Monday, February 20, 2012

Prejudice, feminism, equality

This past weekend, I ended up doing an exercise my therapist had recommended because I was having a panic attack over a final paper I had to write for one of my classes. I'm smart, and I knew the material, and I had a high grade in the class; however, I was completely freaked out feeling inadequate to the task, as though anything at all I did would cause me to fail. I've experienced this panicky paralysis before, many times, and my therapist suggested that this time, I sit with it and ask what was making me feel that way.

I shouldn't feel inadequate, but I do. It comes from a long history of being treated with prejudice and with ugly assumptions based on stereotypes that were quite hurtful. It started with my mother, who could not allow me to enjoy feeling good about anything I did academically because to her it wasn't sufficiently feminine. Of course, her ideas of what was feminine were sunk in the Deep South of the early 20th century, not the 1970s, but I was the target of comments like, "Why can't you study something more feminine?" and "Enough about your master's degree. When are you going to settle down and get your Mrs. degree?" Since I was focused on physics and mathematics as my main subjects, that simply wasn't going to work. And since I'm very intelligent and hadn't really met a man who could keep up with me at that point, the Mrs. degree wasn't even on the radar.

Add to that a profound sense of gender dysphoria—I never really felt that I was male, but I couldn't stand being female. Everything about my body's changes as I had matured in my teens horrified me, and people's reactions to me simply because of the shape of my body aggravated me no end. I wasn't interested in the kinds of things that other girls talked about, and they generally didn't or couldn't talk to me about things that interested me. I felt extremely alienated from everyone around me, to the point that I wrote a column for the student newspaper in college from the point of view of an alien viewing college culture of the time.

Moving from college to work was a mistake, one pushed onto me by my mother and aunt, and one that I knew I shouldn't have done even as I allowed myself to be forced into it. I became an engineer for the phone company, in a group of male engineers who really didn't want a female peer in their group. My boss, in particular, made every effort he could to drive me off of my job, giving me assignments he would never have given to one of the male engineers, and then laughing when I got into trouble. There was a lot more, and I fought it, but eventually I left Mobile for other reasons as well.

My next boss asked me in the interview if I was a feminist, which at the time was a radical notion with the bra burners and Gloria Steinhem holding forth. I said that I wasn't, but the truth was that my treatment among my colleagues was pushing me that way fast. And working as an engineer was making me feel even more inadequate because there were so many things for which I was unprepared; my background in physics and math was enough to get in the door, but I knew nothing about wiring circuits or testing electronics. I was expected to do so as part of my job, but no one offered to teach me. So I went back to school to begin trying to learn how to be adequate as an engineer.

I got married around this time to an intelligent man who worked for the space program up at Cape Canaveral, and who persuaded me to come work there, too. It was a job as a computer programmer; again, I was hired based on my background in physics and math, not any particular computer skills I might have. Again, I was placed in a situation where I felt inadequate—and my husband fed off of it, "helping" me, so that he could feel more adequate himself. He had a desperate need to not just prove he was the smartest person in the room, but to rub anyone else's nose he could in the fact. It was the beginning of 15 years of hell for me.

We moved back up to northwest Florida, an area enough like Mobile, AL, that I was concerned about how people would treat me as a fellow engineer. I was right to be concerned. The men on the job we'd been hired to fill immediately tried to shuffle me off to a minor programming position, then I moved to a job that supposedly would have used my skills in math and physics, but which turned out to be a continual fight with the technicians and my peers over competence, and the mere fact that I was female in their environs.

I've heard African Americans describe being badly treated because of the color of their skins, and I empathize because I know bad treatment simply because of the shape of my body. I've had people put me down, play pranks on me, and at its worst, throw a cup of liquid nitrogen at me simply to see me jump. I've been told that I was inadequate to do my job (when that was not actually the case), and eventually pushed off on another job I didn't want because the people I worked with didn't want me. My husband was silent through all of this torture, except to complain that it was my problem, something I was doing wrong. He continued to do so until the company did something that ticked him off, then suddenly he was looking for another job.

I was becoming radicalized as a feminist simply because of the mass of bad treatment I had been receiving simply because of my shape and the areas in which my brain worked. I also had gone back to school again because my husband and the other programmers around me often made me feel inadequate because I didn't know the same things they did. I kept at it until I got my master's degree, and suddenly knew more than they did. It didn't always help the feelings of inadequacy, but I could put the degree up in my workspace to show them that, yes, I did know what I was doing.

I became very aggressive in protecting myself from slights and slurs on my being female. I didn't put up with anyone (except my husband, who I couldn't avoid), but my attitude didn't win me a lot of friends either. I had reached the point some feminists did back then of having a real chip on my shoulder, and underneath it all was a growing exhaustion of having to deal with this at all, since I never felt like I was feminine to start with. Or, at least, that being feminine had anything to do with the person I felt myself to be.

