On Irises & Ugly Ducklings

My mother taught me the names of flowers. Wandering through her garden, they come unbidden, like fragments of songs I’ve almost forgotten. Crocus, iris, hyacinth. I say the words and then second-guess them, I think that’s what it’s called. I look them up; they’re never wrong.

On the radio I heard about a man who taught his young daughter the names of all the colors, but never mentioned the color of the sky. When he asked her what color the sky is, she wasn’t sure how to answer. White? Blue? She settled on blue, but it took awhile.

Language shapes reality, mediating not only what is know, but what can be known. Closer to us than skin, language is a lens, directing our focus.

Nobody taught me the words for myself. I learned them, a second language. They will never be self-evident like the words I learned in childhood. A hyacinth just is a hyacinth, the distance between name and named minute. I can go years without saying the word, yet it is always there, ready. But the words for myself, for my body, I struggle to pronounce like contorted transliterations. They don’t roll off my tongue.

After dinner this weekend, my mother laughingly mentioned my first therapist, who I saw when I was five or six, who we haven’t talked about in years. I feel we share an awareness of the obvious cause of my childhood troubles, but I can’t be sure–it’s unspoken.

There is no love in my heart! My mother crooned in a singsong whimper, imitating things I told the therapist. I winced and tried to laugh, unsure if she noticed my discomfort. I think she wanted us to laugh about it together, to make it funny, to make it okay–absolution. I was taught to think of my childhood depression as humorous, slightly ridiculous. These days I can’t remember what was so goddamn funny about a five-year old who says “There is no love in my heart” and “I wish I had never been born.”

Recently I told my fiancee the story of the ugly duckling. She said she didn’t know it. My voice trembled as I told her of the awkward baby duck who looked like no one else and had no friends. I couldn’t keep from crying when the ugly duckling at last transformed into a beautiful swan.

I suddenly perceived the desperate hope I’d hung on that cygnet in a picture book. A saltwater mixture of hope and despair had pooled in my heart and stayed there. I carried those tears for twenty years, until I could no longer carry them. I was that hideous duckling–but in real life, I thought then, no one ever turns into a swan. It was a mute grief, failure a foregone conclusion. I had a double secret: I was destined to be someone, and I would never be him.

On the last point, of course, I was wrong.

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4 comments

  1. ollie

    Loove this. To bring your profound point to a perfectly mundane level, I have recently been watching the L word for the first time. It’s very silly and annoying (although it has good parts!) but mainly I am sad for myself, wondering if I would have recognised myself in Max if I’d seen it when I was young. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an ftm character in a ‘mainstream’ tv series. What if I’d had the image / words for myself 20 years ago?

    • Lesboi

      I have wondered this too but I doubt I would have. In fact, I watched the L word when it was first out and I was not aware of myself as being trans at the time and he did not awaken in me who I really was. Personally I did not like his character at all, but maybe that’s because he hit a little close to the bone whether I knew it or not. Enjoy the show.

  2. Lesboi

    I’ve re-read this post several times since it hit my inbox and have wanted to comment. Hitting the “Like” button seemed like a contradiction but I did it anyway because I did like that you shared this with us. I felt your pain. I still feel it. The post is raw and honest and I thank you for writing it. And, I’m glad that you were wrong on the last point.

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