The Yearning

I went to New York City owing to either a yearning or an itch. Perhaps they’re the same though the former sounds like Romantic poetry and the latter doesn’t. In any event I wanted to go somewhere with my guide dog Caitlyn. In my guide dog using life I’ve been a vigorous walker in cities around the world. It felt like time to get back into the world after a year and a half at home.

There’s a song by Lou Reed 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 irony to be sure. A bus load of faith is a crowd’s worth of faith—we’ll get where we need to go without mishap and we’ll manage it because we all have the proper thoughts. That bus stays on the road with our collective magic. Faith is hard work.

I think this is why I like to 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 into the unfamiliar, alert to the mysteries of being alive and the sheer improbability of having a consciousness. I walk down Fifth Avenue and feel how provisionally alive I am and how lucky. And I often don’t know precisely where I’m going.

Walking around New York I thought of John Donne. It’s a hard life. Call faith what you will. Advance the flight.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Dog and Man Return to the City

I decided to come to New York City after 16 months of COVID isolation. I live in Syracuse, New York five hours west by train. I needed a “return to the world” guide dog journey. My current guide is a yellow Labrador named Caitlyn and she too has been stuck at home. We came here: a solo team testing the waters.

It’s hard to relate the precise feelings that lead to my decision but I felt if I didn’t do this I’d never get out of my house. Then there was my concern about Caitlyn’s skills. Would she be rusty after only taking meager walks around my suburban neighborhood for 16 months? Would I be inattentive and therefore not a good guide dog handler? Frankly it seemed safer to stay home.

So I made myself buy a train ticket and then, just to make the city visit a bit more challenging, I bought a reserved seat to see the New York Mets play baseball at their home stadium in Queens. I’d have to take the subway from 42nd Street to Willets Point.

Pre-pandemic I was routinely out and about and these things would be second nature to me. Now they felt daunting and even somewhat frightening. The pull of my couch was fierce.

I was betting the pull of my guide dog would be better than the couch.

**

Checklist so far:

Amtrak: excellent.
Guide dog: relaxed.
Man: drank coffee and read.

Arrival at Moynihan Train Hall: no one to advise me where to go. Wandered about with dog and suitcase. Found myself on the corner of 33rd Street and 8th Avenue. No taxis. Called for an Uber. I was on the wrong side of the building for Uber. The driver drove several blocks out of his way to find me. Score one for human kindness. I felt proud of “us” man and dog. The Madison Square Garden-Penn Station neighborhood is the opposite of my couch. Jackhammers; blaring horns; migraine sunlight; throngs pushing; people colliding like lobsters in a trap. Fabulous! New York! And there we were!

**

The hotel is on East 47th Street and Third Avenue. The room is small and it’s filled with pointy objects. Hilton calls is a “boutique” hotel. It’s a well dressed formerly shabby joint and not much really but heck, the check in peeps were really friendly and they told me something I needed to know: you don’t need a Metrocard to ride the subways anymore! You just point at the turnstile with your iPhone and voila! (Yes. It works.) Soon New York will be as advanced as Helsinki!

**

Caitlyn remembers everything. She stops on a dime at every curb. She looks and guides with precision. On the 7 train to the Bronx she curled up under the seat. (One always worries about what’s under those seats.) Post-Covid the subway smells better.

At the Mets stadium, Citi-Field we had a few kerfuffles. Before you enter the ballpark you’re greeted by a team of frontline handlers who as far as I understand it are the folks who make sure you’ve got your COVID vaccination card and a ticket. The woman who met me said I couldn’ come in with my guide dog. Then she got into a minor argument with another guy who said it wasn’t a problem. Then a Mets ticket taker came up and wanted to know if it was a “real” guide dog. It was kind of shitty. But of course that’s what being back in the world is partly about: being treated like shit if you’re disabled. So I just said, c’mon man, you’re the Mets, act like you’re major league.

Once inside the stadium they couldn’t have been more helpful and kind.

**

So we’d made it to the park. We were in ADA seating behind third base. We were actually doing the big world thing. And there was a crowd and they were happy and people did the “wave” and there was lots of cheering and I had a hotdog and I gave Caitlyn some kibble from my pocket and I shared my bottled water with her and we didn’t care if “we ever get back” as the song goes. If you haven’t been to the Mets ballpark you should go. It’s beautiful.

**

The train back to Manhattan was a snap.
Went to a restaurant adjacent to my hotel and the waiter didn’t want to let us in because he’d apparently never seen a guide dog in his life. The owner appeared and let us in and was solicitous. Yep. Disabled and back in the world.

