Divine Loneliness: An Excerpt from my Journal

I read my journals after I finish writing on their last pages before putting them away. This journal was particularly heavyhearted. It spans the beginning of a grief process to a hospitalization. This entry was written in the throes of an existentialist faith crisis that I’m still wading through. Needless to say, it’s dark. Though dark, it speaks to something that I’m finding to be true about how I experience God and the world. It’s not polished.  It is the stream of consciousness brought out through journaling. I’ve done little to change the format so it reads as strangely as it spilled from my head to the page. I hope it sparks something in you, dear reader, whatever that something is. Here we go: Continue reading “Divine Loneliness: An Excerpt from my Journal”

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What Support Looks Like

People want to be helpful. We especially want to help our friends. Their distress calls to us and we want to be there to do all that we can to help. Few of us, though, understand what that looks like. We throw out statements like, “If you need anything, let me know” and “I’m here to support you.” I want to highlight something very important: these statements are empty; they have no concrete meaning without an explanation or context.

I once tried to talk to someone who offered “anything I needed” about the exhaustion of managing loss day-to-day. I was met with so much awkwardness that I had to make light of it and change the subject. If there’s one thing I don’t want to do while I’m feeling low, it’s manage another person’s awkwardness around my mental state. That awkwardness makes me want to hide how I’m feeling from those I care about and only talk about it with my therapist. This may be what a lot of other people want for me to do. But I’m going to assume good intentions of those offering support by thinking they genuinely want to help.

The problem might be that they just don’t know how. Continue reading “What Support Looks Like”

Found In Philly

As the bus pulled into Philadelphia, I started to feel anxious.  I hadn’t really thought about my expectations of the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and at that moment, the thought of what I would be walking to was overwhelming.  I’ve never had the opportunity to spend time with more than 10 trans* people at a time.  I couldn’t even conceptualize what it would be like to spend a few days with over 50 let alone thousands.  So I panicked.  The bus slowed, I gathered my suitcase and messenger bag, and set out for my hotel with shaky, sweaty hands.

Continue reading “Found In Philly”

Naked and Not Ashamed: Lessons in Vulnerability From Adam and Eve

Each death brings up the last one and the one before.  When it happens, I have to let the names reverberate in my soul like residual sound waves from the repeated crashing of cymbals.  I can brace myself, but each vibration is stronger than the last, emanating from my chest until I’m on my back.  At that point, I am drained.  Nothing is real except the patterns on the ceiling and the disdain for all foods that are not pizza delivery.

I’ve admittedly been uninspired.  I have seven blog entries that I’ve started, each of which went no where.  It’s not that I haven’t known what to write, but that I couldn’t.  I would latch on to an idea and in the few minutes it would take for me to hammer out the first few sentences, I’d be through with it.  The words would disappear.  My mind would be blank leaving only distorted faces and traces of names.

What do you do in the aftermath of loss?  How do you cope?

I draw in.  I keep to myself.  I hide.

I write, of course, but not publicly.  I write everything down in my leather-bound journal to be viewed only by me.  I feel less vulnerable that way.  Everything written in the journal is protected by its secure location and the indecipherable code that is my handwriting.  I am free to be as candid as I please.  The walls can come down, and emotions can flow. Of course, I’m expected to be vulnerable here too, but there is a difference between expected vulnerability and unexpected nakedness.  When I am expected to be vulnerable, I get the feeling that I can prepare.  Not all of my secrets have to be shared, and I get to pick and choose which ones I air.  Unexpected nakedness leaves nothing hidden.  All of my faults and insecurities are open to scrutiny.  The world chooses what to do with the information as if it was never mine.

The Bible speaks quite a bit about nakedness, usually in regard to sex and sexuality. However, I think there is something be said for reading some of those passages with vulnerability in mind.  The last line of Genesis 2 is particularly interesting: “And the man and his wife were naked, and not ashamed.”  Usually, you will hear this line discussed in terms of sex.  To be naked is to be sexual, and to be not ashamed of it is a sort of ignorant bliss in which Adam and Eve lived before “waking up”.  This line, though, admits a sort of vulnerability that I think needs to be examined.

