Daughter of Colonisers

On this particular day I find myself reflecting on what it means to be the descendant of colonisers.

My ancestors came from England, Norway, Denmark, and Wales. The first American to bear my name, my great (times nine) grandfather William Washbourne, fled the English Civil War and settled in Connecticut in 1639. I don’t know if he himself took the land (two sizeable farms) from the natives or if he purchased land already conquered, but the fact remains my family found their first toehold on this continent on stolen native land.

Fast forward two hundred years and Daniel Abraham Washburn is travelling with the Mormon pioneers to Utah. Salt Lake City was founded on land that was only seasonally inhabited, but land that the Utes and Shoshones both ranged on. Land that became unavailable for them to use because the Mormons built a city on it, and excluded natives from that city.

Brigham Young despatched Daniel Abraham among others to settle Southern Utah, on land belonging to the Paiutes. His son, Abraham Daniel, went to modern day San Juan County and plopped a farm down on land historically grazed by Navajo flocks. Again, I do not know if my ancestors used guns to take it, but the fact is they settled on land that did not belong to them, and gave no recompense to the people who inhabited that land before.

My great-grandfather, Alvin Lavell, was living in Blanding when the Posey War (also called the Bluff War) broke out in 1915. It was one of the last armed conflicts between Native Americans and the Federal Government. He didn’t have any part in that, so far as I know, but he was a white man on native land, that only 104 years ago was still being taken at gunpoint. Some 150 native bands living in San Juan County, Paiutes, Goshutes, and Navajos were rounded up and deported to the Ute Mountain Reservation during the war. 4,000 people, taken away from their homes and sent to a glorified concentration camp, their land divvied out to white ranchers and miners.

I was born in Salt Lake City in 1994. I spent a lot of my childhood in San Juan county, wondering why the Navajos in Blanding seemed so much worse off than the whites, ignorant of the historical forces that caused them to live in squalor amidst better-off settlers. 

Utah is my home, and I love the mountains, red rock canyons, and arches as only a woman born there can. It’s my native soil. I love England and imagine I’d love Norway and Denmark, but the fact remains that I am not English or Norwegian or Danish- I’m an American. I was born here, my family has lived here for nearly 400 years. But we are still settlers, and for three hundred years we were the direct beneficiaries of land seized from native peoples by force. 

How can I come to terms with the fact that my birth in Utah, my home, was the byproduct of imperialism and genocide? I didn’t chose it. The forces of history that had my European ass being born on stolen land were obviously not within my power. How to make restitution to the people who’ve lived on the land that I love as my own for so much longer than my people have? How can I make amends while still being happy to have been born amidst the grandeur of the Wasatch Mountains? 

All of us white folk can’t go back to Europe. I’m fairly sure the E.U. doesn’t want some 180 million fractious gun-owners trying to resettle in the lands to which we are indigenous. But what is the solution? How can we heal the wound that our ancestors inflicted on theirs? I’m not asking to be trite or glib, I ask because I see how grievous the injustice that my ancestors inflicted on the indigenous people of the Americas was. I ask because I see how people with my skin colour still oppress, mistreat, and misunderstand the indigenous people who’ve survived our genocide. I ask because as a Christian woman I believe that we must confess and atone for our sins, and seek reconciliation and justice. How can we have that justice, knowing that it is impractical and impossible to turn back the clock, for all of us with Caucasian blood to just up and leave? How can we move forward, and try to mitigate the damage done, to make restitution without restoring a past that is forever lost? 

 

I don’t know. But I’ll keep asking the question. Keep seeking out ways to be an ally and advocate for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I understand that I will never fully understand the immensity of their grief, I understand that my white skin and European culture advantages me in this country and likely will continue to do so for years and years to come, and I understand that I am the unwitting beneficiary of one of the greatest crimes in history. With that understanding, I hope I can do my part to redeem my family name, to set myself right with the God of Compassion, and to set myself right with the infinite capacity of humanity to seek justice.

Why I Write

I write because I love it. I really do. I love to put proverbial pen to paper (or fingers to my keyboard) and forge a story or an essay from a jumble of thoughts. I love to have the organisation and permanence of the page to contain the messy fireworks show that is my brain. 

I write because I think I have some good ideas, ideas that tend to improve once put to paper. On paper I can give my own thoughts an honest assessment, whereas in my own mind they are assailed by a deep-set self-loathing implanted in me by years of gender dysphoria and the cruelty of others. Writing liberates my thoughts from the prison of my mind, and with editing and rearrangement and revisions I can make those thoughts better, clearer, and stronger. That’s why I write for myself.

