Resisting Calling To the Point Of Self Destruction

The Private Story

What’s the opposite of life affirming?

Life denying?

Life erasing?

Life destroying?

Catharsis isn’t always healing.

That was a surprise to the people at Kripalu Yoga Center in the Berkshires who ran a bizarre mixture of Ashram Light and  “Inner Child” pop psychology called “Inner Quest Intensive.”

Luckily, though, they didn’t have to be all that surprised.  If you keep coming back to your beliefs, surprises can go away quickly, lost in the habits of your own dogma.

My sister doesn’t know what to do to help me, but she wanted to, really wanted to.   That’s why, after three demurrals, I got the hard sell for Inner Quest Intensive.

“It’s not for me,” I said.

“Body oriented process isn’t so useful for trannys, because we have an odd relationship with our bodies,” I said.

“Eastern religions want to break the ego, but then they have something they want to replace it with,”   I said.

“The men and the women sleep on the floor in different rooms.  Where do the trannys sleep?” I said.

“This group is too large, I will be invisible,” I said.

“No, No, No, No, No.” I was told.  “You always do this, judge things before they happen, and that cuts you out of so much.”

It turns out that I was right.  It was that bad.

And worse.

When you have less than 24 hours to gear up, things move fast.  Or at least they did until 5 PM when I was waiting in the parking lot for my driving partner, who had an unbreakable doctors appointment.

I knew that things were going to be odd.   Her partner had called my cellphone when I was driving down.  I asked what he wanted, and he wanted to chat.  I told him I was driving illegally and illegally using the cellphone, and that the phone had a high per minute cost.  He still wanted to chat.  I asked him to get to the point, and he decided that the connection was bad and hung up.

It was about 5:50 I found out what he wanted.  He wanted to tell me what was wrong with me, how I had been rude at his home, how I was “so smart that I am 10 steps ahead and that puts me two steps back,” how I had been talking to people about my reservations and that was a bad thing, how I hadn’t respected his partner, how I had been rude on the phone.  He had lots of things to tell me, it turns out, so I started repeating them back to him to tell him I heard them.

That just seemed to confuse him.  He wanted me to humble myself or to fight, not just to hear his words echoed back.  Maybe they even sounded harsh to him when I echoed them, in a way he couldn’t hear when he said them.  He wasn’t listening, didn’t want to engage me, so my mirror was disconcerting.

I had to make a choice.  To perform guy, I should just say “Fuck You” and drive off.  But that would be a disservice to his partner, who needed a hand.  I chose to, although he didn’t understand, perform woman, trusting that his indirect ravings were just an attempt to be protective about his partner.  I chose to let it pass, staying quiet.

“Look, he’s all quiet now, but he’ll start talking the minute you drive off,” he said, referring to me.  I shoulda decked him.  I shut up.

We ran into Kripalu, and then there was check-in.  They asked me for the payment.

I don’t have money.  I have medical debts, lots and lots of medical debts.  My sister was paying for this, and I assumed that was taken care of.

No, it wasn’t, he told me.

Me, and my crutches and my brace moved out of the building, looking for my sister, who was on another workshop this weekend.  I was loping along to where we passed her, trying to grab my cell phone and sweating.

The guy comes out, now a long way behind me.

“XXXXX!” he yells.  I don’t turn.  He yells that name a few times more, and I realize he’s calling me.  “We have the card in the record!  I didn’t see it!”

I lope back, now hot and bothered, late for the start, beaten up by a boyfriend and harassed by a clerk.

And then I get handed my name badge.  There it is, “XXXXX” right there.  God, that’s a name I don’t ever use anymore.  If I have to, I use my initals.  Gender Neutral, you know.

But my sister has made the reservation, and here I am, branded as XXXXX, on crutches in a Yoga center, smelling of body funk, and ready to sleep on the floor with the “other” men.

Could this get any worse?

Oh, yes, it could.

In the next moment, George pulls me aside, into a small office for a chat.

“Your friend called and said that you were transgender, and I want to know what you want us to do about that.”

God.  What did I want to do about that?

I knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to show myself as I know myself in the workshop, but between sex-segregated sleeping on the floor, 15 hours a day of togetherness, 3 minute showers in a shared bathroom and the injunction to surrender jewelry and makeup, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  There was no choice to present as I wished, and somehow, going as some androgynous creature in tights and a beard just didn’t cut it for me.

But now, now, now, now, this man, this earnest and nice man wanted to have a sensitive chat about what I wanted and needed.

I mumbled, I blathered, I said it would be fine.

He then lead me and my crutches up the stairs.  Not the elevator, but the stairs.  You see, they don’t get many handicapped people at a Yoga center. . . .

Could this get any worse?

You know the answer.

Her name is Aruni, and she was the workshop, the ever present voice at the front of the room.  She is a lesbian, and she knows that, but she is also butch, and that she doesn’t know.  She’s married to her partner, somehow, and is a parent because they have a dog.

This is a woman who thinks having a dog is the same as raising kids?  Yup.  That was the right answer for her, and it would be the right answer for us, those of us who were surrendering our illusion of control.   Right, surrendering our illusion of control to bolster her illusion of control.

I knew in a moment that my sister had lied, that this was what I expected.  She probably didn’t even know that when she did it, she just felt that it was important to say that I didn’t know everything.  That, of course, is the answer to so many things: What you say you know is blocking you, so you must be wrong.  You don’t really know what you know.

They did the ground rules.  The arrogance showed in the moment they told us what the “group agreement” was, which were the rules we had to follow, but never told us what their agreement was, what rules they would follow.

I was so peeved I crossed my “slave name” out on my name badge and wrote in my simple truth: “Resisting calling to the point of self-destruction.”

And then the music started, with Michael Jackson.  Was there really a need to play a song by someone whose lifestyle of abuse seems to overshadow his music?  Of course, though, no one on staff had actually been around the whole Michael Jackson mess this winter, they were on the yoga mat.

We got our taste after this: this was to be a weekend of horribly bad “Women’s Music.”  If it was sweet and sappy, and played by someone Tran, we were going to hear it.

They moved the gentlemen out of the women’s bedroom, and to our own site.  It was a cramped room full of yoga funk that sickened me.  I rolled out my mat, dropped my crutches and pulled the comforter up over my head, and then I did what I was to do all weekend: I sobbed.  Flat, quiet sobs, wracking my body, gracefully covered by my bedding, or so I hoped until the cover slipped and I saw everyone looking at me.

I was the guy on crutches and the one who was sobbing.  One staffer came up and asked me my name.  I said “No Comment.”  He asked if I needed something for the pain, and I told him it wasn’t physical.  He let me go.

Thankfully, that was only the first I saw of the kindness of the staff.  As volunteers, they were very caring, and very committed to safe space in a way I never saw from the person on the microphone.

I went quiet, and as a thunderstorm swept by the windows, I spent the night thinking and not sleeping.  I thought about how I have learned to resist my own fragility, how these people were missionaries, sure they were spreading the right answer rather than visionaries who lived in doubt.  I thought about my own knowledge, and how people were so quick to dismiss it, and I dreamed of death.  Lovely, comforting death, however it came, from drowning or electrocution or poison.  How could I die here?  I had already told my parents separately that if there was an accident, they shouldn’t feel sad about me.  How could there be an accident?

I comforted myself with thoughts of being beaten to death by a mob with baseball bats, the blows thudding against my flesh and breaking bones, opening up hemorrhages, the pain so sharp at the point of impact but turning to a dull roar as my battered body began to shut down, just accepting the powerful hits with the surrender of flesh.  In my mind, I saw myself blacking out, as a gurgled blood into my last breath.

That calmed me down some, and I got a bit of sleep.

Yoga the next morning, next to our rolled up bedding, was truly uncomfortable. I was without sleep, on a crutch, and was one of the 23 gentlemen that they were honored to have here.  I was here, I was out and I was in, I was messy and disconnected, and these people really believed that by entering my body, I would find catharsis that lead to healing.

Healing, though, takes resolution.

Much of the work was in dyads with a kind of silent listening to the drone of Aruni on the mic, the ever-present drone of this lesbian who had been here since the beginning and knew the answers.

I had to sit across from the guy who slept though Yoga as he told me that his deepest and most vital feelings were about being tired.   The questions were expository, and I thought, well, now or never.  In my second time to talk, I disclosed my trans nature.

That’s when of course, he raised his knees up and started to hug them close to his body.  “This is safe space because we say it is,” they kept saying.  Is that really all it takes?

The next question I was asked was simple: “If you could trust the knowledge in your heart, how would you honor it this weekend?”  I knew damn well what the knowledge was.  I knew how to honor it.  I got up and left the room.

Nicholas came out, the men’s Yoga instructor, and sat with me.  We talked about the challenges, the sobbing, the getting there, the whole thing.  I finally felt heard, at least a little bit, and I went back in. I sat on the floor in my backjack and sobbed.  I was getting good at this whole sobbing thing.

My sister paid what I considered big bucks for this workshop.  Could I really bail?

I could even if they did take the car keys.  But I knew that my failure could easily be seen not as a triumph of me knowing what was good for me, but a failure to have an open heart and an open mind.  This was hell and didn’t feel healing to me, but I was in the judgment of others.  To leave was to fail them, so I had to prove that they were wrong by trying.

