Ultramontane

aurora_kuenzliThis is going to be a bit… hmm, not “whimsical”… extempore, non-rational. I hope.

Some years ago, I was introduced to Björk’s music through her album Vespertine (I’m listening to it now). I was especially drawn to the song Aurora – Aurora being goddess of the dawn, she with the rosy fingers – but what most delighted me was that I misheard the lyrics “utter mundane” as ultramontane. This word not only has very strong emotional resonances for me, from the book The Worm Ouroboros, by E R Eddison (which I’ve been reading and loving since the age of 16, and in which I first came across the word) but also seemed very apt for this song. Ultramontane means “from beyond the mountains” (beyond as in above, more than the other side of), and I imagined the sun being worshipped as she rose above snow-etched mountain ranges somewhere. The very opposite of utter mundane. And yet not, since a love of the rising sun over the mountains is something happening in the mundane world.

Preamble, preamble. What’s this all about then? Well here’s the amble: it’s all about identity. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, in relation to being a Buddhist (whatever that is) and my gender (whatever that is). And about how I’ve felt so frustrated and confused, having run-ins with trans* people whose sense of gender identity is very firmly fixed and refined and defined and, it seems to me, colonnaded and buttressed and barricaded. And binary, of course.

I’ve lately been pointing out to someone (which as usual means: pointing out to me) how saying “I just don’t understand…” is often sleight-of-mind for “I don’t like/approve of…” and it’s struck me recently just how impossible it is for me to imagine what it’s like to have a binary gender identity. And by extension, just how hard it must be for the binary folk to imagine having a non-binary gender identity. Like trying to see something that’s the other side of a mountain range. And the only way to do that is to cross the mountain range, isn’t it?

No. The other option is to step away from the surface, rise up until you’re far enough away to see more than just the spot you were standing on. Which means what, exactly?

I’m trying to dispense with dispensing exactness here, so I’m not going to try to answer that question in a photographic manner, but try for a more bardic, impressionistic glimpse (since this is mainly myself I’m talking to here, and I need to keep my interest).

What this is all about at the moment is that I keep encountering trans* people (in fact, this may probably apply to the majority of trans* people) whose dearest wish for the outcome of transition is to end up with a solid, stable, and acceptable gender identity. I can understand this longing. I have it in some form myself. But I have another longing at the same time, which the beginning of my transition has heralded, and this is to let go of having a fixed identity altogether. That’s an overdramatic statement, of course. But it’s still true, in a bardic, impressionistic sense. I’ve a yearning in me to go beyond the mountains, to rise above my own surface, to see the broader universe I’m a small corner of, and to participate in it more empathically as a result.

When I began my gender transition, I thought that I just wanted to go through it and get to live as a woman. As time went on, it’s become more and more apparent to me that what I call my gender identity is a diaphanous, nebulous cloud of feelings, tendencies, assumptions, desires, aversions, ideas. I can model it, to some extent, using words, or images, or words-as-images (which they already are, but I mean by painting a verbal picture). To expand on what I wrote in my last blog-thing, I experience my gender-self as something like an archipelago of seemingly separate but related aspects of the larger seemingly-not-separate me (with the me being the ocean the archipelago nestles in). It’s just a metaphor. But every time I explain it to someone, in person or online, I feel the twin pulls: to pin it down and say “this is finally it, this defines me” – and to watch it drift away, say “this is just an iteration, this is just a story about a story, another chapter will be along soon…”

This is what being a Buddhist has always meant to me, more than anything else (though for a long time I didn’t realise it): not about trying to Become Something, but about letting go, gradually, increasingly, gently, lovingly. I’m about to start studying a text with a friend, which is a commentary on the Prajnaparamitahrdaya (I’ll spare you the academic accents), known in English as The Heart Sutra. It’s a Sanskrit text, but I’ve been reciting and turning over in my mind a cut-down, English version of it, for as long as I’ve been trying to be a Buddhist. the people in my Buddhist group recite it together, and sadly, we tend to recite it dirge-like, like The Lord’s Prayer in a school assembly (ugh). Sadly because it’s the polar opposite of a dirge. I suspect it’s an unfortunate combination of English protestantism and the fact that the text keeps repeating the word “no” that causes this negative droning, but in fact, it’s a great little story, is what it is.

