Content note: this piece deals with addiction, abuse, and intergenerational trauma.
I wish my father a happy birthday. He tells me he’s drinking again, And that he hardly heard from anyone. I can only ever write poems about him.
Write back, he always says. His emails come quickly, contain hardly anything. Write back, he always says. Write back.
I have to come up with more to say, more that I can share. There are so few safe topics to choose from. He wants to see me. I don’t know if I can let him. Just a few years ago, seeing him on the street would send me reeling— Running, hiding, heart pounding, panic swelling. I don’t know if he ever saw me run away.
I don’t know how to write that fear into a poem, And perhaps this is where I fail as a poet.
I never thought I would speak to him again, Never expected to write to him. Five years of estrangement passed, And then I did. Something within me shifted. Words like abuser, monster, Jekyll, and Hyde Moved over to the side— Making room for Illness, sickness, and intergenerational trauma. It took five years for my fear to begin melting, For my anger to start eroding, Revealing layers and layers of fresh-cut Pain, Confusion, Compassion.
Write back, he always says. Get your brother to write to me, And write back. Write back. Write back.
I like to walk through urban wastelands. I like to walk where I won’t stumble upon anyone. I like to walk where the grass is dead and the buildings are disused. I like to walk past peeling billboards, abandoned advertisements. I like to walk out of pedestrian-friendly zones, out of friendly zones. I like to walk in areas only meant to be seen for seconds through a car window. I like to walk where the aesthetics have never been considered nor cared for. I like to walk where I’m not supposed to go.
I like to walk with music. I like to walk all alone. I like to walk out here in the open.
I like to walk at night after the joggers have returned from their flight. I like to walk until the muscles in my legs twitch when I stop. I like to walk where I can sit on the ground and type out a poem. I like to walk where I won’t be given funny looks for writing a poem. I like to walk until I am unimportant, unworthy of comment. I like to walk through places that don’t matter as a person that doesn’t matter. I like to walk where and when I won’t be seen.
I like to walk through urban wastelands. I like to walk, And I like to pause Without holding anyone up, Without drawing any attention.
I like to walk at dusk as the joggers are just finishing up. I like to walk as the sun sets, as the heat follows it out of the pavement. I like to walk where the ashplant is cracked, and there is no one around to complain. I like to walk until I empty every last thought from my brain. I like to walk to the bus shelters without waiting for the bus Because I like to walk. I like to walk. I like to walk, And often, I wish I never had to stop.
I said goodbye to my home when I was fourteen. As I sat within its walls for the last time, I received a message. The magic of that place spoke up and told my scared and broken heart that everything would be all right. I left my home and have carried its message with me ever since. I’ve often wondered what it really means as things certainly don’t always feel all right. As I grow older, I seem to get closer to an answer. This poem is my attempt to unravel and examine this old message.
Not “everything will be all right” as in nothing bad will ever happen, but “Everything will be all right” as in your great-grandmother is watching.
As in you will have a roof over your head, even if that roof is always changing.
As in your support system will be small but strong.
As in the moon will provide for you.
As in the tarot will warn you.
As in the ground will lovingly hold you.
As in you always have your breath to come back to.
As in you will come further into the vastness of your queerness.
As in a stranger will find you crying alone in a laundry room.
As in you’ll be pushed far but somehow never past where your limits actually are.
As in there’s a mix of chaos and reason in everything.
As in you will always have your writing.
As in you will unfailingly hold the sacred right to question.
As in you will get yourself away from him.
As in you will do whatever you set your mind to.
As in you will build the life your young brain dreamed of.
As in horrible things will absolutely happen, and you will survive them.
As in you have been given this life for a reason.
As in you’ll live for as long as you’re meant to.
As in you’ll draw pentagrams on your body to protect you.
As in you’ll read books like your grandmother used to, like she wanted to.
As in you will certainly not get all that you want.
As in you will eventually have all that you need.
As in everything makes sense even if it’s not comprehensible.
Not “everything will be all right” as in nothing bad will ever happen, but “Everything will be all right” as in everything will be.
I select a piece and pick it apart and put it together and click submit and there it is, at the mercy of the world.
It’s not really what we’re looking for, but we’re glad you submitted and hope you do so again! It’s not really what we’re looking for, but it’s good that you found it. You’re not really what we’re looking for, but we’re glad you exist! Hooray! There’s probably something you can do with that. It is what you’re looking for.
You are what you’re looking for and there isn’t an email template in the world that can take that away.
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
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.
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.
Content note: this piece contains discussion of illness and grief.
