Categories
Voices

Reflections

by Jamie Weil | Voices | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, In The Space Between

Confronting identity and illness in the midst of a chaotic year.


I had just come out of the shower. I was damp, and tired. But I was calm enough that I was able to write a song for the first time in months. And it was good, I think. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter. At that point, I was happy to be doing anything but calling doctors or lying on my couch in pain or running through the same daily cycle of things I could do with my parents.

Having been alone in one place for four months, it was strange to be alone in a different place. It was relieving, actually, to feel like I’d accomplished some sort of movement, which I guess I had. Not only had I survived the five-hour drive from Connecticut to my aunt and uncle’s house in Maine, but also a six-week-long mystery illness, and the months-long process of getting prescribed estrogen. Being trans, and being sick, and being stuck in a house with only my parents for so long meant that any change that wasn’t altogether negative felt… wonderful. It’s a cliché, but, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, I genuinely felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while. 

There’s sort of a redefinition of self when you spend time in a new place, even if it’s only for a few days. We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

***

Last year, I wrote a piece about being—or, at the time, maybe not being—trans. It was for my creative nonfiction class, so I shouldn’t have been worried about anyone reading it and passing real, personal judgement, but I was. I revealed a lot of what I’d buried for most of my adolescence: cutting up old clothes so they would look like “girls’ clothes,” having several near-crises about my gender in my early years at Oberlin, realizing I was trans (in a planetarium in Montreal, of all places) and then recanting. But I also concealed the important part: that I’d never really felt like a person, like myself. I guess I’d thought that was too heavy to impart to anyone else. 

What’s funny is that very soon after writing that essay, I did drop a metaphysical brick on everyone in my life, and in a much more meaningful form than a college nonfiction piece: I came out. First, to my parents, then to my best friend, then to all the myriad people I loved and cared about. I don’t know why I decided to come out when I did, after returning home from the fall semester (although my rash decision to give myself bangs may have contributed). But I did. And things got so much better after that. 

I used Winter Term as a bit of a trial period for my transness; I changed my wardrobe a bit, and adapted to my new name. Gosh, did I feel so much more… alive. That feeling carried through the beginning of the spring semester: I was able to go and do things with my friends without being anxious about being perceived. For the first time, I could go to a party and not have a panic attack or melt into the walls. For the first time, it was good to be seen by other people, because I felt like they were validating my existence as the person I actually was even by saying “hi” to me. It was the happiest I’d been in a long while. 

We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

And then the pandemic hit, and all that newfound joy in human interaction was dashed. I was to be pretty much locked in a house with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not that I don’t love my parents, or that they aren’t supportive; it’s just that two people isn’t enough. Have you ever spent a bit too much time with a few close friends and needed to go have coffee with someone else, just to breathe different air? That was how I felt with my parents, except there wasn’t anyone to have coffee with, and breathing different air was… inadvisable.

I soon realized that this sudden change was going to end up forcing a lack thereof. As I’d learned how to be myself in Oberlin, I’d also been seriously considering starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’d always felt like my body was an ill-fitting sweater that I couldn’t take off, and HRT seemed like a solution. I was bent on broaching the topic with my parents during spring break, but spring break never happened. When I got home, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to see an endocrinologist for a long time. My entire transition hit an impasse. 

***

After a few days at home, it became clear that I (and everyone else) wouldn’t be returning to Oberlin for the rest of the spring. In addition to reckoning with my suddenly molasses-like transition, I was also going to engage in my studies at home. I had to make a bunch of hurried adaptations to my Connecticut life, because I could see that my routine of waking up at noon and eating two meals a day was going to get dark, and fast. I forced myself to leave my bedroom shades up; I learned how to make myself coffee; and I went on a lot of walks. To return to my earlier pseudo-psychological language, I had to redefine myself against what little positive stimuli I had within the confines of my neighborhood. 

One of these stimuli was an album by singer-harpist-bard-of-the-universe Joanna Newsom called Have One On Me. It’s an 18-song, two-hour-long album about codependent relationships (which I’ve, uh, had a few of). It was meaningful to me not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its overall emotional depth and complexity—it was something I could really dive into at a time when I felt life’s gravity had paused and left me hanging in midair. I listened to Have One On Me in chunks, and then as a whole, and then in chunks again, over and over and over. I also set off on the project of learning how to play all of the album’s songs, many of which had perplexing harmonies and rhythms. It was almost like a healing process for me, like the music was working me through all the quarantine-based ennui I’d developed. 

