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How Much Do We Need to Know? Deciding When to Turn Away From Things

During a university course on the roots and manifestations of anti-Semitism, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel. Peculiarly, it’s less the book itself I remember, than something startling that happened while I was reading it. Being blind, I get my reading material in audio. At that time, the most efficient way for me to have access to the book was to have it recorded by a small, local volunteer organization. It’s a difficult book to read. It’s an account of the author’s experience as a Jewish child in Nazi occupied Europe.

What sticks in my memory is a part in the book when the author describes a forced march in winter, to what was likely to be certain death. His father is ailing, flagging, and devastated by grief. Unable to keep up, he is beaten by the Nazi guard. The child is so overwhelmed with terror that all he can feel is anger toward his father for attracting attention.

Audio book readers are smooth, and the production is edited to produce a polished result. During this passage however, the reader was overcome, and her voice broke with grief, pain and the beginning of sobs. The producers of the recording had clearly chosen not to edit out this ineffably human reaction. Instead, they stopped the recording, there was a pause, and then the story was resumed in the reader’s usual neutral tone. Maybe a larger, slicker organization would have made a different editorial choice, but I’ve never forgotten the grief and pain in her voice: such a deeply personal reaction in a context where I was used to consistent impersonality. I think it would be like reading a painful passage in a book, and seeing the page blotched with the marks of tears; it’s an incongruous and unlikely thing that you just don’t expect, and never encounter.

The editorial choice was a tacit acknowledgment of the depth of cruelty and suffering being described by the author. “We must all share and recognize this knowledge,” it seemed to say, “And it would be wrong to hide its effects, no matter the context.” This, I suppose, is why we tell painful and difficult stories. I didn’t like reading that book, and except that it was required for a course, I probably wouldn’t have.

Recently, a friend told me she had watched the film Twelve Years a Slave. She talked about how difficult it had been to watch so much cruelty, and we wondered together about it. Is there some way in which we’re obligated not to turn fastidiously away from the most brutal face of our species? Is it disrespectful to those who have suffered, for us to say, “That’s too intense for me, I won’t watch it, I won’t read about it,”?

I’ve always thought that Amistad must be an incredible story, but I know I’ll never watch the film; it would be too disturbing. I tried to sit through The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile with friends who wanted to watch them, but thankfully we weren’t in a theatre, and I was free to leave the room periodically, which I did: and the less said about by one experience of reading a Steven King novel the better.

Am I a coward? Maybe. I’d very much like someone to answer that question who has endured the sorts of things that terrify me. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has suffered such cruelty, at least I don’t think I do. Is it a moral obligation to tour a concentration camp or read about Pol Pot and Idi Amin? As a citizen of a relatively peaceful and safe country, I have the luxury of averting my attention from such things. I’m thin-skinned; I know it. Others can take in those sorts of things without being decimated by them. I can’t, and that’s just how it is. If I am a coward, I own it.

During the trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, it was extremely difficult, nearly impossible to remain ignorant of horrific facts. I clearly remember standing in a drug store, fingers in my ears to block out the radio news, determined that the media, and people’s baser instincts would not force me to know things about dead young women that no one should know. People wanted to tell me, they somehow needed to share these terrifying things, but I refused to hear. If that makes me seem childish or squeamish, I’m ok with that.

I often raise questions in this blog because I know I don’t have answers to them. In this case, I do have an answer: a highly subjective one that applies only to me. I think that, as a mature person who’s read enough, I know in theory the depths of cruelty to which it’s possible for humans to sink. I count my blessings every day for my safe and simple little life, and I’ve decided not to feel morally obligated to take in things that will give me nightmares.

A Survivor’s Guide to Travelling in Canada

In preparation for the visit of an American friend, I compiled the following guide to being a visitor in Canada. While by no means comprehensive, it’s a start. I figured I’d leave singing the national anthem in French until he arrives.

  • The last letter of the alphabet is zed. Thus, we refer to the Camaro zed 28, the AIDS drug A zed T, and that immortal southern fried band zed zed top.

  • Tim Horton’s is the utility coffee shop of the nation. Too harsh of a critique is unpatriotic, and possibly sacrilegious. Home of questionable coffee and acceptable food, it is the stalwart companion of all cross country road trips, and no matter how indifferent someone might try to look when you show up with a box of Timbits, they’ll inevitably have at least one.

