Essays

What to Cry Over: A Letter to Myself

Curved road, traffic barrier, power lines, and dark naked trees against a foggy sky.

Content note: this piece contains discussion of heteronormativity and references to trauma.


Sometimes people come into your life when you need them and then leave when you don’t.

You might feel like you still need them. Perhaps they created the illusion of need. But you don’t. If they left, it’s because the lesson has been given, and you don’t need them anymore.

I don’t need you, I never did, and my ancestors told me that. Told me as I lay crying on the bathroom floor, heart split open, body suspended over a cold void. NO, they said from deep within, causing me to sit up and listen. You don’t need this one, you never did, and he will not break you. This will not break you.

Cry for yourself, for the part of you that was hurt, for the wounded child. Cry over your broken heart. Cry over the broken promises, the broken trust, the lies, and the duplicity. But don’t cry over the man. The man isn’t worth crying over. The man isn’t worth a second thought. Let him go. Let him recede into the fog.

Cry for your broken-hearted self. Cry for your betrayed child self. Cry for your survivor self. But don’t cry for the man. The man doesn’t care about your tears. The man was never here, not really. The man was never real, not really. The man was a figment of your & his imagination, nothing more than the illusion of presentation. Cry to heal yourself, but don’t shed a tear for someone who wasn’t ever really here, ever really real. The pain is real, but it’s the only thing that’s real. Everything else was an illusion.

Don’t cry for an illusion, cry for the violation. That was the word that came into your mind soon after: violation. When someone lies to you about everything, about who they are, it’s a violation. Cry for the violation. Heal the violation. Don’t cry for the violator.

Heal your broken heart, your frightened child, your survivor. Heal all parts of yourself. Cry over the pain and then transform the pain. Transform it into something else. Growth. Healing. Lessons. Learning. Beauty. Community. Love. Compassion. And then see the pain for what it was: a necessity, a catalyst, something to get you moving, something to get you up and out, something to get you thinking differently, living differently. See the pain as a gift, a gift to get you going, a gift to get you seeking something better, something more, something different.

You are meant to be building community. You are meant to be living in friendship. You are meant to be loving platonically with all your heart. You are meant to be living differently. You are meant to be redefining family. You are meant to be living queerly.

The problem is that you are a queer person who keeps trying to build a heteronormative life, and that just isn’t going to work. You wanted to build a family with a man and a dog, but there were already some men and a dog who are your family right over here. You didn’t have to go out and find that. It was already here.

I want to prioritize and centre platonic love. I want to prioritize and centre community. I want to prioritize and centre romantic love with women and non-binary people. I want to redefine the meaning of family to mean whatever I need it to be. I need to do things differently because I am different, so the heteronormative script isn’t going to work for me. That was the lesson and now I’m here. I’m here where I’m meant to be.

The music is beating and I am typing and I am reading and this place is being. Here and now, now and here. And it’ll all be, it’ll all be, it’ll all be what it’s meant to be. I’ve been given another chance to lift off the shackles of heteronormativity, and I’m going to take it, and I’m not going to look back this time.

Essays

Criticism and Trauma, Responsibility and Worth

[Image: illustration of a brain on a white background that is coloured in brown and has words in yellow, orange, and red that read things like: fear, anger, shame, fight, escape, threat, opposition, conflict, criticism, etc.].

Content note: this piece contains ableist language, discussion of childhood trauma, self-worth, and verbal abuse.


A question that I constantly grapple with is:

How can I be a responsible writer?

I create a lot of work that is raw and personal. I open up. I express myself. I also get nervous about the ways I express myself. I frequently question my self-expression.

How do I express myself openly and honestly while also remaining responsible and aware of how my words can affect other people? How do I strike that balance between realness and consideration for others? How do I remain considerate while simultaneously not overly censoring myself?

I feel sometimes that I lean towards self-censorship too heavily.

Let me explain. I want to be a responsible creator. I want to express myself while also being considerate of other people’s experiences, not causing harm, and not perpetuating ignorance or oppression. I want to speak to the ways in which I experience oppression and privilege, and all other things. I want to explore the complicated tangle of everything. I want to be honest and raw and real without crossing a line into being ignorant or harmful. But the reality is, I’m a flawed human being. I don’t know everything. There are many ways in which I experience privilege. I strive to be aware of all of them, to understand the perspectives of those who don’t experience the same privileges as I, and to check these privileges at the door. To paraphrase sociologist Michael Kimmel, the insidious nature of privilege is that you often aren’t aware that you have it, or of the extent to which you have it. Unless someone points it out or we go out of our way to learn, our privileges can often remain invisible to us. The dynamics of power and oppression are built into the foundations of society and internalized by us in deep, unconscious ways and it takes ongoing effort to root all of that out.

This work is something I am committed to. It is also always ongoing, which means there will always be more to learn and ways in which I am ignorant. I’m learning and people who are learning screw up. People who are learning miss things, make mistakes, stumble, go slow, doubt themselves, have revelations, get confused, feel overwhelmed, forget, but ultimately keep going. People who are learning can be wrong and can cause harm. People who are learning must remain humble, take their egos out of play, and be open to having their perspectives challenged.

I remind myself of this often as I create. I will screw up. I must remain humble. I have to keep learning.

Fucking up is human. It is inevitable. I know this and yet I am absolutely terrified of it.

A lot has come out recently about “call out” or “cancel” culture in leftist communities. I won’t dive into this messy conversation in this piece because I think there’s plenty better suited to the task and I’m actually looking to explore an adjacent issue here. If you’re interested in critiques of callout/cancel culture, Kai Cheng Thom has written some fantastic stuff on this topic that I would recommend.

I have never been “cancelled”. I’ve never had the following for that. I have been called out, often rightly so, and sometimes… questionably so. As someone who has shared their creations online for several years, I have seen people read things into what I’ve made that I did not put there. I have been accused of making arguments I’ve never made and of believing things I’ve never believed. There have been instances where I’ve felt like my work has been examined under a microscope in the worst possible light, like people have scanned it looking for flaws, imperfections, and potentially problematic aspects without taking it in as a whole, without recognizing that I am a whole, that the person whose work they are about to tear to shreds is a human being capable of feeling things. When this happens, it can be scary. This is in part because my work is often very honest and raw and I already feel vulnerable putting it out there. It’s scary to watch someone pick up that vulnerability and use it as a weapon, aiming it back at me. It’s scary because with that vulnerability, I’ve given them the tools to hurt me. This is especially true when the jump is made from “you’ve said something problematic or ignorant here” to “you are a problematic, ignorant, or bad person”. People can look at my work, which reflects who I am as a person, say that something about it is bad and therefore I am bad.

I’ve also watched this happen to creators I admire on a much larger scale, where thousands of people go from critiquing their ideas to calling for them to be de-platformed, cancelled, or disposed of. I’ve seen critiques of creations turn into attacks on the creators themselves. I’ve seen people’s work be willfully misrepresented, taken out of context, and examined in the worst possible ways. This makes me want to hide. It makes me want to get off social media. It makes me want to stop writing.

It makes me want to silence myself.

I believe that we need to hold each other accountable, but I think that needs to come from a place of helping each other to learn, grow, and do better rather than one-upping, attacking, and disposing of each other. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes, people are genuinely dangerous and not open to learning. I also don’t believe that marginalized people are responsible for gently educating the people who oppress them, but that’s where allies need to step in and step up. Anyway, this stuff has all been written about before. Like I said, this is not a piece specifically about call out or cancel culture, though these things do factor into how I feel, there’s stuff going on with me internally that I want to explore.

