September 8, 2018 Enter your password to view comments.
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August 21, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’ve always wanted to be a twin: to have an other me, a mirror in whom I might see things we shared but that were invisible from my self-perspective. While not wholly invisible, every axis of my identity has always been a ghost, blurry, elusive, and spectral. I was fifty years old with all my kids grown before I began to have a clue. Identity is always like a jigsaw puzzle, but those of us whose box has been lost, or who don’t recognize ourselves in any of the pieces we find, can only guess what sort of picture we are trying to assemble. Each piece becomes a grail, sometimes terrifying to find, sometimes comforting.
Sex and by extension gender, is one of the corner pieces of the puzzle, and the first piece to hint at who we might become. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is always the first question everyone asks about a new baby. Furtive efforts to divine our sex in utero by various hocus pocus are still rampant even now that modern technologies accurately predict a child’s sex. This duality is so fraught with import and consequence, even before we exist, that a doctor performing an ultrasound will ask, “do you want to know?” before spilling the beans.
I happened to be present at an ultrasound imaging of my early-third-trimester grandchild. The doc’s high-resolution probe swept out slices of the tiny fetus, creating haunting 3D images of our already beloved little peanut on his state-of-the-art display that were sometimes comprehensible and more often not. He was clicking frantically with his mouse, setting little crosshairs all over our virtual baby, making measurements that the algorithm built into his machine would eventually use to judge the fitness of the little being, helping my daughter make the decision as to whether or not she wanted to undergo more invasive and dangerous tests.
Suddenly, the doctor stopped short and delivered his: “do you want to know what it is?” My daughter and her husband didn’t. They didn’t want to start dictating an identity for a person they hadn’t met; they didn’t want others to start projecting identities, limiting potentials, or setting expectations for someone who hardly even existed yet.
“No.” they said. But in the moments before he asked, I had been fixating on the image, trying to make any sense of the rapidly shifting shapes on the monitor, and had recognized a matched pair of objects that I thought might have been testicles. With his question coming only seconds after my own muddled observation, I assumed that he had seen what I had, and so was certain my daughter was carrying a boy.
When her aunt had died a few months earlier (indeed that confrontation with mortality was what had lead her to decide to become pregnant), I had extracted a promise from my daughter that if she had a girl she would name it after my sister, and if a boy, after me. My first name: Nesdon, is very unique, and I have always wondered what effect it may have had on my personality. So that secret: that she was having a boy, meant also that she was having a Nesdon. It meant that some incalculable aspect of me and my long dead Nesdon-of-a-father were going to be duplicated. My twin-lust flared, and the chance that this might allow me to find another key piece of my puzzle was tantalizing and palpable. On the other hand, masculinity baffles and revolts me. I had raised—or tried to raise—three sons, and in that process realized that I am thoroughly confused about what it means to be a Man. I felt no desire or confidence in my ability to help raise another boy. So it was with deep ambivalence that I kept this knowledge that I thought I had secret, and made those last few months of her pregnancy challenging. I craved seeing my name carried on, hoping to use a bit of that twin magic to titrate the influence the name may have had on my identity, but this desire clashed with my disdain for masculinity and reverence for femininity.
“It’s a girl” were the first words ever spoken to my granddaughter, as they are for about half of all babies. I was humbled, a little disappointed, but mostly overjoyed that she was not a boy.
But what is a “boy”? Certainly not snips and snails. As evolutionary time scales go, Sex, and therefore maleness, are actually relatively recent inventions, just a billion years old. In fact they really only started to catch on as complex multicellular life exploded on earth half a billion ago. For the preceding three billion years, all living things on earth were either mothers or daughters, there were no boys or men. Indeed every cell in my male body is either a mother or a daughter, all except my gametes, the spermatozoa I began to produce prodigiously in my adolescence. Males are attenuated mothers, only capable of reproducing our ‘boys’, those eager little haploid packets. True, the mother’s gametes needed to become haploid as well, and they now needed the males’ share to become girls-to-moms. But those eggs are big precious things, cherished, carefully nurtured, just barely short of fully functioning. Male gametes on the other hand—that we males spit out by the billions—are barely more than little love letters of the missing haploid code key, flashes in the pan, desperately fighting each other to earn the right to be the one and only to reenter the garden, be subsumed and make their gift of motherhood, then die.
I once walked among the Ano Nuevo elephant seal colony, with its beachmasters and their harems. But what struck me, and where none of the nature photographers had ever pointed their cameras, were the carcasses of the dead and dying adolescent males, scattered on the outskirts of the community, and their brothers and cousins, most doomed to the same fate, clustered and fighting offshore, watching the spectacle of their kind, a spectacle which they would never be a part of. This is the curse of masculinity: male beings are just as expendable as our billions of surplus gametes.
One of my favorite artists, Ernst Haeckel, wrote, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” What he meant was that as an embryo grows, it seems to go though all the stages of evolution: first a single cell, then a little invertebrate, then a fish, a lizard and only finally resembling its parent. Indeed human embryos at one point possess and then lose gills and at another their tails. This also means that every being begins as that primordial female; every embryo develops without a sex until it is differentiated, when it is shunted by the male hormones produced in its nascent testes, and loses its potential motherhood and is attenuated to a male form. Females, unaffected by that pesky Y chromosome, continue as they began and finish as the females.
The first confrontation I recall of this problematic nature of my male gender happened when I was about three years old. I shared with my two sisters, Deena, about 1 year older, and Loree, about one year younger, what I would now call the master bedroom, upstairs in the front of a rented duplex. The room had two large double-hung, south-facing windows on either side of a big picture window that faced Saint George Street, just half a block from John Marshall High School, where we would all later attend. I loved the broad vista of neighborhood from that high vantage point and the way the room so often tended to be bright and warm. Deena and I injured each other in that room, each sending the other on our first trips to the emergency room. While neither of us would later recall the order or timing of the events—it could have been in the same day or week, could have been months apart—but I hit her in the forehead, gashing it with a little tin sand pail, and she slammed the window on and broke my finger. Most of the details are vague flashed, though I’m sure both events were accompanied by lots of yelling and screaming and piercing little toddler wailing. However it had all unfolded, shortly thereafter I was given my own bedroom, actually a tiny linen closet just big enough for my crib. It was dark and close, the exact opposite of the expansive bedroom, but I found a charm in it as well: the coolness, the privacy, the sovereignty. Still, it marked my separation from them, the cleaving of us for the first time into boys and girls.