This is, of course, a classic trans phenomenon.  One young tranny was afraid the Clarke would deny her funding for surgery because she had failed so many times — her mother had put her into foster care, she had been in juvenile hall and more.  It turned out, of course, she was the perfect candidate because all the other possibilities had failed.  Trans expression was the last resort, the last step before certain death, and that is the only way it can be true.

So now, I had to commit, to do my best, and prove that it wasn’t my failure to try that was the problem, it was the system that failed me.  I couldn’t check out on them, they had to check out on me.

I sat though the workshops, and continued to be erased in so many ways by the assumptions of normativity.  We were all men or women, right?  And when we read the grace at meals, beans and rice only, we affirmed that we created this body for ourselves.  Not a creation myth that transpeople tend to choose.

To me, hell is a place where people trying to be nice erase and destroy you.  It’s easy when evil people come after you, because you can hate them.  Its hard when well intentioned people erase and destroy you in their attempt to be loving.  You can’t fight them and you can’t let them kill you.  That is, of course, the issue with my family, and it was the issue at Kripalu.  Nobody wanted to destroy me, but they really believed if I just worked their system to move away from the wacky mind and into the knowledge of the body, I would be healthier.

The mind was the problem and the body the answer.  I thought about where I would rather be, on the set of the brain-centric Charlie Rose show or the body-centric Jerry Springer show, and I knew that I didn’t agree.  To heal takes discipline, and that can only be done using the mind, which can understand that even as we stay in the moment we have to make choices that aren’t about this moment, but about seeing a context, moment after moment, and what will serve ourselves and our world.

It wasn’t working.  I felt erased  By the end of the day, I grabbed one of the sick on nametags and plastered it over my issued tag.  I stuck it on, but I left it blank.  Just call me crutches, thank you, my hallmark  feature in a world where half the people were yoga instructors doing their required training.

The time wore on, and it was time for the men to leave, and me with them.  We entered our room and saw candles set on the floor.  I sat and was told that we were going to do men’s circle.  I sat though one speaker, and then I got up and left. This wasn’t a place for me.

I went to the big carpeted studio next door, took a pillow and went to sleep, me on the big dark floor, my crutches next to me.

Nicholas came and woke me gently, and we talked about the day a bit, his grace helping.  I was willing to stay there, but he led me to a room reserved for challenges, and offered me a bed.  I took it.

I slept, alone.

It was the next day that the biggest crash happened.

We were to lie on the floor, and feel the truth in our body.  My partner was originally going to be the guy who tightened up when I disclosed, but I passed on him.  I got Dan, the good staffer that I said “No Comment” to and whose body was broken in some way, waking with a cane.

We were to feel our body, from the toes up and deal with body memories as we lay on our backs, ear-to-ear.  I was choosing not to go into my history, to talk about, for example, how my feet feel better in heels, how they want cute shoes.  Still, I was getting crap from the front.  “Women,” Aruni said, “think about when you first shaved your legs.  Or men, you can think about the first time you did.”  Ah, yes, there was that choice.  Women, Men and . . . .  nothing.

It was the genitals that got me.  It’s puberty that kills trannys.  Before that you can go to bed and wish you would wake up different, but after puberty does it’s work, you know that’s never going to happen.  My inner sexual life is open now, and there I am always a woman, but I know how that doesn’t and never really can match my outer body.  I have never been and am never going to be Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbes in Sex And The City) in this lifetime, no matter how much I want it or feel that kind of energy in me.

I started sobbing, big dry sobs, wrenching cataclysmic sobs, but in silence so as to respect the experience of others.  I felt my mouth dry and I wondered if I could open up the back of my throat in a way that would choke myself, to die right there on the floor.  I sobbed and I sobbed and I sobbed.  Jennifer came and sat near me, as I realized later, and when Aruni said that there was a gift for us on our right side, a gift that would allow us to see who we really are, I knew what it was.

Jennifer said  “Your mirror is right here” and I gasped “I knew it was a mirror, and I refuse.”    The sobs got stronger and she expressed concern, so I turned to her, stopped sobbing and said “I can stop right now if you want.”  She was surprised at my control, but energy and body control is something trannys have to have – that denial and disconnection from feeling was an easy trick in my mind.

I sobbed and I sobbed and Dan came over.  “XXXXX, is there something you want to tell me?”

I knew he was being kind, so I kept my eyes closed and choked out “I have told others here that I am trans-identified.  We have a different relationship with our bodies.  We often feel betrayed by them.”

“Are you saying you feel betrayed by us?”

“No, I only feel erased by your assumptions of normativity.  I feel betrayed by my body.”

He touched my shoulder and I went on sobbing.  It seemed like forever, but it was probably only about 25 minutes, though an entire nap session for the group.

As I came back, my head light and swimming, my mouth dry and raw, Jennifer asked if I wanted to talk.  I tried, but when she asked me if I had community like she saw the weekend before in Ft. Lauderdale, I knew she didn’t get it.  “LGBT is not the same thing,” I said, as she was loving but blank.

“Look, I am here,” she said.  “You can talk to me.  What do you want to be called?”  I told her.  I said the word “Callan.”

The day passed.  I gave up a bowl of rice for some sleep, and then got called back into the meditation and the session on the works of that great spiritual healer, the one who wrote “If You Can Feel It, You Can Heal It,” Mr. John Gray, the author of such notable books as “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”

We were going down the feelings iceberg, we were told, deeper and deeper, staring with anger, moving through fear and resentment, down past unfulfilled needs and to understanding, forgiveness and gratitude.

In my group, I got to be the father of two women, one a dead alcoholic and the other a cruel bastard.  Added to the battering husband and distant father I had been already, I felt rather challenged.  I did take  a moment to check in with Nicholas, and he got the point immediately — in a world, especially a world of women, it’s easy to get typecast as all the other men in their lives.   Still, in saying people had to be cast cross gender in these things — with three people in each group, there was no two gender combination that allowed everyone to have a male as dad and a female as mom.  When she said “We in this room are past gender,” she said it twice, and I took it as an attempt at a message, but one without much weight.

I did my interactions without being explicit.  For me, the most interesting thing was that the “healing” which was to exist deep at the bottom of the “iceberg” was the hardest part.  My anger is around being the one who always is the one who has to hold the understanding, forgiveness and gratitude while others avoid the healing.  It’s all topsy turvy for me, but how can holding the healing be at the center of my pain?  It’s easy, oh so easy, for someone who learned early that they had to be the healer to get others beyond kicking with their own power.  “Stupid” was my nickname in my family until I was 13, when it became “Stupid, Oh The Shrink Told Us Not To Call You That.”

After I did my piece, I did disclose to my triad.  “I am trans-identified, that’s the challenge not seen,” I said.  That went by them so fast that one even thanked me later, saying “There are few men as gracious and connected as this gentleman,” too which I could only reply “Well, there are reasons for that.”

After a blind-walk where a Japanese woman tried to lead me up a wet slope and I felt on my ass, filling my brace with mud, the day ended in a frenzy of inner child joy, or at least the kind of inner child joy that was experienced by a nascent lesbian sent to Girl Scout camp.  We got to take bits of paper with animals on them and make the sound of that animal to find our group, and then dance to more banal dyke music.    These were people who really believe that their path to healing is the path for everyone, the missionaries.

Me?  I was more and more sure this wasn’t the place for me, not this chapel and not this world.  I continued to slip away.

Nicholas asked me about where I would sleep, and I notice he called me Callan.  He had heard though the grapevine, and I was honored.

I’d stay, try another day.

I didn’t start sobbing again until next morning in Yoga.   I sat though the meditation, but I then looked to find Jennifer.

“I don’t know if I am more sick of sobbing or not sobbing,” I said, a profound statement about my life that wasn’t heard.  But I sobbed anyway, and Jennifer didn’t know what to do.

“Can you try to do the work, say what you want to say to your child?”

OK, OK.  In came Neil, a very tall and very handsome young man in his white Yoga clothes, the uniform of the staff.  I thought, well, just go.

I did my work, telling my inner child to run, to do what she could while she was still young enough to be pretty, strong enough to be resilient and naive enough to enthusiastic.

I felt bad because I pulled this guy from his work, but when he went on a tear at a distant father, I could see it was valuable.  He told me that he had work to do later, and it turns out that he had to do the next demo when he had to speak to his father.

He thanked me, told me I was the perfect person for him to do this with.  He told me how brave I was.  God, I hate that.  It’s a way to separate ourselves from others: you are the brave one.  It’s good to be affirmed in brave choices, but the moment we become the poster child for bravery, we are disconnected. Aruni did this to a woman who has metastases cancer, telling her how brave she was, and what an inspiration at the end, in front of the group.  I went up to her later and hugged her and told her I would be praying for her. I said that I always hated being called brave, but that I thought her choice to claim life while she had it was great.  “After all, we are all  dying, you just have a better idea about the schedule, so we all have to make the choice to live life while we have it or not,” I said.  She smiled and agreed.

As we came into the last night, there was some sharing.  I made a joke with Nicholas about my sharing, and he encouraged me to do it

I went back to my little room, got some sleep, and when I woke at 5:30 I pulled out a pen and started writing.  What would I say to this group?  Could I say it in the 90 second soundbytes that seem to be the only way available?

