Monthly Archives: April 2013

Unfinished business

It takes a move to find these things. Keepsakes you had no room for but that you weren’t quite prepared to chuck in the donation pile. In one of my cardboard boxes I came across a small plywood box containing a lock of hair from my former self, a bracelet, and a small ornamental pipe with a turtle on top.

Each of these items has its own story really. The pipe was from my days living in a house full of theatre students with a ready supply of weed. I was never much of a smoker and the pipe wasn’t terribly effective. But still. The memories, man. You don’t throw that sh*t away.

The lock of hair I don’t remember cutting, but it would have been when I was starting to transition, back in 2003/4. Wow, that’s coming on 10 years ago already. It contains within it the ghost of someone very unhappy, attempting to live as a woman when that simply didn’t feel true to who I was. It’s also a time capsule of my youth. The hair still looks a shiny brown, thick and healthy.

The bracelet is silver, a chain with a pendant attached and a short loose chain with a tiny heart hanging from its tip. The pendant is round like the moon and thin like a nickel, but smooth to the touch, with soft edges. Etched into it so you can only see it in a certain light is a picture of a man’s face. The man looks lean, almost skeletal. He is my father. I know the photo it’s taken from; he was already sick by that point, with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. His frame is slight, his smile honest, his eyes weary and wise and vulnerable.

I want to wear the pendant but not on a bracelet. It’s too feminine for my taste. So M brings me back a waxed cord necklace and we ply the pendant off the bracelet onto the cord necklace. I slide it over my head and peer at myself in the mirror. It looks good, masculine, tight around my neck. It feels meaningful, to wear my father’s image over my heart, to remind me. That I loved this broken, flawed man. That I caused him a lot of pain in his final days, as he figured out that I was becoming a man and that he would not see me again, ever.

My fingers linger over the surface of the pendant, as I stare at myself in the mirror. Who I am today my father deeply shaped – the good stuff as well as the bad. I think about my father pretty much every day. I wonder if he would be proud of the progress I’ve made and of the job I now have. I wonder if he knows how happy I am in my relationship with M – and that I am finally feeling some semblance of acceptance for my body, my self.

It’s been hard to let go of the self-hatred that accompanied my journey. To accept that even though my father could not really tolerate who I was becoming, that I am allowed to make my choices, and to keep on loving myself and him despite our disagreements.

The trouble with letting go of the past is that you have to choose somewhere else to direct your energy. When you no longer are trying to run away from your fears, how do you choose something to run towards? And what if I’m not strong enough?

Life is like most things worth having – it requires practice. Every day, every moment. I’m learning, slowly. And I am getting stronger. One step, one aching muscle at a time.

The Travel Itch

Why did I think it would be easy?

Sometimes an idea grabs hold of you and won’t let go. My partner and I have been kicking around the idea of changing our life trajectories and trying something different. And by different I mean bicycling across Canada for three months and seeing where that takes us. It’s an idea alright. But what then?

While discussing the idea of bicycling across the country, I think we both felt a certain amount of excitement bubbling up. Then the thief struck in the night and stole our bicycles. It’s hard not to take it personally. I mean, Universe, is that you telling us we’re crazy or something?

At least we have extras. I have a Masi Randonneur and my partner a Cannondale she rebuilt. It’s got a flat tire and the wheels aren’t true but it’s better than nothing. Whether it would get her across the country is another story. And whether my knee will get me there is, well, uncertain too. I’ve been getting these sharp pains shooting up from behind my kneecap. When it strikes, it’s a quick flash of pain and then it dissipates again.

I thought maybe it was because my seat was too low but I lifted it and the pain still happens. It even occurs when I’m walking, sometimes. Maybe it’s just one of those mysterious things that happens when you get older.

Truth is, my job is stressful. So much so that sometimes I wake up at night and can feel my heart beating way too fast to be healthy. I’m lucky, in that I get paid to write and edit but it’s hard when you’re working towards crazy deadlines and you’re dependent on the input of other people and what you’re writing isn’t something that’s yours but is a sales document for a corporation. I imagine it’s a little like what it feels like to be a reporter. You constantly need to pump out the stories to feed the machine. Except that I also have to design the documents and print and bind them. Oh and arrange the courier. Sometimes it gets to be too much.

