Monday, December 1, 2014

Silent; invisible

More poetry, about being 14 and losing my vision, in what was likely my first NMO attack. Doctors at the time diagnosed me with conversion disorder, but I think it was the experience of being tested and tested and tested that led me to have dissociative experiences. Were they diagnosing the emotional response that the illness and testing produced? I suppose this is why I always chat with technicians during procedures - it reminds me that all of me is there.

When my world went invisible
the doctors went silent
and I heard whispers between my heartbeats
and searched for songs in mechanized beeping.
And I became silent, invisible
as they glued and unglued
electrodes, sensors
separating my brain from my mind
(assuring me they were "watching my brain, not reading my mind")
in a quest for the invisible, or silent
scars that made me blind.
They said these tests would be painless
but they never assessed
the pain when they still were silent
and my world was still invisible,
and the pain of teaching my fear to be silent, invisible.
And I stayed silent,
made my body invisible, segmented, and still
so they could numb my blind eyes,
restrain my fingers even though they were trained
not to interfere with the needle in my vein.
So I learned to be patient and watch the closed door
and knit cheerfully in the waiting room, intact,
as they pushed pieces of my body into machines
to see more of me
than I could of myself.
Each mistaken medical dictation 
broke their silence, breaking down
each fragment they held custody of
decomposing me
leaving little matter to matter
in an invisible autopsy.

That was an intense one to write. I am still working through a piece about how that period made me feel so crazy, for so long. Sometimes I still feel that I'm "just crazy" and that even the nausea is just a trick. Apparently that fear is so entrenched that, even when I'm totally aware of it, the side effects of a chemotherapy drug can't quite dislodge it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Welcome back to the city of stairs

It was since moving to Vancouver that my mobility has significantly declined. The city has been variable in terms of accessibility, but even without walking, there are places to go, and ways to get there. There are headaches and many bumps along the way, but even when my mobility was at its worst, this city still felt like mine.

Toronto was once mine, too, as I cruised past stopped traffic along the bike lanes on Davenport, jogged up the Spadina steps, and rode on streetcar after streetcar, escalator after escalator. I could wait too long for a table in any café in the city, and pay too much money for a croissant and americano. I know the subway system like I know the constellations of my own freckles, and I don't remember when I last checked directions before grabbing my bike helmet. Toronto was my oyster - my home.

Returning for a visit with clumsy, spastic legs, I feel like a delinquent teen locked out after curfew. I remember every dissonant chord of the southbound subway entering St. Clair West station, as I drive a borrowed car to St. George, the nearest stop with an elevator. I cut short my afternoon on Roncesvalles after going from one restaurant to the next and realizing that when the banks are closed, there may be nowhere to pee without descending the steep, harsh steps that lead to the basements in Toronto's older neighbourhoods. The car stops behind a streetcar. As a child, I ran for the seats in the very back, to look out the window at the cars behind us on the tracks, as though the streetcar was pulling a small train.

A semi-accessible transit system might as well not be accessible at all, as it forces me to drive, and to see the city from within a small steel and glass bubble. On my bicycle, I could smell them maple trees in the spring; the Portuguese bakeries on Dundas, subtly different from the Italian ones on College. Every station on the Spadina subway line is imprinted with my memories - but the rush of excitement from arriving at Museum is muted when I can no longer get beyond the platform. What used to be home is now a city of stairs.

Vancouver has fewer memories, but with a transit map and a scooter, the city can be mine. Back out west, every ramp and every elevator welcomes me home.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I want to come home
soaked to the bone
clammy, sopping
pants dropping to the floor
after cycling in a downpour.

I want to wake up
refreshed and sore
gentle stretching
focusing breath on the core
after running one mile more.


On bad days, I cannot write at all
beyond hammering circles of words around words
incoherent rhymes
in margins of forgotten readings
scraps of papers folded
into cracks of my crumbling self.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

An n of one

Another tough one to put down in words. On Monday I had a follow-up appointment with my neurologist to discuss my MRI and various other test results. There's a lot that's inconclusive - apparently my body doesn't follow the rules of how to be healthy, or how to have any particular illness! There's a lot that it's doing that's suggestive for MS, but a lot that isn't. Dr. T. believes I have something called neuromyelitis optica. It's similar to MS, but not quite - it affects the eyes and spinal cord rather than the brain (this is what my MRI shows) and is usually more aggressive (luckily, I haven't had the sort of acute transverse myelitis that some NMO patients have - that's what was giving him pause in making the diagnosis).

The statistics for NMO are terrifying. I made the mistake of going home from my appointment and reading medical journals. One of them gave a five-year survival for NMO. Lots of sources talk about percentages of people who are blind, paralyzed, and incontinent after five years. That's really different from MS, where everything I've read reassures that life expectancy is near normal, and pamphlets remind anxious patients and families that most people with MS actually don't need a wheelchair, or at least not for a long time. Reading those articles made for an emotional evening. After a few hours, all I could do was hold the largest cat, shake, and heave. Eventually I took a double dose of sleeping pills so I could just pass out.

