On this week’s episode of The Accessible Podcast, my guest is Stephen Barker, author of a memoir called “Just Call Me Seemore”
The transcript of the show follows.
Transcript The Accessible Podcast, December 17, 2018
(female voice talking on music): Hello and welcome to the Accessible Podcast, an audio experience for all audiences. I am Andreea Demirgian, your host. Today my guest is Stephen Barker, author of “Just Call Me Seemore”, a memoir that sold over 200 copies at the first book signing back in October. Stephen Barker was a flight attendant and has been all over the world, he has seen the 7 Wonders and more, but his book is not about his travels, as you might expect. In his mid-thirties, while leading a normal life, his world was turned upside down. He went blind. In this inspiring and humorous memoir, Stephen chronicles how, within a relatively short time span, he had to face the fear and the challenges of blindness and the trauma of losing close family members to cancer.
The turning point came when he discovered the Lions Foundation Dog Guides program and was given his “new set of eyes,” a black Labrador named Zulu. With his furry guardian angel, the first of two guide dogs over a period of ten years, he regained his independence and a reason to live. His descriptions of training at the dog guide school and the day-to-day incidents that he faces as a blind person make for at times hilarious and always fascinating and insightful reading. Stephen’s sense of humor and hope, combined with the kindness shown to him by so many people, help him overcome everything that life throws at him.
Recently I have had the pleasure of talking to Stephen about his book, and here is what he had to say about his writing journey.
(voice over music) Andreea Demirgian: Stephen Barker, thank you for joining me. Tell us about your book.
(music fades out while Stephen is speaking)
Stephen Barker: Yes, in the early 2000s I started to lose my eyesight and on my birthday in 2009 I awoke and I had gone totally blind. So along my way, the journey that I was on with adapting to this new life, I found that there are a lot of positive things. I was meeting people who were so kind and generous, strangers who would help me. Then I was introduced to the Lions Foundation of Canada dog guide program, and I decided I would go there and live and train for a month to receive a guide dog because I thought that would bring me more independence. So the book really is the story about that: my journey into blindness and how it became more of a gift and not a hindrance.
In 2008 when I first started losing my eyesight, I was introduced to my first guide-dog, Zulu. I worked and trained with Zulu and life was all good, or so I thought. When I got home I was adjusted to the dog and I was starting to navigate my streets again, and it was like I was human again, I could do things I haven’t been able to do before: just walking out alone by myself was impossible when my eyesight was going. After about a year, I noticed things were going wrong with Zulu. She would wander out in the street while we were walking and it was getting dangerous, but every time the trainer came out, when I would call to tell her about this, Zulu would be fine. In the end, it turned out Zulu had a thyroid problem. When she was getting tired, she was just shutting off. They said she could no longer work, and they wanted to retire her, so I kept her as a pet. In 2010, I returned to the school to get my second set of new eyes, Keagan. So I attended the school in August of 2010, to train for another month with him, so that’s the dog I’m currently working with now, to this day.
AD: Why did you feel the need to write this book?
SB: I felt, you know, it’s really weird, because, one day I just was sitting and I thought: I really need to start writing down all of these experiences that are happening to me. There was one couple in particular who I had met through a friend of mine. He does an annual golf tournament that raises money for the school in Oakville because The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guide Program in Oakville receives no Government funding. There’s absolutely no Government funding to have people receive guide dogs, so it’s all done on charity and donations. A friend of mine has a golf tournament every year, I speak at it every year when they have it. I had met a lot of people there and this one couple, in particular, I’ve become quite fond of, Matt and Evelyn Lawless. Well, one day, Matt and Evelyn were watching TV and saw these glasses that could help blind people see, so they had emailed a friend of mine and said: “You know if these would help Stephen, we would pay for them”. Well, they were like $10,000. So right at that moment, I was very touched by that: just a few days before that, before this call about the glasses, Evelyn had been diagnosed with terminal cancer! So, to me I felt like there was somebody who just found out, they were going to die and here they are, trying to offer me sight. To me, that was so touching! I knew that I needed to write these experiences down so that others can benefit from it.
AD: When did you start writing the book, how long ago?
SB: About five years ago I actually started writing it. The writing part came fast and it was almost like I had – which sounds weird – but it’s almost like I had help writing it. I felt like I was guided to write it. I pounded it out on my laptop in a terrible rough copy and then I started working on fixing it up. I guess I never really intended it to be a book. I thought I would write this thing and all the people who are in it, who had helped me, I would print it out, even on my printer, and give them a copy. Just to show them how much I appreciate what they’ve done for me along my journey. But a friend of mine had seen it. I showed her, I was telling her about it and she said to me: “You need to get this put into a book”, she said it, like “it really has to become a story”. Of course, you don’t know if she’s just being nice because she’s your friend and she’s just saying that. But I started that process and she had Creative Writing skills, while I didn’t know anything about writing a book, I could tell the story but I am not a professional writer.