My goal in writing for an audience is to educate, to entertain, and to provide a new perspective. I’ve always loved sharing information, ever since I was a little child and wanted to tell everyone about Scottish castles and the fantasies that I’d derive in my head. I like to tell stories, and in writing I can craft those stories to be better than anything I could tell off the cuff. Stories matter, and the way they’re told, who they’re told to, can change the world.

I want to be a writer because to be a writer is to sow the seeds of thought, of future culture. The words we read and hear shape the words we say in the future. My words are shaped by my predecessors, and I have the audacity to say that my words might help shape future culture to be a little more compassionate and thoughtful. I have no illusions about being the godmother of some great revolutionary movement, but if I write a story or an essay that sparks the mind of someone down the line, I’ve done my bit, and left the world a little better than I found it. That’s what we’re all really here for, right? To live our own lives well, and to improve the lives of others, both living and still yet to come. The way I can do that best is with my words, and my words are best when I write them down.

 


Exciting things are happening with An Unremarkable Girl! The memoir, co-authored with my amazing and supportive Mum Nan Seymour, is about my young life as a transgirl growing up in Utah and my struggle to inhabit my identity in the face of a conservative society and my own struggles with mental illness. We’ve recently signed with an agent and are beginning to explore our options for publishing- expect this blog to be a lot more active in the days to come! If you enjoyed this piece (or any of my writing) please feel free to share on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social media you prefer. Thanks as always for reading!

Dropping Out and the Media

As I leave school behind for good, in March of 2011, I experience a profound increase in my depression. Depression has daunted me since puberty began, situational and chemical, but it swelled up as I cut myself off from the world, from my few friends, and from life itself.

Days and weeks pass by, blending into one another. I stay in bed or I pace around my house. Very occasionally I try to write a short story or work on a novel, but I have no motivation and no drive. Life is grey. 

I lie in bed in the mid-afternoon. This could be any day of any month. I watch videos on Youtube or do laps on the same shows on Netflix. I play computer games, almost always cheating at them because I can’t muster up enough energy to face even the small and meaningless challenges they present. Sometimes I read something from my growing library, but more often than not even books, which I adore, fail to engage me.
I feel wrong. Wrong about everything. My body disgusts me, my habits disappoint me. In every aspect of my shambling half-life I feel a failure. “Home school”, which is what I claim to be doing, engages me even less than regular school, and knowing that my mother is exhausted and distracted by her own schoolwork I evade most of the assignments.

On occasion I dare to do more research about being transgender, with the same paranoia and care that I take when I occasionally read erotica or watch pornography and masturbate. I feel more ashamed about researching transgender issues than about masturbation, and given that I’m fairly certain I’m violating my own decency by masturbation the amount of guilt and fear I have about the research is almost incommunicable.
I look at transition timelines, I even go through a photo series of a vagioplasty, the surgery by which a penis can be reconstructed into a vagina. I try to imagine myself as a girl. I have long hair already, but I dress solely in turtlenecks and jeans, not particularly feminine attire.
However, when I consider transition, it is coloured by the depictions of transgender women in the media that I consume, especially since I spend so much of my days doing little else beside watching shows on Netflix.

In Futurama, one of my favourite shows at the time, there is a particular episode which focuses on a gender transition. In “Bend Her” (Season 5 Episode 13), the foul-mouthed alcoholic robot Bender undergoes a sex change in order to pass a gender check after he competes as a “fembot” in the Robot Olympics. After this operation (which involves the severing of his antenna, a clear analogue for robots to human penises), he proceeds to be an exaggerated stereotype of femininity and female behaviour, to the chagrin and disgust of the show’s other female characters. The episode resolves when he is “fixed”, ie returned to masculine forms and behaviours.
I describe this in depth because it is representative of media focusing on transgender women in the 2000s, media which deeply impacted me as an adolescent coming to terms with my gender identity. Bender is not a transwoman in any meaningful sense of the word, he suffers from no confusion about his gender identity. He undergoes transition as part of a con. The changes that occur (including increased emotionality and sensitivity) are played for laughs, and at one point Leela (the most prominent female character) says “Please get out of my gender”. It’s comedy, one might say, but the joke is that it is ridiculous that anyone perceived as male would become female. That’s the punchline. The message I get is transwomen are laughable.

