Revision

Last week, PurpleSageFem posted about the (highly recommended and free to view for the next two weeks) butch lesbian short film Gender Troubles. Before I even watched the film, I was struck by part of a comment left by atryingthing:

It would be helpful to have an entire Youtube filled with the lives of butches just like the FtM channels. “Week 73 as a Butch” or “Going to work as a gender noncompliant woman.” We don’t really have much visibility. I think for a lot of us, it’s hard to imagine ourselves really going through the little details of our often challenging and unique lives for decades just the way we are, especially when the dysphoria is out of control. Many of us are just internally in crisis mode all the time, especially before we find any kind of therapeutic help. More visibility would have helped me to at least know there was another option for how to exist in the world as this kind of person when I was bingeing on post-testosterone and post-top surgery videos.

Over the past year or so I’ve heard so many variations of this sentiment. We have all, at times, bemoaned the lack of butch lesbian or gender-defying female representation. Now and then something pops up like the Gender Troubles film, Peachyogurt’s videos or the Wanted Project podcast. We’ve seen videos appear from various bloggers and detransitioners talking about their experiences, which has been incredibly inspiring. In fact, after that surge, I spent weeks berating myself for not stepping up as well. I planned videos in my head, down to where I would shoot them. I wanted to contribute somehow. I wanted to do something.

But there are a million buts. But my age. But my lack of common experiences. But my boring, reclusive lifestyle. But my name and face that has been floating around the Internet in various communities for close to two decades. But I am so off-the-beaten path and so irrelevant. But my old friends and family might see. I wrote myself off, despite the fact that after rediscovering Hannah Hart and the YouTube vlogging community last summer, the first thing I wanted to do was make videos.

Way back in the mists of time, you see, I was a broadcast communications major for a year and a half, and I took Video Production I & II, editing from VHS tape to VHS tape. Farther back in the mists of time, I made movies with my high school gifted group. We remade The Nutcracker in my living room (I was the Mouse King). We made a continuation of The Little Prince in which the Little Prince is murdered by the Mouse King at the end then resurrected to dance something we called The Seductive Cello Dance. I shot and produced a strange and awkward rendition of “Medieval Family Feud” for an English class.

Ah, high school. Fun times.

I did all the editing, tape to tape, with two VHS machines and good reflexes. I enjoyed it and I was proud of it and I was never embarrassed to be on camera. For some reason, in high school, I knew who I was and thought I had value. (Actually, there is a reason I will get to in a moment.)

It’s funny what we convince ourselves we can and can’t do. One of the hallmarks of trauma is a dissolution of personal identity, caused in part by disassociation, a lack of self-awareness in the brain. The more we disassociate the more we forget we are here, that we have bodies, that we can interact positively with others. I’ve noticed lately what a strange and wonderful sensation it is to have a positive interaction with another human being. There is something good there, something worthwhile. If only I could figure out who I am supposed to be to keep that happening.

I went into high school as a really weird 8th grader. I didn’t have any close friends. There’d been the “You aren’t gay, are you?” comments. I had weird short hair and braces and listened to a lot of classical and folk music and was obsessed with tall ships and various historical periods. But in the summer between 8th grade and my freshman year, I joined the marching band, which ended up being rather full of a lot of oddballs like myself (only much later did I find out who else was gay.)

Presiding over the education of the freshmen in marching and other band skills, as well as conducting the band on and off the field, were two drum majors. I made up my mind before the football season ended that I was going to be the next drum major, a rather mad vision for a socially-awkward kid who had never held a leadership position. But I was all-in and 100% determined to do whatever it took to be selected the new recruit and take over after the senior drum major graduated.

This is the key: The drum majors were charged not only with directing the music, but also being sort of the social glue of the entire group, at least in my band. Because they were doing all the steering of the marching columns through parade streets, all the starting and stopping of songs in front of thousands on the football field, there had to be a close, trusting relationship between them and the band members. So more than anything else, they fostered a sense of welcome and belonging, especially for the freshmen just coming in. They wanted to make everyone feel safe, important, and part of a cohesive unit.

I was so incredibly grateful for that feeling they gave me that I wanted desperately to give it to others. I didn’t care so much about wearing a special hat or marching out front or having my name announced; I just wanted to help others become a part of something the way I had been taken in and nurtured myself.

It was one of the most revolutionary experiences of my life, both that first year and then the next three years of actually doing the job. I had freshmen say to me, “I would have left band if it wasn’t for you.” I had underclassmen try out for the position “because you helped me so I want to help others.” It was one of the rare times in my life when my social relationship to others and to myself seemed … remarkably right.

And I never had to give up the obsession I had with tall ships. Or the weird haircut. Or, for that matter, quietly, secretly being gay.

Atryingthing’s comment above was like a clarion call to me. Especially in the words, “going through the little details of our often challenging and unique lives”. I don’t feel enough of an authority on anything that I would sit and talk about it and feel my contribution is worthwhile, but I could create a window into the daily life of a GNC woman, six-minute snippets of cooking or picking out clothes or not putting on makeup — all those trivial details that fill Youtube with morning routines and cinnamon-eating challenges, book recommendations and monthly favorites. Butches and GNC women have all these things, too.

And maybe if I did it – old and irrelevant as I am – maybe others would, too. Maybe they are already out there. Maybe we just need to pull together some kind of cohesive presence to make other women feel welcome and accepted and nurtured, too, just as who they are.

I saw the most beautiful quote the other day, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been so much in the news lately:

 

It’s not your job to be likable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.

