A sonnet: “Attempt”

Attempt

No safety blade; the razor must be straight.
It cuts the best, the fastest: so, most sure.
They say. A kitchen knife cannot be made
to take enough an edge. They say. And more —

The sequence of events important too:
The weaker hand cuts first the stronger one,
That second might the stronger one cut through –
though cut itself – the weaker one. Thus done.

And after that is just to wait while pain,
unbearable at first, diminishes
as it flows out along with crimson stain
until, with all that is, it finishes.

It’s just a gesture, not attempt. They say.
Unless it happens to complete today.

Imago Dei, Imago Dust

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen.1:27

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen.2:7

Genesis wastes no time: right there in the first chapter, it tells us what it means to be human. We are the very image of the Holy One, the Creator’s ultimate creation. Surprisingly, though, in the very next chapter Genesis apparently tells us just the opposite: we are dirt.

Which is it?

“In the beginning” and “Adam and Eve” are both part of the popular imagination, but it’s when you first get serious and start actually reading the Bible for yourself that you find that these are not the same story, but two different stories of Creation.

We can thank 19th-century German theologians for rigorously examining, then proclaiming, what many had suspected for a long time: there are two stories because there are two authors.

One author’s view of human nature soars to the heavens: we are holy, almost divine, the image of God; the Creator’s final and highest accomplishment; so filled with goodness that God entrusts to us the caretaking responsibility of everything that God has just created.

In contrast, the other author has a very earthy view of human nature: we’re made of dust; we eat things that aren’t good for us; we are so evil that we blame our wives for our own misbehavior, and even kill our brothers when we feel unloved.

Whether we believe that being human means being high and holy, or that being human means being low and dirty, we have a Bible story to support our conviction. We can argue endlessly over which is the “true” or “correct” understanding of human nature. And many of us do, because many of us hold to one belief or the other when it comes to essential human nature.

But it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, a choice, an “either-or”. Perhaps the final editors of Genesis intentionally included both stories, believing that sometimes one is true, and sometimes the other. In this view, to be human is to see our nature as dual, a blend, a “both-and”. Sometimes we’re the image of God; sometimes we’re just dust that has learned to breathe. Part of each of us is good; part of each of us is evil.

While this approach allows us to account for both Biblical stories, it is ultimately unsatisfying as an answer to, “What does it mean to be human?” because it is not an answer; it is two separate answers, connected by a decision to choose neither.

I would propose taking yet another step beyond “both-and”: our nature lies in the tension between “image of God” and “image of dust”. Both Creation stories – both images – are necessary to understanding our essential nature. But, instead of elements of a mixture, the two stand as separate, independent poles, and we exist in the space between them. A physical analogy: if the two are weights, we exist in the balance between them. A balance is not either weight, nor is it both one weight and the other. And it is certainly not neither weight. The balance’s existence derives from the weights, yet it is not itself composed of the weights.

In other words, we need both Creation stories to understand what it means to be human, because we need the space between them. We were made, and we live, in the dynamic equilibrium that exists between sacred and profane, good and evil, God and dust.


(Adapted from a paper written for an assignment in my Old Testament course at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, in the fall of 2008.) 

Choice and Queerness

A friend of mine wrote a thought-provoking blog post about the issue of whether being gay is a choice, and whether it matters if it’s a choice or not. Part of what makes her essay so good is that it’s intentionally not from a theoretical viewpoint; it’s based on her own personal experience. When I told her it connected with some thoughts I’d been having recently, she encouraged (urged? demanded?) that I write my own post on the topic. I can’t improve on what she said in her essay, but I can bring my own story to it, a story that’s both similar to and different from hers.

I’m queer. I’m not a lesbian, but rather a bisexual transsexual (which is fun to say out loud, if nothing else). Both my gender transition and my sexual orientation have raised questions of choice for me.

This post will look at my gender transition, which took place during the period mid-’05 to mid-’06. It was in the time preceding that transition that questions of choice came to the fore. One obvious question: did I have a choice about my inner feeling of femaleness? To that I would say no. In the course of counseling, I went back all the way to age 4 in my memories, and that feeling of femaleness, along with the desire to act on it, had been there all along. I won’t hold any 4-year-old accountable for making bad life choices, myself included. So it wasn’t a choice then. As I grew up, and on into adulthood, I tried to make the feelings go away by force of will; that is, I tried to choose not to feel female inside. When I had still not succeeded by the age of 53, I had to admit that it looked a lot more like part of who I was, than a feeling I chose to have; and if that’s what it looked like over the course of half a century, it very likely really was what it looked like.

That was lesson one about choice: sometimes you just are who you are, and you don’t have a choice.