So close in age, my sisters and I functioned a bit like triplets, a single tight unit, with a largely shifting and intermittent pattern of who was playing odd man out at any given moment, if anyone. Despite my dad sometimes fondly referring to us a “boysenberries and girlsenberries”, we were just little kids more than boys or girls. Our complete subservience to an adult world was the key shared feature of our lives and the focus of our little wills. Getting what we needed to survive and finding things that made us happy mostly involved manipulating the adults around us, and we gleefully conspired in this as generally equal partners. Now the big bedroom became the “Girl’s Room”. I was struck not so much by the loss of the space, since I was more pleased to have my own room than I was sad to lose the grander space, but by how this manifested my boyness, and how that had transformed me into something profoundly different than my sisters.
The distinction between our mothers and ourselves begins when we are born, and we only eventually fully understand that we are independent humans. I suspect we all, as we launch into what are referred to as the “terrible twos,” have a shattering realization that we have an identity of our own independent from our mothers. I can’t recall those moments when I began to take up my own will as an autonomous being, when I understood that I was someone that belonged to myself and not to my mother. That revelation: that I had a real independent agency, not just from my mother, but my sisters as well, is just on the other side of the faded veil of my early memories. But it is the antecedent to these earliest gender epiphanies, in which I remember the specific details of this discovery that I was a male human and how central that was to my identity.
The way being a boy would dictate of my role in the world started in that tiny closet/bedroom. They were girls, so were placed together, and I was not, so was isolated. I understood then that this was the result of my boyness, although I didn’t connect at that time that I was perceived to be more dangerous due to my gender, but the pail incident would certainly have confirmed that. From my room I observed their newly discovered separateness from me in the context of their girlness. I studied the way they played in my absence, especially the way they played with their dolls, with their friends, and with my mother. I realized that my sisters were playing at being moms, and discovered the continuity between being a girl and being a mom, a mom just like the one I had just come to understand that I was no longer an appendage of. Suddenly I began to grok how much more profound than the obvious innies or outies, pink or blue this gender thing was. Being a boy meant I had been shifted over onto a different track than my sisters, a track that lead away from the world of mothers and babies, away from the only world I had known until then. Contemplating these new dimensions of boyness within the framework of my sisters’ baby dolls and the vague “in your mommy’s tummy” explanations of the birds and the bees, I felt scared and envious, cast into a cold and empty vacuum of masculinity. It was clear that the mother-child relationship, within which my own identity had been included for the first years of my life, was something only girls would get to revisit; I realized that, as a boy, I had been permanently expelled from that realm of what I would now think of as feminine subculture. No one was going to grow in my tummy and come out and love me like I had loved my mother. This little pre-toddler world of mothers and children was a girls’ world not a boys’ world, it was my sisters’ world but it was no longer mine, and perhaps mostly from this envy, I resented them, and resisted the idea of being a boy.
As I grew and my understanding of what men’s work entailed and what manhood had in store for me progressed, I became increasingly distressed and frightened. The models of maleness: the largely absent fathers, the men depicted in the popular culture: in cowboy and gangster movies, in love songs, and the teasing and brutality of my male playmates, were nothing like the gentle mutualistic and caring world of mothers and children I had know. The myriad little messages about masculinity: “big boys don’t cry… be a man” and worst of all the way cruelty and brutality were waved away with a flippant, ”boys will be boys” all felt like a condemnation to a life of pain and horror. Boys have been admonished as such for a very long time as they are to this day. But being a part of the baby boom generation brought an additional edge. I had no idea at the time how tainted these messages of maleness were by the proximity of the ghastly world war almost every adult male I knew had so recently returned from.
It was not until I was 10 years old during a camping trip with our fathers over Easter Vacation, my first and last campout with my Cub Scout troop, that I appreciated how the stoicism they expected and the cruelty they tolerated from their sons had been forged on the anvil of war. I remember a particular cold clear night on the edge of the vast the Mojave Desert with the Joshua trees standing backlit in silhouette against the blinding Milky Way, back before the Antelope Valley boom and the sodium vapor light had destroyed the darkness. I had loved Cub Scouts, the minor league of the Boy Scouts of America, which some of these fathers regarded as the minor league of the Armed Forces. Almost all of the fifteen or so boys my age at my elementary school, who all lived within a short walk of my home, were fellow cubs. We meet once a week at one of our homes, with two or three den mothers who would lead us in crafts projects, take us on field trips, and help us to make tasty snacks. After these organized afterschool activities, we would be released by them to lose ourselves in complex dramatic play: as musketeers, frogmen, spies, or cowboys. My two best friends’ moms, and occasionally my dad, all stay-at-home parents, were the usual den moms. All three were brilliant and artistic savants, whose enthusiastic instruction most of us adored. But we were being aged out of the cubs, expected, as we entered Junior High to become real scouts, to leave the silly world of moms and origami, and join the community of men, Real Men, to march and drill, pass muster and compete—put away childish things.
On that night, in the foothills of the desert, at barren Little Rock Reservoir in the freezing cold of a late-to-arrive spring, I laid shivering in a tent with my friends. No moms here, just Dads: some I barely knew, others to whom little kids seemed like an annoyance, and, thankfully, a couple I knew and loved. All of the these men were of “The Greatest Generation.” It had been only a few years since they had returned from the complete insanity of almost a decade of the most deadly and apocalyptic war that had even been waged. Their wounds were mostly healed, and we, their sons, all born just a couple of years after their return, had never really had much awareness of how close or terrible were those horrors they tried so hard to put behind them in the post-war boom. They had always been just dads to us, never soldiers, and while some of us we may have watched war movies on TV: The Thin Red Line, Hellcats of the Pacific, Dam Busters or even Lost Horizon, the war was mostly just a plot device. It was ancient history that seemed irrelevant in the characterization of these fathers we loved, most of whom were kind and gentle with us.
