Four Trips To Toronto
|04/04/98: The World Needs More Canada||05/22/98: The First Fear|
|08/24/98 Glass Callan||12/14/98: Colors and Rust|
The World Needs More Canada
So, Goddess called. I had been intending to go to a theoretical, academic conference about transgender at Cornell, but a voice from the past called, asking for help, and I was off to IFGE Crossing Borders 98 in Toronto.
Toronto has always felt like home to me. My family left in 1959 when Diefenbaker canceled the Avro Arrow project, but while we wandered the northeast like technomads, going with the will of the aerospace industry, at least a few times every year we packed up the car and drove to my grandmother's house in Toronto. That little brick home where my mother's parents lived was a touchstone of my life, all the little histories, like learning how to ride the TTC by myself, how to eat Shreddies and seeing the lit Dufferin Gates of the Canadian National Exhibition as the end of summer every year, were part of the fabric of my life.
In college, I spent a semester in a Canadian Studies program at McGill in Montreal, run though the auspices of SUNY Plattsburgh. In one discussion, a woman looked at me and said "You're Canadian, aren't you?" I asked her how she knew, and she said "Whenever you talk about the US or Canada, you talk about "them", never about us."
I suppose that being a Canadian living in the US was one of my first experiences of liminality, of being betwixt and between, being welcome in both worlds and in neither. Unlike the rest of my family, I never renounced my Canadian citizenship, always feeling that somehow my birthright had been lost in the shuffle. If I had lived in Toronto, I would have been around that comedy that Toronto made famous, the humor that revolved around the liminality of just being Canadian, of not quite being invited to the big party next door, but having a good view of it, in the community of a small cold country with a great view of a big hot one.
Though the years, the "always them, never us" sense that I had, the sense of being both observer and participant became very clear around my transgender. Transgender let me both live in the world of men and women, but to always, on some level, be a stranger in both of those worlds.
My trip to Canada was full of shifts. I drove up though the frosty Adirondacks, past the old mill building in Utica where I worked marketing cutting-edge software, though the snow covered rural towns that recalled my college days, past the trees destroyed by this year's ice-storm, and then on to Kingston, to stay in a cheap motel that I last stayed in with a partner who has moved on.
Canada surprised all of us though, this weekend. The frost melted away, and temperatures in the 70s and 80s gave a breath of summer. Having not been back since the funeral of my grandmother, I paid the obligatory stops: the place she lived, the shopping areas I remembered, the falafel place I ate before giving her eulogy -- I have always had the ceremonial role in the family.
IFGE was familiar to me -- old friends, old caring, old arguments. The convention was nice and appropriate, the traditional mix of old hands, weekend crossdressers and young transpeople, all finding their own space for a few days. Seminars, vendors, luncheons, and parties, all people playing out their own needs in a safe space. From the people who spend five hours getting dressed to the ones who want to tell their stories, IFGE in all its forms.
Toronto was a revelation. I was walking those streets of my youth finally expressing the transgender nature, the nature I was sure would get me hurt, abused and rejected, and discovering that it really didn't make much difference. I didn't get read out, get the stares that the streets of Boston gave me, and as I sat in the park, out in full summer sunshine, just feeling the freedom and warmth of being out of my closet, the closet I had carried with me on these streets for so long.
My core belief was always simple. It was part of the gift of failure that was passed down from my mother, and from her mother before her, a woman born in this city in 1895, when Toronto The Good was a straight-laced and tightly moraled outpost of Victorian England. Life is hard, and only by being tough and expecting the worst from others can we learn to live in it. You may be wonderful and lovable, but don't expect others to see that, for failure is inevitable. Ramrod stiff or feeling sorry for yourself, it didn't matter -- if you expected the worst, that is what you saw yourself as getting. I believed this message, believed that exposing myself, having hope that love would be a reward was a fools game, and that the only thing worth believing in was failure.
Sitting on that park bench in Toronto though, a city grounded in the ethic of the Canadian mosaic, where diversity is not thrown in a pot and melted down to slag, but honored as the gifts that make a thriving, healthy and vibrant culture, I found it possible to believe that the gifts of my own diverse nature may be valued by others. The idea in Canada is to respect the identity and choices that another person makes as part of who they are, part of their heart and their heritage, and not to try to force them to make sense on your level. This possibility of being simply accepted as who I am is a belief, a hope that I lost a long time ago.
