Inside the Invisible

A Blind Writer's View of Living the Attentive Life

From the Hip

I knew when I began this blog, with its stated purpose of examining what it means to live wide awake, that politics would probably worm their way into these pages from time to time. Now that they’ve shown up, I feel a little apologetic for letting them in. I guess that’s because so many people already give them a lot of space, which makes me wonder what the point is of one more person saying something that has already been said. Then I remember that multiple silences aren’t necessarily better.

What I want to talk about is irrational thinking, if you will permit me that oxymoron. Not only irrational thinking, but intentionally irrational arguments, arguments intended to manipulate people’s fears.

(Full Disclosure: I am pleased to call myself a liberal, even though that word has problematic meanings, and even though I don’t agree with all “liberal” positions. Please read on, though, even if that puts you off; I’m open to thoughtful comments and responses quite different from mine.)

You don’t need me to recount all of the massacres, mostly carried out by lone gunmen, we have endured in the past few years. Finally, they have raised enough concern that we, as a nation, have been able to sustain a discussion about guns and violence for longer than the news cycle usually allows. We’ve kept alive the questions about screening, mental illness, background checks, magazine capacity, and the types of guns that should be available to the general citizenry.

(One question I haven’t heard people asking much is why it’s men who carry out these mass killings? Why does that question scare us?)

One reason we have trouble asking and resolving these questions is that our country is built on conflicting principles. We love that we’re a democracy. Democracy means we’ve made the agreement that, even if the other side wins and we believe the other side to be frighteningly wrong, we will abide by the “will of the people” and won’t seek to overturn the elected government by assassination or insurrection. But no principle characterizes the American spirit more than independence and individual freedom. Those ruled by this principle seek to limit the role of government to little more than being able to declare war and collect the funds to support it.

To complicate matters, capitalism, the economic system we embrace as a country, justifies the freedom of an individual person or corporation to make as much profit as possible in the marketplace, even if, in the end, doing so will not serve the general good. This can put the principles of capitalism at odds with democracy.

What do you do, then, with an organization like the National Rifle Association, whose laissez-faire attitude toward guns fits hand-in-glove with the agenda of those who stand to make money by selling guns, money which can then be funnelled into lobbying for the NRA? I don’t know that we should spend much time worrying what to do with the NRA. They don’t make the laws of this land. In effect, we the people indirectly make the laws by voting our senators and representatives in or out. Last week, I received a call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reaching out with one hand to thank me for past contributions and with the other to ask for more. They hit me at a bad time, however. I had just heard how Harry Reid, U.S. senator from Nevada, a fairly pro-gun state, was working behind the scenes to neutralize, or at least lessen the effectiveness of, gun control legislation due to come up before the Senate. I should have directed my ire and obstinacy toward the DSCC, but the DCC called first, so they got it. “I’m tired of people who hope we’ll settle for ‘Republican Lite’ when it comes to gun control,” I said. “I’m tired of being nickeled and dimed to support people who will take such irrational positions in a country where the Supreme Court claims that corporations are individuals and therefore can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, thus controlling our so-called democracy. I think I’d rather support people who will take strong, rational stands, even if they lose,” I said. “Maybe we just have to put common sense thinking out there, let people take this country down another bad road (as in Iraq) and then wake up to rational thinking.”

And what do I consider irrational positions?

That any hunter needs to be able to fire fifteen shots without having to stop and reload.

That you need a military-style weapon in order to defend yourself.

That you should have the right to opt out of a background check when buying a gun.

That any new restriction on guns means you’re eventually going to lose your grandfather’s shotgun.

That we shouldn’t try measures that could protect the lives of innocent people, if it will make some gun owners feel bad, feel like criminals.

Imagine what it’s like to be the teacher who pushes two children to safety in a locked bathroom just before being blown away. Imagine what it will be like if you can’t go to the movies without wondering if some lunatic is in there with a gun he bought privately. Imagine, even, what it must be like to be a child who barely escaped having her six-year-old life ended like her friend’s was. We’re too smart a people to accept ridiculous arguments.