Women, stop worrying about being liked — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s advice for living boldly (via washingtonpost)

 

I fear being disliked; I fear rejection and irrelevance because that’s what I’ve known, for a long time, ever since high school ended. But the people I’ve been rejected by are the people I am irrelevant to, which is the natural state of things, really. It does leave a person feeling “internally in crisis” all the time, as atryingthing said. But on the other hand, if we never step out as ourselves, if we never offer our authentic selves to others, we’ll never know if we could be truly liked for who we are. I have a feeling that if I do this, it would be good for me just to try.

In order to do so, I have to do it as who I really am. And if I do it as who I really am, that means I can’t have the luxury of an anonymous blog on which I give detailed accounts of my personal relationships with friends and family, like I have here. This is one stumbling block that has stopped me before. This blog has been a wonderful place for me to vent, to record my personal trials, to have that comforting validation from others about how yes, I have been harmed. That’s been something writing journals has never been able to give me, and I am so grateful for it. I’ve also been wanting to grow beyond it.

I could continue writing here about my personal trauma, but I don’t think that’s the most healthy and constructive use of this online social realm. I think, what I would like to do, what would be more helpful for everyone, is creating a YouTube channel that is just about existing as a GNC woman and doing things that other living human beings do. Whatever else is out there, it would be a positive contribution, and maybe another point in the extended and often strained web of our community. It would be something bigger than myself, at least, hopefully more helpful, something visible to make others visible, and to let others know that they are seen.

To do that, unfortunately, I’m going to have to revise this blog and unpublish some content. I have some dramatic family members and I don’t want this blog discovered and made fodder for further family drama. That editing and revising will take some time, especially to make sure the most important messages I’ve written about here don’t disappear. After all, you have been a most gracious and kind audience. This blog will always be a foundation, a jumping-off point.

But changes will be made. And then, something new, something more interactive, hopefully something fun –

Coming This Spring™

Amalgamation

The Strayaway Child

“Come home -”
called out in the evening
“Come in out of the forest
Come in from the water
Come sit down to dinner
don’t be so far away -”

“Come home –
Come to my party
Come out with me
Share my world for a while –
Don’t you understand?
What are you saying?
I cannot be with you -”

“Come home –
It’s your birthday, come down
family and friends for you
What more do you want?
We don’t know what else to give
Why are you still so alone?”

“Come home –
Come into our world
full of so many who care
Here is a future
here is a mate to have and to hold
Come take what we offer
Why won’t you?”

“Come home –
Come home to talk
We need to talk
You need to be told
to stop running away
You need to be told
to take what we have
You need to come home
and learn
that what you believe is wrong -”

Come home?
I can only ask why
My friends, you never noticed –
I already am.

October, 1997

 

You may have seen I changed my display name from the title of this blog to Strayaway Woman. I always felt strange having a blog title as my name, but when I made the blog I didn’t know how to have it any other way. Coming back, though, I wanted to change it.

“The Strayaway Child” is the title of an old Irish jig. When I was thirteen, I heard The Chieftains performing the soundtrack for the TV movie version of Treasure Island (look up the 1990 production with Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and a very young Christian Bale as Jim – it’s excellent, and set me on a lifetime journey of fictional sailing adventures) and fell in love with their authentic sound. The first cassette of their music I found included their interpretation of “The Strayaway Child”, and it became a theme of mine to this day.

I can hardly begin to describe what it is like to have this music playing in your ears while walking through a field of high grass still wet with rain, or crouching at the side of a still pond, or – most wonderfully – travelling a mossy, grassy path through the woods barefoot, the green canopy above a natural cathedral. At first soft and mysterious, it builds into something viscerally timeless and empowering. I would go out into the woods with my battered Sony Walkman playing this tune, and I would become another creature, something almost magical – my true self.

As the poem above describes, few others ever got to know this creature. There was a dissonance between her existence and the outside world that never could seem to be reconciled. For many, many years I did try. I did try to come in and somehow “fit.” And I think that only nurtured a tension between myself and my family and friends that is only now beginning to ease.

And it’s only beginning to ease because I’ve chosen that natural, true self. Doing so, however, has come with a cost.

After I wrote last week about – more or less – “my older brother was mean to me,” I began exploring the situation from a broader point of view. I can’t say my older brother was mean to me without asking why my parents let him be mean, why they didn’t encourage him to be more empathetic and compassionate, and also why they didn’t comfort me enough to assuage my hurts and fears so I could sleep without nightmares. Of course, I can rattle off how overworked my mother was, how she was doing her best to keep a happy, clean, and well-oiled household rolling along. And I can roll my eyes and excuse my father for being a bit of a good-times frat boy who was more interested in his own big ideas and personal satisfaction than he ever was in his children. But I can’t say either of my parents didn’t try. My Dad used to take me to the local museum and library on his Saturdays off; my Mom spent hours making me Halloween costumes and hosting birthday parties. They tried in the ways they knew how to try, within their knowledge, experience and capabilities. I would never say it was perfect, but there was another factor involved.

The Strayaway Child.

I may have mentioned it before, but in the film Gods and Monsters, Ian McKellen’s elderly gay film director says of his upbringing, “It was like giving a giraffe to a family of farmers.”  He says it with a kind of painful nostalgia, bewildered at the very concept he survived. That line resonated with me from the moment I heard it, because it describes my experience so well. And whether or not they mean to do it, a giraffe in a family of farmers is going to be mistreated. In part, it was being The Strayaway Child – this wild, nature-obsessed, barefoot, shirtless, gender-defying girl – that lead to everything else being so hard.

