Tragedy, Rage & Ritual

After my parents died, I went to grief support sessions at a local cancer support centre.

The people in the room understood a bit of heartbreak, but they also understood the goal: to get their nice, normal little lives back.  They chatted about events they went to and reminders, but all in a sweet, small way

“I am so upset when people tell me that I am on a journey,” one woman said, “because journeys are supposed to be fun!”

The only woman I connected to was a mother who had lost a teenager to leukemia and in the end, c.diff.   She stood out from the mostly older crowd who had lost a partner because both her deep investment in caregiving and her profound sense of loss had to inform the way she related to her family, partner and other children.

I knew I didn’t fit.   After all, by this time I had been thrown out of two senior caregiver support groups because no matter how I helped others, my challenges and energy were too big for the group, who, according to the facilitator, should have the dream of things getting back to normal.

Death was coming, I said, and we better be prepared for it.   Offer one more good day and help the people we loved find whatever peace and meaning they could manage as they faced this next transformation.

If  we can’t talk about death, we can’t really talk about life.   We stay on the surface, not understanding things like what it really means to die on the cross with meaning, grace, tragedy and transcendence.

I was at a session the legendary Rachel Pollack was doing when one tarot reader asked about something that puzzled her.   She was doing a reading for someone she knew was close to death, but the cards showed good omens.   What was wrong?   Why were the cards lying?

She couldn’t imagine that there was anything after that terrifying transition that could be positive.   It wasn’t in her awareness that anything but what she knew, understood and clung to could have value.

Religious belief helped people who lived much closer to the earth, lived a much more precarious and exposed life than we do today, deal with tragedy.   They knew how life could turn, knew about famines and floods and disease and war and death, but their understanding of the forces at play were not wrapped in scientific terms.

Instead, they looked to gods, to a belief system that threaded through family and community.

The elements of the theatrical were first the elements of the religious.   For a big relationship with tragedy they needed big rituals, enormous and powerful, consuming and transcendent.

When we see some of the remnants of the awesome and majestic theatricality that expressed huge beliefs — the terra cotta warriors, the pyramids, Stonehenge, medieval cathedrals and so on —  today they seem outsized to us.

Rituals, though, are always meant to connect us with forces bigger and more powerful than can carry alone.    They are dramatic and stylized, full of nuance and coded meaning because they have to be to allow us to move beyond.  Nice and small isn’t the point; only awesome and huge will do the job.

Today we want comfortable rituals, being able to pick and choose only the good bits like we can when holding a TIVO remote.  Having to suffer a bit, to surrender to something which might demand our transcendence is not really what we signed up for, because, after all, the mall is open and we have brunch plans.

Ritual confirms our connection to God and community.    They challenge us to open up wide and feel the power of the universe throb through us, engage in big, dramatic displays of emotion and belief which acknowledge tragedy and affirm transcendence.   They are mystical and profound, full of poetry and rage, demanding our own tenderness be treasured.

When we live in an age where that kind of religious fervour is not accepted unless it falls under normative nomenclature, how can the essential fever dance that trans emergence required ever be respected and valued?

Trying to replace the cosmic energy of revelation that has always fuelled trans expression with nice, small, pseudo-scientific creation myths may allow us a bubble in this world, but it never touches our deep tragedy and deeper transcendence.

The notion of sickness creating having a mind-body mismatch lead us to medicalization, with the sacrament of exogenous hormones and the ritual of genital reshaping.

The notion of sweet and fun hobbies honouring women lead us to a system of rationalization where being a woman for a night was fun but needing to be one for more than that got us kicked to the street where we could join the other cult.

We have come up with many creation myths to rationalize transgender expression, from the oppressive structures of gender to the playful performance of cocky abandon.

All of these offer apparently rational cover for being trans in the world, sure, but do they really provide the deep spiritual resonance, the big and awesome drama which allows us to know our creation is essential and our expression is sacred? Do they really connect us with the forces humans have always turned to to transcend the fact of tragedy, the religious and dramatic?

Playing small, the obligation to be demure & tame, denies us the awesome scope & breadth of the knowledge that compels us to emerge as queer, connective, and transcendent in the world.   Having to fit into structures designed for a kind of comfort that maintains the economic status quo means that our own intensity and connection can never really be mirrored or valued.

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.   I knew that was my mission statement the moment I heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say it.

Those rituals need to be powerful, transformative and outrageous to really get to the fundamental power which has always and will always flow through humans, our connection to each other and to our Gods who carry the stories of the eternal.

Nice and small and normative and easy will never do.   Transcendence, and the emergence of the soul that comes with it, are always about moving beyond the little, the expected, the imposed.   Always.

The ambiguous, the questioning, the shimmering, the acknowledgement of truth beyond simple divisions is at the heart of trans knowledge in the world.    Trying to cut it down to a medical problem, a hobby, or a political movement does not change that, does not simply contextualize the truth we hold that the spirit is always, always, always more important than the body which hold it.

As transpeople, most of us don’t want this burden of revelation to be placed on us, not because we don’t understand it but because we understand the price of speaking up for transcendence, the cost of being a voice of connection in the world.   We dream of fitting in, not standing out, so it feels like the best we can do is try to trim ourselves down to fit expectations, attempting to kill off the challenging bits of our nature.

The lesson, though, is one that humans who worshipped spirit creatures would understand: we are not to be valued for what we are on the outside, on how we fit nicely into the economic values marketers cherish, rather we are to be valued for who we are on the inside, for how we bring connection to the group.

It is our hearts which tie us together, not how we meet standards and expectations of appearance and status.  The social demand to be the same on the outside erases the spiritual imperative to honour our creation by being powerfully who we are on the inside, using our uniqueness and not simple compliance to give the best of us to our tribe.

This is a big truth, one that the religious experience can only express through big ritual, events that tie us to the spirit world all around and through us.

Profound trans expression is not about brokenness or abjection, nor is it simply a goof about wearing a bit of costume.   It is not a political statement about patriarchy nor is it an attempt to be sexually attractive, although it has facets of all of those things.

Instead the core of trans expression is about going with deep and personal revelation, about following our heart and trusting our spirit over the machine made expectations of culture.

And that is a big, big, big deal, full of rage and fury, signifying everything.