Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.

So Long to Summer

The summer is coming to an end, and there are always things in my world to tell me fall is coming. The school year is now a week away, and everyone is gearing up. September and the beginning of the year has dictated my life for more than thirty years, and here it comes again.
I try to use these points in the year to reflect and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going next. I use the summer to read books I don’t normally read during the term, although this summer I’ve been rereading more than usual.
I started the summer with the Percy Jackson books—always a fun read—and I spent part of July rereading the Lockwood and Co. series. I returned to Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but did that because I’m teaching The Golden Compass this fall, and I want to move onto Pullman’s next series, The Book of Dust. I read M. K. Humes’s The Merlin Prophecy series, and I returned to a favourite author, Bernard Cornwell, to read The War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series.
Some people never reread books, but I do it all the time. The summer can often be hard for me—I tend to get depressed. It’s as though I have seasonal affective disorder in reverse. This has to do with the accident that took my sight, which happened in the middle of August in 1974. This is part of the reason why I’ve taken to writing memoir. Writing about that event in my life has helped me to, in part, reframe it—to rewrite the story of what happened. Earlier this year, “Running Blind” appeared in The Real Story, and “Fractured” should appear this fall. Both of these pieces attempt to talk about the adjustment I had to make as an eleven-year-old who lost his sight. I have two other pieces in circulation, “My Cowboy Cousin” and “Standing by My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016.” Both these pieces talk about the death of my cousin Graham in the same accident that took my sight.
My other big challenge this summer was writing two academic articles, one on Anne of Green Gables and the other on C. S. Lewis. Academic writing has always been far more difficult for me than any other kind of writing. It’s just hard. I’ve also had something of a block for nearly three years. Faced with these commitments, I had to find a different way to write academically. I took the advice of my therapist. She always tells me that if things become overwhelming, then break them down into smaller and smaller pieces. If, for example, your anxiety is so crippling that it prevents you from getting through your day, then take one piece at a time—have a shower and get ready to leave the house, then celebrate the accomplishment. By the way, this method has been invaluable to me over the years.
That’s what I did. I took the stuff I had written about Anne, and I broke it down into short sections. Some were only two or three-hundred words. I relied on my hard-won sense of discipline to get me started, and I worked on these various bits until I could start assembling them into a larger whole. It worked. I ended up with an eight-thousand-word chapter, which I submitted in August.
I’ve spent much of my life feeling badly about those things I couldn’t manage and those things I couldn’t complete. My sense of guilt as a result has helped prevent me from doing other things I’ve wanted to try. I’m learning, slowly, that the energy required to feel badly, regretful, or guilty is energy that could be spent in learning something new or to undo old habits. Think of it as rewriting the story. You don’t want the story to end with the hero wandering forever in the wilderness—what sort of ending is that? Better to have her find her way back home, or, better yet, find a new home. Either way, such endings allow you to close off those old stories and begin anew.

Caledonia on My Mind

In August of 2015, I made my first trip to Scotland with my youngest daughter. She was moving to the UK on a working/visa, and I went along to experience my ancestral home and visit Oxford, the home of two of my literary heroes, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Our first day in Glasgow, I wrote:
“August 16, 2015: I’m not sure what I was expecting on coming here. I was expecting to feel as though I was in a strange place. It doesn’t feel strange at all—different, but not strange.”
We spent five days in Glasgow that first trip. We stayed in an Air BnB on Queen Margret Drive, just above North Star, a small café run by a lovely couple. Every morning, I went down to the café and got coffee. I would stand outside the flat, having my coffee and smoking, while the life of the street passed by.
I wrote several pieces on that and subsequent trips to Scotland, including Encountering the Literary, A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Glasgow Connection to Harry Potter. And, of course, there are always Scottish castles.
I have been a father now longer than I’ve been anything else in my life. It’s a parent’s job to guide his or her children, but my children have guided me on adventures where I might not have gone on my own. It’s my youngest I have to thank for my Caledonian connection.

From the Blog Archive, Visiting New Zealand

Our Edmonton summer is reminding me of a New Zealand winter, save for the longer evenings. Here are some highlights from my trip to New Zealand’s North Island with my daughter last year.

