Friday, January 29, 2010


Some days I’m a counellor. I met a man who had just found out he had only a few months to live. He came to talk about hope. His concerns were practical. How would he retain his normal composure in public? How would he modify his work to accommodate his disabilities? Who would do his work if he couldn’t do his share?
Some days I’m a learner, upgrading my competencies. A seminar leader asked us to consider what would be important to us if we’d just been told we had only a few months to live. We all said we’d forget about our work and do some things we’d always wanted to do, like learn to paint, or take the kids to Disneyland. The seminar leader clapped his hands in delight and we were proud to have given the correct answer. I wonder if he ever talked about hope with somebody who has just learned he has only a few months to live!

Friday, January 15, 2010


“What colour are my eyes?” I ask David. It’s Tuesday, and receptionists in our offices are explaining that we are out of the office. We are sitting in an outpatient hospital eye clinic. Time is passing. Every so often a nurse or technician pads in on soft squeaky shoes to call another name.
David is reading a book on governance, addressing himself to work while we wait for something to happen. I, in contrast, am doing nothing, if thinking without speaking can be classed as nothing. My pupils, having received a dose of some unnamed liquid, have been occupied with the process of dilating. Every so often I glance up in curiosity as the overhead lights perform a fluorescent blaze. A little conversation would ease the boredom.
My question to David is actually a bit of a dare, a little test of memory. Here is his invitation to say that my eyes are green. He used to say they were green, back in the days when we parked for hours in shadowy parking lots in places where nothing moved except the late night police and security fellows who tapped regularly on the windows to inquire about our age, then scribbled the license number of David’s mother’s car in their little notebooks. Pierre Trudeau had recently declared that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but he apparently had not mentioned parked cars. “Routine security check,” they said when we asked what they were after. “If there are any burglaries in the neighbourhood we’ll be giving you a call.”
“What did you say?” David wonders, face still in book, reluctant to break the spell the engrossing committee and terms of reference charts have cast upon him.
“What colour are my eyes?” I say. Actually, this question is more than a dare, more than a test of memory. It’s an opportunity for him to declare that I have been right all along in my assertion that my eyes are blue.
Until David came along, I had always believed my eyes to be blue, blue like my father’s eyes, blue like Granny’s. Even when you can’t see the colour of your eyes, people tell you what colour they are, and I had no reason to disbelieve. Blue eyes, I believed were a good thing. Frank Sinatra’s eyes were blue, and he was rich, famous and much sought after in terms of romance. So you can imagine my confusion when my chance at romance was accompanied by a declaration that my eyes were green. As far as I knew, green eyes were the hallmark of monsters.
David turns in my direction—the first act in the process of checking my eye colour—or gazing into my eyes, if you want to think romantically. Actually, it’s a long time since we discussed eye colour. When did we stop? Was it at the time when we switched to spending more time together in the daylight—a thing you do at a certain point in a budding relationship? Conversation is different in the daylight. In the daylight you don’t mind at all if a partner exchanges eye-gazing for the assessment of coffee stains on your work clothes, baby burp deposits on your shoulders, or grey hairs in need of camouflage. In the process of daily living, the colour of your eyes slips under the radar.
It’s daylight now, but we are already dressed for work, the babies are grown and the grey has recently been subdued. Now seems like the perfect time to check again. Green or blue? Which will it be?
“The colour has disappeared entirely,” says David.
“Really?” I say. Caught by surprise, I am now of two minds. Half of me doesn’t believe him. The other half is wondering where the colour went and how long it has been gone.
“Yes.” He says. “I don’t see blue or green. Your pupils are huge. They’re taking up your whole eye.”
“What colour are my pupils?” I ask.
“Black,” he says.
My heart skips a beat. Oh dear! What can this mean? “Black!” I cry. “What colour are they supposed to be?”
“Black,” he says. “Everybody’s pupils are black I guess. They’re black holes right now. I guess that’s what the astronomers are thinking about when they talk about black holes in the universe.”
The universe! How fascinating! I am ready for a conversation about the universe. He turns back to a consideration of by-laws and facilitated agreements. I address my curiosity to other questions. How long, I wonder do your pupils stay dilated? What will happen if they close up before one of the squeaky-shoed nurses calls my name?
