Lest WE Forget, Remembrance Day, 2019

This day, November 11, 2019, we honour those who have lost their lives in military conflicts around the world. Nations fight wars. Women, children, and men die as a result; families are displaced, and survivers are left to find their lives amidst the wreckage.

From, L. M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside: Walter’s Last Letter (Chapter XXIII)
“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”

Star Trek: Celebrating Difference

I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, but I don’t remember anyone in my house watching Star Trek. I saw the show a few times at a friend’s house—the sight of Spock and his ears comes back to me vividly—and we even re-enacted a couple of episodes. But the summer before I turned eleven, I lost my sight in a car accident, and I didn’t fully rediscover the show until my twenties.
Getting through those teenage years was hard. After my accident, I spent four months in the hospital. It wasn’t until the following September that I went back to my old school for grade seven. The initial welcome and sympathy I received from classmates quickly dried up, and I discovered that being the only blind kid in the school set me apart and made me different in a way that caused most kids to either tease or ignore me. The bullying went on until I retaliated, then even the bullies left me alone, which in some ways was worse.
I spent those teenage years reading. I discovered fantasy, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien opened me to worlds I had never imagined. I also began reading science fiction—Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, and Heinlein. And at the end of my teens, I started watching reruns of Star Trek.

At this point, I was maybe developing something of an obsession. At twenty-one, I remember climbing through my parents kitchen window one evening in June while they were out. They hadn’t left a spare key, and I wanted to watch Star trek on their TV. My wife and I were living across the alley, and we didn’t have cable.
Seeing The Wrath of Kahn in theatres, then watching Next Generation on television got me thinking differently about the show. I always thought of it as a series that pushed boundaries—it was, after all, “the final frontier.” But for some reason, I remember feeling initially disconcerted by the character of Geordi la Forge, the blind chief engineer. At the time, I never asked myself why the character of Geordi bothered me—perhaps if I had, I would have learned something more about myself as a blind person.
There were things about Geordi that drove me crazy. Early in Season 2, for example, Dr. Pulaski offers to give Geordi back his normal range of vision with ocular implants. And he refuses. Geordi’s blindness and his visor both define his character—I get it. But I remember thinking a number of times as I rewatched the episode, just take the fucking implants!
I’ve always found the scene poignant for another reason. Diana Muldaur (Dr. Kate Pulaski) had two roles in the original series. In Season 3, Muldaur plays Dr. Maranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?,” a young blind woman who is assistant to a Medusan ambassador. No one, of course, knows Dr. Jones is blind until near the end, and the outcome of the episode suggests she has to come to terms with the limits of her disability. Interestingly, in this episode, Spock must wear a visor whenever he interacts with Kollos, the Medusan ambassador, the sight of whom causes humanoids to go insane. Spock’s visor here seems a rough precursor to Geordi’s visor in Next Generation.
Introducing characters with disabilities is only one thing that has characterized the franchise. Difference of all kinds was central to the show from the beginning: Spock, with his Vulcan control of emotion, is the alien who comments endlessly on human behavior. The show was also interested in providing a range of both racial and ethnic perspectives through characters such as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. More than this, the show has dealt with the foreign, the alien, and the marginalized in every incarnation since the original series.
It’s the relentless attention to difference I’ve always appreciated about the show. Apart from Geordi, differently abled characters appear variously throughout the franchise: Riva, the deaf-mute diplomat who speaks through his chorus; and Melora, the gravity challenged ensign on Deep Space Nine. Even Worf is temporarily disabled after an accident in engineering crushes his spine. The franchise also raises same-sex issues, most poignantly in the Next Generation episode that introduces the Trill, and the episode in which the Enterprise crew work with a genderless race to recover one of their shuttlecrafts.
As campy as the Original series was, it spoke to Jean Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity confronts itself by encountering difference. That same vision persists through Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. It’s one of the things science fiction does best. It gives us a mirror for all that is good and noble, ugly and evil; it stares straight back and shows us what we don’t want to see. Like Armus from “The Skin of Evil,” science fiction is a genre that shows us ourselves—what we fear, what we hate, and what we don’t want to confront.

(First published on OfOtherWorlds as, “Star Trek: A Celebration of Difference,” Nov. 30, 2016.)

