About Yesterday or What Teachers Must Teach…

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the perils of single issue politics and the erosion of critical thinking especially as these things pertain to teaching. Here are the things I suspect I’ll be accused of saying which I absolutely did not say: that racism doesn’t exist; that white people don’t have inordinate privileges; that minority opinions are fanatical; that the only way forward in the civic square is to become some kind of moderate.

I do not believe any of those things.

What I do think is that the common good has been demoted to fantasy. Listening to others is considered a waste of time. Any position that’s front loaded with rage is good.

Because these things are largely the case teaching is more important now than ever. From pre-school to grad school teachers have the opportunity to promote what Paolo Freire described as entering into reality:

“The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Notice Freire’s fascinating disavowal of the egoistic considerations that accompany the impulse toward dogmatism.

Here’s another Freire quote I find useful:

“Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.”

**

I fervently believe love—a true experience of love—is abstaining from seeing the self only through singular positions. Liberation is knowing that disability, blackness, queerness, gender are bio political rhetorics of social constraint. Every. Last. One. Is an impoverishing tale.

Rage from a narrow ledge but you will be bitter and exploited.

**

My friend, the poet Preston Hood, who, among other things is a wounded war veteran writes about piercing through the illusions that separate us in a poem entitled “The Vocabulary Between Us:—

There is a thin covering
Between us & the world.

Sometimes it is the inward blue
Of our souls learning what to become.

Other times I hold you before me
Able to love all of what I have now.

**

Succumbing to individualized or identity rage is what the oppressors want of you.
This is what teachers must teach.

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 

It’s Rough Down Here, Over

I often tell people I’m Episcopalian, of the lefty variety—one wants no “truck” with the high Anglican censure of gays and I’ll be stripped, kneed, and left to cry before embracing the stylized bureaucracies of Christian disdain. I’m spiritually and temperamentally hostile to powers that be. As a boy, one with a disability, I learned that both the civil service and the apparatchiks would never tolerate me, even though sometimes there might be a pretend factor.
And so it’s the loneliness and simultaneous hopefulness of Jesus that I love.

In these days before Christmas 2018 I’m praying for my father in law who is very ill. I’m praying for a friend who’s fighting a wound. Another who’s carrying a lifetime of pain. And still another who is near to losing his home. If I had a walkie-talkie to Christ I’d say: “It’s rough down here. Send more hope. Over.”

In his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” Howard Thurman wrote:

“It is clear that before love can operate, there is the necessity for forgiveness of injury perpetuated against a person by a group. This is the issue for the disinherited. Once again the answer is not simple. Perhaps there is no answer that is completely satisfying from the point of view of rational reflection. Can the mouse forgive the cat for eating him? It does seem that Jesus dealt with every act of forgiveness as one who was convinced that there is in every act of injury an element that is irresponsible and irrational. No evil deed—and no good deed, either—was named by him as an expression of the total mind of the doer. Once, when someone addressed him as “Good Master,” Jesus is quoted as having said, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good, but … God.”

If I’m to grow these last years (I may have twenty left if I’m lucky) I must grapple with a lifetime of fear, sadness, anger, and hot blooded disdain for organized oppression. Able bodied oppressors. They’re on street cars and in board rooms. They’ve struck me with arrows over my lifetime. Forgiving the irresponsible and irrational is such a high ideal why would a single individual commit to it?

Because it is the door to grace.
Because love is eternal.

“But isn’t hate eternal?”

No. It’s localized and it never wins.

Of Confirmation Bias and Disability

Confirmation bias is of course universal. The self, whatever it means, assembles a mosaic of preconceived views. Some are descended from the cradle; some from bad teachers. No matter what we say about it CB depends on a lack of comic irony, the inability to probe the limits of one’s customary ideas. I’ve several bad thoughts and they them come from unhappy engagements with a legion of hard hearted able bodied authority figures. Throughout my life from Kindergarten to today I’ve been told my disability is a problem.

So in a spirit of admission, my biggest confirmation bias is that I tend to think most if not all able bodied people are ableists and since I’ve been hurt over and over I anticipate the hurt. This means the open hand of my soul is often empty.

It gets worse. My disability bias absolves me of digging deep both inside myself and “out there” among strangers. I am hereby admitting I can be lazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had it with rank and file discrimination against the disabled and I’ll go to my grave decrying it. This isn’t an essay about going soft. This is about the difference between essentialism and soulful ambivalence.

Confirmation bias assures that I’ll go on thinking all white men are racists; all heavy set people are comedians; all able bodied people hate me.

Cultural theorists say, often with muscularity, that confirmation bias is sagacious.

But my grief and yours coincide.

I cannot grow without confronting my pain.

People are scared of disability. They believe without examination in compulsory normativity.

Most people despise their own liberty.

