When I was little, I loved putting on my mother’s glasses and trying to make my way through the house. I remember a sudden swimming feeling, as I thrashed around with my hands and feet, trying to measure the distance between what I felt my body near (or on) and where my eyes now told me there would be walls (or floor). I think a lot now about how specifically my mother’s eyes have made me. Who she sees in me, and who I imagine she sees. What seeing me, and the process of trying to, has done to her perception. How and when does her vision limit, or enlarge, my own.
Last week, when talking with Rachel Zucker about “what I’m working on” (a subject that always makes me anxious because 1. I resist (I first wrote resent) the constant, capitalist pressure to have a “project” 2. if I know exactly what I’m up to, I’m likely to be reporting (rather than discovering) which means I’ll soon grow bored), I was telling her about returning after almost two years to Zumba classes at the gym. There is the wonder of starting each day with a sober dance party, the hallelujah chorus feel of that moment when we are all (rather surprisingly) moving in unison, how I often feel as though I am dancing with my mother, and how I don’t quite yet know what it means (or, more accurately, how I should respond) when the preposition slips from with to for.
My mother had me when she was 19 years old. Soon enough, she was raising me and my sister by herself. There are many things I remember about my childhood – turning trash cans upside down so they could function as my drum set, always having on hand candy cigarettes or Big League Chew, people running up and down the aisles of church with their hands raised, dancing, hearing the phrase “I wish you had never been born,” taping a square “strike zone” to the side of each apartment building we lived in and pitching softballs, for hours, at the brick wall. I don’t know how many times she said it. Somewhere between 5 and 100. How many times has she said, “I love you”? At minimum, once a day since I was born.
The reason for the two-year Zumba hiatus was a car accident. As my body re-contoured during the recovery from that accident, my mother’s body seemed to arrive inside my own – softer, more pronounced hips and breasts, creases in my belly. I didn’t die in that car accident, but I did lose a body I was just getting to know.
In 2006, my mom came to visit me in Tucson. I had a girlfriend and I had changed my pronouns but I hadn’t yet started testosterone. I had been suicidal before, and I would be again, and coming out as queer, and then trans, had been a roller coaster with my family but this visit my mom seemed easier, cooler than before. “So, what’s the deal, Mom? Are you ok with me and A now?” This was my awkward attempt to seem casual over coffee, when really I was dying to know. “You know, ever since you were a kid I knew there was something different about you. So, for all of your life I prayed for God to change you.” (Clearly, this wasn’t going where I hoped it would go.) “But I’ve been remembering how the preachers from my childhood have changed. How they used to use the Bible to defend segregation and even as a kid I thought that was wrong. But now they use the same Bible to say we should all come together, and I agree with that but the Bible didn’t change. Their interpretations did. So, I started to think maybe with this whole gay/trans thing my interpretation could be wrong.” (You can picture it, right? My hand under my jaw to keep it off the floor.) “So, I realized I needed to pray a new prayer. I stopped asking God to change you, and I asked God to change me. I’m trying to see how it goes.”
This is a story I often tell at readings. A few months after this conversation with my mother, I started testosterone. There would be more challenges with my family but change has never been linear and just like I can’t unhear what I heard in childhood, I can’t (and don’t want to) forget what I heard in that Tucson coffee shop. But it is not so much the reiteration that interests me as it is the (r)evolution of the story – where my focus lies – the tiny shifts in diction or syntax over time – how much I quote and how much I develop the context – what I leave out – when the story is about teaching, when the story is about time, and when the story is about letting go.
Transition is the foundation of my dreaming and my loving and, often, I turn to poetry to study how things change. Right now, I’m thinking of line breaks – not death, but a moment in which the language is recontextualized, broken and reformed.
And, I suppose, is the only way
to end anything. Will I ever be able to see
her as well as she sees me? This woman,
her hand outlining us both.
“Where my dreaming and my loving live,” is a quote from Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Flores Woman.” The good folks at the Poetry Coalition (of which, the UA Poetry Center is a part) have chosen these lines to guide a month-long inquiry into Poetry and the Body. Here at the UA Poetry Center the focus is specifically on trans and non-binary poetry and poetics with blog posts by trans and non-binary poets and a reading by Stephanie Burt on Thursday, March 15. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Mariposas Sin Fronteras here in Tucson. These folks are making the dream of living and loving safely a reality for LGBT migrants and refugees. They are poets of action, loving, and solidarity.
TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. S/he is Tucson’s Poet Laureate and author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014), 4 chapbooks, and co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). www.tctolbert.com