**

With any luck going home tomorrow will be easy. I’m a little concerned about finding my train.
The usual blind person traveling alone predicament. I remind myself I know the drill. And my dog does too.

On Being Furniture

Once at a poetry reading where I was seated in the front row a woman jumped over my guide dog who was lying obediently at my feet. She didn’t ask if this was OK. When I objected she said the man next to me had signaled to her this was fine. Dissed twice. You should never jump over a guide dog. It’s disrespectful to the dog and her handler. Ableism has many facets but one of them is the assumption the disabled don’t need to be communicated with; that we’re furniture of a kind.

**

Not long ago at a famous arts colony I heard a notable writer say that henceforth the famous arts colony would no longer be blind and poor when it comes to appreciating outlier forms of art. He said it twice during a formal speech.

And there I was with my guide dog. I’ve spent the last thirty years writing six books which argue that blindness is a rich way of knowing.

I was insulted and remain so. Yet this is business as usual.
I share with my black and LGBTQT brothers and sisters and androgynes and all my foreign friends a capacity to make narrow people nervous.

**

Yes, I’m a scary armoire, a big totemic Victorian freestanding closet, something from the 1963 film “The Haunting” and just now starting to be ok with it.

A Good LIfe: Thinking of Yeats

So they ask you to think about first place, that is, the first influence of locale on your life. If you’ve a gift for early memories you may find sorrow in the exercise. Yeats remembered it this way:

“I am sitting on the ground looking at a mastless toy boat with the paint rubbed and scratched, and I say to myself in great melancholy, ‘It is further away than it used to be’, and while I am saying it I am looking at a long scratch in the stern, for it is especially the scratch which is further away. Then one day at dinner my great-uncle, William Middleton, says, ‘We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end’, and I feel grateful, for I know that I am very unhappy and have often said to myself, ‘When you grow up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood’.”

There are three kinds of sorrows in this passage: already the boy sees the toy is eluding his grasp; the damaged toy is eluding him; The uncle says the sorrows are commensurate with youth itself—which will mean a great deal (an agon) for the imagination—the child’s and the man’s.

What to do about this?

Deep in the night and half awake I hear apple branches sway in a light breeze. What a good life. I think of William Shakespeare toasting his actors in the Anchor pub where I too have toasted others. What a good life. I get up early and walk in a gentle rain. Laugh. Thinking of Hegel. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” A good life. And how good my shoes feel. Hegel: “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” A good life. Cold water in a coffee cup.

Of course Hegel thought you could write history. Yeats understands its already slipped away.

I’m one of the only readers I know who thinks of Yeats as a pragmatist.

A small poem from one of my notebooks:

Orphan

Morning. The maples heavy with rain—
And before life has begun one thinks,
How a human mind starts up
Cold, still dark.

I wonder
Who taught me
About life after life?

A Grass Roots Question

Some days social media feels like the playgrounds of youth. I used to get beat up out there. Sometimes the abuse was merely verbal.

**

I was a disabled kid in a “normal” public school long before the ADA. I knew about “trolling” before it had a name. Facebook and Twitter offer bullies playgrounds where they can name call anyone because the adults are smoking Lucky Strikes behind the bleachers.

**

Happy the man or woman or trans person or non-binary or cripple or queer person who sees the playground for what it is: a mausoleum with toys.

**

It’s easy but dangerous to confuse social facts with social ideas. Disability for instance is a societal arrangement driven by medicine. When physically arrested humans can’t be cured they become an idea—one might say an idee fix.

**

I’m asked all the time if there’s a better term for disability and my response is to say the disabled should be called “citizens” for this marks the problem with the confusion named above.

**

All physical differences are merely notional. Turn this on its head (so to speak) and you discover the steepness of disability is no more credible than other notorious social ideas—childhood comes to mind—before the Enlightenment children were nonexistent.

**

One is forced to ask why there’s so little imagination going around—the idee fix is one great big muscle of confusion. Part of the problem is that in much of the world childhood is believed to be a matter of prospect. The child is a unit of probable production and so probability enters the idee fix—disability is presumed to be devoid of growth. its chilling when you see it.

What can we do about the broad confusion of disability and insignificance? This is a grass roots question.

Thinking of James Tate’s Last Poems

Like Christmas carols at a funeral, so much cheer
And your father in the open casket singing along

Because the next stop is a holly jolly hole in the earth–
“Just what I’ve always wanted, you shouldn’t have!”

