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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Thank you to The Huffington Post

I’d like to thank The Huffington Post for allowing me the privilege of being an occasional guest blogger.  I am honored to have this opportunity.

Steve_Corky_GEBIn this post titled Dogs on the Playing Field I discuss the role of professionally trained service dogs serving people with disabilites in the U.S. today and ask (and answer) this question: …even 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 70+ years since the introduction of guide dogs in the U.S. life in public isn’t always friendly. Lately it seems more unfriendly than at any time since the late 1930s when the blind had to fight for the right to enter a store or ride a public bus. What’s going on?

I am grateful to The Huffington Post for allowing me the use of their platform to explore this issue.  You would “make my day” by stopping by and sharing THIS POST with your social circles.  Thank you!

Photo: author Steve Kuusisto being guided by yellow Labrador, guide dog “Corky”, circa 1995.

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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Huffington Post: Dogs in the Playing Field

I’m so very pleased to mention I’ve been invited to be a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. It’s quite an honor. Below is an excerpt published yesterday, December 4. I’d be grateful if you’d visit the site and if you like the post, please feel free to share it with your social circles.  Thank you!

Dogs on the Playing Field

Steve Kuusisto & guide dog, Corky

No one gets a free pass to public life — “public life” — the elusive goal people with disabilities strive for. While the village square is sometimes difficult to enter often a service animal can help. In my case I travel with a guide dog, a yellow Lab named Nira who helps me in traffic. Together we race up Fifth Avenue in New York or speed through O’Hare airport in Chicago. We’re a terrific team. But even 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 70+ years since the introduction of guide dogs in the U.S. life in public isn’t always friendly. Lately it seems more unfriendly than at any time since the late 1930s when the blind had to fight for the right to enter a store or ride a public bus. What’s going on?

Read more of Dogs on the Playing Field

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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Yes, There's a Dog in My Heart…

If there’s a dog in your heart it will do you no damage. While still at Guiding Eyes I’d kept a journal—titled “Dog Man Writes to Parts of Himself”…

If there's a dog in your heart it will do no damage.

Read: Dog in Heart, an excerpt from my upcoming book, as seen on my website: StephenKuusisto.com. Then tell me, is there a dog in YOUR heart?

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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Dog in Heart

If there's a dog in your heart it will do no damage.

Dog Man Writes to Parts of Himself

If there’s a dog in your heart it will do you no damage. If there’s a thistle inside you, you’re in trouble. Only weeks after getting my first guide dog, and walking freely on the ordinary streets I met the thistle hearted all around me. They were people who lived in the famine of effect—unhappy inside and projecting unwarranted hostility outside. Meeting them with a dog at my side, and a dog inside me, a protective dog of the heart, well, that was different—to say the least. Standing in line at the bank a thistle-woman caught sight of Corky and screamed quite literally: “You damned disabled with your damned dogs!” She waved her arms like she was on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. There were three or four other customers. They all backed away. She kept shouting her wild gibberish. And Corky wagged her tail. I felt it against my left leg. She was telling me that two worlds described our rewards, we were in tandem, we were in accord.  We were a musical chord. Her tail was saying: “each lives in one, all in the other.”

So I smiled. Just smiled. I probably looked like a simpleton. But our dog heart was smiling. The woman turned and bolted out the door. Of course that’s when the other customers began speaking up. “Wow, she was really out of line!” “There must be something wrong with her!” But I had Morse Code dog heart—which was all I needed.

While still at Guiding Eyes I’d kept a journal—titled “Dog Man Writes to Parts of Himself”.

One entry read:

You were always a dog in your heart—you were forced to conclude the matter when, one morning, early, you felt a giddiness, a happenstance wakeful half-assed joy. It wasn’t the electrolysis of sex or the sticky dendritic jazz of chocolate or bourbon that marked your inner life. It was dog, dog-ness, dog all the while. You were standing at the window, still wearing your pajamas. You felt like running into the yard and rolling in snow. You didn’t care what the neighbors might think. A good snow roll in your PJs was in order. You saw that now, saw it was always “the thing”—to be a dog and sharply alive with all your senses in order. No tax forms. No darkness blotting out hope. Dogs are the darkness. Dogs are hope. You saw there was nothing more to be said about the matter.

