Dogs, Hats, and Faith

As the new year dawns I’m doing my best—that is, I’m drinking coffee. And since I went to bed last night at 9:30 (at the insistence of a small dog who thought it was the right thing when the outside temperature was 5 degrees Fahrenheit) well because of this I’m wide awake sans hangover.

To be fair the dog didn’t make me go to bed. It’s good to distrust people who say dogs make them do anything other than feeding them and taking them outside. I went to bed early because it seemed like a good idea.

I’ve been taking antidepressants for over twenty years. They help me stay “in the game” but they also make me tired at night and that’s just the way it is. By taking Celexa I live on dog time. Early to bed, early to rise. I’m Ben Franklin with pills and dogs.

What are dogs and antidepressants for? I imagine they’re about hope. Even facing the aborning year which cannot be promising, what with the looting of the planet, corporatized warfare, slavish and corrupt politicians of every stripe, human trafficking, the new slavery, which is old slavery tied to offshore banking—I’ll stop in a moment—even with the assault on the poor, the infirm—here I am again tossing my moth eaten chapeau onto a fountain of hope knowing one of my two dogs will retrieve it.

Dogs teach us to put our wet hats on again.

They teach us to avoid rising to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training, as Archilochus would have it and which I’ve always taken to mean “get on with it brother.”

The wet hat has some toothmarks.

Lots of people sneer at hope. It is for one thing akin to faith and nothing gets kicked more often than faith, even the faithful do it.

I agree with Maxine Hong Kingston: “In a time of destruction, create something.”

Dogs say wet hats are better than no hats.

Dogs say you can indeed get there from here.

Dogs say even wearing that hat you’re not as bad as you appear.

Or they say, well, you might be as bad as you appear—so throw your hat again and we’ll bring it back. You can try for a new look.

A hat damp with hope is still a hat.

A damp hat is expectation halved, still wearable.

The hat your dog brings means you have a plan.

Essay Concerning Last Year’s Ashes

My dog of course, now in a can, who saved my life. She’s on my mantle, and I would scatter her to the wind but sadness presses down the tin box, my sadness akin to faith-paranoia, like the superstitious passenger who thinks his mind holds the plane aloft. I must keep my dog’s ashes close just as I maintain books on shelves and worn shoes in the closet.

There was a year in my youth when I was terribly lonely in a strange city. I knew very few people and the ones I did know were the quotidian kind—magazine seller, doorman, a severe librarian at the local university, which is to say they knew me as a creature, and I knew them as living beings but without true culture—we had no shared songs. One may live this way for a season or two. This was that kind of time. I arranged knickknacks carefully on my desk.

Sometimes I went to the botanical garden. It dated from Tsarist times and there were winding paths that seemed to lead nowhere—bafflements for clandestine conversations—and I walked in expanding circles among lilies, ferns, and flowers whose names I’d never know for vandals had long ago stolen the signs. Yes, there were flowers taller than men and they had no names and I liked them a great deal. It’s foolish to say it, but plants are silent the way you wish your friends could be, and this was especially true that year, when I was far from friends back home. The great, drowsy, half shaggy plants of the Tsars…how kind they were. They simply “were” and this was all I needed most mornings.

I had books. Stendahl, Neruda, Harry Martinson. In those days I smoked cigarettes and I’d light up in my imperial bower with its anonymous shrubs and think about what I liked and didn’t like about words. I saw I didn’t like “faith” or “rage” but I could do with “ardor” and “pique”—not because they were literary words but because they had nuance and unless you’re genuinely seasick this is how you want your feelings to be—of or pertaining to intuitions, gut gasps, solitudes in gardens.

Of course I’d put the ashes in my pockets along with the cigarette butts. It was best not to leave a trace. And here I am, forty years later, holding on to my lovely dog’s ashes because I can’t bear to part with even the starkest reminder. What coat might I carry them in? What knowing garment?

Foolish again. The ashes in every instance.


Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, or, Traveling with a Guide Dog

When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

It took some time but I began to see these encounters as having nothing to do with dogs. Or the dog was simply a calling card. My guide dog Corky meant in the eyes of passersby that I was approachable and might well have a heart. A more sinister variant was that being blind they might believe I couldn’t escape—like a hapless passenger on the Greyhound. I chose not to believe the latter. I am, essentially, a boy scout, (OK, not really) but I do believe in kindness and I’m as naive as the next man, or woman, and what the Hell, I thought, it costs me next to nothing to talk to wounded, anomalous weirdoes.

Of course “next to nothing” is just faux metaphysics—it did cost me. You can’t absorb the griefs of subway riders and ballpark fans without grinding your bearings. Three years into guide dog life I understood that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, lots of Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so broken they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw that behind the stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.