My father was a businessman, and, as I mentioned, a kind of overgrown frat-boy. His parents were upstanding, wholehearted people (I will write about my grandmother soon) but as survivors of The Great Depression and WWII had their focus on raising children who would be successful, patriotic Americans. My father was tone-deaf and could not sing or dance and never touched a musical instrument; when I begged for a piano he said, “I guess it will be a nice piece of furniture.” He knew nothing about the arts, or nature, or spirituality. But he was warm, friendly, generous, and had a clever sense of humor, though often at the expense of women. Without a doubt, he rested happily in the male privilege of being the first born son of the first born son, and my brother was his own first born son, following in his footsteps. I was an accessory, a second child to fill out the American Nuclear Family Ideal.

My mother had been raised in a household with a brilliant but overbearing father and a mother who was a traditionally beautiful, kind, domestic goddess who could cooked dinner every night and sewed identical outfits for her twin girls well into their teens. My maternal grandmother died fairly young from a variety of health problems, a chain-smoker and devotee of Valium, that salve for so many overworked housewives of the 50’s and 60’s. I think my mother has always been driven to be everything she was and a little bit more: not only consistently ticking off every box on the Proper Woman Checklist, but also pursuing a career and succeeding despite all her father’s doubts and insinuations about his daughters being “stupid.” As her daughter, I was clearly not stupid but neither was there any indication I would be a Proper Woman. She had no idea what to do with me.

I didn’t want to decorate doll-houses or care for baby dolls or spend time trying to look pretty, so my parents, apparently not knowing what else to do, let me out to play with my brother. And I, not having anything else to do, followed him like he was the Pied Piper. It never occurred to my young mind that he was four years older than me, that he was bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable, more mature. In ways, I felt most naturally myself when I was with him; no one stuffing me into a dress, no one fawning at me, no one encouraging me to be quiet or small. I could be big, I could be loud, I could be strong. At least until, annoyed with the presence of his unruly little sister, he would put me in my place, which was so easy for him to do.

I would follow him up into a tree, never get as high into the branches no matter how I tried, and then be abandoned to get down on my own. I would try to keep up with him and his friends only to be made the butt of their jokes and then be left behind. I would beg for a model airplane kit like the kind he built, but I had no one to help me, and my laughable, wasteful results would be ridiculed. As we got older and I intensified my interest in the arts, we would argue trying to play violin and guitar duets, our personality differences digging a deeper chasm between us. It wasn’t so much that he was mean to me. It was the simple intersection of two mismatched kids left to play together by parents who didn’t know what else to do with them.

From all those experiences, I learned over the years that to be myself always involved a risk of failure and ridicule. This became the model of the world to me: if I try to show myself, I’m going to suffer in some way. It doesn’t help that kids in general are cruel to those who are different, which created echoes of those sibling experiences again and again through middle and high school. It’s an amalgamation of harmful forces: what happens when the different and the standard meet without understanding each other.

So I mythologized The Strayaway Child to somehow preserve her. I hid her away so far back in myself that I came to a point where I didn’t even remember she existed. In finding my way out of that dark place, I found her again. And in coming to understand the way society actually works, I came to understand she had never been wrong, she had never deserved to be left behind or made fun of, she had never deserved to be treated as lesser, as inferior. She never should have been abandoned to the fears of being what she was.

The cost in embracing her isn’t personal; I couldn’t be happier in slipping back into that lilting tune and walking out into the woods again, comforting that child as the woman I am now. The cost is paid in my altered perspective: of my family, of my friends, of the women and men who surround me. My mother and father failed the little girl I was. My brother abused that little girl. My teachers, overall, didn’t know what to do with me. Society, as a whole, gave me no room to exist, no encouragement, no offers of acceptance and celebration. Seeing that clearly is a mighty cost to bear.

I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience for a lot of girls, especially a lot of young lesbian girls, who find themselves standing alone, searching for some place to belong when the people surrounding them have been blindly, ignorantly cruel.

I was reading this past week an article about how despite gay rights being embraced nationally, suicide rates are still very high among homosexual people. One victory isn’t going to solve all the problems: it’s an amalgamation, a mass of factors that are different in every case. How much did your parents understand and embrace you? How much did your social circle celebrate your uniqueness? How hard did the bullies fight back against your freedom of expression? Who caught you, who held you, who made sure you knew you were worth being loved? What role models were you allowed to see? What support were you given to be who you are?

I used to watch families on television sitcoms and wonder at their dynamics. The mother who would come into the daughter’s room for a private, personal talk, ending with encouraging wisdom and a hug – and this was on Roseanne, which intentionally featured a family of realistic, disparate personalities. I used to think, “What people are so kind, so loving?” I still sometimes look at Facebook posts – a lesbian daughter celebrating the love of her father even after his death – and it’s hard for me to comprehend. I know it exists – I have deep-seated beliefs in the existence of human love – but it remains hard for me to accept as fully real.

So I am deconstructing this amalgamation, searching for shards of brighter things. I am chiseling away what constricted me and finding what helped me survive. Maybe it is a tune I listened to out in the woods, that harmonized to my truest self. Maybe it is the one person who I am certain truly loved me. Maybe it is the simple knowledge that I was always alright, just as I was, and more safe than I ever realized.

Maybe with all these things, I can rewrite my past and step out from underneath all this fear and repression, into a field of high grass still wet with rain.

Open Door

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Hello again.

