Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Children’s Story

Still feeling vulnerable today. One way to counteract that is to be gentle with myself. And the only way I know how to feel better is to write. Write without thinking too much about it. So here goes, a children’s story, absurd and non-sensical. Because my brain needs a rest. Because life is absurd, and my life lacks sense at the moment. So here it is, just for fun…

Moon Baby 

The man stands 6 storeys tall on his knees. His hands are the size of small motorboats. His nose is large and noisy. He is breathing heavily. And with each breath in, trees topple over, benches break loose and skid toward us. When he exhales, the clouds disperse and the tide pulls away.

The man is my father. His legs are made of iron, his feet of steel. His arms have a golden sheen. “White gold,” he says. And he picks me up like I’m a toothpick and perches me on his shoulder. I am nothing like him.

With every step through the town, the earth rumbles. People stare at us, their eyes wide with fear. “Good morning, Arthur,” a crackly voice calls. It’s Bob, the butcher, who always has a kind word for everyone. He waves at my father, at me with a shaking hand and scampers inside his store before my father can reply.

My father’s mouth is a gaping hole of rotting teeth. He never brushes his teeth because, he says, he can’t find a toothbrush large enough. His halitosis clears the streets and we wander on, through the town and towards the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

“Good morning,” his voice bellows to the townspeople, drowning out the church gong. It’s 9 am.

Nobody follows us, nobody dares.

We wander towards the mountain range, and my father carefully lowers me down to the ground, right next to a pond blue like ice cream. I run towards it, clamber down onto my belly and lap up the freshwater like a dog. My father stands in the distance, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Aren’t you thirsty?” I ask. He shakes his head, and sweat rains down on the forest, the pond, me. The water is salty now. I stop drinking.

“Ugh, dad. Look what you’ve done!”

But he’s not looking at me anymore. Up in the sky, the sun is burning hot. He reaches up and picks it out of the sky like fruit from a tree. He squeezes it and liquid sunshine streams into his mouth, drips down his chin.

The planet is dark now. Black like the night.

“Dad! Put it back!”

He swallows down the light and opens his hand to reveal the sun, squeezed dry and dimly lit. He smoothes it out with his other hand and puffs it up like a pillow. Then he throws it up into the sky again, where it lands on a cloud. It’s still not as bright as it used to be.

On the other hand, my father now beams like a torchlight. The light streaming out of his pores, his eyes is so blinding I can barely stand to look at him.

He reaches down to gather me up again, but his skin burns into mine and I yell out in pain, “Ow! Stop!”. My father pauses and twists his head sideways the way a dog does when it’s curious.

I tell him we should rest and he chuckles so loud, the leaves tumble down from all the trees around us.

“You’re tired already?” he teases. His grin is large and scary and bright.

The dim sun on high cries out that he is tired, even if we’re not. And slowly the sun lowers himself in the distance until he’s out of sight. In his place the moon floats up and glimmers coldly down at us. It looks like a fingernail clipping in the sky.

My father loves the moon. He rides it like a skateboard through the darkness. He heaves himself up into the sky and steps gingerly onto the sliver of moon. It teeters this way and that, creaking under my father’s weight.

“Don’t break it dad,” I cry. But my father’s not listening. He is absorbed in balancing his large frame on the moon. They skid towards the milky way. My father says it is slippery like coconut oil. I watch him slip and slide along it like a child, screaming: “Weeee!” It sounds like thunder.

I am jealous because my father never takes me up with him when he plays. He says it’s too dangerous, that I need to wait until I’m big like him. But I don’t think I’ll ever be. My size resembles my mother’s. She is no bigger than a Christmas tree.

Falling

I seem to have tumbled over the deep end this weekend. A reminder of what depression feels like. A reminder that sometimes, I am not well. A reminder to be gentle with myself.

Depression is more than a disease. It is a death sentence. It robs you of the words, the images, the hope that makes life worth living. It’s an implosion that shudders through your body and emanates out of you like waves, like what I imagine a city goes through when it is hit by an atom bomb. The strangely beautiful mushroom cloud, then the air full of dust and debris and bodies.

The bodies I face are those that never existed or that should have. They are the mother who should have loved me, the father who should have been healthy enough to defend me, the sisters who were adult enough to see that our family was a disease in and of itself.

How dare I write these words. How brazenly I condemn my family. What if it isn’t true? What if it isn’t their fault at all?