There are so, so many lines from Have One On Me that came to mean a lot to me, but one sticks in particular: “All my life, I’ve felt as though / I’m inside a beautiful memory / Replaying / With the sound turned down low.” The second I heard this line, I knew it typified a feeling I’d had for most of my life, one that was indescribable until then. I’d always been detached from myself, like I was in someone else’s delicate and muted memory. Hearing Joanna’s words when I did was particularly arresting, because that feeling had intensified in the time I’d been home. I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine. 

***

The school year wound down, and I began to settle into a bit of a groove. Without work, I was free to do what I wanted. I found solace in running, playing and writing music, and editing my poetry. With the pandemic calming somewhat, I was finally able to set the ball rolling on hormones. And I got a new therapist who was, at the very least, another person I could bounce my feelings off of. I was still isolated and disengaged, but I had established a comfortable rhythm. 

But in early June that all was disrupted (this is becoming a theme, yes?). I started to have difficulty digesting what I ate. At first I thought, Eh, I just ate bad fish or something, and then, Hm… Do I have salmonella? and then, I don’t know what I have but it is bad. By Independence Day, I was unable to keep anything nutritious in my body. I lost 10 pounds in a month (which is a lot for anyone to lose, but especially not good for normally 120-pound me). There were nights when I’d be greeted at 3:00 AM by intense nausea and dehydration. There were days when I had to lie in bed, not because of my growing exhaustion, but because any sudden movement I made would send me stumbling to the bathroom. And there were moments when I just broke down crying. It wasn’t the pain of being sick; it was the pain of not knowing what was happening to me, of feeling completely and totally out of control. I felt like my body was a blank gray wall, and no matter how loud I screamed, how many times I pleaded for answers, it just stood, disintegrating, silent. 

I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine.

Though I obviously needed a doctor, it took an extreme experience to get me to see one—because of the pandemic, and because I can be needlessly stoic. But after a rough morning when I ran a low fever, I got through to an on-call doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist an hour away. He took about five minutes to listen to my symptoms and suggested I have a colonoscopy, and quick. 

So I did. It was honestly not that bad; I counted back from 10 and woke up rather loopy an hour later. (And I got those hospital socks with the grip on the bottom, so that was a plus.) The doctor told me I had a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and prescribed steroids (temporarily) and an anti-inflammatory (permanently). Although it wasn’t a rosy outcome, I was glad to know I wasn’t wasting away for no reason. I was also glad to know I’d get better. At home, I’d already been mentally removed, and being sick took my physical security away as well. I was looking forward to being someone with a functioning mind and body again. 

***

So there I was in late July, four months into my forced experiment in social isolation. I’d just been prescribed a whole bunch of stomach medicine, as well as—finally—estrogen. And the day after I began taking all this in, after I began the process of healing in all the myriad ways I needed to heal, I left my Connecticut hideout for six days, to visit my aunt and uncle. When I got to Maine, I felt like I could breathe normally again. It was certainly a result of everything changing at once for me, but I didn’t realize that. It felt metaphysical. Like I’d stepped over from dusk to dawn. 

Through all I’d experienced that spring and summer, I’d been working on a long poem about my first experience realizing I was trans in a Montreal planetarium. Along with Have One On Me, it kept me going. It was one of the first poems I didn’t just pour out all at once; it was a stanza-by-stanza, section-by-section sort of deal. I would spend most of my afternoons, and sometimes the late hours of the night, writing and rewriting, destroying the paper with eraser marks. I did this even when I was at my sickest—I suppose it felt like the only way I could do something productive, despite the fact that few people were likely to see the poem, whenever I ended up finishing it. 

When I went to Maine, I was ever so close to finishing the poem, but the first four nights I was there, despite my newfound calm, I could not think of the right way to end it. I don’t know if it was classic writer’s block or if I just wasn’t spending my artistic energy in the right way, but I was stuck. 

Then, pretty late into the night before I was set to leave, I was walking out in the semi-cleared woods next to my aunt and uncle’s. Looking up at the sky, I could see the stars clearly. In the opening of the poem, I’d invoked Polaris and Ursa Major, and now they were right in front of me: “asterisms in the stars’ set order,” as Joanna Newsom would say. I had my ending. 

I sat in the grass, ignoring a thin layer of mist, and took out my phone and wrote. It was a bookend that also pointed forward, like an arrow sent through a board. I wrote feverishly, and though it ended up only being a few lines, I was satisfied. I got up and started heading back to the house. 