You may know me as the one with the crutch, but as the staff has come to know, this weekend is very interesting and challenging for me because I come from a very different healing tradition.  Like any healing tradition the goal is to "come together or unite,"  the definition of Yoga, and "the highest form of practice is observing the self without judgment," as Yogi Kripalu taught you.  Our focus, though, is on moving through those walls of illusion that separate "them" from "us," moving though the walls between one world and the next, between this world and the underworlds.
The Kripalu tradition is represented in India by the Yogis, but my tradition is represented by the Hejra, those who honor and connect with divinity by walking though the walls of illusion that seem to separate men from women.

Anthropologists tell us that the tradition that those who walk between sexes & gender roles also walk between worlds has been found in almost every native culture at almost every time.  These shamans seem to have played an important role in the success of the group because otherwise they would have been bred out over generations. But we still exist, are still born even in modern western cultures which do not value these traditions.

"In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity” said anthropologist Anne Bolin. We know that even today priests still wear dresses and many holy people are androgynous.

My tradition is different because we believe not just in the truth of the body, but in the truth of the spirit.  For me, I don't ground in the mother earth, but  in mother moon, taking a celestial look at connections beyond history and biology.

When you study it you will find that my healing tradition of the shamans who cross worlds, even the world of men and women to remind us all is connected even if we see separations that comfort or scare us, is rich and long.  In this culture today, though, my healing tradition has been lost, been erased and devalued.  Those who hold this calling are seen not as those with a gift to be developed and nurtured, but as those with a mistake that needs to be corrected or erased.  

In this weekend we have spoken a great deal about how the magical knowledge we had as kids has been erased and damaged, but it cannot be destroyed.   For those of us who are transgender identified that knowledge is pounded out of us by a system of gender that tells us there are only two ways to be, and that the fact of our genitals has determined our life, not the fact of our spirit.  

Everyone feels the pressure of gender but only a few so acutely that we have to walk though the no man's/no woman's land that separates our human hearts.
I was talking about the issue of being out, where and when and how we choose to expose ourselves.  I said that the issue to me was not to be out or to be in, but to be wild and tame.  Where are we tame enough to fit in, to be appropriate, to honor the space, and where are we wild enough to stand out, to be bold, to honor the spirit?

This isn't just an issue for transgender identified people, it is a challenge for all of us in this world,  It's just that those bold enough to be more fully themselves can open the space for others to follow, trusting and showing their hearts rather than following along to feel hidden and obedient.

My regret here is that I don't have my vestments with me, that I can't show you beyond the words of my traditions to more of my practice, my personal practice is also in my words and in the healing heart I always bring with me.

I ask of you one thing: to always be as tender with those who have this challenging gift of a heart that crosses sex and gender boundaries as the staff here has been with me.  To have your heart pounded and erased because people see only your body is very painful, and few of us have the time and the energy to do the work to find our own individual spiritual practice.  

The trans road, like the road of any shaman, is one that is very personal, moving you away from the group to a personal journey, and in this world where we want to believe that things are either sexual or they are not, entering the Eros of our heart even when that challenges the expectations placed on our body can be very, very difficult.  We learn to hide behind masks, even those of transsexuality, drag and cross-dressing.  Making ourselves manifest in a way that allows us to be present with ourselves feels dangerous.

I have sobbed for the energy blockages here, cried deeply, but my challenge has always been how to live authentically in a world that has little place left open for people like me.  That is far from a simple challenge for any of us, even though those open hearted enough to be called here to Kripalu.

You are here as healers, and I thank you for being here and creating a space where spiritual paths can cross and where we can share the knowledge and tenderness we have opened to others.  It is truly a gift, and I accept it with gratitude.

I hope that you will accept the gifts of people like me as you continue in your journey, knowing that what you open to and affirm to others, even others called to another path, is what you open to and affirm in yourself.

The road to enlightenment leads right past gender, but it always by finding the safety, inside or outside, to be wild enough to express our authentic self that we take another step.

Thank you for being here and being with me.

Any questions?

I gave this to Nicholas after Yoga this morning, telling him its what I would say.  He suggested that I share with the group, and I said I would be willing to do that, but that he should read it first.

He really believed I should share, but I really knew my sharing was too long and too far off the agenda to fit into Aruni’s vision.

I went into the big room found a marker, and wrote “Callan” on  my nametag.  I thought about this process — being given a family name, scratching it out, leaving the space blank and then claiming a name, and reflected how this was my life.

I did the session in the morning, what we would say to our inner child, and the piece about being connected to Moon Mother made sense.  We may all have the same father, but some of us are children of the earth and a few of us children of the moon, and some children of other places.  We are here together because we are all children, with learning and work to do, and it’s OK that we have different mothers, different traditions, a different heritage.

I had done the work they asked of me, all that catharsis, but even as the session was winding down, I knew that catharsis wasn’t always healing unless resolutions could come, that simply feeling it can’t heal what keeps getting pounded by a system that wants to make us disappear.  I knew the map of scars across my body and soul, but these were people who could not read that map, and that meant only one thing — the odds are I would get more scars.

It didn’t take long.

Aruni did the piece where they talk about what you can do at home.  Everyone talked body, no body talked about creation.  Near the end I raised my hand, and I sensed some resistance to call on me.  I wanted to say that you have to expose yourself to see yourself, that you have to make art and watch it.

I did get called on, me with my big new nametag, and when she addressed me for the first time in the session, Aruni said “XXXXX?”

Bang.   I got out the start of my piece before she grabbed it quickly and took back control, seemingly relieved that the shit didn’t hit the fan.

There it was, the cycle of the name tag back to center, the “real truth” erasing me even in this space that was “safe because we say it is.”

I had one little treat, though.  Some guy had mentioned the men’s circle, and Aruni felt the need to apologize for this secret meeting that Nicholas hosted, saying that this space was feminine.   She then went on to honor the men with “all she knew about men,” proceeding to grunt like on Home Improvement.  At the end, when Aruni was getting her love pats, the men started grunting as she had, and you could see Aruni start to tense up, and George had to quickly ask for a nice om to stop the masculine power from shaking our leader in safe space.

Needless to say, nobody asked me to speak.  When the meeting broke, I got my manuscript back from Nicholas, who said “Being a shaman is a hard path.”

“No shit,” I said  “But I didn’t choose it.”

“Yeah.  When I read the scriptures, I see those chosen by God often had a very hard time.  Do you have support?”

“There aren’t many of us, but I have found a few.  Its all I can hope for.”

“Do you draw?”  Nicholas asked me


“You should try.  Your pen on the paper, you are close.  And read about the moon in Yoga,”

“I will,” I replied.  “Thanks.  You know, don’t you, that Aruni calling me that name was very visceral to me, very strong.  I don’t think it was intentional, but it felt bad.”

“I know.  I felt it.”

I thanked him, threw away the evaluation and went to the cafe where I could get Potato Vegetable Hash.  My sister came in, from the other program and heard me telling a friend about the messes in the program.  I felt badly, but as we left, some people from the session engaged me, and I talked about my experience, and as they agreed with me, she started to believe it wasn’t all my stuff.

We went out and a group of people saw me, the one with the crutches.  and they shouted “Goodbye!  Goodbye XXXXX!”

“That was nice,” she said.

“They got the name wrong,” I said.

“Yes, but they appreciated you, and that should be enough.”

Yeah, maybe it should, but as I took off the name badge, I looked again at what I wrote that first night.

“Resisting Calling To the Point Of Self Destruction.”

Catharsis is not always healing.

In fact sometimes, when it’s in a place where people know that their answers are the only right ones, it’s downright life destroying.

Yeah, that’s the opposite of life affirming.

June 12

It’s been a week to relive Kripalu.

On Tuesday, Scientific American Frontiers had a program on stress. When they started showing the relaxation exercises, the yoga based breathing and such, my heart began to pound in a very scary way. I turned off the TV and tried to enter the breath – there is always the breath as Swami Kripalu told us. As I did, the pounding got worse, and my even as I tried to deepen my breath it turned faster and more shallow, the anxiety rising like a skyrocket.

I remembered the old science fiction story about the copy writer who took an overdose of the chemical in joy gum when he was testing it, and was now allergic to it while the rest of the world chewed away and got so mellow that inertia set in, while he had to watch.   The good stuff turned to poison because of a bad reaction. Yeah.

On Thursday, I told Zoe part of the Kripalu story. Interestingly, it is only the second time I told the story out loud. The first was when I sat in on Karen’s session with Pastor Bob, helping her explain her experience. The phone rang and I didn’t get to finish the story, ending it with “. . . and then it got worse.”

Every other time I told the story was not with breath, but with fingers, typing text into a text editor or chat window. That’s the way to capture feelings, not to feel them.

Today, Saturday, I was thinking about what I had told Zoe, putting together the conversation we had about “Inner Quest Intensive” at Kripalu, stories about being offered a cookie as reward, being read children’s books badly, and being offered stuffed animals for bedtime, and the conversation we had about her history with the Roman Catholic Church. We spoke of how the church infantilizes both church members and clergy to keep centralized control, to be always in the role of parent to children ready to follow.

Of course, it clicked to me, infantalizing their followers is exactly what Kripalu set out to do in “Inner Quest Intensive.” Take them back to their childhood and re-parent them in the proper Kripalu style. They wanted me (and the rest of us) to be children, removed from our own choices and placed into theirs.

