As a blind guy who wanders the streets of Vancouver - I think this is Vancouver - I'm frequently stopped by strangers. Sometimes they say, "Hey, are you that guy who writes those books about the funny things that happen to you?" Then a pit bull snatches my white cane and buries it in Grandview Park.
Other folks just stop me to do a little bonding. Helpfulness brings us together. Maybe their elbow guides me into the grocery store. Or maybe their eyes help me identify what the hell's inside a tin can. In any case, we've a moment to chat. To bond. Our glue, however, won't be any of the above.
Instead, everybody just tells me about their diseases. All the friggin' time.
Turns out that mortal decline is the most popular subject to hash over with a blind guy, especially while he's trying to figure out if this thing is a zucchini. Or worse. What was that you said about a tumour?
From our conversations I've learned a few alarming facts about the world. Did you know that most cousins wear hearing aids, and that half the population of Vancouver has a friend who has either lost or damaged an eye and never been quite the same? I've heard tale upon tale of pernicious twitching, sudden organ failure, drivers with attention deficit disorder, staph infections akimbo, and even hangovers that replicated a deeper appreciation for my visual impairment.
Then I come home with a cucumber and a can of tuna, certain that we are all dying, and that I'm next. I hug my daughter. I apologize for bringing her into this world of carnage and doom.
It's a peculiar, persistent business, our need to share medical catastrophes. It's a need so strong that folks will even force kinship between the most dissimilar conditions. "Blind you say? I lost my big toe to frostbite, so I sort of know what you've been through." That or my poor frost-bit friend will note that they had a teacher in grade three who had a blocked tear duct. Phew. Now neither of us will feel so alone in this universe of featureless tin cans.
I'm surrounded. I've even gotten used to it. Yet, having published two memoirs about my misadventures as a blind guy and a blind father, what used to be our brief gossip of misfortunes has mutated into something else. Something more demanding.
Let's call it the industrialization of story
Somehow my memoirs have made me into a counsellor. Hoo boy. I thought I was a writer, but these days I'm asked for advice about achieving happiness in the wake of tragedy, not about the perils of adverbs.
Case in point: I was invited once to talk at a conference for accountants. Yes, accountants. Go figure. For fun I told a story about a towel rack incident that sent me to the hospital. My wife's power tools were involved. Blindness and electricity, too. Slapstick interests me.
Pity does not.
Thing is, I was buttonholed by the mother of a young blind man afterwards. She asked me if I would explain how her son could bypass all the stuff I went through in my books and, well, just become like me.
Like the guy I am now, minus the electrocution bit. Affable. Adjusted.
A storyteller, not a victim or patient or, worst of all, a blind man.
She waited for advice. The silence sounded like a pen poised over a notebook.
But I couldn't answer. I'd nothing. Her desperation was palpable too, as it always is with parents in her circumstance. Understandably so.
She would do anything to carry her son over the hardships to come.
But I'm a memoirist. I wrote my story. It's not a means to avoid her son's story. It's not a cure. And so there I find myself, sometimes daily, disappointing folks that I can't cure their children or brothers or wives of their unfolding stories, which is to say their lives.
This particular mom thanked me and said she understood, but her tone told me how upset she was that I couldn't, or wouldn't, tell her the answer she needed.
Later I was left alone with her blind son pushing carrot sticks into cups and bowls, hoping to hit dip. Of my towel rack story, he had one question: How, as a young blind man, can he find and marry someone like my wife?
My suspicion is that I'm not alone in this conversion from memoirist to therapist or life coach or whatever it is people purchase for guidance these days. And my suspicion is that this phenomenon has nothing to do with my character or capacity for "the good life". Consider that I was cooked by a towel rack. I'm no poster boy for sound judgment. But my situation with some readers does suggest something about a cultural attitude towards writing, if not memoir in particular.
A memoir begs the question: Why did you tell me a story? Why you? The assumption is that the life that is told is the life that has taken control of itself. As if that were possible. Then we break it apart, message it into principles and lessons. Advise and inspire in a three-day seminar complete with modular workbooks.
Let's call it the industrialization of story.
I met a man once who had been blinded by a grizzly bear. It took his face off in a single swipe. A decade later he was writing a book. So far he had 12 chapters. The first chronicled the bear attack and his immersion into a new world of blindness and disfigurement. All of that crammed into 10 pages or so. The remaining 11 chapters unloaded his rules for spiritually and emotionally healthy living.
Too bad. It was a hell of a story. It deserved so much more.
Sometimes I can't help but feel bad for stories. They can be so diminished by the tyranny of moral and instruction. To simply ask what happened is a damned hard question, too. Our stories are all we have by way of an answer. In that respect, they are their own imperfect measure of understanding. A beginning, middle and end portions out what little it has to say. What a story knows. Isn't that more than enough?
And so maybe that's why we wander around telling each other about our heart attacks and asthma and near death experiences on the Trans-Canada Highway. Who knows how to do any of that properly, or how to proceed?
The story won't tell you. But as we nod and laugh and listen to each other in aisle 6 of the grocery store, at least we're not doing time alone in here, in our bodies. Our fantastic cells.
Ryan Knighton is the author of C'mon Papa: Dispatches From a Dad in the Dark.