I’m traumatized and mentally ill. I’m in therapy, and this week, my homework is all about looking at “stuck points”. Stuck points are strong beliefs about self, others, or the world that develop as a result of trauma and are not particularly accurate. Part of the work I need to do to heal is to identify and unlearn my stuck points.

When I was four years old, I was joking around with my friends about their dog and called the dog “stupid”. They responded by yelling at me that he wasn’t stupid and that I shouldn’t have said that. I ran upstairs in a flurry of tears and panic. I found my mother and begged her to punish me. I told her that I had done something bad, that I was a horrible person, and that I deserved to be punished. She calmed me down enough to find out what had actually happened. I told her. She refused to punish me, just said I should apologize to my friends and that I wasn’t a bad person. I was surprised to learn this. In my head, having done something wrong and being a horrible person who deserved punishment were the same thing.

I want to say that I have grown beyond that little kid who ran to their mother claiming to be bad and asking to be punished, but that hurt and scared child still exists within me. One of my stuck points, a major one I’ve carried for most of my life, is that I am a bad person. I know, rationally, that this isn’t true, but there is a less rational part of me that holds this belief as though it’s a core aspect of my identity. Accepting criticism and navigating conflict can be very difficult for me. Hearing that I’ve done something wrong immediately makes me think that I am wrong, I am bad, and I deserve to be hurt, punished, or thrown away.

In therapy, I learned that criticism is so scary for me because of my trauma, because I was exposed to belittling, dehumanizing criticism at a very young age. My therapist said there are two types of criticism: 1) “here’s what’s wrong with this and how it could be improved” and 2) “this is a piece of shit”. As a child, I became intimately acquainted with the “this is a piece of shit” form of criticism, so that’s what I hear every time I’m criticized, that I am a piece of shit, and it’s scary. This is something I need to unlearn.

I have a hard time differentiating between constructive criticism and shit-talking criticism.

All criticism feels scary because it all calls my self-worth into question.

I can get really defensive because my brain thinks that accepting the (often valid) critiques of my behaviour means I must also accept that I am bad, worthless, and deserving of punishment. Sometimes, the people critiquing my work are also saying these things about me, which sucks. Often, however, people are not adding that cruel baggage onto their critiques. It’s me who does that.

I can’t control how other people respond to me. I can’t make people who are being cruel be kind. I can’t do much to change the broader culture around “shit-talking” criticism from my tiny platform, aside from refuse to engage in it and focus on constructive critiques of ideas instead. What I can do, however, is work on unlearning the stuck point that tells me that I am bad. If I do this, a few things will happen. One is that I will be able to stand my ground and stand up for myself in situations where people are hurting me. I will no longer gaslight myself, apologize profusely, and beg for forgiveness or punishment. The other is that I will become much better at accepting valid criticism. If accepting critiques of my behaviour or words does not mean having to accept that I am fundamentally bad, if it no longer leaves me feeling panic-stricken, I will be in a much better place to actually respond to valid criticism.

If I can heal from my traumatic childhood experiences with criticism, I can respond better when I cause harm. If I make the shift from “I am fundamentally bad” to “I am fundamentally good,” then fucking up and getting called out isn’t going to be the end of the world. Cause, right now, with the way I am, I don’t think I would survive being cancelled. And that’s going to become a problem if I keep creating and putting my work out there. I am going to be criticized. I need to be able to identify valid, constructive criticism from shit-talking criticism. I need to be able to protect myself and feel fundamentally secure in my basic goodness when people project their shit onto me. I am going to need to be able to hear, process, and accept valid criticism when I screw up, stumble, or act from a place of ignorance. I need to be the mother to the little kid who runs up the stairs claiming to be worthless and begging to be punished. I need to hold their hand, tell them they are not bad and deserving of punishment. I need to tell them to turn around, go back downstairs, listen to the people they’ve hurt, apologize, and try to do better, all without any self-flagellation, all while being secure in the knowledge that they have inherent worth and nothing will change that.

All of these things will help me to better respond to criticism and hold myself accountable, to be the responsible creator I want to be.

Being a responsible creator is not just about striving to do no harm, but correcting the harm you have caused without spiralling into shame and self-abuse, without making it all about you.

I believe we need to have a two-pronged approach to address these issues. The first is to address the issues with how we treat each other in our communities, the social side of things. The second is to address our own baggage. What is your history with receiving criticism? How do you code and respond to it? What about that might need some work? If we do this internal work, that can also help us to navigate the work that needs to be done in our communities.

Does your trauma affect how you receive criticism? Does it impact how you dish our criticism? Have you ever projected your trauma onto someone else? What did that look like?  I think these are important questions for all of us, and they are questions I will continue to ask myself in my life and on my path to figuring out how to be a responsible creator.

Essays, Poetry

Feeling Stuck

[Image: black text aligned left over a white paper background that reads, "I don't think the answer is out there In the next town over, At the new job, In the new school, Coupled with the new lifestyle Or routine. I think it's right here, Staring me in the face. I think it's always been." Instagram handle in grey in bottom right corner].

Lately, I’ve been feeling stuck. I’ve grown tired of the repetitiveness of my routine. I’ve been asking myself what the point of it all is. Where is this leading? Why am I doing it? What’s the purpose?

When you’re a young person, you’re taught to structure your life around your future rather than your present. You’re meant to perform well in school so that you can apply to do more school. You’re meant to decide on potential careers to pursue. You’re meant to engage in clubs and extracurriculars to bolster your resume. You’re meant to work part-time to save money for future you, who’s gonna be really fucking broke. They don’t tell you most adults change careers several times in their lives. They don’t tell you it’s okay not to go to university, that college and trades are fine too. They don’t tell you the real world often isn’t as stressful as school can be. In your mind, the real world is a terrifying place that will take one taste and then spit you out, which is why you spend the entirety of your youth preparing for it.

When all was said and done, it was actually pretty anticlimactic. You finished your undergrad and declared that you were done with school forever. You wanted to do “something real” with your life and school didn’t feel real. You got a temp job two weeks after you wrote your last exam. Three weeks went by and they extended your contract. A few weeks after that, they hired you on permanently. You got an apartment alone—finally, no roommates—because you were making more than minimum wage for the first time. This would change, of course. Rents continued to rise and wages stagnated, making having your own place difficult to swing.

You stayed at that job for well over a year. A few months in, you started to ask yourself, “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”

You felt dissatisfied, stuck. You were living in your hometown and that didn’t feel quite right. You had left to travel and for school and then returned without intending to stay. You decided to leave again and began making escape plans. You talked to a close friend who lived in a nice little town you had visited several times. You asked them about it. They said it was a great place to live. You needed to leave your town, you didn’t want to go too far, and you weren’t interested in living in a big city again. You decided on a date and handed in notice at your job. It felt good to have plans again, to pin your hopes on the future once more. It felt familiar.

You moved to the new town. You stayed with your friend until you found a job and your own place. You got a part-time job and a side gig. You explored the new town, connected with the communities there, and settled into your new life. Moving was the right call. For awhile, things felt good, better than good, actually. You revelled in contentment.

The clock kept ticking and another year passed by in a blink. They increased your hours at the job so you were no longer reliant on side gigs. You moved two more times within the town, struggling to find decent affordable housing, but eventually landed in a nice (though overpriced) two-bedroom apartment with your partner.

Week in, week out, you go to work. You pay rent. You cook dinner. You take out the garbage. You write in the mornings. You try to get published. You finish another zine. You see your friends. You go to events. You attend weekly meetings. You go for walks. You call your mom.