I was unable to sleep, freezing and shivering under the single light, but soothingly familiar quilt I had slept under every night for a year. I had stubbornly refused the peculiar-smelling, borrowed sleeping bag I was offered, and was left chilled and miserable in the bed I had made. My fellow cubs tittered about some random scatological revelation, shining their flashlights in each other’s eyes, whispering and giggling. But I was pouting and angry, mostly with myself for my stubbornness, but I managed to project some onto my dad as well. Why hadn’t he backstopped my stupidity and brought the odd-smelling bag the neighbors had offered anyway? Too annoyed to join the boyish fun, I was instead paying attention to the dads, gathered outside under around the campfire. I could only make out snips of their conversations, moments of emphasis or raised voices as they overlapped their dialogue, so I concentrated, trying to fathom the adult mysteries we had been sent to bed to be spared. But it was in my nature to never want to be spared. I always wanted to know it all, so that eavesdropping analytically on adult conversations was one of my passions.
I could tell they were taking swigs from a bottle being passing around and that they were sharing war stories, literally. As they took turns swapping tales, one thing I got from every one, even if I had missed the details, was that each story always ended with a laugh line that broke them all up. I remember growing more and more terrified as I picked up occasionally horrifying snatches from their tales: “…then this Jap, his head just exploded…” “…and his arm was plum blowed off….” One of them—I don’t recall whose dad he was—maybe he was facing our tent, or maybe he had just the right pitch or volume, but I got it all. That he was with his company, in a storm, crossing from North Africa to Italy in a flotilla of Landing Craft. I wondered: “what they were doing out in a storm in those things anyway… maybe a destroyer or something had dropped them off… maybe Capri with that magical blue grotto and the Roman mosaics was close enough…” my always-racing mind trying to fill the pauses in his story with whatever context I had gleaned from my father’s own hilarious war stories about his service as the prima ballerina of a traveling yardbird revue. This dad continued to explain how the little boats were being tossed around like corks and almost everyone was seasick. As one boat would rise over a wave and another fall into its trough, he could see their propellers spinning in the air just before they slammed back into the green water, splashing them all with the foul mix of vomit, seawater and diesel fuel that sloshed madly around their ankles and knees. He got a nice groan followed by a little chuckle from that image, and then paused to let it play out before moving on the climax of the story, which I recall was something like: “There was this one poor schmoe on the boat next to mine, and he was puking his guts out over the rail, then this boat on the other side, it got lifted up and just dropped off the top of a wave, and just like that, he was put right out of his misery when slice, just like that, off with his head.” And they all laughed. They laughed!? I had just heard about the most horrible thing I I had ever heard described, and they laughed.
It crystalized the horrible model of Manhood I was just beginning to understand, where movie cowboys would brawl in a bar, breaking chairs and bottles over each other’s heads, all followed by good-natured sharing of whiskey and arms thrown around shoulders. In my experience, when my boyhood friends got into puny little fights a fraction as violent as these, it was always terrible and friendships would be ruined and the sulking could go on for weeks. When adults I knew poured back whisky like those cowboys or sailors or cops or… they became foolish, often mean and surly. I didn’t get it at all, and really, still don’t. Even back then, already identifying strongly as a heterosexual, having already been through half a dozen crushes on female teachers, movie stars or the girls next door, masculinity, there on the edge of becoming a Man, had finally came to utterly revolt me.
This gender dysphoria has been one of my most persistent struggles with my identity. When I started exploring genders spiritual perspective as an adult, I began to get a grasp of it. As a boy I had tried and failed to find religion, bucking my parents’ strident atheism, but mostly just to fit in with my friends who all attended various types of Sunday Schools. Our neighborhood happened to be particularly diverse, so I was a guest at Catholic masses in breathtaking cathedrals as well as in ticky-tacky little chapels; Jewish Shabbat in elegant temples and double-wide trailers; Buddhist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Unitarian indoctrination in their basements and other various little rooms adjacent to their tabernacles. These visits were a survey of comparative religion that left me mostly with a lot of disdain for organized religion, but also with the quandary of the genderfication of God. Most of them had god as a guy, a supreme being who knew and ran everything, and to whose authority we needed to submit. I sincerely tried to envision the nature of a being or concept that might encompass and exist above or outside of—even create—the entire cosmos.
This construction inevitably involved subsuming the mundane into higher and higher levels of abstraction, and I always stumbled when I tried to imagine a sex for this thing. Gender was about two levels up, and to get all the way up to heaven or whatever, I felt like sex should fall away even before flesh, let alone physics. That the all-seeing all-powerful should not be all inclusive of all-gender seemed bizarre. The Buddhists at least had a cosmic duality of male and female as opposing forces of life and nature, but still the ultimate nature of things would surely transcend this most carnal aspect of our identities. I got it: life and death, day and night, warm and cold, male and female, nature presents us with so many polarities, that to model our own existence in this dualist way is psychologically understandable, but of all these apparent dualities, to exalt the sexual seemed naïve and narcissistic.
As I studied these paradoxes through the lens of feminism, I saw why we might want or need to project our own sexual identities onto the hugely complex and enigmatic process of existence and the cosmos. I got the politics of our sexual dimorphism; how powerful it was to generalize into cosmic terms that one thrusts and the other receives, that one is big and one small, one strong one weak. I saw how this was able to heal that wound of estrangement, elevating our masculine dronehood, flipping the script, and codifying a male supremacy that negated that envy, brought us back into the center of the action. Ideas like Adam’s Rib: of Yahweh creating women as a companion to man from his body, runs completely counter to the biological reality of the creation of sex and gender, and seems like rank over-compensation. So too is the idea of penis envy. I suspect when Freud assigned some deep subconscious wound to women for their lack of that sexual appendage, he was actually projecting his own womb envy. More likely he was expressing his own subconscious desire for the female’s infinitely closer bond to the fundamental creative forces of the universe.