What if my own misery belongs to know one but myself. I am its creator, its nurturer.

How do live with myself then?

The truth is I am going through an identity crisis. Or should I say, a lack of identity crisis. The facts are like leaves falling off a tree. They land here and there but there’s no pattern to it, no reasoning with it. They lie there on the soil, dry and dead, waiting for someone to rake them up again, throw them away or compost them.

Worm food. That’s what I am. I can feel myself rotting.

I had a teacher once. He told me to write at least 4-5 hours a day. “If you want to be a writer,” he said, ” you need to write”. I told him, essentially, to piss off. I worked until 6 pm each night and didn’t have the energy to sit behind a desk and write for four hours more. A person needs to have time for life as well. “It’s you choice,” he said. Yeah, it’s my choice not to spend my life doing something meaningless that no one cares about anyway.

Yeah, it’s my choice not to indulge the side of myself that is constantly seeking attention, pity, sympathy.

In Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” she writes: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” How do I forgive myself? And how do I know if I deserve to forgive myself? There are bad people in this world. Maybe I am one of them.

The apartment is empty tonight. M is away, camping with a group of friends. I was invited but declined. i needed some time to myself, I said. What I really needed was time to feel sorry for myself.

M has been thinking of planning a pity party. Maybe once a month. We would save up all month on all the reasons our lives suck, we would gather these reasons together and once a month we would share them with others. Together, we would feel sorry for ourselves, and then, at the end of the night, we would wander down to the ocean, with pieces of paper on which we have written these feelings down. We will burn them in the night. Let them go up in flames. We will experience some sort of catharsis. That’s what ritual is for.

How many months will it take before the catharsis is complete?

What if the pus of self-pity just goes on and on. What if that is my identity.

I’ve been thinking, lately, of dabbling in fiction. My father didn’t have a high opinion of fiction; he felt it was just make-belief. Ironically, he loved Homer and Virgil. As long as it was myth; as long as it was Literature, I suppose it was alright.

But I don’t think it matters what my father thinks anymore. I’m 34. He’s just shadow of a ghost that still, occasionally, haunts me. He’s just the man imprinted on a medallion I wear around my neck to remind me. That he once was. That he once claimed to love me. That I once let him down. Or more than once.

In Jeanette’s memoir she writes: “I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer, there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We  get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence.”

I’m done with conspiracies. It’s too painful.

Bus stop blues

On my way home from work today, I stopped at a downtown bus stop and waited in line for the bus to arrive. A drunk man approached us, his gait uncertain, his sense of direction clearly not the only thing that was impaired. He spotted a blond-haired young woman and stood close to her, informing her, no doubt, of her many admirable physical qualities. I couldn’t hear what he was saying until she had moved away and he raised his voice to the rest of us. To the drunk man with the grey moustache, this is for you:

 

Because the city grips my throat and squeezes

the life out of me. I am waiting at a bus stop

next to a woman with long curls like waves down her back. And

a drunk man staggers to where she stands and proclaims

that she is a sunflower seed. When he is met with silence he

raises his voice like only a drunk man can. He asks if we

would prefer he built an atom bomb instead. As if

those were his only options: harassing a young woman

and bombing the world to smithereens. I’d find it funny

if it weren’t for the ache I feel, like fingernails scratching

at the inside of my skin. The ugliness and desperation

in his voice, the plaintiff call of pain. Eventually the woman wanders away,

iPhone in hand. So does the man with the dirty moustache

and baggy jeans. We’re all relieved to see him go.

The No. 16 bus to 29th Station pulls up, and I amble on board,

flash my monthly bus pass to the surly driver,

and weave a path to the back of the bus, eager to pull out

the book I’m reading called why be happy when you can be normal?

by Jeanette Winterson. And I don’t have an answer.

But I can contemplate: this is why the middle class will never

ride public transit. It’s why I wrap myself in a plastic

blue raincoat before I climb on board. An indestructible

layer to keep the grime of reality at bay.

Bad Air Day

Some days you feel like even the air you breathe in hurts. I don’t know why it happens, or what starts it. Oh heck, sure I do. It’s my birthday on Tuesday. I’m turning thirty-four. Gawd, I had to pause after I typed that. How did that happen? There was a time that 34 was about as old as men got. And here I am, still feeling like my life hasn’t really started.

