Saturday, December 01, 2007

Safe Home

Cross posted from MHB, as well as that newfangled This is perhaps more personal than a lot of the material we present here, but maybe this story of family, time, and change will shine a light on stories other than my own.

Saw my sister last week for the first time in seven years. You can read about that here.

That first night ended with my dancing with my sweetie and my good friend at a wedding reception to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family".

I got all my sisters with me.

And I thought about how not all of my Sisters are my sister. And that some of my sisters are not even women.

(Jenny pauses on the Millenium Bridge above the Thames in an Unnamed European City, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben visible in the background.)

We walked home through the lovely city and slept the sleep of the dead.

Then we went to Ireland, where I met all of the folks I'd hung out with ten years ago, when I was visiting faculty at UCC. And they were all generous and sweet. I can tell you that Ireland is a strange mixture of the progressive and the regressive, so i wasn't sure what to expect.

But as always, people were "relieved" that "it was only me." My dear old friend whom I think I call Eoin in She's Not There-- my drinking buddy, a professor at UCC was lovely to me. I think it works like this: plenty of people , including him, can't quite get their minds around the whole transgender business. But that wasn't necessary. He saw it was me, and his love for me, and mine for him, was unchanged. And so we picked right up where we left off. He got his pronouns wrong, once, and he apologised profusely, which was hardly necessary.

It made me think about how we always think that if others can simply feel what we feel, know what we know, the light will go on and they'll feel compassion and sympathy and understanding for us. But over time I've come to accept that most non-trans people can never know or feel that. But what CAN happen is that some people are simply given to being compassionate or loving, or can at least be coaxed into being so, and that is a more realisitic, if less satisfying goal to shoot for. And so it was.

There was a saying that Eoin used to say to me. He'd pause, usually after a drink, a cigar in hand, and look at the ceiling, and say, with satisfaction: "is there anything quite like it?" And several times he said this to me once more, and we all laughed.

I gave my lecture the next day, a little nervous that my jokes and schtik which are tuned to an American audience would fall flat-- but I seemed to make the leap, and I had that Irish audience well in hand. At the end, great applause (my friend Eoin said I received "a standing ovulation.") And a handful of Irish trans people came up to me afterwards and said Thanks.

(Herself on the college green at University College, Cork)

Later I got an email from someone who'd come all the way from Dublin to see the talk, but who couldn't bring herself to make contact with me in person; too scary, too much fear. And I was moved by that, deeply, remembering what it was like to be afraid, back in the day, to have your cover blown.

That night we went to a pub I used to go to where there was a "session" on. I was looking forward to a few drinks and seeing some fiddle bows waving through the air and listening to the music going deedle deedle dee. I'd gone to this same pub ten years ago and had hung out there (and elsewhere) with a big crowd of musicians then. So I was looking forward to hearing the music.

Only: I found out that day that the guys at the session would be the SAME GUYS who used to be there. So I was feeling very nervous, because like: would they recognize me? Would they be freaked out? I didn't really want to go into it with them, but I don't know. I wasn't sure what it'd be like.

It was kind of like the panics I used to find myself in back in transition, seven years ago. I'd forgotten a little bit what this was like.

And there, into the pub, strode my old friends. I avoided eye contact with them at first because I didn't want to weird anybody out. But eventually some of them said hello-- and clearly didn't remember me-- which was fine.

And then they started to play. It was a DADGAD guitar player, a guy playing Irish box (button accordion) two fiddle players, and a four string banjoist. And the notes came just about as fast and free and wild as you could hear them, jigs and reels and hornpipes, and the pints of Murphys and Beamish flowed. My old friend Johnny, the guitar player, even threw his head back and sang a few songs. Hearing that old familiar voice, in this place, with all the changes in me and them, was incredibly moving. I remembered sitting on that stool in 1998, with the Irish rain coming down outside, a pint in my hand, listening to Johnny sing and feeling the mournfulness of my soul, not knowing how I would survive my life, feeling the twin strains of terrible sadness and yet also the hope for joy inherent in all that old Irish music.

AT one point Johnny sang a song of his called Albatross:

Albatross, O Albatross I wish that I were you.

Finally I leaned forward to Johnny and asked him to play a song he used to play ten years ago-- it was called "The Wobbling Man." And he paused and gave me a hard look, and said, "No one has asked for that song in a long, long time." (OBI-Wan Kenobi? now that is a name I have not heard in a long time.) I said I used to come in and listen to the band, many years ago. And he nodded, and he said he thought he couldn't remember it. Noodled around for a while, talked to the other musicians. Then he started to play it, and sing it.

"I laughed unknowingly when I was a boy.
The Wobbling Man was like a toy.
You'd wind him up and watch him go,
And watch him wobble to and fro.

But soon I learned to laugh no more,
I'd hear the key turn in the door,
The silence came, no one would talk,
Around on eggshells we would walk."

Well, this is a song about Johnny's alcoholic father. But as I listened to it, it struck me as a song about dear departed James Finney Boylan too. The Wobbling Man. My eyes filled with tears and they hung on my lashes.

Johnny couldn't quite remember the whole song, but they played it. Then he said, you know, back in the time when we played that tune. They were happy days.

(Barely visible shot of the boys playing guitar and box accordion at the session)

It was time for Deedie and I to leave, so we nodded to the band, and headed out. And they all looked at us hard, their eyes bright, and Johnny said what he used to say at the end of a session, back in the day, "Safe home."

Did they know? Did they remember? Does it matter?

And so Deedie and I walked back to the hotel through the wet streets, arm in arm, as the Irish rain came down.

Momma, momma, I can't but cry
I'll wash the salt tears from my eyes
Your time has come, you've found your peace,
From the Wobbling Man you've been released.

There is a glass of Guinness in front of me in this photo of herself in the pub. I raise it to all of you and wish you safe home too.


helen_boyd said...

you have to love a guy who'd write a song to/about the albatross.

these moments of community, evolution, - dare i say epiphany - are what keep it all together, i think.

edith pilkington said...

Hi Jenny,

Your post reminds me of my visit to Ireland six years ago when we went to see our two boys who were at Trinity at the time. We spent a lot of time in Clare where my grandparents were from. The music was fantastic there, Galway and the North side of the Liffey at McHugh's and the Cobblestone. I was just starting to come out at the time to my spouse. We have lots of musician friends around here. We head to the sessions and the occassional Ceili very frequently. My friends are of the most progressive variety, contrary to the images embedded in the minds of most. In fact, we are socially engaged with the hippest people in town. We caught Elvis Perkins the other night at an intimate venue. I find hip people to be the most difficult people for me to deal with. They seem to insist on being part of my little secret. The problem is I don't have a little secret. What you see is what you get. Those who have no preconceived notions about me have no trouble understanding that. I think many people have a long way to go in understanding how gender exists in a continuum, that it is not a binary phenomenon. People have a difficult time understanding us because they don't even understand themselves.