Family values

I am the proud and loving father of a trans-woman.

My daughter Lucy began life as Luke and was a delightful and charming little boy! She is now a most delightful and charming young women, and is making a great life for herself as a circus arts performer. She does juggling, balancing, unicycle (non-binary cycle, she calls the single-wheel and triple-stack versions) and a variety of astoundingly beautiful feminine stage characters with an entertaining banter featuring nuanced humor and commentary.

As a 70-yr-old, straight white southern man who grew up in a time and place when there was little to no public discussion of anything anything outside the cis-gender, binary world, it has been challenging for me to understand and truly relate to the whole process, and as a parent it has been emotionally difficult to accept that we perhaps didn’t really understand what was going on with our child for many years. But we have been living with this reality for about a year now, and things are truly fine.

To put all this in context, we live in a small rural town in south Georgia where the churches are the dominant social institution and all the “red-state” values are strong. (Redneck is no longer politically correct, but it was born here!) Yet, in this small town of just over 10,000 people, we have known four young people personally who have transitioned in the last few years, most of whom I taught in middle school or high school. One of them was very good friends with Lucy in high school, and we were very close to her during the transition. In fact, my wife could probably be credited with saving her life at one point.

Most of these people no longer live in our town, some of them don’t feel comfortable coming to visit. A brave and resourceful few are still trying to live and work here. It’s not easy. That too, is another story.

Without my wife, whose New York Italian background gave her a little more perspective and equanimity about it all, I’m not sure how well I would have done at getting through all this. Knowing and talking with the other young people who have transitioned has been really helpful as well.

We have all had lots of help, and I am particularly grateful also to the writer Allison Washington, a woman who transitioned a long time ago. She writes in a variety of venues with great clarity and openness about her own transition, as it has helped me understand some of the depths and subtleties of the process that I was probably too ignorant and shy to ask about.  (Her Patreon site is a good place to delve into her writing. She’s also on Medium and has been published recently in a variety of national print mags, so probably an easy google…)

I have wrestled for some time with what to say about all this, how to explain our feelings and responses, how to account for this seemingly astounding incidence of children who don’t fit the category assigned them at birth or the gender roles those assignments required of them socially. If you check the stats, however you’ll find that there are probably something like 60 transitioned people living in our town, with somewhere between half and one-quarter of them young people. So it’s just that we’ve been pretty oblivious for a long time.

If you need more knowledge and understanding of this subject, there is lots on the inter-webs, and there is notably a National Geographic issue devoted to the topic. I’m just relating my personal experience, which some people seem to feel is relevant.

At this point, though we are all still working to come to better understanding of it all, I am happy to say that our family is still intact and we have responded gracefully, lovingly to our children as they become who they really are. In the early stages, it was hard, and the feeling of loss was sometimes strong. Gradually, we were able to see that Lucy’s heart is the same, despite the differences in surface appearance, and that it’s that person we love, not the trappings.

Her assurances that we did not fail her in those early years have helped a lot. She says she was very good at concealing what she was going through. As apparently are many.

Most wonderfully, we realize more deeply week by week that Lucy is so much happier, more fulfilled, more expansive and whole that none of those early concerns – how did we fail her? how will she make it? what will she do? what will people think? etc. – are even part of our thoughts anymore.

Lucy is happy and whole and we love her! That’s the important thing.

A new site for posts…

I have recently moved the hosting for my other website, “A War Journal“, to WordPress and am trying to make it a more active site.

It has been primarily a vehicle for generating and making public my book by the same title, but I think it could also be a better place for my social/political blogging, leaving this site to what it was originally designed to be, a meditation guide. I have begun by re-posting a few essays from this site to that one, in the hopes of connecting readers of the two in some way. I’ve created a new category on the War Journal site, “Over the edge…” — which in many ways is how I feel about things these days — and I plan to post new social and political commentary there.

Some things may end up getting posted both places, at least in the beginning, as I feel out this new environment. Thanks for reading any of it! Would love to have a few comments here, and I welcome feedback on the whole process.

Another idea I am floating as a trial balloon is having multiple writers. I’m not very regular at blogging, so it might help to have others interested in writing who don’t want the hassle of managing a website join in the fun, as that seems to work well for other sites that I visit. So, if you’re interested, let me know!

My email is somewhere here I think, but I’ll repost it for simplicity: john.feden@gmail.com

Peace!

Revisiting “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

[This was first posted in 2015, but the current social climate has persuaded me to re-post this, and perhaps some other pertinent posts, as a response to what I hear out there.]

In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,”* James Baldwin laid the creation of the racist society that threatens our very existence at the feet of those waves of European immigrants who left behind their separate national/cultural identities to come to “America” and become white.

In his new work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up where Baldwin left off, explicating the idea, describing in heart-breaking personal detail this deeply rooted cancer, and painting a richly textured vision of what it’s like growing up black in America today, the America of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, this book pierces to the heart of the moral bankruptcy that is being revealed in greater detail with each passing news cycle.