Honestly, I’m scared by any gun. That doesn’t mean I think I have the right to demand that you give up every gun you own, especially if you have no record of mental illness or criminal behavior. Yes, I’d much rather that you hunt deer with a bow and arrows, if you’re really in it for the sport, but I’m not gunning for complete control over you. Still, do you really need the right to a magazine with fifteen shots? Let’s say we compromised on a maximum of ten shots in a magazine. It just means that if the wrong person should get loose in a room full of children, the eleventh child would have a fighting chance when the shooter had to stop and reload. The fact that we might eventually be able to compromise on that and congratulate ourselves as a nation for doing so says a lot about just how out of whack our “thinking” has gotten.

Let’s not go to sleep. We’ve had more than enough wake-up calls already.

 

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Why We Tell Stories

I’m working on a memoir. It started as an account of the ten years (1956-1966) my twin brother Dave and I spent at Overbrook, a residential school for the blind in Philadelphia. Although I now have a clearer vision of what drives this book and where it’s going, thanks to years of wrong turns and much soul-searching, all I knew when I started it was that we at Overbrook had great stories to tell, that most people would not have grown up the way we did, and that I didn’t want those stories to be lost. In telling them on paper, I came to wonder why we “inmates” told them to each other back then, even though most of us already knew most of them.

In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Scheherazade spins tales every night to keep her husband, King Shahyar, from having her executed in the morning. Certainly, none of us, as far as we knew, was in mortal danger, but storytelling kept us alive, at least in the metaphorical or spiritual sense. If that sounds too dramatic, put it like this: those stories, as in The Canterbury Tales, entertained us through the many miles of boredom and hardship, the day-after-day of being separated from home. Of course, we weren’t on a pilgrimage; we hadn’t chosen this. It felt more like exile but, like a pilgrimage, it was an arduous journey which would change our lives forever.

We told stories to make each other laugh. We learned early on that content didn’t necessarily make or break the story; it was the telling of it that mattered most. So, mimicking the voices and mannerisms of all our characters, we told them: on benches in a cold cloister, on belt swings in the sweltering sun, stuck in a holding pattern outside the infirmary, or with our behinds stuffed into the bottoms of our wooden lockers, killing time until commanded to line up for dinner on a rainy afternoon.

Maybe we told stories to our comrades because we knew the others would believe them, having experienced them, too. Or if they hadn’t experienced them, they’d heard them so many times, told by so many different friends, that they almost came to believe they had experienced them. Maybe we told them to each other because we knew that those at home would find it hard to think we hadn’t made them up. Of course, we also had our own incredulity in telling them. Many of the stories made us laugh, giving us a little distance from the incredible. When they didn’t, they gave us a chance to move one small step closer to absorbing the horror. The theme of most stories—the subtext, that is—was “can you believe that?”

“Can you believe they got away with that?”
“Can you believe she did that to them?”
“Can you believe she actually said that to him?”

We told and retold how my brother and Tom Galante, in their pajamas and on hands and knees, went all the way around the cloistered garden, on its roof, narrowly eluding a suspicious night-watchman and barely getting back through the dormitory windows before Mrs. Hottenstein undertook a room to room search.

We never tired of telling how Mrs. King, the school’s matron, made all of Burrett Cottage line up with their backs to the wall to witness her breaking three yardsticks over as many boys.

We repeated, in a cold sweat, that some boys heard Miss McCall say, “I hope, when you have swimming today, you go down three times and come up twice” to Chester Kowalski on the morning he drowned.

I am no scientist, no professional psychologist, but I have a gut feeling that, based on what I observed at Overbrook, those who told stories survived the experience of boarding school with more of their courage and humanity intact.

I understand why veterans love to get together periodically to reminisce. Telling their stories now is living proof that they survived. We didn’t have to survive impending death; we were only waiting for the weekend. At least, that was true for those who lived close enough to get home. At age four, when we were first dropped off at Overbrook, the weekend might as well have been Godot. We didn’t understand time, so we didn’t know when Friday would come. Still, we had some idea that it would come and we knew that the people for whom we waited did in fact exist. Those early years, I am not quite sure how we got from Sunday to Friday, except by living from moment to moment, looking forward to the next time out on the playground, wondering whose 45 would drop down the spindle of the automatic record changer next, deciphering slowly one word after another in a new book. But when we got old enough to have witnessed the art of storytelling, we adopted it as a way to get by. Before we had ever heard of Gogo and Didi, those two absurd characters waiting by a scrawny tree day after day, we had discovered something they already knew about the benefit of telling stories: “It will pass the time.”

