“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.
A thank you this week to Adam Farrer and the people at The Real Story, a journal published out of Manchester, for publishing “Running Blind.” The Real Story is a journal dedicated to promoting the nonfiction form in the UK. You can read the piece here.
“Running Blind is memoir, and one of several pieces I’ve had published in the last couple of years. When I write memoir, I don’t think about why I’m writing it or where it will go. However, if I have a piece accepted, I immediately begin to have doubts. Why did I write it? What was I trying to say? And who do I think is going to benefit by reading something that has meaning only for me?
Part of me thinks that writing memoir is a selfish activity. On the other hand, I put the same amount of care and craft into producing a piece of memoir as I do a short story. And memoir is, after all, story. But whatever I think, once a piece is published, then it’s out there in the world, and I no longer have any control over it.
For me, at the heart of writing memoir lies the same impulse that makes me write fiction, or anything else, for that matter: the need to give something a voice that it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s about finding a voice for those experiences, impressions, sensations, and other sundry scraps and floating fragments of myself that never found an expression elsewhere. I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way. I meet people everywhere who feel the need to give their experience a voice—in writing, or just in conversation. I also meet people who don’t have the need for that kind of expression. They let their experience stand for itself, and they will share that experience, if you’re willing to listen. Oddly enough, I meet such people most often on the street—these people are sometimes homeless, grateful for any spare change, and always willing to share something of themselves.
So, writing memoir necessarily seems to come with a certain privilege. The means and the opportunity to give voice relies on having the lifestyle to support it. I always try to keep this in mind. But more important, if reading memoir, mine or anyone else’s, inspires someone to finally listen to that voice that lies forgotten in the vaults of memory and let it into the world, then everyone is the better for it.
For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.
“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018
My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.