Tuesday, April 29, 2008


One time I lost my head and mistook myself for a sighted person. I don’t know quite how it came about, or how long it had been brewing. Mostly I chalk it up to the giddy euphoria of getting my Master’s degree.
Getting a Master’s is one of the few life goals I ever set for myself. I envisioned it before I was twenty. Actually I didn’t really envision getting a Master’s, for I knew that would be hard, given my tendency to be an average or slightly above average student. But I envisioned myself as having a Master’s. So when my fortieth birthday was rapidly approaching, I gambled on the possibility of being admitted as a mature student, hoping I’d somehow picked up some real smarts along the way. My Master’s degree was everything I’d hoped it would be. With those letters—M.Ed.--behind my name I felt emboldened to do things I hadn’t done before, like applying to teach a humour course at the Naramata Centre summer program. And when the Naramata people accepted my proposal, I set out to teach a course that would be so visually satisfying that no participant would be able to claim they’d been cheated by the narrow view presented by a blind instructor. With a little help from the sighted world I assembled overheads, posters, cartoons and other funny pictures. Then I planned out a program of humour that I hoped would keep us laughing for the entire week.
We arrived early at Naramata, the way instructors do, and set up our campsite. We got the keys to my classroom. David helped me set it up. While we were putting stuff on the walls he glanced out the window and noticed a blind man passing by.
“There goes a blind guy,” he said cheerfully. “Maybe he’ll be in your class.”
“Surely not,” I said. In all our Naramata family summers, taking everything from massage to storytelling, we had never once encountered a blind person. But later on that evening, when the classes assembled in their rooms for the opening welcome, I heard a cane tapping and a classmate volunteering to find him a seat.
My heart sank. I couldn’t believe my terrible luck.
I had been a blind student so many times, but I’d never once considered the possibility of teaching one. I remembered the early university years, before the advent of disability services, when I would stroll in on the first day of class and introduce myself to the professor. “I’ll need some system for writing exams,” I would announce. “And I’ll need you to talk while you write on the blackboard.” And those professors faced with a lecture theatre of 500 first-year sociology students, would start calculating before my eyes. Some of them weren’t too gracious. Most of them were amazing.
Then there were the years of disability services. I would phone professors several months in advance to warn them that I would be taking their class. Disability Services would arrange my exams. I would ask the professors to read the material they were showing on the overheads. I expected them to be gracious. After all, this time I was in the Faculty of Education. The classes were small. Most of them were gracious. But some of them would simply put up an overhead crammed with information and leave a silent time for the class to copy it down. I turn to my neighbour who would begin reading in a hoarse whisper that could be heard all over the room. Some profs would actually start talking again over the sound. The life of a blind student is always a mixed bag. You want to fit in but you need special consideration.
Three seconds after he arrived, my new blind student came forward to introduce himself to me. I tried to reach out but words of welcome caught in my throat. We were on two different planets. I could hardly speak to him, so furious was I at his presence. Here was I, making my teaching debut with a stimulating class for sighted participants, and he wouldn’t be able to participate. He, on the other hand, was delighted to find me. He hadn’t been blind for long and was having a little trouble adjusting. He’d been feeling pretty down, he confided. He thought maybe in a humour class he’d be able to make it without feeling too conspicuous. He had never imagined that he would find a blind teacher. Already it was giving him hope.
That night, while the other campers slept in the fresh mountain air, I fumed in my sleeping bag. In all my years of teaching professors how to teach a blind student I had never once considered that my presence might have angered them, might have ruined their plans, put them on the spot, made them feel inadequate. A mild inconvenience, is what I would have called it. What was I going to do with all my visuals now? How was this guy supposed to participate? Why hadn’t somebody warned me?
By the time the crows had begun to welcome the dawn I was ready to set about undoing a whole week’s curriculum. Every day’s activity had to be re-planned. There would have to be choices participants could make. In each block of choices, there had to be at least one choice that would work for a blind person.
Now a humour class is not the easiest thing to teach. It doesn’t work if people don’t laugh. The class turned out to be a group with mixed abilities and expectations. Many a time I thanked fate for sending me the blind guy. He had a natural gift for humour that kept us all in stitches and made my job much easier than it would have been without him. I ended the week happily.
Then I made myself a promise. I would never again try to teach like a sighted person. Anybody who ended up in my class would have to do without visuals for a while. I’ve kept that promise through twelve years and hundreds of classes. It has saved me a lot of work. And if a blind person ever again shows up without warning, I will be ready.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Sixteen yellow pansies and twelve purple petunias.
My contribution to bringing on spring.
I planted them out in veranda pots
And wished them all well
Though I really can’t say that I ever before
Planted flowers with patches of snow on the ground.

But we’ve waited too long for spring to come.
And somebody had to do something!!!