I always tell my students to be suspicious of statistics. Many of them, especially those in the sciences, see primary sources or articles with numbers in them, and evaluate those sources as more reliable than ones without stats. I generally approach that by telling them all about how the 2012 PhD cohort in history was 100% left-handed; has a twin; sings opera; other details about me that are not universal among my peers. Eventually, they get suspicious, and I fess up that I'm the only student who started the program that year. I can try to draw big conclusions, but none will be particularly reliable with an n of one.

Luckily, a few people on an NMO Facebook group that I found told me that the prognosis statistics are far out of date, anyways. For those on a good treatment plan, those statistics basically don't apply. There's nothing current in the medical literature that will say how I'll fare in five years, ten years, twenty years. Once again, I'm an n of one. That's not exceptionally reassuring, but I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cats have belly-buttons too

Anybody who knows me, even a little bit, probably knows that I'm nuts about cats. I foster, and spend a reasonable amount of time at the cat rescue, conveniently down the street from me. This isn't a selfless act, really, but something I find immensely fulfilling.

Today was a hard day, but also the best day. We had an intake of 20+ cats, all arriving in a span of about 20 minutes, transferred from another rescue. What I anticipated being a quiet reception shift (taking inventories and greeting foster families as they picked up cat food - that sort of thing) was a whirlwind of cats, kittens, and more kittens. I spent most of the day looking after a litter of six kittens whose mother had become too sick to feed them; at just four weeks old, they needed to be bottle-fed, but were not strong enough to drink. Four of the six were very, very fragile, and we weren't sure if they'd survive the afternoon. Luckily, another volunteer was adept at syringe-feeding kittens, and probably saved their lives.

Nursing a litter of seriously ill kittens ought to be stressful. Yet, this spring, taking in newborn kittens and bottle feeding them has been a way I've coped with stress. There is something about the chaos of twenty cats, sick cats, fragile newborn cats, that oddly acts as a form of stress relief, obliterating all other stresses by their very needy, fuzzy presence. Nothing else mattered in the world today while I focused on these four little lives.

This spring, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Just days after receiving that overwhelming news, I was getting daily steroid infusions as an outpatient to help me go into remission. So I went home in the evening, picked up a litter of kittens, so small their umbilical cords were still attached, and bottle-fed them to keep me company overnight. I have good friends, but felt weird asking if any of them would sleep over to distract me through the maddening insomnia that comes with ridiculously high dosages of steroids. It's an odd juxtaposition (juxtaposkitten?), feeding palm-sized kittens with an IV line, but that's what kept me from losing (what remained of) my mind that week. They give a sense of normalcy - in what feels like an endless cycle, already, of unpredictable relapses and incomplete remissions, the needs of tiny kittens are constant and fairly reliable. Feed, help it pee (very young kittens need help with their rear-end bodily functions), burp, cuddle until it's purring and ready to go back to sleep. Repeat with next kitten. Four hours later, do it all again. It's OK that I wake up at least twice in the night to struggle to pee - so do they. They're a distraction through the monotony and heartache of being sick, and something to take care of, when I feel powerless to heal myself.

Even before MS, taking care of cats was a relief in my PhD-stressed life. History is depressing, and escaping from the troubles of the past by reading the news is necessary for some perspective on the present, but frankly it's equally stressful. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, how many problems there are - and I've struggled with the reality that I cannot single-handedly save the world. Working with cats doesn't quite allow me to sleep soundly. But at least there is a sense of fulfillment - one which is rare and fleeting in my academic work - that I've accomplished something, when a shy cat purrs and settles in for its dinner and warm bed.

But hey - cats don't just need people volunteering: they also need funds. Trouper was the first bottle baby I ever looked after, and he's now thriving in an adoptive home. You can donate to his fundraising page here. Warm fuzzy feelings all around!

Thus concludes an immensely navel-gazing essay about cats.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


In Vancouver, we wait for the "big one," never knowing when it could come, nervously joking about it at parties when the small talk has run dry but the wine hasn't. And beyond stashing bottled water and batteries, there is precious little we can do.
And I live, perched permanently in a seismically unsound body, not knowing which rumblings will cause life as I know it to crumble, too numb to feel the aftershocks.
[I am afraid that one morning, I will wake up and never feel my legs again, never having had the chance to say goodbye.]

Friday, May 16, 2014


This is a piece I made to try to illustrate how the spasms around my ribs feel. Constant tightening, pulling, squeezing - as though I'm wearing a corset, or perhaps my sister's bra.
Medium: watercolour pencil (I love them! Paint with no clean-up) on sketchbook paper.

Please don't copy/repost without permission!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


This one's a saga.

I have two previous MRIs that show "bright spots" that may be benign, or may be evidence of a neurological condition. Last month, mid-way through some major academic exams, I had neck pain and electric shock sensations, and went to the doctor. She referred me to a neurologist. In the days that followed (all while writing my comprehensive exams!) I lost feeling in my right arm and leg, as well as my balance. I used a cane to walk for a couple of weeks, because I was afraid I'd trip over my feet and go flying.