The power was always at the head of the room, sitting on the guru bench surrounded by flowers and plants. We were always on the floor in front, gathered like children awaiting a story.

I’m sure they didn’t think they wanted to infantilize people in order to remove adult critical thinking and gain power. I’m sure that they believe that by forcing people to face their childhood they could reconsider how they face things as adults. Of course, the people in the Roman Catholic Church don’t think they infantilize for power and control, either.

For me, though, as I drove today, I thought about how they worked to keep me silenced in the session so they could not be challenged, how they really wanted to me to deny my hard won adulthood in favor of their responsibility-relieving feel good childhood.

This all sounds like an intellectual treatise, but like the pounding heart triggered by someone telling Alan Alda to enter the breath, it triggers a very visceral response in me. I want to take those fuckers and not be nice and appropriate, but take them apart rationalization by rationalization, power game by power game. Kathy believed that the good thing about Kripalu was that it gave me something to push against, but instead, it gave me someone who had an entire context set up to dis-empower and inhibit the strength in individuals, replacing it with the cookie cutter solutions of the faith.

The Public Story

Kripalu Center Inner Quest Intensive

1-4 May 2003

Callan Williams, © 2003, All Rights Reserved

If you want to run a cool spook-house, you need a cool place to do it. And an old seminary that sits alone, high on a hill in the picturesque Berkshires, overlooking a lake is perfect. It soars just like what it was built to be, a 1950’s era Jesuit seminary made to take men out of the world and remold them. The building replaced a previous mansion that fell to flames, and with its fireproof concrete and rigid lines, it could help create warriors to save a world from the flames of hell.

Today, it serves a very different purpose. It’s the world headquarters of the Kripalu Yoga fellowship. Kripalu moved in 1983, 13 years after the Jesuits moved out. They came with a guru, but due to some indiscretions he left in 1994, and today they pride themselves on being the first ashram started on a guru-disciple model to “transition to a new paradigm of spiritual education.” According to their website, “Kripalu honors all traditional and contemporary spiritual teachings that support the individual’s direct experience of Spirit.”

Inner Quest Intensive, is the flagship program, a weekend seminar required as part of the certification as a Kripalu Yoga Instructor. IQI, as it is called, dates back to the early days before the paradigm changed, and that makes it one of the programs, if not the program that is at the core of the Kripalu experience. It is a ritual where Kripalu people bond in the sacred traditions of the place, one that must be passed through to achieve true Kripalu-ness.

The central elements of this peculiar chamber of horrors is an odd mix of faux Ashram life and 80s style Inner Child work, all wrapped up in the synthetic experience of Girl Scout Camp. Just like any hazing, the older campers come back as volunteers to help take the staff take the new crop through the essential rituals, to assist in the sacred and secret initiation rituals, all designed to take you out of the everyday and confront you with the biggest scariest monsters of your life: your family. If this can’t convince you that with solidarity in Kripalu you are now strong enough to face them, nothing will.

Like any program that wants to take you out of the habitual to break down the individual ego, from brain washing to rushing a frat, they have something with which they want to replace the old you. In this case, though, it’s a mush of liberal new-age ideals that offer little more than a temporary high, with the illusion of a simulated community which can help you though an emotional roller coaster of their own creation.

The mechanics of the four-day workshop, which starts Thursday evening and ends after noon on Sunday, are the essence of faux Ashram. Much like entering a jail, your personal belongings are taken from you and locked away – watch, car keys, wedding ring, cell phone and so on.

Clocks are covered and you are told that you have no time, and this is to take away your illusion of control. Your illusion of control may be weakened, but, of course it also solidifies the staff’s illusion of their control, solidify the belief that they know all the right answers and have all the tools that will help – a belief they would be more than happy to have you join them in.

You are sheparded about at all times, to the sleeping quarters (women sleep in the soaring brick and concrete main chapel where the session are held, men down the hall in another yoga room) and to the meals. Food is are ascetic to say the least – rice and broth and oatmeal and fruit in at the first meal, rice and beans and salad at all other meals, served with hot or cold water, chamomile or peppermint tea bags.

Day starts around 5:30 with rolling up sleeping mats, half the group catching an instant shower, and a yoga session. It continues with sessions until about 10:30, when the meal can be served, because the “aliens” as at least one person in another workshop called us (they are always hidden!) can only eat after others have been pushed out of the dining chapel.

Like any good Masonic or neo-Pagan ritual, the intimation is that the rituals to be taught are shrouded in antiquity, in the five thousand years of Vedic teachings that Yogi Kripalu passed onto this community, but once you find that the most scared text is pop-psychologist John Gray first (1993) book “What You Can Feel, You Can Heal: A Guide To Enriching Relationships,” you know that’s not true. “Let’s go down the iceberg of healing!” – certainly not an image the southern Indian Vedic traditions would have embraced.

The core tool, the central mirror in the funhouse, is the “dyad” where two people sit across from each other (on the floor, of course – the floor and “back-jacks” are the standard) and speak in turn, one speaking and the other intended to remain impassive and non-responsive. This technique is at the heart of the sessions because it allows the feeling of therapy without any real engagement, without the danger of people acting in ways that might not be good.

“The container is strong enough to take it,” say the assistants, and it is because the container is designed to defuse any but inner conflicts, to dump problems back onto the individuals. Like any boot camp, there is no room for challenge or debate, no room for questions or doubts. The true answers are in front of you, and if you can’t get it, the only choice is to, in the Kripalu vernacular, “Check Out,” leave the program. If you fail, it is your checking out on them, not the program’s failure to address you.

The person at the heart of the workshop for the last few years is “Aruni” Nan Futuronsky, one of the original Kripalu people who is now a director of programs. Futuronsky, who regularly describes herself as an ex-high school teacher, is an out lesbian woman, “married” to another woman, who also leads Kripalu’s “Lavender Spirituality” series.

It’s Nan’s particular viewpoint that shapes “Inner Quest Intensive” to be what it is. From her banal and thoughtless choice of music, including Michael Jackson (who might well upset some who have been abused in their lives) to Cris Williamson (a lesbian who refuses to allow trans people into her shows), to her incessant and endless amplified patter (even while you are trying to bring the focus inside, as when you are doing bodywork), Futuronsky defines the workshop. She qvells over the title of the decade old John Gray book at the heart of the curriculum – “Brilliant! If I could write a book with a title that good!” – never seeming to know that it is a phrase Louise Hay used in her ground-breaking book “You Can Heal Your Life” a decade before. Still, its easy to gloss over so much if you know that there is no way people can challenge you without “checking out.”

Futuronsky’s sweeping Kripalu definitions of truth can easily leave people and priorities in the cold. She asked if any people were parents, and then included herself in that because she and her partner have a dog. For a friend, who was less than a month beyond losing a child, this was not sensitive. When it was revealed that the men had their own circle in the evenings, Futuronsky felt the obligation to make excuses, brag about what the women had (a harp) and grunt, saying that was all she knew about men. In a perfect circle, in the goodbye ritual, which contains a special time for Futuronsky to get her strokes, the men started grunting in unison, and when the facility manager saw how the grunting spooked Nan, he quickly called for a sustained “om.”

It may well be true that lesbians who have a sexual awakening at Girl Scout camp fetish it forever. Futuronsky admitted that at least one of her exercises, where you get a slip of paper and have to make the noise that farm animal makes so you can find others who have the same animal, where then you have to be the animal with them was learned at Girl Scout camp. Certainly many of the other “reward” exercises, where you were asked to find a “bunkmate” and share notes from your childhood – most yukky food, best food, biggest prank – or were eventually rewarded on the last night with a cookie from an “angel”, could come directly out of the camp leader’s handbook.

Is inner child work the most effective therapeutic technique around? Today, even few pop-psychologists still carry on the inner child tradition, having found that while it indulges pain and victimization, it doesn’t provide an effective base for change. Now, the intent is to help people focus on possibility and reflection, not just indulgence.

For most of the people at Inner Quest Intensive, it was exactly what it was designed to be: a feel good experience. As body centered yoga teachers in a fast world, they hadn’t taken much time to examine their own lives on any level, let alone a sustained three days. For them, this is a revelatory and exciting feel-good experience, often so much so that they want to come back. Of course, the program is designed to create that bonding experience without any of the mess of community – the injunction to social silence means that difference & conflict are made invisible while shared hardships are very visible. It feels like you have shared in dyads, but with no real feedback, has any real sharing happened?

There were cracks, of course. The men talked about how shallow the workshop felt, how bad the music was, and even about how people facing challenges, like metastasized cancer or the suicide of their son seemed to be given short shrift by the relentless feel good attitude that deflected hard challenges into instant courage, allowing a pat on the back to replace real compassion. Not engaging real and messy challenges has always been a key to maintaining orthodoxy.

My own personal experience at Inner Quest Intensive was unique. I am transgender-identified, and went not because I thought it would be good, but because my sister thought it would help me find my footing by seeing that a community of people could appreciate my gifts. It was instantly obvious to me that a sex segregated workshop with no personal time would not allow me to express my transgender nature with the standard symbols. Add to that the fact that my sister used my family issued name on the name tag, and things got odd. I spent the first night in the men’s room sobbing, and things got worse from there.

