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”
“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.

Happy #EarthDay2020

The spring has arrived in Edmonton—perhaps I should say the snow has disappeared. Everything will need to do some growing before it’s properly springtime in this part of the world. At least the weather is good for walking, and I can think of no better way to celebrate #EarthDay2020.

The snow in Alberta can disappear very quickly—it’s almost shocking how completely the world can change in just a few days. A week ago, the ground was still covered in snow and melt-water.
I said to my daughter, “I’m always shocked at how fast the spring can arrive here.”
Her response: “You say that every year, and every year the same thing happens.”
And it’s true—every year the spring comes with a rush, as though the world is frantic to get on with the next season. And every year I’m surprised.
This is part of my constant amazement at the world around me—the melting snow, the returning geese, the song of robins, the lengthening days, and the first bee. And I’m grateful for all of it—every sign of new life and every lingering sunset.
In celebration of Earth Day, I have gathered some photos and videos. Some are mine and some aren’t. Enjoy, and make sure to get out and enjoy the day.

An Angry Squirrel in My Backyard

Geese Settling for the Evening

A View of the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Spear, Newfoundland

The Overview Effect, or, the Earth Seen from Space

Feeding Kangaroos, the Moonlit Sanctuary, Australia

On Writing Memoir, Part 6, Breathe

As the term wraps up, I’m trying to walk more as the days get longer, and the days—sort of—get warmer. Spring is long in coming this year, and it all looks very different given the COVID19 pandemic.
But the wildlife that finds its way into town seems unaffected, and if anything, has more freedom to move about. You can hear the Canada geese flying in the morning, you can hear coyotes in the evening, and you can find tracks of deer, moose, and maybe bobcat in the river valley. Here’s an encounter I had on an evening walk.
This is the sixth of seven in my series on memoir. When I was twenty years-old, I developed anxiety disorder. No one I talked to at the time understood this disorder, but it was the 80s, so it hardly seems surprising. It was more than ten years before I heard the term panic disorder. I remember being ecstatic knowing this thing had a name—it meant I wasn’t crazy, or so I thought at the time.
“Breathe” was first published as flash nonfiction in Open Minds Quarterly in June of 2019. OMQ is a print magazine, dedicated to issues of mental health, which I encourage you to check out.
I’m including a copy of “Breathe” below. Nearly ten years after the accident that took my sight, I began to realize how affected I was by that accident. It would be another ten years before I had the courage to begin facing the trauma of the experience and, more importantly, begin sorting out my life.

