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.

Help Celebrate, #IDPD2017

Today marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To learn more about this United Nations initiative, read on.
In 1992, the UN proclaimed December 3 as a day to recognize persons with disabilities. This year’s theme is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.”
I can only speak for a small fraction of this population, and only those living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. In Canada, living as a person with a disability doesn’t come with the same challenges as it does for people living in, for example, Brazil.
Accessibility, including access to public buildings and services, continues to be one of the major issues facing many people with disabilities. Accessibility, of course, means different things to different people. For me, as a blind person who uses a white cane, having the pebbled strip along the edges of the LRT platforms in Edmonton gives me warning as I come close to that edge. Believe me—it’s helpful. I’ve fallen off the damned platform twice over the years, once breaking two ribs on a snowy evening in January, 2010.
Accessibility, however, isn’t the only issue. Treating people with dignity is equally important. If, for example, you encounter a person who is deaf accompanied by an interpreter, don’t talk to the interpreter; talk to the person. If you see someone whom you think might need some help, ask before helping, and allow that person the dignity of refusing your help.
When I’m out and about, people ask me all kinds of questions—some of them pointedly personal. I wrote a piece about being asked such questions last year, which you can find in Hippocampus Magazine.
I don’t mind the questions people ask, and I try to answer as best I can. If you are ever in any doubt regarding a question you want to ask a person with a disability, ask yourself the same question first. It’s about being aware, but sometimes it’s just about being sensitive.
Help celebrate this day, but take this United Nations initiative into your life and workplace in meaningful ways. And thank you, in advance.

The One Thousand Kilometre Walking Challenge

Summer is a time for many things—working in the garden, lying in the sun, going on road-trips. This summer I decided to set myself a walking challenge. I walk every day, but I thought a challenge would help me walk more consistently.
Back in May, I came across my cousin’s Facebook post about the walking challenge he set for himself. I thought, what a great idea. My IPhone counts my steps, so I’ve been using the Health app to keep track of all my walking—whether it’s to the mall, to the train, on the treadmill, or just Out there walking.
My goal is one thousand kilometres by September 22. Thus far, since May 23, I’ve clocked six hundred eighty-one kilometres.
I’ve thought for years that Edmonton is too much of a car-town. As a pedestrian, parts of this city—depending on where you need to go—are practically inaccessible. Edmonton has a decent transit system, but the bus or train can’t get you everywhere—at least not in a hurry. And some places, not at all.
When my daughters are home, I have the luxury of a car. Much of the time, I rely on foot and transit. Edmonton is reasonably accessible, more than most cities in other parts of the world. I can’t speak for people using wheelchairs or walkers, but as someone married to a white cane, Edmonton isn’t bad. The endless construction, of course, is an obstacle for everyone.
If you want to set yourself a challenge this summer, make it a walking challenge, or even a pedestrian challenge. Walk and take transit for a week, and see how fast your life gets reorganized. Even if you just make an effort to walk more, you will be better off.
And as you fight the rush-hour traffic and the road-rage, watch out for pedestrians. According to a City of Edmonton website, on average, three hundred people in Edmonton are hit by motorists each year, and most of them in crosswalks.
I’ve had many close calls with vehicles, some of which ended in my cane getting mangled by a car. I’ve always thought my cane makes me more visible to drivers—but not always. Enjoy the remaining days of summer, and embrace the slow life by walking whenever you can.

On the Tracks

My brother, who is always a source for bits of news, told me the other night about a visually impaired man who fell onto the tracks of the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Fortunately, some quick-acting students were there to help the gentleman out of the tracks—just as the train was pulling in. You can read more of the story here.
For blind and visually impaired people, navigating public transit can be tricky—and sometimes just bloody dangerous. Buses are one thing: you wait, bus pulls into the stop, and you get on. Trains are different. For one, it’s a train. Trains don’t stop as quickly as buses, and you have to wait on a platform next to a four and a half foot drop into the tracks. If you can’t see, it’s hazardous.
In 2010, I was coming home by train on a snowy evening at the beginning of January. I got off the train at the South Campus station, which had opened the previous spring. I stepped off the train, turned left instead of right, and headed down the platform to get the bus.
My mistake was turning the wrong way after getting off the train. The platform was covered with almost an inch of snow. They hadn’t yet had a chance to clear it.
I was heading for what I thought was the steps to take me down and out of the station. Instead, I walked straight off the platform and fell onto the tracks.
My initial response, lying there on the tracks on my side, was having no idea what had just happened. It wasn’t until I reached out and grabbed one of the rails with a gloved hand that I understood. That’s when I started to hurt and knew I had to get off the tracks.
The track-bed isn’t especially deep—until you’re standing in it. Try scrambling up onto a platform, slippery with new-fallen snow and level with your chest, while you are in shock and can’t breathe because you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.
Fortunately, someone spotted me. A man ran over, and soon two people were hauling me up onto the platform. Other people came, and I was helped to my feet and onboard the train while the driver called for an ambulance. A slightly scared and completely sincere eight-year-old boy tried to comfort me while we waited for the paramedics. He insisted his grandpa would help fix my cane, which had gotten bent in the fall. The paramedics arrived, announced me injured but more or less intact, and gave me the choice of going home or to the hospital. Given the choice, I went home. They drove me the seven minutes back to my house, and I was never so glad to reach my own front door.
I fractured two ribs in that fall, and it took me all of eight weeks to recover. It wasn’t until February that I started taking the train once again—more carefully, as you can imagine.
I’ve gotten myself into all sorts of situations over the years, but rarely have I felt so helpless and in need of assistance. Strangers helping strangers is a powerful thing, and I’ve always been grateful to those people who helped me out on that snowy evening in January, especially that little boy, who understood the importance of helping out, and did his best to give me the comfort and reassurance he could.

My Hand at Writing Memoir

My first piece of nonfiction was published in Hippocampus Magazine last summer—a flash piece called “Q and A.” “On Smoking” is another first—my attempt at writing memoir. And I have Donna Talarico and the fine people at Hippocampus Magazine to thank once again for publishing it. You can read it here. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to explore the compelling nonfiction at Hippocampus.