“Can you see how easy it is to talk people into coffins…”
By Maria Popova
“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her sublime meditation on gender, asserting that “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” But although the line between where the mind ends and the body begins is ever-shifting, we often draw an artificial demarcation and end up divided within and among ourselves — nowhere more so than in the plight of transgender people.
The piercing reality of that plight is what slam poet and TED Fellow Lee Mokobe explores in this powerful poem about what it’s like to be transgender.
The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral.
I was kneeling long after the congregation was on its feet,
dip both hands into holy water,
trace the trinity across my chest,
my tiny body drooping like a question mark
all over the wooden pew.
I asked Jesus to fix me,
and when he did not answer
I befriended silence in the hopes that my sin would burn
and salve my mouth would dissolve like sugar on tongue,
but shame lingered as an aftertaste.
And in an attempt to reintroduce me to sanctity,
my mother told me of the miracle I was,
said I could grow up to be anything I want.
I decided to be a boy.
It was cute.
I had snapback, toothless grin,
used skinned knees as street cred,
played hide and seek with what was left of my goal.
I was it.
The winner to a game the other kids couldn’t play,
I was the mystery of an anatomy,
a question asked but not answered,
tightroping between awkward boy and apologetic girl,
and when I turned 12, the boy phase wasn’t deemed cute anymore.
It was met with nostalgic aunts who missed seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts,
who reminded me that my kind of attitude would never bring a husband home,
that I exist for heterosexual marriage and child-bearing.
And I swallowed their insults along with their slurs.
Naturally, I did not come out of the closet.
The kids at my school opened it without my permission.
Called me by a name I did not recognize,
but I was more boy than girl, more Ken than Barbie.
It had nothing to do with hating my body,
I just love it enough to let it go,
I treat it like a house,
and when your house is falling apart,
you do not evacuate,
you make it comfortable enough to house all your insides,
you make it pretty enough to invite guests over,
you make the floorboards strong enough to stand on.
My mother fears I have named myself after fading things.
As she counts the echoes left behind by Mya Hall, Leelah Alcorn, Blake Brockington.
She fears that I’ll die without a whisper,
that I’ll turn into “what a shame” conversations at the bus stop.
She claims I have turned myself into a mausoleum,
that I am a walking casket,
news headlines have turned my identity into a spectacle,
Bruce Jenner on everyone’s lips while the brutality of living in this body
becomes an asterisk at the bottom of equality pages.
No one ever thinks of us as human
because we are more ghost than flesh,
because people fear that my gender expression is a trick,
that it exists to be perverse,
that it ensnares them without their consent,
that my body is a feast for their eyes and hands
and once they have fed off my queer,
they’ll regurgitate all the parts they did not like.
They’ll put me back into the closet, hang me with all the other skeletons.
I will be the best attraction.
Can you see how easy it is to talk people into coffins,
to misspell their names on gravestones.
And people still wonder why there are boys rotting,
they go away in high school hallways
they are afraid of becoming another hashtag in a second
afraid of classroom discussions becoming like judgment day
and now oncoming traffic is embracing more transgender children than parents.
I wonder how long it will be
before the trans suicide notes start to feel redundant,
before we realize that our bodies become lessons about sin
way before we learn how to love them.
Like God didn’t save all this breath and mercy,
like my blood is not the wine that washed over Jesus’ feet.
My prayers are now getting stuck in my throat.
Maybe I am finally fixed,
maybe I just don’t care,
maybe God finally listened to my prayers.
“In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.”
By Maria Popova
Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) knew that she was dying when she began writing Tomorrow Is Now (public library). She was seventy-eight and continued to work on this visionary, timeless manifesto even as she grew too weak to speak or hold a cup of tea. She described the book as “one woman’s attempt to analyze what problems there are to be met, one citizen’s approach to ways in which they may be met, and one human being’s bold affirmation that, with imagination, with courage, with faith in ourselves and our cause — the fundamental dignity of all mankind — they will be met.” It was published several months after Roosevelt’s death and remains an immensely elevating vision for our individual role in shaping our shared human future — an antidote to apathy more necessary than ever.
Roosevelt writes from the fortunate platform of a long and accomplished life, but also one that has survived a “lonely childhood in a caste-bound society with narrow traditions,” two major depressions, and two world wars:
Nothing of what has happened to me, or to anyone, has value unless it is a preparation for what lies ahead. We face the future fortified only with the lessons we have learned from the past. It is today that we must create the world of the future. Spinoza, I think, pointed out that we ourselves can make experience valuable when, by imagination and reason, we turn it into foresight. It is that foresight we must acquire. In a very real sense, tomorrow is now.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Anna Deavere Smith’s radiant wisdom on the discipline of not letting others define us — “Start now, every day,” she counseled, “becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.” — Roosevelt adds:
We do make our history, that we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course.