You feel those questions come creeping back up: “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice life. It’s comfortable and relatively easy. It reeks of familiarity. Not too much has changed since you first arrived here, and yet, your contentment has waned away. You’re beginning to resent the things that once made you happy. You’re looking for meaning in it all and not sure if you can find any. It might actually be too easy. You’ve settled down into a routine and none of it is exciting or challenging. You think back to the plans younger you had: get a Ph.D., become a professor and a published author. You gave those dreams up during your undergrad when the big city you studied in made you feel like you were drowning and the school that was meant to support your development was apathetic about your dissolution. While in school, you felt alienated by the competitiveness, the institutionalization of education, and the pretentiousness of accreditation.

Maybe I don’t need to reach those heights, you thought. Maybe I can have a smaller, quieter life.

So that is what you built for yourself, and here we are: something isn’t quite right.

I resent the way I was set up to always think about the future as a young person because now I can’t stop focusing on the future. I seem incapable of being comfortable with the present. I am constantly looking elsewhere for satisfaction; looking to escape, explore, and go on adventures. I resent routine, repetition, and familiarity. I am happiest when I am learning, having my limits tested (within reason), and being challenged by life. I believe that part of this is just the way I am. I thrive on newness and change. I need to feel like I am growing, and if I am not being challenged by life, then I feel stuck.

I also think that part of this is learned and it isn’t healthy. I have a hard time being in the present and I am constantly searching for happiness elsewhere because it never feels attainable in the moment. I am always pinning my hopes on the next town, the next job, or the next school, as though a little change is all I need to be happy. Though change is an important part of the recipe, I don’t think I should just pursue it for its own sake. Sure, I might be happy for a little while if I get a new job, a new place, or a new routine, but that will eventually wear off and I’ll be back where I started.

I need to pursue a life where I feel challenged and invigorated, to some degree, by my surroundings and by what is expected of me. This is something I have to give some thought and attention to. I will never be happy just getting up and doing the same thing over and over until I die (because let’s face it, millennials don’t get to retire). I need to respect and attend to the part of me that thrives off of change, challenge, growth, and development.

But I also need to heal something within myself that is unable to fully engage with the way things are.

I have to learn to live in and appreciate the present, even as I make plans for the future. I wrote a short poem recently about this:

I don’t think the answer is out there
In the next town over,
At the new job,
In the new school,
Coupled with the new lifestyle
Or routine.
I think it’s right here,
Staring me in the face.
I think it’s always been.

I’m not going to find satisfaction by constantly running around like a chicken with its head cut off, running towards this or away from that. I need to figure out how to be in my life as I build my life. I need to hold space for the discontentment as I learn to live with the discontentment. I need to think about and plan for the future, but I can’t keep only ever living for the future, because eventually, I will run out of future.

I think I am going to try two things then: explore my options for the future and start meditating again. I have a love-hate relationship with meditation, but I need a practice that will help pull me into the present and that seems to work for some people. I’ll give it another go and see if it works out. I was reminded about meditation as something potentially useful while reading Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices edited by Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston. So many of its contributors cite meditation as a practice that, albeit difficult, enabled them to get in touch with themselves on a deeper level. There is something important about being still and I am missing stillness. I race from one thing to the next with little mindfulness and it’s having a negative effect on my overall life. So, fine, I’ll try it again. Thanks, I hate it, but I need to find a way to strike a balance between coming home to the present and respecting my need to plan for the future.

 


Note: I’m referring to myself with the use of “you” in this piece, not trying to generalize or dictate your experiences, which I recognize may be quite different from my own.

Essays, Poetry

What My Grandmother Taught Me

Two abstract paintings with black borders hanging on a yellow wall with an info card between them. The left one has black, grey, purple, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas. The right one has black, purple, pink, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas.
Paintings by H. Jou Lee.

Content note: this piece contains discussion of death, grief, and hospitals.


I don’t really know what to write. My usual way with words has gotten away from me. I’ve been left with a chaotic swirl of thoughts, images, and feelings that are difficult to articulate.

Thinking about death. Thinking about grief. Thinking about meaning, about birth, about loss, about change.

Your life can change in a moment, with one voicemail, text message, or email. One moment.


I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. My mother was the primary person in charge of my education. For a few years, she would drop me off at her parent’s house once a week to learn from them. My Poppa taught me math. My Nan taught me french and poetry. She had me memorize and recite The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear to her, which I initially hated because it was hard, but eventually managed because she wouldn’t let me give up on it. She had it memorized herself and would correct me mid-recitation if needed. We went again, again, and again until I got it.


Everything changed with a voicemail. When I first heard the recording over the phone, I assumed it was for something else. I had last spoken to the caller a few years ago about arranging a surprise party for my Nan.

I heard her voice. She said her name. Confused, I thought, “Why is she calling about the party? The party already happened”. I was almost irritated. Who calls about a party that’s already happened?

Then she explained her reason for calling and it clicked. Ah, it’s one of these phone calls.

My partner was sitting in the room with me. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Heart racing, I told him what I had just heard. I called the person back. No answer. She hadn’t been able to reach my mom, she’d said. I called my mom. No answer. I left my own voicemail.

While I’d been trying to call my mom, the person had called me back. I called her. She picked up.

She was with her, there. She explained what was happening, what they had found, and where the paramedics were going. She mistook me for my mother. I explained who I was and said I would keep trying to call my mother. She said she would keep us updated. We said goodbye.

I tried calling my mom again. No answer.

Wait, had anyone told my brother?

I called him and he picked up on the first ring. Later, he told me he’d been looking at his phone while walking home from work, just about to change the song he was listening to, when he’d received one of those kinds of phone calls from me.

I told him. A few minutes later, he walked into the house and told my mom. A few minutes after that, she responded to my messages.

Now they knew.


As I got older, lessons with my Nan became less formal but just as formative. We moved away from memorization and practice and towards discussion. After the day’s chores were done, we would sit together in the evening with tea and snacks and talk for hours. I would tell her all about my life, my plans, and my questions. She would listen openly and curiously. She would ask me to elaborate sometimes and share stories from her own life. She didn’t pretend to have all of the answers or try to make me see things in any particular way. She would just share what she knew and had experienced. She would also tell me stories from the books she read or movies she watched in great detail. She was a wonderful storyteller, and often, just listening to her take on a story was more interesting than the books or movies themselves.


I had to get there. I haphazardly packed a bag, forgetting socks and underwear. I arranged a ride with a friend. The conversation on the way down was surprisingly normal. When we neared the hospital, I realized what was about to happen, what I was going to walk into. I felt scared.

We got there and it all happened very fast.

I was in the bathroom shortly after, looking at myself in the mirror, drying my eyes and blowing my nose. I was still scared. I didn’t know if I could handle this. I was buzzed back into emerg and told they were moving here into a private room in the stroke wing.

The damage was too severe. They couldn’t operate. This was the end.

She squeezed my hand when I first arrived but never woke up. There was a substantial bleed in her left hemisphere from the blood thinners she was on.

Two days went by. I won’t go into detail about them. They were awful, beautiful, powerful, painful, bizarre, long, exhausting. They are private. At some point during those two days, I stopped being scared.

Then she was gone. Just like that. Gone but not really gone. Gone but still here, gone but everywhere. She left that room in the hospital and went everywhere.


My Nan told her grandchildren she was a witch. She would cast spells sometimes to be dealt a better hand of cards or win a draw prize. She told me one of our ancestors had been a witch, a powerful healer who shared my name. I asked her about this when I got older and she maintained that it was true. That magic is real, everywhere, and accessible to all of us was one of her lessons.


