Saturday, May 23, 2009

Transilience and the Navajo Blessing

The juniper, pine and desert earth smelled of the watery hint of night burning off when we started out in the car to Gallup, New Mexico. Dawn transmuted the sky from jet to azure, the sounds of coyotes to birds. The three of us, my mother, brother and I, breathed in and smiled with the green mesas of the Zuni Mountains while the prairie dogs poked up on the fringes of the road to watch us pass. The day before, we had punctured a tire on a piece of igneous rock in the middle of El Malpais, the volcanic badlands filled with nothing but sharp rocks, cinder cones, spiky shrubs and carrion birds. We changed the tire and were going to get new tires in Gallup. The drive takes about an hour, but we were looking forward to the views and conversation. We would descend about one thousand feet, so the trees and vegetation would transform slightly.

Somehow, we got on the subject of gender and pronouns: the duality of gender in western society. I already had told my brother, who is also transgendered, about my acceptance of my leap across, beyond, over gender lines. A couple of times in the last few days, my mother, who only seen me a few months ago, had not recognized me standing in the yard. She thought I was another man from the community visiting. In a convoluted oblivion of words, I finally told my mother that I am transgendered. I felt I had not told her clearly enough, but my brother was backing me up and she was confirming that something was different. I reminded her that I had not changed, only grown more comfortable with myself and talking about my identity as somewhere between man and woman. Through the car journey, we explained that hormones and surgery were a form of body modification to feel more oneself, not a form of self-denial. She runs a beauty salon and so saw that people liked to shape certain physical aspects to feel beautiful: plucking brows, coloring hair, building nails sets. Make-up, hair and nails are modifications people choose that shapes their gender. I told her I am choosing to pursue taking testosterone to androgynize my body. My brother and I explained a bit of biology and social bias. I recommended a book to her, The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights by Deborah Rudacille. Some biologists now say there should be at least five genders. Socially, the Western dualistic power structure, whose proponents feel threatened by feminists, queers and all types of civil rights activists, is rooted in the perpetuation of the view that things cannot change from one realm into the other. The working class cannot be allowed to have the power of the landowner. Women cannot be men. Trans people embody everything that threatens the hierarchies, down to the very notions of what it is to be human. Here's the key, I reasoned to her, I do not want male power, rather I want to destroy the wall. Our explanations seemed to placate her concerns. We approached the city and our conversations drifted to other subjects.

We dropped my brother off at the college, the car at the tire shop, and mom and I wandered downtown Gallup on foot. The sun was relentless and we ran out of water within thirty minutes. A Zuni man stopped us on the street and showed us the stone fetishes he had hand-carved. She was drawn to the snake and the horny toad. The snake was carved in a coil with a feather etched in the side. It represents wind and guards the garden. Snakes shed their skin and snake medicine is the alchemy of transformation. The horny toad is sacred, good luck. When you come across one, you rub it on your heart. She bought both.

We picked up the car and my brother and went for supplies. My brother and I went into Thunderbird, a jewelry supply store, and Ma stayed outside, perhaps to smoke. We took a while inside and when we came out she was seated next to a Navajo elder with his hand clasped in hers and her eyes nearly brimming. Her manner was as if she'd known him her entire life. She introduced us as her sons.

The man shook my hand, looked long into my eyes, and stopped himself from speaking. I was left with insatiable wonder over what he was going to say when he shook my brother's hand. Without letting go, he took my mother's hand and asked us to join hands so he could bless us. We closed the circle and he began speaking in Navajo. The sounds of the language came like a waterfall in a arid canyon as his hands shook from alcohol. A few words were in English, something about Jesus Christ, blessings, a safe journey. Ma let out a sob. He blessed us again, taught us how to say hello in Navajo: Yá'át'ééh. Have a safe journey, he said again, his eyes fervent and smiling.

We got in the car. I was blank with overwhelm. Ma said she had showed him the horny toad and he opened up to her with excitement and rubbed the fetish against his heart. She had told him that our family had gone through many hardships. She had endured decades of a marriage that created an abusive and dangerous home for her children. She told him about a time when a coyote had crossed in front of her. He told her that to undo the mischief the coyote makes when he crosses your path, you must draw a line where the coyote walked across before you pass the coyote's trail. He asked her if she had done that. No, she hadn't, but now she knows.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Navajos were forced to leave their homelands and walk over 300 miles to a New Mexico fort, where they were imprisoned for four years. Thousands died on the journey.

Safe journey, I remember him saying repeatedly.

Two days passed in a daze and it came time to leave New Mexico for Texas with Ma. Our last night in New Mexico we spent in the Valleys of Fire. I still had the blessings of safe journey in my head. The morning we were to break camp in the valley and return to the land of my birth, we decided to take a walk up the hill to the overlook. We walked with the sun up through the stones. Ma kept talking about watching for snakes because she had seen a rattler last time she was here. Sure enough, a snake crossed our path. It was harmless, but it brought my gaze downward, where, just off the path sat a horny toad sunning on a rock . I moved closer and it grasped the ground tightly every time I moved in, but it did not run. Ma said they were docile, you could pick them up and they would hardly squirm, she remembers that from growing up in El Paso. I timidly reached for it and picked it up. It was a little startled but stayed in my hand. I opened my shirt and held it against my heart.

With dawn, the coyotes' howls transformed into bird's cries and the ravens began to feed on yesteryear's shame. That was the day I came home.

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