I wish I could tell you what’s in my heart in this political season. I don’t mean the rage-heart or the schadenfreude-heart, those twins of Freud’s Id. I’m thinking of the binding-heart, the one that heals. Wishing this I acknowledge it’s tricky, this heart-speak since it requires a bit of poetry and a lot of self-awareness.
I’m blind. Some see me on the street and think I’m a sad sack for what else is disability but a ticket to an inferior life? The statistics on blindness and unemployment are sobering. In my heart? This political season I want Americans to vote for job expansion, inclusivity, dignified employment—which means true diversity in the jobs of the future.
In the heart—mine—I want black lives and guide dog users and wheelchair drivers and women getting equal pay. I wish away the tacit assumption that difference means incapacity. I don’t want employment specialists looking at me as a flight attendant once did, saying: ”if I was disabled I think I’d kill myself.”
It was Abraham Lincoln who called on the nation to bind up its wounds and thereby invented a wholly new American metaphor—the better angels of our natures—the binding heart.
If you’re like me you don’t always get this right. It’s easy to succumb to road rage or social media trolling. But the binding heart looks a bit deeper.
I lost 7 friends on September 11, 2001. All of them were working in the World Trade towers when the planes struck. At the time I was a professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I was scheduled to fly the very next day to New York to conduct a poetry workshop for teenagers. As you remember, all flights in the US were grounded indefinitely. Like so many others I stayed home and grieved and tried to imagine the human consequences of what had happened.
When about a week later I was finally able to fly to New York I called a cab to take me to the airport. This is the part of the story we in the writer’s trade like to call the “meanwhile, back at the ranch gambit”–I need to shift and give you some back story. Remember, there’s a taxi coming.
In the mid-1990’s I was the director of student services at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the nation’s premier training centers for guide dogs. They’re located just outside of New York City and they provide impeccably trained dogs for blind people all over the US and around the world. One thing I discovered while working there is that many cab drivers in New York City didn’t like picking up blind people with guide dogs or riders who used wheelchairs.
Some cabbies didn’t like the dogs, or they didn’t like the hassle of helping a wheelchair user. This made me quite angry and I immediately started working with Mayor Giuliani’s office to change the laws governing taxi access for people with disabilities. The fines for refusing rides went up and the education process for drivers was improved. Believe it or not, things are better nowadays. They’re not perfect, but they’re better than they used to be.
So there I was waiting for a taxi on the first day the airlines were flying again. I was feeling jumpy like everyone boarding a plane that morning. Would I get where I was going? Would everything be okay? Then the taxi appeared in my driveway.
Picture me with a guide dog and a rolling suitcase making my way to the car. Picture me getting in with a large yellow Labrador, settling the dog on the floor behind the front seat, squeezing in with my stuff, feeling the awkwardness of my disability the whole time. No matter how much you travel, if you’re a person with a disability you know all about the awkwardness factor. All too often you don’t fit into the spaces allotted to you–toilets, airplane seats, stadium seating, taxicabs…
I told the driver I wanted to go to the airport. He didn’t say a word. He just pulled his cab into the street and drove. I thought that he probably didn’t like me, or he didn’t like having the dog in his cab–either way it’s the same thing. I was having a flashback to my New York advocacy days. Here was another inhospitable cab driver. I took his silence for hostility.
Now you have to understand that I’m a big talker. I’m an extrovert. I like people.
I’m not shy. When you’re visually impaired this is an advantage. I talk all the time with total strangers. Many have helped me. Several of those strangers have become my friends.
Accordingly, the silence of the cab driver was all too easy for me to misinterpret. I firmly decided that he didn’t like me.
Then something wonderful and strange happened. I’d been reading a book by Daniel Goleman called “Emotional Intelligence”. In his book, Goleman, a Harvard trained psychologist, argues that it’s not your IQ that matters so much when determining your potential success in life, it’s your emotional intelligence–how much creative and interpretive flexibility you can engage in your work and your relationships.
He argues that human beings are genetically engineered through our evolution to either fight or flee when we’re presented with any circumstance that surprises us. He cites “road rage” as an example of a fight or flee experience that causes modern human beings tremendous difficulty. We imagine that the person driving badly is our enemy. We become enraged. We take it personally. Goleman argues that once this rage occurs we’re the victims of what he calls a “neurological hijacking” –in effect we’ve become primitive thinkers, emotionally unintelligent and incapable of true thinking. He suggests that we try to imagine ourselves as being outside of the conflict we find ourselves in, to in effect see our circumstances as if they’re part of a dramatic presentation. See yourself as a character on a stage. Imagine that there’s something more going on than you presently realize. Slow down your impulsive response and use your imaginative skills.
So not seeing well I began to listen, sitting in the back of that taxi.
I thought, “What if this man’s silence isn’t about me?”
Then I noticed the music coming from the radio. Someone was singing lines from the Koran, singing them with the kind of sweet, uptempo joy one hears in Jamaican Reggae. So I really began to listen. The arrangement had a wonderful horn section and behind the horns, an eccentric but lively beat. The effect was uplifting, life-giving, and I found myself suddenly exclaiming: “Wow! That sounds like Pakistani Bob Marley!”
“Oh God!” I thought. “What have I done? I’ve just made a perfect fool of myself!”
Have you ever heard jubilant relief in a man’s voice? It’s an unforgettable timbre, like water falling in Kyoto. The driver said: “You’re right! He is the Bob Marley of Pakistan! That is where I’m from! How did you know it was from Pakistan?”
I said I was a literature professor, that I had read the Koran and the music was absolutely life-affirming.
Suddenly I was in a different story than the one I’d imagined. My driver told me that no one had spoken with him in public since 9-11. Not a soul. I was the first man to say anything to him beyond muttered directions. And by God, I knew something about his culture. I was sharing my joy upon hearing the music–his music–the music that had gotten him through so many difficult hours.
The title of this column. Is “sidekick” and what use is a sidekick if there’s not binding heart in the very idea of friendships?