A Friendship and a Great War

C. S. Lewis met J. R. R. Tolkien on May 11, 1926, during an English faculty meeting at Merton College. Lewis was a tutor in the English faculty at Magdalen College at the time. He had already discovered a love of northern myths through his boyhood friendship with Arthur Greeves, but he had yet to publish a book of fantasy. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College. He was a father and husband, but it would be over ten years before he published The Hobbit, and decades before the first volume of Lord of the Rings would appear.
It was a Tuesday. Here’s what Lewis writes in his diary about that first meeting:
“I had a talk with him [Tolkien] afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap—can’t read Spenser because of the forms—thinks the language is the real thing in the school—thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty…. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
This friendship would become important in both men’s lives, both creatively and academically, but it also would become the basis for the Inklings, a group of Oxford intellectuals, who met regularly for almost two decades.
An experience Lewis and Tolkien also had in common was the Great War. They didn’t know one another at the time, but the war had a profound effect on both men and their writing. You can read more about their experience of the war in Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. A documentary is also in production, and you can see the trailer here.
I have taken great joy in reading about Lewis and Tolkien and their friendship over the years. Loconte’s book is only one of many. And I do wonder sometimes—what would it have been like to join Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends, as they gathered on a Tuesday morning at The Eagle and Child to discuss books and writing. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a word in edgeways, but it would have been something to just listen

World Mental Health Day, Something to Write Home About

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This is a day to acknowledge and raise awareness of mental health issues both in the community and around the world.
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When I was in my late twenties, I was at a family dinner with my kids. I was helping my cousin to wash up after dinner, and we were talking about depression. She told me about her experience of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), something of which I hadn’t heard. I was intrigued but also a little disturbed. The feelings she described were feelings I’d had for years—except during the summer months and not the winter.
That was a revelatory moment for me. I was able to understand my experience of feeling apathetic, sorrowful, and generally flat during the summers. I had been experiencing depression for years and hadn’t known it. Maybe I did understand but lacked the means of doing anything about it, or even the wish to.
I thought about it hard after that evening. I came to the conclusion that the accident that had taken my sight in 1974 was a kind of psychological vortex on my mental landscape that intensified during the summer. Summers didn’t become immediately easier, but I learned, with each successive year, new ways to manage myself from the beginning of May until the end of August.
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For this year’s World Mental Health Day, I encourage you to acknowledge and even commit to exploring issues of mental health in your life. Most everyone has experience of such issues, and the intention to explore them—with family, friends, or a professional—only results in a healthier mind and body and a more wholesome life.

Here are some links to places where I’ve written about mental health issues on OfOtherWorlds: from fiction and Mental health, to PTSD, to memoir.
Finally, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago as a way to try and describe my state of mind during bouts of depression. The piece is called, “Depression in 4D.” Enjoy!

Depression in 4D

Traversing myself is perilous. I walk the lines of well-worn neuropathways, carved through my psyche like lightning strikes through a forest. I step carefully, aware my foot might not remain secure—one misstep and I’m sliding sideways into another reality.
Slipping—falling. I’m dropping into a hole in a lunar landscape—not visible in this airless, barren world. Now trapped—in a foxhole blasted into this moonscape, where I turn and turn, unable to escape, while words I cannot utter drop singly from my mouth to congeal in the asteroidal dust at my feet. I will drown here, in this sinkhole of words and memories.
Time doesn’t pass. It remains fixed, fixed in the past. It’s a shard, an icicle of experience, reaching down and down, suspended from the air on an invisible hook with me frozen at its heart. I am both past and present—observing and suspended. For a heartbeat I hang—or is it a year and a day.
The world swims into focus with a silent roar, and I am confronted with the painful clarity of a grass blade, a single dagger of green that pierces my sight. It rises like a beanstalk, as I shrink to watch it speared the sky. And I am in an alien world, at the roots of a vegetable monstrosity, the danger for me lying in the carapaced and many-legged creatures I can hear crawling beneath this canopy, stalking with armoured relentlessness through the brome. One move, one step could take me away, but my feet remain fixed. Perhaps I could escape by climbing this beanstalk, but I know what waits for me in the misty heights is a giant who wants to spread my jellied flesh over toast and grind my crackling bones into bread.

Walking the River Valley

I live in a divided city—the North Saskatchewan River cuts Edmonton in half from the southwest to the northeast. It’s a physical divide, but even more it’s a psychological one. I grew up on the north side of town, but I’ve spent most of my adult life living on the south side.

It’s hard sometimes not to think of the river as a barrier. And the most dramatic view of the North Saskatchewan is from the top of the High Level Bridge. But if you get down inside the valley, then you begin to understand it as a living, moving body of water over and around which the city gathers.

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.