In the summer of 1965 when I was ten I became enamored of a giant wasp nest. The thing was as large as a basketball, perhaps bigger, and it depended from a birch limb. I was in love with the very fact of the nest and I loved that I couldn’t see it. Blindness meant nothing in the presence of those wasps; I had no hunger to understand them visually. That hive became my Bodhi tree. I was entirely still in its company. If you’re sighted you likely haven’t placed yourself strategically under a wasp hive and held yourself still. Sometimes in a convex schadenfreude mental leap I feel sorry for sighted people. They haven’t heard the zith of fast wasps leaving the house.
I know: wasps have nests, not hives but I knew it was more than a nest. I called it a hive. Adults corrected me when I talked about it. I didn’t care. It was the Taj Mahal. That was my first experience with the art of blind-decision. I’d no use for sighted words. Or if I did, I could pick and choose them. Meanwhile the wasps didn’t care. They were beautiful. They let me sit underneath them. They didn’t sting me.
Yes I see the trouble with this story: unstinging paper wasps and sightlessnesss combine and swap around until they are a mystical alembic. Yes I’m in danger of saying I was a boy-Tiresias, a seer, Orphée des guêpes. But that’s just what I was. I was the maestro of stinging insects. I was stealthy. Mindful. Given to curiosity. Those are facts. At the center of romanticism you’ll find the truth. Crippled romanticism is no different.
The disabled must anticipate objections to their viewpoint in advance. In rhetoric this is called “prolepsis” and its a dynamic of argument. I know you won’t believe me. You shopkeeper I know you don’t want me in your store. You physician, I realize you don’t want cripples I your waiting room. And the Human Resources types—how they can’t stand us with our breathing tubes, crutches, oversized wheelchairs, dogs, assistive technologies, sign language, Braille transcribers—just the sight of us can cause Better Business Bureau types to faint.
Blind I must anticipate expostulations and grievances. One may say that being disabled in a world clinging desperately the fiction of normalcy and good health is much like the act of writing. We must know what contrarian abstract readers will find troubling or inconvenient and find ways to put it over. And one more thing: to get the point across without apology.
Ableism, the experience of it, requires the French adjective écœurante —for disability discrimination is heartless and sickening. I recall the professor of English at the University of Iowa who said blindness would preclude me from being in his “famous” graduate class on Charles Olson. Another prof snickered because I read books on tape. When I protested, the chairman of the English department said I was a whiner. I wept in the Men’s room of the English-Philosophy Building. My path to a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa was blocked. This was six years before the ADA was signed into law. Who was I to imagine a place at the table?
If you want to be in the world as a cripple you’ll live in prolepsis, step by step, wheel rotation by rotation, breath by breath.
Sometimes the wasps got drunk on rotten fruit.
Sometimes they carried beetle larvae.
Sometime they sounded like buttons thrown against glass.
Sometimes I fell asleep listening.
Yes, the wasp will build you an inner life.
Yes, they carry yeast back to the spring grapes.
Yes, there’s no wine without them.
Yes, they are wholly misunderstood.
So I must anticipate you, always, whoever you are. “You” a receptor whose thoughts of disability are cinctured with Victorian string.
I see this is imprisonment. I who must think about you thinking about me in the pejorative.
In a meeting at the university where I teach I must raise my hand to say the power point is inaccessible; the texts are inaccessible; the website…
Even as I commence lifting my arm I feel threads of prolepsis growing taut under my skin.
Of course you my reader can’t be the you I anticipate.
Of course the wasps were themselves, aleatoric, driven by winds.
“Label jars, not people,” says the sign on the bulletin board outside my office.
I can’t straighten my citizenship to fit the sidewalk.
I walk in circles and they are altogether warming.
The wasps were to be admired because they did not circle.
Wasps were my very first accommodation.
ABOUT: 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.
(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