But is this duality even polar at all? After all, we can see the earth and sky as a duality, when actually the sky is almost boundless as compared to the tiny orb of the earth. The sun and moon, one at night one in the day, two discs, matched in size crossing the sky are still seen as a matched symbolical duality even now when we know that the moon is actually a tiny and insignificant speck of frozen and barren rock, while the sun is a huge burning ball of gas; the active source of all life on earth. The stars and the planets, also seen as like two types of celestial dance, are in fact as different as the sun and moon by class. It is easy to assign duality to things, which seem from a particular perspective to be equivalent and in opposition, but are actually of completely different classes.
This, I think, is what we have done with sex. Recall that life was once, both in evolutionary and ontological history, all essentially female. And of course, man or woman, we are all living things, and that livingness is what most importantly puts us on one side of the most essential spiritual duality: spiritus: the breathe of life, by which live, unlike stones or minerals. We are not inert clumps of molecules, but self-reproducing beings; what duty falls to a stone, what to a being? It would make sense to place all living things firmly on the side of the yin: the female, the creative and nurturing side of the dichotomy, but then what of our masculinity? Haven’t we, hoping to deny our dronehood, constructed the yin and yang to create the illusion of an equivalent and balanced dichotomy between the male and the female? Unfortunately, this leads us to then assign the various parts of our psyche to one or the other poles of this false masculine/feminine dichotomy. Following the same urge, we have also used Mars and Venus, the gods of War and Love, to represent a gender duality, and on all these axes we have linked not only the abstractions of creation or destruction, but our own urges such as peaceful or aggressive, accepting or defiant, gentle or coarse, to our gender identities. This is a horrible fiction. All of us, male or female, are pulled toward both love and hate, aggression and conciliation; all are driven to reproduce, to be creative, and yearn for and love our children. But the duality game, once started, must give masculinity the worst of it. All the dark and dangerous ideas, those that are most counter to our thriving, are seen as essential to the masculine and are piled as expectations and assumptions onto we male beings. All of those urges and impulses for acceptance, peace and nurturance that are most positive and important to our very survival and thriving are deemed feminine and unmanly. Sure we can find some positive traits like bravery, perseverance, and stoicism in that suite of maleness, and while these may sometimes come more easily to most men, they are certainly not the sole province of manhood. So this fallacy condemns we men to foster and revere these darkest parts of our psyche as the more essential parts of our identity, condemning we men who are less naturally inclined to them, such as myself, to a subculture defined by the cruelty and destruction we find abhorrent.
I felt that early separation from the essential community of mothers and children with its realization of my attenuated dronehood, as a profound spiritual wound. Of course the feminine suffered a similar wound of separation from its primal parthenogenesis as well. Females are doomed to require the assistance of a male to compete the process of reproduction, which is of course what gives sex its power to both sexes. But it is a small loss to an actual woman, who remains whole, and except for this one small caveat of a requirement for coitus (an act blessed by evolution with no small amount of charm), retains her somatic connection to the great force of life. For the male, it is not just the addition of a pleasurable burden, but the loss of all the other physical aspects of reproduction. Indeed, reproduction is so essential to the process of evolution, that what is retained in women and lost in men is vastly more than just the uterus and mammary glands, but an array of complexity only hinted at by a woman’s intuition, slower metabolism or multiple orgasms.
I suspect few men will recall as I do their early childhood and this painful estrangement from the essence of humanity. Most men may not share my peculiar memory and analysis of this, but I suspect that they all share the psychic wound, even if not overtly or consciously. It is no wonder than so much spiritual and political thought in these last few millennia has been tainted by misogyny and male dominance, littered with dogma that elevates the masculine in an effort to heal that wound and reinstate our lost place at the center of the essence of life. I suspect all males know, in their heart of hearts, that they are, like those poor dying elephant seals on Ano Nuevo, a paradoxical waste.
It would be many decades until finally, as a father, I would understand that once a baby was delivered, I could, as a man, take on most of the role of mother. While I was unsuccessful in breast feeding my first son, parenting is still the most gratifying job I have ever had, and one that I find again, now as the primary caretaker of my tiny granddaughter, to be the most profound and important work: women’s work, that I have ever done.
March 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
Sam put her hand on her mom’s belly and smiled.
“Pretty soon?” she asked.
“I sure hope so!” her mother replied as she shifted and grunted.
“What are we going to name it, Momma?” asked Pat, snugglecuddling up under his mom’s arm.
“Well, I don’t know, I think once I see it, I’ll know. It may be a Heather, or a Petra; a Chuck or a Kevin.”
“I hope it’s a boy!” said Pat.
“I hope it’s a girl!” echoed Sam.
“Well, whatever it is, I’m sure that we’ll all love it bunches,” Mom answered.
Sam began, and Pat joined in,
Call the Judge!
Momma’s got a baby
Not a boy,
Not a girl,
Just a plain old baby.
And they all laughed together thinking their own thoughts about the almost finished little brother, sister, son, or daughter that was there with them, but not there too.
Sam and Pat’s eyes bugged out as they watched Mom lying on her bed groanymoaning and gruntysweating. They were a little scared, but they saw Dad holding her tight and kissing her and whispering things in her ear that made her smile in between the groans. Aunt Susan knelt between their mom’s legs looking up and saying,
“Here it comes! One more push now! I see the head!”
Pat and Sam moved timidly over to look too, and there, right in front of them, was the very top of a tiny little head, popping right out of their mom. Their jaws dropped, their eyes bulged even wider, as all of a sudden, whooosh, out it shot. Luckily, Aunt Susan caught it. All the sort of icky feelings they felt seeing the wrinkled little thing all mixed in with blood and slimygoo, melted away as they looked up and saw the gigantic smiles on the faces of their mom and dad.
