Cavafy Is Right

I’ve been living as Paula for nine years. When I transitioned, I lost all my jobs, my pension, and most of my friends. The kind of people I have in my life nowadays are astonished that such a thing could have happened. It is foreign to the world they inhabit. They understand little about the bubble in which evangelical Christians live.

I probably do not give enough weight to the emotional effect of having the world I inhabited for five decades turn its back on me. My friends are furious on my behalf. Maybe I let them carry the anger for me. If that is true, it is not fair to them. I’d like to forgive my evangelical friends, but there is such a thing as cheap forgiveness, forgiveness that comes too soon, before you realize the awfulness of a thing.

When my memoir was published, every interviewer asked about my friends in my old life. I usually acknowledged the awfulness without really acknowledging the awfulness. Instead, I steered the conversation to the many blessings I have experienced since my transition. Not many transgender people have the kind of post-transition blessings I enjoy.

My family has been wonderfully supportive and accepting. But I do still struggle with the pain they all experienced. The grandchildren adjusted without much difficulty. It has been much harder for my children and their spouses, and much harder still for Cathy. I love my family more than anything and I still find myself asking, “Was there another way?” It is always an open question. Sometimes I have to be reminded just how badly I was doing before I transitioned.

When I can get out of the way of my own tendency toward self-condemnation, its own kind of self-centeredness, I see the bigger picture. Rainer Maria Rilke has the right words for what I feel:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children have to go far out into the world

toward that same church, which he forgot.

With everything in me, I hope Rilke is right. The Greek Poet Cavafy suggests that perhaps the goal of the journey is the journey itself. Ithaca was both the point of departure and the goal of return for Odysseus. Yet even when he returned to his home and his beloved Penelope, he was called onto yet another journey, this time inland, a metaphor for the truth that the most important journey is the journey into the deeper regions of one’s own soul. Cavafy writes:

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would never have taken the road.

But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.

With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,

You must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

I love vacationing in Hawaii, and often peruse sales listings on the Internet after I get home. It is a wonderful escape. There is something appealing about the one spot on earth in which you are farther from land than any other place. A long journey over water clears the mind. Being surrounded by the ocean reminds me of the eternal toing and froing of the tides. I love it there. But you take yourself with yourself wherever you go, and eventually the limerence stage of young love, with a place or a person, yields to the always restless longings of the soul. The existential anxiety would return to me in Hawaii as surely as it does in the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

I’ve given up on thinking of life as any destination, any Ithaca. The notion of heaven as the destination, or sustained bliss, or abiding peace, are notions from the past. I think the object of this one precious life is the pathways you take along the way, the energy you bring to those pathways, and the energies you leave behind.

James Hollis writes about this in The Middle Passage. He reminds us of Jung’s central question. “Are we related to something infinite or not?” If we are, then more than anything I want my journey to bring sustaining energy into the lives of those I love and beyond. Is that too much to hope for? This is not a rhetorical question.

Jung also said life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries. The luminosity is because there is something holy and sacred about each human life, and the authenticity with which we live it. Which reminds me of Mary Oliver’s Summer Day. But two poems is my quota for a single post, so you’ll have to look that one up yourself.

And so it goes.