It’s been a rough ride of late, emotionally. Mostly just feeling drained and tired. And feeling like my life isn’t panning out as planned. It’s not that I wanted great riches and red carpets, but maybe a clearer understanding of what it all means would have been nice. Now I’m writing in the past tense, as if it’s all over. I sure hope it isn’t. I’m not ready.

This weekend I’m going off to Vancouver Island to visit with a friend I haven’t seen since, well, 2007. Wow, that’s six years ago. We used to live together back in the days where she was attending university and I was unhappily working at a sketchy self-publishing operation with her sister. I even tried killing myself one night, in the basement suite we shared. L came home to an ambulance whisking me away after I’d called my own sister to say goodbye and ended up telling her I’d taken an overdose. I didn’t really want to die – not yet.

L and I went our separate ways eventually. I’d always felt that she never had much respect for me. She was a theatre student with little patience for the corruption that comes with rampant capitalism. She was loud and opinionated and smoked pot and jaywalked and climbed over private property fences and got drunk and constantly lived on the edge of chaos. I was fascinated and horrified and so was she, as she got to know me.

Here I was: quiet, risk averse, serially depressed and as stubborn as she was but in a very different way. I confess I was slightly infatuated with her wild nature, and she was beautiful too. But I hated how angry she got at me, how little she thought of my life choices and how much she dismissed my introverted way of being.

We lost contact after I abandoned her sister during a painful relationship breakup. Her sister had been one of my first close friends when I moved to Canada, and she had actually introduced me to L. The reasons I abandoned her are complicated, involving feelings of being overwhelmed after my father’s demise and going through my own nervous breakdown. I figured that was that – I would never see A or L again.

While we rarely see each other, we’ve made amends, sort of. I apologized to A for the way I left her, and explained to L that I had done my best at a difficult time. We moved on and now here we are, six years later and I am staying with her for a night. This time, I have my partner M with me. I have no idea if they’ll get along. L is now a mother of two, living in a small town, and I am, well, a copywriter for a company whose CEO self-describes as a “rapacious capitalist bastard”.

As I prepare for this trip, I can’t help feeling the grief of one of the most painful periods of my life wash over me again. The memory of that pain is still pretty raw, and it still hurts. And I wonder what will happen this weekend, if it will be like old times, if it can ever be like old times again. That said, the old times weren’t that great. But the friendships, they mean something. Still.

That’s the thing about hurting. It doesn’t get easier. Sometimes we forget.

Voicing off: speaking the truth in a world gone mad

Put your hand on the dial and turn up the volume, he said.

Unlike many people, I have a difficult time with chit-chat and establishing the bond commonly known as friendship. The reasons for this are long and understandable. But the result is that I have few close friends, and the friends that I do have don’t call me up for fun very often. I am not really what you would call a “fun” guy.

For the most part I do not feel alone. I enjoy my time spent reading books, exploring the internet and cuddling with my girlfriend and our eight-year-old pug. But lately I have been feeling the lack of social interaction. I feel it holds me back, not only in my personal life but also in my professional one. There’s nothing small about small talk. Building bonds, connecting on a human level, that’s what business is built on. We seek out people who we can identify with. Those are the people we want to work with.

So what do you do when the volume is so low that you don’t register on most people’s frequency level? You can’t wait forever for someone to quiet down enough to hear the low hum of your voice. The world is a noisy place, and unless you want to wallow in loneliness and obscurity, you need to turn up that dial. You need to make yourself vulnerable.That’s the thing: more volume means more exposure. Even in those small moments of “harmless” banter.

I wasn’t always this way. I remember a time when I spoke my truth quite happily. I couldn’t have been older than 4 years old, for example, when I had my first taste of political discourse. I remember the reaction of the man I was speaking to. He was a tall black man, a gardener to my parents when we still lived in the interior of South Africa, in a city called Bloemfontein. My father was a professor at the local university, and my mother was a housewife and mother of three.

I looked up at this large black man with the dark brown eyes and I said, with a child’s clarity, what even I could see at the age of 4: you will never be rich because you are black. The man’s somber eyes turned bright with rage; he reached down to grab me. Terrified, I ran across the lawn, the large man following me briefly, before he stopped and I disappeared into the relative safety of our house.