They were two naked folks without the shame that we so often feel surrounding bodies.  They showed their whole selves to each other with no reservations.  They lived without worry as to what the other would think, or whether they should be ashamed of revealing so much to the other.   It’s not just the act of creation that bonds them, but the vulnerability of their relationship that links them together.

Maybe applying Genesis to my situation is a bit of a stretch.  Perhaps the sexual implications of the text are too hard to ignore.  More exegesis of the story would bring up some interesting social teachings regarding gender, not to mention the whole thing about homosexuality, but this one-line verse is packed with so much beauty and innocence that I needed to look at it in terms of all that nakedness suggests.  The act of being naked is not inherently sexual; our reading of this text is what makes it so.  There is more to nakedness than just physicality.  Nakedness is also a feeling.  Being naked does not necessarily depend on whether one has on clothes.  I can feel naked while fully clothed.

Nakedness suggests an openness with my vulnerability that requires trust.  In an emotional context, the willingness to reveal myself creates a bond between that person and myself that makes for a more intimate friendship.  In that type of friendship, I am able to be as open about my feelings as I need to be without fear or shame.  The friendship itself becomes a safe space in which all parties involved can explore the depths of their feelings while trusting that the others will not take advantage of those feelings or that situation.

I have felt a sort of raw vulnerability that makes it difficult to trust other with that vulnerability.  I have felt as if my words would give away too much to people I don’t know I can trust with that information, thus leaving me open to those undesirable feelings of unexpected nakedness.  I tell myself I’m totally OK with everything, then I go to the ‘new post’ screen and freeze.  Suddenly, I forget the boundaries between private and public information and feel naked in front of the screen, as if anything I type will reveal too much.  I don’t share anything to keep myself from sharing too much.

I’ve had it drilled into my head that there are certain things that are OK to talk about and others that are not.  Death is definitely in the camp of things that are not OK to talk about.  It’s private.  The feelings associated with it are private.  We don’t talk about it.  There are some for whom this approach works.  I am not one of those people.  I need to process my feelings with those who are experiencing the same thing.  I need to know that I am not alone, even if the only other person feeling the same thing is across the world somewhere.  I have to write about it.

It’s not a neat process.  It’s hard to tap into that space knowing that these words will be read by eyes other than mine.  I get uncomfortable and think that maybe it would be better if I kept it all to myself.  I start imagining my life without assigning words to the difficult things I experience.  My alternate world is one where I can only express happiness.  That world is the more terrifying than most of my nightmares.  In that world, I do not relate to others and I do not grow.

Someone once taught me that moving forward with life requires being able to sit with discomfort.  Things don’t have to be OK including myself.  I am not always in control.  I do need to be able to sit amidst the chaos and feel it permeating all aspects of my life– including my faith– to understand that I am vulnerable.  I am delicate and fragile.  This is not something that I must hide or control.  If I accept anything as truth in life, it will be this one thing.

Really though, what’s the use of writing if not to convey difficult emotions and experiences?  I want to write such that I am moved.  I want the words to take me on a journey that makes it impossible to get back to where I was previously.  Hopefully, whoever reads it will experience the same.

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After each death, I realize how large of a gift every person is to this world.  We are each other’s gifts, and that is all that matters.  Why focus on things other than the people around us?  The ones in whom I find great joy, comfort, and everlasting love–they deserve my focus.  Instead, I focus on all the things that I *think* will make me a better person.  I work myself raggedly until all I can think about is shutting myself away from the world.  This is wrong, and in this moment, as I ache, I resent the world that praises me for doing this.

