About skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

Easter Wings

My father died on this day 19 years ago. Though he was nearly 80 he was in good health and his sudden passing was therefore unexpected. In the subjective I’ve never been able to celebrate Easter since by which I mean the easy, fanciful, chocolate bunny American Easter. Because my dad died on this day I’ve been compelled to confront the resurrection of Christ in its ur-ontologies—if we’re stricken here, with death inevitable, what does the promise of life everlasting through Jesus mean?

Augustine wrote:

“And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here.”

Note the demarcation of sight and heart—the old Christian insistence that we see as through a glass darkly or in turn we do not really see at all. Faith is sight according to the church and that sight is inward, unlimited, joyous.

Strictly speaking everything you can no longer see is in your heart. Your poor heart. It must stand for memory, soul, eternity, and be the church itself.

The Christian heart is a big thing.

Sight and heart and memory and faith become one with the resurrection of Christ.

You might say it’s easier to believe in the chocolate bunny. Augustine:

“Consider seriously, how much we should love eternal life, when this miserable life, that’s got to end anyhow some time, is loved so dearly … So you love this life, do you, in which you struggle, and run around, and bustle about and gasp for breath; and you can scarcely count the things that have to be done in this wretched life: sowing, plowing, planting, sailing, grinding, cooking, weaving. And after all this, your life has got to end anyhow … So learn, brothers and sisters, to seek eternal life, where you will not have to endure these things, but will reign with God forever.”

Now Dear Saint Augustine, seeking eternal life is so much harder than getting ahold of some chocolate eggs.

The striving for optimism—an ontology of meanings, good meanings, affirmations beyond just this one life—this is what striving and the heart are for.

This much I know.

And here is my favorite Easter poem….Easter Wings by George Herbert:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

If I Could Call You

Yes you’re long gone and I’m still a man of complaint
So irony (glue of absurd eternity)
Keeps us. I miss you mother.
You didn’t like my blindness
So you were of no help
Like a steamfitter
Without pipes—but no matter
You were the funniest wretch.

In a swamped rowboat
You cried “my fishies
Are getting away”
Dead perch floating
About your head.
You were always too drunk
To row but sober enough
Death was an Irish laugh.

Of course you died badly.
You’re long gone
And sometimes
When I talk to my horses
Under the cold peach trees
I speak the smooth
And outgoing life
You should’ve had.

Up Early, Thinking of Alexander Pope and Disability

First I should say I make mistakes. I once believed in ardor and imagined it was enough. Loving books was enough. Greeting each day with my love of fool’s gold was enough. Pity the man or woman who believed too much in art.

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” 
― Alexander Pope

As I say, I make mistakes. I have expected quite the opposite of nothing. Ardor means at the very least the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness. That alone isn’t much of a mistake, its wired into every infant. Even the nematode worm has something like it. No, my ardor was gangrenous from the start. Frankly, I believed that writing about disabiity taken as phenomenology, taken as epistemic process, understood as a profoundly beautiful way of being would gain attention. I do not mean I thought I would win the Pulitzer Prize or be vaulted into the realm of celebrity writers—not at all—but I did imagine that Americans would come to see disability as a significant part of diversity and this has not happened as much as I’d hoped. Ardor wasn’t enough.

There are tremendous disabled writers in the United States and around the world and we can’t get on the main stage of literary conferences. We’re not routinely invited to speak at festivals devoted to books. We remain curiosities. No one should make the mistake of thinking poetry would make them famous or rich but back in 1998 when I published my first memoir “Planet of the Blind” to some acclaim I let myself believe that mainstream literature was finally ready to hear what the disabled had to say.

I was wrong about that and though I don’t know what I mean by “mainstream publishing” I know what its effects are, the soul crushing novels by able bodied writers that employ disabled characters as bleached plot devices—books both popular and utterly creepy. Books that do lasting damage to real disabled people. Anthony Doerr’s wholly false blind teenaged girl who’s so helpless she must be bathed by her father; Jo Jo Moyes; and just this week a new novel depicting a man who’s face becomes paralyzed which, presto, means he goes nuts—two misreperesntations in one.

I admit it: I thought that by the time I was in my sixties I’d see disability on the stage with people of color, queer writers, writers who hail from the far ends of the earth, as folks who can speak for themselves, have tremendous talent, and know where more than a few of the keys to the mind-body schism are greased.

Yes I was wrong.