Now, my balance is back and the feeling is back in my arm and leg, but my legs are still super stiff. It feels like I've gone on a long run without warming up or stretching, and it's felt like that for days. Stretching sends my muscles into spasms.

I have an appointment with the UBC MS clinic in June. I'm nervous. I've been told by a previous neurologist not to worry, but it's hard not to worry. I'm trying to avoid the temptation to google the symptoms I've been having, as I don't particularly like the results google turns up.

This has been going on for a few years. I've seen a lot of neurologists, and neuro-ophthalmologists,  and all have the same opinion: that my symptoms are nonspecific, my lesions are nonspecific. The thing is, they're nonspecific, but uncomfortable, painful sometimes.

Starting from the beginning...
In 2002 I lost my vision suddenly in geography class. I was 14 years old and had just started at a new school. My grandmother had passed away that summer. I was in poor emotional shape, and even poorer at communicating my emotions. A throng of ophthalmologists and a battery of tests later, they concluded that it was stress - conversion disorder, specifically. They said it would get better on its own. The acute vision loss indeed got better, but not entirely: I had vision problems until I was 22 and a doctor finally thought to check if I was near-sighted. Previous ophthalmologists had done standard vision tests, but always after dilating my eyes, and once my eyes were dilated no lenses could help me see past the pain of bright lights. I've always been very sensitive to light. With a glasses prescription, and an appropriate tint to help my light sensitivity, I have 20/20 vision - something I hadn't dreamed of for many years - but a lingering mistrust of doctors. I will always wonder if there was something going on beyond stress in 2002, because while I'll be the first to concede that I was an emotional mess, I am skeptical that my problems were "just stress."

In 2004, a psychiatrist I saw for an assessment referred me for an MRI. I'm still not sure why he found this necessary. I was having problems with dissociation, but it just seems odd to refer a patient with a normal clinical neurological exam for an MRI after a single appointment. His report listed MS as a condition to rule out, alongside a plethora of other diagnoses that very obviously didn't fit me. I don't know if he put that on his list when he ordered the MRI or after seeing the results, which showed "nonspecific" lesions in my right parietal and right inferior frontal white matter. A precautionary test earned me and my anxious mother a trip to the MS clinic at Sick Children's Hospital. Dr. Banwell, the neurologist there, was fabulous, as were her resident and staff. Unlike the ophthalmologists I'd seen a couple of years earlier, these doctors listened to me and respected that I was not a small child and that I wanted to be informed about my health and have a chance to give my input. After doing a usual neurology exam, and noting that everything was normal, they concluded that my nonspecific lesions were quite likely benign. It does admittedly puzzle me that a teenager with no history of head trauma could have random lesions chilling out on her brain, but I trust Dr. Banwell's judgement.

Fast forward to 2009. In the intervening years I'd had a few days here and there when I had trouble walking because my legs were too stiff for me to effectively move them. I assumed it was just stress - I am prone to anxiety, to say the least. In the spring of 2009 for a few days I was extremely tired for no discernible reason, and when I bent my neck it felt like electrical currents were running down my arm. The doctors at the university health clinic were concerned because my reflexes were too brisk and my coordination was off-kilter, and referred me to a neurologist. I was studying abroad at the time, though, and due to move back to Canada before the appointment came through. I got better on my own and more or less forgot about the incident until the fall, when the same thing happened again. This was while I was recovering from swine flu, however, and I attributed my problems to that. For a couple of months in the fall, I was extremely tired and weak, had stiff muscles (mostly in my right leg, lower back, and my diaphragm) that twitched without any obvious reason, and sometimes had the same electric current feeling when I moved my head. I emailed Dr. Banwell, who sent a referral to the MS clinic at St. Mike's hospital in Toronto, where I saw Dr. O'Connor a few weeks later.

Dr. O'Connor seemed very unconcerned by my symptoms, even though I kicked him accidentally when he tested my reflexes. He ordered an MRI as a precaution, as well as evoked potentials. At my final appointment with him in summer 2010, he cheerfully told me that my MRI was unchanged from the previous one and that I had nothing to worry about. So I cheerfully left the country, and since I was feeling better by that point, forgot all about it.

Fast forward to this spring - April of 2014. In the years since 2010, through my master's degree, a gap year, and the first year and a half of my PhD, I've rested with the assumption that everything is OK, and that I just have random lesions in my brain. That's a bit weird but if it's not causing symptoms, I can live with that. In the past four years, I've had the occasional day when I've been inexplicably tired or sore, but nothing that can't be caused by grad school or working out too hard. There was one weekend when my right leg completely seized up with painful cramps that didn't go away for several days and made it hard for me to walk. I've figured that was because I was carrying my shoulder bag in an awkward way. There was also a week when the same cramping happened in my left arm, but I figured it was a repetitive strain thing from taking notes for too long, and I've since blamed my arm cramps when they recur on a particular historian who writes lengthy monographs, one of which I read for my comprehensive exams.

During my comprehensive exams, though, the spasms and pain in my right shoulder and arm were terrible. I figured it was repetitive strain, after a week of spending more time typing than sleeping. Perhaps a pulled muscle. When the electric shocks started, I figured it could be a pinched nerve. When I saw the university health clinic doctor to get a massage referral, she found that my reflexes were very brisk and was concerned about my symptoms and referred me to a neurologist. "At least I know it's not MS," I told her, given that previous doctors had assured me that it's not.