Look for me
when my spirit leaves this earth
look for me above,
I wish to join the eagle’s flight
and soar with them at dawn’s
first light.
Think of me each time you see
a pair of wings,
close your eyes & in your mind
see hummingbirds + dragon flies,
the gorgeous wings of butterflies,
when they alight then look for me,
a flash of light in a twilight sky
just know I’ll be close by.

– Wendy Pantony

I went for a walk on a trail the day after I got back home. I looked for her in the birds that flew above me. I looked for her in the light and the clouds. I felt her presence everywhere.

I still do.

Your life can change in a moment, with a voicemail. One minute, you’re going through your Saturday routine, and the next, everything is different.

At some point during those two days, I wrote a poem about grief sitting next to her. My brain was fried and scrambled, so it wasn’t very good, but in essence, I was trying to describe grief as being like a ball of energy. When it first forms, the ball is huge and takes up every part of you, beginning in your core and seeping into every limb, into the tips of your fingers and toes. Gradually, it shrinks down to a more manageable size, until eventually it can be tucked away and stored. Once acquired, that ball of grief will always be with you. Even if you manage to tuck it neatly away, it’s still there. It will always be there.

My Nan will always be everywhere now, and nowhere. She has gone to that expansive place where individuality, separation, definition, and lineality are not factors. She exists differently now. She is here and not here. We miss her and she is with us. She has moved on, gone elsewhere, but the love she gave us is still here, within us alongside the grief.

I wish I could write about this more articulately, beautifully. I wish I could find all of the right words. I wish I could express the depth of everything I’m feeling, but this is where I am and what I have. Maybe better words will come with time. Maybe words themselves are too limited to capture death, loss, or grief. Maybe all of these things are too big for words.


I think my Nan is at least partially responsible for my being a poet, which I’d never thought about before now. It didn’t come from nowhere. She introduced me to poetry at a young age. She was a closeted poet herself, a private one. She wrote a collection of poetry throughout the course of her life that she never published, but she let me read some when I was a child. When I started writing poetry, she was always keen to read it. She encouraged me to get my work out there and was proud when I would occasionally get published. A few years ago, she asked me why I hadn’t published a book yet. “I thought you would be like J.K. Rowling by now,” she said. At the time, it irritated me to hear this because it felt like a lot of pressure. She had high expectations. J.K. Rowling wasn’t even J.K. Rowling at twenty-four, but maybe it wasn’t high expectations so much as highly complimentary. She just assumed I would become a famous writer and was wondering when, exactly, that was going to happen.


I cry a little bit every day. I write a little bit every day. I go back to work. I act normal. Sometimes, I feel normal. Usually, I feel surreal. I’m exhausted, in body and brain. I keep crashing with fatigue. I keep thinking I’m getting sick, but I’m just tired. It hits me in waves and the waves contain all kinds of things. I keep thinking about how I’ll never talk to her again: never share anything with her, never ask for her advice, and never hear her stories. Occasionally, I’m hit with feelings of elation and surges of energy. Is that her? I wonder. Is that her telling me she’s happy now?

I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I’m realizing I don’t really know anything.

Nothing matters and everything matters. We’re all going to the place she’s in now. I hope it’s a good place. I hope she’s happy there. I think, if she is, she’s trying to tell me that.

Before all of this, death had affected me, but I had never seen it, never touched it, never gotten that close. At first, I was scared. Terrified. I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much. And then, at some point, I just got comfortable there. I had to. It doesn’t scare me the way it did before. I was able to see the beauty in it. I was able to see it as natural, normal, just another part of life—the counterbalance.

She gave me so much all my life; so much love, so many lessons, so many adventures and questions. The last thing she ever gave to me was a close proximity to death. This was the last lesson she ever taught me.

Death is natural, normal. It is coming for me, for you, for all of us. Do not be afraid. Do not avoid it. Do not run away. Come into the room, sit down, get comfortable. Be with death. Hold space for death. Respect its power, its inevitability.

I watched my grandmother die and I learned about death. I also learned about life. She was fearless, dedicated, grounded, open, loving, generous, and always curious. She and my grandfather built a beautiful and enriching life for themselves and their family from very modest beginnings. I believe love was her guiding pillar, she pursued what she loved and centred the people she loved in her life. I can’t count all of the lessons she gave me. I am grateful she was in my life and I was in hers. I am grateful to have been with her at the end, to have held her hand during that final lesson. It was a hard one to learn, but it will be with me until my end, until the cycle repeats itself again.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

– Edward Lear

Essays

Hello, Imposter Syndrome, Old Buddy, Old Pal

Picture of a tarnished silver frame on a wooden surface with the same image copied inside the frame, creating an image within an image.
Photo by PictureThis.

Content note: this piece contains casual mentions of apocalypse, death, and a lack of overall meaning.


I did a reading the other night. I was sandwiched between authors who spun stories and poetry full of metaphor, who spoke words layered with meaning, who filled the room with depth and imagery. I got up and read my plain language piece: here is something that happened to me and how I felt about it. I sat back down.

Self-consciousness arose with the question: am I even a writer?

Hello, imposter syndrome, old buddy, old pal. How have you been?

The webs I weave with my words aren’t complex or layered. I am direct. I say what I mean. I’ve always struggled to get into writing that has more substance than that. I don’t read between the lines and so I don’t write between the lines either. It’s not that I think my way is better or worse, it’s just what comes naturally.

Some people tell me that they like that. They say it’s easy to digest, accessible. Simple, direct language that allows them to dive into the content of what is being said. My writing does the job of delivery quickly.

It’s also not for everyone. I know there are some who see my work as novice, childish, indulgent, or one-dimensional. Maybe they’re right. That’s okay with me, actually. I’m writing to express, not writing to please.

Occasionally, something I’m working on develops depth without my conscious intent and I think, “Oh, look, I’ve done it! There are multiple ways to read this. It has L a Y e R s”. It’s exciting when that happens, but I can’t force it. Forcing makes it come out sounding hollow and pretentious. I may create something “wrapped in meaning,” but there’s no meat in the center, the center remains empty. It’s better, I believe, to write the meat first and see if any layers follow. Sometimes they don’t and that’s okay too.

Whenever imposter syndrome rears its head, I try to answer with, “So what?”

“Am I even a writer?”

“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not, but so what?”

“Am I a bad writer?”

“Maybe, but so what?”

“Is my writing overly simplistic, straightforward, and lacking in depth?”

“Maybe it is, but again, so fucking what?”

As far as I know, I have just this one life. I don’t know what will happen after I die and I also don’t know whether everything I create will be destroyed in an apocalypse in the near future. In the grand scheme of the universe, everything is temporary and nothing really matters. I know I am alive now and I like to write, so I write. It feels good. It’s therapeutic. It helps me to express what I otherwise find difficulty expressing. It helps me to articulate my own existence. It helps me to connect with others. So what if it isn’t worthy of awards, honorariums, or acclaimed publication? So fucking what? That’s not the point.

Anyone writing for the sole purpose of accruing money or fame is in the wrong line of work. Chances are good that writing won’t pay your bills, and people are more likely to make fun of you than hand you accolades. Trying to write the next great novel? Try writing a novel first. It’s hard.

Writing makes you vulnerable. You don’t necessarily need to be writing the way that I do, either, where I intentionally lay myself bare to the world. Creating is a vulnerable process, one that involves speaking to experiences and feelings we often keep hidden from the wider world. It can result in rejection, misunderstanding, or a lack of recognition (i.e. enthusiastically putting your creations out into a world full of people who couldn’t care less about it). It can also result in connection and that can be really powerful. One of the best pieces of feedback you can receive as a writer, I have found, is “I’ve felt that way too”. I measure the “success” of my work in relation to that sense of connection more than anything else.