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” 
― Alexander Pope

If I am wiser it is due to comic irony. I look back on my past and say “oh, don’t do it!”

Don’t go on the Oprah Winfrey show where she’ll ask you if you know what she looks like.

Don’t go to the Associated Writing Programs conferences where you’ll hear able bodied writers talk endlessly about how poetry can heal you from affliction—as if being disabled is a failure of imagination.

Don’t take academic jobs believing you will have a great impact. You’ll have some, but not much. You might succeed in getting them to put in an accessible bathroom on the third floor of the English building.

Know as Alexandar Pope did that your days will be filled with phsycal obstacles and terrible whanging headaches and that work, earnest, probative, thoughtful work is all we can do in this life. It is the only thing we can guarantee.

“Act well your part; there all the honour lies.” 
― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

I Live in No Country

I spent a dark month translating poetry in the far north and the poems followed me into sleep. Saarikoski’s snakes talked to my dream ears. I don’t always remember dreams but the snakes stayed with me. They followed me in the department store and came with me on the bus. I thought perhaps I should change my name to Asklepios. I also considered the bones inside the snakes. Those glassine springs with their electricities and appetites.

**

If you’re a reasonable woman or man or child you know you belong to no country.
This is the thing—poetry’s reification if you will—I belong in no room, no meeting, no tent.

**

The saddest poets are the ones who keep trying to put up a tent when there isn’t any rain in the forecast.

**

Walking early today thinking of Immanuel Kant, his a priori intuition and the elegance of reason. The snakes’ skeletons still following me down the street.

Now Batting for the Yankees, the Tooth Fairy

There are phrases that are always untrue—”the revolution will not be televised;” “trickle down economics;” “one size fits al”l—and Americans love them. We love them regardless of education, employment profile, social or ethnic background. We’ll take direction from jingles: “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” One might add: “or else.”

In the Human Resources world nouns are also jingles: diversity and inclusion for instance. That diversity and inclusion are bulwarks rather than invitations never dawns on the HR crowd. Those of us who hail from historically marginalized groups know the fortress effects of language.

I”m now at the age when I’m thinking about the things I’ve championed but will never see when it comes to my work life. The American university will not soon be truly welcoming to the disabled or people of color or anyone who is branded as needy. Admissions is part of HR and HR hates the vulnerable. They cost too much unless you can monetize them as is the case with minority student athletes.

I joked one day with a group of disabled students and said “if they could make a profit off our presence they’d be eager to have us.” “Let’s all beg,” said a woman with a power wheelchair. “I’m blind,” I said, “I can sell pencils.”

So I have this vision that colleges and universities will become in the next decades post-embodied sites where the quality of ambition and desire are valued more than privilege or easy bucks.

I might as well say I believe the tooth fairy will bat third for the Yankees.

Goodbye, Bird That Shat On Me

My mother was an alcoholic and not a functional one. Her life was marked by drawn curtains, broken fingers, phantom pains and prescription drugs which, mixed with scotch tended to make her psychotic. When I was a college freshman and no longer living at home she stalked my younger sister around the house clutching a knife. My sister took refuge in a locked bathroom and waited it out. By dawn our mother was asleep on the living room floor in a tangle of shoes and bottles. This story is in no way singular—my sister and I are just tiny dots in the ocean of abused children. The story of my adult life has been the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance, forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I think forgiveness and compassion are different as forgiveness can be merely political and compassion is more concerned with lovingkindness.

I work with people who don’t necessarily like me. Chances are good you do too. You may be tougher than I. You might not care about the ghosting malevolence of the workplace, the soiled superegos of competitively unhappy souls who turn up in every meeting, warehouse, classroom—or for that matter even in leisure spaces. Me? I tend to care too much about the opinions of others. This is because the long emotional after effects of my upbringing make me prone to a knee jerk impulse to fix things. If people are ugly I think it’s my job to improve them.

That’s of course its own addiction. I’ll solve your problem. Get you another drink so you won’t hit me. Disguise the damage to the best of my ability. I’ll make excuses for you. I’ll imagine your unhappiness is my fault.

Until one day I don’t. One day after attending Al Anon and undergoing some excellent therapy I decided my mother was on her own.

Nowadays I attend to my own esteem though not without set backs. There’s a senior professor at the university where I work who went out of his way to sabotage me behind my back—an ableist, smug, privileged “shyte” as the Irish would say. I don’t think I can forgive him and I certainly can’t imagine offering lovingkindness.