The central tenet of fascism is that all people outside “the party” are miscreants.

Freedom is, in all its beauty, a pursuit which means pain.

I will not participate in minimizing my pain or yours. Not will I adopt a cheap script.

Love is Love, Go Out and Vote

I shall suppose for the sake of all things constructively imaginative that today will be blessed. I will meet good people. We will, despite our differences believe in one another by which I mean we’ll want prospective goodness for each other. We’ll not imagine goodness for me and no goodness for you.

What a thing! To write a paragraph like the one above! The things that we love tell us what we are. (Aquinas) I know what I love. There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship. (Aquinas) I can be friends with anyone. Can you?

To one who has faith no explanation is necessary. (Aquinas) I’m not in the business of explaining love. OK. Now my prose is getting thick. But I will believe today love is love. It is sufficient unto the day.

I was blessed just four days ago when Baha my Uber driver wanted to FaceTime with his brother in Baghdad so the folks back home could see my guide dog Caitlyn. We had four minutes of doggish joy. And the fellowship of love.

I was blessed this morning to know the difference between my ambitions and all I can give away both materially and spiritually.

The free man or woman is like those barn swallows delighting in their flight at both ends of the day.

Disability, Expectation, and a Just a Whiff of Episcopalianism

“I expect color to be used against me,” writes John Edgar Wideman in the closing story of his latest collection American Histories. “Amen,” I think, early, the sun not up, reading alone with my talking computer. Race is the first they “they” see—the predatory “they” ruthless, short tempered and ubiquitous—good God is it everywhere. And the sun not up, alone, I want to reach through circuits and virtual pages and shake Wideman’s hand.

Each of us does her or his or they own dance with the expectation of disadvantage in advance. If you’re black, or Latinx, or queer, or disabled you are far more likely to live this on a daily basis. Not likely. I take that back. One does. What was I thinking?

I expect disability to be used against me.

Long ago I read a definition of resentment which I can’t attribute or source: resentment is drinking poison and waiting for others to die.

I not only expect but know disability will be used against me so how do I escape the poison-resentment-complex? Or “we”—how do we do it? Black, queer, neurodivergent, women in male dominated professions, in my case blind at a university that has poor support services for the disabled and more than passing hostility?

I don’t like poison. It tastes like wormwood and iodine. Trust me I know what it tastes like.

When I’m home alone, after a day of discriminatory treatment, being told to shut up, etc., I think, as I’m sure Wideman must, “I’m a good guy; I’m funny; I like people, why is this happening to me?”

That’s the effect of the poison. Swallowing it you fall into false consciousness, a false expectation about others. You think they’re supposed to change and you’re dying inside and the ableist, racist, homophobic people go on happily about their business. As Auden says famously in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts—suffering is unnoticed by the privileged. He says it better. Read the poem.

The key to having a good life when you know your difference is going to be used against you, perhaps in a minute, perhaps later this afternoon is mysterious and there are few prescriptions in tablet form or in holy books that are proper anodynes. I love the psalms. I adore Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Shit, I’m an Episcopalian. I have whole passages of the New Testament memorized. I love Christ not for his suffering but his transcendence of it. He’s both the king of those who are mocked and of those who persist in love. But I’ll admit it: most days Jesus is too mystical for me when I’m struggling disabled in a hostile world.

I expect disability to be used against me.

It’s that word “expect” that’s the killer.

Expect is related to spectacles. It comes from Latin “to look out”.

Later it comes to mean imagining things that will happen. Somewhere in the 16th century the word transitioned from “fact” (to see what’s coming) to fiction—one of the pejorative dynamics of imagination, suspecting things will happen because they’ve happened in the past. I often tell creative writing students only ten percent of imagination is worthwhile. That estimation may be generous.

This is the poison of imagination. I expect the next bad thing. Ungoverned this becomes depression. The depressed imagination sees everything in the world as equal and equally bad.

Wideman’s literary character is correct: race will be used against him. Finding love in the face of this is the most difficult challenge of all. We can invent machines that defy gravity but so far no machine has defied hate.

I like to think they’re working on this at MIT—maybe something like an aluminum spaghetti colander with wires sticking out that you wear on your head and with a flip of the switch voila hate disappears and water turns into chablis.

As far as I know—not far of course—is the only machine that can zap hate is the imagination which we’re currently under utilizing. Like the oft repeated maxim that we only use ten percent of our brains, we simply fail most days to push our imaginations toward loving others.

I expect to be disliked. It’s a certainty. This is the story of Christ. It’s the story of my neighbor.

I expect to be more loving. Will start today.

I expect to spit. (Expectorate)

“I tell you, you will not see the new beauty and the truth, until you make up your minds to spit.” (Malevich, Essays on Art)

Aim carefully.

Read John Edgar Wideman.

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 

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