For me, writing is a process of learning how to articulate my lower-case “t” truths. Who am I today? What am I experiencing? What do I think? What do I feel? How am I navigating this broken, bizarre, beautiful world? How am I like you? How am I unlike you?

My truths tend to come out in plain, straightforward, just-read-the-actual-lines-themselves-not-between-them language. This is not the case for everyone and that’s also fine. There are many powerful writers out there who find ways of expressing their truths through layers of symbolism, double meanings, vivid imagery, and otherwise evocative language. What they create is beautiful.

What I create is also beautiful.

Our capitalistic society will have us believe we are all in competition with each other. Whose writing is bad, whose is better? Who deserves this or that prize? Who is otherwise unworthy? Who should be ashamed of daring to express themselves without having a degree, perfect grammar, or an extensive knowledge of the literary canon of old/dead white men.

It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes. Effective communication is a skill. Weaving words and making meanings are skills. But we should interrogate how we measure these skills because, often, our methods of measurement are rooted in colonial white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, and other forms of power imbalance and oppression.

It can be argued that writing is a skill, yes, but you do not have to be skilled at writing in order to be a writer. In fact, you will never become skilled if you never practice, if you never write. You must give yourself permission to be an unskilled writer, to be bad, and to be embarrassed. You must give yourself permission to go through the awkward and uncomfortable process of getting better. You must remember not to take it all so seriously. We will all die, existence might be a dream, and the world may be ending sometime soon. Allow yourself to write if you are so inclined and allow yourself to write badly. You will always be able to find other people in the room who are more skilled than you. You will likely always be faced with imposter syndrome.

Sure, okay, you’re an imposter. I’m an imposter. We’re all imposters pretending not to be imposters.

Really, we’re all creators. Capitalism tells us to compete, but we don’t have to listen. Other writers are not your competition, they are your friends, your inspiration, your support, and your community.

I can get up in a room to read my work sandwiched between authors who spin stories and poetry full of metaphor, who speak words layered with meaning, who fill that room with depth and imagery. I can get up and read my plain language piece to my community of writers without shame. Whether I am worse or better does not matter. What matters is that we write and share that writing, that we support and encourage each other wherever we are in our learning.

Maybe you don’t like my writing, don’t think it’s any good. Maybe you’re outraged that some novice, unknown writer is breaking an unspoken rule by writing about writing. Maybe I am an unskilled writer. Maybe I am an imposter.

So what? That isn’t going to stop me.

Essays

Where We Have Gone, Where We Are Going

Coniferous trees with mist around them. Dry pine needles and patches of snow on the ground.

“I am a semi-autobiographical speculative poet—a monstrous kind of hybrid—and the joy is being all of those at once, regardless of the social acceptability of multiplicity.”

I published the essay Where Do We Go Now on January 15, 2019. I wrote it over the holidays while staying with my family, which might be why it includes references to my parents and young writer self. I was in a place to reflect back on everything that had come before while figuring out how to move into the future.

I like this essay, mostly. I think it says some important things. I wrote it in a passionate, charged haze. It was partially a response to a book I’d just read on creativity, as well as feeling stuck and uninspired writing short sci-fi and horror stories, which I’d done for the previous year-and-a-half. I was feeling bound in by those forms, not allowing myself to write what I wanted but focusing my energy on what I dubbed “real” writing, i.e. whatever I thought would be publishable and digestible. I figured poetry and personal essays, what I’ve always written, didn’t count. I’d bought into the “real writers write this, not that” bullshit.

Luckily, the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert got me out of this funk. Say what you will about Gilbert (I’m generally not a fan of hers), but reading that book was what I needed to get over myself. It helped me see that the lines I had drawn between “fake” and “real” writing were silly and unnecessary, blocks that were getting in the way of my drive to create.

I like this essay, mostly, though it does read as a little pretentious to me now. My writing over the past year has gotten more casual, more chilled out. I think that’s for the better. I think that piece was also strongly influenced by all of the science fiction I’d been writing. It has a vague kind of surrealism to it, especially with the use of the “we” pronoun. I suppose it was a transitional piece from speculative fiction to personal essay.

“We have learned that we must make space for the joy, and making space for the joy means allowing ourselves to make things that may not make sense to anyone else.”

When I wrote Where Do We Go Now at the beginning of this year, I had no idea about zines and the journey I would go on with them. I was just on the cusp of finding out. I think I had some vague sense that I just needed to follow my instincts and my next big project would emerge, and that’s exactly what happened.

I stumbled across Clementine Morrigan’s work again. I had read some of their stuff years ago and then lost track of them. I think Instagram recommended a post of hers, which prompted me to look them up again. I ended up on her website browsing through their zines. I purchased a few e-zines. One was about writing. I enthusiastically absorbed them late one winter night. I could write a zine, I thought. In February, I set to work on my first zine, One Year on T, a compilation of essays and poems about transitioning as a non-binary person. I published it in April.

Two zine fairs, three zines, over a dozen blog posts, more than a hundred poems, and pages upon pages of unedited freewriting later, we’re here in November. I have a clearer sense of where I’m going than I did in January, though nothing is concrete. I am still experimenting, exploring, searching, and questioning. I’m happy to have switched gears into writing whatever I want. I’m happy I chose to believe that what I love to write counts as “real” writing. I’m so, so happy I started writing zines. In Where Do We Go Now, I wrote about doing a poor job of managing my “archive” of previous work, of there being so many disparate, disorganized pieces and projects behind me. I apologized to whoever might eventually stumble over them. Well, that person ended up being me from the immediate future. For my first zine, I pulled together pieces I’d written about gender over a period of four years. For my second, I reviewed old journal entries I’d written at the ages of 17 and 22. For my third, to be published soon, I combed through everything I’d written in the period between finishing my first zine and now. Zine writing has made me the curator of my own work, work that would otherwise go stale and turn to dust in the dark. As a medium, zines have helped me to pull together, disentangle, and make sense of my otherwise disorderly of writing.

“We have learned that conventional packaging, like conventional styles, may not be for us and that is okay as well. Creating a book from cover to cover may not be for us… It is a waste of energy to beat ourselves over the head with the concept of the book we feel we are supposed to be writing. If a book comes, it comes. If it does not come, it does not come. We will keep writing anyway.”

I’ve often struggled with the idea that “real” writers write books, and because I have never been able to finish writing a book I must not be a real writer. Listen, I know this is bullshit, but it’s bullshit that I’ve internalized, and so I’ve felt like a failure for not being able to do this. A book did not materialize out of this year, no, but a path towards one did. I don’t think I could ever write a book in the conventional way, from cover to cover, but I can write zines, and what is a zine but a small book? I could see myself writing a book the way that I learned to write zines this year, by curating my messy archive, by combing through and threading together my work.

“So long as we keep going, keep creating, I believe the path will become clearer with each step.”

So far this has held true, and so I will continue to trust that moving forward will clear away the fog on my path. This year is coming to a close and I will move into the next one with everything I have learned and created. I will move into the next one with poetry and essays and zines, with ideas and curiosity, and without oppressive rules. The future is still uncertain, the future is always uncertain, but I’m continuing to gather more tools to move into it with. I am committed to the practice of writing however that practice may change.