I’m afraid of being a joke. I’m already a pitiable individual, a depressed 16 year-old reclusive high-school dropout. Pity is bad enough, I tell myself, I don’t need to be laughed at too. I’m afraid. Afraid. Afraid. Under the relatively placid pond scum of lethargy, apathy, and sadness that an outside observer sees I’m a roiling cauldron of fear and panic. I know I’m transgender and it terrifies and disgusts me. I’ll be a joke. I’ll lose my extended family. I’ll be hated. I’ll be ugly. These refrains ring in my ears, a thousand shrieking harpies that only I can hear, the cacophony of loathing, doubt, and terror echoing through the relative silence of my dark, book-lined bedroom.

Jesus is a Dirty Commie

I am a communist transgirl. So far I’ve said nothing remarkable; anecdotally speaking I can say that the majority of young transwomen are either communists or anarchists. What makes me unusual is that I am also a Christian.

I’m embarrassed to say the word. “Christian” has been tarred by the child abuse scandals of the Catholic church, the flatulent bleating of mega-church mega-pastors with their mega-mansions, and the legions of bible-thumpers threatening hell to all those who do not ascribe to their narrow interpretation of God’s purpose on Earth. In most of my social circles online and in person, Christianity is almost universally considered to be a force of repression and reaction.

I find these interpretations of Christianity as abhorrent as my militantly godless friends do. Perhaps more so, because they are sacrilegious perversions of something that I love; the Apostolic Church. The Christian Church before Emperors, quacks, and prudes (Looking at you, Constantine, Augustine, and Paul) shaped it into an arm of a repressive state. The Apostolic Church of the first and second centuries was defined by a communalist worldview; Acts 4:32 proclaims “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (New International Version)

This was the early church; a radical group of communitarians who rejected both the authoritarian nature of the Roman Empire and the society of slaves and masters which defined it. Inspired by the example of Jesus, early Christians went forth across the Mediterranean and formed communities that lived according to his counsel in Matthew 25:40 “”And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!‘” (New International Version)

At the beginning of this year I was an atheist. I became convinced that religion’s sole purpose was to be a tool of the ruling class, a justification for subjugation of women to men, slave to master, one race to another. If it wasn’t Karl Marx’s “opiate of the masses” it was the call to slaughter the unbeliever or heretic. No good could come of it, I robustly proclaimed, and the evidence for God’s existence was trivial. Reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion lent a smug logic to it all; religious and spiritual people were simply deluded or hypocritical.

On November 11th, not quite two months after I moved to Tucson, I went to Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It was recommended to me by a dear friend (and former Episcopal priest), and though I remained hostile to the idea of faith I had been longing for community, so I decided to give it a shot.

November 11th of 2018. One hundred years to the day since the last shot rang out over the Western Front. I enter the sanctuary, and I take a place in the pews, listening to the choir rehearse. A feeling steals over me, a sensation I haven’t felt since I was young; peace. True peace. I kneel, and for the first time in years I pray with some genuine intent. And as I gaze upon the stained glass window above the altar, a depiction of Christ, tears start to run down my face.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I have been a toxic person, I have been a problem drinker, I’ve stolen, I’ve lied, I’ve deceived. Where possible I have offered my sincere apologies, knowing that I owe them to those I’ve hurt, but I am not owed forgiveness for my trespasses. When I gaze upon the figure of Christ, I feel called to step forward into the future. I feel renewed. My mistakes remain in my past, and doubtless I have yet to atone for many of them. But I cannot go back into the past and undo what I have done wrong; I can only strive to go forward in the spirit of Christ.

I want to reclaim Christ from the theocrats and prosperity theologians. I want to reclaim Him from Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence. I want to discard the Old Testament, the idea of God as a jealous and wrathful man in the sky. I don’t know that I believe in God, but I believe in Christ the Man, who preached revolution and resistance, who broke bread and drank wine with his friends the night before he died. Christ who suffered a brutal and painful death as an act of love for all of humanity.

The Internationale, the anthem of Communism, begins with the call “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the Earth!” I believe fervently that we must do away with billionaires and millionaires, we must smash the hierarchies of class, race, and gender. We must do this for the sake of all humanity, and for the Earth upon which we live. I feel called to this task by virtue of Marxism, yes, but also by the spirit of Christ. Christ who overturned the tables of the moneylenders, Christ who broke bread with sex workers and tax collectors, Christ who said “love thy neighbour as thyself.” Christ who taught me as a child to be compassionate, and Christ who now, at the age of twenty-four, calls me to love and serve humanity and the world in the broadest and most compassionate way.

So I go forward, a living contradiction.

 

Paralytic Perfectionism

Hello all! This is the first time in months I’ve posted anything, and I am nervous. Why am I nervous?

Because I hate to pick things back up.