We kind of sat down, and, painstakingly, for a year, we were taking a rough copy and putting it into a more readable copy, trying to fix it up as best we could. But we would do that once a week for about two hours, so it was taking a long time. And then, in the middle of that process, I got cancer and I had to stop because I was having Chemoradiation and I was too sick to do anything. So, it kind of sat again for a long time, maybe another six months, and then she said to me: “Are we gonna get back to that book?” after I had started to recover. And she persuaded me, I just got back on the book, and we started working on it. Then I had to find an editor because somebody had mentioned that would be much less tedious for us to be doing this for 2 hours a week for years at a time to try and get it fixed up.
The editor had my book for 17 months and didn’t do anything. And I kept emailing and saying “What’s going on?” and he was like “Oh, I am working on it, it takes time”, and months would go by and then a couple of times he told me it was finished and he would be sending it to me. I was excited, it’s been so long, this journey. So I just said to him: “This is unacceptable, I don’t want to use anymore, and I would like my money back” and he said: “No, you’re not getting your 1500 dollars, I did four pages and that’s worth that.” So, then I was left with nothing, again.
In the meantime, I had lost touch with the lady who recommended him to me, but she was talking to a friend that I know and they told her that this person hasn’t done my book. Well, she got in touch with me and she said to me “Stephen, I’m going to get this finished for you, we’re going to get this book done, it will be ready in three months.”
The book was out in October, so she took it and finished it. She left everything in that I had put, like it was all of my emotion, because that was very important to me, to have the book emotional. I wanted it to be as raw as my emotions were with everything in that book, so she did that for me. When I got it and I finally read it, I was just so happy, because it was exactly the story that I had told. She also has added photos in. I was never going to do that. I just thought: “Well, I can’t see, so why should other people look at photos?”
She talked me into it. She said to me: “Do you have any photos from when you were a baby?” and I said, “I do not, I have to ask my sister.” In my book, in the preface, I talk about when I was six years old because I remember this as clear as day: I was standing in downtown Hamilton with my mother, at the bus stop. I was 6 years old and I saw a blind lady and her guide dog trying to cross the street at King and James, which was a really busy street at the time. And I remember I looked at my mom and I looked at the woman and I thought: “Why isn’t my mom doing something, that lady’s going to be killed!” Anyway, she crossed the street and I was like “Wow!” But I remember a horrible feeling came over me at six years old: I thought if I was ever blind I’d kill myself. I thought: “How would they dress themselves, who feeds them, how do they live?” And so, from that moment on, at six years old, I thought: “If I ever become blind, I would kill myself”.
The photo thing came in, because when she asked about baby photo if I didn’t have any, I remembered from that day, that exact day, downtown with my mom, with the blind lady, a photographer just after that stopped my mom. He would go around downtown taking photos of people. It was like $3 or something. He snapped a photo of me standing on the street. I found the photo that went exactly with the same day when I saw the blind lady. So she put it in the book for me.
It kind of made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When these little things happen, as I was going along, you know, I felt like everything was just happening for a reason.
AD: What would you say is the most intense chapter in your book?
SB: Well, there’s a lot of them, it’s got a tissue alert. People will comment to me and say: “Oh, I really cried at this part or that part!” But everybody’s crying at a different part. I made the book so that everybody who reads it can relate to something in it. I mean, so, it could be a sad part, it might not affect you, but the next person who reads it might have had a similar experience in their life, so it’s emotional for them.
I like the part in the book when I’m talking about when I first got my first guide dog and the emotions that went through me, because, when you lose your sight, there are things that you cannot obviously do yourself. I had stopped walking, going out on my walks, because you don’t want to be a burden on anybody. Before I lost my eyesight, I was a flight attendant, so I had flown all over the world, I’ve seen the Colosseum in Rome on New Year’s Eve with fireworks going off over it! I’ve seen all that beautiful stuff, so when I started to lose my sight when friends would ask me out, I would say “No.” I didn’t want to be a burden. I mean, I wouldn’t tell them that, I’d just decline the invitations and anything that had to do with mobility or anything like that, I just started staying home. Well, that’s when I realized after a while that my house was becoming my prison. I needed to do something about it, so I ended up looking up the information for the school and that’s when I finally got in touch with them because I knew I had to change something to get myself back to where I was before. I had to find myself.
AD: If somebody is about to lose sight and finds this book, how much do you think it would be a comfort for them?
