Words in a Storm

I’m still writing, still publishing. I’ve been overwhelmed, so I’ve been forgetting to post. ADHD/PTSD in a pandemic is a heckuva thing.

BUT! I’ve had a few things published recently.

My short non-fiction piece, All Ten Provinces and Both Territories, has been published in Flash Nonfiction Food: 91 Very Delicious, Very True, Very Short Stories by Woodhall Press. This essay recalls a time I traded something precious for something necessary. It’s also about how delicious pizza is when your belly is empty.

My poem, In Patient, is featured in litmag Serotonin. It’s an oldie, written about 20 years ago while I was an inpatient at a mental health facility. Challenges related to my mental health contributed to the long pause between writing and publishing this poem. Publishing isn’t accessible to neurodiverse and disabled people, in part because it wasn’t built for us. Indie publishers like Serotonin are creating spaces built for us, by us and because of that, pieces like this can find a home. I’m grateful for the small shifts, but it does make me want more change, bigger change.

I will try to post again soon. Until then, may you find the eye of the storm and take a deep breath.

A New Proposal

A cement pole with 'could be fun' on it in black marker grafitti
by H. E. Casson
(CW: Pandemic, anxiety, mental illness, homelessness)

“I’ve made a deal with my anxiety,” I say to my partner.
He’s working from home, surrounded by screens. They are a living museum to all of the people he helps.
“What’s that?”
He doesn’t look up.
“I’m not going to worry about anything but keeping you and me alive and together.”

I’m a worrier, both by nature and circumstance. Before I knew him, I’d already been undone, been left unloved and unhoused. We met as teenagers and I brought him into the chaos with me. We lived nowhere, with fingers tangled together. We had no bed, but cushioned each other, blanketed each other, whispered good dreams in each others’ ears.

We sat on a balcony in a snow storm and we knew.
“This is good, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep”
“We’re going to get married, aren’t we?”
“Yep.”
That was our proposal.

Still, I do not live with a sense of security. This house we’ve since bought belongs mostly to a bank. They might remember its more theirs than ours. Everything is temporary. Clothes wear out. Food goes bad. Cupboards can go from full to bare to someone else’s in no time flat. We could have nothing, again. We could be nowhere, again. I get that. I have to get that. I can’t count on anything.

Except him. Our balcony-promise has lasted more than twenty years. I build fences around him. Make him wear a mask. Clean everything. Put my hand on his neck and search for any trace of fever. I can prepare for losing anything — but not him.

I know that modern people aren’t supposed to love like this. It says something about my autonomy, my self-worth. But I do. I love like hunger. I love like I’m incomplete without him.

I know something else, too. All this insecurity, this planning for the worst, this anxiety, it won’t keep back a virus. The numbers say we’ll make it, but the numbers have never been friends of mine.

So this is my new proposal: if I keep my word, and keep him and me alive, I will learn to revel in good. (Yes, I know that bargaining is a stage of grief, but what’s to be lost by pointing toward what fills me up?)

If we see the end of this together, I’ll believe that we’ll always have a roof. I’ll believe that we’ll always be fed. I’ll believe that only good days are coming. I’ll stand up to my knees in Lake Ontario and shout out my happy to the clouds. I’ll overspend on birdseed and tomato plants and comfortable shoes. I’ll drink hot cocoa in the afternoon and toboggan down high hills.

If we see the end of this, I’ll have faith in our joy.

Or at least, I’ll try.

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Home is an Anti-virus

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Homelessness, poverty, illness, neglect)

I am writing this in my home. I am writing it indoors, with heat and clean water, wearing washed clothes, my skin not itching, my partner’s voice rising and falling in the next room. I am safely housed.

This is true now, but for some of my life, it wasn’t. I’ve lived in an unsafe home, a group home, a shelter. I’ve crashed on couches. I’ve slept rough, slept in my school, slept in spaces not meant for humans. I was me, the same me I am now, but alone and hungry, frantic and deadened all at once. I knew I was disposable.

Over 20 years ago, I met a person who was precious and amazing. He was disposable too. I knew him for weeks, not months or years, but I think about him all the time. He was clever and challenging, generous and creative. He caught TB in a shelter. Because of the nature of crisis-friendships, I don’t know how he is now, or if he is now, but I knew him long enough to see him fall apart. I knew him long enough to learn that illness will always come for humans in shelters, in care facilities, in prisons, in mental health wards. As long as it stays in those boxes, we don’t hear much about it.

And what can I do? I tell stories from my own limited perspective, from this warm place that coats the memories in gauze, making them less sharp. I am here in my home, safe, at least six feet from the world.

What is home, in a time like this? Home is an anti-virus. It keeps us safe. Home is personal protective equipment, covering our most vulnerable parts. Home is an avatar of community care. Home is, and should be, a right.

The Pandemic Chapbooks to Support Charitable Giving initiative by 845 Press and Collusion Books includes a poem I wrote called For Chandrahas, Who is Likely Dead. It is about my friend, about illness, and about home. If you donate to a charity — any charity — you can get a copy of the chapbook for free.

There’s a charity in Toronto called Sanctuary that is taking care of people, members of our community, at great risk and in the most challenging time possible. They are doing this in the face of immeasurable hardship and loss. I hope you will consider donating to them, and to the folks they serve.