Aunt Susan wiped the baby off, wrapped it up, and put it on its mom’s tummy where it closed its tiny eyes and with just a tiny little sigh and a whimper, started to suck with its tiny perfect mouth.
“Is it a boy?!” shouted Pat crowding in.
“Is it a girl?! Sam echoed looking over.
Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister all looked to Aunt Susan for the answer.
Aunt Susan responded, “Well…” but no more.
Dad chuckled and asked, “Well… What?”
Aunt Susan added “Well… it’s….”
The mom looked scared and asked nervously, “Well… it’s… what!?”
Aunt Susan replied, “Oh no, no it’s fine, just fine, healthy, happy, beautiful, wonderful, miraculous, perfect… but well… it’s….”
Sam and Pat jumped up “It’s WHAT?!!!” they yelled.
Aunt Susan hesitated as they all held their breath and stared at her “Well… I guess… it’s just a plain old baby!”
The pediatrician, looking a little confused, wasn’t quite sure how the ‘equipment’ between the baby’s legs was going to work when the baby grew up. But, judging by the wet spot on the table, the doctor pointed out that not only was it cute as a button, it was quite clearly working just fine for now. She agreed with Aunt Susan that while it was definitely neither a boy nor a girl, it certainly was a very strong and healthy, beautiful and happy baby.
Pat and Sam agreed that it was indeed a very happy, beautiful baby; and they quickly grew to love it bunches and bunches. It would suck on their noses, and smile and squeal at their sillinesses; and best of all, it would hug them so tightly with its tiny little arms that it would almost make them cry to feel so much love.
But, the mom — especially — felt sort of bad calling her baby ‘it’ all the time, she longed to say,
“Isn’t she cute!” or “My isn’t he strong!”
No one could quite imagine just who or how they would or should be if they were just a plain old person.
“Should it wear pink or blue?” questioned the mom.
“Will it be able to play football?” asked the dad.
“Is it made of snips ‘n snails, or sugar ‘n spice?” both Pat and Sam wondered.
They all disagreed as to how to treat their baby. Each She treated it as a She, and each He, as a He.
But, they all seemed to agree that their baby should live its sweet little life as one or the other, but not neither or both.
And, eventually, they all had to agree that it should realy be their baby’s very own choice.
They also disagreed on what to name their baby. It was definitely not a Heather, and not a Petra, Chuck, not a Kevin and not a Chuck, at least not yet.
They were, finally, able to all agree, that, at least for now, they would call their dear baby, Happy, just because it was.
Sam would carefully carry Happy into her room and spread all her dolls out around the tiny person who would sit so amiably in the middle of the floor, cooing contentedly, sucking on their bald little heads and chewing on their soft little arms.
Pat would take Happy outside and drive his trucks around and around. Between mouthfuls of dirt, Happy would chew on the tires while purring satisfying little motor sounds.
Happy loved being a member of this family. SheHe loved the dolls and HeShe loved the trucks. They both even loved the dirt, but in time began to understand that each of them was wishing for HimHer to be something that SheHe really quite wasn’t. Happy so wanted to be a She for Sam, a He for Pat. But, when Heing with Pat, Happy missed the She-ness; and when Sheing with Sam, missed the He-ness just as much. Happy saw the disappointment each of them would feel when HeShe was Sheheing with the other, knowing they wanted HerHim to choose, but loving each one too much to choose either. Eventually, wrestling such a hard and unbabylike problem left Happy serious and quiet, no longer the contented toy-sucking infant of HerHim’s youth.
Then, one day, a repairman came to Happy’s house to fix their TV. Happy crawled over and sat down next to the man as he worked on the big machine that HeShe had never really paid much attention to, being so caught up in HisHer own little dilemma. The man was strong and skillful, and Happy could not help being dazzled by all the glitterygadgety stuff the man had attached all over his body: hung on belts, stuck in pockets, and filling little pouches hanging on other belts. Happy was amazed by the lights and all the fancyblinky machinery that the man as using, and thought that since this was the most amazing and magnificent person that HeShe’d ever met (though Happy had not been alive long enough to meet very many) HeShe resolved to live a glittery and gadgety life as a He.
After the man had left, Happy sat and watched the flickering faces coming from the TV box. As She after He appeared on the glowing screen, (some full of love and glitter, some full of hate and gadgets — others full of hate and glitter and still others full of love and gadgets; even some with only love or glitter or hate or gadgets) Happy again felt not sure of much of anything at all, except that everyone else wished for a choice – She or He.
That night, as Happy lay sadly in HisHer little pink and blue crib, each family member paraded through with a soft and sweet good-night kiss and hug. As each She was followed by a He, Happy’s terrible indecision would swing first Sheward, then Heward. Finally, alone in the darkness, sad confusion washed back over Happy like the quiet, endless seconds spent swirling topsy-turvy beneath the green water of crashing surf.
“First thing tomorrow,” Happy thought, “I must decide, I will decide!” but as the saltysad and lonely tears filled the tiny sleepy eyes, Happy began to fear that it was a decision that was too terrible to ever make.
Before tomorrow could arrive, Happy was pried, twirling from HisHerHerHis dreams of glittering gadgets and into a dark middle-of-the-night by the loud crying of dear Pat.
“Ohhh Mmommmmyyyyy!” he wailed between bouts of spraying his dinner all over his bed.
Happy stood up, clutching on the rails of the little crib in terror, looking out into Pat’s bedroom to see the fear and pain in his eyes as Mom and Dad held and cleaned and comforted him. With that awful sight, Happy, too, began to wail, bringing Dad quickly over to snatch HimHer from the crib and back to Pat’s side. Seeing Pat curled up all sad but cozywarm in his mom’s lap made Happy feel a little better and the crying slowly turned to whimpers as Happy pulled Dad closer, with little fists that grasped tightly on Dad’s sleeves. Mom held her hand on Pat’s forehead, and shook her sleepy head,
“We better get you to the doctor!” Mom said to the poor limp Pat as she rocked him in her arms.