The Trouble With “I”

Last month, at the invitation of Michael Northen, editor of Wordgathering, an online journal of “disability literature,” I wrote an essay called “The Trouble with I.” The piece raises questions faced by all poets who write first-person poems which may be read as at least partly autobiographical, but it focuses particularly on how those questions play out for writers with disabilities. I am honoured that Mike has published this essay as what he calls a “reading loop” in the December issue of Wordgathering. The idea of the reading loop is to introduce readers to the work of poets with disabilities by presenting their work as complete poems within the context of a thematic framework.

 

I started this blog because I wanted to write about living the “wide awake” life in all its various aspects. Poets have long functioned as some of the most awake people in our societies. I hope you will check out the poets and poems in this reading loop and that you will find plenty to awaken you. And if your first reaction is that poetry isn’t for you, don’t let that stop you; all of the poets discussed in my essay are quite approachable and accessible. You can go directly to “The Trouble with I” by clicking on this link:

 

http://wordgathering.com/issue24/reading_loop/simpson.html

 

but I invite you to browse the entire December issue at

 

http://www.wordgathering.com

 

About Wordgathering Mike Northen writes:

 

“Wordgathering was founded in March 2007 by members of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, a collaborative of writers with disabilities who reside at Inglis House in Philadelphia, Pa. The workshop, established in 1998, has been meeting, sharing and critiquing poetry for the past fourteen years. In addition, they have worked to promote the writing of poets with disabilities through the annual Inglis House Poetry Contest and its resultant chapbook productions.”

 

As you can see from Mike’s description of the latest issue, Wordgathering, while primarily focused on poetry, contains a lot more:

 

“As Wordgathering ends its sixth year we are glad to be able to say that since our beginning, we have published the work of over 230 poets and helped to encourage the work of these writers through more than seventy book reviews. This issue continues to introduce readers to the poetry of writers new to this journal including Ann Carson, Nina Crowin, Monika Dryburgh, Catherine Edmunds, Kevin Honold, Aby Kaupang, Sandra Lindow, and Jason Teeple, as well as to that of Laurie Clemens and Daniel Sluman, two poets previously introduced by Mark Burnhope in our first reading loop. We also welcome back past contributors Jennifer Bartlett, John Lee Clark, Ann Eustace, Kathryn Jacobs, Marie Kane, Kim Roberts and Kathi Wolfe. Two poets have provided us with bilingual versions of their poems, Michelle Fernandez (Spanish) and Cristina-Monica Moldoveanu (Romanian).

We continue our attempt to make readers aware of current disability-related fiction in our book reviews section. Three of the books reviewed, those by Catherine Edmunds, Gretchen Henderson, are novels. Two other reviews take a look at the first books of poetry by two British writers, Joshua Davies and Daniel Sluman. We’ve also included brief excerpts from Ringman’s and Henderson’s books.

The essays in this issue are by Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Terry Tracy, Claudia Vesterby and Michael Northen. They are a varied group, described more fully in our index to the essays. On that page the reader will also find links to interviews with three exciting experimental poets, Amber DiPietra, Denise Leto and Rusty Morrison. The Art section follows up on our September issue’s look at Haverford College’s “What Can a Body Do?” project with more pictures and discussion of that event.

Finally, the reading loop, our newest feature, is hosted by Daniel Simpson who discusses issues with poems by blind writers through a look at the work of Stephen Kuusisto, Lynn Manning, Nancy Scott and David Simpson.”

 

Enjoy!

The Artist’s Role

My partner, Ona Gritz, and I recently attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey.  If you haven’t been there, you should go at least once, even if you don’t think you and poetry have much to do with each other.  In these times when, despite our increasing irritation with lies and negative campaign ads, we can find ourselves turning into political junkies, it’s refreshing to live in a community, albeit an ephemeral one, where introspection, open-heartedness, critical thinking, truth-telling, and meaning are what matter most.