A week ago, the referral finally came through - to the MS clinic. Do not see a regular neurologist, do not pass go - go straight to the MS clinic. Damn. I asked the university clinic receptionist for a copy of my reports from the previous MS clinic appointment, which Dr. O'Connor hadn't given me when I left his care in 2010 as he felt there was no need. He'd told me that the neuro exam was completely normal, but his report says that I have 4+ reflexes in my knees, which all the reading I've done says is almost always abnormal. He also says I don't have clonus, but apparently that's what distinguishes 4+ from 3+ reflexes. A few YouTube videos have made me really wonder about that, because the shaking in my right leg looks almost exactly like the clonus videos that people have posted. More worryingly, he had told me that there was no change from my previous MRI, but the radiology report from my 2010 MRI notes bright spots in the right deep occipital lobe. The 2004 MRI makes no mention of that. So, I'm terrified. Everything is non-specific, insufficient for a diagnosis. Hopefully this new neurologist will have answers.

I'm not sure what I'm afraid of more - a diagnosis that has an uncertain but never particularly great prognosis, or another verdict that my symptoms are too nonspecific for a diagnosis and being told to just live with it for a few more years until this same problem crops up again.

Ultimately, what I want most is specificity. Either it is MS, which would be devastating but at least specific, or it's something else - in which case, I want to know what else, so that I can make it go away, rather than ignoring it and spasming and cramping for god knows how much longer.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Another year

Best way to deal with an anniversary, it seems, is distraction. My comprehensive exams have kept me so busy that while I have been having a hard time, I have had no choice but hold on and cope. Last year I also was busy writing at this time of year, and while I was initially worries about not getting to take some time for myself, it helped to be engaged in something completely different. I can't say I'd choose to do something quite this intense every April, especially since both the papers I handed in today dealt with violence in some way. But it was good to situate things as abstractions, keep myself focused on an academic plane all day. Because of the comps people are being extra nice to me, and that also helps.

I've had lots of thoughts recently that have yet to meld together into a coherent blog piece; both the content and the process of my exams has been very thought-provoking. That's a matter for another day, though.


Each year, the 16th is the hardest day. It is so, so arbitrary; the calendar is a social construction, not and there is nothing inherent about this day. And yet, things feel harder. Partly, it's a function of the date being a mnemonic, as I've discussed before. But partly, it is the silence. 

For so many other life-altering events, people are attentive to anniversaries. A year since an accident, or ten years since the death of a loved one, if others know the significance of the date, is likely to bring kind words, even cards and flowers. 

I have little use for cards, and there isn't one for this occasion (happy birthday to your PTSD?). Flowers are potentially poisonous for my cat. What is hard is that even though several of my friends and family know why this date is so difficult for me, I can count the times when anybody has extended any sort of particular support. They probably lack the words, or are afraid to bring it up in case I am not thinking about it (understandable but not the case; odds are that given the contours of my analytical brain that reads so much significance into dates, places, and other arbitrary indicators of experience, the history of this date is likely not for from my mind, and it already emerges in my mind each time I read the date on a newspaper or computer screen). It's not that people don't care, but that there is no social framework for this. The silence, each year, is deafening. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A letter

A year ago, in the last session of the mindfulness group I attended through Health and Counselling at my university, the facilitator asked each of us to write a letter to ourselves. He then mailed them, a few months later. I didn't open mine right away; in the usual paper-shuffle of grad school, it fell behind the printer.

Today, on a hunt for scrap paper, I found a little brown envelope, addressed, in my own purple-gel-pen handwriting, to me. It was the best thing I could have read, and I wish I'd found it earlier in the week. It refers to comps, which I am presently writing - I'd optimistically planned to complete comps in the fall, when this letter was initially mailed. The sentiment here may be a bit trite, but today, it's exactly what I needed.

"Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hello, Me!

There is no deadline for healing, no time after which it must be OK. That is OK. Everything comes with time, patience, and self-love. Pain hurts, but it can be safe if I let myself remember love. Things are what they are.
I need to share with myself the love I have for others; focus on the present, however it feels, and let go of the fear of the future that is not yet here, the fear of the past that cannot come back. Time cannot own me. 
As an historian, fearing and hating the past closes so many opportunities to accept it for what it was. Wishing for what could have been, obsessing over how it could have hurt less, is ahistorical. There are some analyses that ought not be made. Some things will always hurt, but they have less power if I look myself in the eye and let go, surf the emotions, then put them away.
When this letter arrives, comps will be looming. I have survived bigger trials, and will make it through this one, too. Self-care is critical, whatever pressures other people place, whatever the time constraints are. With silence, stillness, and stretching, there will be pieces of peace.


Now, I am tempted to write myself nice letters when I'm having a good day, and hide them behind the printer. Or the sofa, whatever.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anxiety, Academics, and Acrostic Poetry

Marathon of
Practically no

That's how I began today's reflection on my other blog.