I hadn’t expected to be back here. I had made other plans. I had brainstormed domain names; I had even paid WordPress for them. I thought I could bravely move on to new exciting things that I could put my name to, my face to. I thought I could recreate myself again, as I always have time and time before.

The last few entries I wrote here skimmed across the surface of deeper movements. I talked about my reality and my fantasies; I talked of family matters and perceiving myself as less than my brother, and a few of the ways I was held down in a role of being lesser. But that was all like paging through a photo album and nodding at memories. Yes, I would get held down and tied up. Yes, I would get left behind. Yes, my inner world was wholly stifled by the outer world pressing down around me. It’s easy to mention those things without getting to the meat of it, and even easier to claim empowerment and the idea that I could, with my newfound feminist outlook, just walk away from all of them.

I’ve talked about a certain kind of paralysis before, and it remained with me as we entered 2017. I had all my plans laid out, but I could only stare at them. The websites I designed, the blogs I outlined, all seemed thin, false — too much assertion and not enough reality. We are told to “fake it until you make it” but I had been faking it for years and did not want to go through the pain of a big reveal yet again. But what would I be revealing? The wreck, as Adrienne Rich writes, and not the story of the wreck? The thing itself and not the myth.

It’s difficult when you’ve been telling stories all your life to stop telling them — not only to others but also to yourself. I can look through the family photo album and tell a story, but that doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth. The truth was revealed in November when, a few days before Thanksgiving, I asked if we could avoid having dinner with my brother and his family. My mother said, “He doesn’t really mean any harm,” and I found myself face down on the floor screaming.

That was something dug up from long ago, revealed on the bottom of the ocean.

In the reconciling/detransition discussion there is a set of images that go around, a quartet of posters made by Cari of guideonragingstars. Titled “4 Words”, these images truly stand as a work of art, communicating so well the dissonance between a young woman experiencing gender dysphoria and what her therapist never said. Though I relate to all of them, over and over again one stands out in my mind:

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Sometimes art stands on its own, and sometimes we reinterpret what we see. Although the drawing so clearly tells Cari’s story – the syringe in her hand going into her thigh, the cuts on her arm, the breast bindings – at first glance, my own brain reinterprets that figure like a Rorschach ink blot, and all I see is a young girl left alone, tied to a chair. Either way, the face is gone, the identity, the importance of the individual scrubbed away. Either way, the words echo unforgettably, “This could be trauma.”

When I think of authentically interacting with people in any way, that’s how I feel: faceless, voiceless, captured, helpless. That is the wreck I don’t wish to reveal.

If you had asked me four years ago, I would have told you I had a happy childhood. We were well-off, had nice things, a comfortable living. My grandparents lived next-door. I spent hours outside, rambling around woods and fields and streams and ponds. I was never fearful when I was out in the woods alone, remarkably, despite tales of rattlesnakes and sightings of bears. But I do remember being terrified at home, church and school.

I’ve always just accepted I was a “scared child” who was afraid of the dark and slept with her head under the covers for years and years. I’ve always accepted I was just “nervous and shy” and that’s why I threw up at a birthday party when I was 7 and had to be taken home from school due to stomach pains time after time. I’ve always accepted I was a “daydreamer” who “couldn’t pay attention” and “lived in her own little world.” I’ve always accepted all of these things because that’s what other people always told me I was, so I never asked why I was so terrified.

The picture at the top is of my bedroom door. The hole to the right (which is in the center of the door) came into existence when my brother threw a 3-foot-long piece of oak molding – that had been carved and sharpened like a sword – down the 6 yards of hallway between our bedrooms. He had wanted me out of his room and had wrested my “sword” out of my hands. I knew enough to close my door as I ran away. We were in our teens.

I remember curling into a ball when we wrestled, so he couldn’t get me in a headlock or twist my arm behind my back. I remember using my teeth to try to pull apart the tight knots he tied around my hands and feet when it was my turn to be “hog tied”. I remember him threatening to push me into the “bottomless pits” of a cavern we were touring, nudging me against the railing. I remember him and my cousin holding me in the back of the van while they “nose-brained” me, wiggling my nose until I could hardly breathe. I remember being made fun of, left behind, beaten in board games or computer games and mocked for it time after time. I got the cast-offs, the leftovers, the abandoned toys and half-completed projects. I was told to “follow your brother.”

Now kids will be kids, people say: stop whining already. And I’ve told myself that all my life — we were just kids, playing. Toughens you up to have an older brother. I got strong. I learned about knots and knives and sticks and firecrackers. I tried to keep up. I put on a brave, defiant face, and I loved my brother as much as I could. We had the best relationship, I told my friends — we never fought.

If you had asked me four years ago, I would have told you I had a happy childhood. But when I first began to meditate, what rose in my mind over and over again was my brother’s inescapable, overbearing presence. I would sit and picture him as a pile of garbage at the edge of the backyard that I just had to get accustomed to – after all, he doesn’t mean any harm. He just is what he is. And I have tried and tried to accept his presence in my life. When the events of November took place, they finally gave me an opportunity to rightfully say, “I can’t deal with you for a while.” In that space – at last, stepping away from his ability to put me in my place – I found the room to turn around and look back at how we really grew up. And when I looked, I was so angered by what I saw, again and again and again.

I thought I had been traumatized by the tumultuous years of my parents’ divorce, and I’m sure I was. But I had trauma symptoms – nightmares, anxiety, dissociation – in elementary school. My earliest memory of a severe panic attack occurred when I was four. If I can remember my brother tormenting me at that age, I can’t rule out him teasing me and messing with my head when I was even younger, in those toddler days when you’re supposed to be learning how to trust the ones around you and find comfort – not fear – in your family members.

