The Soul

Do human beings have souls? If not, does it matter?

Humans observe human capacity, and put it down to Gods or Devils, muses or spirits. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, because humans could not make it or control it without Divine intervention. At one moment I am unconscious of a poem, and then it flows through my mind, apparently fully-formed, and that must come from Inspiration, something outside myself.

There’s a particularly stupid article in the NYT today, where Avi Shafran argues against materialism, which he diminishes to “electrical activity within our craniums”. If we humans are nothing more than our physical cells, and the innate human awareness of our souls and sense of free will are mere illusions, we have no ultimate value beyond that of any insect. And no compulsion, beyond an ultimately meaningless utilitarian social contract, to bind ourselves to any ethical or moral system. A society that denies the soul idea is, in fact, in the word’s deepest sense soulless.

Shafran makes a leap without an attempt to justify it: humans are capable of creation and destruction, so there must be something beyond the mammal that we see with our eyes, which he calls a soul. His only definition of it is “an entity which can be sublimated or polluted by the conscious exercise of free will”, but he implies it produces all our best and worst acts, and our spiritual value. If a devil possesses the traitor, as Dante imagined, we might hope he is a thing apart, and we are not capable of such wickedness.

Humans observe human capacity. We see the banality of evil and the heights of altruism, the acquisitiveness of a Charles Koch and the organisation for the common good in the Beveridge report. Shafran’s example is Yo Yo Ma playing a cello concerto, where we can see the technical ability and the emotional content, the power to move human beings and possibly to purify or ennoble us.

The ennobled human, the good they do and the beauty they create, are real whether or not evolution is capable of producing a brain with these capacities, or a multitude of brains capable of appreciating them. It might be terrifying that such capacity could age and die, that the creative power of, say, Leonard Cohen should simply be gone, a function of complexity which fails at last and dissolves into simpler molecules. Yet the creative power of Daniel Barenboim and others endures. We lose the person, yet keep the music; and there are more people, developing and extending the creative tradition.

And I too will die. My brain will submit to entropy and be burned or buried. The Earth will become too hot, so that its oceans evaporate long before it is absorbed into the red giant Sun.

It is not just a brain. It is a nervous system, capable of sensation from all over my skin, of moving my body and increasingly complex tools, of communicating with others so moving them to action and contemplation. That which is me is so bound up in the body and its physical needs, affected by tiredness, sickness and pain, that I cannot imagine a “me” without that body and those sensations, that physical way of achieving closeness. My words can move in your mind so that we become momentarily one, but those words relate to that physical reality, the mystery of what it is to be human.

The compulsion to be ethical comes from our humanity, from being one of a social species incapable of survival alone. Practices we call “spiritual” have value, and as humans we are drawn to them for what they achieve, individually and collectively.

The range of human possibility from transfiguration to depravity is hard to imagine, and so we use metaphors of spirits and Spirit. If there is no immortal Soul that does not make us worthless insects, but more precious, as evanescent. If not me, then who? If not now, when?

Telling the truth for Quakers

We know this stuff. It is hard, but not complicated. It is part of our spiritual practice, and in our most precious writings:

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension… Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? …

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others… Do you welcome the diversity of culture, language and expressions of faith in our yearly meeting and in the world community of Friends? Seek to increase your understanding and to gain from this rich heritage and wide range of spiritual insights…

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect?

We know all this. Love is the heart of it. Listen in Love, speak the truth as best you can. I am very protective of my eye. I do not like things near it. It matters a lot. Yet I notice that the eye is a robust organ, not easy to damage, though it is sensitive and complex. In the same way without meeting for worship we would be impoverished, perhaps disabled, but it is robust.

We know what to do. Listen patiently and seek the truth. Reach for the meaning. Give freely, say what you have found and what you value. Recognise the beautiful humanity of the people around you. Do all this in Love and humility. Then we receive the blessings of our Friends.

Possibly we think it should be easier than it is. Possibly we do not realise how badly hurt we are or how threatened we feel. Possibly we do not realise the effect our words may have.

