Steven Heighton wants to stop sleepwalking through his life

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It might seem paradoxical that sleep should play such a vital role in awakenings of a spiritual kind. But it's during sleep that the nightmind, like a drug-inspired auteur, screens footage that ranges from mere nonsense to intense little Symbolist films that confide crucial insights and then leave us thoughtful, touched and troubled. For the first time in my life I feel lucky to be a light sleeper - a recollector of dreams. Sleep now is a cavern I crawl into in hopes of illuminating encounters, poetic or personal.

As I sent in the last edits on The Waking Comes Late - a book of poems that came to me partly in dreams, balanced by other poems of a more intentional, logical, political bent - I was seized by an urge to do something concrete in the world instead of starting something new at my desk. It was November 2015 and I was following the evolving refugee crisis in Greece. One day it hit me: instead of writing a protest poem about Syrian families drowning in the sea or languishing in internment camps, I could travel to the epicentre of the crisis and volunteer. After all, I was between books, and my only child was grown up and no longer at home. So I spent some hours foraging for info online, pricing flights, talking things over with friends and family, figuring out what commitments I'd have to cancel. Then I went to bed, having sensibly concluded the plan wouldn't work - too expensive, inconvenient, impractical; a poet's pipe-dream. 

Yet after a night of disturbing, powerfully insistent dreams, I woke up certain that I would go. By noon I'd booked my flight and was exchanging emails with volunteer groups on Lesvos, where hundreds of refugees, mainly Syrian, were continuing to arrive daily on overloaded, sinking rubber rafts. Just show up, the volunteers all said - we're desperate for help. A few days later I flew to Greece and remained on Lesvos for the month before Christmas.

To describe that month adequately would take hundreds of pages. For now a few scenes will have to do - moments I experienced while serving in a constantly shifting rota of roles, not one of which I was qualified for. 

It's dusk; a crammed refugee raft has scraped up onto a beach in front of a signal fire and, amid shouts and scrambling chaos like the opening frames of Saving Private Ryan, two Dutch volunteers run off for help and I'm left in a large army tent with a Syrian woman who has collapsed and lost consciousness. Where is her family? I pull wool blankets over her, check her radial pulse, then simply hold her hand and murmur encouragingly - words she can't understand and doesn't hear anyway, being unconscious - while I wait for the paramedics to arrive.

Another night after dark I'm pressed into service as a customs officer by the overwhelmed and unpaid Greek Coast Guard. Earringed, in jeans and a black biker jacket, I sit on a wooden chair at a café table on the dock while a hundred shivering Syrians line up to hand over their passports so I can record the details on a piece of foolscap by the sputtering light of a dock lamp. If this seat-of-the-pants informality is surprising to me, it's bewildering to the Syrians. One by one they reach my little desk, gape down at me and reluctantly surrender their documents. "Where am I?" they must be wondering. "What sort of customs official is this?"

Two hours later, a Spanish volunteer named Anna and I lead 60 of these people, loaded down with carry-bags and children, through the town of Molyvos toward a bus allegedly waiting at some soccer field on the far side of town. We are following simple-sounding directions, but now the lights of the town fall behind us, the darkness deepens and there's puzzled muttering from the following crowd. As instructed, we lead them left onto a smaller, unmarked road and then confer nervously as we walk on, slowing as we lose confidence. Anna's English is poor and my Spanish worse. None of the Syrians speaks either tongue. We're guiding cold, frightened, exhausted families farther and farther from safety. Then, just as I start to panic and curse under my breath, out of the darkness ahead of us a large object - the bus! - roars into life, its windows and brilliant white, red and yellow headlights, sidelights, rooflights all igniting like some festooned Christmas pavilion, or like the mother-ship, waiting. Cries of relief and joy surge from the crowd behind us and I exhale, "Thank God."

On a beach I watch a veteran volunteer slice open a few of the life-jackets purchased in Turkey for 15 euros apiece and now discarded on the beach: one is stuffed with straw, one with wood chips, one with bubble wrap. They'd barely keep a housecat afloat. "We're seeing this more and more," the veteran says, his eyes sunken and emptied.

In a lovingly run transit camp in the parking lot of a nightclub called OXY, I serve as goalkeeper while a small but dynamic roster of Syrian schoolboys blasts penalty kicks at or past me. Their exuberant joy seems all the more astonishing when I recall that they were plucked from a sinking Zodiac just two hours ago. 

Often now I wonder where they might be. Detained in camps on Lesvos or at the Macedonian border? Interned somewhere in Northern Europe? I suppose it's not impossible a few are now in Canada.

The end of an essay or talk is supposed to circle back to its beginning. Fine. I could tell you my month on Lesvos retains the shocking strangeness of a long, vivid dream; I could argue that the midnight mind that sent me poems when I had no time for poems also sent me to Greece, thus forcing on me a double awakening as a poet and a person. But to concoct an inspirational denouement in this context - a neatly framed picture of aesthetic and ethical self-realization - seems wrong, sickeningly so. Maybe that's why I can start the Lesvos story, spin out the anecdotes, but have no idea how to go on and finish. In the world now catastrophes are unfolding apace, hatred awakening, while in Canada people like me remain insulated, adrift in a comfortable sleep. Amid such comas of complacency - in oneself, in one's country - perhaps it is right to hope for disturbing dreams.

Author's note: "I used to spend as much time writing poetry as fiction. But years passed, obligations accrued, and I had to devote more and more of my day to writing novels, essays and reviews, not to mention logistical emails and utility bills. So poetry - that famously non-remunerative form - was outlawed to the margins of my creative day. In time, it was driven right across the border and into my nights - my sleep and dreams. The Waking Comes Late is a book consisting partly of material that insistently, annoyingly woke me up, a bit like the spouse who shakes you awake and asks you to remove the bat that has escaped from the cellar and is fluttering around the bedroom. 

In each of the dream-poems, I seemed to detect the same semi-encrypted message: quit sleepwalking through your short life. My nightmind was stubbornly asserting itself - trying, in effect, to wake up my daymind. And as I finished the last edits on the book, I was seized by an urge to do something concrete, something wakeful, out in the world instead of starting something new at my desk. I couldn't decide what that thing was, and in the end I didn't have to - not consciously, anyway. My dreams decided for me." 

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