I dared to bring all this up to my mom, and she admitted my brother was never very caring towards me — he treated me less like another child and more like a plaything at best and an annoyance at worst. But that was just his way; he was never very emotional as a child — “He was forty when he was four years old, I swear.”  Discussing my memories further only lead to her feeling guilty for “not being a good mother” (both of my parents worked, my mom doubly so taking care of the household chores and the kids, my father often absent) and I didn’t want her to take on any blame. In addition, she has her own personal reasons for being unable to change her disposition towards my brother, which at this point in her life I won’t pressure her to analyze. But when he called the other night — after two months of radio silence and several phone calls she had made to him — I couldn’t bear to hear her talk about how nice he was on the phone and how much she enjoyed their conversation and how she looks forward to seeing him. I couldn’t bear it. I realized trying to come to any resolution about this with her is only going to make everything worse.

But I need somewhere to begin to talk about it, to feel free to say, “This happened, and it was terrible, and it affected me deeply.” I need to reveal the wreck for what it is, without anyone who was involved judging my memories or telling me “it couldn’t have been that bad.” I bought a few books on trauma, including the enlightening “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bresser van der Kolk. I’ve never read anything that so completely explains how I’ve felt all my life. And in two decades of trying to figure out how to fix what’s wrong with me, I’ve never read anything that has given me so much hope.

It’s a funny thing, in a way, having this traumatized brain whispering to me all the time. I would read of other people’s trauma — so many of us who have written about gender dysphoria have written about trauma as well — and I would relate to so much of the underlying feelings, the emotions, the state of being. But I would say to myself, “You didn’t have trauma. It wasn’t so bad. Your story isn’t as important as theirs.” And that’s the trauma talking, telling me my pain isn’t worth anyone’s time or effort, not even my own. That’s the trauma talking, telling me I can be beat up, belittled and left behind, and I’m not worth anyone coming back to pick me up and make it okay again.

I never came across any more powerful action than gathering the courage to tell myself, quietly and sincerely, “You are safe.” My entire body changes when I speak those words to myself, like a child uncurling, peeking out from under the covers. Maybe once I had to shut a door to keep myself from bodily harm, but speaking those words now somehow opens another.

It’s a start, at least. I have a notebook beside me of things I need to do to try to get a handle on unwinding this, from getting back into yoga and meditation to rewriting my past. But the first thing I knew I needed to do was to speak the words, to put it out there that this is something that happens, that this is a story that needs to be told, not just for me but for others who have also thought it wasn’t that bad. I hope that as I move forward — as I moved forward through accepting myself as female and accepting myself as a lesbian — whatever I write here can be of use to some others, and connect us more fully when all pain and fear ever does is close doors.

Our Selves

Late blooming flowers
beneath spreading trees
dipping virgin roots into the river
Warm waters, softened by sunlight –
She sits and dreams.

Deep in the green
Wild things, heavy with Life
Freedom as much as blood
empowering them –
They dance around her
under the shade of the canopy
watching with eyes on other things.
She reaches, but they are as untouchable
as the sunlight.

“But I feel you,”
she says to the sky,
to the golden shafts which blanket her in warmth.
“I feel you – as I feel them –
somewhere deeper than the soul –
If an eagle could fly from me
it would stir me no less than this.
Why was I brought here?
A witness – never to touch the evidence?
Is it a crime to love?
A child’s wanderings – or not?
Why was I brought here
to this that I love
only to reach, and face denial…”

The wind blows,
and in it, softly singing,
she hears her love and weeps.
“A world of beauty wasted,”
she sighs, and closes tired eyes.
She sits and dreams,
and her soul dies.

I wrote this poem twenty years ago, when I was on the cusp of twenty and trying very hard to find my place at a local liberal arts college. I lived off-campus, so would arrive for my morning classes then spend the day at the school, passing a great deal of time between classes in the main building’s rotunda, sitting on a particular bench, watching the other students cross the space as they moved from room to room. It was there I jot down the basic words to this poem.

In those days I couldn’t allow myself to be a lesbian. Sure, a certain girl kept piquing my interest in English, but I was not going to be gay. Besides, I was having a lot more feelings for a lot of other things, for stories and characters spinning in my head, and deep-seated reactions to particular faces, particular eyes. The woods were still my most sacred space. I still tingled – and wrote even more poetry – when gazing up at the Dipper and Orion.

But day to day, I sat in the rotunda and watched the other students cross the space. Teachers, too. It’s a strange kind of isolation that comes with never seeing yourself reflected in the world around you. In high school, I had been an oddball but had made friends; in college, I could not locate anyone like me, and more than ever I was drowning in the images that told me I was wrong: the petite, pretty girls with their short skirts and makeup, the loud, crass boys who wore the same clothing I did. There was one girl who always wore a ponytail and jeans, who shouted across rooms and loved to party. She was openly gay, but she still wasn’t anything like me.

I did well enough in classes but I couldn’t stay. I just couldn’t stay, and after two years of trying I let go of a full scholarship and left college. I don’t recommend this to anyone. Please stay in school and get that degree if possible. It’s very hard to go back and finish later. It’s something I deeply regret, that English Lit degree that slipped through my fingers because my soul was just dying, just dying in that place.

We are told throughout our lives to “Be Yourself!” It sings out in children’s songs and is gently spoken by Mr. Rogers. It decorates posters and Tumblr posts. Electric guitars blare the message in Coca-Cola commercials. We’re inundated with images of hip young people of various colors, their dancing elders joining in, a world of diversity and inclusion distributed to every speaker and screen. But that isn’t the real world. All that well-meaning wishing isn’t the real world.