That might have been my first lesson in the power of words. That is, that sometimes it’s better not to speak your thoughts out loud. It’s one of the childhood memories that have stuck with me most. Again and again, I have run into this conflict in my life: speak up and incur the wrath of your audience, or keep quiet and blend into the background, where you are forgotten. Finding a balance, of speaking just the right amount of truth? That isn’t a skill I’ve managed to master yet.

The truth is this: The same drive that prevents me from initiating conversations with strangers in the elevator on my way to work is the same instinct that keeps me from truly embracing my own life. Maladaptive instincts, like habits, are hard to break. But I know I have to if I want to keep growing as a person. If I want to be the person I believe myself capable of being.

It’s the vulnerability that scares me. The exposure, like an open wound, to rays of scorching sun and eyeballs searing their judgments into my pale, sensitive skin. But vulnerability is strength too. Or, at least, the knowing of where you are vulnerable. And how can you know where those spots actually are unless you let them see the light of day?

I think I’m getting to a place where I feel more comfortable turning up the volume – just a crack. But I may have to practice a while mastering the art of finding the right spot on the dial before I truly feel OK. We each deserve to be heard; that I believe. Even when what we say isn’t pretty. Figuring out how to be heard in a way that has a positive impact, that inspires meaningful change – that’s the real challenge.

In the meantime, let’s open the curtains and breathe.

Life is a Paddle Board

What happiness looks like: myself standing, knees bent, butt pointed out, feet balanced far apart on a paddle board, in the Pacific Ocean off of Vancouver, BC, Canada. Today was my first try at paddle boarding and, though I toppled over a few times, I also managed to get up and stand tall for a goodly portion of the morning, to my own surprise.

I was initially skeptical that I would have any luck at all with this activity, based on my assessment of my balancing abilities and my lack of skill in the swimming department. But it turned out that I was quite enjoying paddling my way up toward False Creek. The sun felt warm on my skin. My legs shook as they shifted to balance with each wave. With me was my partner M and her best friend C.

C had done this once before and instructed us on the proper technique, encouraging us to approach rising to our feet the way a yoga student would approach Downward Dog pose. Not being a yoga practitioner myself, this analogy did little to clarify the right form; much more useful was me watching her carefully as she demonstrated the placement of the feet, the slow rise, the straightening of the back while keeping the butt pointed outward.

It took all my concentration, and once I was standing, my legs trembled as the muscles tried desperately to find some sort of balance. The water was choppy, especially when motor boats charged by and the ensuing waves knocked into my board.

But it felt good to be out in the sun, gliding across the surface of the ocean. I felt a little like Jesus, walking on water. I felt happy. I don’t say that often enough on this site. So much of my mental real estate seems taken up with analyzing the many difficulties my partner and I have faced to get to where we are in our lives. My default, as M likes to say, is dark. Well, today my mood felt light like a buoy on the ocean’s surface; it was doing pirouettes atop of a paddle board.

It was good to set aside some of the worrying and anxiety – and just be.

M says that I am socially odd. She says that part of my awkwardness may be the result of my upbringing as a girl, part of it may be growing up in a country so violent that people exist in a chronic state of subconscious panic. I suspect my years of struggle with finding a gender expression that feels comfortable probably has something to do with it as well. Whatever the origins, M says that my default setting when I interact with other people (especially for the first time), is to assume that they will not like me, that they have no reason to. Consequently, I make little effort to engage, already convinced that it is futile to try. That, in fact, has been an overarching approach to life and to learning new tasks. Why bother, a voice in my head whispers? Usually I have no answer for it.

I have, it’s true, carried with me a deep-seated belief that trying new things, meeting new people, and interacting with others are doomed activities – even as I crave these things desperately. I have existed with the belief that I have nothing of value to offer and therefore am taking up space. My words, actions so often feeling meaningless that I simply assume that others interpret them that way also.

But I’m starting to see that maybe that’s not the case. Maybe letting myself feel complete in this moment, can help me to overcome the subconscious belief that I am irretrievably, unforgivably broken.

I am not broken; I am constantly evolving. And that, is what I learned today as I paddled my way back to the docks. I can’t wait to get out and do it all over again.

Dancing in the sun

Learning to not fit in.

I have a really hard time with this. My first inclination is to want to blend into the background like a nondescript coat of paint. Like at work yesterday. I’m part of a working group tasked with developing a Marketing and Communications Playbook for the company I work for. Thing is: I’m new. I’ve only worked for this company for 9 months and never received formal training in the role I currently fill. That’s OK; I’m used to learning on the fly. But it’s NOT OK when suddenly it’s my job to make it seem like I know what I’m doing. Because I don’t.