I learned about death at the age of 14.  Some of my friends had lost grandparents; I lost a friend.  She was taken violently, and that experience has marked every experience I’ve had with death since.  Car crashes, illnesses, suicides, even murders–all of these are lessons in death that have taught me more about living than anything else.   I have learned to seek out what is good and beautiful in the world.  To hold it close, and then to let it go.  I have learned to take the time to praise small fortunes like the first patch of daisies in Spring, or an excellent cup of coffee.  I have learned about reconciliation, to say that I’m sorry and to mean it.  More importantly, I have learned to say “I love you” and to mean it.  To look into the eyes of a person and see the humanity coursing in their pupils telling me a sad, beautiful story.  In this, I have learned to appreciate my life for all of its wondrously chaotic splendor.  To love all of the mistakes I’ve made that have lead me to be exactly who I am in this moment.  Through all of it, I have learned to be, and to pray, and to cry.  These are all skills that I need.

As I write this, I can feel sobs welling up in my throat.  It’s far too soon to have lost someone else.  I get to go through relearning all of these lessons again.  I get to remember that I’m never done learning them, and that after each death comes its own unique process.  What will this one bring?

RIP Josh.  I will write you an excellent song, my friend.

Out of the Deepest Depths: A Coming Out Story

Let him who would move the world first move himself”

-Socrates

One terrifying day in March of 2009, I kicked open my closet door and staggered out gasping for breath.  It was overwhelming.  I had uttered the words “I’m a transman” to the seminary I was planning to attend.  The next day I made two phone calls.  One to my brother in our hometown and one to my friend J who lived across campus.  They were two very different calls.  I asked my brother how he felt about having a little brother to which he said, “Yeah ok.”  That was about the best I could expect.  I knew he would be great about it.  He’s always had my back.  The call with J went something like “OHMYGOSHI’MFREAKINGOUT! CAN WE MEET UP RIGHT NOW??” J was a little puzzled, but agreed to meet me later in the day.

I remember the two of us lying on a grassy hill.  I turned to them (used as a gender-neutral pronoun; still one person) and asked if it gets easier.  They thought for a second, head cocked to the side with one raised eyebrow.  Finally, they settled on a one word response: “Sometimes.”  I didn’t know what that meant, and I don’t remember how they proceeded to explain.  I was spinning and a little nauseas from my day of new birth.  I needed to take a nap.

I came out as trans the same year that I decided to start down my path to ministry.  I conflate these two things.  As I grew deeper into my faith, I realized that I had to confront the deep, dark thing that kept me from connecting with people and with God.  It was the thing that made me feel depressed enough to want to try to take my life over and over. It was what tormented me through school, up until I found myself amidst a group of people who played with gender like it was something they performed. I felt God pushing me to tread those waters, always with a hand on my shoulder.  So I did.  I started to play and found my Self under a sea of flannel and fake facial hair.  The day I asked my friends to change how they address me was the day I can honestly say that I felt the presence of God, all terror, wonder, awe, and love.

Today in 2013, I understand the answer that my friend gave me upon that hill.  The main trans* narrative wants people to think that all of our problems are solved the day the we emerge from our closets.  This may be true for some people, but it wasn’t true for me.  This large step gave me the courage to confront the other things in myself that made me so depressed.  From this door, I could see the host of other doors that remained unopened.  With new found confidence in both God and myself, I started exploring.  Today, I can say that I don’t constantly want to tear off my skin.  That’s not to say that I don’t have bad days.  I have days where I want to throw things at people for the all the racist and transphobic things they say.  Most days, though, I feel ready to take the world head on.  I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

I have made the decision to be out.  A lot of guys do not, which is okay. I choose to be out because I know that my transness isn’t visible otherwise, though it marks my existence on this earth.  For me, it’s important to lift up all of the lenses with which I view the world to say that I exist despite my struggles.  I exist even though there is so much telling me to my face that I don’t.  I exist, and that is subversive, if I tell my story.

Here are some pieces of it.

Happy National Coming Out Day.

