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Finding; being found

  • Posted on October 25, 2015 at 7:57 pm

I have a ring. Like many things I reflect on much, it quickly gained symbolic significance. It is stainless steel, not precious metal, and not a complete circle. But in that point of apparent weakness it grasps an amethyst. It has always meant for me strength that does not corrode, with an element of seemingly naked vulnerable beauty and colour. I remember the day I bought it, and where, the circumstances, the tentative permission-seeking to buy a ring that was feminine, and the feelings running through me on that day, the pub lunch that followed, the dawning fear and awareness that my life was about to change and that there was nothing I could do to alter that.

The ring has been with me, long worn now on my left hand, third finger. At times I wondered whether that might be seen as relevant to others, whether anyone held back, wondered if I was in a relationship, or if indeed it had become a replacement for the wedding ring now worn by a small rabbit sitting by my bed. The ring is between me and myself, and still is a reminder of what acceptance and love are, and that both begin in oneself.

Dealing with loss

After a year, maybe less, I was careless enough to not remove it when doing some DIY task. The gem was lost and I could not find it anywhere. The empty stainless ring looked truly broken, and it seemed also relevant that I knew my marriage was well and truly over. In a back road in town, I found a craft jeweller able to find a matching stone, and it felt that any price would have been acceptable. I think maybe the stone cost more to replace than the original ring. The ring stays on my finger night and day, and I do rather less DIY than I did, mainly for living in a flat, not a house. I do sometimes take it off for safety, but not much.

Some time later, I was clearing things from the loft in the house that was going to have to be sold. I was moving out, and being the only one who dared to take the awkward jump into the loft, it was down to me to sort everything out for who would keep what. Schoolbooks, boxes of cuddly toys and past affection, a spare bed, cases, Christmas decorations, stuff; all sorts of stuff. Part-boarded by me, deep in rockwool by me, wired by me, and a place only I had actually been into, among our family … It was an awkward space that I should probably have spend money on fully boarding, which meant stepping on rafters some of the time. There I lifted an awkward heavy box, caught my finger, and realised I had again sprung the ring and the gem was gone. Casting around, I realised that surrounded by loose rockwool insulation and gappy boards, I was even less likely to find it than the last one. I stopped after a few minutes, because short of a truly time-losing forensic and meticulous search, I was unlikely to find this tiny purple dot. Instead I did what I had done before and spoke to it. ‘If you want to be found, you will be.’

I picked up one suitcase and carefully set it aside, and there it was. Immediately I set to resetting the stone – a lot more difficult than it was knocking it out. I have done this with other things. Maybe I forget the things that don’t turn up, maybe I just need to calm down, maybe a dowsing instinct takes over (and I can do this, though somewhat untrained). Either way, I felt that whatever weakness had lain in the original ring, my determination since, to add something precious to strength, had been reinforced. The symbolism felt stronger.

That’s all it is. No superstition; just a reminder to self, which is important. Where I wear it is a reminder too, that I am a committing person in love and relationships. I can read all sorts into it, but I am left with a feeling that it also wants to stay with me. I am strong. There is something held in me, incomplete as I am, that is precious and sparkles. Together those two attributes give me a better sense of self than ever I had when I was just supposed to be plain, complete and strong.

Change

We are all embedded in constant change. We can try to sit still while it washes over, like a rock in a river, and become beautiful and worn, or we can become the river and be just that – wherever we flow, whatever the change, whatever the pace. Sometimes we try too hard and miss things that want to be found. A year ago this week I walked into a room and met my partner for the first time. I was the more noticeable, just three months after surgery, and had decided that if I stayed out of the flow, I was going to get nowhere and neither meet nor be met, nor change anything. Our eyes did not ‘meet across a crowded room’, and I was immediately something different, rather than a future friend, let alone more. It took time (not much), but we both jumped into the same river in the end and started swimming it together.

I maintain that many things require more letting go than sheer effort, skill or knowledge. In fact, gaining skills and knowledge can be helped by letting go of ‘I can’t’.

This week I again read a poem by Mary Oliver in her latest volume of poetry, Felicity, which says how I feel in a short and lovely poem:

Not anyone who says

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
    careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

Loss, change, letting go, finding

We are all trans. Transient, that is. Everyone of us and everything is temporarily what we are. You have nothing to lose other than what you have had the privilege of having or being. Loss is gaining space for something else. Change is moving from one space to another, where hanging on to anything may become a barrier to another possibility. Many things want to be found. Maybe it’s the future you.*

I have real regrets about a young girl’s life never lived, about a daughter’s life detached, about a love set aside … but also a gratitude for insights I could never otherwise have gained. In a very real sense I have been given a second life; maybe two half-lives that can be equally complete. I have had a very tangible sense of being led through these past years of transition from one place of transience into another, and of being found rather than lost.