Being yourself isn’t always possible. Being yourself isn’t possible when being gay isn’t safe. Being yourself isn’t possible when wearing men’s clothes or finding women attractive isn’t accepted. Being yourself isn’t possible when a Christian will take you by the collar and demand you read the Bible when you say you don’t go to church. Being yourself isn’t possible when you see no one around you existing the way you do – the way you want to – and living a free and happy life.

So we get used to being afraid and we call it anxiety. We get used to being sad and we call it depression. We get used to hiding and we call it introversion. We come to hate all the things we loved because those things hold us back from ever being ourselves the way so many seem to be themselves, dancing on TV, walking through the rotunda from class to class.

We are left sitting and dreaming and dying inside.

I tried very hard to be myself, as so many well-meaning people told me to be. But I was convinced it wasn’t possible, it wasn’t safe, and so I decided I would be something other. I would be helpful, first and foremost; I would be funny. I would be talented, generous, and accepting of everyone. I would tolerate the jokes. I would be cool. I would be an atheist. I would be an easy-going dyke, lol. I would be masculine; I would be rational. I would be no problem for anyone at all.

I would make a self that was safe to be.

Somewhere, deep in the green, she sits and dreams.

It was only when I was faced with idea of having to alter my physical body to sustain this false self that I realized how much harm had been done internally, how far I had traveled from who and what I really was. I sat for days in grief acknowledging that yes, it is fucking hard to be a lesbian. It is fucking hard to live in defiance of femininity and patriarchy. It is fucking hard to feel and love and experience the world so differently than the vast majority of people out there who want everything to be so inclusive and positive and easy. It is fucking hard to be myself.

I started this blog in January of this year, settling into this soft space to explore the lost pieces of myself and figure out how I could fit in this world. I have been so blessed to have learned and read and interacted with so many brave, insightful, inspiring people through this space, to have found acceptance and friendship and so many deep thoughts to consider, so many journeys to honor. All of this strengthened me to step more and more into myself in my daily life, and watch all the facades from the last twenty years crumble around me. Difficult, but an unavoidable result of living as someone other than who I am. Somewhere in all the rubble and reconstruction I found myself. Then a book opened and finally – finally – had words for what I was:

A woman’s whose occupation it is to spin participates in the whirling movement of creation. She who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self, by choice, nether in relation to children nor to men, who is Self-identified, is a Spinster, a whirling dervish, spinning in a new time/space.

Spinster, Hag, Fury or Chrone as Mary Daly defines them in Gyn/Ecology, but I will tend always towards “a woman who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self, by choice, neither in relation to children nor to men.” At those words, deep in the green, she raises her head and stops dreaming. At those words, she rises to create again.

I will leave this space for those who seek it, and I hope it engenders softness around them, the same kind of comfort and safety to explore themselves as I have needed. At very least it’s another story for those who like stories, and another experience that will hopefully make someone feel a little less alone. I will always keep tabs on new comments and any searchers who find themselves here looking for guidance.

It’s time for me now to create a new space, to fill not with the restrictions I’m casting off or the identities I’m trying on, but with the simplicity of my Self just as it is, at last recovered. I will let you know where that space is once I create it.

But I leave any readers of these writings with this message: Your self, your true self, your sacred self held in the innermost parts of you, that sings when you love and weeps for the beauty of the world, can be revealed and embraced and recovered. Even if it isn’t safe to be yourself. Even if it seems impossible. You can wipe away the dust and debris and hold that jewel, every beautiful facet, and know without doubt that no one, nothing, will ever make you abandon it again.

Exorcism

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this blog without telling the whole story. I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s lines in Dogfish, “You don’t want to hear the story of my life, and anyway, I don’t want to tell it,” though I don’t think I can get away with telling nothing at all and still making the point I mean to make. No present event can be isolated from our past.

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time outside. I was fortunate to grow up on what had once been an old farm, and whether alone or with others I spent a great deal of time climbing trees and stone walls, running through the woods, walking through overgrown fields. I have always loved discovering and handling all the small creatures, frogs and snakes and salamanders, crickets and dragonflies. Year after year I found wonder in the changing of the seasons, the red leaves of autumn, the sound of snow falling through bare trees, the melting of the ice on the pond in the spring. I spent a lot of time outside, and my mind was always full of attentiveness, of quietness and care, of a certain deep respect for everything around me. I went to church but believed in another kind of magic, and as I grew older I gathered it close to me like a cloak of protection against the trials and chaos of the outside world.

After all, I was always told I spent too much time outside, too much time alone, too much time getting muddy going after newts in the pond or sitting out with the dog (who was never allowed indoors.) My family wondered why I wouldn’t come in; my mother worried about my social life; my Dad and brother made fun of me, teased me for being grass-stained and a little wild. When I was young my friends found my wildness charming, but as I got older I realized they thought I was weird about wanting to identify with the woodland animals more than I wanted to identify with the girls and boys on TV.

By the time I was a teenager I had been convinced that my inner life, so vividly alive when I was out in the woods, was a fantasy world in my head. My “real” life should consist of school and accomplishments, friends, clubs and activities, faith centered around church and love centered around the opposite sex – in other words, following in my brother’s footsteps.