In addition, I have a sysdesmotic screw in my ankle to help fuse the bone to replace the ligament I tore on the ice, so I was in a brace and crutches. I could tell people at Kripalu weren’t used to dealing with people on crutches when the George, the facilities manager, led me up the stairs rather than up the elevator after pulling me aside for a little chat, triggered by a call from a concerned friend who also took the workshop, but ended up “checking out.”

Luckily for me, Nicholas, the one who led the men off to bed (and their secret men’s circle, started a few years to give time and space that respected men since the main meeting didn’t) and woke them with yoga, embodied compassion and understanding. He made it easy for me by finding me another bed, listening to a complaint or two, and reading the statement I would have made to the group.   He first encouraged me to share it, but after reading and consultation with other staff, they chose not to have me share. I was not surprised. With up to 75 people in every session, the sessions are inherently automated, and the assumptions of normativity tend to cover the real challenges that people are having.

I did raise my hand to share in one of the last sessions. Futuronsky had asked about what people could do after they left, and people were coming up with ideas like gardening and yoga, but one were choosing emotional or mentally reflective activities like journaling. Futuronsky did offer therapy and recovery programs (her tradition), but when I raised my hand, she pointedly called me by my family name rather than what was on my nametag, and held her breath while I spoke. I suggested that people need to expose themselves to see themselves, and said that I need to listen to advice I give to others, because I usually need to hear it. I was going to go on to say that making art was one of the best ways to expose yourself, but she cut me off cold, and my contribution was over.

My personal experience of being in a body centered culture, where the blessing we were forced to read before dinner said “I chose this body,” where the mind was denigrated as wacky, and where we were told to look in a hand mirror and see our true self – our body, was a sense of abuse. I went though the body memory exercise and sobbed for a long time, but for me sobbing was constant and deep.

While the dogma said that my sobbing released energy blocks in my body, I felt that the sobbing was from the kind of erasure I was experiencing in their own doctrine. When we went around the circle and gave a four-word summary of our experience, mine was simple: “Catharsis is not always healing.” This is the lesson that has caused many psychologists to leave using inner child work – feelings released without any way to empower change can be burdens to carry rather than burdens shed. In fact, studies of holocaust survivors have shown that many who did not relive their experience were happier and more successful than those who indulged the abuse and pain.

Unfortunately, those who believe in victimization, who think we need to face our father and mother in projection, entering the abuse, really do believe that catharsis is always healing. But many have learned that reliving emotional trauma is an easy way to create emotional rollercoaster in a new-age amusement park, ups and downs that are thrilling but that eventually leave us feeling good and strong, like we have survived something dangerous when it was no more risky than riding Disney’s Space Mountain. We are end up right where we started, but with a buzz that keeps many coming back for more.

At the end of the weekend, Nicholas wanted me to know that they really cared about follow-up, and said that Futuronsky’s e-mail address was in the packet they offered. How he ever could feel that I would see Futuronsky as safe space is beyond my understanding. I did have a friend come up from the city three days after I left Kripalu because she was afraid that I was even more self-destructive than when I went to the workshop, which was true.

The packet also included guidelines about how to communicate about the workshop, because they found that giving the specifics of what happened in the sessions “didn’t capture the experience.” The catalogue is vague about the content of the workshop, and I am sure they prefer it that way, just the same as the kids who run the Halloween Spook House at the mall don’t want you spilling the secret that the guts are just pasta in red jello.  I didn’t bother to pick up the packet to learn how I should behave and speak from here on out.

As someone who is string in their own beliefs, which are not body centered, who is transgender identified and who was handicapped, my personal experience of Inner Quest Intensive was very, very negative.

Kripalu is selling their own brand of enlightenment, and since they have been successful at it, why change? It seemed obvious to me that Futuronsky has not been out and about finding newer and more effective techniques, but is comfortable in giving a classic Kripalu experience, ersatz community, body without mind, bad music and all.

“Kripalu” and “Kripalu DansKinetics” are
registered trademarks of the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship.


Too Much Is Not Enough

Too Much Is Not Enough

by: Callan Williams

You know what’s a sin?

People who think they can look at someone and tell if they are a sinner. In the end, that judgment is up to God and God alone.

All we mortals can do is to determine who is dangerous to the social order. Sometimes that’s easy — we know that people who have murdered others are dangerous and need to be dealt with — and sometimes that’s very hard. Are homosexual people dangerous to the social order? Should they be “dealt with?”

It’s one thing looking at someone’s actions against another to determine who is dangerous. People who physically harm others without consent or people who take property without informed consent should be looked at for danger. That’s what a trial does — uses a set of laws to determine who is guilty and how they should be punished.

It’s another thing altogether when we look at someone’s character to determine if they are dangerous, but that’s what so many people do. We look at another to make the most common judgment people make: Where is this person too much, and where are they not enough?

Think about it. “Too much” and “not enough” is the basis of most judgments that humans make. “Well, they are just too rude, too dramatic, too quiet, too rich. They need to be more civil, more appropriate, more vocal, more humble.”

“Too much” and “not enough” is the where we set the bounds of community. “To be one of us, you can’t be too much this or not enough that, so you better change to meet our expectations or be shunned and shamed.” It doesn’t matter if the community believes in fundamentalist Christian values or radical activist values, the judgment is always the same: “How is this person too much, how are they not enough?”

The arrogance of that judgment, though, is when you decide that people who are “too much” or “not enough” for your tastes are sinners. This has always been the tool of religious repression, be it the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Crusaders who rode into Jerusalem. “They are not enough like me, too much like who I choose to hate, so they are sinners, and my God gives me the right to smite them.”

The laws of the country are not meant to punish sin. The laws of this country are not even meant to enforce morality. They are meant to maintain social order, nothing more, nothing less. For many believers who want the world to be more like what they wish it to be, this seems like a bad idea. After all, shouldn’t we be shaping morality though every means possible? It seems like a bad idea, of course, until they see a country where laws are designed to enforce morality and punish sin, and people like them are being prosecuted and persecuted for their own choices. Some don’t get this lesson. They think their beliefs are the only right ones, and as long as people like them make the choices, everything will be OK. We can only hope they figure out that whoever is in power there has the same belief. Conservatives who say “Get the government out of my bedroom, and get it into theirs,” are not conservatives at all, they are moralists plain and simple.

This is not to say that morality is not required in a democracy. In fact, morality is at the heart of democracy, even more than laws. Laws are only the backstop to catch those people who have harmed others, not the rules for appropriate behavior. If laws are the only controls, what you have is a police state and not a democracy, and that is something few of us want.

Can you look at someone and judge whether they are a sinner? You may be able to judge that they have participated in acts you think are sinful, but they may consider that you have participated in acts they think are sinful, maybe even according to their reading of the same scripture. Poly-cotton blends may just be unholy, you know. You can’t however determine they are a sinner — only God holds that privilege.

What you can determine is how they challenge social order; either the order that exists now, the status quo, or the order that you wish would exist. This idea, for example, is at the heart of political correctness, where people who speak in a way that contradicts some abstract ideals are deemed sinners, and are then exposed to the shunning and shaming of the group in order to get them back into line.

For those of us, though, who honor the call of our creator, who are reborn in every moment, we know that the most challenging thing we face is when people judge us as “too much,” or judge us as “not enough.” That pressure to be small and appropriate rather than real, honest and the servant of an empowering God can be stifling. It is, I suspect what Chesterton meant when he said, “The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

To move beyond the fear that we will be “too much” or “not enough,” and be shamed and shunned because of that, we have to drop our judgments about others who we may have felt are “too much” or “not enough.” We don’t get the luxury of asking people not to judge us, and then expect the right to judge others.

To be willing to withhold judgment on “too much/too little” means being willing to step away from group mores and group pressure and be willing to accept people as individuals, each with their own calling. It means judging people on the simple criteria if what they say and what they do is in harmony. The righteous person is one who’s public and private lives are in accord, beyond hypocrisy and twisted thinking which violates the golden rule by assuming one rule for me and one for others. She stands for what she stands for.

In society, this can often be very hard. We are asked speak for that which we don’t even try to live, to hold others to standards and expectations we ourselves cannot meet. This twists our thinking, creating closets, creating those who try to achieve standing in the community not by their own good acts but instead by attacking what they claim the be the excesses and deficits of others — where others are “too much” or “not enough.” Rather than leading by example, they enforce with fear, trying to use the power of judgment to maintain a social order that oppresses the diversity and truth across all creation.

Too much is not enough, for enough only comes when we walk in righteousness by using our sweat to reveal the truth of our creation, make transformative art of our lives by co-creating them with God. It is when we can move beyond the fear of stigma, shunning and shaming which comes from the judgment of others that we can be clear and true in our own lives and our own relationship with God.

It’s a sin when you believe that you can look at someone and tell they are a sinner — even if that someone is you. And when you judge another on anything but how they act towards others, you judge yourself, putting barriers up between you and the potential you hold.

After all, isn’t succumbing to social pressure and then not doing what you know to be right a sin?

Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved


Are You Ready For Community?

Are You Ready For Community?

by: Callan Williams

Tribes exist when people share a heritage.

Religions exist when people share belief stories.

Communities exist when people share priorities.