I have understood what it is to be strong and resilient, to complete the circle, and to hold onto something precious.

 

* The workshop where my partner and I met was called ‘Future you’.

Arms, length

  • Posted on October 17, 2015 at 5:45 pm

On our sides we are unarmed:
half the hold, so limbs won’t sleep
before we, wishing the whole
embrace, fall to peace.

Under your neck, beneath my arm,
tightly try to keep a flow
from heart to fingertips—until
our weight draws tingles

and admission, that much as we
are made to hug, we must turn
reluctantly, to curve ourselves
in long touch, nose to toes.

Skin then speaks, not in the press
fully armed, but in a million
minute nerves, ours, counting
what ten fingers can’t.

Skin to skin, folded more fine
than any paper crane is turned
we become one shape, a single
sense of all we need to say—

the extent of which we never know,
unfolded gently by our dreams
then close again in sleep, and wake,
to hold, half-hold, find our length.

 

2015 © Andie Davidson

Identity IV: identity and the new colonialism

  • Posted on October 11, 2015 at 3:52 pm

A wander through the wonder of what we are

Recent blogs queried the boundaries of things, where one thing really ends and another begins, which is fine for rivers and stones and air, but what about ‘me’? I don’t just mean my body, I mean ‘me’. Am I just one thing? A thing comprising more living cells than there are stars in our galaxy? What makes those cells together just one thing called me? And when I cut my toenails, is there a bit of me in the bin? I remember after microsurgery on my spine, the surgeon came by to visit, and picked up a small bottle of fluid containing fragments of intervertebral disc that had been nudging motor nerves to my leg. ‘Do you want this?’, he asked. I know some people like to keep their gallstones, but no … very no! And yet I realised I was looking at something that had been part of me. Not nail trimmings that are obviously dead, but something from inside of me that used to matter.

No – don’t ask me about my last surgery. Some things are never to be seen again!

Losing bits of your body doesn’t mean losing parts of your self. This is an innate sense most of us have, that the ‘me’, the real identity, is not the body. And yet here we are in a world that looks at the body and gives you an identity, that struggles when the physiology is indeterminate, and feels the need to do something. Just to give you a name, just to separate you out from everything else, to make you individual, even in a sense to isolate you and insulate you. This runs absolutely counter to my own developing philosophy and understanding of belonging as part of the whole.

And yet I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum). So surely I am separate, boundaried and finite?

Maybe not one thing

There is an idea, with good basis and not new, that our cells are themselves a symbiotic evolution, resulting from a process called endosymbiosis, where one simple cell comes to live inside another. Complexity arises when it adds advantage to more simple forms. Set aside your personal ideas on evolution for a moment, because we all know that things change and happen quite by chance in nature, and that sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t, and I don’t want any ideas of a god or gods, or intelligent design, to get in the way of simply thinking freely.

It happens. And endosymbiosis can be induced, and can be seen to be advantageous, simply by putting the right prokaryotes (simple single-cellular organisms) together and watching them form self-reproducing eukaryotes (complex cells with identifiable internal structures) such as we are made of in galactic quantities.

Let’s now slip sideways to slime moulds. Yes, slip, slide … because they are fascinating and challenging. Basically, these are colonies of unicellular (eukaryotic) organisms that live together, co-operate, specialise, move together like complex organisms, split, divide, co-operate and seem to make sense of the world – but especially together. Does each have a mind? Do they have a mind together? Does one cell have intelligence? Do they have a kind of intelligence when together? And then – why are we so different from them? Are we also, in a sense, colonial? We all began as a single cell, meeting another single cell in a particular context of pure chemistry. Both cells were complex eukaryotes, but nonetheless, just cells. They didn’t know what to do, they simply behaved together according to chemical instruction sets within a specific environment.

Here, stem cells are interesting. Most of our cells have lost the bits that would allow them to diversify, probably because there is no advantage left. A differentiated cell stays differentiated whereas a stem cell does not. And when we lose a finger, unlike a fingernail, a new one does not regrow. Lucky salamander: lose a leg or a tail, and another one will grow back. Regenerative biology is a dream yet to be realised, and so hard to achieve, even in getting a severed spinal cord to reconnect. Probably there are enough of us around to reproduce sufficiently for this not to hold unique evolutionary advantage. But at some point in our early development, cells always specialise because of where they are in the embryo, and stay that way. Intelligence?

