you also won’t find it much in the field of disability studies. Why should this be so?

In the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health (which has recently changed its name to the Journal of Religion and Disability) there’s an interesting article by Hans Reinders entitled: “Is There Meaning in Disability or Is It the Wrong Question?” Reinders astutely points out the conventional Christian response to disability which tends to frame the disabled body as either a tragedy or (often worse) a special “gift” from God. What’s missing Reinders points out is conventional religion seeks to frame disability as pejoratively remarkable rather than normal—a matter which in turn means that questions about the dailiness of embodiment are often skirted or overlooked. In turn this means that conventional Christianity can’t address the experiences of not only the larges minority group in the world, but a population that will include everyone in time. 

Religion often panders to the remarkable in lieu of the experiences before us. Reinders describes in turn “philosophical naturalism”—the refusal to ascribe meanings to matters we can’t predict or avoid. Just as there’s no meaning in a flat tire, there’s none for a disabled child. This is an easy position to adopt but positivism often misses the mark with human beings precisely because we’re symbol making animals and purpose is important when reflecting on the nature of life. 

But how little love is mentioned. It is the flame that came through your window this morning as you opened your eyes. It is the flame also inside you. You cannot describe this. Or not easily. How does one say something nearly ineffable about love—“a beam of love passed through me like an invisible star as I walked home with the groceries.” Yet this is the most important area of divinity—the shy, unanticipated, all too often unsung moments when we know we are loved and there appears to be no one else around. Or there is, a stranger, who happened to point you on the right path. 

Since love is always you now sense the import of my title. Love. Embodiment. Strangeness. Always. 

 

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Dogging It

I’m going out to walk with Caitlyn, my guide dog. We’re happy as can be. Nothing in the large world, the cruel civic spaces, the murk of intolerance is going to reach us because moving is holy and love is so vital, so complete, that even on a gray day in snowy upstate New York we’re alive and untouchable! Here we are two years ago at Thomas Jefferson’s library in Washington. Onward! Photo Feb 10 12 20 50 PM