As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless, that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw Corky was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening. Nor could I let them ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing come to you like birds.

The trick as I saw it, was to abandon belief in fairy tales. The guide dog schools like to say that with a dog the blind have newfound horizons, freedoms, opportunities, etc. They’re right. But one aspect of freedom is that you’ve become a citizen like anyone, and yes, because of your dog you’re interesting. I listened. Still listen. Just enough. Then I say, “I’ve got to get back to reading,” and put on my headphones. Or tap my talking watch, then say, “nice talking, but Ive got to go.”

My guide dog brought me love. It cuts both ways: I’ll be your confessor, I’ll be on my way.

More About Teaching with a Dog

I knew one in five of my students likely had a disability; that one in four had probably been assaulted sexually; that approximately 40% had alcoholic parents or relatives. One can’t teach without knowing such things—at least not be teaching properly. Could being disabled “before them” and working with Corky foster communicative possibilities beyond merely inserting my life, my story—the professor as “other?” I wasn’t sure at first. You walk into a classroom with a dog, it’s like a joke.

Since service animals can’t be ignored I said: “for Corky the past is prologue.” “She’s more well adjusted than most of us.”

“A guide dog’s childhood is impressive,” I said. “Love, encouragement, modest rules, then more love, more encouragement…”

“Who among us gets to have that?” I asked. No one raised a hand.

So here’s what I did. I invited students to coffee klatches with Corky. It was kumbaya. And so what?

We created a small circle around a dog.

I took the harness off.

Corky circled putting her head on people’s knees.

“In order for ideas to have value,” I said, “one must feel secure enough to be inquisitive.”

My coffee drinkers agreed this wasn’t easy.

We were newly minted adepts of John Dewey’s pragmatism, hugging a dog, insisting our everyday experiences mattered.

I will not tell my students stories.

But sometimes at night walking to the bus I thought of them bearing up under their burdens and of how they still desired lives of trust.

This is no small thing when you feel it. No small thing….

A Dog Named Harmony

I got the call this afternoon from Lisa at Guiding Eyes for the Blind that starting next Monday (August 10) I’ll be united with my fourth guide dog, a yellow Labrador female named “Harmony”.

Timing is everything whether you’re talking of comedy or the calendar. I’ll have ten days to work with Miss Harmony before the start of a new semester at Syracuse University where I both teach and direct the Honors Program for outstanding undergraduates. Ten days are before me when I must study hard to understand the ways of my new canine companion. We say all the time that everyone is different. This is true of guide dogs. Each has his or her unique personality and though they come already trained, it’s the job of a blind handler to relearn dog handling techniques (for some things inevitably change in the land of dog training) and to learn what the new dog knows and expects. The training is a team activity. In my case, though I’m a veteran dog handler, I have lots of new things to learn. “Be curious every day,” I tell my students. “Be open,” I tell them. Well now it’s my turn. With Harmony and trainer Lisa I’ll be practicing what I preach.

My friends and colleagues will see me walking with Harmony and Lisa on the campus at SU. On day one, which will likely be next Tuesday, anyone chancing to see us will see me with a dog in harness and a young woman walking behind. I will be relearning how to be a good dog handler. Harmony’s life and my own will depend on this.

Timing is everything. I’ve just completed a new book (a memoir) recounting what it was like to discover freedom with a guide dog for the first time. In the next few weeks I will be revising the book for the last time before it goes into production at Simon & Schuster. As I’m preparing to revise the manuscript I’ll be walking richly in the open, with more than a little vulnerability, and with lots of trust.

Miss Harmony is coming. My current guide “Nira” will retire as our beloved house pet. Nira is sneaking up on 10. She’s more than a little tired. She loves me deeply as I love her. Now we will have to separate as hourly companions. I know this will be a bit hard for her, and it won’t be that easy for me.

Harmony will have her different ways. A different gait. She will be faster than Nira who has inevitably slowed. I expect Harmony and I will soon be moving fast.

And so for the sake of Nira and Harmony I’ll endeavor to be the best student I can be.

In the new memoir I describe meeting my first guide dog Corky for the first time:

She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my fortune. Back in our room Corky licked my eyes. She wanted me to invite her on the bed. I told her to remember the rules. Dogs on the floor, people on the beds. The trainers had been clear about guide dog etiquette and I was going to follow the regimen. Guide dogs aren’t encouraged to climb on the furniture. “You stay on the floor,” I said, and she nibbled my nose again as if to say, “I’ll wear you down brother.” I saw in our first moments we were having the manifold dance of relationship—we were joyous and communicating. I talked in a running wave. She bounced, literally bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh let’s go any place we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears. 

Our first hours unfolded. We began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.  

Oh let’s go any place we choose, Harmony. I’m ready.