From the IFGE podium I heard the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner talking about the social commitment that each individual will be honored with human rights and dignity. Here is a government official bold enough to address a group of transgendered people, to talk about our issues in a way that most politicians in the States would avoid at all costs for fear of backlash. This is a country, though, where the Supreme Court would tell a province that it is not acceptable to simply omit gays and lesbians from human rights, where freedom is seen as coming from social order and respect for each person, not from the rights of the individual to bear arms or make moralistic pronouncements about others. This is a mixed blessing, of course. For example, that order is traded off against limited speech rights that are constrained by strong definitions of obscenity that often limit queer expression which is valued in the United States. The challenges between freedom and order are at the core of every society, every individual life, but here freedom is assured by order that comes from a stable history as a British colony, not the wild individualism of revolution.
Hope, though, came to me not just though the government, but though the people. I knew I would be accepted at the stores of MAC cosmetics, who use RuPaul as a spokesperson and who received the IFGE award for corporate support for diversity, but it is hard to explain just how good it felt to have a place to fit in. The cosmetics queens at MAC didn't just tolerate me, they accepted me simply as one of them, and issues like a high coverage foundation -- and theirs is the BEST I have ever tried -- are just part of life. To me, make up is art, creating our own expression of self in a unique and individual way, and MAC accepts those selves. I even got a sweet little smile from a staffer who seemed to share a transgender history with me.
I didn't know I would be accepted at the Thai restaurant around the corner from the hotel where I went for dinner. I kept my head down, just to eat, but the proprietor wanted to engage in conversation, like two women, and when I let myself chat with her, a 40 something Thai woman who came with her husband to Canada, the conversation was simple and enjoyable. Though we never talked about my gender status, more about the differences between New York, Thailand and Toronto, I know that most Thai people accept "katoeys" as normal -- and for me, being normal is a simple pleasure rarely found.
Many transgendered people born male want to have a man make them feel like a woman, but my goal is slightly different. I believe that if I help a man feel like a man, he will automatically make me feel like a woman. I was pleased when two transmen, both with histories in the lesbian community, accepted me as a woman, a strong woman like the women they knew.
From the twenty something trannies who were just learning how to be a grown-up, to the mature people who accepted me not as an object of fear, but rather as just another human, who embraced the truth of my heart as shown through my choices, rather than demanding the simplistic truth of my body, I felt safe and accepted, and this was a gift.
I stopped in Kingston on my way home to get some work done on my car at Canadian Tire. While I waited, I walked to the lake, an historic place in this city which sits at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that flows past Montreal and Quebec to the sea. This was a place where loyalists had worked to define another kind of country, another kind of place a long time ago.
As I walked back, I stopped in Indigo bookstore, a beautiful, quiet and stylish temple to books and community in this town that is the home of Queens University. I felt the reverence of the written word, the honoring of all these human voices that were cased on the walls, a safe space to hear the unique and diverse thoughts that make up a culture. On the wall above the stairwell was a slogan, one that also was over their selection of Canadian books -- "The World Needs More Canada."
For a moment, before I crossed the bridge back to the States, I thought about that slogan, about how that respect for others and their own crossing of worlds and borders really is a sacred thing. My own history as a Canadian who crossed in to the States, as a transgendered person who crosses norms to find their own heart came to my mind, and for a moment, I could even believe that, in some way, the world needs more me.
The First Fear
As you know, my life over the past few years has been aimed at pulling back the veils of fear, diving down though the pain to find the constraints, the handicaps that have left me unable to just go out and live my life.
I have dealt with my fear of feeling emotions, my fear of being too smart, even my fear of being transgendered. But there has been something at the bottom, deep down, where I had trouble facing it, one other point of shame that is so deeply rooted that it lies at the core of who I am.
I drive up to Toronto last Sunday, trying to go find a nice place to hide for the summer, maybe recreating a college summer - cheap flat share, basic job, acting classes, that stuff. But that wasn't the plan Goddess had for me. I rode in on the subway, after asking myself the question "Can I ever just admit to making a stupid mistake?" when I went back for change twice, not noticing the parking gate took two dollar coins.