My approach in life has been to pretend I know what I’m doing until I actually do know. But one thing you can’t fake is confidence. At least, I really struggle with this. For a writer, I’m really bad at expressing my opinions, backing them up, exposing myself to the criticisms of others. I just want my co-workers to like me. And it’s like I think they will if I just hold a really low profile and work hard.

It’s the conditioned South African girl in me.

Learning to live out loud. To justify your actions. To sound informed. On the conference call yesterday in which we discussed the first draft of the chapters we put together for the Playbook so far, I fell silent. I felt lost. I didn’t want to critique any one else’s contributions. I didn’t want to be critiqued. My comments were bland. I retreated into my tortoise shell.

One of my co-workers told me once that I need to learn to ‘bite, don’t nibble’. But I’m a nibbler. Biting is violent; it’s scary. I don’t like feeling scared.

I’ve developed so many skills over the years that have helped me survive but that no longer serve me. In fact, it hinders me now. My ability to blend in, for example. To keep my head low. I used it to great effect when my family uprooted itself and moved to South Africa. I was eleven years old and wanted nothing more than to belong. But what do you do when fitting in means losing your identity? All I had truly known up til then was Canada. And I missed it terribly.

I loved the snow and what it represented – freedom. The Rocky Mountains were etched into my heart, as were the dense pine forests, the smell of them, where my father took us camping each summer. I loved my time in Canada – it was all I knew. But I wanted to be proud of my South African heritage too. Cognitive dissonance. I coped by holding onto a few small Canadian details – my accent when I spoke English, for instance. These became integral parts of the identity I was still in the process of constructing for myself.

But mostly I pretended that it wasn’t hard at all, making new friends. The teachers seemed nice, overall, but scary. They had rulers they used to hit us with when we disobeyed. They saw in me a malleable, smart little girl and they expected me to perform well in school. And I did, for the most part. Except, strangely, in Art. The art teacher and I just didn’t see eye to eye about anything. I used to love to draw pictures of the Rocky Mountains and the sun’s rays beaming across the ocean. She had no use for my drawings; said they weren’t realistic

Look at the sun, she said. Can you actually see rays coming out of it? The answer, I knew, was no. Then stop drawing what you don’t see, she said.

I can appreciate the poetic truth of what she was saying now, in my adult age. It’s a powerful lesson in seeing: to capture what you see rather than spew what you’ve been told to see. But as an 11 year old I felt crushed. Because I loved my drawings and used them to express my moods even if they weren’t factually accurate. It felt like she was telling me that my feelings weren’t valid. What she said: paint what’s real. What I heard: don’t dream, don’t imagine, don’t be you.

Learning to not fit in? What it means to me now is to be comfortable with my strangeness. To embrace being wrong at times. Oh how terrified I have always been of being wrong!

And it’s learning that what motivates me, isn’t what motivates others. Like the other members of the Playbook team. One fellow in particular, Nick – he’s ambitious, opinionated, and has a high opinion of himself. He also happens to work hard. I need to let go of the need for him to like me. Because he clearly doesn’t respect me. That’s OK. I still am allowed to have my opinions. I still am allowed to draw my mountains, my sun the way I damn well please.

Even if isn’t totally realistic. We need more freedom to imagine anyway.

5 am meditation on food and being trans

I found out that my pitch to blog for Original Plumbing was successful. I will, it seems, be blogging weekly for the online version of this magazine once the new website launches. Original Plumbing is a quarterly magazine and online hub that takes a trendy look at the ftm way of life. I’m very excited to be a part of it! But it means I will need to be diligent about putting a trans angle on the posts I write.

That’s probably not as hard as I think it is. After all, most of my posts here talk about gender one way or another, even when I don’t mention it directly. Being trans is one of those pervasive characteristics that impacts you in surprising ways in every aspect of your life. For instance, who knew that being trans would affect the way I eat? But it does and it did.

Growing up I had a huge appetite to match the energy that hummed through my pre-adolescent body. A friend of the family used to joke that I had a hollow leg where all the food landed; that’s why I could eat and eat and not pick up any weight. Then I hit puberty; my body started to change. And so did my eating habits.