And when it comes right down to it, there’s not much room for me to grow. I mean, I can get better at what I do, but I can’t see myself moving into sales or marketing in any other capacity. I’m too much of an anti-consumer. I hate having too much stuff and am almost religious about my disinterest in sales. And my people skills are not exactly stellar.

The fact is, it will take many a year for me to make enough money to buy a house. I just don’t have the savings and, with my partner in school, we’re not working with a lot. So, what are my options — keep pressing on, stressed out of my mind? Or change something.

The idea is this – become a travel writer, give up our apartment, become nomads wandering different countries. A fun, romantic idea maybe but not so very practical. You can’t build a life on a move like that, surely. How would we save up for retirement? How could we ever have children?

Then again, the typical path hasn’t done either of us much good. We are both disillusioned with our respective work places. We both have needs that aren’t getting met. And I’m getting that itch I get – a restlessness that means that it’s time for a change.

Grand Theft Bicycle

So it turns out keeping your bicycle locked to a bike rack in a secured parking garage underneath your apartment building is unwise. My partner and I discovered this the hard way — both of us have lost our bicycles to a thief in the night. Or day. Not sure when exactly he struck. Some time between Thursday and Sunday.

Items purloined:

1 – Surly Long Haul Trucker (blue, faux leather handlebar tape, 52 cm frame)

Looked something like this, but with brown faux leather handlebar tape and no front rack.

Looked something like this, but with brown faux leather handlebar tape and no front rack.

2 – Rocky Mountain Vapor (blue, 22″ frame)

No photo – I had it only a short while. It was a gift from a friend.

3 – BOB trailer (grey, single wheel)

BOB trailer, single wheel

BOB trailer, single wheel

To the guy (or woman) who stole our bicycles, I hope you passed it on to someone who really needed it. We haven’t stopped looking and we’ll keep on looking. And our hearts hurt. And that is all for tonight.

In other news: it was a beautiful, sunny day today.

Good intentions and the road to hell

Time and infinity

Time and infinity

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, my grandfather used to say. My father would quote him regularly at the dining room table, probably as were discussing the follies of some “bleeding heart liberal”, another favourite term my parents used. That and  “It’s a sad, sad world, Master Jack,” were common messages to my developing self. My parents weren’t a terribly optimistic bunch.

Over the years the saying about good intentions has stuck with me. It’s meant a lot of different things to me. It’s an admonishment that just because you think you’re a good person, doesn’t mean you are. It’s a warning that one person’s good intention is another person’s evil. It underscores a pessimistic outlook on life that I come by honestly: that even when you try your hardest, it’s never good enough. And even if it’s good enough, it might not be good.

It makes life seem kind of pointless.

Then the other night I was sitting next to my partner, having dinner (lamb shank, bacon, and asparagus fried in coconut butter, mmmm!), and we were discussing what we wanted to do with our lives. I mentioned the quote and how futile my efforts all felt, really. Like even if I picked some higher purpose or claimed some ideology as the one that rang true for me, I couldn’t know if it actually was correct – and I could end up doing more harm than good, like some of those pop stars and actors who go to third world countries thinking they are going to save the planet but tend to focus on the things that make for media gold rather than addressing the underlying systemic problems. My partner, it turned out, had interpreted the saying completely differently from me.

To say “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” doesn’t mean that “good” intentions are not necessarily good, she explained. It means that intentions aren’t enough. You may intend to raise a child, but unless you step up and actually do it, you’re just an irresponsible, unreliable parent. Good intentions aren’t the problem, they are the beginning. But having good intentions needs to lead to good deeds. That’s the only way to achieve real change.

Jeeez, why didn’t I think of that?

Sometimes we get so trapped in ways of seeing that we imagine everyone sees things the same as us. And sometimes the most obvious explanations escape us because the narratives we tell ourselves are so deeply engrained.

The narratives my parents told me were, on the whole, pretty negative growing up. What I was dealing with was a family in colluded depression, unable to see each other’s suffering because we were each convinced that our dark visions were accurate.

It’s true that we can’t actually know the full consequences of our actions. Sometimes, in fact, doing the right thing might actually cause pain and suffering to other people or ourselves. But if one were to choose between attempting to actualize a good intention and doing nothing at all, the choice seems obvious.