Time slows down. Eventually we find ourselves in a darkened office where the nether regions beyond the black holes have become the objects of intense interest. “The fronts of your eyes are very nice,” says the doctor, delighted by the absence of foggy cataracts, the perfection of corneas in their proper shape. My eyes are pleased to hear the news, so pleased they might bat if they knew how and were freed from the tyranny of the pointing, probing light. These eyes really don’t get much attention. People always wanted to look in them when they were younger. But the determination that no treatment could change them, no glasses could improve them, had rendered them unworthy of focus. Even now they’d be languishing in insignificance had I not noticed a paragraph in the newspaper about genetic therapy trials to increase vision for a condition with a name that brought back memories of other doctors, other years.
“Thirty years without an exam is a long time,” says the doctor. “You really should have them looked at now and then.” While he says this he is adjusting things, changing his tools. Now he’s looking deeper. What will he find?
“Your retina’s are beautiful,” he says. Sounds like he means it too. A little thrill goes down my spine. In all my life nobody has ever told me I had beautiful retinas!
My mind casts back—way back to the time when I could name the part of the eye that causes eye colour. Is it the cornea? No. The lens? No. Is it, by any chance the retina? No. It’s the iris. It must be the iris that disappeared in the waiting room.
Fishing for clarity, and—okay—maybe for compliments, I ask him to tell me more about those retinas.
He says he likes the way they haven’t deteriorated over the years due to lack of use—not quite in keeping with my idea of beautiful, but beautiful in this context nonetheless. He says that when they get the gene therapies up and running—be it in my generation or the next--they’ll be looking for people with beautiful retinas.
Now things begin to move quickly. The fluorescents are switched on, the future is discussed, the parking space is vacated, messages at the office are collected. It takes me about an hour to realize that I have missed a rare opportunity to get an expert opinion on the colour of my eyes.
The investigation of the world behind the black hole has enlightened us a little. It appears that the diagnosis made thirty years ago was accurate. Twelve genes have been identified as the cause. Only one is currently in clinical trials and the doctor suspects that the gene causing my problem is not that one. But it does seem that my condition is more interesting than it used to be. My personal genes will be identified through a bit of bloodletting and sending to a lab in Iowa. My name will be added to a catalogue for future reference, and a similar process will begin for my sister.
I might have been a little disappointed had I been expecting a miracle. But I wasn’t, and it’s kind of thrilling to think that children born in a future time that might be far away, or closer than we can imagine will sit in doctor’s offices and hear that there is a treatment for this condition. For now, it’s enough to celebrate my new identity—to bask in the life-altering possibilities of a woman who has beautiful retinas.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Sir John Franklin set sail from England in 1845 in search of a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the coveted northwest passage. He took two ships and 129 men. He was a couple of thousand miles north of the place where Winnipeg is now when he got lost. It wasn’t difficult to get lost in the north in those days. The Eskimos knew their way around, but Sir John wasn’t one to ask for directions. It was back in the time before aerial maps, in the time before any officer of the British Navy had put the whole northern picture together, back in the time when they thought Repulse Bay might be a through channel instead of a bay, when they thought that King William Island was a peninsula.
Pierre Burton, that great Canadian historyian, says it was actually Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin who wanted to be an explorer. She was an adventurous woman who loved travel. But ladies didn’t explore the frozen north in those times. Her true nature began to show when two years has passed without word from or about Sir John and his ships. She nagged and pestered the Navy. She wrote letters and courted newspaper editors and raised public awareness and money for search parties until, over a ten-year period, 13 ships had been launched to search for her husband. In the course of all this searching two routes through the passage were discovered. The successful search was launched with her own funds, the search conducted in the places where she told the captain to search. It ended in 1857, when one tiny written message from a crew member was found. It said little, but it did say that Sir John had died in 1847.
Further searches revealed that under Sir John’s command the crew had done some stupid things. Instead of fending off scurvy with fresh meat as the Eskimos did, they took salt meat in poisonous lead tins. Instead of travelling light and wearing animal skins , they took along fancy navy clothes and silver cigarette cases.
lady Jane did not stop when she learned about her husband’s death. She nagged and pestered the navy. She wrote letters and made presentations until Sir John was declared the first discoverer of a northwest passage. There was no written record to prove otherwise. Now there’s an apartment building in Edmonton named after him, a mall in Fort McMurray, the main street in Yellowknife is Franklin Avenue.
