Callan Williams, Poems D
The O word
copyright Callan Williams © <email@example.com>
I remember the last time I saw Callan. It was a spring night, and Callan had come to Rhinebeck to a book signing I was doing. Callan was in her boy clothes, squatting under a cap from a plutonium reprocessing company she had bought at a dollar store.
After people left, we walked together though the quiet center of town. Callan had a piece of carrot go down the wrong way, so as we passed by her car, she grabbed the warm remains of a 44-ounce cup of Coke she had bought for 44 cents in her travels. She swigged the Coke as we walked.
"The 24 year old used the O word today," she told me. After a few digressions on what the O word might mean, Callan finally told me what this word was that was so powerful to her. She raised the big empty paper cup to her mouth, using it as a resonator and boomed out the word, replete with echo: "Overwhelming."
Overwhelming. The stories Callan told me that night were funny and sharp, Callan was up and animated, but they all were about the O word. How people, from parents to lovers, had cast her aside, and closed a door when they found Callan overwhelming. There were stories about kindergarten, when a teacher wanted to move her out when she found out she could really read, about lovers, and coworkers.
Callan was full of energy, entertaining and electric, but there was a sense of deep sadness, because she was having trouble believing that she could ever overcome the curse of her life, the sense that others could not see her or love her because she was overwhelming. We talked of publishing and art, of techniques and venues, of ways to help her share her gifts with the world. I told her clearly that I believed that there were other people who could find her as wonderful and attractive as I did.
Callan's loneliness, though, ran very deep. Her performance was almost manic, to cover this sadness, and that upset me. This challenge, of packaging herself up to connect with people, which meant cutting down, was something that wore on her he entire life. She felt she was, as she said to me that night, a 5000 volt person in a 120 volt world.
I felt understood Callan. Callan said that was because we had a history together, and more than that, because I had worked so hard to understand the shared history of queer, transgender folks. I needed to understand that history, because I needed to understand myself.
Like a stranger in a strange land, the language of society was not Callan's first tongue, and she always felt awkward and limited by it. She had the constraints of someone who learned a second language later in life, always forced and constricted in a way she was not in her beautiful native language, a language so many felt was overwhelming.
Overwhelming. Callan may have been overwhelming, overwhelming with ideas, overwhelming with emotion, overwhelming with pain & rage, overwhelming with energy and overwhelming with sprit, but it was my great joy to be overwhelmed by her in these ways, and to be a better and more enlightened person for it. It was when I let her wash over me that I felt the power, and it was a gift, a gift I honored.
I really believed that this gift was something that could be shared with the world, but for Callan, that was the hardest belief of all. She knew her loneliness, and every cut that came, the cuts which for her were tied up in that one word, the one that boomed through the streets of Rhinebeck, resonating in a paper cup. Overwhelming.
Overwhelm my defenses, let me see myself again in your mirror, show me the beauty that is awesome and overwhelming. This is your gift to the world -- a gift that Callan really learned to believe she could never show in public.
a moment out of loneliness
copyright Callan Williams © firstname.lastname@example.org/4/99
So what is the point of a Kindred Spirits gathering? Simple. To help dissipate some of the deep and intense loneliness that we feel as transgendered people.
From Radcyffe Hall's book "The Well Of Loneliness" on, everyone who has written about being queer has talked of the incredible and often unendurable loneliness of the closet. The obligation to live a life of concealment, be that concealing our body, our history, our desires or our nature, is the obligation to be fundamentally lonely.
We learn early that to reveal ourselves is to be shamed, stigmatized, misunderstood, and hated, and to conceal ourselves is lonely, painful, and debilitating. We are given a choice between the proverbial rock and hard place, which come together to crush us into submission to a socially approved role which erases and silences us.
To be transgendered is to have to watch your back at all times, to know that there are very few people who actually understand what we are saying, who are safe spaces to be around. The rest ask us to erase parts of ourselves for their comfort, or the comfort of others, like children or friends. We live our lives without the power of language to express who we are, because without someone who can hear and understand our words, without both a speaker and a listener, language doesn't exist.
It's easy to wear whatever we want wherever we want, but when those close to us demand that we bolt armor around our heart, history, thoughts, and beliefs in who we are, we are doomed to being lonely, no matter how nice we look. When there is no aesthetic that sees our natural selves as beautiful, we have the choice to twist ourselves into someone almost unrecognizable to our hearts, or to be ugly and lonely.
As we gather today to reflect on the life of the person whose body lies in front of us, we wonder why they chose to take their own life. Clearly, they had no hope that they would find what they needed, that life would get better.
What was it that they had lost hope about? They lost hope that they could ever be seen and loved for who they saw themselves to be. They were crushed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation, a sense that the gifts of their heart could never be accepted in this world.
This must have started early, with parents who cared more about how choices reflected on them than on helping this child find, express and believe in the beauty of their own sprit. It continued on though the social structures, where conforming was honored over being exceptional in our own way. In relationships, where people were looking to meet their own expectations and needs, projecting rather than seeing, the loneliness was enforced. Years and years of concealment lead to the belief that the only way to be accepted was to be who others expected, while at the same time, those expectations became a crushing weight on a beautiful spirit.
Through the years, they ran to people who they believed might understand them, who could give them affirmation and strokes. Yet, these strokes always came at a cost, the cost rooted in a deep, childlike belief that underneath, they were not lovable for themselves, but rather for what they did.
For those of us who believed that we knew this person, who thought we were there, this revelation of loneliness must be especially heartbreaking. They were important to us, and we believe we valued their life, their contributions. Somewhere, though, our own gratitude to them, our own embrace of them, never connected with the deep loneliness in their heart. Somehow, the isolation they felt consumed them, and they lost hope of being connected, appreciated and understood.
That is why they took their own life, and today we can only think of the things we would have done if we knew this was going to happen. How would we have entered their world and seen though their eyes, so they felt understood, connected and less lonely? Whatever we would have done, now is the time to help others that way.
We gather with Kindred Spirits because to them, we are visible for who we are. Rather than being a shimmering hole in the vision of others, they see us as real and embodied, even if we do slide though gender and identity in the blink of an eye. They can track us in dimensions we share, and for a moment, the loneliness of our lives is taken away.
One problem, though, is that being seen can often be a traumatic experience for those of us who are used to hiding. We feel exposed and vulnerable when we are seen, because when we have been seen in the past it has lead to pain and hurt. We strike out against people who see us, staying defended, in a hole where we have learned to be comfortable. The worst part about expressing ourselves is suffering attacks, erasures and being called wrong that feel the same as when we learned to hide in the first place.
We crave moments out of loneliness, but we also fear them. It is loneliness that has become the touchstone of our lives, and as much as we crave to end it, we know why we created it, and why we keep it, because being queer and challenging in the world is dangerous.
Loneliness is the cost of being both wild and tame, for our wildness is what separates us, makes us anxious and afraid of separation. No matter how much we try to fit in, that loneliness remains, for until we can expose ourselves and feel loved for who we are and not what we do for others, the ways we make others comfortable, we will always be lonely
The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,
is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.