I was still hungry a lot of the time, but as I approached sixteen I stopped eating with the family as much as I was able to without drawing too much attention to myself. I lost a lot of weight and hid my exposed neck bones behind a scarf I wore to school. Unlike my sister, who had also struggled with anorexia nervosa growing up, I wasn’t doing it because I thought that’s what girls should look like. My motives were much simpler: I didn’t want to be a girl.

My starvation tactics kept my body underdeveloped for a little while longer. But life was changing in irreversible ways: I could no longer wander shirtless in the back yard, though I had loved to do so as a child. On my chest two breasts emerged like unwelcome buds. They were small but impossible to ignore. They augured the arrival of the Next Big Event in a girl’s life: bleeding. I was not looking forward to that.

The loss of weight allowed me to keep at bay menstruation until I was fairly old: sixteen. Oh, how the blood disgusted me when it eventually did come! The way it poured out of me like a cruel joke, fate cackling mercilessly at me. And with its arrival came mood swings that spiralled me further into depression. I would crawl under the covers with lights dimmed and try to sleep away the ugliness of my existence.

Mine felt like the ugly duckling story in reverse: I was born beautiful, with a flat chest and a boyishness that I was allowed to express while I was small, but as I aged my swan-like innocence transformed into something monstrous to my own eyes. And people no longer tolerated my tomboyish ways. Maybe I was more like the main character in Kafka’s Metamorphosis who woke up one day to discover that he was turning into an insect. Like Gregor Samsa, I witnessed myself transform against my will and didn’t know how to reverse the process. Limiting my eating slowed the transformation, but it couldn’t stop it entirely. I knew that.

Eventually my parents took me to see a neurologist and a nutritionist and I was given a regimen to follow. Relieved that I was receiving some attention, I hoped that I would soon be whole again. But no one seemed to understand exactly why I was doing what I was doing, and I – at the time – knew virtually nothing about transsexualism. I had no vocabulary to explain my predicament.

I’m happy to declare that I stopped bingeing and purging before I left high school. I never really enjoyed limiting my intake, especially because I love food so much. These days I’ll eat anything, though I avoid soy products – too many phytoestrogens can cause feminizing effects. Food is something I love to share and I’m lucky to have partner that spoils me with the most wonderful concoctions!

So yeah. Being trans impacts your life in unpredictable ways. In every conceivable way. Like learning how to go the toilet. But that’s a blogpost for another day.

How to choose an identity

When you have multiple identities, deciding which one matters most can prove challenging. Maybe you feel more South African than transsexual, or maybe depression has shaped your life more than your sexuality has. You swap your identities the way you might exchange your outfits, depending on your disposition on the day. Today I feel South African, you might say, and observe all the ways in which the Canadians around you are different from you – and always will be.

But how do other people do it? What if you are mainstream, hold a 9-5 job, have 2.5 children and white skin? What if you are Canadian and like hockey? What becomes the defining characteristic that drives your life? What becomes your core identity?

Rich or poor, able or disabled, straight or queer, caucasian or not, religious or atheist, we all have composite identities; it’s the one thing we have in common. And, according to recent research, we tend to surround ourselves with people just like us. Like-minded, kindred spirits who see the world through the same lenses, with the same ironic wit (or lack of it), who reflect back to us the “proof” that the world really is the way we think it is. It gives us a sense of safety. But is that safety real?

I think most of us fall into the trap of thinking that if those who disagree with us just were more educated on the matter at hand, they would see things our way. That’s not always the case. The rational mind is a wondrous thing; depending on your deeply-held beliefs it can convince you of anything. Like that God exists, or doesn’t.

So if we are a cobbled together collection of identities, and what we believe about ourselves shapes who we become, as does who we surround ourselves with, how do we go about deciding that this identity is more important than that one?

The reason I ask is this: I am a transgender man. But I’m also a writer, a cyclist, a blogger, a dog-owner, a survivor of mental illness, a Canadian and a South African. Each of these identities holds importance in my life. And some overlap with others — my dual nationality, for instance, means that I have experiences in common with both South Africans and Canadians (the flip side being that I have gaps in my internal cultural database for those moments when I was in one or the other country).

Some of these identities have shaped me more than others. For instance, while I have become a cyclist only relatively recently, my transgender identity has haunted me from a very young age (as far back as age 4, that I can remember). And while I no longer consider myself depressed, it has certainly left its stamp on how I approach my life day by day, and how I respond to stressful situations (I practice, when I can, loving-kindness meditation in an effort to restore my mind’s fragile equilibrium).