Possibly, the first time we hear an uncomfortable view it drops, like a bomb, into a conversation we found congenial until that moment. My buttons are pressed, and I withdraw. I want that sense of being with people like me which I can gain from denying their true strangeness or enforcing certain rules about what must not be said. So, one Meeting quotes the Bible all the time, another does not possess a copy, and members of one might be uncomfortable in the other.

Rhiannon Grant’s book “Telling the truth about God” addresses Quakers hearing each other specifically about the words we use for our spiritual experiences. Frameworks can be useful. We have meetings for learning. We take lots of time to hear why one Friend values one idea of God, or of what our spiritual experience is. We recognise the difficulties our ideas can cause, so we find ways in. I like her exercise placing words for God or spirit on a piece of paper, according to which we would always, sometimes or never use. Different people will put the same word in different places, then share why. Ideally that will unearth the hurt in a safe space, where others will take time to hear it and express sympathy. Then at least the hurt will not be renewed.

“We usually find ourselves richer for our differences,” said Baltimore YM, when the separate Orthodox and Hicksite YMs reunited. Yet the differences remain, and we fear that we will lose out. How can people respect my view, if they accept its opposite? And these views are mutually exclusive. That fear, and sense of difference, are the “seeds of war”. Can we calm our own fears, making sure we do not fear anything which is unlikely or would not really be harmful? Can we separate out our ego and desire for respect that is not due, or safety that is not possible? Can we trust the process?

My Friend said you did not always need the business method- not, in her usual example, for deciding the colour of the meeting house door. But if you can’t use it for that, you can’t use it for anything. Different people might have strong opinions. We listen to each other and follow God’s loving purposes- not because God wants a particular colour in the abstract, but a colour which fits our community.

In due humility I set aside my ego-desires, for a desire for the good of all. I use my judgment, but apply it for good, or God, not my own purposes. I am not hiding any part of myself for a quiet life, but present in my full humanity. I let go of demands that the world be other than it is. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

In our own difficult issue, a Friend suggested we get together to “share our hurts”. I don’t want to share my hurts. I have been to too many benefits tribunals, where some hapless claimant states how painful they find it to walk forty yards, and is challenged and often disbelieved. Quakers might feel good supporting the underdog, but I want my contribution recognised, not my hurt. I do not want your sympathy, I do not want a saviour, I want others to work with me for the common good, including my needs.

Threshing, I would rather share my hopes and fears. The reason I want particular action is because it will make the world a better place, as far as we can. Some will be reasonable predictions of likely outcomes and some will be paranoid.

My desires include the good of my Friends and the wider community. Sharing desires may show what we have in common, and bring us together; it may help each understand the differences between us and get a richer understanding of the Good.

My beliefs are the foundation on which these hopes, fears and desires are built. Exposing them can correct them. There is an understanding in me, wordless, which may be my Light; I want my verbal formulations to approximate to the truth it perceives, and together we find the best words.

My sympathies are with Friends even where I disagree. If our differences are magnified, the chances of hurt and disagreement increase. Sympathies bring out all we have in common. We show how we care for each other.

Achieving equanimity

How could I ever play poker? I wear my heart on my sleeve. It is rarely difficult for someone to read what I am feeling. I wonder if I could manipulate my feeling, or change its focus: rather than misery or delight at the turn of a particular card, desperation at a particular gamble, I could focus on more long term things. It is good- fascinating, challenging, informative- to be with these people, doing this thing together. I can afford to lose the money I have brought. I might win. I will learn. The evening will be a worthwhile experience whatever happens.

Or (not having played poker) I imagine a lot of the skill is concealing whether I am lying or telling the truth. So, I am not lying. That I choose to bet on this particular hand does not mean that it is a good one, only that I consider I have a reasonable chance of winning. I have as much right to bet on a poor hand as a good one. (I have heard that the straight flushes and full houses we see on TV drama come up considerably less often in actual play.) I am not ashamed. I am not even deceiving you, as what you think is your concern.

Again, I might consider that I am unduly internally focused, on my own feelings, and notice other people. If I pay attention to what is around me, I might be less disturbed by what is within.

