Alone in Boston, Guide Dog Notwithstanding

I’m alone with my guide dog Caitlyn in the back bay of Boston. Tonight we’ll take in a ball game at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Dog and man going solo to a stadium. Sometimes in this blind life I worry in advance: how will it go? Will everything be OK? Will I find my seat? Will I find my way back to my seat after searching for a hot dog? Will strangers be helpful? Will I experience kindness? Then in occurs to me, these questions are ordinary—everyone has them, blindness or not. Will this day receive me? How will it go?

There’s a song by the late great Lou Reed that I like which has the refrain “it takes a bus load of faith to get by…” I’ve always liked Lou’s employment of “faith” which he offers with a hint of irony to be sure. A bus load of faith is a crowd’s worth of faith—we will get where we need to go without mishap. And we’ll manage it because we all had the proper thoughts. We kept that bus on the road with our individual and collective magic. Faith is hard work.

I think this is why I like to just take off and go places by myself. Or with just my dog for company, I feel the skin of my faith grow tighter. I step out into the unfamiliar. I’m alert to the mysteries of being alive and the sheer improbability of having a consciousness. I walk down Boyleston Street and feel how provisionally alive I am and how lucky. And I don’t know precisely where I’m going.

I’ve been teaching this week at a wonderful low residency creative writing MFA program called “Solstice” located at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hills. As a nonfiction writer I’m often talking about the essay—how creative prose can help us shape experience, make sense of the blooming buzz as they say. One may think of the essay as a soothing corral for the mind. Here is a shape in language within which we can rest, survey, feel a bit less panicked by the wideness of perception. Sometimes a horse, upon entering the corral is instantly calm.

And then there’s the horse who gallops into the shadows and sun beams with no idea where she or he is going.

I think that’s me just now. Enter the day. Get a little lost. Feel again the ache of amazement, that transverse cross of body and mind.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Wittgenstein for Breakfast

From a Notebook circa 1990: 

Comic irony: the condition of knowing what you didn’t know just seconds ago or years back and then, knowing how to think about it. 

Tragic irony: the condition of not knowing the above while others do. 

Morning irony: understanding you’ve the blues and knowing you’ll have to work with them all day. 

Evening irony: seeing how the blues at 6 AM were correct or incorrect. 

Luck stands between the above like an 18th century lamp lighter. 

“What did the president know and when did he know it?” was not, as many believe, a political or juridical question, but one connoting either comic or tragic irony. Nixon is one of the few public figures to have had both. He knew he’d broken the law. He didn’t know quite how he came to be a law breaker. His answer, deflective, was to say “everybody does this….”

Whenever you hear someone say, “everybody does this,” remember the double tragic irony of not knowing which camp above you fit into. 

I’ve always liked James Tate’s line: “curses on those who do or do not take dope.”

**

Memory

I loved my mother

She was always a such dark person

I see her everywhere in the woods

Muisti

Rakastin äitiäni

Hän oli aina tumma henkilö

Näen hänet kaikkialla metsässä

**

I guess there’s another category: forest irony. Where you recognize the animism of your subconscious. 

**

I think of Ludwig Wittgenstein some mornings. Isn’t that odd? He occurs to me very early. 

Usually it’s this quote that pops into my waking noggin:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” 

Oh I like this for lots of reasons. As a visually limited man I admire the temerity of the utterance, insofar as all humans have some kind of visual limitation. Wittgenstein posits the power of imagination to declare anything, and then, with a smear of logic, to cement an idea into consciousness. I suspect this is how he survived the trenches in WW I. And I know for certain its how the disabled survive. Look at the nouns: 

Death. Event. Life. Experience. Eternity. Duration. 

In my sophomore year of college I was fascinated by Boolean algebra. In mathematical logic, Boolean algebra is the “branch of algebra in which the values of the variables are the truth values true and false, usually denoted 1 and 0 respectively.” (See Wikipedia.) 

The quote above is pure Boolean logic. One may easily draw a Boolean equation for the proposition eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Then there’s a leap—Wittgenstein says our visual field has no limits. 