What all Dogs Know

Steve and Vidal

Image: Steve Kuusisto with "Vidal" (a handsome yellow Labrador)–his second dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind:


I don’t want to be a celebrity. I just want to be my dog. Ipse dixit. 


When we hug dogs and smell their fur we’re fully realized. Then we drift back into reason and dogs see we’ve gone to a far room. Empathy matters then. Dogs know we’ve entered a fearful place in a crystal palace of abstractions. They touch our knees. They live only in amazement.


I don’t know as much about amazement as I should. D.H. Lawrence wrote:


They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience

is considered. 

So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it 

the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth

and the insistence of the sun. 


I understand a dog’s amazement in our company is indeed mystic but only insofar as we consider it. 


I walked up the pale green avenue—7th avenue in New York—end of day, my great guide dog working to keep us safe, working us toward the postulate of arrival, the grandest of things, a task accomplished, going where we had to go. 


I was grieving for my father who had died only a month before. Grief is impossible to maintain so we engage it in small gasps. I saw my father was on an aerial bridge, high in the fading light, the span without end. My father had nowhere to go. And outside a monolithic computer store I began weeping. And my guide dog stopped, turned, saw me stricken, rose up on her hind legs and gently washed my face. I, who could not reason clearly, was being guided in more than one way. My father’s bridge vanished. I heard his laughter. “Beauty,” says the dog, “is very strong.”


We have to let the dogs in. Consider what they know. 





A Dog Loves Me

A dog loves me.  The cleansed skins of the apple trees darken with morning sun.  A dog loves me.  Before the first light of day Venus appears from behind a winter cloud.  A dog’s love is not presumptive: it is no mere wish.

There are mythical scenes in human lives—light bulb moments, the college kid understanding Emerson for the first time, and, as a friend of mine would say, he “bumps along the ceiling of his skull” for myth is one of the lauds, the oldest prayer.

But a dog loves me.  She wakes me early.  We stand beside the Asian Maple tree, its hydra branches dusted with snow and we talk.

When a man or woman talks to a dog its not always a spoken thing.

My dog scents the new snow, putting her snout deep in a snow bank.  She snorts like a horse.  Snow magnifies the delicate scents of mice.  The man says nothing but sees inwardly expanding circles on water—smells broadcast in snow—and as he thinks it, he sees what his dog sees.  Forget your occupation or ideas of sensible success.  The man and dog stand in the cuneiform world of things unseen.

But forget poetry.  This can be diverting, this business of man and dog moving together in subordinate thought.  In a business meeting I hear my dog sigh from under the table.  She’s heard the grey voices above her, voices so monotonous she is asking: “who among the humans besides my good man is happy to be alive?”  I know this is what she’s saying.

In an elevator she smells one man’s fear and another’s sorrows.  We’re just going down two floors.  It’s an ordinary day.  “The people,” she thinks, “are passively borne by dark emotions.”  I know this is what she’s saying.

Riding an escalator in Macy’s (the original flagship store in New York) she knows the false symmetry of human occasions, thinks the place needs a thousand wild birds.  I know this is what she’s saying.

We move to and fro.  Swiftly.

She loves me.  There is never a moment she does not love me.  We move to and fro.  All day, every day, we have light bulb moments.

We talk.

We ride uptown on Fifth Avenue and for once the cab driver is friendly.  He likes dogs.  He’s from Egypt.  His sister back in Cairo is deaf.  He knows a lot about struggle.  My dog smiles at him.  Honestly.  She smiles.  He asks if he can pet her.  I tell him he can.  He smiles.  I know he’s telling her to keep up the good work.  I know she’s telling him about her fleet footed life.  She’s telling him life is life and we can go places.

We move to and fro. A dog loves me.


Once upon a time, years ago, long before I got a guide dog, I climbed to the top of a ski jump tower in Finland.  I was with a friend who thought this would be fun.  The skiing season was over and the tower was deserted.  We climbed a ladder that seemed to never end.  Up and up.  I’ve never been good with heights.  My stomach felt green and cold.  But I didn’t want to appear cowardly.  I kept going.  The top of the ladder met a platform where the skiers line up.  The mighty drop beyond was a terrifying thing.  We stood there for a time, right at the lip.  I remember thinking as I stood there, that truth and love will always go astray but visceral fear—that you can count on.

But now a dog loves me.  She stops me at the edge of the railway platform.  We talk.  She likes her life.  She knows a great deal about quelling fear.

We talk. She says fear is not what people suppose—its not just danger, its not knowing what to do.  She says dogs know what to do.  She likes her life.  She loves me.

Dog Schmooze

Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges has just been released. Listen to Steve read “Letter to Borges in His Parlor” in this fireside reading via YouTube. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy.,