On Writing Memoir, Part 7, “Standing at My Cousin’s Grave, May, 2016”

This is the seventh and final post in my series on memoir. I’m sure I will post more about memoir in the future, but this series has been my attempt to bring some order to, and provide some context for, the pieces I’ve published on losing my sight when I was a boy.
In May 2016, I was visiting my daughter in Glasgow, Scotland. She had a flat with a friend. We spent a couple of days wandering about downtown and seeing the sights. Our plan was to make a series of short trips during my two-week stay—down to Hadrian’s Wall, up into the Highlands, and to Edinburgh to visit The Elephant House where J. K. Rowling was supposed to have written the first Harry Potter book.

A few days into the trip, I had a phone call from my sister—an elderly aunt had died. It was the second of my two aunts to pass away within a couple of years. I felt badly for my mom, who had now lost both of her older sisters.
My aunt’s passing had a different effect on me. It was her two sons who were with me in the car accident that took my sight in 1974. Graham, her youngest, and my cousin, was killed in that accident.
In some ways, these pieces I’ve been posting that describe the accident and explore the loss of my sight are skating around a more central issue—the death of my cousin in that accident. I loved Graham, with all the confused passion of my ten-year-old heart. I also loved the trips down to the farm where I got to spend time with him. Adjusting to my blindness after the accident was one thing, but coming to terms with my sense of loss over Graham’s death took many more years.
The death of my aunt in 2016 brought me back to southern Alberta where these events occurred. Two days after arriving back in Canada, I drove down to Lethbridge with cousins. It was good to gather with family for a few days, but more important—for me, anyway—was visiting the cemetery where Graham was buried. In forty years, I had never been.
I have two pieces that have appeared in the last ear that specifically address that loss,
“Standing at my Cousin’s Grave, May 2016”
And
“My Cowboy Cousin.”
I want to thank the people from COG Magazine for picking up “Standing at My cousin’s Grave,” and Zone 3 Press for publishing “My Cowboy Cousin.” “My Cowboy Cousin” is currently only available in print, but purchasing a copy of the magazine will go towards supporting the journal.
For me, writing memoir has never been about creating a single narrative; it’s about fragments or parts of a larger story that involves many people. Each piece I write, each time I try to do this, I’m opening another window onto that narrative, and I never exactly know how it’s going to unfold. But what I am sure of is my gratitude for those people who have shared the story with me.

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.

September: A New Year, A New Look

September, for me, as it is for many, has always been the beginning of the year. Resolutions that come with September have more weight than those made in January. And they make more sense, too. Better to change your life in the fall, rather than in January when it’s thirty below.
I took a break from blogging over the summer. I needed the time to read, to write, and to be with family. I visited my daughter in Scotland, went to Lethbridge for a family funeral, visited family on Vancouver Island, and spent time with my eldest daughter who was home for a month from Australia. But the school year has begun, and my days are much more constrained: teaching, preparing classes, and marking will be the major features on my landscape for the next eight months.
I’ll eventually share some of what I encountered over the summer, but in the meantime, enjoy the new website, OfOtherWorlds.ca. It will be a work in progress for a while. I needed the break from blogging over the summer, but building the new site kept me busy—among other things. Such projects have, for me, a steep learning curve, and I swore often and vociferously as I figured it out.
But summer is always the best time for trying and learning new things. Apart from learning something about website design, I learned some painful lessons about writing and submitting short fiction; I sat on Hadrian’s Wall; I tried haggis in Edinburgh and deep-fried pickles at Taste of Edmonton.
I read and read, not as much as I wanted, and not as much as you’d think. One of my favourite summer reads was The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I’m sure this series isn’t for everyone, but I was hooked before finishing the first book.
I hope you’ve had a summer that goes on feeding you as the days shorten into winter. For now, enjoy the fall. If you live in Edmonton, remember to get a look at the river valley, preferably from high up. The wash of muted colour with the river at its heart will remind you that that autumn, as brief as it can be in Edmonton, is a beautiful time of year.

A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall


If you love stories of King Arthur, or any books about Roman-Britain, you are likely to encounter a reference to Hadrian’s Wall. This is the wall the Romans built after Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 CE, to mark the northern border of the Empire. It ran nearly eighty miles, east to west, stood fifteen feet high—not including the parapet wall—and  marked by guard posts every mile or so.
We drove down from Glasgow to Carlyle, following the signs until we found the wall. We were in the middle of fields of grazing sheep, bordered by stone fences, and we parked by an after school care. Kids were running and playing games, and there was the wall—right across the road.
We crossed over and clambered onto the wall. It was only a couple of feet high at that point, and we walked along the broken stones of the top until it began to get higher. Farther along, we stopped to look at a squared-off section that was clearly one of the guard-posts punctuating the wall. We kept going and found a higher section where we could climb. We sat about ten feet up, talked and wondered about the soldiers who sat and watched on the wall. It must have been intensely boring for those men, standing and staring out over hills and woods, day and night, in wind and sun and rain, and wondering if the barbarians would ever come out of the north.
Much of the wall is now gone, and I wondered at first about the lack of fallen stones. It’s built of roughly squared stones, mudded together with a mixture of clay and who knows what. This wall has stood for nearly two thousand years, and you can imagine what the people thought who lived beside the wall ever since the Romans left. If they wanted to build a house, a pen for cattle or sheep, or even a church, they had a supply of building stones ready to hand.
After a while, we got back in the car and headed for the museum nearby. We  saw a couple of short videos about life as a Roman soldier on the frontier, and checked out the gear that was part of a Roman soldier’s kit: knives, spears, short swords, cooking pots, and the wooden frame to carry it all. We then drove farther on to see the fort at Vindolanda, a working archeological site with another museum attached. It was fascinating to learn about the fort and its history. Getting a close look at the range of artifacts from the site was fascinating as well, especially the alter to the weather god, Jupiter Dolichenus,, a four-foot carven stone alter, discovered at the site in 2009.
Visiting both the museum and Vindolanda was an education, but climbing over the ruins of Hadrian’s wall itself fired my imagination in a different way. More than the history of the fort and the wall, I thought about the people this wall was meant to keep out—the northern tribes, those people who occupied all of what we now know as Scotland. They must have come here, hunting parties on foot or horseback, only to see a wall being built across their land by the Latin-speaking intruders who would block the way into the south for the next two centuries.