Singularity and self

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. What we call success and failure, or normal and abnormal, is this combination of instruction set (genes) and environment (largely chemical). The end result is unique, since even genetically identical twins have their unique sense of self, however alike their DNA. But how singular is each body, if we are a colony of co-operating cells, and each cell itself originates in symbiosis? Is there intelligence, not just in ‘me’, but in my arm, or in an organ, or in a cell? Is ‘mind’ just brain-neurological activity, or is it acting elsewhere in this colony as well? Perhaps the brain just the only place where linguistic memory is held. What about cell memory, muscle memory, even organ memory – these too are information storage. It seems to be well-attested, and has some support in the accounts of a few transplant recipients gaining ‘memory’ or traits not their own. Further, memory (cell information) appears to be epigenetically transferred between generations: trauma among Holocaust survivors altered their gene expression in such a way that it became inherited through that single cell that starts life over. If our cells remember, and together hold any kind of shared or combined memory, where is memory in relation to mind? I can’t answer these questions, but the fact that they remain valid questions shows how unclear we are about what we do know.

And what about the singularity of our bodies? Sometimes the zygote (fertilised ovum) splits to create two embryos, identical twins. Identical? Each has a sense of self and there can be big differences, including sense of gender. Sometimes twin embryos recombine to form one person, with a chimeric twin, or even a parasitic twin. And many or most of us have a degree of mosaicism, such that the DNA is our cells is not the same everywhere. So does DNA create identity? A singular identity? Can we have more than one mind or intelligence? Or is self-awareness simply a complex colonial identity? My body seems to be driven by more than ‘I’ or what I call self. And biologists would certainly say anyway that our bodies as organisms are the result of self-organisation.

There is a distinction to be made between identity, intelligence and biology, in which I think we should be careful. My sense of self, my identity, includes my personal awareness of my biology, and uses my intelligence. Your idea of what I am includes your perception of your and my biology, and uses your intelligence (not mine). Perhaps the important message is: do we use these ideas to bring us closer, or to separate ourselves?

Self-organising systems

Self-organising systems are not necessarily doing anything intelligent. You can see them in schools of fish and murmurations of flocking birds, as well as create them in computer components, inter-communicating electronic modules, and technological development (from basic ape toolmaking up to modern human communications systems). More simply, we see the emergence of complex patterns in the simplest of things, such as crystalline structures, magnetisation, or sound patterns (cymantics). Self-organisation happens, and especially in complex systems, leading to emergent structures and behaviours. We might think that an ant colony is much more sophisticated than the slime mould, but is there actually more intelligence? Here is where I believe intelligent design (some external ‘greater’, if not different, intelligence has ‘made’ or created us and everything there ‘is’ – which itself is a semantic nightmare) comes unstuck. Please do explore self-organisation and complexity theory, because they are a key reminder that we are too often simply linear thinkers. A leads to B; C causes A to lead to B. There is only A, B, C and maybe D. If D exists, then there must be an A and a B for it to be so. Sometimes this is true, valid and useful, but sometimes it is dysfunctional.

How did we get here?

It may be a fun little journey to start with a question like ‘what is identity’ and travel through endosymbiosis to complexity and chaos, but I think it does serve a purpose. Gods and intelligent design, creation and order, linearity and binary division of things, naming and defining – do all give us props to create and maintain a world view that seems to work. But they can get in the way if they are given a status of knowledge, as if that were something finite and attainable. Rather, our thinking, our philosophies, our conceptualisations can only ever be working models, and getting stuck with them is far worse for us all than being able to adapt, relearn, throw it all away and start again when they don’t fit.

I don’t know if it even makes sense to ask who ‘I’ am, but what I do get a feeling of, is that being aware, observing, staying open to new ideas, constantly learning, is a whole lot better than sticking with (or inventing) easy answers. Our whole existence is unbelievably complex, and becoming more so all the time. That means we are not in control of much at all, certainly not our living environment, our planet, or even our society, and to say we understand it is very premature. We may never do so, but most of all we should never stop half way and plant a god in the ground to worship instead. That god need not be a divine intelligence, it could just be one way of seeing the world to create a local sense of order, through a scientific method, a philosophy, a culture, or a religion. Extrapolating any of these to create higher or lower orders of existence, intelligence or levels of heaven simply will not do. The observation of ‘order’ or of ‘beauty’ proves nothing but a synergy between the way we are and the way other things are.

And so it is that this week I read about intersex people (that’s 1 to 2 per cent of us) who may identify with one binary gender or another simply because that is only what has ever been offered. I think I shall always return to the open question of my self-identification, had all alternatives been available right from birth. My natural development is a frequent outcome, as are intersex identities. In the light of the above, are we all ‘mistakes’, or the kind of diversity that give complex self-organising systems their resilience?

How we got here, whether in this little conversation, or in a more ontological sense, doesn’t actually matter that much, unless that idea invalidates the existence of another person in order to elevate us as superior or better. And that, as world events continue to remind us, is where our real problems lie.