Through most of human history, we have lived in groups where all these three were shared — heritage, belief, and priorities. We had common ancestors, common beliefs and common goals. In fact, those common beliefs often consolidated the solidarity of our group by teaching us that we were the chosen people and others were wrong and evil, creating the unity of fear and hate.

Today, though with instant communications and almost instant transportation, it’s very rare that we feel this real connection to the tribe, the religion and the community of someone else we meet. However much we crave being included, as a member of a group, that connection seems to elude us.

Humans are mostly the same. That’s why our perception system is optimized not for seeing sameness, but for difference. It’s no good to say that someone has two legs, five fingers and one nose — that hardly communicates much. The only absolutely true statement may be “all is nothing, nothing is all,” but that hardly starts a useful conversation. Instead we learn early to identify not where we are the same, but to identify where we are different, and to assume that when we don’t see difference that none exists.

The problem with finding difference is that while it is fun and easy to pick apart the subtle differences between people, it never builds commonality. The problem with assuming sameness is that it never builds commonality either, because it substitutes comfortable projections that erase real differences and real connections.

We have trouble finding common ground when all we see is difference, and we have trouble respecting difference when all we do is project sameness.

For many of us, though, our own difference from “them” is at the basis of our belief stories. “I may not be able to tell you who I am, but I can tell you one thing: I am not like them!” We don’t create a positive identity for ourselves, based on who we know ourselves to be, but rather a negative one, based on who we know we aren’t.

When many people walk into a room, they often ask, “How are these people not like me?” which leads to the next question, “How do I have to keep myself separate from these people?”

The flip side of this approach is the projection of false sameness. We walk into a room and assume that everyone not only is like us, but that they are just like us. We wonder why they get frustrated with us, saying we aren’t listening to them, not respecting them. We get frustrated when they won’t agree with us, because they are just like us. We finally realize how different they are, we feel betrayed and deceived, and we wonder how they were allowed in this space for people just like us.

Neither of these approaches are the basis of healthy community. Community demands that we honor diversity while seeking commonality. If you project you can’t honor diversity, and if you fear or disdain, you can’t seek commonality.

I guarantee you that if you look closely enough at any human, at their tribe and belief stories and who they are in community with, you will find a good reason that you don’t want to be like them. No human tribe, no human religion, no human community and no human is perfect — they are all, as you are, human. They learn though mistakes, often very big mistakes, they cling to what makes them comfortable, they act out of fear and pain.

Can we walk into a room full of very imperfect humans committed to work to discover “What can these people teach me about finding community?” That may sound simple, but to do that we have to face our own pain and fears, we have to face our own assumptions and expectations. We look for protecting ourselves against the cuts people like them have made on us in the past, against when they try to separate from us, slicing us away and wounding our heart. We look for protecting ourselves from their attitudes and judgments, the ones that have kept us crucified all our lives.

Unfortunately, the lessons of heritage and belief are lessons that are designed to sabotage community rather than enable it. We build life myths that enforce boundaries rather than build bridges. We build walls designed to bolster a shared identity by making sure we know that we are not like “them” that we are never like “them.”

To build a community, we have to focus on the priorities we share, rather than on what divides us. To do that, we have to be able to face challenges to the lessons of belief that we have built up, have to be willing to make change in ourselves rather than just demand change in others.

For many people, who want to see communities as places for projecting common belief and behavior, rather than for common priorities, this can be very hard. They want community to be a stick to get others to conform, denying community to others they see as traitors, believing that identity politics must be the core of community, enforcing norms. It is these people who give community a bad name.

Are you ready for community? Are you ready to come with a clear positive sense of who you are, rather than needing just to declare who you aren’t? Are you ready to look for common ground rather than why others should be kept away as “them?” Are you ready to be willing to change as you see reflections of your heritage, your life, your beliefs and your priorities in the diversity of others?

Community demands intimacy, the sharing of truths. If you hold that “they” are so different that “they” will never understand your truths, or worse, if you hold that you have no need to understand the truths of another, then no matter how much you may want it and how much you may need it, you are not ready for community.

Community is, by its very existence, a transformative process. It creates connection by forging or revealing commonalities in the face of differences. When we are unwilling or unable to be transformed, to face those real differences and real commonalities, community will elude us.

Like all transformation, being in community offers us mirrors that reflect essence, an essence that may challenge who we wish to be, that may challenge the kind of world we think would be most comfortable. The one thing God never promised, though, is comfort. Only life is promised, and life is transformation, no matter how much we want to stay comfortable. It is in our discomfort that we find what is real and what is false, about our beliefs and about our soul.

Are you ready for community?

Are you ready to be open enough to others so that seeing yourself though their eyes will transform you? Or do you need to only see your own comforting projections in them, projections of sameness which erase challenge, or projections of difference which allow you to dismiss them?

To open your heart is to be open to God’s revelation, the shock of seeing oneself and knowing you are not who you wish to be but who you are. You will see where you are blocked from growth and change; see where your ego tries to keep you comfortable and defended rather than open and loving. And for most people, the scariest thing they will see is not that they are messed up and in pain, but rather that they are more powerful than is comfortable for them, more full of potential and grace.

Deep community, like any other sharing, calls us to be deeply ourselves, beyond identity props, facing the common humanity that lives in every soul.

Are you ready for community? Are you ready to move past assumptions of difference or assumptions of sameness to face other humans with an open heart? Are you ready to be open and visible, ready to see with wide and loving eyes?

Are you ready to be transformed?

Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved

Are You a Crucifixion Person or a Resurrection Person?

Are You a Crucifixion Person or a Resurrection Person?

by: Callan Williams

To die and to be reborn. It’s a powerful notion, so powerful and pervasive in human societies that there is no surprise that Christianity puts death and rebirth at the core. And it provides an easy way to take a measure of someone’s beliefs.

Are you a crucifixion person or a resurrection person? Do you believe we are born to suffer and die, with our ultimate reward coming in some other place, some other time, or are you a resurrection person, immersed in leaving behind suffering and building a new life, immersed in being reborn here and now?

The Roman church decided early that they would be a church of the crucifixion. The Gnostic gospels, proclaiming the reality of being reborn on Earth, were edited from the canon, removed from the Bible, around 300AD. The power of the church and its leadership was consolidated by this choice. By saying that divinity of the human was denied until the next life, no mere human could challenge the church, and the church could say that suffering was good for you, that your rewards would come in the afterlife.

Today, power is still consolidated by leaders who speak for crucifixion. By emphasizing suffering and victimization of the group, they disempower individuals who speak for transcendence, attempting to make them subservient to the group. To empower individuals is to invite challenge, for people reborn in a present relationship with God are not under the control of man, not subject to the demands of the group for compliance on an earthly plane. Instead, they speak for the God they know intimately, even when that voice says change is needed, that we must defy convention to be right with God.

To be a crucifixion person is to deny the possibility of bliss, passion, ecstasy and power in this world. It is to live in suffering, a suffering designed to rationalize and support the need for sacrifices in order to receive a distant ephemeral reward.

To be a resurrection person, though, is to embrace the idea that God is alive and living in everyone, reborn in every moment we reaffirm our connection with her. It is to face God everyday, a God who works though the divine callings in the hearts of each of us, teaching us where we need to be new.

This is a terrifying idea for Crucifixion people who support the status quo, believing their suffering to follow the rules of the church and community are the only true way to serve God. They need to believe that God demands suppression of the individual, sacrifice to the mores of the group. Crucifixion people see a vengeful God, one who punishes us for following the joy in our heart rather than following the tenets of the church and community. Their God enforces obedience to a set of laws rather than encouraging new creation from personal divine inspiration.

Resurrection is a very queer idea indeed. It honors those who follow their own unique connection to the Godhead by being born anew in every moment rather than honoring those who suffer the most by being crucified in every moment. It honors creation, both the creation of a creative connection with the universe, and the creation of a creator who made an incredibly diverse and beautiful world. To be a resurrection person we must celebrate the queer and unique beauty in every person, for it is impossible to embrace our own resurrection unless we embrace the resurrection of others, resurrection not beyond the reality of pain and conflict, but beyond the belief in suffering and fear.

Resurrection comes with a kind of responsibility that doesn’t come with crucifixion. To be a crucifixion person, we just have to follow the rules, be a good follower in the congregation. To be a resurrection person, though, we have to follow our heart, even when it puts us in conflict with those who want to maintain the status quo.

To be a resurrection person, we have to be an individual and a leader. Resurrection means that we are an active agent of God, playing our part in creation, and not just one of the group, believing that meek obedience will bring some kind of reward in a better place, or worse, that strong enforcement of social norms is following the call of God.

Resurrection requires a commitment to make this world a better place, more like heaven, rather than believing that this place is meant to be where people suffer and die for the glory of a distant God who is only truly known to church leaders.

Resurrection demands an active romance with the possible, rather than just an infatuation with the flat symbols of devotion.

Joseph Campbell is clear – the hero’s journey has always been a journey of death and rebirth, of crucifixion and resurrection. To be a resurrection person is to be a hero, to be one who is willing to endure death to become new. The only way to be a resurrection person is to be willing to let parts of us die so we may be reborn, and those are most often the parts that have given us comfort. For many, belief in the validity of suffering is at the heart of their comfort. A belief in suffering as central releases personal responsibility and puts the onus on those who refuse to suffer as God demands. This gives those who have chosen suffering the power to lash out at people who refuse to suffer like they do as the ones who cause all evil.

