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.

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 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.

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

Oceans on My Mind

I’m thinking about oceans this week. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited many bodies of water, and I always have a particular feeling near the water, as though my cells are responding to the pull of the tide and the rotation of the moon.

I’ve clambered with my youngest daughter over the rocks of a fallen tower on a beach near St. Andrews, Scotland. Before us, the North Sea pounds and foams, and on the far edge of the horizon, my daughter points to the coast of Norway. I think about Norway, long ago, about the Vikings who came across that sea in their long boats to terrorize Britain and Europe.
I’ve visited Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point of North America, and stood and listened to the relentless pounding of the surf. John Cabot visited here as well—sailing from Bristol in 1497. They say he circled the island and may have made landfall on southern Labrador.
I’ve driven with my eldest daughter along the southeast coast of Australia, where the Tasman Sea becomes the Southern Ocean. We stop the car and climb down to the beach, and I stand and imagine the expanse of water that lies between me and the southern icecap.
***
My parents took us as a family to visit the west coast when we were kids. This was one of the biggest trips we did in those days—camping all the way, save for one night in a motel because of pouring rain. We made it out to Vancouver Island and up to Rathtrevor Beach. Because the bay was shallow, I learned about the tide, and watched with fascination as the water washed nearer and nearer in the afternoon. I would come down to the beach in the morning, stopping to look at the flotsam left by the withdrawing tide—driftwood, trailing seaweed, and broken shells. To my eight-year-old eye, the beach simply looked uncovered, as though someone had just drawn back the water like a blanket.
But it was at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park, where the Pacific Ocean runs smack into the island, that I had my first sight of the real ocean. At first I thought it terrifying and chaotic. It was vast and moving and overwhelmed my child’s brain. But as I got used to the beach in all its parts, I began to accept it, if not understand it. We played along the beach, gathering debris to build sandcastles near the water. we would suddenly abandon that work to run into the shocking water, where we felt the huge draw and wash of the waves. Hot sun, wind, and saltwater—it all gathers into that first memory of the ocean, which I find again every time I visit the water.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.