If you evade disability by refusing to accept it, you’re a failure both inside and out. While you’re living this evasion the whole thing feels complicated. But it’s not complex. My childhood neighbors and my parents and teachers didn’t like disability. They hated it. They’d grown up watching newsreels at the movies. The March of Dimes. In one famous short from the 1940’s called “The Crippler” unsuspecting children were attacked by polio, who appeared as a menacing shadow—a pervert at the playground’s edge. My parents believed disabled children were victims of untoward darkness.
Why did it take me so long to figure this out? I wasn’t a victim of the Crippler, my parents views were immaterial… thoughts while shaving…guide dog Corky at my feet in our dormitory room… shaving at a mirror though I couldn’t see my face. One shaves before a mirror because that’s where it’s done, right? There I was, in my thirties, understanding blindness was an inconvenience and not a comment on my life.
So I’d been slow, who cares, I thought. And fuck the Crippler, I thought. And who cuts his nose with an electric razor, I thought. And I lay on the floor with Corky. It was cold linoleum, solid and good. My thoughts went everywhere. Is this how it is when you feel good with a dog, I thought. Thoughts going everyplace like wine on cobblestones. I remembered desperately trying to fit in in high school. At the suggestion of a boy who had a good heart, I tried out for the track team. I ran for a week with a group of boys who outpaced me, following them on country roads, plunging through green mist. I was proud not to be the slowest. There were at least three kids behind me. I ran my lungs out. Then I was summoned to the principal’s office.
The principal was unkind. “You may not run track,” he said. “You’re an insurance liability.”
I was simply too blind for sports. “That’s just the way it is,” he said. “Can I keep the track suit?” I asked. “No,” he said. I resolved to keep them. And after that some kids called me “blindo” in the hallways, which wasn’t as vexing as the body slams I frequently received. And the shoves on stairs.
So of course in fevered adolescence I learned to distance myself not merely from blindness—I’d already learned that—but from any hope I might become part of something. If early childhood was difficult, it had been possible to befriend a few kids—Grimes and the like, just by being a daredevil. But the teen years were more grueling, tinged by social Darwinism, Primatology and tears.
“What if I’m tough?” I said to Corky there on the floor. “What if I somehow forgot about that?”
“What if I kick the Crippler in the nuts?” I said to her.
“What if I make a Voodoo doll of the principal and burn him in a shoebox?” I said.
As a graduate student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop I took a 16 hour bus trip to visit the poet Robert Bly who lived in Minnesota. I rode for two days aboard several Greyhound buses.
When I got to Bly’s house in the tiny town of Moose Lake Minnesota, I asked a stranger if he knew where the poet lived. “Everyone knows where Robert lives,” said the man. “We have a real poet in our town!”
Bly hosted me some hours of joy, reciting poems, talking about Scandinavia, Pablo Neruda, the military industrial complex, a hundred things. But the best part of the day was a small poem. “Have you ever heard this little poem by David Ignatow?” he asked me.
“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment on my life.”
Maybe blindness—my socialized understanding of blindness was my mountain.
What if I’m tough?
My dog thought so.