Friday, March 4, 2011

Questions, Insanity, Death, Change, Transgender

Every day I ask myself questions for which I seem to have no answers; who am I? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? Is there a reason I’m alive and if so what is it and why? There are other questions I ask myself on a regular basis, but these seem to be the most important. I sometimes feel that if I could just answer one of them, I might be able to figure out the answers to the others as well. Of course even if I did manage to answer one of them, then other questions would arise like who made the decision about what the reason is for my being here?

I think most human beings prefer to believe in an almighty deity of some sort who regulates the universe and is in charge. I have spent many, many, many hours thinking about God (by any name), lesser gods, the absence of God or any gods, and what it means for one or the other of those concepts to be factual. I don’t like to use the word truth anymore because I’ve come to honestly believe that every person has their own version of what is true, or the truth of a matter, and very few people actually agree. So, rather than argue about the truth of a matter, I prefer to gather the facts of a matter and make my own decision about what is true and what is false. I could be laboring under a misconception about what those words mean, but I don’t think so. It seems to me that the truth is a person’s opinion about the facts and I prefer to form my own opinion about the facts of a matter because then I’m not worried about owning my opinion. I think it’s difficult to own an opinion, and defend it or fight for it, if it isn’t yours in the first place, but rather one you’ve borrowed or simply agree with. It seems to me as if one ought to do the homework, spend some time thinking about something and developing a feeling about it before claiming to have a solid opinion about it. It’s also difficult to change an opinion if it isn’t yours in the first place; I mean how can one feel confident about changing a borrowed opinion if it isn’t one you thoroughly investigated before claiming it? Somehow that feels dishonest to me or, at best, just plain lazy. Cows and sheep are lazy, or at least give the appearance of being so because they always follow the leader and never seem to have independent thoughts on a matter. The truth of the leader is their truth, they’re herd animals and that’s how they survive, by following the boldest one, the strongest one, the noisiest one, or the one that simply seems to know where it’s going. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with our society right now, we’ve become herd animals.

I don’t think I believe in God per se, I’m still working on what I do believe regarding that issue. For me it’s all wrapped up with the fact and concept of death. Humans don’t deal with the fact or the concept very well, although animals seem to handle the fact of death very well. Maybe it’s that animals simply don’t think about the matter very much since, once it occurs, it’s a fact and “it is what it is”, they’re still alive and have living to do. I know that dogs live very much in the now and I suspect that most animals live the same way. It isn’t that they don’t have good memories or emotional connections; I believe very strongly that they do. Rather I think that animals exist within the moment being experienced all the time and humans don’t. We exist in a constant state of current experience as it relates to past history and it’s our own individual past histories that often overshadow our current experiences. Our “now” gets tangled up with our “then” all the time and often it becomes a stumbling block to moving forward in life. I once heard that the definition of insanity is (and I’m paraphrasing here) “to do something exactly the same way again but expect a different outcome”. Animals don’t do that, they learn from past behavior and tend not to repeat an action that didn’t gain them the outcome they wanted. Insanity seems to be a human trait.

Death. What happens when the body just can’t go on anymore, for whatever reason? Well, it dies. It stops working and begins decomposing just like any other animate thing whether plant or animal. The million dollar question is what next? Or is there a next?

When I was little I believed in Heaven and Hell just like they taught in Sunday school. By the time I was 16 and able to make the decision to get baptized and join our church (Disciples of Christ) I’d pretty much decided I wasn’t buying the story of Jesus, Mary or Joseph or much of anything else in the Bible. I still have my King James Version (revised in 1952) with the white, soft leather cover, the one presented to me at my Sunday school graduation on September 26, 1965. I had turned nine years old that summer and was very proud to have worked my way through all the Sunday school classes and graduated to regular church services with the adults. I remember sitting in the hardwood pew half way down on the right hand side of the church between my father in his white shirt, narrow black tie, and wool sport coat and my mother with her navy blue dress, matching navy blue straw hat, navy blue and white Spectator pumps and white gloves. I felt very grown-up. My older brother sat on the other side of my father holding his own personal Bible presented to him just like mine had been to me, although his had a black soft leather cover, and looked positively handsome with his wavy, light brown hair cut in a crew-cut, hazel gray eyes, white shirt and narrow black tie with a sport coat just like Dad’s. We were a family that could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. The facts, and my truth, were very far removed from that idyllic portrait, but for a few brief years it was the way I tried to feel. But that’s all I’ll say about that right now.

