Friday, November 29, 2013

Am I The Same Person?

            Yesterday was Thanksgiving. At the dinner table, our far ranging discussion gave me the opportunity to ask a longtime family friend a simple, yet deeply profound, question. I asked him, “Am I the same person I used to be?” We may all ask this question and we may all hope for an honest answer. As we go through life we change. Sometimes dramatically and sometimes subtly. We know that our bodies physically renew, rebuild and repair at such a rate that we are “new” roughly every seven years. Our thinking changes as our experiences shape our consciousness. Traumatic events can mold us and teach us. The physical connections in our brains change as we swim in our personal and shared universes. Amazingly, minute particles of energy from space whiz through us and the planet we stand on and nick away at us on an atomic level. So obviously we change. But are we the same person we used to be?
            For me this was not just an existential question, it was a practical one. You see, I’m a transgender woman. I was born a boy and lived bound by that seemingly unchangeable destiny for many years. It was always wrong and I knew it. I was always “other” and I knew it. The range of options opened to me just seemed to exclude any sort of remedy. Finally after half a century of this limbo I acted. I stopped being a guy. I started being a woman. I transitioned from one life to another. I told the world that I needed to make changes and that I would take the outside that had been visible and replace it with something from inside. I would make the reflection I saw in the mirror match my self-image.
            So when I asked our unsuspecting dinner guest if I was the same person I used to be, it meant a bit more to me personally. Had I morphed so dramatically that I was no longer that “me” that I had carried along for so many years? I know that some people in my life have mourned through the changes while also welcoming the birth. I know that some people have been left behind, unwilling or unable to comprehend what needed to happen. And I know that some people in my life now never knew me any other way and would be deeply uncomfortable if the “old me” were to come rushing in.
            I know that I remember a life that is becoming a distant wisp of memory and I embrace a life that is vibrant and immediate.
            But what was our guest going to say? What was this young man who had known me for eight years going to say? Would he say that, yes, I was the same person? And what would that mean? That I had just changed my clothes and hair and name, the outsides, but that I was still the same old dude as before? Would he say that I was a totally new person and that I had killed the old one, that I had taken that life so I could lead my life? Would I still be real?
            I asked him, “Am I the same person I used to be?” Without pause to consider he answered, “No.”  
This was no philosophy class thought experiment for him. It was a practical question that was now asked and answered. No, I was not the same person I used to be. I admit to letting a little sigh of expectantly captured breath escape. Because I knew that this meant that the many people from “before” who have shared my adventure did it because they accepted the “old me” and they now accept the “new me.” They aren’t waiting for the previous person to come back, because he can’t. They are here with me in the present and going with me into the future.
For my part, I look at pictures of “me” from the past and I can’t help but see a subtle tinge of pathos. The smile is pinched, the eyes are tight and the lips are thin. Pictures of this new me, the one that is not the same person I used to be, are different, the smile is genuine, the eyes are bright, the lips are laughing. It is the real me that was masked inside before. The old person was a shell that finally popped open. The seed that released the plant. The chrysalis that let out the butterfly. The man that mothered a woman. I thank that old me and let him go.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Untold Story

Yes. It's been a while. I've been a bit busy living, growing, learning. I've gone back to college. I've been treasuring my life.

For an English class assignment I needed to write a paper about myself as a writer, in the third person. This is what came out;

