Summer Travels

This summer, I had the good fortune to visit some fascinating places. I’m prairie born and bread—used to open spaces, long summer evenings, and cold winters. But I love the ocean and had the chance to visit more than one.
In May, I travelled with a friend to Newfoundland, where we drove from the ferry landing at Port Aux Basque to Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of North America.
I returned to the east coast in June, visiting Prince Edward Island for a conference, where I took the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours historical Charlottetown, then drives straight out into the Charlottetown Harbour.
Finally, in July, I met one of my daughters in New Zealand, where we spend a week touring the North Island before flying to Melbourne. We had the chance one day to drive part of the Great Ocean Road, built by Australian war vets after the first World War. We also visited the Moonlit Sanctuary, where we had the chance to meet some local wildlife. All in all, a summer I will remember.

The Struggle in Writing Memoir

For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.

“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018

My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.

Those Girl Heroes

Girl heroes are a prominent part of children’s and young adult literature—they have been for over a century. Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, and Elsa from Frozen are only three such girl heroes to find their way into popular culture in the last decade. The popularity of such characters, however, raises questions.
Consider, for a moment. Katniss is thrown into an arena where she has to kill other young people, and she becomes a post-traumatic wreck by the third book in the series. Bella is largely a passive character, who chooses to become a vampire by … which book I can’t remember. As for Elsa, she is a Disney princess who chooses isolation, builds a giant ice castle, and inadvertently creates an endless winter. Such girl heroes get caught up in violence, questionable relationships, or, just … causing endless winters.
I find The Hunger Games compelling, and I love Frozen. I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the second book in the Twilight series—largely because of the turgid prose and ridiculous characters. That’s just me. I always love discovering new girl heroes, but I have my favourites, too. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne is one of those favourites.
Last June, I attended the Lucy Maud Montgomery and Reading conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I love visiting Prince Edward Island—the people there are more open and friendlier than anywhere I’ve visited. But I also enjoy this conference more than most. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised at how much people love Lucy Maud Montgomery—the Anne books, in particular. This conference happens every two years, and it was good to catch up with people I met at earlier conferences and talk about Montgomery. I also tried to have fun—going for an historical ride on the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown before heading into the harbor.
I presented on how Anne’s language comes from the books she’s read, and how her use of that language informs and defines her place in Avonlea. Oddly enough, Anne doesn’t refer directly to that many texts: she’s caught reading Ben-Hur by her teacher, and she and her friends enact the story of Elaine from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Anne reads novels, but don’t forget, this is a bad thing in turn-of-the-century Canada—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Anne is a girl hero. She has the beginnings of a love interest by the end of the first book, but she doesn’t fully understand her feelings for Gilbert until the end of the third book in the series—a far cry from characters like Katniss or Bella. At the same time, Anne is more like Hermione from Harry Potter: interested in books and scholastically ambitious.
I’m sure my love of girl heroes comes from having raised two daughters. And perhaps because I’m a father, the girl heroes that most appeal to me are those who face difficult, if not necessarily life-threatening issues, and grapple with difficult, if not problematic relationships. This is probably why I love characters such as Anne, Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Tenar from LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle. Girl heroes of the twenty-first century often fall into a type—the teenage misfit, who suddenly finds herself the object of at least one young man’s attention—and often two. Katniss and Bella are both good examples of such a type. Types aside, I will always enjoy meeting new girl heroes, but I will always have my favourites.

New Fiction, An Apocalyptic Fairy Tale

A couple of years ago, I was rereading some Grimms’ fairy tales, and I wondered what these stories would be like if they were set at a time when society had collapsed. IN other words, what if I took these stories and put them in an apocalyptic context. Then, I wrote “Hansel and Greta.”
I’ve written this sort of thing before. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a collection of fractured fairy tales that offered new ways to look at older tales, such as “Red Riding Hood, Again Revisited” and “Mr. Wolf and The Seven Kids, An Urban Fairy Tale.” That collection is called Fractured and Other Fairy Tales. These stories are aimed more at kids, and I had my own daughters in mind when I wrote them.
In retelling Grimms’ stories as apocalyptic fairy tales, I have a different audience in mind. These are not stories for children; they are bleak and often violent, and, well, grim in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, I’ve tried to maintain the spirit of the original tales, in as much as I’m able.
“Hansel and Greta” is the first of these stories to find a home. I must have sent it to a dozen journals before Laura Mansfield and Feast picked it up. Feast is an eclectic online journal about food based in Manchester, UK, and the latest issue is called Consuming Children. Thank you to Laura and the people at Feast for publishing the story. I’m especially grateful that Laura saw the piece as something she could include. Enjoy the story, check out the rest of the journal, and, as always, post any comments.