About that time, I found about about the possibility of being transgendered. It struck me that it felt right—I didn't feel female, and here was an alternative. But most of the female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals I met said they knew they'd been male all along, which had not been my experience. I hadn't known I was male; I'd simply been uncomfortable with the idea of being female. So I went through years of therapy trying to sort out whether I really was transgendered or not. It didn't help that I was really short—5'2"—and didn't want to trade one set of prejudices for another.

This was also the time when I went through priestess training, and became a hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis. At the time, I didn't think too much about the fact that the group I was in was strongly dominated by women, such that the main group meeting every full Moon was limited to women only. The guys were only welcome on the solar festivals, which now seems strange. Moreover, while I was told to open myself to being called by the Goddess for the priesthood and did so, nothing prepared me for the fact that I was called by more than Goddesses. One of the beings who made it clear that I was his priestess at the time was Odin, and I couldn't even discuss it with my mentor because we weren't dealing with the Gods.

As I continued to learn and grow on the pagan path, I found myself more frequently in contact with specific Gods and Goddesses from different pantheons than with a generic Goddess and God as in Wicca. So I never went down that specific path, but felt I was working a more shamanic path being open to the gods who needed my services at a given point. I'm a strong channel, and have been the body or horse for many different beings, gods, goddesses, and other. My lack of investment in my gender, and in my body in general, has made it easy for me to slip aside and let them speak through me without having to be present.

Finally, when I was almost 50, after years of therapy and consideration, I chose to transition to male. Again, I did it more for comfort than out of a strong feeling of masculinity; I simply was miserable being female and being perceived as female. It didn't change a thing about who I am inside, but it did change how people react to me and interact with me. For one thing, I rarely encounter the projection of inadequacy anymore because people assume that as male, I must know what I'm doing. It freaks me out—I'm still me. But there is a sharp change to how people react to me.

And I find that I'm more aware of the ways in which people in the pagan movement—the one place where we'd think we'd all be safe from prejudice and rejection—treat one another. I certainly have no problem with a group who wants to meet along gender lines, as long as they don't force that onto others at a large public gathering. Moreover, I would like to see a lot more sensitivity to gender variant and sexually variant people in paganism, as was the case in the old pagan world. We certainly don't "choose" to be different; it's a function of being different and eventually choosing to express who we really are rather than hiding behind some mask.

If a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual tells you that she is female identified, please respect that. She's not trying to steal your genetic female magic thunder, she is truly struggling to cope with having been born in the wrong shaped body. She identifies as female because that's what she is, regardless of the secondary sexual characteristics that she loathes and find confusing. Similarly, if an FTM tells you he identifies as male, respect that because he genuinely feels he's not female no matter what his body may have looked like most of his life.

Transitioning doesn't change out experiences, though, and I remain an ardent feminist. But I've also grown beyond that, toward seeking equality for all people. I find it incomprehensible when people reject my help or fellowship because I'm not the same color, or religion, or sex, or ethnic group, or whatever that they are. It is especially ugly when they try to tell me I cannot comprehend their experience of being treated with prejudice. Really? They should walk a mile in my shoes and then revisit that statement.

I know from my own experience that other women have been hurt by the long struggle for equality and consideration in our Western culture. Some need to work only with other women because the damage runs deep. But we need to open our hearts a bit and realize we're not the only people who have been hurt, and begin to reach across the artificial lines we've drawn to others who are hurting too. Only then can we begin to heal.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Running with Sekhmet

Two forms of Sekhmet
In ancient Egypt, Sekhmet was considered the daughter of Ra, one of his eyes, and the dispenser of divine justice. You could say that Sekhmet is the Goddess who dispenses karma, who ensures that justice is served. She is a lioness, and a Goddess of fire and power. Her hieroglyph contains a baton that served as the symbol of power for the Nome governors, indicating that her power and authority comes from the highest source—Ra, whose avatar was the Pharaoh, called the Son of Ra.

I have learned a meditation for running with Sekhmet, which allows me to release rage, pain, anger, hatred, and other negative emotions in which we all get tangled from time to time. The advantage of running with Sekhmet is being able to turn these negative emotions over to Her, knowing that She will see that divine justice is served accordingly. Once released, I no longer have to carry the negativity because I know that karma will take care of whatever caused me such pain.

To run with Sekhmet, visualize the savannah of Africa. It is hot, fiery summer, with the long grass fading to golden. You find Sekhmet lounging in the shade of a banyan tree, waiting for you to join Her.