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou

Dianne Grace Piggott spent much of her life with an untold story inside of her, or she had lived her life inside an untold story. Regardless, these words struck her when she first read them. At the time, her life held profound discomfort and confusion, and yet the silent promise of growth. She realized that her untold, un-birthed story was sapping her soul. She knew that an element of her growth and healing was to release this overdue story. By writing it out she was able to understand what it meant in her past and to begin to change her life into a future. By writing it out, she could begin to act it out. By acting it out it would become her life.
Over months and years she wrote her story as emails to friends and blog posts to strangers. She wrote letters to herself and sent and unsent letters to people in her past so she could slowly peel away the crisp egg shell formed by the habits of self-perception and learn who she was, and who she could be. She had to dispassionately view the story of her past, and reserve painful recriminating self-judgment, so she could know what to do in the future.
The people in her past life and present life were her story’s cast of characters. As these characters became players in a narrative she was able to see them outside of the context of her emotions. Once they were rendered through her own words she could begin to see them honestly and without shame. One of those characters was Dianne. Most of the time, this one character was the hardest for her to understand. Always, it was the hardest for her to watch. She had done things that diminished her sense of worth and things that she questioned every day, for years. These were not evil things or even unfeeling things. They were simply things that had to be as they were. That could be no other way. They were things that, once done, could not be undone. But the reality of their inevitability did not soften the wish that they could have been otherwise.
The other critical characters in her past story were a spouse, and a son. These were the ones who still had hooks. These were the ones that she felt she had failed. Within herself Dianne could strive, at best, for self-forgiveness. From these people she knew there was no redemption. Their verdict still lived on in rejection and cold distance. She could not change that, she could only change how she lived with it. She could redefine what it meant to her.
It should be said here that the details of this nagging untold story are not important. The plot and motives, the actions and passions of the characters are not as important as the mechanism, manner and purpose of its telling. Letting her untold story out and putting it on pages let her learn it and feel it. It let her explore it as an object outside of herself rather than as some hot, sticky, confusing thing inside of her. The process let her learn the difference between trying to look at the story from the inside, trying to look at her heart and soul from inside her mind, and looking at it from the outside, looking at this character who needed narrative and motivation and plot. She was hoping that this person might find peace in the telling, if only the right words could be brought to bear. If only years of rewrites and reframing could let her understand the main character. If only she could begin to see herself as a sympathetic member of this living dramatis personae.
Dianne’s character did not need plot complications and conflicts to resolve. Those came in the first act, in the first scenes of this sometimes fractured narrative. And she didn’t need heroes, because there was only one character that could save her, and that was Dianne. What her character needed was directing, mentoring, nurturing and guidance. Once she was outside of herself and spilling across the pages and screens of words she could finally see what she needed. It became much clearer when she looked at it as the author of her character’s life rather than seeing herself, Dianne, as an actor scripted by fate to be a player in some cosmic theater of the absurd. She could stop playing someone else’s script.
This was no easy task. Years of habit had her framing herself as a flawed, damaged being. Years of habit had her trying to ignore, avoid, and compartmentalize the disquiet in an effort to just get by day to day. There is a rhythm and simplicity in denial. Growth can be hard and challenging.
She had to struggle to push through pain to let this story out. She had to breathe deeply and let it come as it dictated. She had to give herself over to it. Slowly, quickly, exhaustingly, rewardingly, she gave birth to this story because the story was her life, it was purely her, and she had to give birth to herself. She had to acknowledge that the past was the past and that the future could live in this fresh new self.
And she felt power.
Slow, firm, inevitable power.
Not conquering power but building power, guiding power. She felt the power of the potter shaping a spinning lump of clay on the wheel. She felt the power of the painter who somehow knows where the colors need to go, but still must guide the process. Because once she started telling the story it became HER story, Dianne’s creation story, her past and her present and her future. And once she could claim it and take it for herself she could decide what she wanted it to be. She could find destiny and self-determination.
She knew she couldn’t revise the past, and that she shouldn’t revise the past, because in its essence that is not a healthy thing. It wasn’t a matter of revising the story, it was a matter of reframing it and reinterpreting it for a changed and developed life. What she could do is put it in context. She could look at the past and see that the untold story character, the one that was to become Dianne, had done her best. She could write her explanations and plumb her motivations and hopefully forgive herself. She could heal herself. She could give herself Grace.
As she began to write this story of herself, this exploration of Dianne, she was finally able to let broken pieces go. She was able to begin to take the agony of the long avoided untold story and turn it into the bliss of creation. She was able to become her own life’s author, her own editor, her own playwright, her own parent and her own child. She didn’t write a novel or a play. She wrote intimate emails to friends and she wrote letters to herself, she wrote questions of and declarations to people in her past. She wrote touchstones that let her connect who she was with who she is and with who she would become. She wrote pages and pages that dove into her soul and that were written passionately and revised scrupulously. She lingered over some with tenderness and kindness. She spewed some out in tempestuous tangles of thought and frustration and fear. Some she held tightly and allowed them to ripen and mellow. Some she read and deleted because living them through the writing was enough, reading them again later would be too much. Too much to share even with herself.

In Tibetan Buddhism, monks will create intricate designs, mandalas, with colored sand on a flat piece of wood. For painstaking hours and with intense concentration they will create detailed depictions of the universe while contemplating the inevitable cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Once these amazingly rich, dense and glorious images of all that is are completed, the monks will sweep them up and blow them away on the wind. It demonstrates impermanence. They don’t have to remain to have value because the process of creation was enough. The process was the goal. For Dianne, the goal was to lay down who she had been, how her life had developed, the details of her universe as she had lived it. Grain by grain she had to place the colors in the proper place so they could signify how her life had been. She had to put the internal beasts of her personal cosmology into perspective and count them up and take their true measures. She needed to know her own creation story so she could know the elements of her life. Then she could know what she could take forward. Then she could see that the horrible creatures that inhabited her past and inhibited her future actually had no teeth. Then she could sweep up this mandala of her past and be grateful for its impermanence. She could breathe in a fresh deep breath of the future and blow away the colored sands of her past. She could sweep the table clean again and have a simple surface full of promise. Then she could slowly mete out the grains of sand that would form the intricate designs of her new, fresh universe. She could contemplate her own inevitable cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
Dianne found the peaceful grace that can come in letting out the untold story. She could begin living her new story.