These could make me feel better in real life, not just a poker fantasy. To be aware of all the good and beauty surrounding and supporting me, to be aware that the thing distressing me may just be momentary and the thing and my reaction to it will pass.

I have been feeling anguish this morning, and I have written something I find worthwhile. The anguish is existential: I feel discounted, treated as worthless, my needs and feelings as of no account, and it seems I am “cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”- outside the community, where the social animal cannot survive. I am not, really. This temporary worry will be all sorted, fairly soon. And I will die, and perhaps be expelled from my various communities. That fear may sometimes be more intense and immediate, and sometimes in the background, but has not come to pass yet. It is from childhood, feeling not valued, feeling squashed into a box I did not fit, feeling my natural characteristics were unwelcome. It is old trauma I may never entirely heal.

There is beauty and delight and possibility. I am alright so far. I have survived.

Your silence will not protect you

When I did not see myself, I felt alone; but now I see myself, I see myself everywhere.

When they bully you, they cut out a part of you. They so mock and deride it that you think it shameful, and try to hide it. You deny it is you. But everyone sees through your pitiful attempts, and knows how to reduce you to a quivering wreck: they point out that part of you that shames you. We are told by healers to be “vulnerable”, but we are no less vulnerable hiding the part that shames us. Hiding it, we have the work of hiding it, and we carry it for all to see.

I face my terror. I will not hide my shameful part any more. It is frightening not to, but trying to hide myself does not work. When I stop trying, my failure ceases to matter. When I fight myself it is a burden, but when I accept myself I find strength in what I denied, hated, sought to expunge.

When I am seen and accepted, I am enabled to see myself, in my power and beauty. We are told by healers to be “vulnerable”, but they mean, come into our power.

I read Audre Lorde, and feel accepted. When she writes of herself, I see parts of me within her, and am enabled to see their beauty. As a child, she wrote poems which expressed what she felt. Poetry was her language, to communicate to others. She had difficulty comprehending how other people thought- it seemed to be in a logical progression, but for her non-verbal communication was more important. Her feelings were chaos and confusion, anchored in poetry.

The words were deceit, misleading her because they misled the speaker. Still the human communicated, beside or alongside the words. “I used to practise trying to think,” she says. She could not learn without a teacher she liked, to feel the truth of what was taught rather than pick up facts.

The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.

Without her mother, she felt alone and worthless because only her mother could see her and accept her. I do not generalise from what she says to people of colour here, now, as she was in America, growing up in the ‘forties, writing in the ‘eighties, but it echoes what I feel, now: “White people [others] feel, Black people [her critics and mine] do.” White people have the luxury of feeling, in her world, but Black people had to just get on with the drudgery of mere survival.

I feel stung by the allegation that I do not Do. I ought first to Do, to earn, to produce, to support myself, before I can take time out to feel, but my feelings cry out to be heard and give me no quarter, they will not be silent until I hear them and honour them.

I feel more stung. Black women could not hear or see or love or accept or nurture or honour one another because they saw themselves in the other, she says. I am suspicious of trans women: Audre writes of the struggle, the need for Black women to confront and wade through the racist constructs underlying our deprivation of each other. When I see a trans woman, I see all the things I ought not to be, and I turn away in shame. I see her through a haze of transphobia; I see myself mirrored in her, and all that has been stolen from me, called shameful, all that I attempt futilely to hide, I see in her and therefore in me, and feel that imposed shame.

I am myself. I can be no other.

We are ourselves. We are beautiful, and when we see our beauty, when the mists of transphobia and bullying disperse, we come into our power.

Audre’s mother loved her, and showed her that, accepting her, nurturing her to be herself, then teaching her how to be herself in white america which never wanted her to even be alive. My mother loved me, but seeing herself as worthless could not accept me; she sought to force me into a mould so I might survive (even if only as an automaton) not knowing the mould would kill me. And yet I survived.

I feel seen. I read Audre, and she explains myself to me, and she validates and values and thereby nourishes and enriches me. I feel and therefore I can be free.