Soon they were sitting in the little room that the doctor used for an office in her little house. The doctor’s own little baby looked all sleepyeyed around the doorway to see what was what, and when Happy’s eyes met hers, she chirped out a little giggle and scurryhurried away, only to be brought back in the arms of her mom. Well, Happy had never met a She quite like the doctor. Without even putting the shy little girl down, the doctor opened the doors on a big white metal cabinet that was absolutely filled with all sorts of amazing and mysterious gadgets. Strapping a big shinybright light gadget on her head and taking out a whole tray of glittery things, the doctor began to gently talk to and comfort Pat.
With more skill than even a TV repairman, the doctor began pulling gadget after glittery doohickey out of her cabinet and off of her tray. And very soon (after a short siege of crying when the doctor stabbed Pat with some glittering pointy gadget) the doctor had Pat feeling, at the least, a little more confident and certainly more awake.
While Happy’s mom and dad talked with the doctor in the other room, Pat felt himself all over and exclaimed,
“Hey! I think I’m feeling better, Yup, I think I may be!” and then, Pat gave Happy a huge old hug and a kiss. Happy was dazzled, so much glittery stuff, so many wonderful gadgets, and so, so much warmsoft love. The doctor was still more amazing and magnificent than Happy had imagined anyone could be, and Happy’s heart began to ache to be just like the doctor: a She.
But once again, as Happy watched Dad gently lift Pat into his strong arms and carry him — whispering loving little words into his warm little ears — the clear resolve of the moment before melted away like cotton candy, and Happy’s awful indecision returned.
On the way home Happy sat quietly looking out the window of the car at all the quiet houses and empty streets that whizzed past, wondering about all the people sleeping in all the houses on all the streets, wondering and wondering while slowly falling asleep. As Happy’s sleeping little head rolled limply over onto the padding of the car seat, SheHe dreamed a dream of all the people in HerHis life. Happy dreamed that they stood around arguing, all at the same time, about why Happy should choose his Heness over her Sheness. The doctor was there, and Pat and Sam and Mom and Dad and even more big people whom Happy didn’t even know. But all their arguing voices just mixed together into a funny sounding buzzyhum. Happy looked up at their receding faces as they grew larger and larger, or perhaps as Happy shrank smaller and smaller, and felt lost and all alone in the whole wide world, and very very sorry for HerHis sorry little plain old self.
Then, quietly at first, off to the side, Happy heard a tiny voice, and there crawling over and calling Happy’s name, was the doctor’s shy little daughter. The two babies met in a ring of giant shoes as a distant echoing hummybuzz fell from above like a gentle drizzle.
“Ya’ know,” said the doctor’s baby without moving its lips, “there’s a lotta different ways to be. Sometimes I wish with all my heart that my mommy wasn’t a doctor with all her glittery gadgets. Sometimes I wish she would just be some kind of repairmom. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when I’m scared, I wish that she would just throw all these other people’s babies right out the window and take care of only me. And sometimes, I wish — oh sometimes I wish so so so bad that we had a daddy of our very own to take care of all the other people’s babies so my mommy could be with me and just me.”
Happy’s melancholy mood vanished before the strange but soothing dilemma of this other baby, and SheHe listened carefully to the clear and simple thoughts of this new friend, who continued, “Sometimes, daddies come to my house with their babies curled up all sadsick and sore in their arms. And sometimes those babies don’t even have any mommies at all. But ohh, sometimes, babies come to my house that don’t have any mommies or any daddies, but just the police to take care of them. And I bet those babies wish that they had just any old kind of plain old person to have for their very own to just hug em and love em and kiss em and take good care of them!”
All the giant shoes were suddenly gone, and now, in Happy’s dream, there were just two babies. Two giant babies sitting on top of two little hills like two little stools. And all the houses and roads and cars and cities surrounded them like teenytiny toys. Happy looked out over the tiny world, and wondered about all the decisions that waited to be made by all the people that lived in all the houses on all the roads in all the cities.
But the doctor’s baby wasn’t finished, and pointing out across the miniature universe spread out before them, she continued, “We are just babies. We have our whole lives rolling out ahead of us just like all these tiny little roads. We will travel without the slightest idea of what we may find around the next bend, or what life might ask from us. We have no way to know what we might discover if we choose to turn to the right, or if we choose to turn to the left, or even if we choose to just go straight on. But no matter how far or in which direction we go, someday, we will all come to just exactly the same end of the road. All we can do is to try and pick the way that feels like it’s just our way, and decide to be just whoever we happen to turn out to be.”
“Being a plain old person may turn out to be just the best thing ever, or the worst. Sure, you could act like a He, but you would still be just exactly you — or, you could be a She, but it wouldn’t really change a thing. Inside you’d still be exactly the same plain old person. I may be a She on the outside, but ya know what? On the inside, I’m just a plain old baby just like you, and just like every other person ever was.”
“Sometimes,” said the doctor’s daughter very quietly, “that plain old person inside me can’t quite be the She its supposed to be; sometimes that me just isn’t very She. But since I met you — the very first person ever to stay just a plain old person — I feel a whole lot better about being the me that’s not too She. And it’s a whole lot easier for me to be just me and not somebody’s idea of what a She should be.”
The wise little DreamShe leaned over to give Happy a little thank you kiss just as Dad accidentally bumped Happy’s head against the side of the seat as he was taking Herhim out of the car and inside into HisHer’s very own bed. Happy’s friend disappeared as SheHe jerked awake and heard Dad coo, “Oooo, sorry my lil’ bug,” as he bundlecuddled Happy securely into his strong arms and up onto his shoulder.
