The Trauma Cleaner

What do we gain from starting over again?  What do we lose?   How do we hold onto what is vital in clearing away the bits of our life that are blocking us, how do we become new without having big swathes of us erased by loss?

Sarah Krasnostein explores these questions in “The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster,” a poetic and compassionate attempt to reconstruct the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a woman whose story weaves between possibilities, genders and traumas.

Sandra is a wounded healer,  a businesswoman who takes charge of cleaning the physical damage that comes from the inner damage which humans carry, someone who uses her hard won skills in surviving & thriving to help others.

Krasnostein is in awe of the healing gifts that Sandra offers, but understands that power comes from the requirement to transcend extraordinary & profound wounds, facing a lifetime of loss while holding onto the humanity needed to claim respect and presence in the face of massive indignity.

No two trans lives are ever the same, just as no two people are ever the same, but the tender heart and sharp brain that Krasnostein uses to pick through the shards of Sandra’s life is one of the most compelling and insightful exposure into the twists of trans lives that I have ever read, especially for someone who hasn’t lived on the bent path themselves.

This is the gift that Krasnostein gives Sandra, the gift she gives all her readers, the surfacing of a complex and very human life beyond the facade of acrylic nails and strong, sweet service.   How can we tell our own story to a world that wants to smooth out the queer bits, wants to erase the cost of claiming beyond?   How can we own our narrative if we can never speak it, if we always have to clean it up and out to just be accepted in the everyday world?

The artifacts Krasnostein excavates from Sandra’s life create a museum of contrasts, from free-flowing fun to brutal rape, from beautiful rooms to placards of denial & separation.   Krasnostein is clear that the bits challenge her, but understands that they can’t be judged individually, that without the context of an extraordinary life any assigned value is as shallow as the myopia that so many used in moments to castigate Sandra.

No one comes out unscarred.   No one can be forced to carry the weight of all the judgments and shaming they have endured through the years, be held down by blaming them for what they did to survive, struggling to get beyond the shattering residue of trauma, separation, disconnection, abuse and loneliness.   We are those wounds, yes, those broken moments in our lives, but we are also that healing, the way that we have turned and blossomed even in the face of disasters.

There are very few cuts & twists of a trans life, of a human life, that go untouched in Krasnostein’s masterly work.   That alone makes it worthy of study, of going back to explore knots and scars, letting us ponder and rehearse choices we could make differently.   None of those touched moments, though, are revealed without compassion for the needs that Sandra had in any moment, from moving away from those who loved her to putting up a facade that shielded her from the rejection a deep part of her had come to expect.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster,” is a book where trauma is laced with brilliance, where wounds are transcended by healing, and where darkness is overwhelmed with light.    These are, in the end, the lessons of Sandra’s relentless work to make as beautiful a life as possible, being of service and rising above all that could have sunk her.

Ms. Krasnostein has created a powerful, stimulating and delightful work, taking the best of Sandra Pankhurst and tempering it with wonder, wit and reverence.

If you care about any single thing I have written about in the past twelve years of this blog, you should read “The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster” and meet these two amazing women.

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Heart On

Who is a woman without someone to love?

I loved the people assigned to me, my birth family,  in ways that cost me dearly.   That love, though, was at the heart of my feminine nature.

And now, I need someone else, something else to love.   This time, though, when I am choosing, I want one different, one simple thing.

I need what I love to be able to love me back in a way that is affirming and empowering.   That’s something that my family could never manage, Aspergers and all.

To be seen, understood and valued for my unique gifts, well, that just shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?   Then again, I remember crying in the car coming north from Atlanta after my first Southern Comfort Conference in 1993 when Mary Chapin Carpenter came on the radio singing “Too Much To Expect, But Not Too Much To Ask.”

I know how lonely I am, how my voice is getting weak, rusty and faint.  But I also know how queer I am, how sharp and intense, how I challenge the healing and awareness of other humans who didn’t have to do the work I had to do to survive, to love.