Saturday, April 26, 2008


There’s a simple hope concept I’ve been talking about for ten years or more, the idea of bruising. It’s a paradigm that takes your friends and relatives by surprise. Something happens to you, and your reaction is—well—an over reaction, totally out of proportion with what they would expect from you. Suppose, let us say, that you bump your shin on the open dishwasher door, momentarily uncomfortable maybe, but certainly not life-threatening. And yet—inexplicably—you cry out in anguish, leaping in the air, cursing on the descent. Nobody but you can understand your reaction. Nobody but you knows how much it hurts. Nobody but you knows that, just yesterday, you barked that same shin in the same place. Now it hurts much more today because it is already bruised.
When I first wrote about bruising, I understood it best in terms of the dishwasher. That analogy helped me make the personal link to the bruised people who brought me their sorrow. It helped me encourage them to take it slow, give themselves time to get back into the mainstream, protect themselves and not be afraid to rest for a while.
Today I understand the bruising concept more deeply. David and I are moving slowly in the wake of Linda’s death, operating at arm’s length, taking on the responsibilities of the encroaching world with uncharacteristic ambivalence.
It is not yet three years since we began the journey through illness to death with my mother. That journey was followed closely by a journey with David’s father. Then, at Valentine’s, we started down the road with Linda. And we find, to our surprise, that we are fragile. A kind word brings the threat of unexpected tears. An evening out exhausts us. I do believe we are bruised.
“Bruising is a natural phenomenon,” I would say in a hope presentation. “Bruises do heal. It takes time, and possibly ice to make them disappear. Most of all, it takes protection. You can’t keep hitting on them.”
No doubt about it, it’s a bit of a worry, doing things when you are bruised. Today I am looking ahead. On May 23 I will have given 13 hope presentations to a variety of audiences during the month that began April 23. One down, twelve to go. And I wonder how I can be counted on to inspire hope while I’m in this state of recovery, experiencing joy in moderation, not sick enough to cancel out.
Hope ethicist Christy Simpson once coached me in a time of discouragement before a public lecture. “Do the hope stuff you do with others,” she said confidently. “You’ll find it will work on you.”
And it did work on me, so she’d probably give the same advice again if I called up to ask for it. For now I will say, “Thank heavens I’m an expert in hope. I’d hate to be facing twelve presentations on despair!”

Thursday, April 24, 2008


We went to the Texas Storytelling Festival.
Texans were surprised we had traveled so far.
We were surprised that they knew anything about Edmonton.
Americans rarely know anything about Edmonton.

We watched women’s basketball on TV.
It took four nights for Tennessee to win.
And we will forever wonder how we got so hooked
As to spend four nights on women’s basketball.

We ate and drank free at the Manager’s Reception
Meats and veggies and fine fruit salad.
Sometimes we were the only ones there drinking free beer.
And we are still wondering why that hotel offers a manager’s receptions.

We thought we’d be paying for hotel parking
We thought we’d be paying for university parking
We thought we’d be paying a toll on the toll road.
And we wonder why nobody charged us for any of it.

We walked the streets of downtown Dallas
And cycled the seawall that borders Galveston
Reluctantly boarded the plane to come home
For we still didn’t know quite enough about Texas.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It was Lawrence who noticed the three little crocuses, first flowers of the spring, an uncommon observation for a guy who cares little for flowers. And a good thing it is that he noticed them, for now they lie buried under a foot of snow. I don’t know if crocuses care about being noticed. Possibly they only flower to please themselves. But a little positive recognition never does any harm. It means all the more when it comes from unexpected places.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Whenever Linda and I were alone in her hospital room, she would tell me she hoped soon to catch up on THE HOPE LADY Blog. She didn’t ask what she might find there, and I didn’t tell her how my writing had dwindled and then stopped altogether. I knew that I would write something special for her to read at the first sign that she might come into contact with a computer. I knew I would do that special piece of writing no matter how busy I was, no matter where I was. I had no idea what the piece would say.
Now Linda is gone. At no time did she come even remotely close to a computer. She did not want to be gone. She wanted to live. That was her story and she stuck with it. Her mind was willing. Her body? Not so much.
And so, to you Linda, this is what I will say. I didn’t quit writing because I had lost my hope. I didn’t quit because I had lost my hope for your recovery. I quit because I was already unbelievably busy when you got sick, and the action around your health consumed all the time and creativity I would have given to writing. My hope, like yours, stayed firmly intact.
When you lose the body of somebody in your life, it sometimes clears a space for memories and thoughts that had slipped below the radar of your consciousness. I had forgotten, and have only now remembered how you worried about me when I first married your brother. You worried because I couldn’t find a job and you thought that was just plain wrong. You thought potential employers might be ruling me out because of my blindness. You came up with schemes that would encourage potential employers to get to know me. If I would offer to work for nothing, even for a week, you were certain they would put me on the payroll and keep me for as long as I wanted to stay.
I didn’t know how to respond to your overtures. It is likely that I ignored them altogether. I was pretty scared at the time. I was only twenty then and I didn’t have the crystal ball that would have shown me the full life of happy and meaningful employment that was about to unfold for me. But I do know that it gave me a lot of happiness to know that you were on my side. This is what we all need, people on our side.
To those of you who have noticed the silence of THE HOPE LADY and taken the time to inquire, I say thank you for asking. Give me a few more days and things will settle down. That’s what I need, a few more days.