Letter to My Body
Joy Ladin, Transgender Experience, and Process Theology
The withness of the body
-- Alfred North Whitehead
Letter to my Body
Joy Ladin's interview in On Being
What is trangender?
Transgender (adj.)An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Why not say transgendered?
Some people who identify as "transgender" feel part male and part female, some feel gender-less, some make make a transition from one gender to another
Most transgender people I know have felt a gender incongruity for as long as they remember, and evolving science says we were probably born feeling like this. The only thing that changed along the way has been our awareness that there are others like us. We didn't "decide" to be transgender.
The Metaphysics of Transition
To walk in the margins is hard enough; but to also retain the presence of mind (and spirit) to document the experience of transition is like trying to breathe in the cosmic vacuum. The rhythms of Ladin’s poetry are such cosmic breaths. With one identity shed and the other not quite yet assimilated, at times, Ladin’s poetry trims off all matter of the physical existence, holding up to readers nothing but the frail, stark, metaphysical essence of the in-between.
Excerpts from Joy Ladin's interview with Krista Tippett in On Being
God is a real, living presence
Joy Ladin: But what really drew me to Judaism was that, like many trans kids, I had an intense sense of God as a real, living, constant presence. And Judaism — not Jewishness as in ethnicity, but Judaism in general and the Torah in particular was really the only place in my world that there was any talk about God, representation of God, sense of God....
God doesn't have a body
Joy Ladin: Traditional Judaism is extremely gender divided. However, the Torah includes one really genderless character and that’s God. Because to spite the male pronouns, God doesn’t have a body. And, when I was a kid, that was a very powerful, not really articulated sense of connection that I had. Because I had male pronouns, but I didn’t feel like I had a body.
The binary system was suffocating
Joy Ladin: And to me, gender was like a fish trying to breathe air. It was the binary gender system that was really all that was available in the mid-20th-century world that I was living in. I couldn't thrive or survive in it, and so I had no choice but to be excruciatingly aware of it.
It was a choice between living and dying
Joy Ladin: The secular world also provides moralizing terms for transgender people. The one that is most frequently heard is "selfish." You're selfish. Your gender — unlike everybody else's gender, your gender is hurting people. You don't have to, you know, everybody else, I'm guessing, some people do.
Joy Ladin: Orthodox Jewish culture has a lot of misogyny built into it, and I am not trying to romanticize that away and my students do suffer from it. But they also, this is what I hadn't — I'd known that stuff, but what I didn't realize was that, in Orthodox Judaism, everything that you do matters. It matters to God. It matters in the absolute sense. So whether or not you light Shabbat candles at the right time, that really matters.
Growing more grateful and joyful
Joy Ladin: For most of my life, you know, my male life, my version of Descartes dictum would have been "I kvetch, therefore I am." I was a walking complaint about existence. And because it all felt wrong to me and I felt that it wasn't my fault that was actually not true. I still was a responsible human being, but I felt like, basically I can't be who I am, so I'm really suffering existence rather than being given a gift and an opportunity and a challenge and a responsibility and all those actually mature attitudes.
Poems by Joy Ladin
Letter To My Body
Philosophers shilly-shally, but it’s true: you are me; I am you.
This dust, these rays, this strange internal sense
that after all these years, I finally exist -- all of this
is only mine through you.
You still seem surprised – that’s part of your charm -
that I wish to be extracted
from your handsome bindings.
This, you say, is only the beginning,
which is why it feels like drowning
in what we've both survived.
Ever the politician, I say I’ll be your widow,
smiling cheerfully as you die.
Not yet, you say, as though
— this is the other part of your charm --
you still believe in time.
Violent laughter, yours and mine.
Let’s go out into the woods
of meaning and matter, among the laurels and the mustard,
the unlit suns and unnamed branches, listening shoots and loosening leaves
we only appreciate when we’re drowning
in one another. Let’s break up before we meet
and fall in love again
in the darkening parlor of the heart,
let’s wait for God in the gathering dusk
and watch the stars come out.
Somewhere Between Male and Female
Somewhere between male and female
The soul gets lost
Where are you calls the mother of the soul
But the soul never had a mother
get back here this instant the father demands
But somewhere between male and female
The soul failed to be fathered
Male and female
Split at the seams
Leaving the soul naked
Criss-crossed with scars
Male scars and female scars
Breast scars and testicle scars
Scars like doors
And scars like fingers
Fingers point at the naked soul
Doors slam in its face
The soul is still alone
It is only dreaming
It’s been discovered
In the space between male and female
When You Leave Your Children
When you leave your children
To become yourself,
Your self leaves
To become a child. Calls to ask
When you’ll come home.
Sobs when you answer.
Your self will never understand
You couldn’t bear
Was the only life
You had to give her.
The self you thought
You would never have
Sobs on the other end of the line
Like a child who knows
Without being told
You are never coming back.