Was it Carl Jung who said: “it’s better to be whole than good?”. I think being whole depends on taking the risk of acting on your good intentions. And taking responsibility for the aftermath.

Leaving the Darkness Behind

© Winterberg | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Winterberg | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Breaking old habits is hard. That feeling of just wanting to be alone, hurting in silence, licking your wounds and wishing that nobody would look your way. At the same time, wanting desperately someone to break through the wall you’ve erected all around you. You know, just punch through it with their fist and grab you by the scruff of your neck and drag you into the light.

I realize that the only person who can do that is me, really. Sure, other people can try, can just be there, present to witness my despondency. But it’s an attitude adjustment. It’s recognizing that I have to be my own caretaker. And sometimes that will mean climbing under the covers and wrapping the blankets around me and breathing in and breathing out gently. And that’s it, just being gentle with myself. In psychology I believe they call that self-soothing.

Well, this is me self-soothing. Writing down the feelings and witnessing them for myself. Putting some distance between me and them and trying to reorient.

Some people suffer depression because they inherit it from their parents and grandparents. Some people suffer because something horrible happened and it sends them into a tailspin. In my case I’m not sure what kicked in first, the genetics or the horrible event. In any case, I’ve struggled with depression since I was a child. And I witnessed my siblings and my father struggle with it as well. My mother, too, has some sort of mental illness I’m pretty sure. But let’s not talk about her for the moment.

I read somewhere it takes between 21 and 30 days to break a habit. I don’t think I’ve gone 30 days, ever, without feeling at times that it just isn’t worth it. Today is one of those days when I have to work hard to feel good about who I am.

It started, I think, when I went to a time management seminar earlier this week, held by the Project Management Institute at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, BC. The event was an opportunity to network and mingle with other project management professionals from every conceivable industry. At my table were two IT professionals, an environmental engineer, and I forget what the others did. We were there to listen to an expert talk about how best to manage our time. Instead we got a life lesson.

He started by telling us that it wasn’t hard, that it wasn’t “rocket surgery”, it was as simple as doing what’s important first. Only, just because something’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. He repeated that a lot. He said that to know a person all you had to do was look at their calendar. What you spend your time on, that’s who you are. He also said that it was important to make lists. Not wish lists for what you want to accomplish, but actual to-do lists of what you will accomplish. The more realistic the better. Keep the wish list, but label it as such. And don’t confuse the two lists, ever.

What he said was this: time management is life management.

We are all on this planet for a finite amount of time. What we do while we are here is up to us. We get to fill it with activities, friends, family, work. We get to design what that life looks like based on the tools at our disposal and the way we manage our time.

The clock is ticking, he said.

It wasn’t a very cheerful talk.

It’s not that what he said is earth-shattering or mind-blowing or surprising or new. I know I’m not doing what I want to be doing with my life. It’s just that I’m afraid of so much and I’m not even clear on what it is I want to be doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m not clear on purpose – it’s a way of not having to start on the journey.

So here is the question again, that’s been gnawing on me all week: what am I scared of?

Because that’s where I need to go.

The universe is indifferent

The universe is vast, and powerful, and scary. And really, I don’t think it cares much, one way or another if human beings live or die. Anyone who has gone camping in the wild or has sailed on the ocean will likely relate to that feeling of facing a force, a source of energy so powerful that it could wipe you out in an instant, if it wanted to – if it cared to. But whether I am here today or tomorrow, the universe will go on. To it, I am nothing. The soft breeze of a summer wind is equal to two bombs going off at a Boston Marathon is equal to a lioness giving birth to a cub is equal to a vulture pecking at a wolf carcass.

The universe accepts all, tolerates all, simply is as it is, whether we like it or not. This reality can either render us motionless and sink us into despair, or we, too, can emulate it: accepting this moment as it is, right now, in all its ugly beauty or its beautiful ugliness.  But feel indifference? I reject that. Let’s not embrace that, ever.