My brother, four years older than I, intelligent, handsome, soft-spoken and always well-liked, was always there to remind me he was the one in the right of it. He was the one winning awards and commendations, lead roles and scholarships. When we wrestled he would hold me down until I curled into a ball in self-defense; when he learned karate he used my nose as a practice-target, always stopping short just before striking me; when we played at hog-tying each other, he always secured me until I had to beg to be released. He knew the better knots and could tie them tighter. He could do everything better than me, and never got in any trouble. After all, it was just kids playing around, roughhousing. The best thing I could do, I always thought, was try to keep up with him.

I tried until my parents divorced and our family fell apart. He went off and got married, got educated, got ordained, got jobs and houses and positions in churches and all those real-life things so commended and celebrated. I stayed at home to reconstruct what was left with my mom. I stayed on the land, what part of it we had left, with the dog and the peepers singing in the pond in the spring. He never stopped reminding me I had made a mistake. I had chosen the wrong path, leading me to become a co-dependent failure doomed to arrested development who needed to get out of the house, get into a relationship, go to church, certainly not be gay, and definitely not spend any more time malingering in the fantasy world in my head.

That dynamic has remained an open wound for the past twenty years. I have tried to fix myself. I have tried different religions, different practices and approaches to somehow make myself a person worthy of the same respect as him. I have tried. I tried to make myself into a respectable sister. I tried to be a good auntie to his children, taking them on for days at a time. I gave my time and my energy and what little money I had for birthdays and Christmases and get-togethers. I sat through their church services without saying a word. But when it got down to asking, “Do you respect me enough now to understand why your anti-gay beliefs frighten me?” his answer was no, we don’t respect you enough for that at all. No matter what you have done. No matter how you have tried over all these years to earn our approval. None of your hurt or fear has anything to do with us; you are the only one to blame for being the failure you are.

Without going into detail, this past week has been an exorcism. There have been conversations, but moreso, beyond all the words – whether cruel or polite, whether issued in peace or screamed in anger – there has been a transformation of I have to say spirit, a movement that has left me deeply changed. One day last week, unable to bear the mere notion of my brother being blameless in this, I knelt by my bed and just roared into my quilt, over and over again, the rage of twenty years – thirty – a lifetime of being held down and belittled, forced to hide and diminish all that I loved. I sobbed afterwards, heavy, hard, deep, scathing sobs, all the while something lifting from me, like demons that had been clutched around my ankles, around my hands, around my heart, for as long as I could remember.

I realized, in that turmoil, that nothing of my brother’s world would ever heal or help me. Nothing of men’s religions – not even my beloved Buddhism, which had assured me if I just sat in peace I could find peace despite the demons around me – nothing of their psychology, nothing of their sociological structure that was always going to push me down and leave me to suffer. And in that empty space the demons left behind, a cool drop fell into a still pool like crystal, and I realized with sudden clarity what it meant to be a woman.

I realized the deep and ancient being within myself no man’s word or rule could ever define.

And I stood up, with a kind of strange humor, and thought, “Maybe I should be that butch witch we’d talked about in the spring.”

The lovely Kittyit on tumblr advised me to read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, and word by woman’s word all the curtains were drawn away. I advise every woman to read it. And every man who wants a clearer view into the dynamics between our sexes. While I read, I went outside, I walked in snow and collected pinecones, I touched the frost-bitten rosehips on the thorny branches, I sensed that innate magic and deep love once again. I realized the world I had loved and lived in as a child was the real world. The real real world. Not a fantasy. Not ever something to be hidden or left behind.

Days later when my sister-in-law sent a vicious email condemning me for decades of hurt and damage I had somehow – somehow! – done unto them, banishing me from any involvement with their family ever again, I took it with grief and hurt and sadness but any resistance or anger had left me. Was I the witch, the hag? Would they have burned me five-hundred years ago, simply because I had chosen to live differently than them, in a way they could not understand?

They did burn me. They tried to. They tore me to shreds with their own demons until I nearly destroyed myself. But those demons can’t touch me anymore. I stand with the truth of my sisters, at last truly knowing them, seeing them for what they are and always have been. I can never look at a woman the same way again. Even my sister-in-law, more plagued and possessed than I ever was – I wish her freedom from her suffering, too. I wish all women the freedom and safety to go back outside, and stay among the trees and stars as long as we want to.

I cannot express how this changes my life: the courage it has given me, the sense of wholeness, the alignment of my Self after being fragmented and isolated by male oppression for so long. I have never been so emotionally and physically exhausted by events in my life – I’m still finding it necessary to be quiet, to give myself time to recover. But I’m so curious, and I’m so alive, and I’m so centered, and I’m looking so forward to moving deeper in this direction. It’s the direction I’ve always been moving, but they called me in from outside, and they told me it was all a fantasy.

My life, my perceptions, my womanhood, my lived reality, is not a fantasy. They can convince me of that no longer. Those demons have been excised.  

Hitting too Close to Home

My friends.

Not long ago, I thought I was perhaps moving beyond This Soft Space – that I’d healed enough, processed enough, and strengthened enough that I could say a few last words and move on to less anonymous, more personal endeavors. I thought I had gained some ground beneath me and could start building a new life.

And then this election happened.

I live in Pennsylvania. Biggish (bigly?), Mid-Atlantic and full of trees, Pennsylvania has always, I’ve felt, had a kind of open, natural, neutral feel to it, a kind of best-of-all-worlds. Not too hot in the summer, not too much snow in the winter, absolutely stunning fall foliage. Beautiful farmland and urban centers of a historic, industrial past. For all the rural conservative areas and deeply religious communities, we also have Philadelphia, we have Harrisburg, we have Pittsburg, we have the Wyoming Valley, a moshpit of generations of immigrants currently welcoming newcomers migrating across the Poconos from New York City. I have lived here all my life and even in an area I know leans conservative, I have always believed in Pennsylvania and felt at home in Pennsylvania.