Long ago I learned to make do with what I have and not strive for more, knowing that whatever my ego wants, trying to manipulate it into being will only make the results corrupt, friable and disappointing as it crumbles away when I try to put my not inconsiderable weight on it.

Now, I sleep a great deal, trying to dream, because in dreams I imagine details that I believe I never could create in everyday life. In dreams, my feminine and creative fancy flies far beyond the constraints of audience and defence that have bound and constrained me into the putative shape imposed on my body and mind. Yet, there is no place IRL to manifest that transcendence. so instead I sleep a great deal.

In my life, I could never imagine getting away with being high maintenance. Sleep on the bedroll and serve.  A human doing, not a human being.

My life has always been a tussle with the audience.   Nobody gets the joke, not the wit of a queer kid who speaks in Jonathan Winters tongues to explain existing in the Aspergers zone, not the compassion of a trans theologian outlining deep connections which challenge the dreams & assumptions of promised normative lives.

The choice is backing away from my so very hard won knowledge to be more conventional or learning to tolerate a hardscrabble life, one full of æsthetic denial.   I told the answer to that dilemma to the third shrink they sent me to, the one in eighth grade: I have to be myself.

I still pop into action when my remaining family needs help, but while they give what they can, they must focus on their own needs, cares and desires, not mine.   That’s the way of relationships; filling the holes that others have identified without being too, well, too too for their comfort.

Lack of love, though, reciprocated and replenishing love, has withered my own voice, my own capacity, my own energy.  The spiral grabs me and sucks me down, no love to renew, no renewal; no renewal no energy to seek love, no love.

My manifestation is not elegantly reduced to a simple, easy to understand, easy to digest appearance.   While I understand that this means people around me grab the bit that makes sense to them and erase the pieces that seem different, unexpected and queer, that erasure is still diffident and painful to me.   Would it be any less traumatic, though, if I did my own surgery, curating a fixed and finite appearance of my own selection?

No, I have to hold on to the rational construct that I am faceted, showing many faces that are then selected by the observer.   “Hello, I’m Callan, and the pronouns you use to refer to me tell me much more about you than about me.”

But seen I need to be, translucent and loved not just for what I can do for you in this moment, but for the way I have shaped and salvaged a self that stays functional in a world that did its damnedest to pound and erase me into a good marketing consumer, boxed and drawn like product to be sold, advertisers and employers understanding my value to their constrained & constricted vision.

As much as I want to connect this piece to other tales, threading a web which deepens understanding, I know that those pathways will virtually always go unexplored by readers on a schedule, their own goals & needs demanding they discard what seems to be just noise, without information that applies to their current question of mind.

Relationships take time & effort, but my years and energy have been sunk into playing small, playing all that the local traffic could tolerate.  Waste is left, huge piles of debris which holds the very stuff of my life, my deep, deep emotions encapsulated in crystal sharp thought, dressed in any turns of language which I prayed would make it charming, accessible and engaging.

These middens swamp me now as I live alone with them, my only company voices from a cheap device which read the debris of other humans, these, though, smoothed and shined by publishers who hope to share in rewards and revelations.

Where is the passion, the Eros, the love that can move me beyond this valley?   I spent a life giving love without return, burning my heart in an attempt to catch a bigger fire, one that would warm and illuminate me, burning away fears while melting together lives, releasing me from suppression & attenuation, opening my new growth like a forest fire pops open pine cones laden with new vitality.

I so need a heart on, a swelling blossom which unlocks and unleashes, but the vigour is gone, dried to dust which barely powers minimal exposure.

Because who is a woman without someone to love?

Moms and Moms

You can’t tell the mothers just by looking.   They reveal themselves in their choices.

I just read about the origins of cognitive therapy, where “Therapy may consist of testing the assumptions which one makes and looking for new information that could help shift the assumptions in a way that leads to different emotional or behavioral reactions.

To me, that sounds like what a mother does.   Mothers help growth by giving context. The rest is detail.