I don’t think that the death of a physical body is the absolute end of life because I don’t believe that the energy that animates us dies when it’s frail physical container does. I think it just eventually migrates back to the source it came from. Nope, I don’t know where that is or what it entails. Sometimes I think that people, who are convinced they’ve had contact with dead relatives, friends, or sometimes pets, have indeed been in contact with that person/pet’s energy. Maybe the energy of a living entity is able to stay in some kind of cognitive and cohesive, but incorporeal, state for awhile after leaving its earthbound body, and before migrating fully back to the source of all energy. I don’t know, maybe they have unfinished business or feel the need to try and comfort those left behind and that’s enough to keep them around awhile. I believe that once the energy reaches the original source that it’s reassigned/recycled somehow, not necessarily as a human, maybe as the energy that animates a tree, or a dog, or who knows what other living entity but I don’t think it just dissipates and disappears. To me it’s like rain falling to Earth and being recycled but eventually ending up back in the ocean no matter how many forms it’s had, it eventually ends up back at the original source. But then, of course, I also believe the Earth is similar to a living being that we, as humans and animals, have a symbiotic relationship with. However that’s a whole other story that I won’t tackle telling here since my version of it tends to put people to sleep.

I have discovered two things about myself since I quit believing in Heaven and Hell and that death is the end of all things; first, I have a true love for being outdoors and just being alive in a natural area. It often seems that I can feel the energy of other living things around me. I’ve discovered the comfort and peace of actually physically hugging a very old tree and closing my eyes and letting go of myself, imagining that I can vaguely feel, deep, deep down somewhere the “heartbeat” of an ancient giant. And second, I’m not much frightened of dying anymore. There’s still the feeling of uncertainty and mild trepidation that comes from thinking about the unknown, but none of the terror that used to exist when I would think of dying and being buried, forever moldering in a box beneath concrete and soil as the clothing I’m wrapped in slowly rots to pieces. For me Cemetery’s have now become places for the living to visit for quiet contemplation about their own lives because the dead certainly aren’t there. Their energy has gone on to do other things, to live and change and move forward.

My brother died a relatively young man at age 44. His wife and I were at his bedside when his body finally gave up. When his heart monitor flat-lined and the alarm tone sounded, I remember feeling or, actually, knowing that I needed to look up towards the ceiling above his head because that’s where he went as he left his body behind. I also knew that it was important for me to tell him that it was okay for him to leave, that it was time for him to move on to whatever was next for him and that we would be alright. I’ve never told anyone about those feelings or thoughts that I had that day, at that time, in that place. I know that when I left the hospital with my sister-in-law and drove back to their house where my parents waited, that my brother was okay now, no longer in pain, no longer suffering, frightened or worried. Two days later his body was cremated and I went with my sister-in-law to pick up his ashes and I wondered on our way to pick him up if I would feel differently when I actually had his ashes in my hands in the urn she’d picked out. I remember a sense of detachment when the attendant handed me his urn while my sister-in-law signed the paperwork. It was like being handed a piece of valuable artwork, a bit macabre perhaps, but nothing unusual. There was no spark of recognition, sadness, anger, or even of loss. He wasn’t there, he was gone and what I held in my lap on the drive back to the house was simply an urn engraved with his name holding the ashes of a worn-out container that was once shaped like a man. I talk to him on a regular basis now, in fact more that I did when he was still here. The conversations are one-sided; I don’t hear voices in my head or disembodied sounds emanating from the walls or anywhere else. We had our differences and there had been hard feelings between us for awhile. We’d finally agreed to disagree in the way that most siblings do, nothing was ever said, we just knew, and we’d talked, hugged, and laughed before he went in for the surgery that would change all our lives forever, and which would ultimately end his. I feel he knows my truth now, about many things, and I also feel that it never really mattered because despite our differences we were the same in so many ways. He was my first hero in the world and he always will be. I loved him then and I love him now and I know that he knows that.