It is essential, above all, that in making history we do not forget to learn by history, to see our mistakes as well as our successes, our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
We need imagination and integrity, courage and a high heart. We need to fan the spark of conviction, which may again inspire the world as we did with our new idea of the dignity and the worth of free men. But first we must learn to cast out fear. People who “view with alarm” never build anything.
One thing I believe profoundly: We make our own history. The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.
In a sentiment particularly chilling to read in an alarming election year, Roosevelt points to the most deadening manifestation of this fear of the unknown — the frightful clinging to a status quo built on antiquated beliefs:
The extreme right wing in American politics today appears to be trying to project itself into this obsolete background. It operates on the theory that American history has stood still, that the world has stood still, that it is possible to revert to the conditions of a long-dead past.
Noting that America was built by immigrants who constructed their lives from scratch because they hungered for change and created a new nation with “courage, self-confidence, and the willingness to face the unknown and shape it according to their dreams,” Roosevelt points to the preservation of these ideals, of that willingness, as the only hedge against the nation’s downfall:
In a sense, nearly all great civilizations that perished did so because they had crystallized, because they were incapable of adapting themselves to new conditions, new methods, new points of view. It is as though people would literally rather die than change.
We have to learn to think freshly about our new revolutionary world, to free our intelligence from the shackles of fear, and set it to work on the most challenging problem we have ever faced: the preservation of our civilization.
A century after Walt Whitman’s magnificent meditation on democracy, Roosevelt urges us to awaken to our individual role and responsibility in the amorphous abstraction we call civil society:
A democracy is made up of one man and one and one and — ad infinitum. But each man is responsible for what he does.
Government is people. The ultimate triumph of the democratic system depends on the individual use of democratic principles. We are not a faceless mass. As individuals we can influence our government at every level. But we must accept this responsibility. We must know what we think and speak out, even at the risk of unpopularity. In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.
Lamenting the human tendency “to evade personal responsibility, to skirt the necessity of making a choice, to hesitate at expressing an opinion, to take comfort in being part of the herd,” Roosevelt makes an assertion all the timelier today:
Wherever we find this growing tendency toward apathy, we ought to fight it tooth and nail. There could be no more destructive quality for America and its way of life.
Half a millennium after Galileo’s abiding case for the cultivation of critical thinking, Roosevelt argues that our educational institutions and character-building paradigms have failed to foster a culture of such crucial critical thinking — which is, after all, the most potent source of moral agency for the individual and of advancement for society:
We have not sufficiently developed in our people the habit of analyzing a situation, of analyzing people’s words, of coming to their own decisions. I think it would be of great value if in our universities we gave the techniques of analyzing a subject from every point of view. It would be sound preparation for coping with world questions, which we must eventually solve. We cannot blindly leave them to government. We are the government.
We have to take a new look at ourselves, at what our kind of government requires of us, at what our community needs from us; and then prepare to take a stand. In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for the individual to remember that he is himself a unique human being, and that unless he keeps the sharp edges of his personality and the hard core of his integrity intact he will have lost not only all that makes him valuable to himself but all that makes him of value to anyone or anything else.
Look around you at the major improvements in your life, in your world. Each of them grew out of an individual conviction and an individual ability to act upon that conviction.
Today, as we confront a culture increasingly strung out on immediacy and predicated on the seductive promise of instant gratification, Roosevelt’s caveat to this conquest of conviction rings all the more uncomfortably yet necessarily true:
Now and then I see individuals who are stirred out of their apathy, who see something which needs to be done, something in which they believe wholeheartedly. They set to work with a will. Then something goes wrong. That is when they need to be reminded, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Obviously, it takes great determination to go on working, year after disappointed and frustrating year, for some reform that seems important to you. As time passes you feel that nothing has been accomplished. But, if you give up, you are abandoning your own principles. It is deeply important that you develop the quality of stamina; without it you are beaten; with it, you may wring victory out of countless defeats, after years of what seemed to be hopeless effort.
Roosevelt herself was only eighteen when she began fighting for the rights of working women, at the time excluded from male-only unions. She withstood enormous resistance and countless failures on the path to success. It is from this platform of hard-earned experience that she writes:
The individual is the spur to public action. We are the government. The basic power still lies in the hands of the citizens. But we must use it. That means that in every small unit of government, each individual citizen must feel his individual responsibility to do the best with his citizenship that he possibly can achieve.