What happened today in Boston was terrible. To the families who lost loved ones, and to those who were injured during the event, I am sorry for your suffering. We don’t know who did it yet, or why. But this terror of not knowing when violence will strike, that’s what will live on in the minds of the ones who were there and to a nation still on edge after September 9/11. It’s the terror of not being in control of your own destiny. It’s a rude reminder that whether we exist or not, the world will keep on turning. That fragility of existence, is hard to shake. And sometimes it’s not pretty.

How does one take an event like today’s and make sense of it? Even if we discover that it was a terrorist act in retaliation for one thing or another, that uncertainty will continue to gnaw. One can never truly know where the next crackpot lurks. Because that’s what terrorism does best; it suffocates your soul until it squeezes all the joy out of your existence. And you become convinced that your neighbour is the crackpot, and you learn to trust no one. But what you lose in the process is your humanity. Without which you are nothing.

In this life, we can commit ourselves to helping each other, to creating space for each other, to healing each other. That’s not what the people behind these explosions chose. Their act smacks of rage, perhaps of (self)-righteous indignation. Their act serves as a reminder for why we must stay ever vigilant of the darkness in our souls. Because it’s within all of us. And if we do not bring it into the light, befriend it, and disarm it, it will damage us.

It becomes more and more urgent that each of us stake our place in this world, claim our voice and speak out against the violence that has too long plagued our species. As the facts roll in about what happened and why, we owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to remember that what we say and do matters. The examples we set, the lives we live, the beliefs we espouse. It all matters.

And while the universe is indifferent to our pain, our existence, the universe also contains within it creatures capable of love: and we are one of them. We can reach out to one another and seek to build bonds so strong that we feel safe despite the universe’s cold embrace. We can understand that meaning doesn’t arise from some predestined path we’re told to walk on, but from the moments we dare to challenge that path, to embrace our freedoms and our fears, together.

I am afraid but I will no longer remain silent. I am fragile but I will be strong. I am angry but I return my anger to the universe, free of charge. Our world is ours to build, with care, with hate or with indifference. The universe accepts us whichever way we come. I know which path I would rather walk.

My gender is real

A Resource for trans guys.

Transguys.com – A resource for trans guys.

Often when discussing the reality of the transgender experience, a debate will evolve around whether gender is determined on the basis of chromosomes (i.e. XY is male and XX is female) or whether gender is a purely social construct.

Someone will usually point out that while one’s sex is usually classified as male and female, gender is a separate concept and is defined around how people exist in the world (i.e. as a man or a woman). Also, someone will likely bring up the existence of intersex individuals (e.g. those who have genetic abnormalities that result in atypical sexual development) as proof that transgenderism is a legitimate condition.

That sex and gender do not always align does not disprove that in the great majority of cases it aligns quite nicely. But sex and gender sometimes misalign, and when this happens, gender confirmation surgery (formerly called sex reassignment surgery) seems to be an effective way to restore harmony.

Often in my travels across the interwebs I have found people who have claimed that while genes and sex are fixed, gender identity is a social construct. No argument there. But where I disagree is when these same people argue that because sex is fixed and a “natural” phenomenon, it is real, while gender identity or expression is a cultural phenomenon, not fixed and therefore a figment of the imagination.

Culture is real. It’s as real as the air we breathe, and the earth we walk on. While it a less tangible, less fixed entity than air or earth, and while it is more malleable than a rock, for example, it can have very serious, very damaging effects on the quality of people’s lives if it is not properly tended to. We each are responsible for the culture we live in; we shape it with every interaction we engage in.

As a trans man I want to see a society that acknowledges my right to exist. I claim the right to define my own gender regardless of my sex. This is not delusion or insanity. It is something deep inside of me that wants expression, that is entitled to that expression. And while, up to this point, only two genders have presented themselves as viable options, I can imagine a future where many more may exist.

If gender truly is the product of social conditioning, then the conditioning that would have aligned my biological sex (female) with my expected gender (woman) simply did not take. And my deciding to surgically and hormonally alter my physical body to align my external appearance with my internal sense of self (as masculine) does not mean that I am being a traitor to women or, for that matter, the lesbian cause (another tired argument that reappears online from time to time).

What it means is that I recognize my right to live the life I choose. As the man I choose to be. Just as every man, woman, and everyone else has the right to expect that their decision to live according to their values and beliefs deserves respect so long as that decision shows respect for others.

