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.

Dust to Dust

Some of my reading this summer has included Philip Pullman. I’m rereading His Dark Materials trilogy so I can finally read The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, which came out in 2017. I didn’t want to just jump back into Pullman’s world without reminding myself of the earlier series.
Apparently, Pullman’s next novel in the new series, The Secret Commonwealth, featuring the return of Lyra Belacqua, comes out this October. And in other Pullman news, His Dark Materials is soon to be a show on HBO.
Reading The Golden compass and revisiting Lyra’s Oxford got me thinking about my own first trip to Oxford. I say first because I’m planning to go back. You can read about that visit here and here.
Pullman is a fine writer, and he is also a fine reader. Years ago, Pullman visited Edmonton and gave a reading at Ft. Edmonton Park, as part of the TALES Storytelling Festival. I remember he read from The Subtle Knife—a compelling reading that left me feeling a little breathless. In spite of that experience, His Dark Materials has never been a favourite for me, but who knows—maybe this reread will inspire me anew.

A Walk at Beaverhill Lake

Every summer, my friend Tom and I find a place to walk and enjoy the natural world. Last year, it was Newfoundland, but we don’t usually stray so far afield. This year we decided on the bird sanctuary near Tofield, just east of Edmonton.
It’s a short drive, as far as Alberta drives go, and we find the entrance to the sanctuary around noon. We pass through two gates and park in a farmer’s field to begin our walk. The rain has been absolutely incessant this summer, and this is one of the few sunny days in more than a week.
Good shoes, rain gear, and water are necessary on such a walk, but bugspray is essential in these woods. We follow what appears to be an old car track. The sun is out, and the trees are thick to either side of the path. We tramp along, me with my white cane and Tom with his walking stick. We talk, at first about the woods, the sound of the wind in the trees, and that we expected to hear more birds. We soon begin talking about books—books we’ve read, books we are reading
We walk for maybe two kilometres until we come to the bird observatory. Tents are set up to one side of the building, which turns out to be a group of teens enjoying a week of birding at the sanctuary.
Inside, we meet a lovely young woman who works at the observatory. She explains the work they do, showing us into what looks like a living room, where a whole crew is gathering for lunch. Apparently, the observatory has already started its fall migration banding program.
It’s a relief to be inside and away from the mosquitoes, but we don’t stay. We get some directions: they tell us the summer rains have flooded the paths nearer Beaverhill Lake, but we can take another path out to Lister Lake where we will find a rise that overlooks the marsh. And off we go.
***
We pass another set of birders on our way—this small group led by another young woman who stops to say hello. We ask about the practice of netting and banding small birds, and she explains how it’s done and how records are kept. No gloves and sharp beaks means sore hands and fingers for these birders.
As we get closer to Lister Lake, the path shows more evidence of flooding—the mud and water here is deep enough to lose a boot if we’re not careful. We have to move off the path, which is now under water, and make our way through the bush that crowds either side.
Eventually, we come to a low hill that overlooks the lake. Its more a marsh than a lake—crowded with cattails and bulrushes, with bits of open water among the reeds. We stop and listen. A deep silence underpins the sounds of the marsh—bird calls, the splashing of ducks, and the rattle of reeds in the breeze. The silence of this land has a quality, a shape left by retreating glaciers and countless days of sun and rain and snow. And this is, in part, what we came here to find, and what we will take with us when we leave.

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.

Sister Kharon, A Short Story

Posting about Lockwood and Co. last week got me thinking about pieces I’ve written about the dead. I don’t often post stories on OfOtherWorlds that haven’t been published somewhere else first. However, here’s an exception, “Sister Kharon.”
This story is an example of exploring voice. Becca’s voice was the first thing to come. Once I found her voice, the story quickly followed. I have a thing for stories about the end of the world—this story is about both ghosts and the end of the world. Enjoy!

