Café Solo with an Old Horn
By Stephen Kuusisto She was earnest, the woman who approached. There was a waterfall in the hotel's lobby and it was hard to hear; the woman's voice was designed to sound like water. I swayed. She was offering to cure me.
Her church she said had recently cured two blind people: a boy and an old woman. Both had been sightless but through the power of Christ they had been healed. And so before me was an invitation.
Behind me a stepladder creaked as a worker changed light bulbs. I was embarrassed and stood beside the waterfall in a Holiday Inn and couldn't think of a thing to say. I thought of salmon returning to their spawning pools. I thought of fish gathering shapes against the stones and passing those shapes to the next generation.
The job of a man, Montaigne said, is to diffuse his joy and, as much as possible, hide his grief. Alone in my study I think about "the cure." Why did that woman from the Philippines irk me? Was it her medieval ardor? Was it the old tub of blood from the catacombs -- that place where Pope Innocent bathed in the blood of virgins? Was it the notion that, at least in her eyes I might need curing? Or was I offended by her brand of cure? Why would a Western opthomological procedure be preferable to a laying on of hands? I mean in all honesty haven't I tried for a cure among the doctors? I've assumed a necessary stoicism -- incurable by modern means, I've decided and continue to decide every day that I will celebrate my blindness. Be gone with your dime store miracles! It's life standing before you and diffusing its joys, not death, not tears, not the desert of solitudes.
Say what you will, but after the invention of money someone is always dining out on someone else's misfortune. Then there's compound interest. Jesus cures two blind men in the New Testament that they may wander the roads proclaiming the presence of the Savior. But why does the Lord who can cure let disability exist a priori? It's the money analogy all over again: once he's cured, a walking leper is like the silver thread running through a dollar bill.
That woman from the Philippines has seen horror face to face. She's a survivor who understandably wants the army of God at her back. Still her offer had turned me into some kind of toy -- a Russian doll with smaller and smaller dolls inside. All the same, the largest doll in the collection was telling me to keep my mouth shut.
This isn't the first time a stranger has approached me with the offer of prayer. In fact I'm an easy mark for superstitious people. Not long ago I was walking across the campus of Ohio State University where I teach in the Creative Writing Program. A young woman appeared beside me. "I saw you on the bus," she said, "and I was wondering if I could pray for you?" I could tell she was very young. That is, she seemed younger than a college student. I smiled. I asked my dog guide to sit. I patiently explained to her that people with disabilities are not all alike and that as a Professor who occasionally teaches courses in "Disability Studies" I was obliged to tell her that many contemporary disabled folks could conceivably find her offer offensive. I even said something like disabled people nowadays have wonderful lives. . . . I was lecturing her ever so gently under a Buckeye tree and I think my mouth was wet -- I mean embarrassingly so -- and I said, "I'm telling you this because I'm probably kinder than other people you might approach with such an offer . . ." "Yes," she said, "but do you mind if I pray for you?" "Okay," I said, "you can pray for me but only if I can pray for you." I also said something about praying silently and that I was late for class and had to run.
I'd gone to the Holiday Inn to deliver a talk for a largely corporate audience. My subject was "emotional Intelligence" and it's practical applications in what we've come to call "the workplace" -- though I don't believe we can afford to be selective about this -- every place is the work place as long as we're alive. I talked for a half hour about visualization techniques that can be used rather effectively to diffuse emotional challenges. I agree with the literary critic Harold Bloom's assertion that the modern mind is largely the invention of Shakespeare. In his plays Shakespeare asks us to participate in the play by experiencing comic irony: we know more about the characters than they themselves do. We could argue that the Greeks invented this dramatic practice, but let's say that Shakespeare enlarges it. By Elizabethan times people were readers and audiences were prepared for incredulity. And as Shakespeare knew, that kind of audience is no longer a reflection of the Greek Chorus -- it's a group of individual spectators, each of whom hopes to know more about the plot than his neighbor. Today's pop psychology employs this wisdom by suggesting that each of us can imagine that we're watching our own lives. In turn we can depersonalize those moments that incite our anger -- at least just long enough to see what's really going on.
My audience consisted of business people who sat on metal folding chairs and scribbled notes. They were a nice group. They laughed in the right places. When my dog-guide Vidal, a yellow Labrador bowed on command at the end of my presentation there was plenty of applause. I felt good. I was a professional with a disability. I was bringing beneficial information to a non-academic audience -- demonstrating for the human resources folks that people with disabilities bring more than diversity to the workplace -- the current utilitarian term is "value added" and yes, that was my goal. Disability is a branch of epistemology and it always has been.
She offered to cure me 36 hours ago. Since then I've learned she's been written up in our local paper. It seems she's been curing others through a ministry connected to the Catholic Church. My wife reads me the article and suggests helpfully that I forget about blindness and let them cure the tendinitis in my right shoulder.
In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that poetry concerns itself with events as they might occur -- and thus he distinguishes it from history. In turn poetry is more philosophical since it treats of possible outcomes. I think miracles are feasible. They belong to poetry. Still none of us will be healed there. Why? Because there's no there there and the picture of a blind man who has been restored to sight belongs on the imaginary wall of that church. In the meantime I like these lines by the poet Marvin Bell:
It's life that is hard: waking, sleeping, eating, loving, working and dying are easy.
I want to add blindness to that list. It's no different than waking or sleeping. It's life that is hard and for that there is no cure.
Poet Stephen Kuusisto's most recent book is Only Bread, Only Light. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Ohio State University in Columbus.
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