It ceases to be vulnerability when I accept those parts of myself that I sought to hide, and becomes dignity.

Now, I see myself everywhere. I see myself in the deep rich authentic feeling of my beautiful friend, in stories and portraits and cultural artifacts valuing cherishing and honouring people just like me, even in God who made me in God’s image, in all people who are part of me as I am part of them.

I am not alone.
I feel seen.

The Bad person

You made an adult cry, and then you gloated about it. “She cried like a small child,” you said. “She had a woman with her with her arm round her, comforting her like I would comfort a child.” You mocked them.

I have cried like that, I said. Cried like before the Abomination of Desolation, as if my heart had been ripped from me, wordless, screaming, unconsolable.

I am not here to share my hurt. I would tell of the time I was crying hysterically– by which I mean, in the way a rational husband and a rational doctor, a man, would see as a reason to put a woman in a lunatic asylum, diagnosed as sick, so not to be listened to. When I was curled in a ball weeping on the floor. When I was screaming at the floor. I would tell of these times and they would put their most concerned-sympathetic face on, lean forward, put a hand on my knee and whisper softly “How shit it is to be you.”

“They”, here, are everyone but me, everyone outside my skin, the undifferentiated chorus of condemning humanity circled around me mocking, berating, ignoring. They are individuals. You know who you are.

You made them, “her,” cry, and they won’t talk to you again, or interact with you. And it happened fourteen months ago and it lives with you. It affects your life and important relationships now. You both are hurt, but their hurt is heard because they cried, like a small child, and were heard and comforted, and you will not cry, because too often others have made you cry and been pleased: it is their victory, proof of your worthlessness, proof of your abasement and irrationality. Why should they listen to anything you say?

I love your strength. You will not cry. I have been able to cry and be comforted, and able to cry alone, and I have cried and been abased, amazed at my own tears, proof to me of my worthlessness. Such strength, to stare back dry-eyed, at the man, a foot taller than you, perhaps twice your weight, and resist him.

So they are the expert, speaking to audiences of good, thoughtful, decent people of their experience and understanding, and you are the person who must be controlled. Your hurt becomes anger. It becomes fuel. Audre: a boiling hot spring likely to erupt at any point, leaping out of my consciousness like a fire on the landscape. How to train that anger with accuracy rather than deny it has been one of the major tasks of my life. You use it. And you have Sisters, people who love you, and support you.

You, with humanity circled around you since the age of twelve, to use you, blame you, touch you, hurt you, only your cleverness (not any human custom or rule) to protect you.

And I, a man in women’s clothes, terrify women who see me in women’s spaces, as I remind them of violent men where they are told they should be safe and their safety is an illusion, the unspoken rules contradict those spoken. “Do this and you shall be safe” say the con-men. The internet is a pain: I hear all the anger against people like me, which in the street or in my curtailed life I might have been able to avoid. I was not there, but I saw the video, of a hall of women, whipped up, their necessary anger permitted so unleashed against “dangerous men,” and how could I not take it personally?

The rules say you should be safe, not hurt or crying, so when you are hurt it must be your fault. What were you wearing? What did you do to provoke it? Don’t be so sensitive!

You made them cry, and you became the Bad Person. I am not a bad person, I say. “You’re a man,” you say, reasonably, rationally, incontrovertibly. We are divided. I see your hurt and my heart grieves, and yet you are my enemy and I want to use your hurt against you, as proof of your irrationality, you should not be listened to, and proof of your Badness, as you made them cry.

Audre: Why does that anger unleash itself most tellingly against another Black woman at the least excuse? Why do I judge her in a more critical light than any other, becoming enraged when she does not measure up? And why is our anger channelled against each other?

I hate you because I see myself in you. You are my enemy because you want what I want, though perhaps in a slightly different way. The people circling will never let up, never concede anything to you or to me. We are in the ring together, in that circle, and cannot but fight.