Monday morning, I rode in on that subway that I took so many times in my youth, looking pretty, when at Bathurst station I noticed a man leave the train with a basset hound, just like Snoopy, who joined our family when I was in seventh grade. I was smiling as the train pulled out, but as it pulled past a woman who has walked by my window on leaving the train, she began to point and scream at me, her eyes ablaze with fire. My heart started beating, but I stayed in my seat, trying desperately to look normal.
I got off the train at Bay and went upstairs into the rain, echoing all those times the phrase "wet drag queen contest" rattled in my head. I went down the street and on the facade of a demolished theatre, I saw this big picture of me as a teenager -- or actually of Beck, the musician, who my friend Liz, upon seeing pictures of me as a teen, declared I looked just like. At the end of the block was a church sign with a quote from Martin Luther posted -- "No thing is done without hope."
I staggered across the street and into MAC cosmetics, demanding magic. We chose a new lipstick and a liner, new power from the people who decorate RuPaul and as I paid the transsexual woman behind the counter for them I realized the names were Currant & Media. Currant Media.
It seemed clear to me then that Goddess has one thing to tell me -- I couldn't hide. I continued through the day, even coming back in the evening, but I knew that I had work to do that wouldn't be done here, at least not now.
On Tuesday, I drove back to Schenectady, listening to Tom Peters tapes, which I had to turn off as he exuberantly claimed the benefits of diversity and innovation because his calls made me cry, and then to Anna Qundlen's "Black & Blue", the moving story of a battered woman who runs way with her child, creating a new identity and trying to hide, but ultimately has to face the monsters in her life, creating the hero quest as mother in a small Florida town, always the same and forever changed. I even got shaken by a supermarket in Syracuse, so rich and full and abundant, a sushi chef cutting rolls, an enormous wood fired oven -- things that don't exist here in Smallbany.
At home, I wrote and thought about what all this was about, what I needed to do. I watched attentively a special on Don Hewitt, bouncy creator of 60 Minutes, who claimed "I may be the only person who turned ADD into a benefit."
On Saturday night I drove down to a reading by Rachel, a transgendered woman who had SRS around 1974, and who has been honored with international awards for fantasy writing, Her books are about a time not unlike this one when shamans and their stories have power in the world.
I didn't stay long after she finished -- Rachel's social graces are still limited, and her partner scolded this 50-something writer as a mother scolds a teenager daughter who doesn't take care of her friends. I realized I had more in common with the mother than the daughter, and little in common with the brittle artsy crowd that all knew each other. I drove back the 75 miles.
In Schenectady, I stopped in at the local SSS meeting, hoping to see Denise, who has had a wife depart, taking the child, and lymphoma in the past few months. I am trying to help engineer Denise start the process of healing the disconnects between her head, body and heart, the disconnects that cut her off from spirit. I was telling this to Chris, a CD with red hair, and Chris started talking about her own spiritual path, holding my hand, her eyes alight, so happy to finally be able to share how important spirit is to her.
I left, after a big, long hug from Chris, full of relief and joy, left knowing that my calling was not about being a theorist, or about hiding, but it was about spirit, about empowering people like Gail to be able to speak proudly about reclaiming their own link with the godhead.
As I thought abut what I said to Chris, I thought about the Friday before I went to Toronto. I had hauled Denise out, given her a glamour make over -- false eyelashes and all -- and taken her to the Smallbany Pride Queen & King pageant. It was pathetic -- low turn out and a lack of professionalism and enthusiasm. the next day, I had taken the time to write out how I would have answered the questions asked of the participants.
1) What is the biggest problem facing the queer community today?
The biggest problem facing the gay community today is a lack of fabulositity. We have all these fabulous people out there and they all want to be normal, to fit in and be BORING!
Well, that is the big problem: Being boring and just like everyone else means we give up our own fabulousity, our own incredible gifts that we should be proud of. We need to trust the gifts our creator gave us, get out there and just be fabulous!
The biggest problem we have is that we forget how fabulous we are when we just come from our own heart, and that means we have a lack of fabulousity.
2) If you could change one thing, what would it be?
I would make sure that everyone is reminded every morning that they are the star in their own lives.
Their life, their future and their world are what they make it, and as long as they don't focus on being the best they can, on writing their own script, being the owner, star, and shall I say "diva" in their own life, they will always be swamped by the expectations and scripts of others.
I want everyone to know in every moment that they are the star of their own life, and all their choices -- including the choice to be fabulous -- makes their life exactly what it is -- and as the star, I hope they make their life and their world fabulous!