Like at the beginning of a traditional book (one I’ll never write), I would like to go into the next year by acknowledging who helped me get here. I would like to thank my mom for giving me Big Magic to read, which reignited a spark in me and convinced me to commit to writing every day. I would like to thank Clementine Morrigan for all of the work that they do, which is powerful, insightful, expansive, unapologetic, and endlessly inspiring. Thank you for introducing me to zines. I would like to thank my best friend for providing me with such thorough and useful feedback on my zines, assuring me that I could confidently put them out into the world. I would like to thank my partner for teaching me how to bind zines and spending a long day tabling with me at a fair without complaint. I would like to thank my mom again, and my nan, for always reading and commenting on my work even when no one else does. I would like to thank a friend I hosted a radio show with for doing a show on writing with me as well as giving me their copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which deepened my writing practice. I would like to thank one of my friends for encouraging me to table at Queer Between the Covers, which was so worthwhile. I would like to thank Broken Pencil for nominating One Year on T for the 2019 Zine Awards and inviting me to table at Canzine. I would also like to thank everyone who has ever read or engaged with my work. As a mostly unknown writer, your comments and feedback mean a lot to me. It could be easy to feel like I’m putting stuff out to empty airwaves, but a number of supportive and encouraging people consistently remind me that’s not the case. As creators, we are not solely responsible for our work. We do not exist in isolation. We are propped up, inspired, assisted, driven, pushed, and supported by our communities. I owe so much to the communities of friends and creators I am a part of. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Here I am, at the close of another year and about to enter a new one. I cannot know what it will bring, exactly, but I suspect it will not be more of the same. It’s almost never more of the same, things change too much for that. The path is a little clearer now. I can see a few steps ahead. My footing is a little surer. I’ve had another year to learn to expect ground under my feet. I know I’m going to keep creating because, just like change, creativity is one of the only constants in my life. I intend to keep writing poetry, essays, and zines, but I am also open to other possibilities. I’m sure that other possibilities will enter my orbit in 2020, just as they did this year. So, here we go: moving because we cannot stop moving, choosing how to move rather than what to move towards, and feeling good about this direction.

Essays, Poetry

Anxiety > Insomnia > Anxiety: Capitalism?

Photo of Sage lying down in a bed with a disgruntled/sad expression on their face.

Content note: this piece contains discussion of anxiety, insomnia, and mental health.


Hi, I’m Sage, and sometimes I forget how to sleep.

Maybe this makes me sound quirky, but I can assure you that it’s mostly just terrible.

I have anxiety-induced insomnia and sleep-deprivation-induced anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not always sure what triggers my bouts of sleeplessness, but I know as soon as they’ve been activated.

For awhile, all is well. Then one night, right after I lay my head down, I’m hit with the first pang of anxiety. It begins just below the centre of my chest and rolls into my stomach, and it tells me I will be wide awake for many hours to come. Usually, this will last for three or four nights in a row and then resolve on its own. Sometimes, however, it can go on for weeks or even months. Life transitions, burn out, arguments, overcommitments, and a variety of other stressors can all be triggers. Sometimes, it feels like life itself is a trigger.

I’ve tried many things over the years in an attempt to either solve or cope with this issue and have come to the conclusion that if I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. That sucks but it seems to be the way it is.

On August 19th, after returning from a long trip and needing to wake up extra early for work the next morning, I wrote:

I have to change my relationship to sleep in order to get over my insomnia. I have to switch from “should” to “want,” like with food, where it is healthier to have a “want” relationship than a “should” relationship. Instead of, “I have to sleep now because I should in order to be functional tomorrow,” I need to go, “I am tired, I am done with the day, and I want to go to sleep”. The “should” is what keeps sleep from happening by making me anxious. I have to do the difficult work of changing the way I think about sleep.

The next morning, I wrote:

The trick is to lean into the anxiety. The issue is with trying to make it go away, make it stop so that I can sleep, but that does not work. I need to feel the anxiety in my body, the way it rolls in my belly and tingles my feet. I need to take deep breaths, not try to erase the anxiety but breathe into and around it. I need to lay there and embrace it. Eventually, I can get to sleep this way. Eventually.

It’s tricky because I can use these strategies to help myself fall asleep, but then I will often wake up about ten minutes later with a renewed surge of adrenaline. Anxiety really gets the best of me when I’m not awake enough to properly deal with it. Reasoning gets harder and fear takes over. It’s best, when this happens, to turn on the light and read, write, drink water—anything but continue to lie in the dark with the fear.

I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with bouts of sleeplessness before, but they can seriously interfere with your quality of life. I’m far more irritable and less able to focus on whatever tasks I have to perform. I try to compensate for my lack of energy by drinking more coffee than normal, which makes me feel even more anxious. I often end up cancelling plans, getting sick, and feeling totally disconnected from my body. Most of the coping mechanisms I have for managing my mental health go out the window. Small things that would normally have little impact on my mental state send me over the edge into full-blown panic attacks.

To summarize, when I stop sleeping, EVERYTHING IS BAD.

Pot helps sometimes. Herbal remedies help sometimes. Deep breathing helps sometimes. Leaning into the anxiety helps sometimes. Reading a book helps sometimes. Sleeping with my partner helps sometimes. Writing helps sometimes. All of these things help sometimes, but I haven’t found anything that helps all of the time, that is guaranteed to help me get to sleep. Even with my awareness and coping skills, I still experience anxiety-fueled nights with little-to-no sleep on a regular basis.

I will likely never be “cured” of this issue. Insomnia runs in my family on both sides. I’ve had sleep issues my whole life. My mother says my brother was the picky eater while I was the troubled sleeper. I remember, night after night when she would tuck me in, I would ask her, “What if I can’t sleep?”

She would reply, “Then you’ll just be tired. It’s not like you have to perform brain surgery tomorrow”.

I still use this to calm down sometimes. Thank god I didn’t become a surgeon.

Until my brother was born and his crying kept me awake, I insisted on sleeping in my mom’s room because sleeping on my own scared me. A nightlight wasn’t the solution because it wasn’t the dark that bothered me, it was the fear of being alone with my nighttime anxiety.

I believe this issue is in my genetic makeup. It has also been with me for my whole life and I don’t expect it to ever go away, so what do I do? Is there anything I can do beyond what I’ve already tried? I don’t think so. I feel like I’ve tried everything. And yes, before someone suggests it, I have tried meditation and mindfulness exercises. Those things are about as effective as everything else I’ve listed.

I’m anxious. I’m an insomniac. These things are a part of me, a part of my package. I seem to have been born with them. I doubt they’ll change or go away. Sometimes, they’re relatively mild and easy to live with. Sometimes, they flare up and significantly impact my ability to function. It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting! But also, it is what it is. I don’t know if it’s worth my sometimes very limited energy to fight something that may, very well, just be an integral part of my existence.

I read once that there’s an evolutionary advantage to some folks being light sleepers because if there’s trouble at night, the light sleepers are more likely to wake up and alert everyone. Perhaps this is true of insomniacs as well. We keep odd hours and are often hypervigilant in the middle of the night, aware of whatever may be lurking in the dark while many are blissfully asleep. Perhaps my insomnia isn’t purely negative and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Yes, it makes functioning in the nine-to-five world difficult, but I solve a lot of problems at night, I process things, I remember important things I’d forgotten during the day, I read, and I write. When I’m not totally consumed by anxiety, which often results from me resisting the insomnia, it can actually be a thoughtful and productive time. I’m able to look at things from a different perspective than I do during the day. I wrote a poem once that captures this:

wide awake at 4 am
getting my tasks done
my boxes checked
my ducks in line
what would i do
if it wasn’t for
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
reminding me
of messages to send
of supplies to bring
of work to plan

what would i do
if i didn’t
wake up & worry
so early
in the morning
forget probably
slip up probably
be stressed probably
it’s 4:20 now
i’m writing this & thanking
4 am anxiety
4 am memory
the 4 am that’s saving me

There’s research that shows that humans are not necessarily meant to sleep solidly through the night but in two stages, which would explain why so many of us deal with insomnia. It may actually be hardwired into us to be alert for a few hours when we think we should be sleeping. Unfortunately, we’ve created a society that doesn’t accommodate that. I’ve thought about how much easier my life would be if I had time to take a nap during my lunch break or sometime in the afternoon, if I could split my sleep and my workday in two. What makes me anxious is knowing that I have to get up early in the morning and then muster the energy, regardless of how little sleep I get, to go go go all day without any breaks, rest, or downtime.