Burl Ives cranked up so loud it scares neighboring cattle
But still the-about-to-be-dead love it why its just TV.

They know Heaven is the original dull composition
Hardly more interesting than Gregorian chant.

Cacophony of child like pluckings!
Hand out the banjos! Throw off your shoes!

Who knows “Big Rock Candy Mountain”?
This dying idio-rhythmic heart is stormy green.

Lullaby of Birdland

Notebook: Lullaby of Birdland

Nothing new can be said about grief
Best to converse with walls
In a low gibberish

Then up and put Erroll Garner on hi-fi
Scratchy old record
Excellent staircase

Piano cold drink

**

Automatic writing
What you do at home is who you are abroad

Summer was short
We retraced our steps
Beside sweet grass
A black river took it away
We stopped walking
Prayed for the trees still green

–Niilo Rauhala, translated from the Finnish by SK

Immanence and impermanence–my brothers. I think hard about you. Two crickets outside my window. Water falls on my wrist bone; I’ve life inside a life.

Sometimes I talk to myself.
Other times I say nothing,
Drink tea from a glass,
Move books from one table to another.

**

Poor poet, has to write, trees turning green
Leaves like yellow smoke
Nostalgia in the very eyes
Doesn’t matter, he or she poet
Wistful dizzy wants to wrap the old arms
Around a certain oak
My friend, I’ll be back…

**

I kid you not, I kid you not…

**

After reading Wallace Stevens
Its time for a palette cleanser…

**

The ardent period of life
Just now.

**

Dear mother, if I could conjure you
I’d take you fishing again
Sink the rowboat again
Sit in the shallows with you again
Laughing as perch we’d caught
Swam away….

**

A game I play picturing business men
As birds—whippoorwills, grackles,
Magpies eating everything…

**

An old shell am I, O Lady of Zephyrium…

The Professors

The Professors

Triflers beware! The professors are here:
Punctilious, mindful, on the move,

They’ll flush you out, invest your reveries,
Or close your brown studies. It’s you they’ve watched

Woolgathering, or nonchalant, improvident- tant pis!
Micawbers, slackers, skimmers, here’s your match,

The professors have arrived: the robed Savonarolas!
Leap in the dark, grope or guess, send up a trial balloon,

Rummage, ransack, winnow or appraise–
Inquisitors will grill you: mooncalf, booby, lout, buffoon.

It’s time for gumption, prudence, brains and mother wit:
A bluestocking’s wrangle, a sine qua non;

Alas, poor duffers, bookless, smattering, you invent
A limerick, an Irish muddle, clearly heretic.

O the professors are here: praise Mentor!
They swoop through the long schoolroom,

Vertiginous, oracular, confirmatory, O rodomontade!

Time Makes Old Formulas Look Strange

Asleep I’ve begged for admittance to Noah’s ark. By day I give no ground to those who underestimate me. Make no mistake: blind I’m often dismissed by the still functioning eyeballs society.

**

I wonder if Noah allowed any disabled animals on his ark?

I wonder if Noah had a disability, either visible or invisible?

Was he obsessive compulsive?

What about Mrs. Noah? Did she suffer from seasickness? Agoraphobia?

I can say for sure that religious organizations are as dismissive of the disabled as the faculty clubs of universities.

The trick as I see it is to remain fresh, optimistic, grounded, kind, and unyielding in the personal and collective fight for dignity.

I don’t need permission for that.

Nor do you.

**

The past is much like weather: I see where it hindered or helped. There were novels that set me back—Knut Hamsun; Malraux; and some that furthered—Ben Okri; George Eliot; The Adventures of Augie March… One recalls seasons of learning…One winter day in Finland I discovered Neruda’s trick—how to make a wall of memory fall away. On the other side, the eyes, all the eyes were bright, wide, and curious. Again I’m spinning the globe in secret while my family sleeps. The worn objects of wisdom are all about. As Auden said, time makes old formulas look strange.

**

In Eric Wiener’s review of John Zada’s new book “In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch” we learn that “you see a Sasquatch only if you’re undergoing a personal crisis.”

Alright. I admit it. Though I’m visually impaired, I’m seeing Sasquatches everywhere.

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 into 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 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.

**

However, existing as they there had to be a Sasquatch couple on the ark.

Mrs. Noah saw them.