3) What would being Pride Queen mean to you?
It would mean I have a platform to look people in the face and say "You are gorgeous and brilliant, so come on and shine!" As the queen, I could let my own light shine, and though that shining help others to find their own brilliance and fabulousity. I would be able to stand up with pride and say "I am what I am!" and help give others the courage to come out, be who they are and just be fabulous!
As always, we say what we need to hear. But why couldn't I do this?
As I was getting dressed in Toronto, Good Morning America was on the TV. I heard the tease for a segment based on a new book about rearing boys. "Today, with fear of violence, we tend to curb boys natural exuberance. . . . "
Hell, I thought. We tend to curb everyone's natural exuberance.
As I thought about this, I started tearing up, a sure sign that this is powerful in my life.
I thought about Don Hewitt, Tom Peters and others who moved me, and it is their own exuberance that draws me to them, As I sat in that room in Toronto, I saw the Virsky Ukrainian dance company promoting their Toronto engagement, and realized that some of my sense of profuse blue collar beauty comes from those Slavic roots, all flowers, ribbons and red high heel boots -- the exuberance of who they are.
The exuberance I had no place to put, the exuberance that from an early age I had to hide or be called stupid for. And I don't think I am the only one. Why does Gene Kelly's plaintive "Gotta Dance!" in Singing In The Rain touch our hearts? Because we feel the exuberance we have swallowed, feel the power that we need to get out -- we gotta dance..
When in doubt, make a fool of yourself.
There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on Earth.
So what the hell, leap!
I am scared to leap because I fear that my exuberance is what cuts me off from other people, leads me into shame and abuse, just like it lead me into the wrath of my mother when I was too small to really think about it. It was the first thing she has to pound me into renouncing, the exuberance in my soul, exuberance that reminded her too much of what her mother pounded out of her. "Do you eat that way in public? I'd be embarrassed to be seen with you" -- codes of someone who wanted me to choose timidity, no matter how much being timid was against my nature, and everyone could see that. Exuberance was the worst crime, bad, scary, humiliating and worthless -- and my parents fear of being exuberant was passed on to me.
"in this culture
we tend to curb the natural
they said on TV
That's the word
for what was taken away from me
so long ago
denied to me
by a mother who felt
my exuberance was a bad reflection
All that energy turned inward
to eat and gnaw at my heart
chewing away to find the reason
I was so sick
Exuberance in check
Slice it off
Cut it out
move it into
fears and doubts
keeping me in line
ropes and nets
traps and boxes
sticks and whips
to tame the monster
of an exuberant human heart
My heart was called stupid
my life was called stupid
I was called stupid
even by sister and brother
a nickname to remind me
that exuberance was not of value
only obedience was
the "smart" thing to do.
Exuberance becomes intensity
burning fires of pain
smoldering piles of rubble
lashing tongues of flame
shot from a wounded heart
Denying my exuberance
was denying my life
denying who I am
to please others
who gave me the reward of
hating my intensity
fearing the exuberance
lying behind it
So many years playing small
now playing in my head
"I'll fly away, lord, lord"
on the wings
of my beautiful
So this is the challenge. Reclaiming that exuberance in a world where we have curbed abundance, want control not passion. I need to feel good about my exuberance, to trust it, not fear it. But since I was two, I learned that my exuberance was what made me unlovable.
it's glass, tiny, regular rectangular pieces of window glass, maybe a half inch wide by an inch long, clear except for smoke glass at the edges, built up to a height of twenty eight inches. it's in the craft gallery in harbourfront, against the window that looks out across toronto harbor, curving in a spiral wall that rises to a point in the back.
it's called calla vessel, built up in the shape of a calla lilly, an inverted cone that spirals in on itself, all compound curves assembled by hand from fragments in which only one artist could see the essence of that form. It looks both massive, a heavy, solid wall of glass, and incredibly fragile, as if one hand could sweep the tablets of glass away, scattering them to the floor.
I'm almost crying as I look at this work of art, on sale here at firsthand, but I choose not to show it. I'm here with my sister and Karen, who insists on calling me by my given name every few minutes, a jarring experience everytime. I go out into the atrium and sit on a bench overlooking the flamenco dancer practicing, thinking about how I am a calla vessel, built up by hand over time out of fragments, in a shape that mirrors the spirals and curves found in nature. I start to hear the speakers, LeeAnn Rhimes singing "How Do I Live Without You," a song I have been thinking of since Chris forced closure by dropping off books in absentia a week ago.
