Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Stories and Metaphors

It's funny how sometimes, even in total ignorance, you can manage to get a metaphor for something totally right. This is probably not something to be too proud of, since that one nugget of truth is usually surrounded by many others that are so much less right. In this case I'm talking about metaphors for transition. Right before I publicly started that process I thought of it in terms of leaping off cliffs and of taking flight. And while those images did capture both the terror and exhilaration of that process, in a more fundamental way they fell short of the truth, they were incomplete and inadequate metaphors for the process. 

Why do metaphors matter? I'm convinced that humans are creatures that need metaphors and stories to make sense of life. We need metaphors and stories to shape how we understand the world, how we see ourselves and how we respond.

So the nature of those metaphors matters. If we choose to tell ourselves a story of victimhood and oppression, our view of the world and our futures will be colored  by that view. And if we choose a story of triumph and challenges overcome, that too, will shape our worlds. At least in choosing the image of leaping off the cliff I was acting rather than suffering, choosing my own path in spite of the obvious danger, and that was good.

The Grand Canyon

However, as I think about it now, it's an older metaphor that reflects the experience more accurately. When I was first contemplating transition it seemed like a daunting task. A personality built over decades had to be dismantled, roles and behaviors learned over the years had to be unlearned, and connections forged over a lifetime had to be broken. Only then, I thought, could I start to build the new personality, roles, and behaviors that express who I really was and wanted to be. 

The image I saw was an immense canyon - a deep wide chasm that I wanted to cross. And the only way to get across was first to slowly, painfully, and patiently make the journey to the bottom. Then, I thought, the actual moment of transition would be a tiny hop across a narrow stream, really not much at all. That would be followed, of course, but the long slow climb back out the other side. 

That image resonates with me these days. In fact, I spent years making that descent, so slowly that people didn't realize - my  hair grew longer, I changed my job, my city, and so many other things. Old connections were left behind, often sadly. It was a long trek down, but eventually I did get down to that critical point. And in fact, when I got to that point at the bottom, I was right - it wasn't so much a leap off a cliff as a hop over a tiny stream.

Now, I'm on the climb back up the other side. The climb was exhausting at first. I am creating the woman I need and want to be as I go, deciding how she likes to dress, what things she likes, and who she is. Not all of the old person has gone, but almost everything is up for consideration, almost everything has to be learned, in almost every aspect I feel like I'm a novice, being judged by a more experienced world.

And probably more importantly, I'm considering how that woman will walk through the world. Again, not everything has changed, and probably some things never will. I still can't resist some jokes, and on the flip side, the reserve I got from my taciturn Scandinavian upbringing and a lifetime of concealing who I was will never go entirely away. But there is room for important change. The woman I am becoming is perhaps no kinder and gentler than the man was, but she is definitely more free to express and even celebrate kindness and gentleness. Free from the man's implicit self-loathing she is more able to embrace the good times and to cherish her friends.

And that has lead to a joyous surprise. On the way down I thought that most connections were truly broken, that each person I had left behind was gone for good. I am now learning to my joy that I was wrong - the way up has increasingly been populated by old friends, each one of them as invigorating as a cool drink. And each one of those old friends I meet along the way, each one who manages to see the new me, remember the old me, and then pull the two together, makes the journey that much easer. 

It's hard to be whole without a past, and it turns out that this has been one the key lessons of the climb back up out of the canyon - not only must a new personality be forged from the shards of the old, for it to be truly whole it must embrace all of the old one's past, the pleasant and the painful, the sadness and the joy. 

This was the part that I didn't understand when I first contemplated the process years ago. I saw the journey to the bottom, I saw the trek back up. I even guessed at the insignificance of the stream. But I didn't understand the true work of the climb back up, and I didn't see all of the friends who would be there to make the journey such a pleasure. 

All of which is really a riff on my earlier post. There I said that I would be unlikely to reach out to old friends because I didn't know if they would want to see me. To put it another way, I was afraid of being rejected. I've now come to see that staying away from old friends out of the fear they might not accept me is not the way to continue my climb.

Many old friends have found me and reached out first, and I treasure them. But I have also started making the contacts on my own, and that is just as important. Offering myself, the real me this time, to old friends and acquaintances is a sign that I value who I am, something that wasn't so true before. It's a move forward in hope and trust, which are hugely important to the woman I am.

What this means is that I'm going to hesitate less and worry less about getting in touch with people. Of course I'll still treasure those who find me. But if it strikes me, if I am reminded of or some how run across someone I used to know, I probably won't let fear of rejection stop me from reconnecting. And I think that's a good thing.

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