Wait a second here, might the problem actually be… capitalism?

Might it be how we’ve structured the workweek to maximize our labour rather than fit comfortably with the rhythms of our bodies and minds? Hm, there’s a thought. I know during times in my life where I’ve had more flexibility with my schedule, where I could choose when to sleep and when to work, insomnia hasn’t been an issue in the same way.

Okay, so now I’m thinking that rather than mindfulness exercises, to deal with my insomnia, I should be using my sleepless nights to work on overthrowing capitalism. This would also give me something to focus on rather than my anxiety about not sleeping. Alright, there’s one thing I haven’t tried. I’ll give it a shot.

Essays

Gender Expression, Revisited

Torso clad in a blue shirt with a pink arrow pattern, pink front pocket, necklace, and black shorts.

Content note: this piece contains discussion of misogyny and transphobia.


I attended a queer zine fair in Tio’tia:ke/Montreal last weekend. There were so many people in attendance expressing gender in defiance of the binary, with beards and glitter and leg hair and lingerie and jewelry and shaved heads and colourful outfits. It was really affirming. Seeing so many gender variant people made me want to vary my gender expression more. I’ve been getting boxed in by the binary again, this time on the other side. I recently started “passing” as male and so have been leaning into that more, but I realized that I don’t want to move through the world looking like a straight, cis man. I’m uncomfortable with that. Sure, the targets that come with being read as female, as queer, as trans, and as gender non-conforming may be gone, but walking around looking like an average straight white guy isn’t for me—that isn’t who I am and it’s not how I want to take up space in the world.

My friend, after reading my first zine, suggested that my gender may be like a bent spoon. I have wanted to be read as male because I’ve been unbending the spoon. In order to “straighten” (no pun intended) the spoon out, I’ve needed to bend it in the other direction. I’ve needed to be misgendered as a man in order to compensate for being misgendered as a woman for so long, but even now “he” pronouns are starting to feel uncomfortable. They don’t upset me the way “she” pronouns do, but they also don’t fit perfectly. “They” fits best. It always has, ever since I first learned it was a viable option.

Seeing the rich array of gender nonconformity at the zine fair made me ask what my ideal expression of gender looks like. The answer is complicated. There is a part of me that loves presenting masculinely and being read as male, but even then I still like things that are colourful and cute, outside of what’s typically deemed masculine. I like blue-and-pink t-shirts, flower patterns, and quartz-stone necklaces. I like adding a touch of non-normative masculinity to what I wear, even when I want to be read as male.

Torso clad in a short black lace dress that goes in at the waist.

I also like dresses. I bought a black lace dress from Value Village the other week and it’s absolutely adorable. I haven’t worn it out anywhere, though. I feel nervous. The people who know and are used to the more masc version of me might not “get” it. I’m worried that some may assume my wearing a dress means I’m “not really trans” or that I’ve “de-transitioned”. I’m worried that people will use it as another reason to intentionally misgender me. It’s tough. I feel like I’ve given up the ability to wear dresses, which wasn’t the point of my transition at all—I wanted more options for expression, not less. It’s easier if I wear a dress as a “costume,” like at a themed party or drag event. That feels easier to justify, not that I should have to justify it, but somehow, I feel like I do.

I worked at a summer camp after I’d just come out in 2015 where I presented almost exclusively masculinely. Near the end of the season, I threw on a dress because I wanted to and missed wearing dresses. The people I’d worked with all summer were mostly polite about it, but it did draw a lot of attention. There were many smiles, surprised expressions, and compliments. One individual, however, became distressed and confronted me, saying, “I’m sorry, I want to be supportive, but I’m really confused right now because you’re dressed as only one gender”. I can’t remember what I said in response, only how I felt: disappointed and frustrated. The implication of their words was that clothing is inherently gendered, and also, that my wearing men’s clothing was me somehow “wearing two genders,” the one I was assigned at birth being one of them. I’m not cross-dressing when I’m wearing men’s clothing. Neither am I presenting as a “single” gender when I’m in a dress. I’m just me, Sage, not more or less of one or another gender. Dresses are dresses, pieces of fabric cut in a specific way. You don’t have to be a woman to wear them. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that, that it shouldn’t be a radical statement these days, but I do and it is.

Torso clad in a pink shirt with colourful dinosaur graphics on it and black shorts.

I want to wear my black dress but I don’t want to deal with people’s reactions. Even if they’re not negative, I don’t want the attention: the surprise, the stares, the compliments, the questions, the opinions. Masculinity has afforded me the privilege of invisibility and I’ve grown attached to that. I remember what it was like to leave the house with long red hair and a summer dress. I remember I couldn’t do it without at least one catcall, stare, threat, or physical invasion of my space. That was before I grew facial hair and lowered my voice through testosterone. I know the added element of my genderqueerness will only make it worse.

In my ideal world, the world I hope we are slowly working towards, I could leave the house in a dress and not be met with shock, accusations of de-transitioning or being a “fake” trans person, invasive questions, misgendering, confusion, anger, or catcalls. I could leave the house in a dress and be met with not much more than a smile or, “Hey, nice dress”. In my ideal world, I could leave the house in a dress with a beard and not be met with violence. In my ideal world, I could play around with masculinity and femininity in whatever way pleases me and still be called “they”. I could be read as male, female, or ambiguously and be “they” regardless.

One day, one day.

Essays

The Cat is Here

Ginger tabby curled up on a rock outside, sleeping.
Photo by lisaleo

Content note: this piece contains mentions of death, social and environmental crises, and apocalypse.


The cat is here.

The cat next door came for a visit and is over here now. The cat without the hat. I’m always nervous that the cat will fall when she comes over. Now she is looking down at the world through the balcony’s bars to the left of me. Now she is sticking her head between the bars. Now she is walking to the other side of the balcony. Now she is looking through the screen door into my apartment. Now she is sniffing stuff. Now she is looking at where she came from like she plans to go back. Now she goes back. She sits back, looks up, pounces, and lands perfectly on the eight-inch platform, and then her body disappears behind the barrier.

You can have all the worries in the world and then there’s just a cat that will come over and investigate your space. Everything can be so chaotic. Everything can feel so broken. Your adrenal system can be completely shot and your mind can be a dark cloud of fear. And then it can get quiet again, even though the problems and chaos are still all around you. It can get quiet for a few minutes, quiet enough for a cat to slip over and curiously sniff around.

Every single moment has the potential to be quiet enough for a cat.

In every moment, you can focus on the chaotic swirl in your head or the cat curiously sniffing around, pausing to take in all the details of the balcony you’ve never given much thought to. The cat is unaware, it would seem, of the housing crisis, the opioid crisis, the government crisis, the climate crisis… She is just here to check things out, get the lay of the land, and then leap back over to her own balcony⁠—seemingly unafraid of whether she will make the landing on an eight-inch platform nine stories in the air.