Identity III: the language of things

  • Posted on October 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm

I have gone back to school. Last week I was in college for adult language learning, my first German class. I jumped in mid-way, because I have some ability, a small vocabulary and not enough for much meaningful conversation. And so I tend to work out different ways of saying things, using the words I do know. It must sound very odd. I also find that in German, the words for transgender, transvestite and transsexual are not used or available in the same way as in English. Maybe as I learn, joining online German trans groups could help me understand better. The trans people will be very much like me, but with a language and vocabulary to express and describe themselves, somewhat different. Language is a big barrier to clear self-description across language boundaries.

Is my identity limited by language, given that language follows concept? I can’t find words for a concept that does not yet exist. I can invent them, as new concepts arise, and this happens all the time. Language in turn creates an environment of meaning. It doesn’t describe facts, it expresses interpretation. Snow is snow, but in the Scots language there are 421 words for it. The reason? To give more meaning to the experience so it can be shared more accurately. It is still crystalline water, white, pretty, and blocks roads. I am not Scottish, so I wouldn’t understand many of the words, and would be unable to communicate the state of the day’s snow clearly. If I was belligerently English I could insist that snow was snow and that was enough: stop confusing things!

I find the same with gender language. Male/man/boy, female/woman/girl are like snow. Sometimes I speak with another (cis) woman I know, and we arrive at me saying: ‘but I wasn’t born a boy!’ Their response reveals a lack of vocabulary. Of course I was born a boy and I changed. But changed what? Sex or gender, neither or both? All I know is that I was born with male reproductive physiology and a female sense of self, reflected in my behaviour and sense of belonging. The difficulty of naming ‘what’ I was/am then becomes a difficulty of accepting my authentic identity. I changed a physical part of myself, but I didn’t change myself. I need not even have done that, had I been happy to continue as I was. So what do we call a man with a vagina or a woman with a penis? We can refuse the identity, block it out, and insist that man and woman are defined by external genitalia, stay blind to intersex conditions and variety, and continue with the difficulties. In this way we steal anyone’s identity and agency for no better reason than that our words have failed to keep pace with concepts. And a large proportion of people and cultures and governments and ministries indeed are stuck right here.

Language divides everything

Look at the surface of a river, watch the spray, get in close to the spray, the surface of a droplet, the evaporation of water molecules from it, zoom right in on the molecules and see the subatomic particles in their statistical clouds among those of the atoms and molecules of various gases comprising the air, work out where the oxygen atoms or ions really belong, zoom out and see the moist air currents, as part of the gaseous mass through which you are looking at the water and tell me: where does the ‘river’ become the ‘air’, or the air the river? Perhaps the air without the river wouldn’t be the same, and the river in a vacuum would simply have evaporated away. By all means swim in the river, breathe the air, paddle your kayak, or photograph or paint it – but be careful that your idea of identity isn’t a definition of reality that you insist on imposing on others, instead of observing with a readiness for surprise.

When does she become he? As I was thinking about my arguments on identity, this article came up, and it plays the same mind game as the river. Testosterone and oestrogen, cholesterol and progesterone are similar molecules, but make significant changes to our bodies, especially before birth and consequently again at puberty. We may or may not be chromosomaly sensitive to them, or produce the ‘right’ quantities. There is no way of telling gender by looking at any one of us, any more than you can decide where the river and the air meet or divide. With such complexity, why do we confer identity on people, for the convenience of our language? The article says very well what I was going to write, so I won’t repeat it, other than to encourage you to read it. Like the river picture above, it simply picks apart each characteristic that gets used to define male or female, and shows it to be insufficient through variety. The conclusion is that the organ that best defines gender is the brain.

Brain, or mind?

The implication for the anatomists might still be that instead of examining a baby’s genitals, we routinely scan its brain. Surely the brain structures give a better hint, if the argument is right? Maybe; maybe not. Suppose you scan the infant brain, and compare the result (probably ambiguous for many or most) with chromosomes from various and several parts of the body (in case of mosaicism) for Xs and Ys, and add an SRY gene test for androgen insensitivity? Would that help? The consequence could be babies with penises being declared ‘probably female’, those with vaginas ‘probably male’, a lot of question marks, and perhaps still a majority being quite conclusive. But for what purpose?

The elusive element remains the mind. The mind we still think of as being centred in the brain, and this may be right or wrong, but however mechanistically we think of mind-as-consequence, we are a long way from scanning a brain to find the mind. Thoughts and intentions, yes, but the origins of these, no. Is sense of identity a brain thing or a mind thing, or, as the river and air, not clearly divisible and dependent on both, and on culture, society, philosophy, and therefore ultimately, available language?

Identity, definition, what you are as distinct from where you are, may not be a thing, a word, but you still know what you are you in the midst of whatever everything else is (including that you are neither, or not solely, male nor female).

Be careful. You might not be right!

So be very careful not to limit another person’s identity by your own language limitations. And if I say I was born a girl, fight the instinct to say: ‘but you did have a …’.

Something I wrote quite a while ago says it nicely in far fewer words: