Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

A New Piece, Traveling Blind

By nature, I’m mostly a hobbit. However, like Bilbo Baggins, I do travel, sometimes more than I want. And I mostly travel alone, which means I rely on the kindness and assistance of people who work for airlines and in airports. And these people are amazing—helpful, good natured, efficient, and friendly. I couldn’t travel the way I do without them.
“Traveling Blind” is a nonfiction piece about getting there—where ever that is. I hope you find it funny, in a neurotic sort of way. The piece first appeared in Wanderlust Journal, and I want to thank Sarah Leamy for being interested enough to accept it for publication. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to check out the magazine.

Pink Shirt Day, 2018

In recognition of #PinkShirtDay, 2018. Help stop bullying, whether it’s in the office or on the playground. The focus of this year’s campaign is cyberbullying, but this is only one more arena where such behaviour finds an expression.
When I was twelve, I returned to school after having lost my sight in a car accident. I had been away from my regular school for a year, and I was initially welcomed back. That lasted only a couple of months. I spent most of junior high fending off a select group of kids who made it their business to torment me in a routine sort of way. I didn’t know what to do, so I retaliated.
“Flash Point” is a story I published last year that looks at some of those events. The events are fictionalized, but everything in the story occurred. Retaliating certainly wasn’t the answer, although no one, including me, had much awareness of how to address such behaviour in the late 1970s. Pink Shirt Day thankfully speaks to a growing awareness, but everyone still has to do his or her part.

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Think

In 1999, my kids wanted to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Their friends were reading the books, but their mom, and other parents I knew, had concerns about the series. As parents, we agreed I would read the first book and let her know what I thought.
My kids and I had just moved into our new house, and I spent a rainy week in July reading the audio book, performed by Jim Dale. My youngest walked into my room to hear the line,
“Urgh – troll boogers.”
“What are you reading?” she asked, with some surprise.
My kids started reading Harry Potter later that summer. We talked about the books, what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what bothered them.
Over the years, I’ve made it a practice to read what my kids are reading. Not everything, but even if I didn’t have time, or if I couldn’t get a digital copy of the book, we talked about what they were reading. And being able to talk about books meant we could talk about other things—music, movies, or pop culture.
This week is Freedom to Read Week. Reading with kids and talking about books can be the most effective ways to help a new generation become more aware and more clear-thinking adults. And reading together is simply one of the best ways to spend time with kids—I say that as both a parent and a storyteller.
Western culture has a long history of adults trying to control what kids read, going back farther than the eighteenth century. At that time, adults wanted kids to read books that were uplifting, instilled a fear of God, or taught lessons in honesty and working hard. One of the most shocking books ever written for children is James Janeway’s A Token for Children, which featured stories of child martyrs, all dying in the knowledge that their faith in God is secure. But children have always been drawn to those books adults don’t want them to read—both then and now.
If you want to read more about Freedom to Read Week, check out their website. Have a look at this list of challenged books in Canada from the Edmonton Public Library’s website—a list that contains some of my favourite books. And listen to this story from the CBC archives about the challenge to Margaret Laurence’s books in 1985.
The battle over books has gone on for centuries. But it’s not just about books; it’s about ideas and the freedom to think critically. Kids are curious; they want to read, and they want to talk about what they read. Unfortunately, the challenge to most books emerges out of fear—fear of what we dislike, fear of what we see as different, fear of what doesn’t reflect our own beliefs. Much is gained from maintaining a dialogue with children and young adults about what they think—they’re pretty awesome. And they are, after all, those who will inherit the Earth.

Waiting for A Wrinkle in Time

If you’re like me, you’re anticipating the filmic release of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time this March. I read this book as a kid—on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which, if you’re wondering, is a dinosaur from the analog era. Just so we’re clear, the analogue era is that point in human history before everything went digital.
I was an impressionable reader at fourteen. Everything I read blew my mind, and everything I read was going to change my life. Reading about Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their search for their father introduced me to a new kind of fantasy—fantasy that wasn’t Lord of the Rings and THAT crossed THE line into science fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I read by Madeline L’Engle. I of course wanted more, but I quickly discovered she didn’t exclusively write fantasy. L’Engle is known for her Time series, which includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. But she wrote more than fifty books. If you want to read more about the series and the author, check out this fine 2004 piece by Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker.
As a teenager, I felt a little weird reading a fantasy/science fiction book that made reference to God. At that time, I hadn’t yet read any C. S. Lewis. At university, I studied A Wrinkle in Time with Jon Stott, my children’s literature mentor, who talked about the book in terms of what he called the Isis archetype—girl characters who had to confront, and often save their flawed fathers. That gave me something to think about, although I hadn’t yet become a flawed father myself.
Eventually, I read C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy, which gave me another way of understanding L’Engle’s AWiT. Lewis’ series, especially the first book, draws on the tradition of H. G. Wells, the man who, I would argue, invented science fiction. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is by far my favourite of the trilogy, with its depiction of deep heaven, the angel-like Oyarsa who govern each of the planets, and Earth, or Thulcandra, as the silent planet. All this, I think, looks forward to AWiT, the angel-like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Witch, and the dark thing, or shadow that envelops the Earth.
I always need to fit the books I’m reading into a larger literary picture. Call it an obsession. L’Engle may very well have been drawing on Lewis, but she gave us something new in 1962: a contemporary girl character who fights evil. Some aspects of the book now seem dated, But Meg Murry, with her stubbornness and belligerent attitude, remains a forerunner to the spunky girl characters of the twenty-first century.

World Read Aloud Day, 2018

A couple of years ago, I was stopped outside MacEwan by a young woman.
“Are you Mr. Thompson?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking she must be a student.
“I was in your daughter’s class in elementary. You used to come in and tell us stories.”
I was touched that this young woman remembered those stories and thought to say hello, especially since elementary for my kids was more than a decade in the past.
My kids have always had an experience of books. Their mom started reading to them before they could talk. For my part, I tried ordering print-braille books so I could read to them as well, but books took ages to arrive by mail, which meant the whole thing was more frustrating than anything else.
I was lucky enough to have taken a children’s literature course with Jon Stott during my undergrad, so out of desperation, I pulled out my old textbook to see if I could find a story to tell my two-year-old. The first story I ever told her was “Kate Crackernuts.” She heard that story every night for three months, and I doubt she heard the ending until much later. But telling stories became part of the ritual at bedtime, which lasted for years.
Later on, when my kids started school, I went into their class and told stories—stories I found in books or on the Internet. The teacher had the idea to turn all those stories into a project. The kids drew pictures of their favourite stories, and my mom and another parent transferred those pictures onto fabric. The whole thing became the Storytelling Quilt.
Reading aloud to children is a powerful thing. Research suggests reading aloud helps both general literacy and reading acquisition. But consider –reading to your own kids means spending time with them, and spending such time goes a long way to actively showing your kids how much you care.
February 1 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Scholastic. If you can, take the time to read aloud to a child in your life. And if you can’t manage it for February 1, remember that every day of the year offers such an opportunity.