Gender dysphoria in intersex people

It takes courage to be between genders. Many people won’t accept that is possible, the law won’t protect you, and intersex people are assigned a sex at birth rather than let the child decide later. An intersex person told me that intersex people could experience gender dysphoria because of the hormone treatment they received. She/they did not refer me to any blog posts or accounts of it, but said the experience is shared on closed facebook groups. I did a bit of googling.

In congenital adrenal hyperplasia, where the clitoris exhibits signs of penile development, but the child is 46,XX (46 chromosomes, two X sex chromosomes) there was a literature review in 2005. 250 of the children were raised female, and thirteen had serious problems with gender identity. Some of the most “severely masculinised” children were raised male, and four out of 33 had serious gender identity problems. The authors therefore recommended that the children be assigned female, even when they were most masculinised.

That is, the children were closeted from birth. You will be raised as a “girl”, or in some cases (I don’t know whether studies would be more likely on people with CAH raised male) raised as a “boy”, rather than as a “child”. There is a decision here. There may still be eugenic ideas in some people that CAH is in some way shameful. Parents should be open with a child, as far as that child may understand, and there is a decision to make about how far to be open with the wider public, in nurseries or schools. But definitely closeting, making a decision on which gender to raise a child and sticking to that, should not be the default position. Things may have changed since 2005.

Trans people would tend to think of hormone therapy as testosterone, oestrogen, and blockers. This protocol, also from 2005, says for CAH hormone replacement therapy is life-saving, because hormones necessary for survival, cortisol and aldosterone, are replaced. Androgens are secreted in excessive amounts due to an enzyme imbalance, so the therapy is to suppress them. That too involves a judgment, as to what is an “excessive amount” for an androgen. There are different normal amounts in boys and girls, men and women, and during adolescence.

That protocol admits that patient advocacy groups debate with the medical profession their decisions about hormones, and laments that some “harbour a sense of outrage about their life or treatment experiences”. Being visibly in between genders is not easy either, and I can imagine someone with CAH allowed to have a masculinising puberty might object to that later. The answer is public advocacy, so that greater variation is accepted.

We don’t know what effect hormones have on gender dysphoria. A consultant was shocked that my GP would take me off oestrogen, but the risk he named for that was osteoporosis, a physical disability not anything psychological. I know that hormone level changes can affect my mood and how emotional I get, but not what effect oestrogen and goserelin, the testosterone suppressant I used, had on my mood.

I was committed to transition. I knew I wanted to change my presentation from Stephen to Clare. Starting hormones, and suppressants, was a step on the path to it, and an affirmation from the medical profession that it was right for me. So the hormones could have affected my mood as a symbol that I was doing the right thing, and advancing towards my goal, rather than by some physical action. I heard it as, “Yes you are really female and because you are female we give you oestrogen”. I can’t see how a study might distinguish psychological or placebo effects from physical effects- and possibly the effects are so intertwined that these words, suggesting that they could be distinguished, mislead and reduce understanding.

In adolescence, it would be different. Testosterone has masculinising effects, on body hair and voice, at whatever age you take it (or if, in CAH people, it is not suppressed). But I was initially told that I could get hormones after I went full time, so I went to a private psychiatrist who would give me hormones before. That gatekeeping role increases the desire for hormones: they become affirmation.

What is preferable? CAH people who did not have their testosterone suppressed might be masculinised, and as many are raised as girls and appear happy enough with that, the masculinisation is not cost-free.

I want a society where gender and sex differences are seen as completely normal, rather than this one where we so rigorously differentiate between two sexes that those physically in between may be treated to make them more clearly one or the other, trans people are protected in law if we intend to transition from a clear classification as one to a clear classification as the other, and those who are non-binary, physically or psychologically, are seen as weird. Now, though, it is safer and pleasanter not to be seen as weird. This pressure to conform, so serious that people alter their bodies or have their bodies altered for them, harms us all, but for children with CAH, either medicalised conformity or allowing the child to masculinise could hurt a child, and be resented.

In complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, 46,XY children appear to be girls until they fail to have a normal female puberty. Of 156 brought up as female in another literature review, none changed sex in adulthood. Of 89 children with micropenis, 79 brought up as boys and ten as girls, none changed sex, and that might indicate how powerful an upbringing can be in creating a gender identity. Of 99 brought up as boys with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome, nine changed gender. I knew one, who identified as M-F trans, and later identified as non-binary.

Heaven, Hell and Reality

I wrote that I am in Heaven and Hell. The beauty of the world overwhelms me. The threats I face terrify me.

CS Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’

Lewis related Heaven and Hell to the afterlife, but also to acts and experiences in life. I treat them as metaphor. Hell is the pain I cannot bear, Heaven the delight that seems incredible or impossible. Not my acts, but the world that surrounds me, other people doing their thing which I might not influence. For Lewis, my own acts, in Love or meanness create my place.

What is the name of the golden mean between selfishness and self-abnegation?

What would it mean to take responsibility for my brokenness? Not denying it. My complete loss of confidence just stops me acting. I should do this, I say to myself, it is a simple thing, and I find myself not doing it.

I do not see others for what I can get out of them. Instead, I see them generally as implacable, unsatisfiable. So I do not act, not out of fear of failure but fear of destruction.

I might find simple things to start on, I will take just this one step, but find myself not doing it. Or, having done it, I think, well, that was nothing, no-one would have had any problem with that. I have difficulty assessing how difficult any particular act will be for me, because I have imbibed others’ judgments of what should be easy or difficult and my own different judgments have been suppressed.

Marlowe’s Mephistopheles said, Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. But then he goes on,
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

After Heaven, everything else is Hell. Of course he is a deceiver and predator, seeking to destroy Faust, possibly incapable of truth even to himself. One wonders what his experience of Heavenly bliss was, if he left it, or thought there could be something more.

What is Heaven, for me, here, now? Standing in front of art and relating to it, especially with my dear friend as our feelings and words together reach critical mass and explode. And feeling my pain, knowing my pain, for it is me and I will not deny any part of myself.

Audre Lorde, in her conversation with Adrienne Rich: One thread in my life is the battle to preserve my perceptions- pleasant or unpleasant, painful or whatever…
AR: And however much they were denied.
AL: And however painful some of them were. When I think of the way I courted punishment [throughout my life], just swam into it: ‘if this is the only way you’re going to deal with me, you’re going to have to deal with me this way.’

Heaven is acknowledging the feeling self I denied. Heaven is being a whole human. Not just delight, but also pain fully felt and owned. Or Heaven is freedom and Hell oppression.

Having habitually denied my feeling self, and got on with it, whatever the it of the time was, I don’t know how to be my doing self and feeling self both at once. It’s like having to carry two large bags of groceries without handles. I can embrace one and carry it, but if I try to embrace both things fall out the top and the bags slip through my arms.

And, I am in Reality. Heaven and hell are not future states, or even metaphors for possibilities now, but an expression of the range of my experience, of delight and terror. This world now is bigger than both, containing things more Heavenly and more Hellish than I can imagine.

So I will release my feeling self. I will permit myself to feel, and to experience the feeling, whatever the feeling is. I practise this in the Quaker meeting and in the Silence in my own ritual space at home. I am carrying her, or needing to learn to walk again, in a new way- but it is getting easier.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde gives the consolation trans women need. I feel seen by her. I am reading Your silence will not protect you, a new British selection of her prose and poetry, of her most timeless works.

“We have been raised to fear the Yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But once recognised, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond any distortions that we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression.”

-from Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power.

To gender-critical feminists opposing AFAB non-binary people whom they so resemble, from the point of view of everyone except themselves, I would quote from Scratching the Surface: Some notes to barriers to women and loving:

“The distortion of relationship which says ‘I disagree with you, so I must destroy you’ leaves us as Black people with basically uncreative victories, defeated in any common struggle… This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a particular and limited amount of freedom that must be divided up between us… so instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves.”

Why do trans women not enjoy each others’ company more? StS: “For so long we have been encouraged to view each other with suspicion, as eternal competitors, or as the visible face of our own self-rejection.”