Perhaps this is why we love cats so much⁠: they’re nothing like us.

They show us what we aspire to be with our writing, our mindfulness practice, or our meditation workshops. They do it effortlessly. They are simultaneously detached from and deeply involved with the world. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Cats are enlightened but they don’t really give a fuck.

The cat left fifteen minutes ago and here I am, still writing about her. She isn’t writing or thinking about me. She isn’t here, she’s over there, in a new moment, exploring different surroundings. She came, caught my attention, and then left me to dwell on her without looking back⁠—a little Buddha, a god, a teacher. They’re all around us in every moment, these Buddhas, these gods, these teachers. Whether or not we tune into them is up to us. I could have ignored the cat and kept on writing like she wasn’t here. I could also choose to ignore the sounds of cars driving by, the playfulness of the rain-filled air, the clink of dishes being moved around in my neighbour’s apartment, the light on the leaves of the trees, the white hairs on my knee, the damp plant smell, the machine-beast noise of a transport truck revving up the street, the itch on my neck, the quiet birdsong underneath everything, the beeping of a vehicle backing up, the dishes again, the quiet shuffle of leaves on a not-so-windy day, the utterly shocking silence of hundreds of humans piled on top of each other at this intersection of space, the sound of my neighbours opening their screen door, someone on the sidewalk saying good morning, or the squeaky wheels of a car that hits a bump and slams. I could choose to ignore all of this or I could choose to engage with it.

“Peaceful, isn’t it?” I heard my neighbour say to his wife when I first came out onto the balcony to write. Isn’t it? This is peace. All of this noise and bustling and activity.

Yes, this is peace, peace in the heart of a city.

An airplane flies overhead and a bird does too. The plane goes straight while the bird flies in circles. Have the birds ever laughed at how we copied them? Have the birds ever laughed?

A motorcycle chugs by and is gone. Most of these sounds last for just a few seconds. Can you feel it? No one is yelling at anyone, that I can hear, and some people may still be sleeping. There is so much going on and there are so many of us and no one is fighting right now. This is peace.

We’re nearing the apocalypse and the cats couldn’t care less.

Why should they? What can they do? Sniff around, hunt for mice, or perhaps jump nine stories in the air. What else?

You have to live in this world. You can try your best to fix it, to do something to make a difference, but the hardest thing about life is just finding a way to live it, to be with the chaos and the peace and the systems and their inevitable collapse and the change and the fear and the pain and the trauma. The hardest thing is to figure out how to live in a world that is constantly ending. You can’t ever get comfortable with that, only curious. You may or may not ever make a substantial difference. Regardless, the world you were born into will not be the one you die in.

The cat isn’t here anymore. I am. That will change. In fact, it already has, as I sit here editing this piece several days later in an entirely new moment.

Essays

Non-Monogamy, Jealousy, and Security

Content note: this pieces contains abstract references to trauma.


Last night I dreamt that my partner slept with two other people but had my blessing to do so. Last night I dreamt that someone else tried to sleep with me and I said, “Wait, hold on, I need to check with my partner first”.

They responded with, “Your partner is so controlling”.

Last night I dreamt that other polyamorous people told me I’m not doing it right, that “real poly” means just sleeping with whoever whenever and not having to tell your partner anything. I know some people do it this way. I also know this isn’t the only way to do it, but clearly, my subconscious is struggling with the idea that I’m somehow “doing it wrong”. I’ve been grappling with non-monogamy for awhile. I’m not totally sure how to go about it, what parameters to set, and how to put it into action. On the one hand, I like having the option to engage in romantic and/or sexual relationships with other people. On the other, I’m not sure if I have the time/energy/emotional capacity for a whole other relationship. Do I want multiple relationships or one primary one with more “casual” encounters outside of that? Do I want to explore non-monogamy, an open relationship, or polyamory? And what exactly do all of these mean?

Non-monogamy is stressful. Monogamy is also stressful.

Monogamy stresses me out because it doesn’t feel quite right to me, doesn’t fit quite naturally. It feels like a lot of pressure, like this person is now the only person and that’s it and you will never get to explore anyone else. Non-monogamy gives me the space to breathe. I don’t have to feel guilty about liking other people. It takes the pressure off of a single relationship and allows me to feel more at ease, more myself, but it also has its stressors: fear, jealousy, complication, worry, what if my partner leaves me? I mean, that could happen in a monogamous relationship as well, but the fear with non-monogamy is more like, “What if my partner finds someone better and leave me?”

A friend of mine said recently,

“If anything, non-monogamy makes it less likely that your partner will leave because their interest in another doesn’t have to lead to the end of your relationship”.

There’s some truth to that.

I also struggle with jealousy and that makes me feel gross. I’ve been working on it, though. I’ve been reading, writing, and watching videos. I found this one couple on YouTube who discuss how they both used to be jealous people and what they did to work through that. It’s been helpful. It’s good to know that there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, it’s all about what you do with the feelings and how you process them. For me, jealousy is usually an “animal brain” response to a perceived threat, i.e. my partner is going to abandon me, I’m not good enough, I’ll never compare to so-and-so, and on. The couple I found talk about jealousy as a perceived “lack,” like the jealous person is feeling a lack in themselves somewhere, like they are not good enough, not enough for their partner, do not have as much love as their partner, etcetera. I believe I’ve struggled with these lackluster lack feelings as well.

I’m scared I’m not enough in a hundred different ways and that it’s just a matter of time before my partner sees that too.

It’s strange because, on my end, I can clearly see how my interest in someone else has nothing to do with my partner or our relationship. It does not threaten it at all. It is not a comment on a lack in what we have. It is completely separate. Love and desire are not limited resources, and my interest in someone else does not diminish or devalue the love and desire I have for my partner. The logical brain gets that, even the heart brain does. It’s the animal brain that struggles, the fear-based response, the child self, the traumatized self (for they are all wrapped up together). That’s what I have to watch out for.

In thinking about and processing my jealousy, I have found its roots. It is a secondary emotion, you see, like anger, and so it has hidden roots in other emotions underneath—fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, helplessness. In working through my jealousy, I have also begun to feel what might be the beginnings of compersion, the joy one feels in response to another’s happiness. There isn’t just the capacity for jealousy within me but also the capacity for desire and happiness at the thought of my partner being with someone else. These are new and interesting feelings I’d like to explore further.

I believe I have two selves, two attachment styles. One is secure. They are mature. They feel safe, loved, and free. They have the capacity for compersion. The other is anxious-preoccupied. This is the wounded child self, the traumatized self. They are anxious, fearful, and insecure. They are the one that struggles with jealousy and they do so because they are afraid. I can’t erase this side of me, ever, they will exist always. What I can learn to do, however, is take care of them.

I need to train the secure self on how to hold and reassure the anxious self when they feel threatened.

I need to be honest about their existence—I cannot repress or deny or shame them. I need to be honest with myself, my partner, and whoever else I may get involved with about this side of me. I need to take care of them so that they do not reign uncontrolled, wreaking havoc on my relationships.

I’ve gone on a few dates so far. Aside from that, while technically non-monogamous, my partner and I have been functionally monogamous. I want to change that. I want to take the next step. I’m scared. Even doing the work, I’m scared. My animal brain tells me that if one of us sleeps with someone else, that’s it, it’s over, it’ll all blow up. We so often see representation in the media of this being the thing that automatically ends romantic relationships. Logical and heart brain know that this isn’t true, but that doesn’t make the fear go away. I have to be with the fear, ride it out, and see where it takes me. Closer to myself, I hope. Closer to my partner. Closer to compersion. Closer to love.