  • Our reputation for politeness isn’t exaggerated; if someone steps on your foot, apologize.

  • Young Canadian men enjoy playing with dangerous toys and weapons as much as young men from anywhere else, but we like to keep in mind our strong history of peace keeping, and tell ourselves that those toys and weapons are deployed to keep girls safe on their way to school, or to protect voters in emerging democracies on their way to the poles.

  • Though flawed, we have a deep and powerful affection for our socialized medicine; we particularly like to rhapsodize about it while eating french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.

  • We really do often end sentences with the word “eh?” It’s a friendly way to invite others to agree with your statement by ending it on a faint note of inquiry, as in, “It’s wrong to go to a friend’s place and have only one beer eh?” Or “It’s really frickin cold eh?” As a historical aside, note the similarity to the Scottish “Aye,” which gets used in a similar way.

  • Celine Dion and Brian Adams could have happened to any self-respecting federation, and they should not be held against us.

The Luxury of Doubt: Could Cave People Have Been Atheists?

I have a really vivid memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my older brother when I was 17, while he helped me navigate the involutions of the university course calendar. I was dazzled to discover I could take courses in things like the history of the Catholic Church, or Asian mysticism. I clearly remember his bemusement as he asked me, with a mild contempt, why I would possibly want to sign up for stuff like that. Even back then when I was so young and intellectually spongy, I had the intuition that religion was a key that unlocked all other aspects of human endeavor. Its presence is felt in all the humanities, and I felt like I could dabble in all disciplines at once by studying it.

Two of my favourite courses were the history of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. They didn’t need to be titled as religion, because religion was such an integral aspect of both cultures that history inevitably encompassed it. The most lasting insight I got from these courses was that, for ancient people, things in the real world were not symbols of the divine, but divinities themselves. Later, people might have thought of thunder as a symbol of Thore, or the morning and evening star as a symbol of the goddess Venus. For ancient people, thunder was a god, and the morning and evening star was the goddess Ishtar.

25 Years later, I still feel the same cognitive disorientation when I try to think hard about this. As a devout agnostic, it takes yogic feats of imagination to project myself back not only to a time when natural phenomena were imbued with discrete divine identities, but when such conclusions were not beliefs, but truths.

When did we begin to doubt? Is it endemic for us to question everything, or are there massive swaths of our past during which we were incapable of conceiving the idea that the universe and our own existence didn’t arise from a supreme being? I don’t think even a dyed in the wool atheist has an answer to where the universe came from, but how recent an achievement is it for us to even consider that there’s an answer other than the divine creator? I feel confident that my Neolithic ancestor had no trouble doubting the truth of statements made by people she didn’t trust, or whether her mate would bring back an elk for supper, but was she capable of doubting what the religious specialists in her culture taught about how the world works?

Every civilization feels itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. We generally feel that our cultures have answered the basic questions of the universe and our place in it correctly. Do you doubt this statement based on observation of our world? If so, it’s because we know more about human history than any culture before us. We have access to a multiplicity of cosmologies and belief systems. We’re on the far side of the scientific method and skeptical inquiry. We value thoughtful critique and the questioning of authority and orthodoxy. This gives us an enormous power that is relatively recent. Without mass media, or contact with people who have a different belief system, how difficult or impossible would it be to shape the world in a way other than that which you’d been taught?

In talking with a friend about the novel I’m working on, I remarked that one of my main characters is a religious devotee, and that, as a main character should, she’s someone different by the end of the novel than she was when it began. Not having given details, I was initially startled when, later, my friend said something making it clear that she assumed this character had gone through experiences that had made her question her faith. I had been thinking in terms of the ancient world, where my novel is set. Understandably, my friend had been seeing character development through the lens of the luxury of doubt. The fundamental truths of the world aren’t up for debate or even consideration by my ancient heroine. I wasn’t sure they could be.

Am I doing a disservice to the human mind by limiting it in this way? Perhaps cynicism is built into the human spirit. Surely ambitious or acquisitive priests in ancient Egyptian temples had motivations other than the enrichment of the soul, but were they skeptics of the identity and nature of the divine? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. As a historical fiction writer, these kinds of questions are some of my favourites. We can guess, we can extrapolate, we can conjecture, but in so many respects, when considering our ancestors, that’s the best we can do. I feel confident to say that imagination is endemic to humans however, and I like to think about how that’s one thing we’ve all had in common, even if I can’t be sure about so much else.