I wish there was a way to pull all this together, to end it in a way that is satisfying, but much like the situation, there’s no easy conclusion. There is no bow to tie, just a hundred, hundred loose threads that require a communal will and concerted effort to begin to gather.

In all this, I wish us safety. I wish us a thing called home.

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Rest In Peace, Mr. Dionne

My new creative non-fiction piece, Rest In Peace, Mr. Dionne, is live and free to read in the second issue of Stonecrop Review. It’s the true story of two deeply urban kids finding a way to interact with nature in order properly send off their beloved guinea pig, Mr. Dionne. The artwork, which is both charming and uncanny, is by Holly McKelvey.

The rest of the issue is also beautiful, featuring fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art and photography from around the world exploring the theme of Roots/Routes in urban nature.

The End

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Religious extremism, environmental anxiety, mental illness, medication)

“Good morning.” I wave to my neighbour, a man who does not seem to have a job – or perhaps he just works as I do. Part time. Slip shod. Between depressions and times when my brain runs tickety-tock smooth.

He makes the inhale face that real smokers have mastered. It says that, despite what we have learned, smokers are cooler than the rest of us. He nods. He does not talk very often, just glimpses over the fence as we garden, or half smiles when his son plays.

“Morning.” He mutters, shifting the cigarette in his mouth.

“It’s a nice day.” I say, and it is. It is March and it is atypically temperate. Blue crocuses spot neighbourhood lawns, defying the nightly chill.

“Too nice. I guess this is the beginning of the end.” He says without humour.

I can feel my heartbeat in my neck. I try to count the beats to calm myself as I keep walking, now reduced to my own silent, nodded reply.

The beginning of the end. Did I bring my medication with me today? The little, white, powdery pill that dissolves on the tongue like old Popeye cigarettes and takes the panic with it?

I want the calm or, at very least, the numbing. I know if I think too long, if I linger on our warming planet and our disappearing resources, I will lose myself, maybe for weeks or months.

I pull the pill out of a small plastic container that is always in my bag and slide it under my tongue. I know that in fifteen minutes, the panic will start to fade and I will be able to work my job. I will be able to watch the children and smile and play and give no sign that I am imagining the end of the world while I prepare cheese and crackers.

The end of the world is not new to me.

I first met it in church, between choruses of hallelujah and bible verses memorized for pencils or candy. My earliest memories involve the end; films, humming through ancient projectors, showing flames and death, dragons and monsters, chasing us because we did not love god properly. The only way to avoid the end was to escape to somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that was perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes could not destroy.

When I would run childhood fevers, I would hallucinate the end so vividly that I would scream and wake my sisters.

Even when I walked away from the god that never was, I could not walk away from the end. When my doctor asked me how a teenager develops ulcers, I did not tell him the truth. I did not tell him about television reports of global warming and deforestation. I did not tell him that I had read John Wyndham and Margaret Atwood and William Golding. I did not tell him what I knew – that if the planet did not devour us, then we would surely devour ourselves.

Then I lost my mind and the doctors pondered whether it had been broken all along or whether it had collapsed under all the thoughts that I could not exorcize. They gave me the little white pill, smaller than a sunflower seed. It ate away the edges until I could be cynical, rather than terrified.

I went to protests. I beat on empty oil drums and took pictures of girls with flowers in their hair. I met a boy and smiled sometimes and imagined a future of gardens and kisses and essays and babies. I saw only beginnings and pretended it was not following me.

Some men from England drilled a hole in the ocean floor.

“This may be the one.” Said my good friend. “If they kill all the fish, we have maybe a year. It’s the beginning of the end.”

He kept driving, using one hand to sip the gift I had brought him: soda pop in a glass bottle. He seemed oddly pleased that they were so very obtuse; pretending it could not happen. Perhaps, like me, the end had followed him and it was a relief to stop running.

He was still the person I had know for a decade, but suddenly I could not breathe the air. Suddenly there were not enough little white pills in the whole world.

I was gone for a year that time, buried underneath the fallen supports I had so carefully built. I chose ignorance, until I could learn to tell the voices apart – the ones who preached hell and the ones who preached hell on earth.

I did not want to be obtuse and pretend it was not happening. I did not want to be smart and fall apart.

We have started looking up, they say on the news (even Mr. Hawking says it.) Looking for other planets. Other places to make a home. Somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that will be perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes will not destroy. We have given up on earth.

To try to save it would require us to change and we do not change.

I try to change. I do yoga. I read books with happy endings. I distract myself with friends whose questions I do not answer. How are you? What’s new?

I am afraid of the dark, I do not say. I am afraid to close my eyes. I cannot shake the ideas. I cannot sheep-count them away. I save the pill for bedtime so that I do not remember my dream-filled sleep with its earthquakes and fires and buildings falling in.

I do not read the news, though it follows me. Headlines discarded on bus seats, radios tuned and turned up loud, click-throughs on Facebook feeds. Do you want to be ignorant? I ask myself. Oh god yes, I answer.

I do not want to live in interesting times.

Originally written in 2014 for Centennial Reader, a literary magazine that ceased to exist just as this was due to be published.
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