Postcard from New Zealand,The Ruakuri Caves

We enter the cave, the sunlight disappearing behind us. Our guide tells us to take the spiral to the bottom: the spiral is a ramp that descends twenty metres to our first check-point inside the Ruakuri Caves. These are limestone caves near Waitoma, New Zealand.
Our guide is Jim, a good natured, white-haired Kiwi, who clearly loves these caves. Water falls from the distant roof onto a block of limestone, made porous by the dripping water, and Jim has us rinse our hands in the stream, a symbolic cleansing to honour the Maori people who discovered these caves four centuries ago. Then, we begin our descent.
We follow the path, a metal grating that takes us over chasms and along the wall of the cave as we move deeper under the hill. The metal sidewalk has a rail—not high enough, as far as I’m concerned. Jim tells us about the different limestone formations, the stalactites and curtains of stone that festoon the walls. In dryer sections, the limestone hardens into coral-like patterns, but here, the water drips from the roof and sometimes pools on the floor. It’s all owing to the action of water, says Jim. And one day, he says, these caverns will collapse, leaving a deep gorge behind. But for now, the water drips and runs, adding to and changing these flowing walls. As we move, the sound echoes from all around, the air sometimes going dead as we crouch to shuffle through a narrow passage from one cavern to the next.
Jim brings us to a platform, cantilevered over a twenty metre drop into the main cavern. Here, he shows us the glow-worms that live in these caves. As he turns out the lights, the ceiling looks as though it’s dotted with stars. Fully 99% of these creature’s lives are dedicated to feeding and cocooning. Once they emerge, they have less than forty-eight hours to mate and begin the cycle over again. I stand in a corner of the platform. I grip the rail to either side, listening to Jim’s enthusiastic account of these insects, simultaneously hearing the rushing of water from far below and half-imagining the drop and what lies lower down.
Again, we go deeper, until, finally, we stand on another platform over a stream, one-hundred and sixty metres deep. I think of the caves of which I’ve read—places where dark things creep, or unnameable creatures hide in corners and listen to the silence. I listen, too—listen hard. Down here, I’m away from every familiar sound I know, save the sound of water. Without the water, the silence is absolute. It’s then that Jim tells us about the giant eels that live in the stream—more than two metres long, that have names, and that are sometimes fed by the guides. I want him to be kidding.
I’ve lost track of time down here, but finally, we begin to make our way back up. Jim keeps track of us. He shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis of LotR fame learned how to be Gollum; he tells us about the ghost walk, where your shadow runs ahead of you into the darkness. On and on, through narrow twisting passages where we have to bend nearly double to avoid the stone of the ceiling. Finally, we arrive back at the limestone block beneath the falling water and the spiral that will take us back up into the sunlight. We emerge from the caves and everyone exclaims at the light. The sun shines brightly in the cool, winter air. I hear birds, the sighing of trees, and feel the wind on my face. The familiar world demands our attention, but we won’t forget the Ruakuri Caves.

A Postcard from New Zealand, The Man on the Mountain

We follow a path and steep steps going up the side of the hill. A tall, fibrous plant grows everywhere here. The educational centre at the parking lot tells us that the Maori peoples used this plant to make baskets, mats, and clothing. After passing a soccer field, we begin the climb up the side of the volcano.
My daughter and I are climbing Mangere Mountain, an extinct volcano near Auckland, New Zealand. This is one of nearly fifty extinct volcanos in and around Auckland. We climb higher along the rim, and we can see the remains of the terraces the Maori people built around the inside of the ancient crater for growing food. As we get to the highest point of the rim, we can see down one side across the city to the harbour, and on the other down into the centre of the volcano, where the lava dome is visible as a hummock of land.
As we stand, a man joins us on the rim. He walks with a staff, a twisted length of wood that he says was gifted to him by a Maori friend. He shows me the staff.
“My friend made this,” says the man, “and he just handed it to me and said it’s yours.”
The man has a long beard, with eyebrows to match. He is full of information about this place, this long-dead volcano that was sacred to the people who lived here.
He stands and explains the view, the harbour to the south and west and other volcanos in the distance. He says the lava dome at the centre of the volcano, with the two smaller craters to either side makes the inside of the crater look like a face.
“they call it the face of the god,” the man says, and he shows me the Maori symbol he wears around his neck. He tells us he is from the English midlands, and came to New Zealand eighteen years before, following is sister
We thank him and shake hands. We tell him our names, and he bids us a good journey. And as we walk away down the rim, we look back, and the man is no where to be seen. It occurs to me later, he never told us his name.