The Hatred of Mirrors That Begins in Middle Age

In his excellent novel “Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides offers the following resplendent passage:

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”

There’s a hint of Mark Twain here—Twain who once said: “…mastery of the art and spirit of the Germanic language enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars.”
But emotion, which is necessarily complex should absolutely require hybrid expression. Any true account of feeling must be composed of elaboration. Disabled people know this and live it. “The disappointment of finding an auditorium is inaccessible, when the talk for the evening is about human rights.” “The misery of being asked by concert security to leave the theater because your wheelchair is blocking the aisle.” “The humiliation of being told we just filled that job when just this morning you were encouraged to come in for an interview and now they see you’re blind.” Compared to these, Eugenides hybrids are tame, even quaint.

Disability is both corporeal in-pleasure and un-pleasure, which is to say embodiment is diverse and dynamic, refined, lovely in the mind itself, and yet, whatever is not enabled becomes transitive and dislocating. There’s a simultaneity to ableist narrations of un-belonging and my crippled friends know the phenomenon quite well. Hybrid ableism reduces one’s affect, bleaches the mind, and it’s a tedious. “The loss that occurs when you’re told your protests for inclusion are tiresome to the normals.”

**

Sometimes, like a tightrope walker who sees what he’s actually doing I think about being disabled. Blind, walking ordinary streets with a cane or dog I’m a spectacle. I mean this: disabled folks are mirrors in which the non-disabled observe their private, imagined selves. You know the phrase: “there but for the grace of God go I.” There are days when I say: “to Hell with going out.” Being stared at 24-7 is a drag. And it takes energy to ignore the stares. Yes. I know what you’re doing. I really do. News flash: the blind know when they’re being looked at.

Starting with the industrial revolution people had just enough disposable income to sit around and stare at each other at least one afternoon a week. As everyone who hails from a historically marginalized position knows, there’s a taxonomy to staring. The Victorians knew who and what went where and as cities became increasingly crowded the disabled were not much fun to look at. Worse, in a machine age they weren’t employable. Gone were the old cottage industries—sewing for the blind, blacksmithing for the deaf. Asylums were just the thing—out of sight, out of mind.

Back in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law I told one of my disabled friends: “What until they get a load of us!” The signature aspect of civil rights laws is increased visibility. For the first time in one hundred and fifty years the temporarily abled would have to look at the paralyzed, the blind, people who breathe through tubes, who flap to talk.

And then there are the complex emotions. A woman approaches me on East 61st St. in Manhattan. “My dog died,” she says. “Oh dear,” I say. I know about this. I do. She’s attracted by my guide dog and a switch has tripped in her grief gizmo and all she can think about is her loss. If I was walking with a white cane she wouldn’t have said a thing. “My poor dog died,” she says again, as if saying it once wasn’t sufficient to convey the awfulness of the story. And I’m frozen on the sidewalk. This isn’t the first time. For years strangers have invaded my happy thought bubble to share their dog death stories.

She starts to cry, this stranger, and she reaches out. “Can I touch your dog?” she asks, half weeping, half speaking. The process has taken just a few seconds. I’m reminded that four seconds can be immense. Satan fell from Heaven to Hell in just that time. I understand we’re having an unplanned and wholly unscripted spiritual moment. I can’t allow myself to freeze. A decision must be made. If you have a guide dog you’re not supposed to let strangers touch her (or even friends for that matter.) A working dog is doing just that. It’s not looking for love in all the wrong places. When you’re at home, voila, the harness comes off, and love is all the rage. But not on the sidewalk, not at a street crossing. You’re a team, the two of you, a survival unit. That’s just the way it is. “Yes,” I say, “you can touch my dog.”

And this woman, this strange weeping woman, drops to her knees, pushes her tear streaked face into my Labrador’s face, my surprised dog, and she actually moans.

There are so many corners to grief. So many lofty defeats inside each of us. So many exhaustions, facts, deserts, infinities, unexplored planets.

The non-existence of a dog has incited a vast, soft, exploration here, beside a row of parked delivery trucks outside the Hotel Pierre on a windy autumn day with dead leaves flying in circles like butterflies returned from the after life and she’s weeping into my dog’s thick fur.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “but we have to go now.” And I back up. Corky looks at me, as if to assess how far the grief has traveled. I think she wants to know if I’m OK.

I tell her to go forward. We move away. We enter the silent invasion of the future.

I think of her often, this woman, who loved her dog, who is drowning in the stone pool of her loss.

I think of the dismal routine of New York City or any city.

I think of the unselfish nature of chance encounters.