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 in a truck when an accident takes my sight. I don’t remember it well. In that present, I am ten years-old. I am with my two cousins. I remember what happens immediately afterwards—somewhere, above me, my older cousin is shouting our names. I hear the words as though I am lying at the bottom of a darkened well.
In this present—my eighteen-year-old present—I am totally blind, the story of the accident far in the past. I’m with a girl. We have been dating for over a year, and we are on a highway, driving to a small town in southern Alberta to visit friends.
And now, I can’t breathe, and I think I’m dying.
I don’t die on that trip to southern Alberta, but the experience leaves me shaky and wondering. I learn something important, though. If I drink, then the feeling of imminent collapse and devastation fades away.
Later that summer, I am with my mom. We are in line at the annual book sale at the downtown library. It’s their yearly cull of books. And standing there, in the lineup, talking to my mother, the inability to breathe reaches out and takes hold of me again—this time, worse than the time in the van.
I have to get out of the line. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me. I will simultaneously loose my mind, implode, dissolve, or any number of terrible things. I am shaking all over. My body is not my own.
We make it out of there, to a mall across the street. My mom has me sit down while she goes to find me something to drink—an Orange Julius, if I remember.
Then it hits me again, slamming into me like a truck. This time I know I’ll pass out. I nearly hit the floor. If I could breathe, I would scream.
It’s like terror—paralysing me, stopping my breath, speeding up my heart, vibrating through my limbs.
I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe—I can’t breathe.
Someone calls a cab. I find myself in the backseat with my mom, and we are driving to the hospital. I am bent over in the back of the cab, gasping and struggling to find a breath that works. None of them do.
Then I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m in the emergency. My mother is talking to someone, a nurse, I assume. I don’t remember much for a while.
Later, I’m lying on a hospital bed, in one of those large hospital rooms, each bed sectioned away from its fellows by curtains. I wait.
Several hours later, I don’t appear to be dying. They have run their tests. My dad has arrived, and so has my girlfriend. I’m feeling better, save for the sense of humiliation that now colours this whole experience.
Finally, a doctor is talking to me. He asks me what happened, and I try to explain. He tells me that nothing whatsoever is wrong with me. Now I’m feeling stupid. But he gives me a referral to another doctor, someone else who will give me a full exam.
I’m with the next doctor, weeks later. The feeling hasn’t come back, but neither has it gone away. It lies there, at the edge of my awareness. This thing has come to live with me. Now I’m aware, I can’t be unaware. I take time off work. I remain in my apartment through the hot afternoons, wondering, thinking, and worst of all, not smoking. My GP recommended the not smoking. Now, I’m visiting this doctor, who, I think, is going to tell me what’s wrong with me.
He asks questions about my life. He is kind and patient. He examines me, from head to foot.
It comes down to this—if I take care of myself, I should go on to have a perfectly happy and healthy life. He actually dictates this into a recorder. So goes his assessment.
We leave the doctor’s office, and I feel less stupid, but still without any answers. With me comes another, a new companion—my ever-present sense of imminent disaster that now lives around the edges of my awareness.
The years pass, and I learn to live with this companion, which sometimes comes violently forward in feelings of dread and panic that stops my breath. New sensations are added to my kit—the feeling of being pulled inside-out like a glove, or having my brain vacuumed out through the top of my head are just two.
It’s not until one afternoon, years later, that I learn what has held me in its grip. I now have young children. I’m listening to the radio one afternoon. My kids are home for lunch, but soon heading back to school. The special on the lunchtime program is about something called panic disorder. I experience something like shock as I listen. All the things they are describing are things I’ve experienced in some form or other. I can feel the old feelings assert themselves as I listen, but along with the dread comes a sense of relief that makes me want to laugh out loud.
It’s actually something, I think. I’m not crazy. Other people have experienced this, and it has a name.
Discovering that my experience had a name goes a long way to making it easier to cope. But as my relief enables me to do something more about this debilitating experience, I begin to realize that my panic disorder is only part of a larger constellation of symptoms I’ve been experiencing for years, all leading back to the accident that took my sight as a kid. I have a long way to go, but this is a start.

On Writing Memoir, Part 5, “Flashpoint”

The days are getting longer, and the sun is shining today, which is very welcome in these days of social isolation. Today is also the official last day of classes for the term, which seems odd, considering the last time I met face-to-face with my classes was March 13.
This is Part 5 in my series on memoir. Today, I want to share something I originally wrote as fiction. “Flashpoint” is based on something that happened as I was walking down Whyte Avenue with my daughter several years ago. At the time, I decided to write the incident as fiction—I can’t exactly remember why. The piece first appeared in The RavensPerch, in June of 2017. You can find the story here. It’s tagged as nonfiction on the website, but I clearly remember submitting the piece as fiction.
For the sake of fitting “Flashpoint” into this series, I decided to rewrite the story as memoir below. If you compare the two versions, you can see the only difference between them is the use of the first-person. But just changing the pronouns has an odd affect on the piece. It’s suddenly more immediate, more visceral—at least for me. Rewriting this piece as memoir perhaps says something about the fluidity of memory and of experience; perhaps it says something about the fluidity of genre and the ways experience can move across the boundaries of form. Whatever it says, enjoy the piece.

A photo taken at the Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller.