I do. I always have. I love starting fresh, with a clean slate of paper, and working on it. I love starting things- new jobs, new hobbies, new projects, bring ’em on.  But I have ADHD. I’ve discussed ADHD before on my blog and today’s post is about the most insidious and frustrating outgrowth of my ADHD, Paralytic Perfectionism.

The clean slate of paper. You start with the clean slate, you pick up your pen, and you start to write. The first couple sentences come easy- after all, you have a good idea, right?

Right?

Wait, you’re four or five sentences in and you’re losing your idea. That’s okay, you say, I’ll find it with some good old trial and error. So you try, you make a mistake. No big deal, right?

Right?

No. It is a big deal. How can you possibly write the entirety of the essay if you can’t get the thesis statement right? How can you continue? After all, the body of the text has to flow naturally from the starting point, and if you’ve made an error at the starting point, you’ve failed. You haven’t erred, no, you’ve failed. It will never be as good as you want it to be, you’ll never be as good as you want to be, why can’t you just not make mistakes, why can’t you just do it right the first time???

Paralytic Perfectionism.

If you make a mistake, it’s not okay, because it means so much more than the misplaced word or incoherent sentence. It means you’re not good enough. Now this train of thought may rightly seem crazy to some people, but if you suffer from ADHD, it can consume you. So you step away from the project, thinking you may return. And then it moulders in a drawer, in an unopened computer file. Now and again you’re reminded of it, and the thought of the mistake, the unfinished project, lances into you. You’re reminded of all the other things you’ve left undone, all the other things you have to do. You spiral.

So you stop trying new things. The beautiful tabula rasa becomes a taunt. You can’t do it. You can’t do it. Paralysis. Don’t move, don’t talk, don’t think. The only way to avoid these hundreds of cascading little failures is to lock yourself away, to stop. To sit. To regret.

Until you don’t. Until one day you remember that no one cares so much about your little mistakes. Until you remember that no mistake made could possibly weigh on you as much as the ghosts of all those abandoned projects, forsaken correspondences, those tupperware containers filled with rotting mysteries at the back of the fridge. And in a frenzy of activity lasting a few days you manage to do a month’s worth of writing, calling, cleaning. Soon enough, you’ve cleared things up, and the tabula rasa, the blank slate, is restored.

Until you mess it up again. The cycle continues. But each time it gets a little shorter, your recovery a little better, you get a tiny bit more comfortable with making mistakes. You still rue that you didn’t learn how to gracefully accept shortcomings as a kid, you may blame someone for not teaching you, but now you realise that you’re an adult with ADHD. You know why you feel like this. There’s a reason for your pain. A reason that can be dealt with.

So you come back to the blog you’ve neglected for months. And you tell yourself you can write a few posts, at least, before you drift away again. You tell yourself that this work matters, because it does. You leave the door open to do better.

And that’s all you can do.

—-
I live in Tucson Arizona now, and I’m hoping to be more regular about this blog. If you like what I write, please reach out and let me know! Ask me any question that comes to mind, and if you really like this post please feel free to share it on whatever social media you deem appropriate.

I’m still me, so regularity may be a pipe dream, but I can promise a content storm for the next little while!

How I Learned To Live, Wanting to Die

Thanksgiving Day, 2007. I stand in my basement bedroom, a cord in my hands. The most insistent thought beats like a drum in my head- Die, die, die. I wrap the cord around my neck and I pull. I pull, hoping to strangle myself. I don’t think through the fact that even if I could make myself pass out by this course of action, once I passed out my grip would release and I’d be able to breathe once more. It’s hard to think clearly when all you want to do is die.

That was the first time I tried to kill myself. Over the next decade I’d try or begin to try many more times. I tied belts around coat hooks and door knobs and attempt very slow and ineffectual hangings. I’d linger for a while at the edges of cliffs or on the top of the Salt Lake City Public Library, while a small voice would say “Jump!” In September of 2011, I drove my mother’s car into a rocky slope on the side of a highway in Idaho, going 87 miles an hour. I survived with just a few scratches.

These urges were overpowering before I transitioned, before I started treating my ADHD and my bipolar disorder. They’ve reduced over time, but sadly they haven’t ever completely gone away. I’ll go a week or two now without considering it, which was unfathomable to me only a few years ago, but the urge still crops up from time to time. I think the reality is the urge may never really go away.

This morning I found myself pondering it a moment. Some voice in my head says “just end this sordid tale, here and now.” But I managed to ride out the impulse. There’s no one magic fix to suicidal ideation. Having supportive people to talk to helps, certainly, as does therapy, but the ideas will still crop up, and they are alarming and discouraging, especially when one is otherwise on an upwards trajectory.