My other blog, where I am writing this week about my comprehensive exams, is a semi-anonymous-but-not-really blog associated with my academic work, so I haven't been absolutely candid about mental illness - although it is an undercurrent, and probably fairly apparent in my writing as I talk about anxiety. I do have an anxiety disorder, among other diagnoses. Nothing like a mountain of high-stakes work to draw it out of me in its least rational manifestations.

My terror surrounding this exams has many overlapping elements. Fear of failure, of course, as I never feel like the quality of my academic work is adequate. But in addition, there is the fear of what will happen to me emotionally if I fail, or if I panic too intensely before I'm done, and thus bring about my own failure due to inability to emotionally cope. It is hard for me to separate what must be a normal extent of anxiety for these exams from anxiety stemming from being someone who struggles with anxiety on a more pervasive level. I've heard the horror stories: one person whose description of her oral exam uses similar language to what I would use when describing the odd sort of dissociation I felt while being raped; another who was hospitalized for dehydration after his comps. There isn't space in academic relationships to ask other people whether (or how) mental health has influenced their comps, and how comps has influenced their mental health.

When scheduling the exams and realizing that one of them would be on a date that I still find difficult, I was afraid that I would be preoccupied with thoughts of trauma while writing. I'm not. I'm preoccupied with a sense that the questions are purposefully designed to showcase my weaknesses, that my failure is a foregone conclusion. My academic fears are overtaking my triggers and trauma in their race for my attention - and perhaps that's a good thing, although it doesn't exactly feel that way.

Exam anxiety is something I've struggled with before. At 18, I was unable to write midterm exams after having a breakdown while studying and being unable to find my way home when I went for a walk in my neighbourhood. Then I spiraled downward, terrified that I could be having a psychotic break (I wasn't) with my fear of my own mental health overtaking my fear of grade twelve chemistry. The high school found other ways to evaluate me, and I am grateful that they accommodated my needs as I otherwise would not have passed my midterms, with attendant academic consequences. The trouble with comps is that there simply is no other way, in practice, at least. Theoretically, another system is absolutely possible - comps procedures less focused on stamina and more on intellectual ability are in place in other departments. Our handbook technically says that questions must be given to students "at least" one week in advance, but most professors interpret that as "no more than" one week in advance. The only reason this is done in such a short time frame, as far as I can gather, is tradition, and perhaps as a mechanism of weeding out students who are not prepared. The trouble, for me, is that I'm academically extremely prepared - but emotionally, I don't know if I ever will be. My friends and committee have assured me that I'm ready. I have thousands of notes as a tactile reminder of this. If I fail, it will be because of my mental health more likely than my academic ability - and that would be a tough thing to stomach.

I'm rambling now. Longer post to follow, I think, about how this system works with and against mental illness. Something more engaged, less navel-gazing, once comps are done. For now, I'm going to read some poetry and then go to bed early and hope that self-care doesn't count against me in the long term. Tomorrow I'll probably work on campus to be around people who are also working (but hopefully less distracting than a litter of two-week-old kittens). These people tell me it's all going to be OK. I'll only be able to believe them once it is over.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Each spring, I come back, pulled somehow, to TS Eliot.
This week, I've written my own somewhat convoluted addition to "The Waste Land." Original parts in italics.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. 
Winter kept us weak, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers. 

In with a bang, fooling
Nostrils, teasing taste buds, drooling
On shrink-wrapped forsythia, catching
Hollow rabbits by the seams.
Scriptures boast from church signs, resurrecting
Blue-masked fears, in triage, infecting
Screaming lungs, stifled exhalations, linking
Burning bushes, bricks and mortar, duck ponds
Dredged, unblinking.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On March 32nd

Dates. At this time of year, despite PTSD being a waning factor in my health (anger and grief are overtaking flashbacks when I do have bad days), I struggle with two things: weather, and dates. The weather is a more sensory trigger, a subtle reminder that it's that time of year again. Those beautiful signs of spring - forsythia blooms, robins, early buds - saying that time is passing, that I'm still feeling this way. It's a taunting, haunting start to the cycle, which I'm trying to reframe as a sign of strength, that I've gone through another year and damn it, I can do more.

But dates. This one has been more troublesome for me to piece together. The calendar is a social and cultural construction; on a lunar calendar, I could ascribe meaning to a different date. Days of the week are arbitrary, yet it means so much more to me that this year, once again, it is a Wednesday. I realized, though, today, that this isn't really a standard "trigger." It's more of a shorthand, a mnemonic. A phrase I hear more and more at this time of year, that places trauma in my brain even when I haven't been thinking about it.

Say your birthday is on March 10th (arbitrarily chosen). If someone says "let's schedule the meeting for March 10th" you probably think, at least fleetingly, "oh, on my birthday." We all have those dates that prompt a thought of something else, a "remember when" on-this-day sort of thought. It's hard, though, when that thought is a reminder of the worst day of my life. This year is hard in particular because I have a major deadline that day. The innocuous emails sting: "the second paper will be due on..." means more than the sender can ever know.

