The World is Made of Stories
by Caitrìona Reed
I am driving south through a green landscape, sun soaked after days of torrential rain. The air is so fresh and clear. I feel that I could reach out and touch the distant mountains. I am coming home from the mastermind meeting that I’ve been attending every month for the past year-and-a-half. Each time I go it feels like another kind of home-coming. I meet with a dozen women; successful business owners, all of them deliciously down-to-earth in their wisdom, openness, and strength. I am in awe at my good fortune in finding a place for myself among them, my new family. I celebrate what it tells me about the person I have now become.
When I first requested to join the group I didn’t hear back for a while. The director later told me that she had to do some soul-searching about whether it would be appropriate for me to be part of this group, because, as I say these days when I introduce myself publicly, “My name is Caitrìona, and I am a woman of transgendered experience.”
Going about my everyday life, I can easily forget that a statement like that, a story like that, can challenge others to reflect on what it means to be a woman or a man. Transgender visibility may have increased exponentially in the last few years. But it seems that many people are still uneasy when they come face-to-face with someone who has actually made that journey. They are challenged to examine some of their deepest assumptions. “Is she a real woman? Is he a real man” What is a real woman?” “Am I a real woman, or man, or business person, or artist, or parent etc.” or whatever identity happens to be up for question. The question might even arise, “If someone can change their sex, what else is it possible to change?
I grew up as a boy child. Despite years of hesitation, and a couple of false starts, now and for the past twenty years I have moved through the world as a woman. I do not flinch. I have let go of the shame and doubt that haunted me for so long. I no longer ask myself whether I am a real woman.
My public introduction usually continues, “I am a woman of transgendered experience, and I’ve learned a whole lot about big scary changes, and committed decisions.”
The leader of the mastermind has become a good friend, and even told me that she has learned something from me about what it means to be a woman. It’s the bit about scary changes and committed decisions. After all, don’t we all have to make those at some time in our lives, no matter who we are?
Sad as it may sound, my own big question was, not whether I was a real woman or a man, but whether I was a real human-being?” My bewildered sense of gender-identity forced me to wonder if I even qualified as a person. Other people seemed so self assured, so certain of their boyhood or girlhood. I longed to put an end to the turmoil of my endless questioning, and the shame that fed it. “Why couldn’t I be like my grandmother, or my mother, or my friend Carolyn?” The little boy inside me had to find another question. He needed to find a place to rest.
If life is made up of stories, I had to find a new story to tell myself, and to tell the world. If life is made of stories, then we owe it to ourselves to make it a really good story, one that serves us well, and that might even help the people around us too.
Most people have made up stories that feed old regrets, or their guilt, or excuses for why their life has gone a certain way. All such stories, in fact, are true, because we make them into self-fulfilling prophecies. And all stories serve a purpose, although that purpose may be to just keep us locked into a familiar place, because familiarity is safe. William James suggested that, “truth is what is useful.” What if we committed to a story whose usefulness was that it declared, with full voice, that we can be strong enough, joyful enough, and creative enough, to show the world, and everyone in it, how magical and beautiful and powerful we are?
Twenty years ago, feeling not in the least bit, magical, or powerful, or beautiful, I made my public announcement to the world and came out of the proverbial closet. Actually, I had already had my foot half way out the door for some time, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. On the one hand it felt like a non-issue. What’s a little gender-bending after all? What’s so scary about a bit of androgynous self-expression? On the other hand, I feared, with good reason, that changing your sex can make a big dent in your life, financially, professionally, socially, and in lots of other ways. It can alienate the people you love. It also demands that you become seriously self-obsessed, at least for a while. So, I had an operation to become a middle-aged virgin. In the process, my psyche had to perform a series of fast-forwards and rapid rewinds to reinvent itself. I had to re-vision my childhood, puberty, and coming of age in my new gender role. I had to make a new story. It was not a deception, not a rewriting of history. It involved creating a new internal landscape that demanded, above all, that I just accept myself as I was, as I had always been.
You’ve probably heard the metaphor about a woman being trapped in a man’s body. It is a convenient story to explain the transsexual experience, but it’s way too small. I felt that my whole spirit, the essence of who I was, was being stifled. Something inside me was clawing at the walls for release. I was ready to burst open. It didn’t even feel that it was to be about gender at all. It was about something much more fundamental to who I was.
