“I ain’t hiding from nobody.” —J. J. Cale, “Call Me the Breeze”
In the late 1970s, my undergraduate mentor, Catholic theologian Anthony Padovano, recounted an old Sufi story that I never forgot. It goes like this:
There was a river that wanted to cross a desert. Each day the River would rush down the mountain and try to gain enough momentum to cross the desert and reach the other side. But she would never get far before ending up as quagmire. She tried and tried, rushing down the mountain faster each time. But no matter how hard she tried, she could never get very far before ending up as quagmire.
Then one day the Wind came by and offered to help. “If you let me,” she said to the River, “I can pick you up and carry you across the desert and then set you down on the other side.”
“But you will have to die first,” the Wind told the River. “You will have to stop being a river for a little while. But then I will be able to pick you up, carry you over the desert, and set you down on the other side, where you will be a river once again.”
But the River was frightened by the prospect of dying, of losing her identity as a river. So, she declined the Wind’s offer and kept trying to cross the desert on her own. And each time she would again end up as quagmire.
Finally, the River agreed to let the Wind help. She allowed herself to die, to stop being a river, and then the Wind picked her up, carried her over the desert, and set her down on the other side, where she became a river again and flowed through the land of her desire.
That’s it, that’s the story. In professor Padovano’s reading, it’s a parable about our individual insufficiency, a story about allowing others to help us. Whatever you have to do, you don’t have to do it alone. You can rely on others for aid and comfort.
For me, the story has become a transgender parable, a story about dying as one “self” to become another: giving up the identity the culture has saddled you with and discovering a self that feels more authentic and true.
But here too, my old professor’s interpretation is crucial. The lesson, again, is that we don’t have to do it alone: this is true for crossing the deserts of our unhappiness and all of our various psychological dysphorias.
When we believe ourselves to be self-sufficient, our actions are like the river’s—futile, destined to fail, always ending up as quagmire. It’s only when we engage with and for others that our actions can transcend what Simone de Beauvoir calls our “facticity,” our own finite quagmires of time and place, the things we can’t change about who we are.
By herself, the River can’t get across the desert. But with the Wind’s help—and a moment of courage—she transcends her own abilities and finds the freedom to be the river she wants to be.
The river she wants to be: my reading of the parable suggests that we not accept unwillingly or by default the selves that society constructs for us. It asks us to embrace our freedom to live authentically—to live deliberately, as Henry David Thoreau says in Walden:
“I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau had to go live alone in the woods to do it, but I think most of us need the village. And actually, so did Thoreau. After two years, he moved back to town (got tired of living deliberately, I guess).
But in writing about the experience, he holds it up to the light where we can all get a look at it and discover what living deliberately, living authentically, might mean for us. The courage to live authentically is meaningless without the courage to do it with and for others. We all have deserts to cross.
So I’m writing this series of essays to hold my own desert-crossing up to the light. There’s something validating about that light. Maybe it can help others across their own deserts.
Call me the breeze.
Or call me Jane.
I’m coming out, but I’m not entirely sure what I’m coming out as.
I’m not gay or bi—or straight, for that matter, not in any useful sense of those words. I’m monogamous, and lately I’m feeling a passionate fidelity for my partner, a woman.
I love that she’s a woman, but I don’t love her because she’s a woman. Gender has little to do with it. I love her because….well, because I love her. But I can’t say she’s the opposite gender, since I have questions about my own. I’ve always had these questions.
I’ve never felt comfortable as a man. That said, I’ve been a pretty successful man for 69 years. But I’ve always hated having to act “like a man.” It seems like a joke that I pull it off, like some grand Mulanesque masquerade.
But I don’t pull it off very well. So now I’m dropping the façade and coming out.
Most of my life I’ve felt radically feminine. Who knows why: I have a twin sister, and maybe the estrogen and testosterone got all mixed up in our mother’s womb. (My sister followed in our father’s footsteps and became a Naval officer. The family joke is that she’s the son our father never had.)
Whatever the reason, I have always identified with women. But because I empathize with their struggles, I would never call myself a woman. I have transgender friends who are women, and I love them and love their freedom to affirm their own gender identities: we each cross this desert in our own way.
But for me, calling myself a woman seems tantamount to pigmenting my skin and calling myself Black. These terms have less to do with anatomy than with growing up in a culture that shapes you by the many ways it tries to deny you access to your freedom, your full humanity, your life.
“You are not born a woman,” writes Simone de Beauvoir; “You become one.”
I have my own issues with the patriarchy, to be sure. But they are not a woman’s issues. And I’ve had the advantages of male privilege all my life.
Growing up alongside my twin sister I saw firsthand the privileges that I was granted as a boy and that she as a girl was denied; liberties and indulgences that I had without asking and that she had to fight for. Even at 19, when we were still living with our parents: when I would drift in at 4 am, I was just “out gallivanting.” She would come home at 11 pm and be accused of “whoring around.”
And in the locker room, I was continually taken aback by the arrogance, disdain, and outright derision my schoolmates and coaches expressed—not just toward women but toward anyone not judged to be sufficiently like them.
I’ve had the same privileges, but I never wanted to be a member of the boys’ club.
Some people have noticed.
My college housemate would in later years publish a novel in which I am clearly the model for the protagonist, a writer named—wait for it—Jane Hale.
At a community retreat years ago, a couple of adult hikers seemed to have gotten lost, and the cabal of manly men who were tickled pink at the chance to throw a search party decided that I should stay with the women to watch the kids. (The lost hikers showed up on their own.)
And one time an acquaintance asked me outright, with uncharacteristic perspicacity: “You want to be a woman, don’t you?” I denied it, knowing that she wasn’t intellectually prepared for the complicated truth. But then again, at the time neither was I.
I could go on.
But woman, man, feminine, masculine: apart from the appeal to anatomy, I don’t know what these words mean anymore. The more I explore them, the more their meanings elude me. And the more slippery my own gender identity proves to be. Mihi quaestio factus sum, wrote St. Augustine in the late 4th century: I have become a riddle to myself.
So I’m coming out as perpetually unresolved. But I’m coming out. It feels liberating.
With a habitually analytical mind, I look for definitions and justifications, reasons and rationales. But logic is not always an adequate tool for comprehending the mysteries of a lived experience.
It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. I find myself at the piano idly practicing the latest piece my piano teacher has me learning. In the dim light of a late winter afternoon, I watch my hands as I play. They are small and soft for a man’s hands, but they’re strong and firm and gentle, and I have no other words for what I see: they are a woman’s hands.
And they are not a woman’s hands.
I am coming out as myself.
• Jane Hale has spent her first 69 years writing as Jim. She is a longtime Juneau resident. “Coming Out” is a biweekly column. It appears on the Empire’s Neighbors page.