Audio Landscapes: My World In Sound

I know that not being a sighted person, the following observation isn’t worth much, but I really hate it when you’re in a group of people who are all having a good time, and the camera addict makes everyone freeze while they play with their device for 5 minutes to get the perfect photo. The magic is completely gone by the time they’re done, as is the fun of the moment. Lately however I confess to some hypocritical obsessiveness in a similar vain. I’ve taken on a month long project called the AudioMo challenge. It’s a self-governing challenge to post a clip of audio every day for the month of June. I’ve been walking around carrying a portable recording device, and gaging every experience based on whether or not I could generate fun or provocative audio out of it.

I have a liking for challenges that make me exercise my creative muscles and produce something entertaining or stimulating. Like Twitter or Facebook, it’s possible to use this venue to talk about breakfast or your pet peeves, but I feel creatively obligated to raise the bar a bit for myself.

It’s made me think more critically about my auditory landscape. Of course as a blind person, hearing is huge. In thinking about this, I generated a fun post offering an audio tour of the sound effects I’ve trained my computer to use in order to give me information about what it’s doing. This made me think about how I manipulate the sounds in my environment in a similar way to how sighted people decorate their space with visual art or colour.

I created a few posts from audio recorded during fun stuff like dragon boating and nature walks. Here’s a 10k walk on the Leslie Street Spit in 10 minutes or less.

I did a few innovative posts combining some of my musical instruments with effects generated by audio editing software. My favourite of these is here, and my second favourite, a triumph of audio manipulation of wind chime recordings, is here.

So far, producing a post a day hasn’t been an undue stretch, but I’m closing in on day 18, and I’m actually scrambling a bit for tomorrow’s post. I have an ace up my sleeve though: we’ve ordered a binaural microphone which should arrive any day, then I’m set for the rest of the month! I admit it, I’m starting to get a hint of empathy for people who see the world through the lens of a camera. At times I’ve deliberately stopped myself from fussing over my audio recorder. I’m passionate about living in the moment; and determined never to let the urge to document overpower that passion. I’m dedicated to seeing out the month of posts in style, but it will be a relief when it’s done.

The Complexities of Free Speech: Choosing Your Battles in a Big World

I just got chided on an email list for taking the name of Jesus Christ in vain. If you feel I deserved it, then you won’t care about the provocation. If you’re indifferent, then I’ll state in my defense that it was an expletive in response to a lyrical and detailed description of eating something that’s still alive.

But do I need a defense? For the sake of my continued acceptance in the group, which I value, I offered a perfunctory but adequate apology. Really though, am I bound by the stricture of the Ten Commandments when I write? He began his email by assuring us all that he believes in freedom of speech: a wildly hypocritical statement he contradicted by telling me which types of speech he doesn’t think should be used freely. What if I want to write to the list about something that violates another of the Ten Commandments. Do I need to be careful not to offend anyone by admitting to putting another god before God, or coveting my neighbour’s wife?

This made me think hard about what language usage would cause me to take action and write asking list members to be more courteous. It’s a tough one. I guess remarks that demonstrated hate or contempt: sexist, racist or homophobic remarks would trigger my object reflex. To me, such language can cause real harm by tacitly enabling others to accept attitudes and behaviour that harms others. How does the careless use of a title some hold sacred hurt anyone? I don’t know.

In the end, offending people is something I generally avoid unless I perceive a good reason not to avoid it. In this case, arguing the point was only going to label me insensitive and politically incorrect. (Interestingly, the phrase politically incorrect was coined in the Soviet Union to describe speech or writing that showed a lack of proper deference to the Communist Party.) I badly wanted to start an energetic debate, but didn’t. This email list isn’t about that.

And this brings me back to my initial irritation with Mr. Christian, and the list, which is essentially about imagination. There’s an ongoing discussion thread that in my opinion has frequently descended to intellectual bullying, and once outright cruelty, to one of the members who seems quite unsophisticated. She hasn’t objected, so I haven’t on her behalf. Why does someone object to the careless use of a couple of words that don’t harm anyone, but remain silent in the face of public ridicule of someone who seems unable or unwilling to defend herself?

