‘Something That May Shock and Discredit You,’ by Daniel Mallory Ortberg: An Excerpt


In the early days of my transition (when “transition” consisted mostly of refusing to wash my clothes, letting them pile up on the floor so I could weep in bed, getting significant haircuts and responding incredibly tersely if any of my friends acknowledged that I’d cut my hair in any way), I often described my sudden shift in self-awareness as feeling as if a demon had entered my room in the middle of the night, startled me awake by whispering “What if you were a man, sort of?” into my ear, then slithering out the window before I could ask any follow-up questions. I had been eating and drinking, working and laying work aside, and then the floodwaters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered; and all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died and were destroyed from the earth, and the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days. Sometimes cis people will describe a sense of loss at the transition of a loved one and describe it as mourning a kind of death, but I think they’ve got it the wrong way round; it was if everything on the earth was dead and dying except for me, and that none of the practice runs I’d ever rehearsed in childhood had prepared me for it.

I revisited my own childhood constantly for anything that would be sufficient to make sense of my present situation and was frustrated once again by my own calculated, dreamy vagueness; how like me not to keep a written record of anything I might later like to read. No one knows the hour of the coming of the Son of Man (who might start asking questions), so it’s best to travel light. It was such a ridiculous and yet a persistent thought, which came on all at once and in a way that suggested it had always been with me: What if you were a man, sort of? To which the only response imaginable was What if I were anything? What if I were Donkey Kong, or the city of Chicago? “It would be a world record,” my father used to say to us if we asked him too many unanswerable questions in a row. It was a gentle deflection, a way of saying, “Knock it off, I still love you but I’m not going to humor this stalling any longer.” It would have been a world record, is what it would have been. Nothing in my life previous could have prepared me for this question, and I was unqualified to answer it. It was a ridiculous thought to think, and a ridiculous feeling to feel, and yet there it was, so often lurking just beneath something else: What if you were a man, sort of?

Riddle-posing night-demons, the happy days of Noah, the hour of the Son of Man—one of the many advantages of a religious childhood is the variety of metaphors made available to describe untranslatable inner experiences. A few years later, with a transition slightly less bedcentered, I might have described that feeling instead as this: after a number of years being vaguely troubled by an inconsistent, inexplicable sense of homesickness, I woke up one morning and remembered my home address, having forgotten even that I forgot it in the first place, then grew fearful and weary at even the prospect of trying to get back. I have often had a relationship to men that has been bewildering to me. I have been sometimes too charged with an emotion I cannot name, and tried to get them to relate to me in a way that was not easily recognizable, either to them or to me. Had I been in any way prepared for that moment of question-asking, I would have arranged my life in such a way that the moment would have never come. I never saw it coming, so I was never ready; then it was over.

The timeline of awaiting a rapture is broken into two parts: First one becomes willing to be stolen away, then one waits patiently for it to happen, occasionally topping up one’s own willingness and preparedness if stores seem to be running low. But the forces of Heaven do the lifting, the heavy work, the spiriting away, the catching up of the body in the air. The timeline of transition is both alike and nothing like it: One becomes, if not willing to transition, at least curious, sometimes desperate, sometimes terrified, sometimes confident, sometimes tentative. Then, at some point, one has to do or say something in order to make it happen. The force of my desire to transition, when I allowed myself to be hit with the full force of it, felt so supernatural and overwhelming it felt as if all I had to do was stand and wait and somehow the process would begin itself around me, first the lifting, then the heavy work, then the catching up of the body in the air, then the translation from the corruptible to the incorruptible. My own desires had seemed external to me – I certainly couldn’t remember deciding to want anything – so it stood to reason that whatever came next would happen to me rather than because of me.

“Then two will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding flour at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had not known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not suffered his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for you know not what hour your Lord comes.” I had not foreseen the hour when I would be struck by transition-longing. How then could I be asked to discern what came next? I hoped with all my heart to wait long enough for my desires to pass, or to be remade at someone else’s hands. For God was pleased through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace, Colossians 1:20. Everyone will be reconciled through peace and pleasure who can possibly stand it. If you don’t squeeze through the door at first, just wait patiently for Heaven to grind you into a shape that fits.

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes


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