It’s about the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, archetypal embodiment of active compassion (who manifests as both male and – as Kwan Yin/Kanon – female). The sutra relates an extraordinary moment in Avalokitesvara’s existence, when (s)he lets go, steps beyond, is unbound, becomes fully and perfectly enlightened (whatever that is). The endless string of “no” is a list of things Avalokitesvara breaks free from identifying with. No this, no that, each one a casting off of a burden, a chain. Every time I recite or read this, I feel like I’m reading an amazing adventure story, and I get very blissed out.

So. The point is. When my gender transition (stupid misnomer that it be) is complete, I don’t expect or want to “arrive” somewhere. I expect that I’ll be what I am now, which is loosely speaking a very, very genderqueer woman with some androgyne traits, who sometimes feels like she imagines a trans man feels. But I’ll be doing all that penis-free (well, mine at least), which will be a great relief. And the journey away from certainty can continue from there. I have no idea how I’m going to feel when that’s happening.

Postamble: I don’t know how, but I want all this to bring me closer to other people, not away from them. It may seem counterintuitive to say that the more uncertain I am of my identity, the more I am freed to be myself, but there it is. And being myself still feels like a great act of generosity, in that it gives others permission to do so too. So all this is pretty vague, but I’m getting on with it anyway, higgledy-piggledy.

guanyin

[the top image is an aurora courtesy of NASA; the bottom one is a photo of Kuan Yin/Avalokitesvara, my favourite image since it’s of such indeterminate gender]

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4 comments on “Ultramontane

  1. Tam says:

    The greatest act of compassion to the self is letting go of the self. The letting go is my quest.

  2. James R. Martin says:

    Such excellent writing! Beautiful.

    “It may seem counterintuitive to say that the more uncertain I am of my identity, the more I am freed to be myself, but there it is.”

    Yes, yes! Beautiful insight. Young children, of course, generally don’t have a very densely (I wanted to say “highly,” but that word is wrong) developed self-image/self-concept, and tend to have much of the sort of freedom you are pointing at here. I suppose we’re generally taught (enculturated) bo believe we require a stable and solid self-image/concept in order to exist or something. And such a concept/image requires a lot of defending, it seems. Lots of energy consumed in trying to keep the seeming sand castle from being washed away by the seeming tide. No wonder we all want to let go!

    “And being myself still feels like a great act of generosity, in that it gives others permission to do so too.”

    Indeed it is.

    • womandrogyne says:

      Thanks, you sweetheart :). I’m inclined to think that it’s not cultural conditioning so much as simply that the longer we live, the more we accumulate experience which our mind processes into certainties tat make us feel secure. So the older we get, the more certainties we have, and the more dependant on them we are for our sense of security – unless we either consciously cultivate an antidote to that, or we get the rug irrecoverably pulled out from under us by something like a death, or heartbreak, or suchlike.

      I guess what I’m saying here (extempore again!) is that the fixed-self is the ultimate Coping Mechanism – it sort of works, but is a poor substitute for… something else I’m still trying to uncover (I don’t want to use the certainties of a tradition here to cope away my ignorance or fascination around this).

      Buddhism certainly thinks we’re dealing with this shit right up until that enlightenment thing happens – pride is pretty much the last thing to go, and the Buddhist conception of pride boils down to all the ways in which we define our fixed-self by defining it in relation to others (are we better, worse, the same, do we like, dislike the same things, are we different?) which is why we have such an aversion to change in other people – because it brings down our rigid self-definition. This rings true for me, anyway.

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