Resurrection people may seem to mock the price crucifixion people choose to pay to be right with God, but resurrection people do pay a high price – the price of being crucified daily by the crucifixion people who want to inflict the lesson of obedience and suffering. As Buddha said, though, loss is inevitable but suffering is optional. It is those who endure loss and pain without succumbing to suffering who make this world more like heaven, it is those who transcend pain and loss who have the power to make change.

Are you a crucifixion person or a resurrection person? Which would you like to be, reborn in every moment, or pinned to a cross for the rest of your mortal life? Are you willing to pay the price for whichever choice you make?

They are hard questions to answer. While crucifixion people will tell us that the lesson of Easter is that we can be reborn in a new life after we die if we sufficiently suffer the cross here, Easter reminds me of one thing: Jesus was a resurrection person, unwilling to succumb to social pressure to play along against what he knew to be true and right, willing to die to be reborn more in the image of God.

As I wrote on the talisman I gave Rachel Pollack on her bat mitzvah, which followed her bar mitzvah by 40 years:

“She is who is
reborn in every moment
will truly know
the glory of G-D.”

Callan Williams is a power-femme drag-mom trans-theologian who finds it very hard to practice what she preaches. Quaint selections of her past writing can be found at

Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved

Ordaining Challenges

Ordaining Challenges

by: Callan Williams

Is religion about the smells and bells, the elements of the ritual?

We have all heard the story about Talulah Bankhead going to mass with Cardinal Spellman. As the procession passed her, the cardinal in his vestments with a censer, she is reputed to have said, “Love the drag, Franny, but your purse is on fire.”

Why is the ritual so important? Why is there such a history of clerical garb? It’s not because clothes and symbol aren’t important. It is because somehow, art allows us to reveal the potent and magical which dwells within us on the outside. Those vestments reveal a very deep, atavistic resonance to symbols of connection, of transcendence.

Being true to our creator is manifesting the gifts she gave us in the world, showing them on the outside.

I, like most transgendered people, knew before the age of 5 that I wasn’t simply who people expected me to me by dint of my genitals. I knew. I knew.

Society, though, needed to tell me that what I knew was wrong. What do you do when your religion tells you that you are a sin? I knew this was true, because it wasn’t my behavior that was at issue — it is my nature.

I had to face the issue of sin everyday. Which was the bigger sin — to violate human rules of propriety and comfort, or to deny the truth of my creation?

The answer had to come.

James Green, a man born female, was at an American Psychiatric Association conference. One of the doctors walked by the booth and wanted to know what IFGE was about. He chose to talk to the short bearded man, rather than one of the large, husky women.

James told him it was about transgender, transsexuals.

He replied “I don’t need that. I don’t believe that God makes mistakes.”

James smiled and said, “Neither do I.”

At some point, I had to believe that I am not a mistake, not an illness, not a dysphoria, but a child of God. I had to find a creation myth that didn’t make me a sin, something to be fixed — or destroyed — but that allowed me to walk in pride, believing that I held a bit of God within me.

That came when I heard anthropologist Anne Bolin, who has studied gynemimetic shamans — women born male — say “In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity. The moment I heard that line, I knew it was my personal mission statement — to be how God made me and remind people of how spirit connects all things.

I had to learn that I come from a long line of people who were born to cross worlds, who kept connection in focus. The spirit is the place where worlds collide and worlds connect, even the eternal masculine and the eternal feminine.

This is hard to live. The liminal is the doorway between worlds, the opening in walls where spirits can touch. To be the door is to be the embodied reminder that God connects all.

It is good to be the door — but being the door also means that people will slam you, try to lock you, and to do everything that they can to keep you shut. Open doors are useful, yes, but many are more comfortable when a door is tightly shut, keeping out the barbarians — the people we don’t want to have to see ourselves and see our God in.

I believe that the greatest gift we can give is opening our heart and playing the role God put there — even if society says “I don’t need you, I only need what I want, go away.”

This is the challenge of an open door. It doesn’t bring what we think we want, it brings challenges to our own self-knowledge, challenges to our own faith, challenges to open our own hearts.

These challenges are why many in our churches have set themselves up not as doors, opening and welcoming, but as doorkeepers, suspicious and defensive. They see their challenge not as living in faith, being open and embracing, but to be defenders of the faith, militant and beady eyed.

A few weeks ago, I had a pastor look me straight at me and say, “My church needs an open gay person, but my congregation is not ready for someone like you. They couldn’t handle you.”

She had set herself up as a closed door, defending the weak people inside from what they couldn’t handle.

That’s a real challenge of being queer — not the people who confront us, but the people who decide that while they are OK with us, other people won’t be, so they have to defend their organization — their church — from people like me. “Well, I’d love to have you, but the children wouldn’t understand, or we would lose membership, or. . .”

You have transpeople in your churches now — or at least you have had them. They just fear showing their nature, because they know you fear them. You fear their passion, fear how they affect the kids, fear they affect how other people see you — you queer lover!

Being true to our creator is showing the gifts she gave us on the outside. Being true to our creator is embracing the gifts of others, especially when they challenge us to transcend fear and live in love.

Can you support people who scare you — and who you are scared of being seen next to, because they might draw some attacks?

I paint my face, wear the vestments of my calling. By doing that, I open the space for others to cross the line of fear that they cannot face, cannot reveal the divine in them. I open the space for art.

Art is where we take our God given gifts, shape them with our own sweat and act in the spirit inside — a spirit that is not just placid and earnest, but also dramatic, pretty and forward.

I know now that it was pre-ordained that I do this, to be who I am. I have worked hard to find what I can give to a culture which too often believes that people are their bodies and not their spirits, that the shape of our genitals is more important than the shape of our hearts.

Now, my challenge is having that ordination, and the work I have done to give of spirit to be respected and ordained by you.

Can you find a way to be a door, and accept the gifts God has placed in my heart? Or do you feel the need to close tight, keeping something you don’t know you want or need, something — and someone — who feels dangerous because they cross walls away from those you have decided cannot handle the power of spirit in others?

Can you handle the danger of embracing the connection that threads though us all — even across boundaries that seem as firm as the line between men and women?

Copyright © 2002 by the author
All Rights Reserved


Callan Williams © 2002

(This was written after attending the first New York Trans Gender Coalition Leadership meeting in Albany, April 12-14, 2002.  Details of the meeting are available at

As we sat in the stackable chairs on the polished wood floor of the gallery, I looked at the people around the circle.

Maybe, instead of the collages of bark and tulle, these people should be the exhibits.

Hung on the plain walls, frozen in time, I walk into the silent gallery.  The eyes look down on me but I can take a moment to look closely.

From a distance, these people, displayed as they are look a bit ragtag, a bit shabby.  It’s when you get close to them, though, that your view begins to change.  Because they have no need to defend themselves, they open to your gaze, not shirking or confronting, rather just being themselves.  You sense that this is not something they did easily in life – these are people who are full of fire, even now.

Up close, though, it is the details that speak to you.  The richly textured pattern of lines and scars writes history for you to sense.  These are people whose lives are written on every inch of them, lives of unspeakable triumph and sadness.  They have claimed themselves, created themselves, carved themselves out of living flesh.

A few of them are still wiggling, not in any conscious fight, but in some kind of struggle.  Go close to these and you see that they are young, not yet fully emerged.  They are not fully formed, and somehow they are less powerful, less sharp than the others.  They carry a faint aura of rage and eros, some lust still unresolved, some fury still raging inside.

But the others.  They take your breath away.  They are all so different, as unique as a kiss.  Thin as a rail or carrying lots of weight, dressed in paint spattered mufti or the worn garments of a city woman who starts with style and moves to work, hair full or thinning or replaced, the faces and bodies are rich with information. 

Some would fit on a medieval stone wall, others in a chic gallery.  Some should hang in an egalitarian storefront, others on the wall of a tech company.  None of them, though would belong where they have often been found, trapped on the walls of a medical center, studied as biological errors, poor creatures who need to be helped.  These are not study skins to be stuffed into drawers and pulled out during pathology class, these are the vessels of lives, rich and full, full of struggle and full of joy.

It’s that richness which almost overpowers as you come close.  Every wrinkle tells a story of a laugh or a fixed face.  Every scar tells the story of a hard choice, a choice to face pressure act on some inner knowledge, a choice to take the blow to be true.

It’s that determination that you see first, but the more you look, the more you see the tenderness.  As you let them speak to you without words, their hearts begin to reveal themselves, open, tender hearts full of love.  These are children of their creator, so in love with their universal parent that they dared to follow her callings rather than society’s expectations. 

For all their scarred and shabby shells, these are people who lived as close to their hearts as they could possibly do.  These shells are just vessels, worn and armored, buffed and squalid, ignored and reshaped, vessels to hold and defend a heart that needs what it needs, that demanded honesty over appropriateness.

As you take a breath, you can imagine all of them come to life in this space.  The walls bounce with energy, the air is full of shouts and laughter.  Bodies clank even as souls touch, well worn sword tongues clank against well crumpled amour.  This is a familiar joust for them, the way of walking in a world where undefended hearts are too often broken as bad examples.  Against the cry of “Don’t be yourself, be who makes us comfortable,” these hearts have found their own defenses.

