Here is Alex’s letter; below it are the responses some participants created. We’ll continue posting them as they arrive. You are also invited to respond!
March 31, 2014
Dear Thursdays Writing Collective,
Thank you for inviting me to write to you. I’m honoured to be part of your project. I spent a long time thinking about what I could write to you. I decided that the best part of letter writing is that it’s really a record of someone else’s life at the time that they write the letter, so it would be best for me to choose something that’s important to me right now and share it with you in this letter. You can write back about this thing or you can write back about anything else.
Earlier this year I read a great book called Testo Junkie. It’s written by a theorist, Beatriz Presiado, who self-administers low doses of testosterone for about a year. The book’s about her exploration of her gender, but it’s also about her recent loss of a close friend and fellow artist to suicide. I had also recently lost a friend and fellow writer to suicide just before I read this book and had no idea that the book was partly about grief; I was just reading it for the parts about gender. This book found me at the right time in my life and what I’ve chosen to write to you about is a few lines from the book that I copied down and have kept around ever since.
“The history of life is revealed before me night after night with the slowness of insomnia. It calms me to think that I was once bacteria and that someday I’ll become it again. My bacterial self helps me sleep. For more than two thousand years, it rained on earth until these empty pools that had become oceans and evaporated after the explosion of a giant meteorite filled up with water again. I tell myself that if the oceans could dry up and then refill, my heart as well can purge itself of politics and be filled again.”
This stayed with me because it talks about loss and recovery in the context of such a huge time span. The emptying and refilling of oceans. I grew up on the coast and the ocean is huge for me as a writer. I think of it as unmovable and ever-present. There was something very soothing to me about the fact that oceans were once emptied and refilled. I found it comforting to be this small. Nothing is too large to be emptied and filled again.
My bacterial self helps me sleep. The writer has a self that isn’t their own, that is a living organism that predates and will continue after the writer. Thinking about the bacterial self distracts me from my physical self – from memories, from things that aren’t working out right now, from grief. The bacterial self is part of the emptying and filling of the oceans. The bacterial self never sleeps; is sleep.
Here are the things I wonder: Can you purge yourself of politics? Do you need to drain everything from your heart to refill it? What is your bacterial self? Does it have a name?
Responses from Thursdays Writing Collective
Thank you for your letter to our writing group here at Thursdays’. The subject of gender identity or gender expression has been explored but maybe not enough. There were few guidelines or role models available for reference and support when I was growing up. You were on your own, growing up with lots of self-reflection, gender exploration, self-doubt, secrets and depression. At times, I’m amazed I managed to survive this long. I would often joke by looking to the heavens and shouting, “Please God, what did I ever do so wrong, to have to live so long, whatever it was, I’m sorry. Now can I die?” (a take on “only the good die young”)
I seem to have settled on being somewhat of a hybrid, in that I choose to view my gender identity as falling somewhere in the middle of the typical female and male binaries. I liked to think that for many years I transcended all stereotypes. I exercised my uniqueness in the way I chose to dress, much to the chagrin of my parents. Feelings of never quite fitting in are so common when gender confusion is kept secret, when one is terrified of what others might do if found out. Internally I wrestled with my gender every single day after puberty, absolutely terrified of being found out.
I could go on forever on the subject of gender, but I thought I might share a bit of a twist on the reference to the bacterial self and the physical self. It is amazing how science has allowed us to have so much more information with which to contemplate our “self” and it’s relationship to the smallest sub-atomic particles of matter and then also to the vastness of this universe, from it’s earliest beginnings to the present and on to what possibilities there are for the future. In your letter the “I” or “self” addresses the carbon components of life as a human and the beginnings as bacteria – how our DNA reflects or holds the history of not only our beginnings as humans, but also the beginnings of life on this planet, hence the bacteria connection. To take that a little further, our bodies could include atoms that were formed from the earliest period atoms began to appear in the universe, several million years after the big bang, which started it all.
In my old age, I tend to think of myself as a combination of my carbon body and the two distinct energies that flow throughout the space between our cells, one of which holds memories. I now put more emphasis, when thinking of who I am, on the energy flow as opposed to the flesh body, which dies and breaks down and then is soaked up again into the lifecycle on planet Earth. I like to think that this energy, which can’t be destroyed, but only transformed, may mature enough to eventually rise above the ego and leave it behind with flesh.
Now it’s time for the “what ifs” as in what if, when the physical body dies, the energy flows move on as one to be joined with other similar flows from our forefathers who transcended this human reality before ourselves. Once the appropriate number of like-patterned energy flows have been reached, may they then form another entity entirely where there is no room for ego, but for the greater good. Then maybe another what-if this new entity moves on to another reality, another dimension or …
This ego I refer to is of the carbon vessel or of this body, which needs to be serviced with food and breathing to keep the self alive. This vessel develops these flows of energy and the synapses of energy thoughts, which are stored on one of the energy flows. Once our life experiences give us a full understanding of the human condition, only then are we capable of transcending this ego once our body dies. We as humans can only rise above this ego, this self, this I, when the flesh body we must service to stay alive, dies. The human experience is all about the ego.
On a final note; yes, I have contemplated and acted on thoughts of suicide. Luckily, or maybe luck had nothing to do with it, I was apprehended from behind by a security guard with his guard dog, as I was in the process of loading the gun to blow my brains out right there and then. What happened after is nothing short of a miracle, a miracle so I would keep going in the face of so much evil and hate. Now armed with a greater or enlightened understanding, I will never give up again and try to take my own life so precious.
A friend paints women floating in the sea,
female flotsam carried and caressed by waves.
I sink down in a chair and recognize my ocean legacy
I, too, can float.
Those living waters rock me in a current
of cellular life. Asleep among the press of fathoms
swells rise and collapse in the nucleus,
seawater tingles through my skin
and seeps to the guts and nerves, bones
and blood, into the double helix of swimming ancestors.
Lulled by tides, I lose centuries
The sea in the painting claims me,
lifts me, drifts me away, awash, astray –
without frames, this buoyant body is my true
bacterial self suspended open above the depths.
This small was when I was the third of three – all the same. And I was the one carried. Even my oldest sister took care of me. This small was when I was a part – no need to think clearly. No one ever left without me. I found it comforting to be this small. Small wonder. It was a time when they weren’t…without me.