‘I Own MY Body’ (and Other Capitalist Stories)

The other day, I was having coffee with a friend.  We laughed and talked, and as our conversation took many turns, we found ourselves mucking through the subject of bodies.  I don’t mean bodies in a necromantic sort of way, but as a philosopher would talk about bodies.  The body in relationship to the Self.  The conversation took another turn when I mentioned a word that is so often used without thought: ownership.  What does ownership have to do with the body?  Is it a concept that should be in relationship to bodies?

At once, I defended my position, but now I’m not entirely sure.  I fancy myself a feminist so it’s hard to think about what it means to own my body without thinking about the direct opposite.   The concept of ownership has a negative meaning in this way: it is defined by what it is not.  To own something puts me in direct control over it, which implies struggle with another and eventual recognition.  I own my body because no one else does or can.  Others recognize that I own it, and therefore, it is solely mine.  In cases where recognition is not won, I do not own my body and another can take control.  (This is all Hegel right here)  Minorities and women do not own their bodies because they are still subject to dominance and control.  With this, ownership means freedom from dominance and control.

My body is not property.  I have family a few generations back for whom this was not the case.  They were very familiar with the concept of ownership because they knew that they were not in control over their bodies, which is something that is necessary to be considered a person.  After almost 150 years, black folks are still not free from domination.  I know that a routine traffic stop could easily turn deadly.  I fear for my life when I see a cop beelining towards me even though I don’t do anything to get her attention.  In those moments, I fear that I will not be recognized as an owner, but as a subject in need of correction (literally and figuratively).  In those moments, I fear the exertion of dominance over me.

The one reason I like the idea of “owning” my body is because it reconnects me with what my dysphoria keeps at a distance.  My mind and my body are so disconnected at times that my physical appearance is jarring in the mirror.  Less so now that I’ve undertaken physical transition, but before I started the process I ignored my body to the point of not being able to recognize it when I saw it.  At this point in my life, I’m reclaiming my body.  I’m fighting to own my body through the ability to recognize my body.   The concept of ownership, in this light, makes it seem as if my body as MY body is a quest where at the end I am free.  I like the idea of freedom.  On the other hand, “freedom” is also a loaded concept.

What would the world look like defined by concepts outside of economics and property?  If I weren’t concerned with “ownership” what would I think about?  I mean really… I go to school and work hard so I can own things.  OWN. THINGS!  Bodies are not things.  It seems as if they should just exist and merit respect by means of existing.  But respect is recognition and with recognition comes ownership.  With ownership comes power and with power comes… a number of things when used differently in context.

I am a man in a constant process of reclamation.  I think that’s why I’m drawn to use the word “ownership.”  I can’t abolish a term that I don’t own in myself.  So I have to own it, then destroy it.  It’s a step in a process towards liberation.  It’s not the end goal.  I am reclaiming myself as MY self so that eventually, I won’t need to say that I own anything.

I’ll just be able to be.

A Letter to a Queen

9/22/13

Dear Cassidy,

When I read the news that you had been crowned homecoming queen, I thought, “things are changing for the better.” This would have never happened at my high school, but I am about 10 years older than you are, and didn’t have the courage to transition in high school.  When I watched this video, I couldn’t help but to feel like I needed to say something.  My words may not mean much to you.  I am not 16 and trans.  I am not a MTF, and I’m well aware of the fact that MTFs often walk a harder path than FTMs.  That said, your story is part of my story in this grand gender narrative, and I feel like I would be doing an injustice to you by not reaching out.

Yes, it is hard, and the world can be a mean and cruel place.  The internet is even crueler.   People in the internet have anonymity that they don’t have in the real world, so they say cruel things without having to take the responsibility for what they have done.  That said, I am 10 years older than you, and have seen the world shift so dramatically in that short time towards more acceptance of trans folks. The people who went down this road before me (and you) paved the way for us to be who we are publicly.

The fact is that you ARE a queen and it seems like the folks at your school love you enough to see that.  You’re a brave, tender soul who, though strong, needs support.  You need to be held up sometimes, and that’s OK.  You have support, not just from the folks at your school, but from so many people who admire your courage.  Right now, it may seem like you’re only hearing from the idiots who are shouting loudly, but I’ve seen your story across the internet and I can tell you that it’s effecting a lot of people in good ways.

