He said, “I’ve been reading Frankenstein. I feel like I’m him.”
Sitting in our favorite micro-brew bar I look in his eyes and see some level of inaccessible pain where I can’t meet him. I can understand it though. Most of the time I see a young, really pretty guy but he is a constructed creature from the dead in a way. So am I. Most every birth is re-birth after some kind of death.
His is profound.
Aaron is a transgender man. Seven years ago he was a lesbian woman working in construction. He was misunderstood by his family and friends but mostly by himself. Now he is on his way to getting his doctorate and-he is a man right down to his plaid shirt and work boots.
He reads like the thirstiest person I’ve ever seen drinking in novels for every bit of insight he can gather. As a result he knows a lot and grows in wisdom every time I see him. He tells me he’s sick of being alone and that’s what makes him relate to being a monster. He feels like neither man nor woman even though he is leaning back in his chair with a little chin fuzz and the snap in his eyes of a young dude who knows exactly what he’s capable of doing.
I remind him of his little saying he pulls out when someone else doubts him, “I’m made of stardust. I’m meant to shine.” He’s grinning that country guy way, “It’s kind of cute but also sort of bullshitty.” I smile back,”it is kind of bulshitty.”
Then he hits me with his favorite question that makes me squirm, “Okay. How’s your writing going?”
Urghh. Kryptonite. Nothing shatters me worse than that question,” How is it going? Oh good God—how can anyone know?”
He and I are on the self-doubt route in this moment because we love the poetic, dark colors in the crayon box but it’s a game played by writers toying around with words and concepts to see what happens– we both know how to change directions. We are long time practitioners of getting knocked down and getting back up again. Both writers, both given to trying lives out of the main stream and despite getting our shit together and losing it frequently and failing more than we succeed, we have succeeded.
So how does a self-described “Southern cracker, trans man from the trailer park” become a promising doctoral student on the cusp of a book deal?
In a word: resilience.
Here are our collected top ways of developing resilience:
Trust only your opinion: Some people call this instinct or intuition but really it’s understanding that your data about you is more extensive than anyone else in the world. You are the only one who has been there for every minute of your life having your experiences. You know how they add up and you calculate it so quickly you may not be able to back track to explain all the ways you came to your answer but that does not make it less valid. Some people call this “gut” or “knowing” but all your life you have been conducting this experiment known as your life. You’ve been testing your limits and trying lots of things. At a certain point you know what you want and what works. Tap into that and you’ll know what’s worth doing.
Get to know yourself: You can’t get the first rule right if you don’t figure this out. Getting to know yourself is an entire lifetime of work but there are ways to accelerate the process so you can get on with a life that’s meant for you. Everyone hates this advice—you might too—but sit still every day for at least thirty minutes and watch your thoughts without talking to them. You can monitor your breath to focus your mind and then sit still and watch what thoughts show up. At first your mind will race, you’ll want to follow your thoughts down all their rabbit holes, you’ll feel antsy and you’ll declare, “that doesn’t work for me” or “I don’t have time.” Meditation is difficult for absolutely everyone. Some days your mind wanders everywhere and it seems pointless but do it anyway, every day and your life will begin to change because you will change.
Love the Pain: The road to success is paved with lots of shit you will stub your toe on and some of these obstacles will be shame inducing and heart breaking. I’d like to sugar coat it but the rules insist on honestly. When you step into this mythical thing of an authentic life your friends and family may think you’re looking unstable and it may be true for a bit. Getting life right is expensive. You may find yourself quitting activities, jobs and relationships that once felt secure. But be patient with yourself and others who may think you’ve lost your mind. Ask for help when you need it from the ones who worry about you and love the pain because it is teaching you. Here are some ways to talk about it that helps us laugh:
• I’m so grateful for my epic failure just now—there is some quality learning happening.
• I’ve got some good suffering.
• Am I okay in this exact moment—am I safe? Okay how about this one?
• Am I in pain because something I wanted didn’t happen? Does it mean nothing I like will ever happen?
Reject Norms: Musician/philosopher Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible.” He meant this as a social commentary but it also applies as a personal one. When you do not question your own assumptions how will you know what thoughts are yours and which ones belong to a culture that you may or may not really fit with? This is a very exciting part of your new life. Start questioning and spend time with people with whom you think you have nothing in common. Throw yourself into the world. How? Associate with groups that aren’t in your background. I was raised Christian. If I didn’t start hanging out with atheists, Buddhists and Hindus I would not have discovered what actually spoke to me instead of what my mother taught me. Spend time collecting stories from people who are younger, older, richer, poorer and if you can, interview the homeless men and women on the corner. It’s fascinating to know how people become who they are in the moment.
It’s Not About the Stuff: This piece is much harder than it sounds. We are taught to want things, that having things make us valid and valuable. When I suggested talking to the homeless people on the corner you might have winced or felt unsafe. Most are not dangerous, they just don’t have things. You don’t have to be scary to be really poor or chose to have few possessions but we’ve got this deeply ingrained in us. So long as we are intent on hanging on to material things we can get reliant on jobs or relationships that don’t feed the real us.
It’s Always Okay: It really is going to be okay. I used to worry I would be homeless. I had a recurring dream of sleeping in the park and being beaten in my sleep by strangers. That’s how powerfully afraid I was to change my life from being a media executive and married lady in the suburbs to a monk on very little income. But I did not die or suffer a beating. It turns out that I was right about my ability to re-build my life on more authentic soil and despite my fears and occasional yearning for the “good old days” I know it’s okay. In fact I’m better off as the real me.
Keep it Real: Now you know yourself, you are unafraid and you want a life that is as true as you can make it, so what is next? Aaron says, proceed with caution. Be clear on the sacrifices you will be making, be clear on the gains you will receive and try not to go to your happy place but stay on firm footing. This is not a new age authenticity but the kind that demands we drop our stories about who we are and into the truth of us. My guess is you’ll discover you are better than you thought when you see yourself without judgment and criticism.
In a few months my friend Aaron will be moving to San Francisco. His new place will have a roof top garden and views of the city from three angles so spectacular I had to look at his photos over and over. I can see him up there reading all his great books and writing some too.
Unlike Mary Shelley’s tragic Frankenstein, Aaron’s creation will be beloved then as he is now. The truth is most of us are cherished if we choose to see what’s real about us. His transformation is radical, mine is much less so and yours may be in the middle. But we are all meant to be us and be happy. That’s all—just those two things. Simple but not easy.
Now get out of here—go have fun!