Within that temporary community, though, you will find great difference, great variety, even great disagreement on such questions as what makes a poem, what is the purpose of poetry, and how much difference can poetry make in the “real world.”

One of the perennial questions has to do with the poet’s relationship to politics.  How overtly political should poems be? In one sense, each poem constitutes a kind of political act; to spend time creating and perfecting something that has little or no commercial value in a society run by corporations is a kind of political statement.  But beyond that, what role can or should the poet play in society? In some older societies, poets, like prophets, were revered.  But they also ran the risk of being reviled, should they say something starkly unpopular.

I wondered aloud to Ona about my own stance on all of this during the run-up to the election, as well as during the aftermath, especially if, God forbid, the party promoting unbridled greed and trickle-down humanity should win.  I said that losing out to such an ideology might have the benefit of sending me deeper into creating art, perhaps as a retreat for personal sustainability.  It’s a strategy that served me well when my parents, told there were no better options, sent me and my twin brother to a boarding school for the blind at the ripe age of four.  I learned I could survive, even flourish, by diving into other worlds found in books.  So, by extension, maybe I could make writing my foxhole. Then, again, maybe I should come out firing, doing my best to find words that would knock out malarkey  and mumbo-jumbo with the accuracy of a sniper.

I remember discussing this issue with Ilana Blumberg, a wonderful friend in graduate school.  “What responsibility do art and the artist have for making the world better?” I asked her.  She said, “There’s always the danger that politics will overtake your art if you try to make your art do that much heavy-lifting in the world.  I think if you want to make a political statement, go to a demonstration or organize your own.  If you want to affect change, go do the practical things to make it happen.”

In my previous post, I suggested that blogs have filled a need that letter-writing used to fill.  Maybe they also provide a vehicle for thoughtful writing that doesn’t have to be art.  What do you think about the relationship between art and politics? What do you expect from art, and what are the artist’s responsibilities?

By Way of Introduction

Recently, I was talking to writer and friend Molly Fisk about starting this blog—more thinking out loud than anything else. “Blogs seem to offer so much,” I said—”deadlines, a forum without the scrim of overwhelmed and underfunded publishers, the potential for two-way communication. But does the world really need one more blog? Won’t I just be another of the millions of voices hollering into a bottomless canyon?”

Molly hardly paused. “Ever since cave men started drawing pictures on underground walls, humans have felt the need to express themselves, to take something inner and put it outward, without guarantee of audience or response.”

I like writing because it helps me know my heart and mind better. Of course, one can keep a journal for that purpose. The world doesn’t need to see everything that helps me learn something about myself. Yet, even in published work, if the poet doesn’t learn something about himself or herself through the process of writing, even if it’s nothing more than what kind of poet he or she is capable of being, what’s the point? As Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.” Likewise, if the writer of memoir comes to no deeper understanding of life through writing, then the time spent writing has been wasted.

To publish your own work, to put it onto the wall, requires a certain kind of arrogance, I suppose. You have to think it will be worth something to others.

Blogging, it seems to me, provides a place halfway between the private journal and the finished, fully-crafted, printed work. Writers have always needed this halfway house, but they used to get it from writing letters. In a world of tweeting, texting, and email blasts, we still need some intermediate forum for working things out, even if it turns out to be letters to a world which doesn’t necessarily feel the need to read or respond.

In that sense, it can be a little like praying.

I used to work as a church musician. When attendance in mainstream, urban, Protestant churches began to plummet, we church people had conversations tinged with desperation about how to “get people in the door.” It felt like trying to sell a product. What was the church down the street doing that we weren’t? Should we drastically change the worship service? Should we stop using the organ and start playing guitars? Should we go super-informal? Should we act more like the business world? Looking at online tips for starting a blog gives me something of the same feeling. I found they mostly addressed getting hits and making money.

I might do everything wrong. The tips say to carve out a small niche. While I plan to keep my focus more or less on living wide-awake, that could manifest itself in thinking about art, politics, and the spiritual life—all huge topics. The tips suggest it’s best to post something every day. I expect once or twice a week to be more like it. I hope that blogging can nourish the rest of my writing life without taking it over.

I like experiments. I like feedback. I like having this wall to write on. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll keep coming back.