I measure the roles I have been expected to play on this trip. In boy mode, I have done most of the driving, much of the scut work. Some of the first words out of Karen's mouth after I got into the car and played out welcome rituals with my sister were "You really are a brother!" pinning me into a role from a few shreds of history repeated for comfort. It was about 2:30AM when I helped my sister find the address she had for the motel in the east end of Toronto that we don't know well, and then to help her find a phone and realize that the address was wrong -- the motel was on the other side of the city, was a motel we had often stayed in which had recently changed affiliation.
I drove into town, stopping at the Bloor West Ukrainian Festival in my grandmother's old neighborhood, the petting zoo in the parking lot of the funeral home where she and my grandfather had their final moments. I walked as they shopped, trying on dresses, with me going down the street to buy a plate of Ukrainian food that they picked at. We even watched a parade with a good marching band in turquoise and gold uniforms and a trailer full of craggy faced old men dressed as kozaks singing that could make you feel for a moment like you were in Kyiv. We left, and I drove downtown to the hotel, doing the work.
We walked over towards the Museum of Textiles, passing though Eaton's where they have a big display with pots of all the lipsticks they sell. I picked one out for my sister, Cargo's Niagara and she loved it. Karen, on the other hand, would not take my suggestion, rejecting it out of hand with a willful stubbornness that is her hallmark.
We went over to Cargo, a new and trendy Canadian line to look. They had their big mucky muck makeup artist there and the hip young boy with spiked hair offered Kathy a makeover with her. The kid screwed up in passing the message so Kathy had a long wait there, as I wandered around. The kid did a makeover on Karen as we waited, all sort of neutrals with a little metal. I fell in love with one of their oversized blushers in the bright metal snuff tins with Cargo embossed on the top, but the wait began to get to me.
I wandered over to MUFE, Make Up Forever, a French line designed for theatrical cosmetics, and just felt the pull, 150 eye-shadow colors in very high pigments, bright and bold colors, now striped on my hand with a cotton swab. Karen came over and picked a lipstick she liked, a kind of brown nude, and I suggested she dab raisin glitter powder over it and she was amazed it looked so good. Yup, Karen, I actually have some skill and talent in this area.
The gal behind the counter asked me if I was a makeup artist, trying to put my innovative technique into context. I sort of mumbled it off "I do some makeup, yes," knowing it was really code "are you a big fag?" Even the gal who was sure Karen was Kim Basinger asked me that. (Karen does look like Kim Basinger, but is not so small and not nearly as careful with her appearance -- she smears on stuff.) Yet, the boy with the chain draped on his pants kept pinging me with his gaydar and not getting anything back, which seemed to confuse him. Right in the middle again.
I walked out with Karen as she shoe shopped, and then again walked her though Urban Outfitters and down to the MAC counter at The Bay where she bought gifts for her sister. I even walked them over to a great Thai fast food restaurant, The Green Mango, but didn't buy anything, not the Cargo Blush, the fabulous crease blush or even the #42 eye-shadow at MUFE. Karen said she felt guilty that there was so much shopping and I didn't buy stuff, getting some sense of how frustrating it was for me to be on the fringes as the gals played, but not enough to break me out of the role she has cast me in. They liked having a boy around, and that was my role, down to a T -- tranny, that is.
We went to the CNE next, an end of summer ritual for longer than the first 20 years of my life. It was expensive without planning, but we climbed though, all the way to the end, the gals shopping and me leading, until the end when we sauntered though the children's midway. I had no time to engage the feelings as I walked out under the soaring white arch of the Dufferin gate just before 10 PM, a space age marvel that had marked so many graduations in my life, time for summer to be over and change to begin. I just kept moving, the technique that people are taught, that Karen uses, movement to avoid falling into the feelings that overwhelm us, like her feelings about her father's cancer.