There are hard days.  There are days where none of it seems worth it.  There are days where getting out of bed is the hardest thing to do.  But there are days where the sun shines on all of the beautiful things, and you face the world with a lion’s courage. In 10 years, maybe it won’t be as big of a deal when a trans kid wins homecoming queen or king because you will have helped to change the world into a place where that doesn’t matter.

By all means, cry.  Feel your feelings.  When you’re done, go back to being the fierce girl that you are.  Don’t let the idiots win!  You have so much to give.

Solidarity and Grace,

Taj

Intentional Healing Through God

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all you mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these”

Gospel of Mark 12:29-31, NRSV

This is possibly my favorite passage in the Bible.  I love it because it sums the whole of the Christian mission into a few succinct lines that speak to the heart.  The first passage is pretty straight forward: love God with every fiber of your physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual self.  God is the one through whom all things happen.  I don’t mean this in a dualistic sort of way, where God is responsible for only the “good” things, thus leaving the rest to whichever name for evil you want to conjure.  I mean all things.  Of course, “all things” means something different to a cynic than it does to an optimist.  That’s not to sat that those are the only two kinds of people; those are just two examples.

I’m learning to be an optimist.  Since I started walking deeper into faith a few years ago, I find it difficult for me to justify my cynicism.  Each day I wake up, and notice that the sky is a different shade of blue or grey than it was the previous day, or that the leaves grow slightly more yellow as the season progresses.  These things are beautiful, and the plight of the world cannot take away from me the natural beauty of it. That said, I’m still learning and I have hard days too.

For me, the meat of this passage rests in the simplicity of “love your neighbor as yourself.”  I love this because it’s so simple, and often repeated, but one of the hardest things in the world to do: Love your neighbor as yourself.  This command is two-fold.  Love your neighbor and love yourself.   Why? Because both you and your neighbor are worthy of the love of God.  Period.

I’m learning to be an optimist by learning to love myself through the love of God.  Tonight, I tapped into the deepest places in my muscle memory where I store some of my worst memories.  As I sat holding my shoulders and crying the hardest I ever may have in my life, the things that ran through my head were the times in my life when I thought that God had abandoned me.  I remembered “good friends” in high school telling me that I couldn’t be a Christian unless I turned my back on myself.  Flashes of people telling me that they worried for my soul because I didn’t know the grace of God even though I was sure in my heart of hearts that God was rooting for me.  In those days, I was depressed, suicidal, and lonely.  These were themes that would repeat themselves up until I decided to medically transition (not to say that medical transition is for everyone who is trans* identified, just my experience).

These days, the muscles in my shoulders are tight from carrying all the weight of those years.  Tonight, I imagined all of it melting away and coming out of me as I held my hands to my shoulder.  It did in the form of tears.  They were tears of hurt, yes, but past hurts that needed to be washed away in a sea of healing.  I am trying to heal myself.  I think it is working.  Since I’ve relocated, I’ve been able to feel in my body where anxiety happens.  I am cognizant of my triggers and actively working through them in all the manifestations of my spirit.  I’m happy.  Adjustment is hard.  It always has been for me, but I know that the difficulty will make me stronger.  So now, I grow into the happy person that I’ve always wanted to be.  I can safely say that I love myself in that I am committed to keeping myself healthy so that I can be the best me possible.  Loving God has helped me to love myself.  Each day that I love myself a little more, I love God that much more.  It’s a cyclical relationship in which I am happy to take part.  Love is a journey.  I’m in it, going through it, fighting for it, and, often fighting with it.  Above all, I’m intentional about it.  I can’t go in to it hoping that I will maybe change someday.  I work for it so that I change every day.

Each day, I get a little stronger.  Each day, I get a little more me.  It’s–seriously–the best feeling in the world.