But now, as they hang silent and beautiful, alive with heart and energy, you see not the shells but the exquisite work of a creator and a human working together to make a truth.  These are the handiwork of creation, so fertile and full of life, so historical and story-full that they tell the story of a generation.  They were there, on the bleeding edge, at the epicenter, in the doorway, working to expose true, working to be true themselves.

Take a moment to wonder how many people walked past these figures on the street and never saw what you see here, the glowing hearts and gallant history so visible in a moment of empathic silence under bright lights.  In the shadows so many walk in, these figures must have looked like gorgons and demons to them, creatures from the underworld on the other side of the gate of normativity.

The beast with a heart of gold, a cliché still, still you wonder how the golden light you see within was seen in a fast, fast world. 

Step back again, to look at all the figures around you.  You know you have to leave, but there is still so much here, so much you can’t get to with them frozen like this.  The sadness sweeps though you as you walk down the steep gallery stairs and out the door and into the hustle of the street.

At the coffee counter you look across, and there, emanating from someone you wouldn’t have noticed this morning, you see the same golden light.  You take your cardboard cup and move in their direction.

“Excuse me,” you say.  “Is anyone sitting here?”

I Wasn’t Ready

I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

I just wasn’t ready.

When you walk in the world as a tranny, as someone who crosses the gender lines assigned at birth because their heart calls them so strongly, you know the cost.  You know that you are open season, fair game for everyone who wants to act out their own fears.

Packs of kids in the mall often laugh, or make rude comments, or just follow you around.  They feel comfortable humiliating you on your gender deviance, and why shouldn’t they?  After all, they suffer humiliation for their difference everyday at school, taunted, shamed and hurt because they aren’t man enough or woman enough to be given respect and dignity.  We let kids teach other kids how to be normative, and that’s not a pretty process — the imposition of stereotypes, handed down from TV and stamped on tender young teens, who only want what we each want, only want to be loved.

People of color often read you out — “what the fuck is that!” — someone who has fallen from white male power and broken the rules of acting like one of us or one of them can easily be the victim.  Blacks have found power & comfort in solidarity, and the lone individual often must take the abuse of the tribe.

Many people feel it’s OK to judge you, that they have some obligation to make a judgment on you, and notify you of their disdain.  You just aren’t right, and that shouldn’t be revealed in public, where children and the morally vulnerable might see you.  These people would never want someone judging them, but they are smug in their normativity — they are just like the group, and you are — well, you are a sign of decay, repugnant.

Walking in the world is walking in a minefield for a transgendered person, knowing that at any time, someone or something could explode.  You learn to avoid traps, learn that you are often denied public facilities, learn to always keep defended.  That’s the way stigma works — if we can keep people terrorized enough to be in fear, they won’t have the energy to really be strong enough to be a potent example of change in the world.

The problem with walking around in armor, though, is that while it may keep you defended, it also keeps you isolated, alone, and lonely.

That’s why I wasn’t ready.

I just wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

The question everyone has to face in the world is simply this: Do you want to be more like everyone else, or do you want to be more like yourself?

We feel the face of the crowd all the time, staring at us, and wanting us to be tame, like them, one of the gang.  They want us to act in ways that make them comfortable, that affirm their values, that let them believe they are safe being part of the clique.

From inside though, we feel another face, our own face, the unique face our creator gave us.  This is our wild face, our special face, the one that lies behind the mask of normativity.  It may be silk, or it may be metal, but it is ours, personal and true.

People often assume that the transgendered are just wearing a mask.  It’s a funny costume designed to conceal what lies underneath, to hide the truth. That’s why they often feel safe in giving it a punch, just like they would hit the Chuck E. Cheese costume — after all, it’s not a real person, is it?

The truth is that the mask transgendered people wear is designed to reveal, and not to conceal.  Wearing that mask is a risky choice to show the wild face, the special face, the unique face their creator gave them.  It’s art that reveals more than it conceals — though being hidden allows some freedom.

Our face is our art, letting us paint the image of our soul onto the flesh of our body.  It may be a crude image, it may be a clumsy image, stuck between hiding and exposing.   Like any art, it takes time and effort to become a master, to have the skill and the courage to really show what is in our hearts where people can see it, but every attempt is one step farther to finding our own truth, to finding our own true face.

There is one place where this connection between our face and our art has always been understood.

Makeup Art Cosmetics  — M.A.C. — is committed to this connection.  I knew it when they used RuPaul as their first spokesperson, and saw the beautiful visions they created.  Maybe it’s the Canadian connection, where instead of a melting pot they have a mosaic, knowing that a few shiny tiles gives the whole composition color and vibrancy, but whatever it is, M.A.C. means art. Their motto is simple — All ages.  All races.  All sexes.   Everyone deserves the power of art to show what is inside of their heart on their own face, deserves respect for what they reveal.

I have always loved M.A.C. stores, where I often found a transgendered person behind the counter, someone who had created their own face as a work of art.  M.A.C. seemed to understand that if they wanted people to believe in art, they had to hire artists, people who pushed the edges, and gave a glimpse of what artistic freedom could mean in a life.  Not clones but creators, people who created their own face in new ways, showing the power of art in revelation.

M.A.C stores were places where performance was valued because in performance, the heart is revealed.  In there, you were never stuck with what God gave you on the outside, rather you were gifted with what God gave you on the inside, all that beauty and drama which could be revealed with the stroke of a brush.  You come and touch the cosmetics, and in those pots is not just something to hide who you are, but something which lets you uncover who you are and declare that to the world.

Still, I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

We have M.A.C counter in Albany now.  Counters are always different than stores, because they stand exposed in a department store.  They don’t have the concentrated space to keep things going, rather the energy bleeds away.

It was late one Saturday night when I went there.  I had a $100 gift certificate, and was ready to spend it, still remembering the laughter I had at the Montreal Pro store just a few weeks before.

It wasn’t a good night.  I asked for the brush I wanted, they were out of the Infamous paint.  The gal behind the counter seemed a little uncomfortable, like she wasn’t there.  I asked about crème liner, and she asked what color my eyes were — something most makeup artists would know of a customer in the first few moments.

I pulled back.  This wasn’t fun.  The hardest thing about being a tranny is that when you are feeling most vulnerable is the time when you have to be most gracious.  Other people feel their own discomfort and fears kick up — they don’t know how to handle people like you, don’t have any experience, so they get clumsy.  You, then, should to read their actions as discomfort and put them at ease, but mostly you don’t.  You read their actions as judgment, as fear, as a mark that they are unsafe to be around, and you tighten up, get more defensive.

This is the same pattern for all marginalized people.  We learn to oppress ourselves, to read the choices of others as signs that we are not wanted, that they don’t like us.  When a waitress drops a plate a little hard in front of a white person, they probably think she is just a clumsy waitress, but when a waitress drops a plate in front of a person of color, they may read that as a sign that they are not worth serving, read that as a message about her own racism.

When my gift certificate was rung out, she didn’t exactly know what to do. She asked others for help, and in the process said that talked about “his” certificate, what she should do for “him.”

I took my change, and let vent.  “This is M.A.C.   When someone shows you their face, please respect it.  All ages.  All races.  All sexes.  Treat a transperson as they reveal themselves to you, honor their art, no matter how crude it may be.”

I left and went for a drink.

That’s why I wasn’t ready.

I just wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

I have been by the M.A.C. counter a few times since then, though hidden under my boy clothes.  For perceptive artists, though, that is rarely a problem — they see the eyebrows and the stance, and they know there is something else there.

I started a conversation when a display pot clattered to the floor, jostled by me somehow.  She was young and intense, and behind her was our own local male behind the counter, today in feather collar and rhinestoned eyelids. We spoke about trans, and the incident I had had.  She had heard of it. “Well, she’s older, you know and. . . ”

She offered to do my makeup sometime.  I said I wanted her to see me in my other clothes first, so she knew more about me.  In other words, I felt safe enough to want to show myself to her.

I came in Monday night, as I was heading to an event at the Unitarian church.  The young woman wasn’t there, but the older woman was, as I came around the counter. “Hello!” she call out warmly to me.

I started heading her way, looking stunned.  “Do you remember me? You bought some makeup from me.”

“Yes,” I replied.  “We had a little incident. ”

“I know.  I learned a lot. I talked about it afterwards”

“Well, it’s important… and we… and RuPaul is a good teacher” I blathered on, completely taken aback by her openness and support.

“You are a good teacher,” she said to me.

“Thanks,” I mumbled and staggered off, as stunned as if I had been hit by a car.

I wasn’t ready.

I just wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

I know how to stay defended, to handle the destructive surprises, but the positive ones?  They just blow me away.

That’s the problem with living inside a shell.  You are always on tenterhooks, waiting for the third gotcha, so you are never ready for someone to be nice, open, caring and gracious.  Then they do, and your world is turned upside down for a moment, that moment when someone sees your heart and not your crotch, when someone affirms your spirit and not your flesh.

Art is about making spirit visible, and when it is seen, it can blow you away.

I wasn’t ready.

I just wasn’t ready for someone to be nice to me.

But they were.

And it was a gift.

Callan Williams, 13 March 2001