I am not interested in denying my past as a female. That, too, is part of my life story. I am also very aware of the very real mental distress I suffered as a result of the misalignment between how the world was perceiving me (as female) and how I felt (masculine).

I hope that we can build a world that understands that gender is real even if everyone experiences it differently. And the person who gets to define it, is the person who has to live it.

Opening the box

Untitled

A doodle of what’s in the box.

What am I afraid of? What am I not afraid of?

The uncertainty that lies beyond.

The lack of knowing whether what I do with what lies ahead is the right choice.

How does one know if anything is the right choice?

Maybe this is why people cling to religions, doctrines and dogmas. Having a manual for your life is a way to face the sheer enormity of our existence with at least an inkling of what to do next.

But what if you put all those books aside and face the universe as it is? What if the universe isn’t created to give our lives meaning? What if the universe doesn’t owe us anything at all?

Comfort. That’s why I fear opening the box. I’m not ready to leave it behind. The knowledge that if I just continue on as I am, everything will stay the same, life will remain safe.

But this comfort makes me uncomfortable. I want to embrace uncertainty. The place where not knowing is, that’s where the juice is.

How do I overcome the fear? How do I reach for the box and peel it open? How do I let the sunshine in?

For much of my life I have operated in crisis mode. I have fought to survive; even breathing was a struggle. When you’re struggling to survive, you don’t think about the future; you don’t plan. It’s one moment til the next, and the next moment after that. That’s what it was like living with depression from the age of 11 to my mid-20s. I didn’t know how long I would stick around. I sort of assumed I’d stop living at the age of 30. I had long since stopped dreaming of a future for myself or for anyone else. I just tried as best I could to keep on breathing.

It’s that part of me, the part that wouldn’t stop breathing, that I want to get to know better now. That part is where my strength lies, I think. It’s the part that, despite all logic, despite deep grief, and utter despair, just wouldn’t let me go. Why? Why do some people get through the darkness and other people don’t? It’s not because I’m stronger than any of the other ones, the ones that went through with ending it. Having witnessed the aftermath of a few suicides, I can honestly say that some of those people had so much more reason to live than I ever did. They contributed so much more than I to this world, to making it a better place, before they left.

Maybe it’s that my journey is still ongoing. Maybe it’s because whatever it is that I have to offer the world needs to be born first, before the world will let me go?

I can’t know for sure. I don’t know anything, really. Sometimes the very little I know frightens me, because it makes me feel like I have no right to exist in the first place. But here I am, alive, breathing, in this body, on this earth, in this universe.

What do I do with the box once I’ve opened it?

And then she called me a werewolf

© Emin Kuliyev | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Emin Kuliyev | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I used to fantasize that I was a werewolf like in True Blood, Alan Ball-style, all mysterious and sexy and, well, with a thick coat of hair. Turns out I kinda, sorta got my wish.

As a trans man I’m one of the hairier men out there. Compared to my late father, a man who was assigned male at birth, I’m a regular sasquatch. He barely had enough hair to cover the warts on his head, and when he tried to grow a beard, it grew in patchy and thin.

My beard, on the other hand, is thick, my moustache long and carefully groomed thanks to my partner M–‘s attentiveness (she cuts my hair).

As a closeted trans man, you have this whole other side of you that you keep trying to push down, out of sight, but it keeps coming out at the most awkward moments. And when it does, people scurry every which way just to get away from you. It’s the monster inside you can’t suppress. In my case, this monster has come out to play. And he’s hairier than ever before.

I used to have a lot of hair even as a girl. In my teens, my mother sent me to the hairdresser to get my eyebrows plucked and my upper lip zapped. Man, how I hated lying there and feeling the electric current shoot from my upper lip into my tear-ducts. For a day or two after, pus would ooze out of every cleared hair follicle.

The hair didn’t bother me, even back then. But I understood the need to try to fit in, for society’s sake. Like a good girl, I shaved my legs, and rubbed oil into the skin so they were silky soft and smooth. I even shaved my underarm hair. But I did these activities half-heartedly, ruminating on the stupidity of removing hair that would only grow back a day or two later. The whole task of being a woman just felt impossibly hard.