Other northern explorers kept better records and are far less well known. There was Perry, and Collinson, and McLure, and McClintock, and me.
Yes me. I too have been lost in the frozen north, in the days before cell phones and gps, in that inscrutable suburban land of islands and dead-ends and circles where so many have been lost despite the stars, the maps, the compasses. I was lost in the land known as Mill Woods.
My journey began 300 yards northwest of 38 avenue and 66 street. It was late January, 10:45 on a Sunday night when the snow had been falling all weekend while the wind howled like a banshee at the window. Huddled under a pile of blankets on a rockingchair my spouse shivered and sweated, the victim of strep throat. Our children were nestled all snug in their beds and I was getting ready also. Then Spuds, our tiny white poodle said “Hmm, Hmm, Hmm,” which loosely translated means, “Wendy, the wind has gone down and I haven’t been for a walk since Friday. Would you rather take me now, or go to bed while I sit sorrowfully beside you?”
So I put on his leash, and my boots and my coat and my toque and my mitts and out we went.
One step outside our door brought us to a new land, a virgin land. No shovel had cleared a walk, and no car had rutted a path. Here was a land where anything was possible.
Perhaps this would be a good time to teach a little lesson about blindness. I have very little sight, so little that ophthalmologists don’t bother to register it. Technically, outside on that night I could see the glare of the white snow, and the two nearest street lamps. But that night was magical. When Spuds paused to sniff I turned my face upwards and imagined a sky shimmering with stars, Sirius, orian’s belt, Venus, the many moons of Jupiter. I swear I saw the rings around Saturn. Then Spuds finished peeing on the lamp post and we set out again, heading north on 67 Street, turning west on 40 Avenue.
It may seem obvious to you, but at this point I think I ought to stop and point out some differences between being sighted and being blind. sighted people guide themselves with their eyes. They look down at where their feet are going, and up at all the things around them. Blind people, in contrast, guide themselves by touch and memory. The memory is a mental map of whatever they have believed is in the vicinity. Bearings are taken by the touch of sidewalk, or street, or grassy edge. With nothing to touch but snow that lay ankle deep and crisp and even, except where it had drifted to above knee-level, and nothing to see but street lamps, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage, though I did imagine our passing the 67th street island, the 40th avenue crescent, the alley of 66 street, the 39 Avenue crescent alley and some houses. Still, with no proof or confirmation of anything, and only the deep snow under foot, I worried that we might have strayed onto a lawn, or maybe a crescent island. It was cold. Spuds was walking on three paws. It was time to go home.
On an ordinary night I would have turned cautiously around, stopped to get my bearings, and dragged spuds along. But this being no ordinary night, so quiet, so still, so private, I raised my voice and said, “Spuds, take us home.!”
You can know your dog, and then find that you didn’t know him at all. These, apparently, were the words Spuds had been longing to hear. At the sound of those words Spuds jerked the leash and started to run.
Blind people don’t run much in public. It upsets others. And they could fall. But on this glorious night, with the snow so deep and soft there was no reason not to run. So we ran. Spuds was in charge. Throwing caution to the wind we lifted our feet and leapt through snowdrifts and laughed until we finally halted. And that’s when I realized for the first time ever, that my mental map of the neighbourhood did not include the location of fire hydrants. Nevertheless, we stopped to enjoy this one. When Spuds was finished sniffing, we set off slowly. Travel is slower on two paws. “You’ll have to finish the job,” I said to Spuds. I have no idea what direction we were facing. But Spuds set off again, and soon enough we were going toward a house, and there was one step up, just like our front door. And there was glass beside that door, just like our glass. And things were fabulous, except this was not our doorknob. And suddenly, for the first time ever, I realized that my mental map of our neighbourhood did not include a detailed description of doorknobs, or even the location of houses with only one step up to the door.
Now that we had found a door, Spuds was ready to go in. “Hhm, Hhm!” he said. Loosely translated this means, “Ring the doorbell, Dummy.”
It was a good idea, and I might have done it too, had I not been imagining how I would feel upon meeting a stranger at the door and explaining that I was a blind woman lost in my own neighbourhood. But even then I might have done it had I not been contemplating the idea of meeting somebody I knew, maybe one of the other soccer moms. If that house contained somebody I knew, then tomorrow I would be the subject of coffee conversations, and maybe a committee would be formed to take me for walks, and they would come over to meet with David in private to see why he had allowed me to get lost, and maybe somebody would call social services. What if they took away my children?