This is prose so rich and poetic that I feel moved to read it aloud, feeling each syllable in my mouth. From Poetry is not a luxury:

“That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.” I know that. Truth comes to me as poetry before I know it intellectually. Here is her definition of the erotic, from UotE:

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognising its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”

From The transformation of silence into language and action:

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognise a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.”

Audre Lorde speaks for me and inspires me. Yet this is Black experience, lesbian experience, which is not my own and is in so many ways alien to my white, educated understanding. That shows me why we white people must be allies to Black people, because they see things we do not see, they can lead us to our own freedom, and her words “I am not free while anyone is unfree” is simply fact.

George Cruikshank

At the end of British Black History month, I present this cartoon by George Cruikshank.

Here is a larger version on the British Museum website, which claims copyright.

The cartoon, from July 1826, calls the slavery abolition campaigners “canting humbugs”. In Cruikshank’s view, the Caribbean “planters” host happy, well-fed, fat black people, who are portrayed making music, dancing and drinking rum. The Abolitionists are deceiving decent British people to take an interest in slavery when there are poor whites in Britain, needing charity but ignored.

Oh, George! Cruikshank’s cartoons are still worth looking at, and I note his sympathy with starving people- a genuine concern- but the lies about slavery shame me now. Britain made a vast amount of money from slavery and colonial exploitation. Loving the Tate Galleries, I have just checked they are not directly contaminated by slave profits, which is a relief; but all over Britain the legacies of slave ownership remain. I am not free when anyone is unfree, even when their shackles are very different from my own. It is imperative for me to be an ally, and develop as an ally. I found the cartoon through David Olusoga’s documentary Britain’s forgotten slave owners.

Resurrection II

My friend did not think the new debt initiative was necessary. People get themselves into muddles. Why not talk to the CAB or the landlord if you can’t pay your rent? I found myself agreeing with him. When I was with the CAB we helped with bankruptcies and insolvency agreements, and with debt budgeting. One or two were on their third bankruptcy, and a trickle of people would come in with a document saying that bailiffs would evict them the following day.

I went into the meeting room and sat down, wondering why I had agreed. People don’t talk to landlords because of denial, powerlessness and shame. If I didn’t go out again and say that to him it would get to me all Meeting. So I went out and said that, and he agreed; and he talked of a good landlord he knew of, helping people through their Universal Credit difficulties.

My landlord is a cheery chap, and he comes round to prune the bushes in the back yard, or poison the tarmac. And just before he moved my neighbour had lost the key to open the windows, so his windows could not be opened. He told me the landlord had said, oh, that’s alright, they could replace the windows and take it out of his deposit. He borrowed my key.

My friend agreed. We are not on opposite sides of this. We both have a nuanced understanding; but he names the possibility of talking to the landlord.

In meeting, I thought that is where I am, a sense of denial- not dealing with the problem- powerlessness- unsure how I can- and shame- it is My Fault! I have a crushing loss of confidence. I don’t have faith I can sort myself out, and Know that if I attempt things the other people I need to work with will block me, even though intellectually I know that is ridiculous. Last year, something happened to extricate me, which I could not have expected: this is not Micawber’s “Something will turn up” but something may turn up.

And I had an image, shadowy to me now, of Resurrection.

I am still at war, opposed extremities battling within me- “denial, powerlessness and shame” v Resurrection. I am simultaneously in Hell and Heaven, both part truth part fantasy, together a wider view of Truth than I can compass altogether so I divide it. Hope and Love, rage and terror. Meditation may help. Spoken ministry, not mine, was of being in community, bringing our entire selves, emotions, even tears, to Meeting.

More Burne-Jones. This object, of silver and bronze leaf overpainted with gold, is fabulously beautiful. I sat looking up at it, seeing the light reflecting on metal which the picture cannot reproduce. The “grey ladies” are young and beautiful, apart from their eyelessness, which is clearer, and more disturbing, on the original.

The Latin is a synopsis of the Perseus myth. That greave is impossible- showing the beauty of the leg’s shape, in shining silver.