To say this book is profound, deep, pivotal is almost understatement. This book is a samurai sword cutting off the head of the monster that has arisen from the festering evil pit of “white supremacy”. It makes as clear as seems possible exactly how and why this situation has come to pass, exactly how horrendous it is, and lays out a vision of what just possibly could be a way through to a future for humanity.

Coates articulates so clearly the perspective, the experience, the human tragedy of Black America that it seems to me that anyone who reads this book would experience at least a crack in the armor of hate and apathy that perpetuates this evil situation. He allows one to get inside – as nearly as possible via the writers’ craft – how it feels, the fear and insecurity, the anger and loathing that permeate our streets. With the added dimension of the father’s deep sadness and fear for his son, that most deeply human quality of love and instinct for protection, he buries his message deep in the heart.

Tony Morrison says this book is “required reading” and that Coates fills the intellectual void left when Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe it could open the hearts and minds of even the most mean-spirited, small-minded, low-life racists and haters, and if it could truly become required reading for our next generation, we might have a chance.

As you feel Coates’ love for his child, this so-familiar human emotion, his deep humanity comes through, and you understand in this deeply visceral way that his color, his appearance, his “race” is such a small and superficial aspect of who he is that one can only see, however dimly, what an absurd notion is “race.”

But this book goes far beyond debunking racism, far beyond a simple diatribe on the evils of racist white society. It provides a deeply honest inquiry into what it takes for one man to be free, a lyric anthem to the meaning of the struggle, and a truly profound vision of humanity at its heart.

Coates also makes it clear that the black people of America are not the sole victims of the flawed vision of life, which he calls The Dream, but that this habit of thought, this conception of the human role on the earth is creating a violent, authoritarian nightmare that is laying waste the people of the earth and the Earth itself.

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” [p. 98]

“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”[p. 111]

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

Coates’ vision for a transcendent future is not an overly hopeful one. But it likely is the best we have. “I do not believe we can stop them,” he says of The Dreamers, the “white” power elite who are destroying black people and the world. He goes on, speaking to his son, Samori, who is named for the late 19th century Guinean who resisted the French colonial powers:

“…because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

If we who call ourselves white can step off this stage, shed this absurd notion of whiteness, abandon the destructive pursuits of the ill-conceived ‘dream’, and learn to struggle, to find the meaning in the struggle alongside those who have suffered so much and know its lessons, then perhaps there’s some light at the end of that long dark tunnel we’ve made. Perhaps we’ll find our way together to a new story that includes everyone and everything.

[*For a PDF of Baldwin’s essay, visit Collective Liberation]

http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

Zen Center

It was the Fall of 1994 and Claire had just returned from a visit to Atlanta where she had been reintroduced to old friends in the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and had spent a few hours meditating there over the weekend. Her description of and enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Zen Center dropped like a hot coal in my mind.
Giana and I had been living in Jesup, Georgia for some five years then, and we had been friends with Claire since she and her husband Neill had moved to Jesup about a year after we did. We had hit it off immediately and become best friends, especially as Claire became our doctor and delivered our daughter, Liana.

We shared lots of interests and values with Claire and Neill, but somehow the topic of Buddhism had never come up –we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality at all as I recall. We were all pretty much socialist and materialist in our life philosophies — one reason we hit it off so well in a small south Georgia town where to express such ideas was a sure path to social ostracism. In fact, in Jesup, the first question you’re most likely to be asked upon being introduced to someone is: Where do you go to church?

So we had become fast friends with Claire and Neill, and no one had ever noticed my half-carved Buddha statue sitting in the living room, nor had my quiet interest in Buddhism ever come up in conversation.
But when Claire told me about re-connecting with a friend from Emory University days who had for several years been leading a Zen meditation center in the Candler Park area of Atlanta, I pointed out my rude sculpture to her and told her of my early Buddhist experiences in Thailand, and my continuing interest in Zen. I think I was in the midst of reading Suzuki Roshi’s little book at the time, and was still trying to sit every now and then, so I was ready for the news that there was somewhere I could go for serious Zen.

And more than ready for someone to share it with. Claire had brought home chant sheets from Zen Center, and she and I began doing little meditation sessions in the under-construction second floor of their house, which I was helping Neill build. Of course, I didn’t journal during much of this, so the details and sequence are pretty cloudy for me now 24 years later. I did write in August of 1993: “…I know clearly that I am on the Path now. Consistent sitting (inspired by Claire’s jump into Zen and the legitimization in Giana’s eyes that Claire gives it) has made me sure of the Buddhism that I embraced those years ago when my Thai friend said, ‘Buddha say, just enough!’”