“Hmm Hmm,” I said to Spuds. Loosely translated it meant, “Let’s get out of here before somebody sees us.” I had to drag him out to the street. By now we were going really slow. You don’t make very good time hopping on one paw.
Nothing moved in the area near us. The neighbourhood was quieter than I’d ever known it, so quiet that I could hear the distant sound of a very rare thing, a Sunday night transit bus on 38th Avenue. Then there was quiet, and then, as the traffic light changed, there was the north south traffic of 66th street. Then quiet, then the east west 38 avenue hum again. Slowly it dawned on me that here was my compass for guiding, my whole sky full of stars.
“We’re going to make it,” I said to Spuds. We’ll go east toward 66th street, and then south towards 38. We’ll be home before you know it.”
At the sound of my confidence, Spuds put down all four paws and off we went, heading east, bumping into cars on the street and intuiting sidewalks beside them, turning south through the huge drift around the hedge at the corner, turning toward a house, going up one step just like ours, turning a doorknob just like ours, stepping over the sill. There we stood, heat blazing on our faces, stamping and snorting and shaking off the snow.
I think I understand why Sir John never left much of a written record. Who would want to admit that many mistakes in writing? He would have been accountable to his neighbours, to Lady Jane.
I cannot say exactly what I thought would happen when I got home. I don’t know how long I was gone. No search party had been arranged. From under the shivering rockingchair blankets a pained voice quavered: “How come you were gone so long? I thought you were just going for a short walk.”
We don’t know if Sir John learned anything from his experience. But I learned a thing or two the night I got lost in the frozen north. I learned, for one thing, and the evidence is here in this story, that excitable miniature poodles should never be placed in command of exploratory expeditions. And I also learned, though I hate to admit it, that men aren’t the only ones who won’t stop and ask for directions.

(Find Pierre Burton’s account of Franklin’s voyage in Exploring the Frozen North: An Omnibus by Pierre Berton, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Limited, 2006).

Friday, January 08, 2010


When my right boot was on, and the left one was poised at the tip of a toe I said to David, “Maybe I should warn you that you are in the story I’m telling tonight.”
Story Café was starting in an hour and we were within moments of leaving the house.
“Oh no,” he said. “Don’t tell me.”
I was kind of glad to hear him say that. Really, I didn’t want to tell him, but at the last minute it seemed like I ought to give him some warning. After all, he’s a really good guy who supports everything I do in storytelling. Any time I earn a dollar at it he has generally spent two to make it possible. He arranges his holidays around the festivals I want to go to. He comes home earlier than usual on Story Café nights. So I owe him a lot. Trouble is, I tell a few stories about myself, and it’s hard to tell stories about yourself without making mention of a guy who’s been the main person in your life for 37 years.
“Well tell me,” he said. I guess I shouldn’t have taken him literally when he said not to tell him.
The thing about stories, I mean true stories, is that the facts sometimes fall a little short of supporting the truth—I mean, short of supporting the truth in a manner that makes a really good story. And what is the point of telling any story to people who’ve paid to be at a story event if it isn’t going to be a really good story? So sometimes you have to work with the facts a bit, just bring in facts that really could have happened, knowing the big picture, maybe using a fact or two that didn’t happen on the day that is the day in the story. And sometimes you don’t remember exactly what people said, I mean maybe you know what they might have meant if they had tried to say something, so you use some interesting words they probably said some time.
“You might find some of the facts to be a little different than you remember them,” I warned. I felt it was fair to give him a little warning. I hadn’t wanted to warn him, but then I worried that he might feel the need to adjust the story while I was telling it. That could be disturbing to the other listeners at the café table. Actually, I might have left him out altogether if I hadn’t been thinking of the other listeners. I knew that if he was with me and wasn’t in the story, they’d surely be wondering why he wasn’t in the story. It’s so complicated, this storytelling business.
He really wasn’t much in the story. The theme of the evening was Snow and Other Flakes. The story was about Sir John Franklin who got lost looking for the Northwest Passage, Lady Jane Franklin the wife who made Sir John famous, and a really stupid thing I once did. My husband wasn’t mentioned in the first draft, but somehow the whole thing didn’t seem to balance out if the Franklins were a couple and I was a single.
“You’re not much in the story,” I said reassuringly.