The Soul at 14th and 2nd
Cold but happy among the hundreds
Of other souls
Wreathed in the haze
Of roasting chestnuts
Souls buying socks souls buying chestnuts
Souls consumed by various hungers
And souls who drift beyond hunger
Each soul naked to the others
Revealed to the least
By the shadowless light
That flares and glimmers
Like flame beneath chestnuts
When soul brushes soul
Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/bintel-blog/115972/joy-ladin-and-her-transmigration-poems/?#ixzz3Ln1yjsEs
With unsparing honesty and surprising humor, Ladin wrestles with both the practical problems of gender transition and the larger moral, spiritual, and philosophical questions that arise. Ladin recounts her struggle to reconcile the pain of her experience living as the “wrong” gender with the pain of her children in losing the father they love. We eavesdrop on her lifelong conversations with the God whom she sees both as the source of her agony and as her hope for transcending it. We look over her shoulder as she learns to walk and talk as a woman after forty-plus years of walking and talking as a man. We stare with her into the mirror as she asks herself how the new self she is creating will ever become real.
Process Theology and Transgender
First thoughts after listening to Joy Ladin
The body is always with us in this life, says Whitehead. It may be our friend, our enemy, or somewhere in between. But our body is with us and we are with our body. Still, says Whitehead, we are more than our bodies, including maybe even our brains. We are concrescing subjects – souls, if you will – who are always becoming along with our bodies, other people, the natural world and, of course, ourselves. We are also trying to make peace with a society that too often divides the world into overly simple binaries such as “male” and “female.” Some among us are at home in these binaries and some are not. But even if we are at home in them, even if we find it easy to divide the world into he and she, these ways of thinking can be harmful to others. Along with others we must help create societies in which it is good, indeed enjoyable, to be not-male and not-female, given the binaries; in which it is good, indeed enjoyable, to be in a metaphysical in-between, given the binaries. And we can rightly struggle, along with others, to develop ways of speaking and acting which bypass the binaries altogether. For one thing, and this is only one thing, we can try to find ways of speaking religiously that are not so binary-ridden. We can relinquish our attachments to God as a supreme He -- or maybe, as Christians have it, three of them. It won't do simply to replace the language with images of a supreme She. We need fresh language, new language, non-idolatrous language, where we learn to sit loose with convention and walk gracefully in multiple metaphors.
Experience is concrete and particular
The binaries are, after all, social constructions – abstractions – which shape consciousness, but which are not concrete in their own right. What is concrete is lived experience itself, the act of feeling and responding to the world, moment by moment, in whatever skin you find yourself. A soul is not a thing, notes the process philosopher Bob Mesle; it is a weaving of relationships with others, including our bodies. The weaving never stops; it is always in process. The soul is a becoming, not a being.
Process theologians add that the Soul of the universe, too, is a weaving of relationships. This Soul – whom we can rightly address as God – is beyond all gender in some ways, and inclusive of all genders in another. Jews and other monotheists are right to be careful with gender language such as “he” or “she.” And yet this Soul, in its pure divinity, reaches out to each of us and all of us, all the time, beckoning us to become who we might best become, given the conditions of our bodies and our lives, and given the relationships in which we find ourselves. The Soul works in us and in all others as a spirit of creative transformation, of love.
The Soul of the universe is creative and gracious
No one is unwelcomed by this Soul. An Episcopal priest, the Reverend Teri Daily, tells us that the Soul offers as a million second chances, plus more. Who cannot be grateful for this grace? This grace, this perpetual second chance, is not something we achieve. It is a gift from heaven forever flowing to earth. For some of us, changing genders, once a day or for a lifetime, is a way of responding to this gift, the gift of creative transformation. It is a way of walking in grace.
But don't we all need to walk this way, whether transitioning or not transitioning? Let us follow the lead of Joy Ladin, Who cannot feel just a little bit of joy at being alive in the first place: alive enough to struggle, to complain, to trust, to love, to forgive, and to be forgiven? And who cannot be grateful for the gift of life itself, even if sometimes terribly painful?
Those among us in the transgender community may well understand this gratitude, this joy. We know, perhaps better than others, that the Soul of the universe is multigendered, offering fresh possibilities for new life. And those among us who do not identify as transgender can rightly recognize that, truth be told, we are in transition, too, always trying to figure out who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We all struggle to find our place in a world that too often confines us, and everything else, by fixed binaries. We are all always more than any given gender, or all of them combined, not because we are more general but because we are more particular.
In the ongoing life of the universal Soul, the very categories of gender are seen for what they are: abstractions, sometimes harmful and sometimes helpful, from the concreteness of each concrescing soul, infinitely precious in the heart of heaven. When we walk in the peace of the divine Soul -- the great in-between -- what we see is the beauty of particular souls who, moment by moment, make their way in a universe of inter-becoming and who, at their best, love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. This love is a gift, too, a daily grace, from the heart of heaven.
-- Jay McDaniel