It’s a really big world, with lots of mean, harmful, dangerous and cruel things going on in it. Does me using words the Ten Commandments forbids add to the meanness, harm, danger and cruelty in the world? I don’t think so. Choose your battles, and the issues you bring your energy to. I don’t want to distress people for no good reason. I could have chosen another expletive, and will in future. Maybe distressing people brings more meanness into the world, but I’ll just say it: I have judgments about some of the things people choose to feel distress about.

Why Do I Do These Things To Myself? The Perils of Researching Insects

Insects are creepy. I’ve been watching quite a few documentaries about them lately, and each one only serves to affirm my certainty that they weird me out. In my on-going, intermittent quest for self-knowledge, I ask myself why I’m writing a novel that involves researching, pondering, getting insights into, and writing about a form of life that makes me squirm and twitch with discomfort. So far I don’t have an answer to this burning existential question, but I go on anyway.

In one memorable excerpt, bees ganged up on a vicious hornet who was scouting out bee hives. If the bees could kill the scout, their hive wouldn’t be decimated by the scout’s hornet pals. Instead of stinging the hornet however, here’s how the bees did it in. They surrounded it, and vibrated their abdomens, thus creating heat. The hornet can survive temperatures up to 45c, but the bees can survive temperatures up to 47c. The bees vibrate until the hornet dies of heat exhaustion. Some of the bees die too, but they’re quickly replaced, and the scout can’t go summon its mates to destroy the hive.

In another segment I wish I could forget, the action shifts to central Africa, and a “mating column of flies,” sorry, I just have to say that again, “A mating column of flies,” as it rises from the surface of a lake. Caught on a gust of wind, the “mating column” is blown towards a village, and swamps it, covering and smothering it with millions and millions of tiny little…, I can’t go on. As I was gagging in sympathy with the poor, terrorized villagers and thinking the whole thing couldn’t possibly get any more revolting, the hearty and resourceful villagers came out in force with nets and began scooping the flies out of the air.

Apparently, half a million flies can be compacted into a paddy the size of a hamburger, and grilled. This tempting morsel contains seven times the protein of a beef burger. By this point I was curled up in a ball with my arms over my head and my lunch threatening to make a second appearance, but my chattering monkey mind couldn’t escape the horrifying truth: on an outrageously overpopulated planet with an uncertain future to say the least, what makes more sense, husbanding huge forest-destroying beef cattle, or harvesting protein out of the air. Of course I’m no ecologist, so I don’t know the ramifications of trying to feed the world on bugs, but having raised the question, I’m having trouble setting it aside, and believe me, I’ve tried.

If you’ve read a particular one or two or three ) of my previous posts, you may know that each year on my birthday, I try to do something I’ve never done before. Although it’s fully 10 months away, my current plan is to eat insects. I’ve already planted the idea with a friend of mine who’s passionate about sustainable local food, and asked/challenged her to make this happen for me. I could just go buy chocolate covered crickets or something, and I will if I have to, but I’ve let her know I trust her to source quality ingredients, and present me with something intriguing and provocative. Exactly what it will provoke is unclear. I’m curious about insect flour. I hear it’s indistinguishable from grain flour in recipes. My ideal birthday offering would involve a few delicacies, only one or two of which contains alien DNA, oh sorry, I mean insects.

Why is it so revolting? It’s all a matter of what you’re used to I suppose. I made the mistake of asking a Portuguese friend over dinner once whether she’d ever eaten anything that was still living. I got a spirited answer that made me wish I’d stuck to talking about TV shows or gossiping about our friends. Food is largely about conditioning. Part of the insect thing for me is that, though I eat meat, I eat select parts of animals, not the animal in its entirety. Rationally there’s no reason why one is ok and the other isn’t, but emotionally, one’s normal, and the other is hideously wrong, and I’m really clear about which one is which. For the purposes of my research, it’s insects in their role as pollinators that I’m focusing on, and that’s really pretty cool. As a fiction writer however, I don’t have the luxury of treating this role out of context; like eating a bug, it’s all or nothing.