The poem closes with the line, “Dear god of the big mistake, / Here deserving of a small thanks.” Essentially, it’s a recognition of having come out of things ok, of having been lucky enough to come out at all. I wrote it with my transness in mind, but I think it came to represent all I’d been through that year: the hundreds of times I’d called doctor’s offices, the sickness, the stress, the isolation. But I’d gotten through that. And I was going to keep getting through it. 

As I was walking back, the fog from the lake beside me seemed to rise, but I could still see the stars looking down as I was looking up. With each step, I hit the ground, which was only getting wetter, with a squelch. And somehow, despite all known logic and physics, the wilderness picked up on that sound, reflecting myself back at me across the water. 

Categories
Poetry

tintin in tibet

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, four faces

now only, i 

am listening to “tintin in tibet.”
it’s autumn, and cooler than it was,
and phil elverum says, “you don’t exist / 
i sing to you, though.” 

he’s singing this to his wife, geneviève, 
who passed a few years ago,
just after their daughter was born.

phil’s songs are great missives
often written to his wife, or to the ether, 
or helios, or raven’s feathers;
he’ll skirt around the point,
but never quite arrive at it,
such that his ideas leak
in a sort of scattered melancholy. 

… it’s autumn. in the song, too, i think. 

now only, you 

are probably not thinking of me 
and certainly not singing
to me, or to anyone else.
maybe to yourself. 

the air is drier, and i
keep sneezing into my mask. 
can i write that so nonchalantly?

this is a moment i think we’ll remember,
which is a small devastation
like when i touch the place
where you kissed my neck, not intending to cry, 
or when i realize i’ll never 
quite discern between certain blues. 
“tintin in tibet” plays on loop, 

and now i’m aware it isn’t autumn after all.  

now only, we 

should have known; the lawns are free 
of leaves, and the date is apparent
to anyone with a fair grasp of things.
i sit on my stoop and share a look

with a black bird in our maple tree. phil sings, 
“standing in the front yard like an open 
wound / repeating ‘i love you,’ to who?”

and i get the sudden sense
that he’s somehow read my psyche,
or at least my poems, and then
i feel stupid for associating my loss with his. 

and then i just feel sorrow. 

behind me, the sun sets
in blankets of glare, falling
from a distant windowpane.
i don’t notice the sky change color;
blue, to blue, to blue.
can you live in the moment
when the moment is just begging 

to be passed through?
like this weather,
like each small devastation 
breaking across my neck; 
like each aching moment of 
“tintin in tibet,” and yet
i listen. 

i listen. 

Categories
Poetry

… according to john

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2020

Lucy Kaminsky, Time is not a clock

i don’t believe in divinity.
this much you should know, not just
because you always ​know,
but because i often laugh
about sunday school
and how quick the gospels
became cyclical and dull.

                but,
                if you will forgive my hypocrisy,
i had a moment today
when i did believe
in something somewhat otherworldly.

it was late afternoon, and your hands were shaking
from the little rest you allow;
                from mixed blessings and turns of silence.

in concern i reached across the table
to hold your shaking hand in mine, and,
as i did, a light—from your screen
                or from the ceiling—caught my eye,
                                and then caught yours,
                                                and i fell in.

                what i am saying is,
i’ve been here before,
i’ve had my fits of faith,
but never so well-phrased,
so evangelical:

                and it will fade
                ever impermanent,
                                and it will return,
                 and i will fall again, into that pool
                 of delicate waves:
                                the lightlike water.

Categories
Poetry

The Bittersweetness

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2019

Jack Spector-Bishop, Dog Days

take that tranquility, there,  
                 that heat before the clothes are folded 
                                  that makes the cold air sweeter.

take it into your arms unfurled take me 
into your arms, that tranquility 
               that weakness upon waking, 
      not knowing where you are, 
                        but knowing

that heat before you touch the floor, before 
             you are unfolded, recklessly, 
                        in a rush to make amends with the morning. 

             into your arms again
             and again 
             that weakness upon waking from a dream 
                          of folding clothes early in winter. 

                                                    tranquility, take me 
                                                        so that i may know    the bittersweetness 
                                                                                                         in taking.

Categories
Poetry

Organ Pump

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2019

Photo by Vu M. Nguyen

faint
a sketch of melody 
perhaps, not quite 
skin and bones.
more like powder
or the tone of the sea 
on a cloudy morning. 
you can’t quite 
grasp it slips through
your fingers
and into your eyes 
like gold flake;
a solar eclipse.