He didn’t say anything. I thought perhaps I hadn’t convinced him. I tried again. “You really have a small part, a bit part I’d say.”
“Mmmmmmhmmmmmmm!” he said. He said it in that all-expressive way that tells you a lot. Loosely translated, it meant, “You’re going to pay for this.”
Too late I recognized the trap I’d set myself. If he had to be in a story, he’d better be important. What does it mean if you’re not important in a story told by somebody for whom you’ve been the main man over 37 years?
“The story’s about me,” I said, seeing the need for a remedy. “How can a story be about me without also being about you?” I smiled a smile that I hoped was a seductive, flattering smile. Actually, I’ve never been much good with facial expressions.
“We’re going to be late if you don’t put on your other boot,” he said. He’s always a practical man when it comes to getting to Story Café. And even though he later said that it had been a good story, I do believe that it must be very difficult to be married to a storyteller.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


How on earth did it ever get to be 2010? Was it not just yesterday that we were preparing for 1984, half a day ago that we planned for the world’s end—Y2K style?
Yes, here it is, 2010, the first quarter of the first month almost spent. Here at Hope House, amid the daily routine of counselling and student supervision I am planning ahead for a reflection at a Unitarian church, motivational talks to rural women, lectures to university classes, tours of future hospital unit clerks, hope groups for parents with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and others with chronic pain, conference presentations for spiritual care workers in Vancouver, mental health workers in Delaware, storytellers in Los Angeles. All these things will be history by the end of July.
Fifteen years ago it was January of 1995. I had no idea that some day I would be a hope specialist. Things I do automatically now were completely beyond the horizon of my imagination. What does this suggest about my ability to foresee or predict the future—for me or for anyone else?
I have often heard Ronna Jevne say, ”When it comes to predicting the future, we simply know too little not to hope.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Saturday, January 02, 2010


We’ve lived in a few neighbourhoods. Each has had its own particular assets, but none has been quite like Riverdale. In Riverdale we do things a little differently, things that are, as Ruth once put it, “So Riverdalian.”
Take this afternoon, for example. Fabe and Linda Jennings gathered a dozen adults and four kids for a bridge party. We didn’t play cards. Instead, we spent the afternoon sipping hot apple drinks, eating gingerbread and celebrating bridges. We began by telling bridge stories—stories about the bridges in our past.
You learn a lot about the history of your neighbours through their bridges. You travel through their lives. In the space of a few short moments we visited Philadelphia, Virginia, Niagara Falls, New Brunswick, Halifax, Vancouver, Drumheller, Medicine Hat, Calgary, and Dunvegan. Recounting tales of our own city we crossed our own High Level Bridge on a streetcar, buzzed across the noisy deck of our Walterdale, hugged the narrow lanes of the Low Level before its widening. Then we got down to saluting the star bridge of our gathering, our neighbourhood bridge, the Dawson Bridge.
The Dawson Bridge was built in 1912 to haul coal, agricultural products, horse-drawn wagons, streetcars and pedestrians. These days, 16,000 vehicles cross it on an average day, making it the least-used bridge in our city. But we all love it anyway. Over the years it’s been painted, patched and mended. Now, at the ripe old age of 97, it’s closing for a year, preparing for a renovation that should stretch its life for another fifty.
We talked about that bridge, how much it means to us, how we love to cross it by car, by bus, on foot. We talked about the city views it offers in the early morning, the convenience of slipping across it for after-supper band practice. We recalled how we had walked it to reach the golf course, to cross-country ski, to pick Saskatoons. After the talking was done we put on our warmest clothes and walked down to the bridge. Fabe had filled a wheelbarrow with ice and snow. Gathering on the bridge we tossed the wheelbarrow’s contents over the edge with a ceremonial shovel.
Twilight gathered and we dispersed—a group of neighbours warmed by the experience of coming together to salute a neighbourhood bridge. It was all very Riverdalian, all very wonderful!
We’ll not be allowed on the bridge for about a year. A year seems such a long time. Sixteen thousand vehicles—a million in a year—will have to find another route. Thousands of cyclists will have to cycle elsewhere. Thousands of walkers will walk by instead of across. We’re going to miss that bridge. But we will have each other, all the more so because we huddled together in the biting wind on a January afternoon, wishing our Dawson Bridge a speedy rehabilitation.