Alright. I admit it. Though I’m visually impaired, I’m seeing Sasquatches everywhere. This is Trump’s America after all and its one hot ugly mess.
Yesterday in the elevator of a suburban Washington, DC Hilton I saw a tiny Sasquatch with a head like a hairy anvil. He was having trouble pushing the buttons so I helped him. He was checking in to the executive suite.
Now it’s true that when people are distressed they see things. The blind are no different. I once saw a Russian businessman eat an entire bear in a Helsinki restaurant. He pocketed the claws.
Lacrimae rerum—or Disability 101
Always the doctor leaning close, saying you’re different. You raise your hands. The doctor is shabby. He’s asymmetrical like a Roman Emperor. There’s something wrong with the doctor. And even though you’re the monster—hence, proprioceptive, fast and clear, you know you’ll never get the doc to admit his shortcomings.
Maybe Sasquatch are defrocked doctors roaming the hinterlands. Plastic surgeons who ruined boobs and noses.
When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just desserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.
Now sulking is an interesting thing. The word comes from the mid 18th century, from the obsolete word “sulke” which means “hard to dispose of” and is of unknown origin. In general I love words that have unknown origins.
The verb “to sulk” means “to be silent, morose, and bad-tempered out of annoyance or disappointment.” The most famous instance of sulking in literature is in opening of The Iliad where we see Achilles sulking in his tent, refusing to fight with the rest of the Greeks. In America where there’s a lot of sulking, perhaps the most famous sulker of all was Richard Nixon, who said in a press conference after losing the gubernatorial election in California that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” If you’re a sulker you can’t deliver the Gettysburg Address.
In this way, successful sulkers know the cave of hard dispositions must be visited but only for the briefest of repairs—like a toilet on a moving train.
At eleven I pulled those damned prickers out of my arms and legs, my neck. I asked for no help.
And as a disabled kid this was always the way of things. I remember the day a substitute teacher (who must have been all of 20) made fun of my blind eyes in an eighth grade math class. “Who are you looking at?” she said, with what today they call “snark”—and my “Lord of the Flies” classmates burst into laughter. I got up and fled the room.
I sulked. All alone. I knew a good place in that school. In the bomb shelter. I wept among empty aluminum water cans with radiation logos stenciled on them.
After that I reported the teacher. Sulking has power if you know when to quit. Achilles knew.
I suspect Sasquatch are sulkers. Or better: they’re the archetypes of sulking. I’m going with Carl Jung on this.
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
Though I didn’t wake this way
Nor did prayer or good deeds
Finish the making of soul
I acknowledged my loneliness
Tonight the dog comes home
I scatter my life across pages
Like no one else I know—
Among writers I’m lonesome.
Meantime I walk with the horses.
I want a good, hard, unpolitical cry.
When I was a child I spake as a child but then I got my act together. If the time ever does come when I stand before my maker and speak about my life I hope to say I became a man. I do not mean the craven, self-absorbed, meretricious boy-man of my era as they’re merely children in big boy clothing. By my lights a man acknowledges his neighbors and fosters what used to be called civic standards. Call me a boy scout if you wish. But kindness, loyalty to virtues, the courage to tell the truth—even about the self—trustworthiness—and yes I know its hard to take anyone seriously who evokes the boy scouts but let’s think of them as having been liberated by their rhetoric if not by their leadership.
In this way I stand before you. I’m a 64 year old blind guy who’s spent the last thirty years fighting for what we call “inclusion” nowadays though I prefer the term civil rights. Inclusion is so clean. Civil rights are tougher to promote as they require knowledge of the law, ambition for those who’ve been marginalized, and a willingness to insist on equal treatment for all. Inclusion seems tidy—seems to suggest that equality has already been achieved and all you need is a ticket to get into the pleasant, inclusive big top. Where civil rights are concerned its best to consider the ways that human systems resist moral scales whenever it’s convenient.
The man or woman or child who insists on civil rights is inconvenient. (S)he’s likely outspoken when the moment calls for garden party politeness. Meanwhile, as Michael Eric Dyson has said: “Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” The speaking can be uncomfortable to hear. Invoking an approximate analogy or metaphor, speaking truth about civil rights must necessarily be irate love. Inclusion, for me, doesn’t cut it.
Inclusion is a fine term but its subordinate to a larger expectation that civil rights, equal rights have been achieved. I’m a university professor. See me in your mind’s eye, walking across the campus with my guide dog. I struggled all morning to get an accessible version of an academic article; I argued with a dean about the needs of a learning-disabled student whose accommodations didn’t happen in a timely way; I learned that a major renovation to an auditorium won’t be accessible to wheelchair users—these things within a single morning. Now multiply this five-hour period by 365 days per year, minus college vacations—make it 276—then again, multiply by years. Do not think me rebarbative or an agitator. I am not a bellyacher. In this instance I’m walking the agora, head up, fleet of foot, holding ambitions for every disabled learner who stands at the portcullis.
In this way I’m an adult.
Though there was the world—a phrase fit for the Romans
(Who ran from their houses in dread
Who ran home again…Lucretius:
“A man leaves his great house because he’s bored
With life at home, and suddenly returns…”)
Up river a house
In which one can be both inside and out…
I’m alone like a cabdriver who sleeps in his taxi dreaming of childhood. Red geraniums. Black currants. Sleep is a still life.
Last night I dreamt of my father, now long gone. He appeared beside a tall window at dusk, snow falling, and he was abosrbed, reading a book. I said, in the murmurous way of all sleepers, “that’s just as it was in life…”
Today the sun is strong. We’re allotted approximately 3 billion heartbeats in this life.