Certainly that realization of powerlessness over something so big contributed to the unprecedented wave of depression that then enveloped me at that time. As sort of a Plan B, since I couldn’t make the feeling just go away, I did my best to research what could cause something that was so resistant to will power. Fortunately, I was working at the University of Michigan at the time, where the graduate library has excellent collections on gender, both from the feminist and from the transgender points of view; there’s also a medical library for the university’s med school. Surely, in all that, I should be able to find an answer to this problem of having no choice about feeling like the wrong sex – maybe a hormonal imbalance, or childhood abuse, or a traumatic brain injury in my past.

Six months, dozens of books, and hundreds of articles later, I surrendered. The answer was simply this: some people just feel like the opposite sex inside, in their hearts, minds, and spirits. Nobody knows why. And when the feeling is strong and persistent, the only relief is found in transitioning to the sex that a person feels like inside.

Having now accepted that I had no choice about feeling this way, I saw that I did have a choice about what to do about it. Neither alternative appealed to me, though: continue to struggle for the rest of my life as I had for the preceding 50 years; or turn my life completely upside down and live the rest of my life as a woman. Choosing gender transition carried the risk of losing relationships with family and friends, and possibly losing my job as well. Choosing not to transition carried the risk of never escaping the clutches of deep depression, and the certainty of never escaping the feeling of being a different sex inside myself than I was on the outside.

Lesson two: having a choice doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the options looks really desirable.

I couldn’t decide. I went for long walks. I got drunk a lot. I prayed. I cursed God. I considered suicide. I joined a gender group, then switched to another. I talked endlessly with my counselor, my wife, my gender groups, and anyone else who would listen. None of those things made the choice for me. At the time, I thought I was deferring making the choice, but I see now that to defer was itself to choose – to make a choice for the status quo.

Let’s call that lesson three: having a choice can free you from one of the alternatives. But it does not free you from having to choose; in fact, it obligates you to choose.

As I said at the beginning, I did end up choosing transition. I felt that I could no longer stand feeling as bleak and as sad as I had for the preceding year. If transition could relieve that depression, I just didn’t have the will to fight it any longer. I took my chances on the consequences of that choice. As it turned out, I lost my marriage and with it, the ability to live in the same house with my then-5-year-old daughter as I watched her grow up. There were also some collateral material losses. By and large, though, none of the other feared consequences came to pass.

But it still didn’t feel like a choice really, not a free choice. You may say that I could’ve chosen to wait one more day; since I’d waited so many days already, what difference would one more make? And the same argument would apply the next day, and the next. Why should I ever have to choose transition? The analogy I’ll use here is holding your breath. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, surely you can choose to hold it for 11 seconds; what’s one more second? And if you do hold it for 11, then we know you can choose to wait one more second, so it’s your choice whether to hold your breath for 12 seconds. And on and on. But of course, eventually you have to breathe again; at some point, you can’t choose even that one more second. And as I continued to choose not to transition — by deferring making the choice — that one more day and one more day finally reached a point where I could not defer it one more day.

So I guess lesson four is something like this: sometimes logic tries to tell you that you have a choice, while nature is saying that you don’t have a choice. When that happens, nature eventually beats logic, every time.

In wrapping up, I want to touch on one more thing: this is my story, about my struggle with choice and queerness. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything about anyone else’s story. And nobody else’s story can prove or disprove mine. And that brings us to

Lesson five: Your mileage may vary.

Inside Out

I’m inside out
That explains everything

I’ve known for years
All my nerve endings
Are on the outside
Not in the inside
Where they belong
I feel so much
Too much sometimes
I know so much
Too much sometimes

All my strong, protective layers
I sent them down inside
A long time ago
To guard my heart
But suddenly now
I know
They’re not doing it any more
They’ve gone even deeper
I have no idea where they are
Damn. I’ve lost track of my strong, protective layers
Now what?

Andofcourse Everybody knows
My parts are inside out
Born that way
I could get them fixed
I could get fixed
But they’d still be inside out

My brain is inside-out too
I don’t think like other People
Sometimes I don’t see it
Whatever ‘it’ may be
Til someone gently
Takes me by the hand
And explains
Sometimes, though, I get there
Muchmuchmuchmuch faster
Than the Others
I know the shortcuts
Well, I take the shortcuts
To follow the shortcut
The back way, the secret passage
You can’t know, can’t do
Can’t even really go
You just
Be there
At the other end
Like the tortoise
Watching the hares arrive

Inside-out heart, though
That’s really complicated
Turn your brain
Inside out
To understand it
Pumping my body
My inside-out body
Through my blood
I am in my blood
I am of my blood
Oh yes, I have a heart
But I can’t depend on it
My heart depends on me