Some of my favourite metaphors and similes that draw from the insect world:

  • a fly in the ointment, to describe a party-pooper
  • being bugged by something, like the way I feel when cigarette smokers poison me while I’m waiting for the bus, or trying to enjoy a cold drink on a patio
  • an anthill, to describe the subway station during rush hour as I applaud myself for working at home
  • a fly on the wall, as I would like to have been when the first person discovered civet coffee was something to write home about
  • A beehive of activity, which is the way I’d describe the polar opposite of my dream work environment
  • Nit-picking, which describes the polar opposite of my dream boss, ok, I don’t have a dream boss
  • mind your own beeswax, although admittedly this refers more to insect husbandry than insects themselves
  • worm your way out of that one, worms are insects right?
  • that’s a real hornet’s nest, like how you might describe a case of competing human rights issues
  • more nauseating than a quarter pounder made from a million mating flies, ok I just made that one up, catchy eh?

How To Write About Sex

This post has adult content, so if you’re under 18, pay close attention; just kidding, I’m supposed to say avert your mouse and go read my post about my robot vacuum cleaner.

Recently, I participated in a discussion on an online book forum about sex in literature. The take-home message was that, while some people like it, many consider it vulgar, obvious and cheap. A distillation of the argument against seemed to be that it’s not necessary to write graphically about sex in order to advance the story, and alluding to sex, or communicating sexual content with veiled, suggestive prose is more professional, and will lead to greater respect as a writer. You won’t have had to read many of my blog posts to know which side of the debate I weighed in on.

A distillation of my position was that sometimes passages are included in a narrative simply because they’re beautiful, fun, or well-crafted. How much does detailed landscape description advance the plot? Generally not much, but if it’s well written and engages the reader into the world of the story, then it’s all good.

When my partner read the first 4 chapters of the novel I’m currently working on, he asked, “Was it hard to write about sex without describing it?” I guffawed, then replied that it wasn’t; I get that it’s not always the right thing. Beltane, my first novel, is brimming with sex, which if I do say so, as have others, is fairly nicely done. I’ve heard other authors say that writing about sex is difficult. I’ve never found it so. I’m pretty sure I know what this means, but I find it almost disturbingly easy.

How do we know when sex scenes are badly written? First of all, because they don’t move us, except to laughter. A useful first precept I heard once was: avoid metaphors or nicknames when referring to sexual organs. This requires deftness, as slang can read wrong, and medical Latin can ruin the mood. The book I’m currently reading has several detailed sex scenes, and every time the writer refers to “Her deep well,” I cringe, but the three syllable Latin alternative wouldn’t really work either. After some time of trial and error, I found myself opting for brevity: the sense of “Her deep well,” can be fully communicated by simply writing, “Her,” or “herself.” Try formulating a sentence with the unnamed author’s phrase, then replace it with mine; you’ll see what I mean. This also lends intimacy, embodiment, and a more visceral feel. Someone I follow on twitter suggested, if you’re having a drab, depressing day, go read the one star reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey. The suggestion itself is so entertaining that I haven’t even followed it yet, and I’m still constantly amused.

How do we know when sex scenes are well written? Not laughing is a good start, a visceral response is a great sign, and feeling drawn in rather than alienated by the language is key. Possibly my most enduring favourite piece of erotic writing is The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. It’s a kind of religious love poem a little like the Song of Solomon, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s really really old. It depicts a randy, potent goddess looking for some action: and she finds it. It uses metaphor boldly and to excellent effect. It’s so powerful because it connects the physical act to something deeper. In conventional literature, even if that deeper thing isn’t true love, forging some link between the purely physical and something transcendent is what can make an ok passage remarkable.

Depictions of sex in music are a crude but useful barometer. I instantly hate any song that refers to sex as dirty, nasty or knotty: positivity is key. As a devoted feminist, I’m also really sensitive to gender politics in song lyrics, and have no trouble identifying why something offends me. Just for fun, here are a few of my favourites.

It may be true that a graphic sex scene in a novel is not essential to the story, but a well-written one will still tell you things about the characters and their relationship. These may be things you already know, but sex and intimacy are powerful ways to communicate, both between the characters involved, and between the writer and the reader. Comfort levels notwithstanding, sex is important.