A character in a soap opera named Luke Spencer (General Hospital, 1963 episode) was given the line “Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard” and from my perspective truer words have rarely been spoken. Both life and death are about change and there’s nothing humans fear more than change, especially when the unknown is involved. But people seem to fear death more than life even though in death all that’s painful in life is gone. Seems like an odd paradox to me. But, then again, the fear of change will affect all we do and whether we “get busy living or get busy dying” (from the movie Shawshank Redemption, 1994) nothing will ever stay the same and change will dog us every step of the way no matter which path we take.

As a man who transitioned genders from female-to-male, now 15 years ago (1996), I’ve had the opportunity to watch how the changes in my life have affected those who are and/or were a part of my life. It has always been a conundrum to me that, although I’m the one who went through the travails of gender transition, there were others who seemed to view it as either a personal affront to them or as a crime I committed, with malice of forethought, against them. I may never find a clear answer to that puzzle, although I am wont to point the finger at “change” as the primary factor for their generally virulent disquiet. As has happened to many, many people who have transitioned genders, I lost family and friends along the way. It hurt at the time and occasionally still does, especially around the holiday seasons when it is our habit to draw those we love and care about closer to us. I learned to accept the losses for what they were, a sign of change and, in my case, also a sign of growth.

Living as a young, adult woman I was very much a person who held tight to tradition and family (“blood is thicker than water”), and I tried desperately to live up to the expectations of others be they family, friends, teachers, employers, or any of those who I gave authority to in my life. But I always felt like a failure because I took every criticism to heart and everyday it seemed as if there were new criticisms, some spoken, some only hinted at, but always there to my ever seeking eye. Yes, “my ever seeking eye”, because as I moved further into transition I came to understand that I had always looked for what was wrong with me without ever looking for what was right with me. For awhile I blamed my parents for raising me to always find fault in myself no matter what my action or accomplishment. I will forever hear my mother’s voice echoing in my mind; “pretty is as pretty does” “and just WHO do you think YOU are? ” and “don’t put yourself forward like that, it isn’t ladylike” and my father’s admonitions to “just behave and do as your mother asks” or “you need to go along to get along”, and so many, many more. But I am the voice of my history as well as the keeper of it and I began to understand that I no longer needed to heed all those other voices from my past. I could listen to myself and re-examine those things that were good about me and thereby become someone I liked and respected rather than someone I hated and pitied for being imperfect. I was, and always have been, my own worst critic and therefore my own worst enemy. I do not blame myself entirely for that state of mind, my parents, brother, and in fact my whole community all had a hand in helping me form those negative opinions of myself. Part of it was influence of the decades in which my parents were raised, both born before 1920 and raised when children were heard but not seen and expected to behave as miniature adults rather than as children. The later part of the 1950’s, the 1960’s and the 70’s were the decades of my childhood and coming-of-age and I think my parents felt a bit lost and overwhelmed by the uncertainties and changes their world was undergoing. My brother was seven years older than me and took his role as older, wiser protector very seriously and he too, I think, was unsettled by all the changes that took place as he became a young adult. Again, it was the changes in their world and therefore their lives that I think frightened them and, as a result, they acted as frightened people often do, they clung ever more tightly to the known and with desperate diligence tried to shut-out the unknown. The community I grew up in was much the same, the population stood at just over 5,000 when I left there in 1974, and in that small, northern, Midwestern town change isn’t viewed necessarily as a good thing. In fact it would be over 20 years after I left there before WalMart managed to open a store just outside the City Limits, much to the displeasure of the City Council and a majority of the downtown businesses.

But I have wandered from the direction I wanted to take with this piece; thinking about my hometown often causes me to roam a bit mentally because I have such mixed memories of joy and sorrow about the place and the people who used to be such a huge part of my life. In fact I've now entirely lost the direction I was headed when I started out, it happens sometimes when there is much flossing to be done.