You find that your body shifts to leonine form, matching Sekhmet’s. A sense of power and control runs through you, helping you to control the emotions raging through you and bringing joy in their wake. You roar your request to Sekhmet to take the negative emotions from you, and turn them into karmic justice appropriate to their cause. In your roaring, you release the negative energy, and watch its red fire flow into Sekhmet’s eyes.

She brushes by you, a big cat acknowledging one of Her pride. You brush back, feeling the love She has for you, and a sense of peace comes over you. She huffs at you—a lion smile—and takes off into the grass. You follow, running to keep up with Her. You feel the fire of the Sun beating down on you, burning off the negative energies you carry, and filling you with light, power, and control.

Sekhmet shines brighter than the Sun, and you realize that you are shining also. The eye of Ra is upon you, and you realize that you are also a daughter or a son of Ra, as is Sekhmet. You, too, carry divine justice within yourself, and the working out of karma is part of what you are present in the physical world to accomplish. Sekhmet turns Her fiery eyes upon you, and acknowledges the link that you have with Her.

You are the lion, Child of Ra!
As lions of fire, as a pride of power, you run through the savannah with Sekhmet. Joy fills your heart as you realize She loves you, Ra loves you, the Universe loves you. Peace settles over you, and your Heart is clear and whole again. The negative emotions that you carried have lifted from you, like fog is burned away by the warmth of the Sun.

You have returned to the banyan tree, to the cooler shade where you began your run. You lay in the long grass, panting from the exertion, the heat, and the transformation. Sekhmet rubs Her cheeks against yours, welcoming you to your Great Pride. You relax, and rest in the shade of peace and power.

When you are ready, you return to your natural form, and return to awareness of the physical world. The peace, joy, and power stay with you, as does the regard of the Goddess Sekhmet and Her father, Ra. Go out into the sunshine, and sing praises to the Goddess and God, and feel the powerful warmth of the Sun fill your being. You are healed of the negative emotions that were tearing you down.

You now know that you can trust in the universe to work out the karma, as it needs to happen. You are no longer tangled in its web, but a piece of the puzzle of how it works out in the world. You are a powerful being, with strength to let things go that do not serve your spiritual growth. Roar your joy to the Sun, and be at peace.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Good days and bad days

Life changes when you are disabled—and I don't mean the obvious fact of your disability. Your life constricts; not only can you not do many of the things you used to define yourself by, but you're faced with managing a life over which you have very little control. For many, the first thing they do on awakening is check in to their bodies and try to figure out what sort of day this will be. On the good days, we may be fairly normal, able to leap small buildings at a single bound. On the good days, one of the hardest things is to fight the temptation to do *everything* one has gotten behind on during the bad days. After a while, we know that doing such a thing—overdoing to "make up"—results in many more bad days than good.

The bad days, though, those are terrifying. They're unpredictable; you cannot use time management to schedule Tuesday as a "bad day" when you will be out of commission. You figure it out when you wake up in the morning, and adjust your expectations from there. Although I'm sleeping through most of the night lately—for the first time in years—I'm waking up in my usual manner, when the pain from sleeping in one position or another gets so bad I can't sleep any more. Waking up in intense pain is often a signal this is going to be a tough day, which is a good thing because I can begin to adapt.

Our Western culture, particularly in America, tries to celebrate the idea of the disabled person who overcomes massive disability to do something great, like the paraplegic who climbed Mt. Everest. Those stories move people to think the human spirit is so strong that it can overcome anything—but it can also crush your soul when you realize you don't have it in you to climb out of bed on the bad days. The other problem is that people around you tend to apply the myth of overcoming the disability to you, making expectations of you that you simply can never meet. And then they are disappointed in you for not meeting their expectations, blindly ignoring the daily struggle you go through simply to manage well enough.

It's not so bad for people with obvious disabilities, where people can readily see the impairment the disability brings to the individual suffering them. Although pity can be even more corrosive than disappointment, when you get right down to it. Most of us would rather have understanding and help, freely offered, than to be pitied. Even when I recognize that it's a defense mechanism people use to pretend that such things cannot happen to them, it's corrosive.

But when your disability is invisible, or is composed of a bunch of things that interact such that your days are manageable only by sorting through a "laundry list" of possibilities, the situation gets much worse. You try to be normal, to do things on the good days like everyone else, and to meet their expectations—and on the good days, you can. But then you wake up and know its going to be a rough one, and expectations have to shift—but the people around you, who cannot see your disability, simply don't understand that  you're doing your absolute best to manage.