If eternity = timelessness then the present (time) also equals timelessness. Good. 

If timelessness is related to mindfulness (we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration) then the operations of mind become our vision. Hence our visual field (anyone’s) has no limit. 

You can see where the poet in me would like this. You can see where the blind person in me also admires it. 

As logic it is unimpeachable. The trick is to live it. 

Early. Wittgenstein for breakfast. 

 

 

   

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Lines Written in the Algonquin Hotel

I’m in New York for a gala.
I wonder what this means.
I’m not feeling like a “gala”—
Something something
What’s the phrase?

“Gala” from Arabic
A festive robe
Given in presentation.
Do we need more robes?
Do the saints have galas?

How about whales
Or children everywhere?
O I fear I’m the toothache
Of the gala set,
Unceremonious, twiggy.

**

I must get in the mood!
First I should admit my consciousness is an instinct, nothing more seeking shelter in a rain storm. O but all the smart people like getting wet! And that’s my difficulty. I fear smart moist people.

**

Oh c’mon Kuusisto, everyone needs a dance, a rouse, a collective giggle.
BTW I dreamt last night my father was back from the dead and doing standup comedy.

nie Kuusisto :
Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Hate at the University

The trouble with haters is they force you to think about hate. Whatever passes for immunity to the virus of bigotry breaks down. You have a head cold suddenly. You can’t think about the beauty of spring. You’re too busy thinking about the Neo-Nazis or the hateful videos produced by the fraternity at your university, or the anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on a mosque. The birds are singing real pretty but you’re sealed up. At a remove from joy.

This is how I’m feeling as a member of the Syracuse University community. Thousands of us who study or work at SU are feeling this. No matter your background you have to be deeply disturbed by the hatred that has leaked out around us.

Now I’m an old hand at hate. Disabled, bullied in childhood, discriminated against in education and employment, I’ve lived a long time in hate-ville. Here’s the thing: able bodied white people don’t understand that if you’re from a historically marginalized background you have to put yourself together anew every day. I don’t mean putting on your makeup or shaving. I mean a full scale, internal, hot to the touch assembly of hope, aspiration, belief in the future, and a reserve of irony—you’ll meet people who don’t get you all day long and you’ll manage them with humor, forceful insistence, passion, and compensatory self-regard. Able-bodied white people don’t need to do any of this. The worst thing they can imagine is a bad day in junior high.

A robin is walking across the top of a hedge outside my window. And I’m having to think, to engage with hate. “Big deal,” I say, “it’s nothing new.”

So here, frat boys, ableist staff and administrators, smug warriors of privilege, I’m handing back your hate. Look. I’ve put it in a little basket, like the one Moses floated in. It has a little blanket on top. When you bring it ashore and look inside you’ll find nothing at all. That’s what your hate is. It’s just moist, empty air.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Thanks for Every Kind Word

Over the past few months I’ve felt gratitude for friends both old and new. Growing up in an alcoholic family and striving with a disability I learned nothing about thankfulness. If I thought about it at all I thought it was indebtedness—surely gratitude was dangerous—a slowing down when speed meant everything. 

I’m thankful to have written a book about a remarkable dog—a harder thing than it sounds because the actual topic of the memoir was gratitude. While working on an early draft I described the project to a friend who said “where’s the drama?” He was right to ask. And I couldn’t answer. Learning to love the world with a dog is not a customary narrative. I was writing about how I changed on the inside and for the better. 

That so many people have written me to say how much Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey has moved them means more to me than I can easily say. Gratitude is acknowledgment, recognition, a mirroring. Properly understood it means we’re together as we express satisfaction. 

In Columbus, Ohio last weekend I had the privilege of speaking on two panels at the Ohioana Book Festival. The first session was about dogs and books—the subject isn’t as simple as you’d think—what do dogs mean to us? I still don’t know the answer. I know I merely know I’m better off for all the dogs in my life and not just my guide dogs. 