Sometimes I can go for days without ever thinking about it. A string of good days to hold on to, that are so natural that I don't even realize that they're good days until I've run out of beads to string. April makes that impossible. I'll be dodging reminders until March 47th.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Protests and free speech on campus.

I've been thinking today about the Silent No More protest that happened on campus. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a pro-life event where people who regret their abortions share their stories. I am and will always be pro-choice, but I am not opposed to these people sharing their feelings. What bothers me is the way in which it was done - they held their event in a major outdoor space on campus, through which students must pass to travel between regularly used buildings, and they told their stories using megaphones, so that those in the vicinity had no choice but to listen. This is just a step down from last year's Genocide Awareness Project, which displayed photos of aborted fetuses alongside photos of genocide victims, trying to build a parallel between the two. On the days they were on campus, I walked with trepidation through Convocation Mall where the display was held, and removed my glasses so as not to see it, because images of violence upset me on a good day, and trigger me on a bad day. This year, I was able to avoid the area entirely.

It is unsurprising that students have called for banning this event, only to be met by other students, some of whom are pro-choice as well, insisting that free speech means it should be allowed to take place on campus. I vehemently disagree. As they are currently conceived, Silent No More and the Genocide Awareness Project overstep a boundary; there are ways to talk about controversial issues without this extent of pain. Indeed, Silent No More likely alienates some of the very students it aims to reach.

For a parallel, in November Out on Campus hosted an event for Trans Day of Remembrance, to recognize violence and recognize trans people who have been murdered. In consideration for fellow students who might not be in an emotional space to hear about violence, we placed signs at each end of the memorial display to let students know that it would be something difficult. There were absolutely no graphic images - we shared pictures of people when they were living, as much as we could - and no loud speakers, nothing that would prevent a student from walking by without engaging with the display. And a safe space was provided with resources for people who found it troubling. 

Of course, transphobic violence and abortion are not equivalents, but this is the closest example I could think of for something that was well-executed on campus and pertained to a troubling issue. Any event has some potential to be triggering; if someone were triggered by or afraid of dogs, for instance, the "Puppy Therapy" events preceding exams could be difficult. However, they are meant to calm students, not to stress them out. The dogs are contained in a circle of responsible humans, carefully trained, and well controlled, and one can easily look the other direction. By using sound, these anti-abortion events create a barrier that students cannot get around, and that is not fair.

What if rape survivors shared our stories through megaphones, detail after detail, in protest? Shared photos of the aftermath, puffy eyes with a haunting stillness, shredded body parts, caked blood under fingernails, pink spit from so many tears? Free speech says this is our right, too, like that of the women who regret their abortions. It is their right to speak, but it is mine not to be forced to listen, to hear stories that share experience of such violence, pain, fear, and sorrow when I have my own to shoulder. We have students who have survived many forms of trauma, and it is cruel to protest violence--and I don't doubt that many of the the Silent No More speakers experienced their abortions as violent--with further violence. 

Another student likened this amplification of their protest to finding loud music triggering - should we ban that as well? Perhaps it was meant to be a straw man argument, but indeed I feel that blasting music on campus is inappropriate. Yes, we should restrict events from playing music that distracts students who are hard at work, and also brings about more visceral responses from those in our community who have experienced violence. When the beat shakes you as you sit in the library, the soundtrack of an event outside echoing that of a painful day, or the jarring bass in syncopation with your heartbeat as it races, this is not conducive to education. There is a threshold where decibels feel violent to those already in pain. We need not be wrapped in quilts in padded rooms, but for students who have survived trauma, coming to campus can be difficult enough. Congenial and educational initiatives, rather than alienating protests, would spare us so much grief.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fuck you; I'm not Irish

I have come to dread going outside on St Patrick's Day. Red hair brings out the grossest part of drunk men; a few years ago some guys tried to kiss my twin sister and throw her in a river; luckily she got away, but lost a shoe and had to shuffle home barefoot in the melting snow. Usually I get cat-called more than on any other day of the year; "kiss me" stops being friendly and starts being bothersome pretty quickly.

Today on the bus home a man felt me up. Rather than scream or fight I rhymed words in my head until he got off. In case anybody jumps to conclusions, this was not likely somebody from the poor neighbourhood I pass through on my way home, but someone who seemed to be en route to a bar in a gentrifying area nearby.

Lily Allen provided a useful scaffold for my profane rhyming.

Keep your hands
Keep your hands to yourself
Before I ignite and fight you.
Your touch fills me with hate that will not abate.
I'm not here to delight you.

So you say,
"You're so pretty today"
Say to kiss me is lucky
But I doubt that St. Patrick
Would condone such an edict
And it makes me feel sucky.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause my hair's kinda red
But my body has fled
And I am not yours to touch.

Do you get
Do you get a little kick out of being an asshole?
Take your hand off my breast;
I am far from impressed,
But I'm far from a damsel.

Do you
Do you really enjoy feeling up girls who hate you?
'Cause there's a hole where your soul should be
You're losing control of it and I want to castrate you.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
You're invading my space
And the look on my face
Says I am not yours to touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,
Fuck you

You say, you think we ought to have a date
This is not how to win one.
Don't tell me I'm pretty;
You make me feel shitty.
No one wants your opinion

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause my hair's kinda red
But my body has fled
And I am not yours to touch.