It was a bus, a streetcar and the subway back, to the hotel. The old "brother" game came into play on the streetcar, as Kathy grabbed a seat where I couldn't sit behind her, being annoying, and I knew it was my job to put over being outsmarted, to be the straight person who made Kathy's joke funny. She laughed, and I thought about how, as queer as I am, my role has been so much as playing the straight person, partnering in various ways to make the other person look good. As a switch, I find the role that partners, yet few know how costly or how valuable that is. Did you know that in Abbot & Costello, Lou Abbot, the straight man, got top billing and 60% of the take because comics were a dime a dozen and good straight men were hard to find? Good partners are rare.
Karen wanted to go dancing. I wanted to also, but in my way, in the little black dress zipped up in the corner of my bag, down to El Convento Rico, the gay latin dance bar in the trendy College Street West strip. I was beat, though, with two full days and just a small amount of sleep, and Karen ignored my repeat of "El Convento Rico" everytime the subject of nightlife came up, even after my explaining what that bar was. She pored over the list of dance clubs I had printed out, missing the point.
This was a trip with lots of agendas -- three full agendas don't fit into 48 hours with 16 hours of driving. My only addition to the agenda was simple: El Convento Rico, but that wouldn't fit, no time, no safety.
Karen wanted to go for a drink, so I chose to walk in the direction of El Convento Rico, across Carlton and College. Karen complained loudly about the first three blocks, saying that in the past 12 hours she had seen them too many times, trying to explain how she needed novelty, new learning in every moment. As we walked she was loud, explaining how she is void of purpose, how her life is pointless. We talked as she got angry about the walk, and then in the patio of a restaurant, beautiful on this summer night.
It was all process, late at night, as we talked about the challenges in her life and the challenges of a fast, bright, person with a moral streak. I would tell stories from my life, how I figured them out, and she would say "Thank You! Thank You! You're right, that's why people don't like me!" This was the voice of someone who both knows that they have no choice than to march to the beat of their own drummer and yet still feels isolated, alone and unloved, who bristles and needs love at the same time.
It was the walking that brought this out, the walking she had to end because it was making her feel more and more in touch with her feelings, more angry and sad at the same time. We had a drink and walked back, getting back to the hotel at 2 AM.
The next day, up at 9, was my day to facilitate: drive to Harbourfront by 11, where I saw the calla vessel, then dropping Kathy at the Textile Museum she never got to during the afternoon makeup binge that ended up locking me out. Karen wanted to buy a dress she had seen shopping on Bloor during the Ukrainian festival, so I dropped her off and found a place to park, coming in to check and being cast in the role of boyfriend/husband as she decided not just to buy, but to try on. The shop gals smiled at me with beneficent grace as I acted just the way a man was supposed to, funny and compassionate, waiting outside under the tree in the shower, not trapped in the tiny shop.
Karen flew out of the shop with her purchases, and said "Don't stand there with your arms crossed like Buddha!" I said, "Well, I have the belly and the head, so the arms fit." She said "I feel guilty seeing you there" -- guilty yes, but not enough to figure out my agenda. I then dropped Karen at the Bata Shoe Museum, and started to freak, trying to get a parking space for a hamburger. I needed space.
I couldn't find a space so I went to pick up my sister, parking in the a paid lot and fearing the person who would come to check the ticket that was supposed to be on the dash, pacing and waiting for Kathy who was eight minutes late. I needed space, so I parked on Carlton and we went into a Harvey's hamburger place, a Canadian fast food chain where I got a freshly cooked burger and fries, topped the way I wanted it with a salad of mustard, onions, hot peppers, tomato and pickle. Kathy sat across from me, and as we have done for almost 40 years now, she enjoyed the fries and we chatted, a bit of calm, a chunk of fat to calm down the pain that comes from being who other people need me to be, comes from denying my own heart.
We picked up Karen and headed west, though I had to find parking and wait with the car as they went to buy these big plaid bags I spotted in a window. We stopped at Bloor and Jane to eat falafel in the place that Kathy, her Mark and I had eaten just before my grandmother's funeral. I bought gas and we got on the road, me driving again, with only one gasp as I got too close to the car in front.
I had to stop at the fruit stand for them, and as they bought berries & peaches grown on the Niagara peninsula, they asked me if I was going to buy any. How could I explain that I was so out of that mode, not open and joyous and feminine, but in logistical support? We stopped at the duty free store -- I had let Karen drive just five miles before crossing the border coming north and she had missed the inbound store in the Thousand Islands, where selection was more, prices were lower and bottles bigger -- and I barely grabbed a litter of cheap Alberta rum.