The second session was more prosaic. It had to do with how we write. My fellow panelists were more practical than I was. They had useful things to say about researching topics, plotting their stories, joining writing groups, etc. All I could say was: “I get up early. Drink coffee. Throw words like Jackson Pollock throwing paint….and wait to see what happens….” 

I’ve had a hard life. Lord knows my new memoir details some of it. But what a remarkable moment I’m having—and it’s not about me! I set out to write a love poem in prose for my first guide dog Corky. What I managed to do was write about curiosity, joy, and spontaneity, three things dogs know better than we do. 

So here’s to all my friends who’ve written me, tweeted, posted, sent emails, texted—and here’s to the folks I’m getting to know. We’re in this life and affirming why we are respectively, often privately grateful for animal joy and poetry. 

 

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Soul Clap Its Hands

I have reached the age when I must ask “what kind of old person do I want to be?” One thinks it may be an American question, the pursuit of happiness has no age limit. I don’t mean wealth, or success in common forms. I don’t know how the coming years will unfold. All I know is I want to be flexible, kindly, and retain my curiosity until the end. This isn’t a workday ambition. It’s a matter of soul. Soul clap its hands as William Butler Yeats once said.

Often these days I’m forced to reflect on Marcus Aurelius’ famous maxim: “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” I am 63 and entering the age of disappointments. This means I’ve had my share of luck. I wasn’t a refugee child. As a boy I was treated with penicillin. If my schooling wasn’t superb it was adequate. It is proper to reflect on one’s advantages. If I was a blind child who was bullied—well, I also fell in love with Duke Ellington in solitude and later an excellent professor told me about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and so muscular lyricism came my way. I have enough good sense to count these discoveries as good luck.

I remind myself to stay mindful of small fortunes. The color of thought is yet another thing I can’t describe. But reflecting on it has to be good. Before this sounds like a self-help book let me point out human imagination is dark. 9/10 of it is pessimistic. You don’t have to be Buddhist to know it’s difficult to hold a clear thought in mind. The direction of thought influences its coloration. This much I know.

Perhaps I’ll die lonely without money. America is such a place. Maybe I’ll die in good company like Allen Ginsberg. If I pass like my father I’ll fall over while walking my dog. The soul has its own “thing” as they used to say in the sixties. Steeped in its iridescent moon-glow it can be open and unconcerned.

Of disappointments there are many. I know I won’t live to see a golden age of peace and tolerance. I understand it was silly to imagine such things even as late as fifty. Americans are encouraged to be naive. I wept with joy when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I even allowed myself to believe if only for a minute in the phrase “post-racial America.” Of course remembering optimism is like recalling seasons of love. I see all about me younger people who will not give up on equality and justice. They are still progressively Romantic. Disappointment is nothing compared to future hope. Even in age I can have this. The soul says so.

Maybe I sound like a half baked version of Martin Buber. Or Mary Poppins. I don’t know any more than you what colors the soul prefers. Let’s say it’s a clean window after everything we endured.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Fear of Falling, Twenty Times Each Day

I walk up and down stairs while I’m awake and as far as I know I don’t do it in my sleep. Stairs are bad enough in my waking life. My blindness means every set of steps will be both challenging and vaguely frightening. Often walking with sighted friends they sail down staircases talking all the while as I nervously feel my way with electrostatic feet. I’ve always loved James Tate’s line: “when riding an escalator I expect something orthopedic to happen.” Me too James. Or worse. I expect to fall face forward into death’s arms.

No matter how proficient you are at traveling blind you’re always aware of the manifold instances when, frankly, you’re risking physical harm. It is not fashionable to say this. What’s fashionable is to assert blindness is a minor inconvenience—with the proper accommodations it is practically nothing.

And then there are stairs, intersections, drunk drivers, distracted bicycle messengers, tiny revolving doors, all the daily invitations to behead myself.

On the surface I appear collected. Underneath, even with a guide dog by my side I feel that old fear of falling, feel it at least twenty times a day.

Connie Kuusisto :
Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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