Feeling safe and warm and loved and happy, Happy began to fall back to sleepydream in Dad’s arms. Happy wondered how HerHis life would turn out. HeShe wondered where SheHe would go, what HeShe would do, and whom SheHe would love, but didn’t wonder anymore about being a He or a She, for Happy realized that SheHe was very happy to be just a plain old baby, and they were.
December 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
A freezing wind rattles the bright red berries on the stiff green boughs. The early dusk of winter lights a massive stone as it is set to point toward the setting of the solstice sun. As the sky fades to deep blue, then black, the ancient masons must surely have pondered their own subtle purpose as they watched the sparkling crystal sky-dome appear from behind the veil of fading blue. Perhaps, for a moment, they felt their own certain mortality reflected in that slowly dying sun, their own passage into oblivion in those cold and distant stars. Surely their hearts were filled with deeply felt prayers and wishes that just as those bright berries could stand down the winter frost, that their lives, their sun, their sons, would awaken once again tomorrow, waken once again next year, as the fruited plains erupted in fecund splendor. How distant those ripe apples, those plump spikes of grain must have felt on that cold and freezing night. How gladly must they have seen the promise of that glad Holly, in its pledge of life still strong?
The dying light of that same solstice, that cast long shadows of those builders and their stones across the Salisbury Plain, had just rolled across Canaan, sending Abraham into his tent to escape the cold desert night. That same first winter dusk, crept across the valley of the Indus River, and hid the newly scribed Vedas in the same frigid darkness. The mystery and rhythm of our own fragile earth, of our infinitely more fragile lives, has risen and fallen along with these seasons for all people in every time. The cycles of the mortal death of our fragile flesh, the joyous births of our helpless children share the pacing of our planet and its mother sun. However they may have spoken of these hopes and fears, however they may have symbolized, ritualized or interpreted those primal feelings, they have always been a part of the interplay between our lives and our home, this dear earth.
We share with these long lost, but not forgotten people this same fear and fascination with the cycles of renewal of our planet. The sun, marching south along the horizon, falling lower and lower each day, threatens to vanish beyond our world. Its bold turn north, it’s triumphant reversal back into assent, is an inspiriting promise of revival. These hinges of the sun’s passage are our most basic symbolic connections to fundamental life giving cycles. Certainly not so fierce for us, in our warm homes, on our brightly lit streets, but still, every winter as we watch the leaves die and fall, we can not help but think of our own tree of life, and our own individual fates as doomed as the leaves which once hung on the dark branches of the sleeping forest. We still look to the immortality of our children’s children’s children. We still feel that cold and sad retreat of warm grass, bright flowers and naked children in the sun. Those barren branches in the low cool light cannot help but make us pray that the dark and dying corners of our own lives will rebound and flourish once again, just as we know that forest will also bloom as the sun climbs back to its zenith. Every death we grieve, every birth we cherish is a manifestation of this grand pulse of global life. We are kin to every creature who watched this slow descent into the cold oblivion of winter with the fondest hopes for the return of fruitful meadows, for the healthy survival of their shivering children – for the return of the sun, the light.
There can be no doubt that our inner resonances with these grand cycles are at the heart of all the bright winter festivals and rituals of renewal in every culture across all time. The anniversaries of grand moments in the histories of those ancient people are lost dates, counted on obsolete calendars. No one knows on what day Jesus was born, or on which the brave Macabees died. The bureaucracies of faith have chosen these winter days precisely because they have this deeper meaning, these profound connections with our most primal spirits. The mysterious ideals that their prophets and martyrs have so feebly tried to understand and explain to us are and always will be, mere shadows of the intrinsic spirit of this global life system. Despite the protestation of every Chanukah play and every Christmas pageant, it is not the miraculous lanterns of the bloodthirsty Macabeans, not the shunned peasant babe in a stable that we really celebrate this season.
The True Meaning of these joyous holidays is far more ancient, far more personal, far more universal that the auto da fe of some dogmatic principal. The birth of the baby Jesus to redeem the world, the rebuilding of the temple to restore the faith – these are merely closely circumscribed symbols of our greater and shared hopes – merely touchstones in our passages as finite members of the grandeur that is the miraculous livingness of which we are part. From our common and timeless relationship with our earth, our sun and our universe, we all feel the same wilting terror in the face of death, and the same shimmering hope at the sight and thought of new life as each of those ancient heroes and all their spawn, of all their mother’s mother’s mothers, of all our countless cousins across this planet and all of time.
These brave winter fruit – our toyon and pyrocantha, or the bright holly berries of Europe – symbolize for us the almost changeless passion of life for living. These tiny clusters of humble crimson promises – perhaps even better than those long dead martyrs – evoke clear and universal sympathy with our joined plight of peoples and planet; of the miraculous and timeless way, eon after eon, life has withstood the endless return of killing winter cold, the cataclysmic onslaught of cometary impacts and ash spewing volcanoes. How inspiring, in the face of our own short flash of individual life, is this tenacity of Life, our Life, this divine spark that we all share. Can’t you see, in those bright sparks of fruit, the immortality of this grand family, the beauty and majesty of this planetary ecosystem, the bright cheeks of the healthy newborn, and the life giving blood that joins our trillions of cells in a communal and living broth? Don’t the colored lights draped on eaves, the candles glowing night after night and the sweet young evergreens symbolize nothing so much as our brave stand against this dying season? Doesn’t the bounty of festive banquets in a time of naked orchards; doesn’t the generosity of freely given presents in the time of dwindling stocks, represent nothing so much as our confidence that we will prevail, just like Life always has – our confidence that we can manifest our own plenty even as the planet wanes? Aren’t the smiles of children and the gratitude of loved ones as they receive their gifts really just prayers for renewal and bounty?