And it wasn’t long before I went with Claire to Atlanta for a weekend sesshin. That first day in the little Candler Park zendo, October 2, 1993, sitting on those black cushions facing the old granite walls of the converted gas station, is very clear in my memory. I remember the slight apprehension as I removed my shoes in the tiny, quiet foyer formed by old windows with white panes, the smell of the incense, and the black backs of the motionless meditators around the walls as I followed Claire to a vacant cushion.
Settling in to my cushion I remember a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at the opportunity to be there, actually sitting with a group of people doing Zen meditation.

For years, I had assumed that such things only happened in faraway places, and that seven years in a monastery in Japan was pretty much the only model for finding enlightenment. Now here I was in the midst of clearly serious Zen practice, only a few hours from home.
I spent most of that first day with tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat and breathed, walked and chanted. In my journal that night, I wrote: “I have wanted to do this for so long, and despaired of ever having the opportunity, so the reality is very sweet.”

I also discovered the Heart Sutra and quickly came to love it. The group chanting, and later my own chanting of it, seemed to open up meaning in the ancient words that a simple reading of it might not reveal. I had long loved the Buddhist sutras, since my introduction to them in the university class in Kansas City, but this was my first experience with how their use in meditative chanting revealed deeper meanings.

So the Heart Sutra and other chants became a part of my regular practice, one that has held up through the years since as a profound comfort through the difficult times of my life.

I think the most important effect from finding Zen Center and a zen buddy was that I began, really for the first time, consistent sitting. I began sitting on our screen porch, because there I could set up my cushion and a little altar and it wasn’t in anyone’s way — or in anyone’s face. I could pop in, sit for a few minutes, and move on with little wasted time. I was teaching school then, so I had a regular daily schedule and could work in one or two sittings each day fairly easily. I found that even a few minutes in the morning helped my school day — engaging with middle schoolers is not easy — go much more smoothly and I was much less affected by the stress of the job.

Surprisingly, my entry into open Zen practice also proved to be a very positive influence in the development of a better spiritual relationship with my mother.

As I mentioned in the chapter on Daddy and the problems we had surrounding my resistance to the Vietnam War, my mother and I had long been on a close spiritual path in many ways, and she understood my pacifism and the need to part ways with the Air Force. But she never had been able to accept my negative ideas about Christianity and my refusal through the years — despite the brief flirtation with the church in Missouri — to find an adult acceptance of “Jesus as my savior”. My mother’s personal faith was a profoundly spiritual version of Christianity, one that I deeply respected, and she was never a “hide-bound” Christian, to use a term she employed. She would have likely been run out of the southern Baptist church she attended had the folks there known the depth to which her differences with their theology extended, but her faith and love were so strong, shone out so clearly from her great, great soul, that no one ever suspected her heresies.
Because she was able to transcend what she saw as the human limitations in the Christian religion, she thought I should be able to do the same, and we had never quite seen eye-to-eye on any of it, especially as she was so acutely aware of the suffering I experienced without a truly liberating spiritual life.

My formal, open entry into Buddhism, while not what she would have preferred for me, was positive for Mother because it made me a happier and more balanced person. She could see that, and for her that was strong evidence in its favor, despite her differences with the beliefs and practices. So our relationship steadily began to improve and we began to be able to have meaningful discussion about spiritual matters.
Though I didn’t really talk about it a lot, I did “come out” as Buddhist to my family — and eventually to my students — with no negative responses. I even made it through that first Christmas with my siblings at Mom’s house smoothly, despite the fact that some of my siblings are toward the fundamentalist side of the Christian religion.

My wife, Giana, was supportive of all these changes, though she wasn’t too sure about it all, and didn’t have any interest at the time in Buddhism or in taking up the practice of meditation. She was, to my great relief, fine with my going off on weekends with our friend Claire for retreats, and fine with holding meditations in the loft of her pottery shop, even supportive of my setting up meditation areas in the bedroom when it got too cold out on the screen porch for sitting.

The next summer, I went off for a week-long retreat at Southern Dharma, this time by myself, and she was very supportive of that as well.

She was fine with most of it because she too could see that it was good for me. I was easier to get along with and less prone to the depression and anger that plagued me after beginning the regular practice.
But it didn’t fix everything.

 

(This post also appears here as a Page in the sequential section as 17.)

Continuing the story…

As part of a commitment I made to myself during a recent meditation retreat, I’m planning to continue the story of my way-finding, which was the original impetus for beginning this blog some years ago.

The story is in the section WordPress calls “Pages” and is sequential rather than most-recent-first, as the blog posts are presented. That works well, as the way-finding is a sequential story… traditionally a thing that describes how one got onto the Way of the Buddha and what it has led one to… or something like that.

I am working on the next installment, and hope to get it posted in the next day or so. The working title of this chapter is “Zen Center”. I hope I have enough distance on all that now to write about it clearly and honestly. It’s not easy to write about things so close at hand and so fraught with personal stuff… but I hope it will be helpful to those for whom the path ahead seems dark. If only by showing that usually, that’s how it is… there’s very little light on the path ahead at any point along the way, we just keep walking, looking for the openings and confirmations.