We crossed to the states, and I drove the back roads, tanking up the car and filling the soft rear tire, an action that would make the rest of the bag of licorice Goodies I was eating taste like road grime and grease. I drove until just before Syracuse where we got off and went to Zebb's at about 8:30, a burger joint where we had a little party -- Karen playing pinball, sampling four different trendy hot-sauces on our fries, and me with a half-pound burger covered with fresh pico-de-gallo salsa. Another swallowed feeling, another swallowed burger. It was lots of laughs, even down to the dozen chocolate chunk cookies I bought on the way out. Karen paid the bill, and I noted to my sister that we were three givers, at least, people who felt guilty when they weren't giving enough.
This last segment of our trip, with Kathy in the back of her red Nissan Sentra, where I had never had a chance to sit, was where Karen wanted to talk again, another late night therapy session on the topic of being too bright for the room. As much as Karen wanted to genderize it --"it's harder for girls" -- I knew that the old adage "if you honestly have something to say there is someone who honestly needs to hear it" was in play here, Karen repeating how she enjoyed talking to me because I saw her challenges with a different point of view.
Kathy was awake in the back seat, listening to these two people she brought together, like our grandmother Ruby as she used to watch our family like a sitcom. Karen would demand another cookie with each revelation, but when I offered one to Kathy and she replied "No, thanks," Karen was shocked to realize what I had known, that we had an audience.
As we drive into the thunderstorms, bolts flashing in the dark sky above us, One of the key things I talked about with Karen was the bedspring theory of change, how hard it is to change without severing the connections we have to others that always want to pull us back into positions that they are comfortable with, that don't force them to deflect and change, as a grid of bedsprings has to change when one around them is moved pout of place. As Karen understood this, I also understood that the hardest thing for me is finding connections that support my view of myself in my own healing, not just connections that reflect their own needs and wound.
Like Karen, I had also had my dreams stolen from me by a narcissistic mother and a culture that finds bright people too challenging, needing to get beaten down. People see the thought or the pain, not seeing how they are all part of a range of emotions and understanding that is just bigger than the average bear. Average solutions don't fit us, but as I told the story of my therapist offering a lobotomy, Karen knew that the solutions are not simple, not at all.
I am back now, trying to speed down, trying to find my own beat, my own pace, one that was both heightened and erased by this fast road trip. I was both useful & respected and erased & taken for granted on the trip, by people who cared, but had trouble seeing context the way that I do, have trouble enabling and empowering others. Even during writing this I had to spend 45 minutes on a call where my parents used me, my father speaking of his reply from the ASME, being the crackpot engineer, and my mother talking of the trip to Maine with the grandchildren in great detail.
It was late at the bar when Karen wanted another drink and I said "fine" that I tried to explain that I am a long sleeper, that I need my sleep. "I see that," she replied. "You have so much energy, give out so much, always performing, and that mental and emotional work demands so much that you need rest." It's true, but the world also demands that we find a way to package ourselves and be compensated for that which we give, to get for ourselves.
All that energy poured into the calla vessel, but how does the calla vessel have room to grow, to become more, standing in her own structure and not deformed by the needs of others around her? We need connection, connection that we give to get, but we also need our own form, assembled from the bits of our life and beautiful, standing in the sunlight and embodying the spiral of life.
becoming a work of art isn't easy.
colors and rust
The thin cardboard box is crushed from its journey, one corner of the raw kraft having been pushed in, now folded and wrinkled, different from the rest of the smooth surface. I open the box and pull away layers of tissue paper to reveal the contents
It's a star. About 7 inches across, it is cut by hand from a banged up piece of steel planking, about 1/8 of an inch thick. The edges are raw and ragged, cut on a bevel which exposes the shiny blue steel. The surface is scarred and rusted, rippled and undulating, and there are patches of barn red, rustproof pain that stand proud from the top, their color mottling with black, orange, and rich browns to make a one of a kind patina.
On the top arm of the star is a tiny oval patch, the size of a thumbprint, where the steel is turned blue and shiny, a jagged pattern of rust standing out from the newly worked area where a U shaped loop of steel rod has been welded on for hanging. It looks like a face, just above the outstretched arms, turning the rough star into a human standing in an open position, legs apart, arms spread wide, exposed and ready to greet the world in a big embrace.