They come fast along the sidewalk. Even their voices are taking up space. They walk abreast, talking volubly, and pretending they don’t notice those who must shift aside to let them pass.
My daughter does not shift. She keeps to the centre of the sidewalk, and I hold her arm with my left hand, while gripping my white cane with my right. They separate to either side. Part of my brain perceives this as a threat, dialing up old neuropathways, like heavy lines on a roadmap that lead to remembered responses.
These are like the bullies I have known, mostly in school, decades before, the ones who need to occupy movable sections of the world, owning and defending it like territory. These are the ones who make fun of me in the hallways, who tease the blind kid—grabbing my cane, stepping in front of me so I crash into the walls or lockers, yelling at me to watch out when nothing is there.
They teased me before I lost my sight, but it’s different now—coming back to this school for grade seven, a year after the car accident that shattered my life and my face, leaving me blind, visibly scarred, and desperately wanting to fit in.
Several play the game of teasing the blind kid, but none is worse than Ricky Ferrell. Ricky has his own style. Ricky crashes into me in the hall, only to apologize, then turning to shove me hard into someone else. Ricky takes my socks and shoes after gym class and throws them across the locker-room. Sometimes, he comes silently up beside me, only to yell in my ear.
I put up with Ricky; what else am I to do. I’m trapped inside a body that can’t fight back, and Ricky is elusive, always just slightly out of reach
Now, Ricky is following me up the stairs, yanking at the straps of my backpack.
“How’s it going today, Blinky? Nice backpack. Wish I had one. It’s the color of puke, you know. Or didn’t your mommy tell you?”
I pause on the stairs, just long enough to get my footing, then I kick back my right foot hard. I learn later, from Ricky himself, that I kicked Ricky down the stairs.
“You could have killed me, you know,” Ricky says, in the hallway, days later. “I could have died, and it would be your fault.”
But I know it isn’t true, and amazingly, wonderfully, Ricky leaves me alone—leaves me alone after that, just like everyone else.
The memory comes as a flash of feeling, a prickle through my gut, making my heart pound and ears ring as I struggle to maintain my sense of the present.
But they aren’t really a threat, these two idiots who take up the sidewalk. They just want the world to know they are there, loud, brash, and adolescent—striding balls first into life. My daughter doesn’t flinch. She walks arrow straight between them, not losing a step, and saying something normal about the place we are heading for dinner. I murmur a reply, pulling myself back to the present—something I have to do, over and over again, never understanding why my past is so goddamned intrusive, hating the overlay between then and now, but powerless to control the sickening anticipation of harm in the face of such half-imagined threats. The voices retreat down the street, and I work hard to focus on the dinner we will have together, once again stuffing down these old responses, where they will lie quiescent—until the next time.

On Writing Memoir, Part 4, Reading

This is the fourth in my series on memoir. We are three weeks in to the COVID19 pandemic, so I, like many people, am finding more time to read and think, in spite of the term still grinding on like a virtual glacier. I haven’t found working from home any hardship either—until yesterday, the last day of March, when winter decided to return to Edmonton. So it’s back to more layers while spring decides to hurry up and arrive.

For this fourth in my series, I’m turning to my blog. After I lost my sight in 1974, I started reading in a different way. I began listening to recorded books, and my internal landscape changed radically.
I’m including several links here, all of which grew out of my early reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Reading this book was truly formative for me—it introduced story into my life in a different way, and it gave me a new way of seeing the world.
I first posted “A Life-Long Adventure” in June of 2014. It describes my early experiences of reading Tolkien. The second, “In the Company of Hobbits,” first posted in October of 2019, continues the story and describes the influence of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis on my teaching life.
“A Visit to Oxford” describes my first visit to Oxford in 2016 with my youngest daughter. This trip was a way for me to explore those places where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked, which felt for me more like a pilgrimage than anything else. And finally, “A Hobbit Odyssey,” first posted in September of 2019, describes a trip with my eldest daughter, driving down New Zealand’s north island and checking out all the locations dedicated to Peter Jackson’s filmic versions of Lord of the Rings. I’m very lucky to have such indulgent daughters, both of whom have listened to my stories over the years, and both of whom have helped me to explore this part of my life in interesting ways.