Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That’s the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.
~From “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig and the Angry Inch
I’ve always loved gender-bending movies: Orlando, Boys Don’t Cry, Prodigal Sons, and can I get a shout out for the horribly good 80s classic Just One of the Guys? Still my favorite remains John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As if life isn’t tough enough for a young, gay, East German boy before the wall came down…Hedwig undergoes a sex change operation so that he can marry and come to the US with the American GI Luther, who leaves him for a cabana boy shortly thereafter. But the operation gets botched, leaving Hedwig with an angry inch. Music ensues.
Gender defines us at the deepest level. When a baby is born, even before the toes and fingers are counted, the question is raised ‘boy or girl?’ So much is determined by which door you enter when you use a public restroom. And stories of individuals who are different on that very basic level speak to me.
I have not had to deal with issues of gender in my life, but for some reason I empathize very strongly with someone who feels they were born the wrong sex or love the same sex despite cultural expectations to the contrary. As if it’s something that goes way back to the differentiation of cells into testes or ovaries, I have long felt different from everyone else on a very deep, basic level.
There’s a scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in which Hedwig and his love interest Tommy are becoming intimate for the first time. But intimacy is averted when Tommy feels (literally) just how different Hedwig is – neither male nor female, per se:
This scene has always resounded with me. Lately though it has taken on a new significance. As I struggle with my current issues – the frustrations and uncertainty of unemployment, stunted and confused book writing attempts, questions about other aspects of my personal life – I find myself wishing for a different set of issues. My issues feel stickier, ickier, and more difficult than I imagine others’ to be. They seem like things to be gotten through, vanquished, so that my “real life” can begin.
During a recent conversation about our romantic lives, a friend said to me, “Your problems seem so light and fluffy compared to mine.” After a beat, I realized that I also felt this way to an extent. This is part of my story about myself (and a lot of our stories about ourselves), how sordid and heavy my problems are compared with those of others. And it separates me from others. I look at the people walking down the street or my facebook friends and assume their lives are much better, easier, coordinated, and certain.
The ‘What I have to work with’ scene came to mind recently as I was practicing meditation. I had just read the following from Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape and made the connection:
…sometimes the teachings emphasize the wisdom, brilliance, or sanity that we possess, and sometimes they emphasize the obstacles, how it is that we feel stuck in a small, dark place. These are actually two sides of one coin: when they are put together, inspiration (or well-being) and burden (or suffering) describe the human condition.
…we see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.
…even though there are so many teachings, so many meditations, so many instructions, the basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind…the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep.
It’s true that I often feel different from everyone else and that my problems are somehow more problematic. But by believing this, I am solidifying my story, using it to go to sleep, rather than to wake up. If I think of what is going on in my life as what I have to work with, something shifts. I realize that these are the very things that can help me wake up and that my real life is happening right now.