I think it may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
I bought this in Toronto from a store called Work on College Street West, and carried it home. I had been looking for star jewelry, to go with Dr. Callie Hope's theme of "Become the star in your own life." I didn't find any pins, but this rough steel star was hanging, along with maybe 20 others, on the wall in a small shop where two women in tank tops stood behind a rough counter, ready to repair jewelry. I bought it and one of them said "thank you kind lady."
It's a star. A rough and scarred star, so far from the machined perfection it must have had when the steel was first installed as part of the machinery that makes civilization go. It was a part of a tool, maybe from a ship, an oil tank, or even a building, once smooth and freshly painted, but now, that work it was made for is done and it has entered its second life. It has become a star, cut free from the machine that held it, the scars and wear which seemed to mar it now showing themselves to be the marks of strength. Strong and useful, weathered and beaten, it still stands proud and solid, a job done, a beauty well earned.
I am that star, cut free by art, formed by culture, scarred by age and junked, and then finding that my beauty lies not in the fresh paint but in the subtle colors which show the scars of age. In youth this star would lie unnoticed, a smooth and glossy, but now it becomes almost endlessly fascinating, with a look to catch the eye and a history to catch the imagination.
My other purchases in Toronto were different. I bought cosmetics, MAC and Make Up For Ever (MUFE), paints to help allow me to create my own surfaces, to create a look to catch the eye, a look that expresses what catches my imagination and what just might catch the imaginations of others. I chose powders that might help make my magic visible, bringing it to the surface. I even spent and hour getting a makeover at MUFE in Eaton's, all purples and shine, a fabulous face from a twenty-four year old woman named Patricia who shows her own unique character on her face and looks for a way to be what she can be in the world.
I also spent time with my sister and brother-in-law, who had never really seen me as a woman much, but were cool with it. I found the need to spend time with them, seeing my sister's private frustration at being taken for granted, not being seen, and spending time in the car with her husband, taking about the challenges he sees around the coming transitions in his life -- both powerful events, reminding me of the work I am here to do.
All the signs added up. Before the makeover, I had just watched a Star Trek:TNG episode where a young girl has to come to face the truth that she is a Q, an omnipotent being, and that her dreams of normativity must be lost for her to follow her calling. In the weekly arts paper I read my Rob Brezsny Real Astrology horoscope:
Virgo: You've won enough pride swallowing contests for one year, if not for one lifetime. I'm proud of your skill in this underappreciated sport, but enough is enough. For the rest of the year, I hereby decree that you should not -- you *must* not --swallow your pride even once. Next assignment: figure out what's the *opposite* of swallowing your pride, then do it and do it and do it. (Hint: it might have something to do with showing and telling the whole world just how intriguing your gifts are.)
I had just read that when I first left my room in my woman clothes, feeling vulnerable and exposed, the tension that takes so much out of me in my body. As I walked by a panhandler, I heard him say "That's just stupid, man!" and the tension hit my gut.
A voice came to me, though, from somewhere inside and said: "Who are you going to listen to -- to him or to me?" I knew that voice, the voice in my heart that I have spent this time building a relationship with, learning to trust, the voice of my calling, the voice that feels like my connection to the godhead.
Indeed, that is the question. Who am I going to trust, the voice of the society, pushing me into normativity, or the voice inside my heart? The symbols show me the way, from finding great $7 shoes in Buffalo, to smiles along the street to an Asian woman panhandling who came into my face and asked "Do you speak English, sir?" They remind me of the liminal space I live in, and the power that comes only where humans cross walls.
One of the hardest things about my transgender is that people don't realize how hard achieving some sort of normalcy in the world is for me, and they take it for granted when I find it amazing. When the MAC clerk, a gal who left Nova Scotia, moved to Toronto, shaved off her eyebrows, threw away all her clothes that weren't black and reinvented her life, isn't amazed when she looks at me, I need to see that as a compliment.
The voice I need to listen to is in my heart, and when I trust that voice, I have the courage & strength I need to listen to all the other voices and face myself with pride. By doing that, I can create myself as a star, rough and scarred, to be sure, but also unspeakably beautiful in my own humanity and in my own divinity.
I touch the cold steel of this rusty star, and I see myself, far from smooth and shiny, but also unspeakably beautiful. It endures, and another bump here or there will only add to its wonderful character, not detract from it.
Shape me God, into the rough and beautiful star that I am.