What We Leave Behind, and What We Take With Us: My Favourite Easter Movies

On the Thursday before Easter Sunday, I was strolling home from a thoroughly nonsecular dinner of ramen with friends. Walking up the side-street in my quiet neighbourhood, I caught myself feeling nostalgic for the Holy Thursday church service of my childhood. Even at the time I didn’t hate it. That one, and the service on Christmas Eve night always felt kind of magical.

Parenthetically, that reminds me of a funny story. At the Holy Thursday service, it’s custom in some churches for the priest to wash the feet of 12 male members of the congregation in remembrance of Jesus humbling himself by washing the feet of the 12 disciples at the last supper. An unconventional uncle of mine was chosen to be one of the 12 congregants, and, perhaps to test the priest’s sangfroid, prepared for the service by writing “Dry-clean only,” across his toes.

Every Easter I watch that film classic The Ten Commandments. This year, much to my delight, I happened on an audio described version of that other film classic Jesus Christ Superstar. Apart from the totally fantastic music of the later film, why do I love these so much? They’re both really powerful stories, really well told. Both tell of individuals who sacrifice all for the greater good.

The Ten Commandments has it all: love, lust, loyalty, betrayal, courage, suffering, devotion, terror, sacrifice, trial, temptation, sin, redemption, and some of the most excellently cheesy one-liners in film history. Here’s a list of some of my favourites, just cause I can’t help myself.

  • “Your fragrance is as the wine of Babylon.” (I keep trying to get my boyfriend to tell me this, but he says he’ll only do it if I strew his path with rose petals first.)
  • “And Moses took the rod of God into his hand…” (Come on, you just can’t beat that!)
  • “Her lips were tamarisk honey, and like the breast of a dove her arms were soft.” (He won’t say this to me either.)
  • “They did eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” (Yum!)
  • “And they did practice all manner of lewdness and vile affections.” (Oo, sign me up.)
  • “You are a sharp-taloned treacherous little peacock.” (He’d probably let me have this one.)

Alongside these gems, there are of course profound and poignant nuggets you can’t toss off in one line, which make the 3 1/2 hours well worth it. Each time, I reliably laugh at the cheese, and shed a tear or two at the powerful parts: self-sacrifice for an ideal, true and enduring love, and respect for the dignity of every human.

The full answer to why the stories told in these films endure is more obvious in Jesus Christ Superstar. Though the tale is grim, it’s told vibrantly and even insouciantly. Dancing and singing aren’t the first things you think of when you read the gospels, but the film’s creators are relentless in their insistence on portraying the vigorous, passionate, timeless, and celebratory aspects of a story that has been central to western culture for 2000 years. The flamboyant costumes and the deliberate anachronisms insist that we evaluate the story not only on its own merits, but on the meaning it holds for our culture, and for each of us as individuals.

Heaven On Their Minds: film version 1973

Everything’s All Right: film version 1973

Heaven On Their Minds: Indigo Girls

Every Easter I watch these great movies, and each time I do I accrete more nostalgia around them. Energetic narrative, lyrical language, and fantastic music keep me coming back despite my fervent agnosticism. In my weekly forced attendance at church as a kid, my favourite part, after the music, was the third reading where they read from the gosples, i.e. the stories of what people actually did. Stories have power, especially ones that have been around for a long time. Religious traditions are agglomerations of individuals expressing and passing on ideas that have meaning to them. People tell stories; it’s in our nature. All religions have stories, and retell them. There’re lots of complex reasons why I feel nostalgic about church stuff (especially as a recovered Catholic,) even if I don’t really want to be a church-goer. Stories we know all our lives have force.` Maybe some year I’ll find a Catholic church to wander into for a Holy Thursday service, but this year, as in so many other years, my nostalgic itch has been fulfillingly scratched by cinema.

Floating Into Nothingness: My Birthday in a Sensory Deprivation Tank

I have a birthday tradition I like to observe each year. No: not the one where I get roaring drunk and start a bar fight; I gave that one up. Each year on the day of my birthday, I like to do something I’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be anything showy or dangerous, although I do like to keep the bar high. For example, in previous years, I’ve taken a bus tour of my home city, which proved remarkably informative, and attended the funeral of a stranger. This year, I went with my sweetie to spend an hour and a half in a sensory deprivation tank. That definitely sounds showy enough to qualify, but the truth is, as an accomplished hippy, I’ve actually done this several times before. This time, on my birthday, I decided to spend a chunk of time in the tank meditating to see what a lack of sensory information would add to the meditation experience.