I am so offended when this authentic and natural impulse to pray for the return of the sun is rudely co-opted by some power hungry patriarch – when to remember and encourage the supple buds of spring, to celebrate the persistence of this mystery that fills my sprit, is demeaned as untrue to the anointed and contrived ritual telling of their dogma. The huge joy I find in creating a sense of bounty and plenty in contrast to the waning beams of winter light; the grateful palliative of bright and joyful lights, of gifts and goodwill, of ritual and remembrance comes straight from my heart, from our hearts in ancient and profound connections to this nature – our nature that we are so inextricably a part of. How dare they scold me that my genuine joy is false unless it gives only praise to their doctrine? How dare they judge as unworthy any expression of faith and gratitude that does not respect their arbitrary rituals?
I claim every tradition! They have all been “my people,” for we have always been only one people. We all know that, and we can all feel it in our common struggles against the great forces that eternally challenge our most cherished lives. Obsolete rivalry among the siblings of mankind may have made these petty turf wars inevitable. But today, whether on the Salisbury plain, in the deserts of Canaan or on the banks of the Indus, we can look directly into one another’s eyes; we can concretely witness the hopes and spirits of all our diverse kin. We should no longer abide the xenophobes who wish to divide us so they may commandeer our spirits. We must no longer bow to the elite who trade wishful platitudes that soothe our frightened minds, when their traditions only seem to divide us. They will not usurp my joy and ownership of these Holly Days. How dare they proclaim their perfect knowledge of the “true meaning” of this holy time. How dare they pit one family against the other with protestations of the one truth? We are one family and we cannot allow them to divide us any longer. It is in recognition of the deep and holy connection that we share with every soul of every age; it is this common experience that we must celebrate. It is the union of our experience as but one experience on this earth, in these immutable cycles that we must rejoice in.
Happy Holly Days
June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
My grandpa sat in his fancy velvet Santa suit, looking at himself in the mirror as he painted goo on his lip and took a big drag off his Salem cigarette.
“That word ‘Christmas’ always kinda sticks in my throat,” he said as the smoke leaked out of his mouth and nose. “Nobody knows when that damned baby Jesus was born anyway.”
He began to press the big, white handlebar moustache onto his lip. “Nobody really knows when them damn Macabees miscalculated how much oil they had left either. Calendars been all messed up a buncha times since then.”
He put the beard’s strap over his head, and pressed the sides into the goo on his cheeks, then pulled on that cool wig, and silly red hat. He was the best-looking Santa you ever saw. Didn’t wear no padding, and his suit and beard and stuff was rented from some big Hollywood costume place. He told all the kids he was the real Santa, that the others were all just stand-ins for him. He had this whole cockamamie back-story worked out: where he kept his reindeer downtown in this big meat locker, and how nervous it made them, how his sleigh was getting tuned up by Big Daddy Ed Roth, and all the labor troubles he was having with his elves.
The little kids bought it. They even brought their little friends to the little toy store to see him. He didn’t sit in any throne or anything though. He walked around bellowing that huge “ho ho” he had, and doing cartwheels on the sidewalk and almost causing car wrecks and stuff. Grandpa kinda bought it himself. He would watch the kids in the store, and pick a couple whose dads were like dead or something, so that they were all sad, and weren’t gonna get any Christmas presents; and then on Christmas eve, he’d take a bunch of the toys he got in trade for playing Santa, put em in this big old red sack he sewed, and just show up at those kid’s houses, then pull exactly what they wanted outta that bag. Man, you can bet those kids believed.
I guess my Granpa kinda hated his preacher-dad, and so he got to hate the baby Jesus too. But he loved Xmas, as he liked to call it. Plus a bunch of my dad’s friends were Jewish, and Afro American and atheist and Buddhist and stuff. It was always a mess at the school pageant over like what was too much baby Jesus stuff or too much Macabee stuff, or not enough Kwanza stuff. So Granpa put them all in that big red sack, shook it all up and poured out what he calls “Holly Days.”
It is cool cause when all the trees have lost their leaves and it is getting dark at dinner time, and so cold you’da died outside, Holly bushes make a bunch of red berries like they’re fighting back. Granpa says, all these holidays are right at this time to do just that, fight back the dying light. So, we light up a big Holly Days menorah with 12 candles instead of 8, and we have a Holly Day Tree, but we don’t put it up until Christmas Eve, when we hop a fence and steal it from a closed Christmas tree lot. Best of all, we get a present on every one of the 12 Holly Days.
12 like in that song. It starts on the Solstice day; the shortest day of the year, that’s day one. By then all the Muzak is playing Mannheim Steamroller and everybody already has their trees and lights and stuff, so we figure it’s time to get the party started. Usually the first couple’a gifts are not too hot, but we start right in lighting our candles and having special dinners, and talking about the principals and all that philosophical stuff my Dad and Granpa are so into. The first 3 are Unity, Kindness and Compassion. On Christmas Eve, it’s Hope, cause we hope we get some good stuff. Then on the day of, is Generosity, cause most everybody tries to be real generous with each other on that day. And after, it’s Gratitude, when we are grateful that we get to buy most of our presents when everything’s on sale.
Then, on those lost days between Christmas and New Years, Granpa put in his personal code: Truth Love and Courage. He says if we have the courage to always look for the truth and accept it with love, everything will always turn out for the best. I don’t know about that though, things can turn out pretty crummy sometimes, no matter what.
On the last three days, we kinda do the Jewish New Year where you’re ‘sposed to face your guilt and stuff and then Atone. That’s the 10th day, Atonement. We always have to discuss like whether or not it’s ok to throw apple cores but not orange peels in the bushes at the park and stuff. But on Forgiveness: New years Eve, we do have a party, and watch the ball drop and all kiss each other and stuff, cause it changes from Forgiveness to Redemption right then. And we still get presents, usually little ones, whatever’s left over, but sometimes it’s cool stuff people forget to get you and found at the sales.
Granpa’s too old to do Santa anymore; and Dad’s too skinny, and doesn’t really like people anyway. Some of my friends think it’s weird that we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we do. Holly Days is Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza Roshashannah and Ramadan all at once. My favorite part is The Stealing of the Tree, cause it feels like you’re doing something bad but you really aren’t cause they are just gonna have to pay for a dumpster to throw all those old trees in anyway.