Fuck you
Fuck you very, very much
'Cause I hate what you do
And I want to punch you
But I'm paralyzed by your touch.

Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you
Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you

Friday, March 14, 2014

What were you wearing?

 This article came up on my Facebook yesterday:

Sexual Survivors Answer "What Were You Wearing?" on Buzzfeed (may be triggering - mostly descriptions of outfits and age at which survivors were assaulted; not graphic, but certainly overwhelming)

There are apparently problems with privacy and agency and a range of things in Buzzfeed publishing this piece. I gather this from reading Twitter but it is hard to follow the trajectory of how this was published and the conflict behind it. As I don't know the nuances of it I am hoping that linking to this isn't perpetuating something I wouldn't be on board with. As well, as a friend of mine pointed out when I linked to this on Facebook, this still creates a dichotomy of types of victims based on clothes - note that none of the folks whose tweets are compiled here were dressed to go clubbing necessarily, or wearing something that would be stereotyped as "immodest," so we have a binary of young women wearing pyjamas, work clothes, and so forth, contrasted with the women who are invisible here who are wearing clothes that many people would code as "asking for it." So this is more complicated than it seems at face value, and as my friend said, reinforces myths at the same time as it challenges them.

I've realized that on the rare occasions when I answer this sort of question, I always include a disclaimer. I was in just my underwear at the time, but I was always quick to point out to whoever asked that I was in my underwear because I was changing after gym class - as in, not in a situation that should have been compromising. But I think the trauma could be much the same if I were wearing underwear in an already sexually charged situation - still violent, still a breach of trust. I'm now trying to puzzle out how to tell my story without unconsciously reinforcing this idea that because I wasn't "asking for it" that someone else must have been, how to avoid inserting cues that signify my position as one of virginal innocence. Because while I was what a Law and Order episode might consider the "perfect victim" if I were to try pressing charges, that should not be as relevant as our social tropes make it.

And to also respond to a provocative photo (also linked on Facebook, but I forget from what source), truly nobody asks what HE was wearing. And that complicates things, because he was hardly the gnarly stranger in a back alleyway. He was wearing a school uniform, identical to the one I was about to change into, at the end of the day a boy rather than a man. Those uniforms were imposed in my urban public school as a way of equalizing students across class, and undermining gang activity, and that's a dynamic that I wonder and worry about: if I'd reported it, I now don't doubt that he'd have been charged. I was a white girl, upper middle class, in an elite academic program at the school, and the sort of kid who could get away with skipping class or accessorizing my uniform because I looked innocent enough for the administration. He was mixed race, taking less academic classes, in detention every time he was late or forgot his uniform. But what if the roles were reversed? Or if racial dynamics were less significant at my high school? As a historian I don't like thinking through "what if" counterfactual analyses such as this, but I doubt a black girl would have the same personal narrative, the same responses.

So with those caveats, a poem that I wrote in response. As always, may be triggering.


I could say I was naked
but for the tethers of undergarments
in the first seconds of struggle.
But that would not be true,
would bury my wardrobe of
armour, creeping to enclose my skin,
not quite reptilian like his eyes
staring but never meeting mine.

I could say I was naked
but I always had my skin.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"It Is Usually Too Late"

The first time I heard a rape joke, I laughed.

Pertinent coordinates: Summer, when I was 12, most likely. A red Toyota Corolla, bumping westbound on highway 40, likely in traffic between the Quebec border and Kingston, Ontario. Leaving Montreal that morning with my mother and twin sister, my grandmother gave each of us a perfumed kiss; my grandpa, a sturdy hug; and my uncle passed us two CDs of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's "At the Drop of a Hat" and its sequel, fittingly titled "At the Drop of Another Hat." These were Cold War era British comedic sketches in song, and a staple of my mother's and uncles' adolescences.

At the point in our car trip where the radio had crackled into rural oblivion and my mother vetoed any suggestion of pre-teen Broadway singalong entertainment, we rigged up our archaic adapter to connect the first Flanders and Swann CD to our tape deck. Amidst zoological gems such as "The Gnu Song" and "The Hippopotamus Song" was "Songs for Our Time," introduced and followed by commentary too middle-aged-academic for my middle-school tastes. One of these short ditties recounts an image - not the only one I now find a problematic colonial representation - of a young man's dream to travel to "Tonga," where "Oh-le-ma-kitty-looka-chee-chee-cheeee" apparently meant "no." Flanders and Swann sing, with appropriate dramatic pauses, that by the time a Tongan maiden says this on a date, "it is usually too late." Cue laughter from the live studio audience, echoed by that of my sister and me, trying to look like we got the joke. Luckily, the Hippopotamus Song entered our musical world a few tracks later, with its "mud, mud, glorious mud" better appealing to my not-quite-adolescent humour.