If you’ve ever seen the film Altered States you already know what a sensory deprivation tank is, but trust me, this was way less creepy. The place we went calls it a floatation tank in order to minimize the creep-out factor, and emphasizes its harmlessness by putting the word tranquility in it’s name. The website aptly describes it as being about the size and dimensions of a hatchback. Getting into it is a bit like climbing into the trunk of a car and closing the door on yourself. There’s enough space for two people to lie side by side in a relaxed posture. The tank has about 18 inches of water, that’s infused with about 1000 pounds of Epsom Salts, making it saltier than the Dead Sea. The water is kept carefully at body temperature. Lowering the lid over yourselves puts you in complete darkness, and lying on your back submerges your ears, making it essentially silent. If you’re claustrophobic, you’d probably rather spend the afternoon in the park.

If you lie completely still, which is what you’re meant to do, the buoyancy created by the salt makes you feel weightless. The water and air temperature removes sensations of hot or cold, and makes it unclear how much of your body is actually in the water. If you position yourself properly so that you’re not touching the sides or your companion, your body gradually relaxes into a neutral position that is where your joints naturally go to with no gravity or muscle contractions to affect them. Once you submerge your ears, there’s only you and your heartbeat.
I didn’t actually like hearing my own heartbeat much. Since I don’t typically feel it beating unless I’ve just run up 3 flights of stairs after a venti mocha on the way to be reunited with my lover after a month apart, I’m only accustomed to experiencing it as a sensation against my fingertips when monitoring my pulse. Hearing it without any somatic experience of it was sort of disorienting and distracting. I thought about doing some biofeedback experimenting with it during the meditation, but rejected the idea as too radical.

My partner and I agreed on tactile signals for me to communicate when I would start and stop my meditation. With your ears under water, anything spoken aloud by your companion is reduced to an eerie and frustrating mumble. When I’d sufficiently settled in, I indicated that I was about to withdraw into my inner life, and began my typical meditation practice.

To my own surprise, I found it much harder to clear my mind than usual. I hadn’t realized how much I unconsciously expect or rely on external sensations when I meditate. The surface beneath me, the pressure of my own weight against it, the coolness of air on my skin or the warmth of too many clothes all make a kind of background noise that you don’t recognize until it’s gone. When I was able to remain absolutely still, parts of my body seemed to vanish: my legs especially. Without proprioception (the sense of moving in space,) the pull of gravity, or tactile sensation of clothing or a resting surface, there’s nothing to indicate to your brain that there’s anything outside it. Occasionally I’d wiggle a finger or tow just for the reassurance. My mind was impatient and twitchy, eager for my proscribed sequence to end so I could stop trying not to think, move around a bit to feel the sensation, or engage in the delightful, balletic nonverbal communication with my partner which is one of the sweet aspects of sharing the floatation experience.

Finally, when I had finished, I relaxed my concentration and lay still, and, paradoxically, found that I didn’t actually want to let go of my self-imposed isolation by letting him know I’d finished. Meditating is effort. I’ve always felt that, and it was restful to do nothing at all after I was finished. I started thinking about weightlessness in a way I’d never done before.

I’m a great fan of Chris Hadfield, and followed his tweets from the International Space Station avidly. He talked a lot about weightlessness, but I’d never appreciated the postural aspects before. As a massage therapist and yoga practitioner, I talk and think a lot about proper posture. One’s shoulders should always be carried back, down, and away from the ears; this is fundamental. In virtual weightlessness, my shoulders didn’t want to do this. When I relaxed, they slid upward in a way that felt quite unnatural, and it made me wonder a lot about how people carry themselves in microgravity.

Spending time in the tank deliberately separated from my companion by the intention to engage in that most private of mental activities: meditation, wetted my appetite for floating alone. My first experiences of floating a couple of decades ago were solitary. At this temporal distance I can’t remember what my brain got up to without the sweet distraction of company, and I wondered a bit what it might have gotten up to outside the constraints of meditating if I’d lacked the beautiful magnet that one’s partner makes while floating together weightless. Perhaps the function of meditation is to eliminate all the external sensations we’re used to. Maybe being in the sensory deprivation tank is a kind of default meditation; the kind you don’t have to work at.