I know this is what I should do.

I’m a lefty Episcopalian.

Then it dawns on me: I can let him go like a pigeon one has restored to health. Out the window he goes with a spark of feathers. He soars through tangled clothes lines. I shut the window. Turn up Mozart on the radio.

Lovingkindness can in fact be letting the bird who once shat on you find his own way.

Grievance in America, 24-7, No Matter Who You Think You Are

Americans are uncomfortable with their bodies which means they become militant when they claim the body as a marker of identity. I have done this. I’m blind. I’ve written extensively about the joys of being who I am. The body is not receptive to what I may say about it. That’s a sad fact. Society is only conditionally receptive to what I may say about it.

I identify as disabled. I have to. I’m not going to navigate the world with safety if I don’t use the proper accommodations for vision loss. Then I say, “I have no loss.” I claim my utility and Jeffersonian right to pursue happiness. I’m not lost. I don’t need to be found. I don’t need salvation.

When you claim your body in America you enter a honeycomb of some complexity. How many billions of dollars are spent on advertising that urges people to feel more than passing disdain for their very physicality? No, I don’t want to look it up.

I’m for all the body rights movements but I’m never tricked into thinking that by hugging my body I’m free of the contempt mechanism. It tends to have the last laugh.

If you claim to love your body but spend all your time hating the compulsory normative complex—you shouldn’t be gay; fat; a wheelchair user; blind; deaf; get a cure or purgative—you know the drill, you will spend your life railing against the dominant culture to such an extent you’ll become, quite possibly, a victim of your own identity rage and to such an extent you may not be able to function outside of a small colony.

Which leads me to the problem I’m struggling with. The small colony habituation of Americans who struggle with self-contempt, which is never overcome with slogans or cultural theories alone, lends itself to unhappy clusters of victimhood. This is fully democratized which means Trump voters, Bernie voters, civil rights activists of every calling, can all be classified as either potentially or fully against civics.

You’re not supposed to like your body. You’re encouraged to prefer happiness to the daily grind. Americans are conditioned to feel deprived of easy joy. Someone else is always getting happy. If you believe advertising, you’ve a big and weak superego. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who pointed out that Americans have so much self contempt that when they jumped out of airplanes in WW II they shouted: “Well, here goes nohin’!” He also noted that the chief expression of interpersonal disdain in the USA is: “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?”

Enter Trump voters. Vonnegut would understand them. Trump both deflects and extends their self-contempt. They’re not happy because others are stealing their joy potential. They’re not rich and Trump tells them over and over it’s not their fault it’s because of foreigners or elites or people of color or you name it. “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” becomes a license to bitch, rage, be violent, taunt anyone who you believe is in your way.

These ghosted body-contempt dynamics are equally true across the proverbial aisle. Bernie Sanders voters believe others are stealing their wealth, their autonomy, their hopes and dreams. Again it’s others who are doing this—and again there’s the license to bitch, rage, and taunt anyone you believe is in your way.

One sees this on the contemporary college campus where progressive students rage against multiple systems they believe are stealing their joy potential. Capitalism, classist society, patriarchy, big pharma, polluters—all of which are very real mind you—are given undue positions in the honeycombed privacies of the mind (to borrow from Melville) until, yes, one has a license to bitch, rage, be violent, and taunt anyone who you believe is in your way. I’ll argue that these reactions are deleterious to students for it gives them the false assurance that aggrieved identity is all anyone needs in the village square.

Body claiming is crucial as a first line of defense against racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, and all other commodified disdain for our physical lives.
But it can become amber to the fly. Grievance is in the glue. The best thinkers acknowledge oppressive systems and live beyond mere victimhood.

In a recent review of some new books about the opioid epidemic in the USA Emily Witt quotes a writer who goes by the moniker “Anxious Dope Fiend” who writes of the joys of oxycodone:

The oxycodone experience is difficult to describe to an opiate virgin. Personally, I feel as if I have suddenly gained all that I want in life and no longer have anything to fear. I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally. All the tension slips from my body and I feel warm and utterly comfortable, as if I were sitting beside a roaring fire, wrapped in a delicate cashmere blanket, rocking gently back and forth. Communication is pleasant but unnecessary. Under the influence of oxycodone, no companionship is needed. I accept myself and the world just as we are, not begrudgingly, but eagerly, ecstatically even.

Is it just me or do any of my readers also wonder if this passage represents the perfect synthesis of grievance culture?