I got in trouble teaching for the University of Phoenix for just this problem. I could manage posting and working with students, grading papers, and all the other work of a teacher 4 days out of 7, but not 5. The contract said 5, and they use a computer program to monitor how many days you post and do certain activities—and despite the fact that on my 4 good days out of 7 I was generally getting my work done, I wasn't meeting the metric. So I got told I needed better time management skills, and to take training to do better. And I'll admit that I did learn some things, but not anything that I can use directly in the face of the bad days—which I cannot predict because they don't happen on a schedule.

I eventually had to quit that job because I could never live up to their expectations, and they would not work with me within the limits of what I could do—they had their computer program and if I failed a tick of the metric, I was in trouble and needed to fix whatever it was that caused me to screw up. I can't live that way—wish I could—but it doesn't work in the face of good/bad days.

Moreover, I've been getting worse, with more bad days than good lately. In addition to all the pain conditions that can overwhelm me with sheer agony, making it hard to move or do anything, in August I was diagnosed with several areas of brain damage and a blocked artery in the brain. Well, that surely explains some of the horrible headaches I've been having, such as the 5 1/2 week one in October of 2010. You try functioning in a strictly metered job environment when you're head is splitting, your vision is blurry and doubled, and you get exhausted quickly trying to do anything at all. It doesn't happen. And then everything cascades down on you into financial and other difficulties that may be too hard to get free of anytime soon.

Thing is that I really don't know what the ramifications of my current problems are, and that is terrifying, especially when things suddenly take a turn for the worse. A few weeks ago, the problem I have of not getting enough oxygen to my brain got so bad that I started slurring my words like I was severely drunk—without the pleasure of being able to enjoy getting there. I'm still waiting to get in to see a neurologist to find out if anything at all can be done—I go down to UCSF on the 17th of January, hopefully to get some ideas of what we can expect and maybe fix—and the headache and confusion, speech slurring and sheer exhaustion of fighting it all is taking its toll. You know you're in trouble when your doctor is scared.

We've been trying an experiment with Imitrex, to see if it will open up the blood vessels in the brain to get more oxygen through, and it seems to help when I'm at the worst point in all this. But I'm still finding myself essentially tethered to the oxygen machine, or carrying tanks around trying to get things done. My disability is now quite visible, but I'm still largely on my own for getting things done. People just want to know when I'll get better, something I'm not sure of at all.

My friends and acquaintances do care, and want to help me any way they can. On the bad days, I need physical help, and unfortunately, live to far from anyone who might help me that way. It's one of the downsides of living alone with cats; there's no one to help you out. Although the sheer resentment I've encountered from some of my caregivers when I have had someone to help has often been horrific. People get burned out on giving care to someone who is chronically ill, and whose good days makes them seem almost normal.

What gets me through it all is my sense of humor. I rage, and I despair; I fight the depression that goes along with chronic pain and uncertainty. I do the best that I can, and try not to beat myself up on the bad days. It is what it is, and I can only do what I can, even when that fails to meet the expectations of others. It's hard enough to adjust my own expectations to match whatever is happening today.

Yesterday was a really bad day, when the mental confusion and the slurring speech was worse than usual. I finally broke down and took medicine late in the day, and I had to spend most of it on oxygen. The problem is that I feel fine on oxygen, but rapidly begin to falter as soon as I go off of it. And because I'm less active, the other disabilities—the chronic pain ones—kick up so that I woke today clearheaded, but hurting enough that it will be a while before I go back to sleep. So I'm writing instead, trying to explain the unexplainable.

Some of you will dismiss what I'm saying as whining, thinking that you would do a much better job managing your disability than I am. That's your fear speaking, for by denying what I'm going through you mentally make the case that it would not happen to you. I've seen it over and over, and I really hope nothing ever does happen to you that would cause you to understand me. I have more compassion than that.

Others of you will feel sorry for me, but don't pity me. Recognize that I'm struggling to do the best that I can, sometimes in the face of considerable odds, fear, and despair. Help me to laugh—that really is the best medicine. Try not to get compassion fatigue; my disabilities are not going anywhere anytime soon, I hope. Of course I'd love it if someone could wave a magic wand and they'd go away, but that's a fantasy. And pursuing endless fantasy treatments just ends up costing me what little is left of my money.

All I ask is patience. On the bad days, I may not even reach out to anyone because I know that it gets old. I don't get better, and compassion fatigue sets in. On the good days, I reach out and seem normal. But as things shift to more bad days than good, I really appreciate it when people reach back to me, even if I'm not in good shape to talk to them, or in the best of moods, or happy, or whatever. It keeps me alive because I know that people do care, and that I've not been abandoned because I've failed to live  up to expectations—mine and yours.

As to the future, we shall see. I'm in the undiscovered country, where I don't even know the landmarks, much less the terrain. All I can do is go from day to day and try to cope. And remember to laugh. Silly cat antics help. So do friends.

Much love,