Sure, kids need to be fed and cleaned and kept warm, but that can be done even by bureaucrats.

The real grace of mothering comes from listening close enough to be present for learning, helping discover new and better ways to interact with the world.   That starts with understanding before language, meeting needs, offering challenges and pushing beyond in ways that are unspoken.

Communication is the foundation of human interaction.   Learning language, which includes not only mastering the symbols but also the concepts and strategies behind it, is the fundamental basic of living a human life.    We need to be able to learn from stories and to express who we are to fully participate in the possibilities society offers us.

One of the most difficult parts of learning is moving beyond the limited, flawed or fearful notions we already hold.  Unless you are willing to expose, test and change your beliefs, you will always be stuck.

Shifting the assumptions we hold is what cognitive therapists do.   It is also what good moms have always done.

I had to find a way to shift my own assumptions from a very early age in order to function in a family where both my parents were stuck in the tunnel vision that comes with an Aspergers mind.   Becoming a concept former was my solution, trying to understand beyond my current knowledge to become more effective and safe.

My nickname was “Stupid” for years because I questioned and challenged the standard assumptions rather than just making what was seen as the smart and easy choice to follow along with the conventional wisdom.   It was brutal treatment, but I knew the only way to hold onto myself and protect my siblings was to stand up for better, smarter, fairer and more loving.

In the assault that was my family, I learned to be manipulative, using any trick I could find to change viewpoints and get what I needed.   I was never devious or secretive — my goals were open and clear — but I was needy and pathetic.

Coming out helped me move beyond smallness and start listening.   Because I could read others, understanding their meanings, I could fight fair and fun, working to find common ground and common goals.   My deep thinking let me analyze situations and my snappy performance let me be entertaining as I led.   I could start by hearing, affirming and holding the truth of a life while also shining light on ways to expand it, a trick that many miss when they just want to ignore truth rather than growing it into transcendence.

Caring for my parents in the last decade of their life was just a continuation of being a caring, engage and loving cognitive therapist; being a mom.

I cared for my parents, even in ways they could not vocalize, like making sure my mother always had novelty and something to gripe about, and I helped my parents shift their understanding to make better choices, at least as far as I could.

When I finally ended up participating in a support group, the leader saw that I listened to participants in a unique way, then offering up not what they expected but rather bits of story that changed the context, moving past current assumptions to see in a new way, like a cognitive therapist, or a good mom.

Others have seen this, having their assumptions challenged over years to find a way to move beyond limiting behaviours to new ways that opened up hot new possibilities for them.   They were ready for change and I had the skills to help, something that is rare in a world where people only heal and grow in their own way and their own time.

What I lack, though, what I have always lacked, is a cognitive therapist who can see both my possibilities and my deeply held expectations to help me move beyond.   I need, as I have said so many times, someone who can give an affirming and encouraging “Yes!” to me, helping me let go of twists and trust my own shine.

What I lack is a good mom.   As much as I learned to care for myself and others, it’s impossible to be your own mom, moving beyond your own fears and experiences with affirmation and love.

It is nice to get a Mother’s Day gift from California and to have my sister offer to take me for a 50¢ Mother’s Day cone, to be seen as a mom by some who know my choices.

It is hard, though, to have lived a life without an affirming mom, to not have that mom voice deeply embedded in my head and in my heart.

I need it now, need to trust it, need to move beyond.   This week I have been scratching at the “Burden Of Remembrance” for the local Transgender Day Of Remembrance coming up in November, so I am very aware of the assumptions and expectations I have had to carry for so long, not just for myself but also for my community, my queer family.

Looking like a stereotypical mom is not something I can do.   Many just don’t know a mom when they hear one, and  others need to be focused on their own growth & healing more than helping oldsters.   That’s OK; I could never be a stereotypical mom, just cleaning & feeding.  I’m queer, which means helping individuals blossom and spread in a world that desperately needs to affirm the power of personal possibility.

It’s just that, well, sometimes, I need to believe beyond myself.   Yes.