Gender is a kind of a dance, the steps to which you are introduced at a very young age. Some of us are natural dancers; others not so much. I fell in the not so much camp. I didn’t really even understand why it felt so awkward. When my mother tried to show me how to follow a recipe or sew or braid my hair, I tried to listen and watch, but my brain kept wandering. I wanted to play outside, with the boys, and help the men light the barbecue on the back porch. I felt like a failure. I was a failure.

In South Africa, where a white girl like me was expected to find herself a nice white man to marry, I simply wilted. And the unruly hair my body sprouted was just one more indication of my failure.

My hairiness pre-transition paled in comparison to what exploded all over my body once hormone therapy kicked in. Now settled in Canada and no longer needing to prove myself feminine, I watched as hair spread like grass all over my legs, my upper lip, my chin, in my armpits. Hair appeared just about everywhere, growing in on my chest, my back, even in my butt-crack. I started to worry that it wouldn’t ever stop. Then the male-pattern baldness happened. Not complete baldness, but a thinning of the patch on the crown of my head. I watch it with eagle eyes, terrified.

The hair, my height (I’m over 6 foot tall), my deepening voice, made it easy for me to blur the gender divide and eventually climb right over it.  People called me sir long before I ever injected testosterone. The difference was that now, I wasn’t correcting them by telling them I was a woman. I was letting them see a side of me I could no longer suppress; the werewolf side of me, the side that is trans and more man than woman.

Today, I don’t hide my transman status. But I recognize my trans-ness is simply one slice of who I am; I am a pie with many slices. If I feel the urge to tell my story now, it’s because I, too, am trying to understand how I got here.

The Painful Path to Happiness

© Andrey Kiselev | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Andrey Kiselev | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Being alive isn’t something we all get to do. Some of us are born dead. Some die from illness before we get to speak our first words. Some grow into teenagers before we get wiped out, by a drunk driver, say, or a rare form of cancer. Some people are technically alive but our souls are dead – you can see it in our eyes. Life isn’t a right; it’s a gift. And not everyone gets to keep it.

If we’re lucky, we live into our twenties. If we’re even luckier, we live into our thirties and beyond. Just breathing isn’t something everyone gets to do but for those of us who have made it this far, we’re the lucky ones.

Lucky doesn’t necessarily mean happy.

Depression plagued me for most of my childhood and my teens. In my twenties those feelings peaked. As a twenty something year old I tried, multiple times, to wipe myself off the face of the earth but survived. I made it through, into my thirties. Not so long ago, turning thirty was considered reaching middle age. Yet here I am: I don’t feel like I’ve even begun to live my life. Or I’ve begun but I’m only now starting to get into the swing of things. Call me a late bloomer. Where to begin?

Why is it that some of us experience happiness so easily and others can’t ever seem to feel it? Why does suffering exist? And how can we get away from it? Can we really put it aside for good?

That pretty much sums up what I’ve been obsessed about for most of my life. Everything I’ve ever done, every measly moment I’ve spent with the covers pulled over my head, has been a step toward understanding the nature of my suffering, and has driven me to seek out new ways to combat it.

But combatting suffering doesn’t get you far because it’s not the enemy. At least, you can’t stop suffering by treating it like the enemy. I’m learning that.

I used to think that if only my parents had loved me for who I was I would have turned out better. But they had their own demons to wrestle with. It’s unfortunate but there it is. It’s possible that had I had parents who were truly capable of being there for me, my life would have been slightly less painful, maybe a little less lonely. But that’s not how life happened. You play the hand you’re dealt.

And the suffering I experienced because of their rejection of who I was, as a trans man, as a teenager suffering  from severe depression, as a child whose emotional needs were largely neglected not because of malevolence on my parents’ part, but because of their inability to alleviate their own suffering and therefore see mine, means that I appreciate the happy moments when they come now.

And happy moments do come. Like when I lie in bed next to my partner and she smiles when I stroke the outline of her ear. Or when my dog crawls under the covers and her warm body presses up against the back of my knee. Or when we adventure together, camping in October or taking the Boltbus to Seattle.

I snap pictures of these moments because I want to remember what happiness feels like. I am building up my toolbox, one day, one night, at a time.

Writing, too, is part of that toolbox. I write to understand my suffering. In my vulnerability I find life.