Quarter horses and sewing machines
‘Cause when you’re done with this world,
You know the next is up to you.
— John Mayer, “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test.”
It was that blue hour of a late winter afternoon. I’d been riding snowy trails on a quarter horse named Scooter. We reached a hilltop clearing, and between the fraying knit of trees a few stars were already twinkling in the darkening sky. I could see in the distance, about five miles north, the little town of Roslyn set like a nest of lights in the dark foothills of the Cascades.
I had spent the previous night there in Roslyn, drinking with friends and listening to live music at the local bar, the Brick, the oldest operating tavern in Washington state. Now, sitting astride Scooter on that hilltop, in my mind I was hearing again the hum and clatter of last night’s bar crowd and the raucous music of the band–the thump of the bass, the beat of the drums, the wail and bleat of electric guitars.
Impatient with my reveries, Scooter began nickering to break the silence outside my head and get us moving. It reminded me of the horse in Robert Frost’s most famous poem.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
It was getting colder out. I turned Scooter back down the trail toward home.
The word dysphoria means a profound state of unease. Dis-ease, if you will. It comes from two Greek words: dys, which means “difficult,” as in dysfunctional, something that has a hard time functioning. And pherein, meaning “to carry,” which is cognate with the Old English word fer, as in words like transfer (carrying across), ferry (carrying over water) and Lucifer, the carrier of the heavenly light before he rebelled and got the heavenly boot.
Together then, dys and pherein mean difficult to carry, like a great weight, a burden. Dysphoria.
I’d never experienced gender dysphoria myself; I’ve had issues, to be sure, but they were never so acute that they made it difficult for me to function. As I noted in this column’s opening salvo back in February, I’ve been a fairly successful man for 69 years.
With a challenging career I enjoyed most of the time; with five kids I loved raising; and with my own business teaching popular “Writing for the Workplace” seminars, I was always busy.
I had gender issues, but never much time for them. Other satisfactions and dissatisfactions came first.
So I never experienced an overwhelming sense of dysphoria.
I’m learning to sew. A good friend is teaching me how, and it’s wonderful. I’ve been wanting to learn since forever. Years ago, I got my daughter a sewing machine for Christmas, and the two of us spent all day learning to use it. It was more fun than I’d had on Christmas Day in a long time.
So I immerse myself. I’m building a dress–pinning, cutting, pinning again, sewing, pinning some more, ironing, sewing again, all under my friend’s careful tutelage. Mon Dieu, the sheer thrill of it.
Since I began hormones, my fingertips have become hyper-sensitive, and I find myself savoring the warp and woof of the linen, the smooth and rough of it sliding through my fingers as I guide the fabric under the clattering whir of the machine’s needle.
At the end of the day, when I was done and had sewn the last stitches, I experienced the same exhilaration I used to feel after riding Scooter. In those days I couldn’t afford a saddle, so I always rode bareback, which takes your most intense focus and concentration just to not fall off.
Learning to sew my seams straight took the same focused concentration, and when I had finished I felt no less euphoric and exhilarated sitting there at that sewing machine than I had experienced riding Scooter around the hills of central Washington.
Then I put the dress on.
More etymology–because I know you love it: the word mirror comes from the Latin mirare, to wonder. Slipping the completed dress over my head, I stood there at the mirror, as dumbfounded as Narcissus once. That’s me, me in a dress, a dress I made.
A torrent of adjectives flooded my mind. Silly, incongruous, disturbing, playful. Foolish, ridiculous, beautiful, fun. I moved my hips and watched the fabric undulate around me like waves.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: it wasn’t the expansive grandeur of a “new” continent that made it commensurate with our capacity for wonder. It’s our passion for jumping in, for giving ourselves over to that state of wonderment, immersing ourselves with complete abandon and seeing again for the first time what has always been there.
It’s that wonder I have never stopped chasing wherever I can find it, from the Pribilofs to Paris; from the urban backstreets of Elizabeth, New Jersey to the wintry foothills of the Cascades; in old paintings and older poetry; in music and noise and children; on horseback or at a sewing machine in a friend’s dining room.
But now the pendulum of my emotions swings the other way and I crash. After the surge of euphoria in learning to sew, I’m feeling a little tender and experiencing some gender dysphoria for the first time — the burden of carrying a man I’m not. Nor woman neither.
• Jane Hale lives in Juneau with her partner and their two dogs.