People At Their Best: How Volunteers Make My World Go Round

Photo of Ski for Light trophy

On the desk in my treatment room rests a new ornament. It’s a trophy consisting of a ski tip set into a beautiful wood base. An inscription on the front declares it to be an award for second place in the women’s snowshoeing race at the 2014 Black Hills Ski For Light event. I’ve never won a trophy in my life: till now.

As a blind person, I would argue that I often get the chance to see people at their best. Most of the cool recreational stuff I get to participate in, sailing, tandem cycling, running, dragon boating, blind tennis, and skiing, only happen because really excellent people give generously of their time, energy and money.

The snowshoeing trophy I won was made by one of the benefactors of the ski event, and presented by one of the multitude of friendly and warm-hearted volunteers without whom the event simply couldn’t happen. The banquet on the last night contained a memorial to all the people who’d made this event a success for 35 years running.

Ski For Light is an international organization that hosts annual events in which blind, visually impaired and mobility impaired skiers are paired with sighted volunteer guides for a week of winter sport, and a comradely family atmosphere the like of which I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

When I attended my first Ski for Light event 4 years ago, I hadn’t spent much time socializing with other blind people; I’d catapulted myself in among the best. Having skied before, I knew about the reserves of determination required to pick yourself up out of the snow for the 5th or 10th time. Getting up the up slopes is mostly a matter of strength, but getting down the down slopes needs balance, guts, trust in yourself, and luck, at least until you’ve mastered a good snowplough. A failure of any of these will reliably result in what’s aptly referred to as a yard sale, that is, the distinctive jumble of skis, poles and limbs, from which you must somehow extract yourself and re-attain vertical status. By about my 4th yard sale, I usually take 10 seconds or so just to lie still in the snow, while reassuring my concerned guide that I’m really ok, I’m just resting. Each yard sale gets incrementally harder, as you accrue minor aches or injuries, and generally get more tired.

Knowing all this intimately, I was awed to see a hundred or so blind people keep going and going and going, most of them more competent and resilient than me. Each of them had the resources of courage, adventurousness, athleticism, sociability and finance to spend a week of their lives here, and really enjoy it: and seeing this in others helped me see it in myself.

Of course none of this would be possible without the people who volunteer as guides and organizers. What kind of people give a week of their vacation, which they pay for, to help others? I can answer that easily: incredible people. I’ve attended 4 Ski for Light events. Each time, I’ve tried to express to my guide and to other volunteers how much I admire their generosity. Each time, I’m reassured, with a sincerity I can’t doubt, that they get as much out of the week as the participants do. I can only accept their sincerity as I unobtrusively wipe away a tear or two.

As a conscientious hippy, I often hear about the gap between rich and poor, and the inequities in our society. At each Ski for Light event, I’m submerged in the other truths: generosity, sharing what we have to share, and giving what we have to give. At the most recent event I attended in South Dakota, a well-established and recognized benefactor of the event paid $1000 for a quilt at a silent auction, then donated it to a long-time volunteer. The hotel which guested the participants is partly owned by another benefactor, and our fees for the week were so low that they simply had to have been underwritten by his generosity. For blind people, a population notoriously low on the income scale, such benevolence surely made the difference between being able to attend or not for many of us.

All of our ski and snowshoe equipment was provided. Volunteers made and maintained the trails for the week. More volunteers created an oasis in a snowy field on Federal land consisting of a huge tend complete with wood stove, caldrons of delicious food and drink, and a delightful party atmosphere. In fact, if you cared to, you could forgo winter sport all together and laze around the tent all day being plied with home-made kettle chips, and hot chocolate to which a magical ingredient or two had been added to keep the cold away.

There were so many cool people there that you could spend each day talking with someone you hadn’t met before, from somewhere you’d never been, who does something for a living you know nothing about. As a blind person, you are the rule not the exception, and you could receive as much or as little help as you wanted or needed.

It’s really hard to say what my favourite part of these events is, but if I had to choose one thing, I’d say it’s the quality of the people I meet there. The participants are courageous, resourceful, and game for a challenge. The donors and volunteers are warm, caring, fun-loving people who choose to give their vacation time to helping others, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.