A decade and a half later, I gleefully sing along to the Gnu and the Hippopotamus, but fast-forward through the Tongan maiden. The soundtrack in my head has filled in the blanks, leaving her just as shadowy, but far less neutral, just one in a chain of exploited women whose pain is the butt of male comedians' jokes. In their day, to speak of the rape of a white woman was unseemly, but that of a Tongan? perfectly normal, really, and the fault of her culture, at that. Cue further studio-audience laughter, now a mockery I can still hear. I've stopped laughing.

A generation later, we have come far and yet gone nowhere: "no" is a joke on even privileged women's bodies (ignoring, of course, the interplay of race and class on the bodies for whom this joke is a reality). Rape culture today is discussed on university campuses and in mass media as a new phenomenon, catalyzed by Facebook and the interplay of sexualities, not as an insidious and slippery element of history that shifts out of grasp. "Songs for Our Time" built a time that was then, that is now. By the time the audience stops chortling, for a woman around the corner or across town, around the world or across the hall, reflected in a mirror or captured in a photograph, whether "no" is a staccato whisper or a siren-like scream, it is usually too late.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Too many metaphors in a single poem

If I were critiquing my own writing, I know I'd object to it being stuffed with mixed metaphors. But fuck it, this is my own blog.

"I'm going to change in a stall.
She looks like a dyke."
A necklace of words, twirling barbs
around the maypole
thrust into the very centre
of the nesting dolls I have tucked
onto my bookshelves
Voodoo finds the smallest,
youngest doll
not hollow
but full, like a cyst
of rotting words
radiating outward
- if the streaks stretch
toward your heart
or feel warm, return to the doctor -
outward through layers
of years, of clouds of words
matted into a blanket.
The largest doll squeaks gratingly
when opened.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"sex for nikkum?"

We used to intentionally mis-hear the lyrics to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov: "sex for nikkum" probably means something else, said properly in Russian. But it was a rape scene, villagers raping the priests. The children's chorus in the wings could either laugh, or be horrified.

There were fleeting seconds when I thought I knew how those priests in Boris Godunov felt, and in my memory I heard echoes of the children's chorus laughing
as timpani pounded, trumpets screamed, violins ached
bells, bells, bells in my heart, lungs, body, heart,
reverberating orchestrally.

Triangulation: not only where the stories coincide
but where the music, the violence, and my body collide.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ready or not

I have not been posting about the Dylan Farrow case, because it hits closer to home than I want to admit. But "admit" implies a need to hide, and a guilt, so here goes. Writing as a creative narrative is the easiest way to spit out what is, I think, likely real.

I remember being very young, maybe four or five, playing hide and seek. I was in the basement of a very large house, not my own.
All the adults - lots of them - were upstairs, being serious.
A man I didn't know came from a bedroom and saw me looking for a hiding place. He said he would help me find one, and led me into a room - a bedroom, or perhaps a den.
I don't remember quite what he did but I remember it hurting and wanting to run away. I don't remember what he looked like, or his voice.
I don't remember.
I don't remember.
I do remember a touch I lacked words for, and a shame that had no precedent.
Do I remember?
But I don't remember enough to be sure it wasn't a dream, if perhaps I fell asleep while waiting to be found.
At a school assembly a couple of years later they talked about good and bad touch and I felt like I should tell, but didn't know who to tell on.

Ready or not, here I come.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


If I only had that shiver
rushing down my spine
as we kissed in the early drizzle
of a late London evening,
oblivious to that departing bus,
If I only had the catch in my throat
as I spilled oceans of words
and you caught them
and held them safe,
If I only had the parting of my chest,
dividing to let you in,
If I only had the heat,
a brushfire tinting
my joyous cheeks,

"Dayenu" means "it would have been enough" and is part of the passover seder commemorating the exodus. 

Impostor Syndrome

If there is one thing bullies teach, it is that reality is never enough. Truths - of triumph, or of pain - aren't powerful enough to be real. Disbelief is a weapon that dissected my soul until I could scarcely believe each thought that fell from my brain into my lap, had to second-guess the synapses that felt so real. Bullies say you don't deserve to be real. And those are the voice that echo in the cave where I try to shelter from fears that my work, love, smile, my very being is not good enough, that I am an impostor going through motions, merely pretending to live this life.
They talk about impostor syndrome in graduate school. But when a cup is full to the brim, it overflows more with every pebble.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Single, with a couple of poems


I want to pick up those fragments
of final words
Sweep them away
as you swept me away
so they cannot pollute
all the words that
loved me.


With one match
I can set
your Valentine's Day gift on fire
Feel the warmth in my hands
And imagine
you're holding me
Watch the dancing flame
cast shadows
Kissing the walls
Hold onto this dream
as it falls


My dictionary sits on my chest
a choking brick
friction against my breasts
and still
in that weight
there are too few words,
Scrabble tiles spilled
beyond rearrangement,
with too few letters left
to spell out how I miss you.

Breaking up is the only part of a relationship where mutual consent seems no longer to hold a central place. Perhaps that is why, after so much honesty, caring, checking in and double-checking, the silence when this dissolves feels like such a betrayal even though she did nothing wrong. Sudden, and unilateral, and two weeks later I am left digging out the splinters left behind.