Some identities, too, may be dependent on one another for their existence in the first place. My social anxiety, for instance, is directly related to my trans identity. The disconnect I felt growing up, between how I was perceived versus how I wanted to be perceived, caused me to withdraw inward and avoid social interactions. Had I not been born trans, would I still have suffered from social anxiety? Impossible to know for sure, but I wonder.

Which brings me to my final point: identities are constantly in flux. By that I mean they change and dissolve and reassemble and expand. I was briefly on welfare in the midst a severe bout of clinical depression in my early twenties. As the depression lifted, my identity as an unemployed person dissolved as well. Thankfully, I was able to return to work and have managed to establish a life, if not of riches, at least of some financial stability.

Maybe seeking out a primal identity is a doomed exercise. Identity like the weather, changes constantly. But like the weather, it comes in patterns, clusters of behaviours that associate us with others who have those same behaviours. Am I trans because of the disconnect between my physical body and sense of self? If so, then do I lose my trans identity once my body and self are aligned? Or does my trans identity persist beyond the point where medical intervention ceases because of the shared experience I have with others who have walked this same path?

Maybe, in the end, identity comes less from the labels we inhabit and more from how we orient ourselves in our lives. Maybe our behaviours, inspired by our chosen values, define us. For instance:

I believe in the beauty of life

I believe that we, each of us, belong and have a right to exist

I believe in the value of living my truth with kindness. As it’s through living my truth that I am able to experience the truth and beauty of others as well.

Maybe that, and the actions these values inspire, is all the identity I need to concern myself with.

Fear and Anger and Me

Last night was a case in point. My computer failed to load a new plugin correctly. Big deal, right? I poked around looking for a way to fix it so I could get on with watching the video I’d loaded. It was our date night and this was not what I’d had in mind.

Next to me M sat quietly until she finally said: “let me know if you want me to say anything”. I was annoyed and frustrated and when I finally gave up and asked for her input, my feelings showed. She hesitantly proposed a few options, but they didn’t work either. I was getting angrier and angrier. Until I just got up and went into my room and slammed the door.

So stupid.

Eventually I figured out the problem, on my own, in my room – but I didn’t feel good. Because the way I treated M wasn’t right. And it’s been happening more and more. I’m confronted with something, an obstacle or complex task, and instead of collaborating to come up with a solution, I lash out in frustration and we go our separate ways.

Maybe it’s because I simply don’t trust that another person can possibly want to work on something with me. Or maybe it’s because I feel, deep down, my other failures percolating and the obstacle in front of me simply reinforces the low opinion I already hold of myself.

I know when I’m being a jerk; I watch myself as if I were a third person in the room. And yet, some mental block stops me from interrupting the behaviour. Then the guilt sets in: I’m quick to anger, quick to give up, and M walks around feeling like she’s walking on egg-shells. That right there, is not good enough. I hate that I make her, or anyone, feel like that.

Lately I’ve been embracing the practice of repeating in my mind – at different times during the day – a quality in myself that I would like to develop. I was inspired by a recent Insight Meditation talk by Gil Fronsdal where he discussed the merits of establishing what he termed Reference Points throughout the day to reinforce the values by which you wish to live. This week the word I chose was ‘ease’.

By nature I’m a worrier, and one of my many diagnoses over the years has been generalized anxiety disorder. I don’t put much stock in these types of labels. Seems to me if you put a label like that on someone it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, something that a person might claim as a permanent character flaw or as something that they are rather than looking at changing the conditions that created those feelings.

But what the word captures is the sense of panic that has been present for too much of my life. I could easily spend days, months, years analyzing where the panic started and why it has been so persistent (growing up with a father who was constantly on the verge of death due to severe health issues, being raised by a mother who had little love for me, living in a country steeped in violence and hurt for a good chunk of my formative years, losing friends to suicide, losing my father and eventually the support of my family).  But at this point I think I already have a good grasp of why I exist in a state of perpetual fear.

Creating reference points is a way of putting aside the past for a moment and focusing on the present and future, on the person I aspire to be every day, and making small steps – day by day – to actually being that person. That’s the approach I’m choosing to take.

The practice didn’t do me much good last night, as the rage just bubbled over and flooded every other emotion. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. The trick is to keep going.