This, she cautions, isn’t merely a matter of voting on election day but rather of stepping up to every dysfunctional part of our communities and pushing actively toward the frontiers of change we believe to be necessary. Choosing not to engage in fixing society’s brokenness, she argues, is as harmful as doing the breaking ourselves:
What you don’t do can be a destructive force. The citizen who sees things going wrong in his community and shrugs his shoulders or complains to his neighbors and stops there is partly guilty of the condition. It is in his hands to rectify it.
It is my conviction that there is almost no area of life which we cannot transform according to our own desires if we want something badly enough, if we have faith in it, and if we work for it with all our hearts. It is not too much to say that every bad situation is a result of apathy, of lack of planning, of individuals who think, “After all, it’s not my business.”
Self-government requires self-examination, action by the individual, standards, values, and the strength to live up to them.
Between 1965 and 1989, the great English novelist Graham Greene (October 2, 1904–April 3, 1991) kept a dream diary — an 800-page record of his fanciful nightly adventures in what he called “The World of One’s Own,” where his subconscious confronted what it could not in “The Common World.”
In the last years of his life, Greene prepared the best of this curious document for publication, organizing a quarter century of dreams into several overarching themes. Shortly after his death, it was released as A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (public library) — a strange and wonderful book, which Greene considered a sort of “autobiography, beginning with Happiness and ending with Death, of a rather bizarre life.”
He writes in the introduction:
It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else. There are no witnesses. No libel actions. The characters I meet there have no memory of meeting me, no journalist or would-be biographer can check my account with another’s. I can hardly be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for any incident connected with the security services. I have spoken with Khruschev at a dinner party, I have been sent by the Secret Service to murder Goebbels. I am not lying — and yet, of all the witnesses who share these scenes with me, there is not one who can claim from his personal knowledge that what I describe is untrue.
Out of these nocturnal fictions the unconscious wrests, or seeks to wrest, existential truth. The grander the question and more perplexing the problem, the more labyrinthine the path into the absurd in search of the absolute. From meeting with Pope John Paul II in a hotel bedroom to encountering Henry James on a riverboat in Bolivia, this voyage into the neverland of the bizarre unveils a strange and strangely profound cartography of meaning for the most elemental questions of human life — among them, inevitably, love and death, the great feat and the great defeat of being.
Greene recounts one particularly poignant dream:
On May 5, 1973, I had an awful experience I am thankful never occurred in the Common World. I had sent a love scene in a new novel to my secretary to make a draft, but her draft was full of gaps — that was only tiresome. What was awful was that as I read aloud to the woman I loved, I realized how false it was, how sentimental, how permissive in the wrong way. She too knew how bad it was and that made me angry. I threw it away. “How can I read it to you,” I demanded, “If you interrupt and criticize? It’s only a draft, after all.”
But I knew that the whole book was hopeless. I said, “If only I could die before the book is published. It’s got to be published to earn money for the family.” The thought of Russian roulette came to me. Had I recently bought a revolver or was that a dream? My mistress tried to comfort me but it only made things worse.
Greene tussles with the subject of love — which is “only a draft, after all” — in another dream:
I spent a sad summer evening in July 1965. I was engaged to be married to a girl whose mother detested me and longed to see the affair at the end. Harassed nerves caused a quarrel between me and the girl and her pride added its quota, while I pushed the quarrel to its extreme so that the girl broke with me and I accepted the break. The mother listened with satisfaction and then took the girl upstairs.
I felt sad and guilty and I knew that my relief at this final solution would not last. A party was going on at the house and the mother reappeared with her daughter in her arms, small and shrunken and ready to vomit. The mother appealed to me to find something and I brought a vase into which the girl vomited. I felt pity and guilt and love too, and I realized for the first time how much she loved me and what I was losing.
Among the guests was [the English sculptor] Henry Moore, and as I left the room I apologized to him for not having recognized him earlier, as I had been so preoccupied with my quarrel. I left the house and went for a walk with the girl’s brother. He was very sympathetic to both of us. We met her father, whom I had always liked, and appealed to him. “I am not such a rotten beast, am I?” He smiled to reassure me.
When I got back to the house the girl was there, and everything was all right again between us.
In the final dream in the book, Greene revisits the subject of redemption in its ultimate extreme:
In this World of My Own I found myself writing a bit of verse for a competition in a magazine called Time and Tide, but, needless to say, the paper never received it. It was about my own death.
From the room next door
The TV talks to me
Of sickness, nettlerash, and herbal tea.
My breath is folded up
Like sheets in lavender.
The end for me
Arrives like nursery tea.
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