So I took a leap of faith, a leap of necessity. In large part it was my partner, Michele, who pushed me. We were Buddhist teachers. We were leading meditation retreats around the U.S., in Europe and at our center in Southern California. For years we had been teaching the art of being present, the joyful skill of bearing witness to the exquisite fabric of living in this very moment, integrating the world of activism and social responsibility with spiritual practice. Around that time, I had been changing the emphasis of my teaching, and talking about the importance of being authentic, of being truly embodied. Also, much of the work I was doing with my clients at that time had the same focus. People were coming to me less with symptoms, and more with deep existential questions, trying to get a handle on the central meaning and purpose of their life. It’s astonishing how accurately the world reflects back to us the lessons we most need to learn ourselves!
Then Michele gave me the ultimatum. “You’ve got to make a change one way or the other. You can’t go on like this. I can’t stay any more. If you’re going to change your sex you better just do it.” So now I can say, “My partner made me do it!” But the reality was, and remains, that as artists, and as teachers, we made a transition together, and the transition continues. Stories never end.
Our work as a human being is never done. The priority is to be true to what calls you to show up in the world as you are. Unless you are true to your story, and find ways to keep it resounding with meanings that are real for you, then you are on the slippery slope to becoming a robot, and living by someone else’s story.
Some of the stories that infuse our collective consciousness are so insidious. “You are broken and need to be fixed.” “Nothing you do can makes a difference.” “Someone or something outside of you exists that will save you.” What if we changed that? What if you committed to a new story? A story that lets you bloom and shine, here and now, right where you are? You are a living system, co-creating yourself in every moment. You are interconnected to a larger living-system we call life, the universe, creation, or by any other name. The universe is fundamentally safe. You are not broken. Everything you can imagine is possible.
Your story is your own. Mine is my own. My story demands that I remain true to myself, that I am visible, that I accept all of who I am, that I affirm my humanity, that I continue to transform fear and uncertainty, shame, and regret. I’ve learned to shine not as someone who happens to have changed my sex, but as an artist of change. I embody the entirety of who I am, so that the work I do, to help others change and bloom and shine, is free of any expectation of what that’s supposed to look like. Your story is yours to tend to, like a flower coming into bloom. Know that the very things you thought were keeping you from blooming may turn out to be the source of your greatest power and strength. Let your new story evolve and grow as a shining reflection of who you are.
A home-play exercise to support you:
There’s an exercise we learned many years ago that we still use in our workshops and with our clients. It works well if you are at a point in your life where you feel stuck, or at a time when you need to make a big change, in your work, relationship, lifestyle, your relationship to money, to your own health, to anything. It involves writing and journaling, and most importantly, it involves finding forty minutes to an hour when you won’t be disturbed.
Begin by sitting quietly, and taking a few breaths. Tune in to whatever it is that is causing you to want to make a change. Tune in to wherever in your body you sense disquiet, uncertainty, fear, or regret. Allow yourself to feel it. It doesn’t have to be a strong feeling. If you feel dullness or numbness, then tune in to that. Being aware of the feeling is just a way to set the scene.
Now begin to write a list of some of the elements in your life where you have felt victimized, discredited, blocked, overlooked, unseen, or helpless. Write without self-censoring. Just write. You don’t need to write out the full story. Just jot down a word or phrase that conveys the memory and feeling of that time. Write it all. Assume that it all matters. Take your time.
When you have finished, sit for a moment and tune into your body and your feelings again. Maybe you’ll discover that there’s more to write. Keep going.
Then when you feel you’re finished, take a break. Stand up. Shake out the tension.
Next you’re going to re-write the story of your life as a Hero’s Journey, or a Heroine’s journey, or as a journey of yourself as a superhero. You’ll start at the beginning. You can begin with, “Once upon a time,” or, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” Think of the fairy stories you heard as a child, or of the mythical journeys that are at the center of all people of all times. Think of the resources and strengths that you developed through all the challenges and setbacks. Remember that you are a survivor, you made it. Here you are. Create a new story that places you on the brink of brilliant exploits and adventures.
Keep writing. Take the story into the future. Imagine all you can achieve. Imagine the positive impact you can continue to have. Expand it exponentially. What would you take on if you knew you couldn’t fail? Dream it! Write it as large as you like.
When I opened to the truth of who I am, I was afraid that my life, my career, even my credibility as a human being in society, was in doubt. Now life continually reminds me that I am whole. The work I do with my clients continually affirms that I am living my true story, and that its truth can touch the lives of others in ways more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I encourage you to create your heroic journey showing you thriving! May you bloom and shine your beautiful light fully into the world.
originally published in Bloom Where You Are Planted and Shine Edited by Rebecca Hall Gruyter 2016