I’m thinking about oceans this week. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited many bodies of water, and I always have a particular feeling near the water, as though my cells are responding to the pull of the tide and the rotation of the moon.
I’ve clambered with my youngest daughter over the rocks of a fallen tower on a beach near St. Andrews, Scotland. Before us, the North Sea pounds and foams, and on the far edge of the horizon, my daughter points to the coast of Norway. I think about Norway, long ago, about the Vikings who came across that sea in their long boats to terrorize Britain and Europe.
I’ve visited Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point of North America, and stood and listened to the relentless pounding of the surf. John Cabot visited here as well—sailing from Bristol in 1497. They say he circled the island and may have made landfall on southern Labrador.
I’ve driven with my eldest daughter along the southeast coast of Australia, where the Tasman Sea becomes the Southern Ocean. We stop the car and climb down to the beach, and I stand and imagine the expanse of water that lies between me and the southern icecap.
My parents took us as a family to visit the west coast when we were kids. This was one of the biggest trips we did in those days—camping all the way, save for one night in a motel because of pouring rain. We made it out to Vancouver Island and up to Rathtrevor Beach. Because the bay was shallow, I learned about the tide, and watched with fascination as the water washed nearer and nearer in the afternoon. I would come down to the beach in the morning, stopping to look at the flotsam left by the withdrawing tide—driftwood, trailing seaweed, and broken shells. To my eight-year-old eye, the beach simply looked uncovered, as though someone had just drawn back the water like a blanket.
But it was at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park, where the Pacific Ocean runs smack into the island, that I had my first sight of the real ocean. At first I thought it terrifying and chaotic. It was vast and moving and overwhelmed my child’s brain. But as I got used to the beach in all its parts, I began to accept it, if not understand it. We played along the beach, gathering debris to build sandcastles near the water. we would suddenly abandon that work to run into the shocking water, where we felt the huge draw and wash of the waves. Hot sun, wind, and saltwater—it all gathers into that first memory of the ocean, which I find again every time I visit the water.
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.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Pig and Pepper”)
I recently had a piece published in Open Minds Quarterly, a print publication from NISA (the Northern Initiative for Social Action), based in Sudbury, Ontario. Thanks to Ella Jane Myers and everyone at the journal for their interest in “Breath.” You can purchase a print copy of the spring 2019 issue on the OMQ website.
“Breath” is memoir. I seem to be writing more memoir these days. I’m of two minds about it. On one hand, I have to ask myself why I do it. How is my experience of the world more worth writing about than anyone else’s? It isn’t, of course. I feel something like pain whenever I hear of someone’s story that is brushed off, made light of, or just forgotten. On the other hand, I’m drawn in by the process. And not necessarily with my own story, but with telling it, if that makes any sense.
I wrote “Breath” ages ago, but I revised it specifically for the call from Open Minds Quarterly. I’m very glad they accepted it for their spring 2019 issue. You can read the first paragraph below. You can read more by purchasing a copy and supporting the journal.
And if you know someone who suffers from panic disorder, or any other anxiety inducing disorder, gently direct them to a place they can get some help. If you’re a student, go talk to someone in counceling services. If you aren’t a student, talk to your doctor, or find a support group online. I lived with panic disorder for fifteen years before I even knew it had a name. If you suffer from panic disorder, then you will suffer, whether you are alone or in the company of others. Suffering, like joy, is best shared.
“Trouble breathing—sudden panic. Why can’t I breathe. My head is spinning. We are driving. Am I going to pass out? My voice sounds distant as I try to say something is wrong. It sounds to my ears as though someone else is speaking. I wonder, in a distant chamber of my brain, if I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying.”
I’m fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where I can experience nature close up. Between the abundance of birdlife all around to the coyotes that live on the University farm, I encounter nature every day. Here are two such encounters—one with coyotes and one with geese—that were closer than I usually expect.
Years ago, when I still lived in University housing with my kids, my youngest daughter came running home one day to tell me she was almost attacked by a peregrine falcon. I explained, patiently, that peregrine falcons didn’t live in the neighbourhood, and they certainly didn’t attack people.
“But I saw it,” she said, “I saw its prey-bird beak and everything!”
She was adamant, and I had to let that one go. Much to my chagrin, I learned later my daughter did see a type of falcon that day—a Merlin, a small hawk that feeds on songbirds and lives all over the neighbourhood. This species has made a recovery in recent decades, especially in urban areas, thanks to the ban on the use of DDT.
These birds, like so many other species of bird and small mammals, make their homes in urban areas. I’m grateful every day to meet those birds and animals who still share my neighbourhood, and happy to know that an urban setting can’t keep out the natural world.
June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day. If you aren’t familiar with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, you might recall it as shell shock or combat fatigue. The history if PTSD extends back to the nineteenth century, but the American Psychiatric Association didn’t recognize the disorder until 1980.
PTSD has been most commonly associated with soldiers, but victims of sexual assault and other forms of trauma also experience this disorder. PTSD can be difficult to diagnose. It can present in multiple ways, including addiction, depression, dissociation, and sleep disorders. It’s a constellation of symptoms that develop as a result of a traumatic experience. You can learn more about this disorder on The PTSD Association of Canada website.
Earlier this year, I published a piece called “Running Blind” in The Real Story, an online UK magazine. I don’t specifically refer to PTSD in this piece, but I’m trying to describe my child’s experience of the disorder, based on what I know of it now. I lost my sight in a car accident in 1974, and it took me more than thirty years to begin to understand the long-term effects of that experience. Dealing with trauma is excruciating, but asking questions and seeking help is a good place to start.
In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman writes:
“traumatized people relive, in their bodies, the moments of terror that they cannot describe in words. Dissociation appears to be the mechanism by which intense sensory and emotional experience are disconnected from the social domain of language and memory, the internal mechanism by which terrorized people are silenced” (afterward).
I was in a coffee shop on Vancouver Island in April. I was wearing a t-shirt I bought at Cape Spear. Two women came up to me and asked if I was from Newfoundland. I’m not, but they were, and they very quickly started telling me about their home on Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula. These women spoke of their home with a warmth I don’t often hear.
One of the most memorable trips I took last year was to Newfoundland with my friend Tom Wharton. We flew to Halifax, then took the ferry from Sydney, Cape Breton, over to Newfoundland. You can read the post here. Then there was the North Atlantic off Cape Spear—something I won’t soon forget. I’m looking forward to a return visit to the Rock. If you want a book that captures this part of the world, check out Sweetland by Michael Crummey. It’s an awesome read.