So, how do I cope with occasionally and persistently wanting to die? Ironically, I’ve embraced Death as a kind of deity, and a source of joy.

I had a realisation walking in the Salt Lake Cemetery (which is my favourite place to stroll); that all of us are fated to die, and that is a very good thing. Death gives life its meaning. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “it is the scarcity which makes anything precious.” Death is the one true unifying characteristic of life, and indeed of the universe itself. Everything will eventually decay and die and run out of energy. Our story has an end.

Knowing this, accepting it, I realised that more than anything I want the story of my life to be an interesting one. It doesn’t have to be a happy story, and hell it probably won’t be, but I’ll be damned if people don’t have a lot of good tales to tell about me at my funeral.

So how does this help when I feel suicidal? My life’s been pretty interesting so far- what would be the real harm in writing that last page myself? Setting aside the grief it would cause those who love me (because once I’m dead that won’t really affect me), it would make a bad story if I took the shortcut to the end. It’s not how I should end my story, plain and simple. I may die the second after I post this from an aneurysm, later today in a freak accident, or in 75 years in a bed surrounded by close friends and family, but all of those, I believe, would be better than if I’d killed myself this morning.

Death is universal and unavoidable. She will take us all into her cold and tranquil arms one day. But I firmly believe that the moment anointed should belong to her, not to me. So I breathe deep, I text or call some friends, and remind myself that the urge will pass. That I don’t have to take that grave responsibility onto my shoulders. Because Lady Death is the one who should write those closing words- “And then, Beatrice died. The End.

Until those words are written I need to live, to write, to laugh, to love, to cry, to drink, to dance- all the pain and joy of life is still mine to experience. I’ll keep writing my story, and when Lady Death comes for me, I’ll embrace her as an old and cherished friend. When she wants me, she’ll have me, but the choice will be hers, not mine. What peace it brings me to know that.

The Facade – Excerpt From An Unremarkable Girl

This comes from Chapter 2 – “When I Knew”. It is the story of how the real me began to disappear into the male facade that I would wear for more than a decade until I was finally ready to come out. 

When I was in third grade I told a friend at recess about my wish, about wanting to be a girl. She was always a sweet friend, but she looked at me with a side-eyed glance when I revealed my innermost desire.

“That’s weird,” she said, the word “weird” delivered like a shoe stamping on a bug.

There was to be no further discussion of that point. That day I learned that as much as I desired to be a girl, it wasn’t “normal”. It wasn’t “okay”. It was “Weird” with a capital “W.” So I started to push it down. I still admired my female role models, the witches of my early childhood, the Queens of England, the Empresses of Austria and Russia, but I would no longer pretend to be them. I still loved television or films with strong female characters (or even better yet female protagonists), but I was more cautious about emulating them. Being a “boy” and wanting to be a girl was weird.

I began to build a male facade. Though many messages in children’s media and elementary school would tell me “be yourself!”, I knew that to be a polite fiction. “Be yourself” has a big stinking asterisk next to it. “Be yourself; if yourself is a gender-conforming individual who will have the right interests and perform according to societal expectations. Otherwise, be the self we want you to be.”

I worked hard to build the male facade. I tried to follow my father’s encouragement and participate in sports- because that’s what boys were supposed to do. Unfortunately, I am intrinsically ill-suited to physical activity that requires a great degree of hand-eye coordination and concentration. Playing softball I always took the outfield, and never caught a single ball- I’d be staring off into space while it would land with a thud next to me, snapping out of my daze only when a team-mate called out “Get the ball, stupid!”

As I built this performative male facade, the real me grew more and more disconnected. She shone through in her passion for history, in her love of unusual foods (for an American child) such as mussels and escargot, but she went into hiding whenever the expectations of society demanded the performance of masculinity. The older I got, the more performance was demanded of me. This produced a disconnect between the real me, the girl at the centre, and the performative facade, and the disconnect produced dissociation. I have far fewer memories of my elementary school days than most of my peers, simply because I was putting on the facade so much of the time. When I was performing as male, I wasn’t myself, and since I wasn’t myself I wasn’t forming memories, or at least not the fond memories of childish bliss many people form in their elementary days. I remember most clearly moments of pain or great shame, for they lanced through the facade and pierced the girl within, leaving scars that still twinge when I recall them today.

….

Thank you so much, dear readers, for your time. Please leave comments and share if you liked the piece or if you have any questions for me about it, and always feel free to sign up for email alerts by use of the button right below this post.