I’m waiting for the leaves to come back on the trees. I’m waiting for the New Year to really begin. I’m waiting for the spring air to roll over me, Chilled but full of moisture, Smelling of plants soon to be. I’m waiting for the grass on the hill to turn green.
I’m waiting for the opportunity to try again. My false start has come to an end, But the world will come back to life And I will be able to try again.
We’ve survived another winter, Apart and together. Now we have the chance To breathe again, To live again, To think again, To reimagine.
My false start has come to an end And I am getting ready to try again— When the leaves, the grass, and the fresh air Come rolling back in.
I turn twenty-six on Tuesday the twenty-sixth. I feel more like myself than I have for awhile. I am writing more like myself and I am writing more in general. Poetry has come back into my life and is taking up more space than ever before. Prose and ideas for prose are everywhere. I am compiling the past few years of my transition into a zine. It’s all been falling into place since I let go of the need for a refined product, success, or legitimacy and focused my energy on the process instead.
I love the process. That is the essential piece, you know, loving the process. The piece that can so easily go missing. You can become so focused on the end goal, on the need to be and to appear productive, that you lose sight of why you create in the first place. We create because we love and need to create. This doesn’t mean that creating should always be easy or simple or fun. Sometimes, especially when you are deeply invested, it can be incredibly difficult and confusing and frustrating, but if you love it, that drive will help you move through those challenges.
I was sick last night. I lay on the bathroom floor for hours, shaking. Something went wrong in my body and I felt it in every part of me. I could barely keep my eyes open. I was alone. I lay there and cycled through the following thoughts: I wish this wasn’t happening. What’s wrong? When is it going to stop? Why is this happening? I wish this wasn’t happening…
Then another thought came into my mind as if from elsewhere: this is what it means to have a body. This is what it means to be alive. Having a body means that sometimes that body gets sick. I felt lucky for a few moments just to have a body, even if that body was angry with me. Then I fell back into the cycle: I wish this wasn’t happening. When is it going to stop? Why is this happening?
I was cold and couldn’t stop shaking, so I ran a bath. I lay down in the warm water and felt just as unwell, just as alone, but didn’t shake anymore. I lay back and I let go: this is happening. I can’t stop this from happening.
I started to sing an old song, a song I learned from a community that would stand in two rings and sing two rounds into the night. I sang that old song in an old language and thought about how I didn’t know what the words meant but could feel what the song meant. I sang it to myself, over and over, and I stayed there with my hurting body in that bath and became okay with what was happening.
I was at a New Year’s party a few years ago when something traumatic was triggered and my vision took on a ring of black spots and I felt like I was going to be sick. I lay alone for hours on the cold tiles of a stranger’s bathroom floor, even though I hadn’t had a single drink that night, and rang in the New Year. I had just lived through one of the hardest years of my life and felt the weight of it in my body that final night. I didn’t sing then but I did ease into the pain, mind and body joined together on that cold tile floor. This is what it means to have a body. This is what it means to be alive. Sometimes, you will be sick and you will feel it in your body whether the cause is from your body or your mind. Sometimes, you will be sick, you won’t be able to make it stop, and you will have to get down on the floor with it.
My body is a beautiful alarm system that has always reliably sounded the bells whenever I’ve become too cerebral. Pay attention to me, it says. Take care of me.
That New Year’s Eve, my body took on all of my grief and pain and made me lay on a cold floor all night so I could move into the coming year with a clearer mind. Don’t take this with you, it said. I felt the fog of death, disappointment, betrayal, anger, loneliness, and fear rise like smoke off of my body and leave the room. I came back downstairs at one in the morning and smiled quietly at the party guests who were getting ready to head home. It was a new year and I was new. My family and I drove home in the car. It was dark and they were tired and I was awake and feeling better than I had in a long time.
Yesterday, I lay on another cold tile floor and then in a warm bath. I let all of the awful feelings wash over me. I sang an old song that I did/didn’t understand and thought about renewal and how I was turning twenty-six in three days. Pay attention to me, my body said. Remember to pay attention to me.
I can’t promise to always pay attention, body, but I will try. You will be twenty-six soon, as will I. You have carried me this long and have always been my friend. I will try my best not to let my mind get in the way of your needs again.
Spring is almost here and soon it will be my champagne year. I am leaving something bad behind. I am writing every day. I am searching for community. Just like that NYE all those years ago, something in me died last night and something new came alive in its place. I let toxic smoke rise from my body in that bath and I became new.
I am turning twenty-six in two days and finally, I am ready.