Even amid the growing number of Trump signs.

Last Tuesday night, I stared in disbelief as Pennsylvania fluttered on the map, “Too close to call.” My township, my county, my little corner has almost always lit up blue. Pennsylvania as a whole has almost always lit up blue for as long as I can remember. But last week that didn’t happen. My township lit up red. Everywhere except the urban centers lit up red. The whole state, in the end, lit up red. This happened all around the entire country and Donald Trump was somehow, somehow, elected President.

You all know that story by now, and have heard enough about it.

It is still bewildering. I remember talking to my mother’s friend, who was leaning towards voting for “change” with Trump, and telling her, “Do you know what this will mean for disadvantaged people? Do you understand how it will change the social climate?” She said she would remember me in the voting booth. Maybe she did. But I don’t have any faith that it changed her vote.

What happened in this election – from that well-meaning woman who just wanted “change” at any cost, to the near 50% of the country that didn’t vote at all – was a horrifying revelation of the subtle forces always at work, pervading our interactions and dividing us time and time again. It was surprising because we think people are better than that, better than racism, homophobia, misogyny. We like to think that most people are better than that. But for most people, safe enough in their own lives, those things are all easily tolerated, even momentarily embraced, for the sake of some promise of getting a little farther ahead in their lives.

The real shock for me came a week after the election.

The vast majority of my Facebook feed – thankfully – has been full of Hillary supporters sincerely grieving her loss and calling out for watchfulness and social consciousness in the coming years. Amid this flurry of progressive activism, I caught sight of my sister-in-law applauding strident words from a lesbian posting about LGBT rights and fears during this time. My brother and sister-in-law are staunchly religious, and for the past nine years have said things and done things that have made me as a lesbian incredibly uncomfortable. But here she is, in the wake of the election, waving rainbow flags and boosting LGBT-positive posts.

For some reason – for some stupid, hopeful reason – I thought I saw a crack of light from a long-closed door. I thought maybe, maybe I’d been wrong all along, maybe they were somehow cool with gay people after all, despite their strict reading of the Scripture and their alliance with clearly anti-LGBT denominations. If she could applaud this openly-lesbian woman, couldn’t she be my ally, too? Couldn’t we be friends again, as we had been long ago before they were married, before I’d ever realized I was gay?

And shouldn’t we reach out to those closest to us in these frightening times, to find some security, some solidarity?

So I did. I wrote a message to her, asking if I had been mistaken. Had I been mistaken when my brother told me I wasn’t really gay, that I just had “Daddy issues”, that I just wanted to be part of a group that felt judged because I had always felt judged? Was I mistaken when I heard him say he’d never marry a gay couple in his church? Was I mistaken when I read her comment saying if her children showed any signs of being gay she would try to “deter” them? Was I mistaken when I shook where I stood being introduced to a pastor so conservative he had anti-gay pamphlets in the lobby, knowing they had changed denominations and moved just to join this church? Had they really just been doing that… religiously, when actually they were open-minded and liberal and loving to all people all along?

My sister-in-law replied that I had “mistaken assumptions” and she was “super super sad” that I had, but she had to think things over and would get back to me. I waited a week for her reply.

“Your identity as a lesbian doesn’t bother us in the least,” she said. “We give it no thought whatsoever one way or another. So you’ve definitely loaded us up with a pile of inaccurate assumptions. I hope this brings you some peace over it all.”

Boy, am I glad my “identity” as a lesbian doesn’t bother you in the least. Boy, am I glad you don’t give it any thought one way or another how terrified and hurt I’ve been over the past nine years. Man, it really is too, too bad I piled all those “inaccurate assumptions” upon you. How silly of me. I should… why I almost feel I should apologize for ever bringing it up and bothering you with the silly nine years of extreme anxiety and discomfort I’ve endured due to things you have actually said and done.

If only I didn’t “identify” as a lesbian, if only I didn’t choose to perceive your actions as harmful to me, if only I fit into your narrative of your never hurting anyone due to your beliefs! People just need to buck up and not be hurt by the things you do and say, right? God makes everything A-OK after all.

What privilege you have over me, to tell me the the reason behind so much suffering in my life doesn’t bother you in the least.

And I thought, yes, that’s exactly why so many voted for Trump, and why so many stayed home because this election didn’t matter to them either way.  What privilege you have not to be bothered by the causes of another’s suffering. How convenient it is someone being gay or black or Muslim or an immigrant doesn’t bother you in the least.

So close to home. And so veiled by that progressive bullshit of liking and sharing and reblogging and patting oneself on the back for being a good progressive liberal.

I am still getting over it, after losing sleep last night battling between the desire to move forward and free myself and the anger prodding me to grab my phone and make post after public post. Then, of course, I wonder why anyone would believe me at all. Aren’t all of us living in fear for no reason? Aren’t all of us just choosing to feel oppressed with no cause? Maybe they are the good and sane and wise ones. Maybe I’ve been fucked up all along.

Just misunderstandings, assumptions. I was wrong all along, how dare I assume otherwise.

So I come back to this soft space because it’s not safe out there. All of this deep-seated distrust and dislike, all of the reasons we humans throw each other under the bus, has been exposed for all to see. We didn’t think it would be this way. We thought we were better than this.

We assumed wrong.