SB: I wrote it so that you don’t have to have a disability at all to read it. You don’t have to be in a wheelchair or blind, you could be just having a bad day and you can read this book and I guarantee it’ll pull you out of where you are and that was my goal: If I could just change someone’s life by them reading this book, then that’s all I wanted out of it. And I specifically did that, I made it so that I wasn’t gearing it specifically to someone with a disability, I just wanted to show that the human spirit is much stronger than any of us know, and we can get through anything and everything, with the help of our friends. Just if we embrace everything and just follow the path, go the way you think is the right way and then you’ll get through it. And when you read this… I mean, so much has happened to me in the book, that you would think, oh, like you, yourself probably think: “I couldn’t have done that, how did he survive?” But what do you do? You either move forward in your life when something happens, or you can sit and rot and feel sorry for yourself. I wasn’t going to do that. So… I want other people to read this and see that there’s hope.
AD: When you held your book in your hands for the first time, what was that like?
SB: Oh, when it came, the printer delivered them to me, the actual book designer and he said to me: “Do you want to open a box and hold a book?” At first, I couldn’t, it was almost like opening a tomb for me. Also in the book, after I lost my sight, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and was palliative, she was dying… She wanted to die at home so even though I was blind I did my best to make that happen for her. And then, at the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer, my brother was diagnosed with lung cancer, then my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. So all three of them are sick and dying. So when I got the box and I held the book, that came to me like: my mother was there, my brother was there, my father was there, the lady that was going to buy me that glasses to help me see, she had passed away, so it was all these memories in this book. So that was coming into me, too, when I held this book. All these things were just so emotional to me, there’s just so much emotion in the book, so much of my raw emotion! I just say it like it is in the book. It was beautiful, but it was very emotional.
AD: How was your book launch?
SB: I had a book signing at Canadian Tire because the owner of Canadian Tire in Grimsby, here where I live, her and her husband… I’ve become good friends with them. We do a lot of fundraising for dog guides. She had a big book signing at the store and oh, I sold like maybe two hundred books. It went really well and I got to meet my editor for the first time and the book designer came, and we all went out for lunch, a bunch of us. So it was very good.
I’ve had a couple of stints, not very big ones. Public speaking, I like doing, so that’s my next thing: I would like to get into the public speaking area and travel around talking, because it’s a good emotional thing to hear from an actual person, to sit and listen to. I can look at myself now and when I read the book, I can see everything happens for a reason, the events, the things that have happened, it was almost like everything was planned out. And now that I wrote the book I can look at it and actually see that. Now it seems like “Wow, my life was planned out, the whole thing”. The things I did happened at the right time; I need to share this with other people. That’s my next goal to do a lot of speaking for it.
AD: Is your book available also in Braille?
SB: No, it was going to cost like $10,000 to do a Braille copy so we had decided that even the title we might do in Braille, on the front, but it was very expensive. I chose, when I put it online, I paid extra to have it put into e-books and Kindle and paperback, because then, my other visually impaired or blind friends can now read it on their devices. If they download the e-book version, they can read it with their screen reader, so it’s accessible for that. But the CNIB is talking about putting it into a talking book for me, so that would be a great help. That would be my dream, getting it into the talking book version.
AD: That’s great. So your book is available on Amazon. Where else?
SB: It’s in over two hundred online bookstores, including Amazon Canada, Amazon.com, Amazon UK and Chapters Indigo. I’ve seen it in Japanese and Polish and French. So if you just Google “Just call me Seemore” it comes up at all these bookstores online. It’s just been an amazing journey.
AD: When is your next public appearance?
SB: In January the Chapters Bookstore in Stoney Creek is having me in for a book signing, I don’t have a date yet but I know it’s in January. In March, The Lions Foundation is run by Lions Club, like local Lions Club, they’re all across US and Canada and they’re having their big conference in St Catharines in March and they’ve asked me to come and speak and then sell books after. So that’ll be a big one for me because there are five hundred people there. So that’ll be a big one. And then the Grimsby Library is having me in for a book reading on March 27th because I donated a book to the library here, so that’ll be nice
(music fades in)
AD: That was Stephen Barker, talking about the path from light into darkness, a path of self-discovery and a journey to a different form of light. Stephen says that you never really see until you stop seeing. Don’t miss his book, “Just call me Seemore”, now available on Amazon.
Here, at the Accessible Podcast, we’re trying to bring the world closer to all audiences. If you have a story like Stephen’s, we’d like to hear from you! Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get in touch right away.
I am your host, Andreea Demirgian. Thank you for listening to The Accessible Podcast.
(music fades out)