The dead never left, at least those from the old world. This is a problem for the town. They’re mostly a nuisance, and lots of people can’t even see them. But the dead are there—rushing about here and there, talking on cell phones that no longer get a signal, or looking lost and befuddled at being caught between what my father calls this life and the next.
My father is the town preacher. Most everything from the old world is gone. No airplanes, no cell phones, no Internet. All gone. Now, people live, like us, in little pockets, communities of a few hundred or so, and every community has its town council and its preacher.
As I said, my father is the preacher. He’s the one who has to explain why the dead don’t just leave, why they continue on this plain, as he says, all of them with unfinished business of one kind or another.
“It’s bad enough,” said Arty Kwan to my father in the church vestibule, “that they caused the end of the world, but they add insult to injury by hanging around. Can’t you do something, Raymond? It’s annoying as all hell, and it gets worse and worse all the time.”
Arty said this to my father at least once a month. He was one of the councillors, and he ran a feed shop and a big farm north of town. Like most people in town, Arty assumed anyone who died of the plague must have been responsible for causing it.
“That’s right,” chimed in Bert McFee, who ran the hardware store. “It’s a problem, Raymond. Can’t ya do somethin’? I had a whole crowd of them in my shop the other day. It bothers the customers.”
“I have some ideas, gentlemen,” said my father—his standard response. “Something will be done. Don’t worry.”
The morning service was over, and dad was in the queue shaking hands, nodding and smiling to all and sundry. But he had that pestered look that meant trouble was on its way, and I knew I would hear about it once the flock had cleared out. For now, he spoke encouraging words to his parishioners, telling them that the Lord didn’t want us dwelling on the past or the dead. We were the ones untouched by the plague—the Lord’s chosen. We had to concentrate on life: educating our children, bringing in the harvest, and serving the Lord. Those were the concerns of the faithful and the living.
***
“Becca, I’m going to need your help with something this afternoon.”
I was bent over the sink, still washing up from the post-service lunch. There were three of us working away, Mrs. McCreety scrubbing in the sink next to mine, and her Neace, Florence, drying, stacking, and putting away dishes.
I looked over my shoulder at dad. “We’ll finish up in half an hour,” I said.
“Good,” he said, nodding his head vigorously, the two wings of hair framing his bald patch bobbing in response. “Come to my office once you’re done here.”
“Work of a preacher’s daughter,” said Mrs. McCreety with a comfortable chuckle, as dad and his flying hair disappeared.
“No kidding,” I muttered, scrubbing ferociously at the pot submerged in the sink.
My back was aching, and my skin felt clammy from dishwater steam as I knocked on dad’s office door. I left Mrs. McCreety and Florence to finish up. I could hear voices coming from the vestibule, but the church was quiet with the departure of the faithful, returning to that quiescent hollowness that pervaded the place when it was just dad and me.
“Come in. Come in,” dad waved me into his office. He was brusque. I didn’t like it. He was only ever like this with a very few of his parishioners, those who were in his confidence—and me, of course. In private, he would complain, ask my advice, and even cry sometimes when the work of the church became too much. But he was only ever brusque with me when hatching one of his plans.
“I think I have a solution—at least I think I have an idea, something to try.”
“And what’s that?” I said, suspiciously.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry,” He said, waving a hand. “Sit down and hear me out.”
I sat, watching him balefully across the desk.
“You are one of the only people in town who is able to…communicate with the dead. Am I right?”
“Communicate is a little strong,” I said, cautiously. “They leave people alone if I tell them. They’ll generally move off if I ask them. I wouldn’t say that’s communicating.”
“Well, it’s close enough. I would like you to try something for me—for the town, really.”
“What,” I asked, again, this time not even trying to hide my suspicion.
“Well,” said dad, steepling his fingers under his chin (another sure sign he meant business). “Here’s my idea.”
***
The stupid thing was—everyone thought it worked. Of course, dad told them it did, and he let it about town how special I was for being able to do it. He’s good at his job—the preacher, the one people go to for advice and consolation. I had always been the preacher’s daughter, the one who supported my dad for all the years since the death of my mother, when I was just three, and both she and I were down with the plague.
Now, I am something different. The people in town try to pretend nothing has changed, and they act as though I’m still the freckled little kid they’ve always known. But it’s not the same, anymore.
If they see me out there, in town or on the road, my placards in hand, they don’t come near. I’m the girl who speaks to the dead, the one who has the power to send souls on their way.
I don’t exactly talk to them, but I get through to them. I have no idea why, but they don’t seem to listen to anyone else. Dad’s idea was to make signs that the dead could read signs that would encourage them to move on. I have a variety of signs I’ve created to get the dead along to the next life:
Don’t Linger! Move Along!
You Won’t Get into Heaven Hanging Around Here!
Heaven is your true destination!
I told dad straight away the signs wouldn’t work—and they don’t. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he knew that all along. He’s happier, anyway, as the problem of the dead has become less of a problem.
The dead are less often seen crowding into the town square, wandering in and out of stores, or, worst of all, drifting into the church during services. People in the town seem happier as well.
But they look at me differently, now. I see the sidelong glances, and I know they are whispering about me. One little brat, one of the McFee kids, even called me a witch.
“Don’t listen to such things,” said my father. He was trying to be encouraging. “You are doing the town a great service, Becca.”
And I supposed I was. But dad needed a solution to the problem, and I was it—his sacrificial goat, so to speak.
The old world destroyed itself with their antibiotics and penicillin. I’m one of the few who got the plague and survived, which was why, according to some, I had power over the dead. That was stupid, too. I didn’t have power over them. I just directed them, like a kind of spiritual traffic cop, or maybe like that character from the old Greek stories—I can’t remember his name—the one who ferried the souls of the dead across some underworld river.
What I did was nothing so grandiose. People would see me holding up my signs in front of the dead. And the dead, miraculously, would wander away and disappear. The signs were for show, of course. I told the dead firmly to move along—to get themselves out of this world and get on to the next.
“Time to move on. Nothing here for you anymore,” I would say, or something similar.
They would look at me, get a puzzled expression on their blurry faces, then seem to understand, and off they’d go. Just like that.
Whatever I am now, whatever I’ve become, the town wants less and less to do with me. But they are appreciative, I’ll give them that. My job is shooing the dead onto the next life.
***
And it’s not so bad, really. This little house I found outside of town suits me. I walk into town every day and do my job. I still carry dad’s placards, even if it’s only to maintain the unspoken lie that he and I have agreed on.
In the morning, when I come out onto the porch to watch the sunrise glinting off the useless telephone wires that still border the old highway, I will find gifts of bread, preserves, vegetables, and sometimes clothes left for me overnight. Dad visits me, but no one else—unless the dead are hanging around their house or store, and they want them driven off.
In many ways, I’m paying for the mistakes of the past, and the town now sees me as responsible for the way the past finds its way into the present. My life is dealing with the problem the old world created—the one nobody knows what to do with. But I can’t blame the people in town; I can’t blame the dead either. I could blame dad, but he was only doing his job.
Who knows how long I’ll have to do this. People say the population of the old world numbered in the billions, before the plague made its relentless way across the landscape, slurping up towns and cities like an insatiable monster. That number of people seems crazy to me. But if it’s true, then I’ll be doing this job a long time. The dead need to move on, and I’m the one to help them do it. Seems unfair, but dad always says that the Lord never meant life to be fair. And he’s right-just ask the dead.

© OfOtherWorlds, 2019

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.