• We both love waterfalls, so we stopped to visit Hunua Falls, not far outside of Auckland.

• My daughter had the idea to visit some caves. I’ve never gone caving before, and going more than a hundred metres underground in the Ruakuri Caves near Waitomo was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience.
These caves are limestone, and when they collapse, after a hundred thousand years or so, they create deep gorges, where it’s also fun to walk and crawl.

• And, of course, we had to visit Hobbiton—one more time, ending up at the Green Dragon Inn, which is a great way to end the tour of Peter Jackson’s Shire.

More About Anne

After posting the call for submissions to “All Things Anne,” I decided to hunt around to see how people are responding to Anne these days. I didn’t have to look far.
Bear in mind, L. M. Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables in 1908. At the time, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals formed the government of Canada; as provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan were just three years-old; and a loaf of bread, if you didn’t make it yourself, would cost you around five cents. Anne has had over a century to filter her way through the imaginations of thousands of readers. Here are some responses to Anne that are worth checking out.
Ann Foster writes, “The Forgotten History of Anne of Green Gables” on the occasion of season two of Anne with an E on Netflix;
Samantha Ellis, from The Guardian, writes, “Ten Things Anne of Green Gables Taught Me;”
And, if you’re a dedicated #AnneFan, then you might want to consider reading or writing some Anne of Green Gables fanfic.
Finally, check out this video of a visit to Green Gables Heritage Place on Prince Edward Island—always, always worth a trip. When you visit, one of the first things they explain is that Anne—spoiler alert—is a fictional character. Enjoy!

A Call for Anne Submissions

Gilbert reached across the aisle, picked up the end of Anne’s long red braid, held it out at arm’s length and said in a piercing whisper:
“Carrots! Carrots!”
Then Anne looked at him with a vengeance! She did more than look. She sprang to her feet, her bright fancies fallen into cureless ruin. She flashed one indignant glance at Gilbert from eyes whose angry sparkle was swiftly quenched in equally angry tears.
“You mean, hateful boy!” she exclaimed passionately. “How dare you!”
And then thwack! Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it slate not head clear across.
Avonlea school always enjoyed a scene. This was an especially enjoyable one. Everybody said “Oh” in horrified delight. Diana gasped. Ruby Gillis, who was inclined to be hysterical, began to Cry.
(Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Chapter XV, “A Tempest in the School Teapot.”)

This iconic scene in which Anne Shirley smashes her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head is burned into the minds of Anne fans everywhere. I love Anne, and I’m attached to the books—just not in quite the same way as I’m attached to other books or other authors.
However, I was interested and delighted to see a call for submissions to the summer edition of Eastern Iowa Review: All Things Anne.
For Anne fans everywhere, this is your chance to indulge in fan fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or anything else related to Anne. You will have to visit the site for more details, but you have until September 30 to submit.
I’ve never written fan fiction, but I’ve thought about it. If I were to write about Anne, I might do something like Anne and robots, or Anne of Green Gables on Mars. But I probably won’t—maybe—I don’t know.
I’ve visited Prince Edward Island many times—it’s a lovely, picturesque place, full of friendly, interesting people. And I can’t overstate the friendliness of PEI. People there go far out of their way to help me when I visit. I once had a guy abandon his lunch and car—keys in the ignition and music playing—to walk me more than a block to the bank. He even came inside to make sure I found the ATM.
Last time I visited, one of the hotel staff walked me several blocks to the place where I caught the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown and the Charlottetown harbour. The only other time I encountered someone from a hotel who was that helpful was in Portland, Oregon, another fabulous place to visit.
So if I were to write about Anne, I might write about how the island itself has become a place of pilgrimage for Anne fans, of how you can visit those places Lucy Maud lived as a child and woman before her marriage that took her away to Ontario; or of how the people of the island have something of a love/hate relationship with Anne Shirley, as she has become inextricably part of the island economy. Regardless of what I do or don’t do, such a call is an excuse to revisit the books once again and think about Anne Shirley and the island with the generous heart.