**

I was insensibly happy. The person bearing my name had been transformed. He was lighter, like a character in fiction—the fairy tale dog man was walking, running. He didn’t have to explain himself. That was the great thing. He didn’t have to explain the convoluted gears and motors of his brain.

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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Dog Language 101

The utility of language resides in two questions: what’s upwind and what’s the best way to get there?  For all I know dogs may have poetry—sonnets of smell—amusing to think so—but when I took my first solo walk down the subway stairs with guide dog Corky I knew she had a bold and ancient comprehension of our circumstances.  When you feel the language of others, even when its silent, you’re sensing competence.  Some days a silent language is all you need.

Once, riding a train from Helsinki to Tampere, I sat beside three old women.  They knew one another well.  You could see it in their postures, long familiarity.  One was knitting.  One had a book.  The third looked out the window.  Every now and then one of them would say a confirmatory thing—“snowing again” or “coffee?”  It was easy to be in their company.  I was a young man writing poetry and starting to understand the delicacies of language and consciousness.

With a dog you don’t have to be all tricky and wild.  Trouble free words will do.  Heartfelt silence will do.  Walking through the subway with Corky I let her guide me and kept my mouth shut.

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. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

MacDowell Downtown Presents Activist Stephen Kuusisto This Friday, March 1

The following content was originally posted on the MacDowell web site by David Macy, Resident Director

MacDowell Downtown on Trusted Companions

This Friday evening at 7:30 p.m., author and Colony Fellow Stephen Kuusisto will share stories of guide dogs and their people experiencing the world together. A New Hampshire native and Fulbright Scholar, Kuusisto has appeared on programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Animal Planet, and National Public Radio.

Entertainer and intellectual, poet and activist, Kuusisto could also be described as a surrealist comedian with a wise man’s heart. In the late 90s he served as Director of Student Services at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a charitable nonprofit dedicated to training guide dogs for people with multiple disabilities. In 2000 he returned to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, to teach creative nonfiction at the graduate school. Today he directs the Renée Crown Honors Program at Syracuse University where he also holds the post of University Professor.

Returning to Peterborough after a hiatus of 18 years, Steve is the author of Planet of the Blind, a New York Times notable book, and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening. In his most recent book,Letters to Borges, published by Copper Canyon Press earlier this month, Kuusisto explores seeing, blindness and being through themes of travel, place, religion, music, art, and loneliness. In May he will be traveling for the U.S. State Department to discuss human rights and literature in Azerbaijan, Turkistan, and Kazakhstan. He is a fascinating character with a lot to say about a lot of things, and for Friday night the thematic link will be man’s best friend.

Please spread the word to those who might be interested… I look forward to seeing you all at Bass Hall!

David Macy
Resident Director

PS- check out the Friday Arts program from WHYY in Philadelphia; this documentary short by filmmaker and MacDowell Fellow Michael O’Reilly… it tells the story of visual artist Marc Brodzik and the impact his MacDowell experience has had on the arc of his career.

MacDowell Downtown
Talk and Reading by author and MacDowell Fellow Stephen Kuusisto

“A Place Among Dogs, or, How Service Animals Make Our World”

Friday, March 1, 2013
7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Bass Hall at
The Monadnock Center for History and Culture
19 Grove Street
Peterborough, NH
Cost: Free

The MacDowell Colony: Stephen Kuusisto's Current Home Away from Home

Any writer/artist lucky enough to stay at The MacDowell Colony is indeed very lucky.  Here, Steve Kuusisto and his guide dog, Nira, can do their best thinking.  Nira’s job is to provide inspiration as Steve works on his next book, tentatively titled “What a Dog Can Do”.

Steve Kuusisto and guide dog, Nira

Photo and post submitted by @ConnieKuusisto: Steve, in red sweater, is sitting in a Stickley chair in front of the fireplace in the cabin he’s staying in. His yellow Labrador guide dog, Nira, is lying on the floor by his side.