That Feeling Again

One of my courses this term is a class on the art and architecture of India.

When we got to a discussion of the Chaitya Hall at Karle, I had the distinct feeling I had seen these carvings in person once.  That feeling has occurred multiple times throughout the course.  However, any thoughts that I’d had an earlier life in India were tempered by two things.

First, I realized that the various Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim structures we’ve covered are mostly ruins now, and that they somehow look “correct” that way.  I cannot picture them in their heyday, painted brightly and festooned with flowers as they would have been.  Even with photographs of more recent temples in India I still picture myself among ruins.

Second, I came to realize that the way I feel when I see Indian architecture is as a perpetual outsider to that culture, even when I nominally understand what the religions behind these buildings believe.  I even catch myself with negative feelings about these structures sometimes.  It took me a while to realize but the familiarity I feel is more like that of a British colonist than as a native.  I find myself struggling to maintain objectivity in the face of an incredibly strong orientalist impulse.

I now think I may have traveled to India during my mid-19th century life.  At least, that’s the most likely time to have done so since John was unlikely to have been there (though his battalion certainly was there early in the war).  My recollections are not clear but I did seem to recall ladies with parasols standing around the Lad Khan temple and a general atmosphere of exuberance and perhaps slight apprehension as a tourist in an exotic land.

Still, such a feeling is out of keeping with the objective studies of an art history major.  I’m not on an elephant safari in 1855, why do I keep thinking like someone who is?  It’s irritating.

Yes, The Way We Talk About Women Is A Problem

Having been completely cis male in most of my prior lives and a writer known for annoyingly stereotyped female characters and being unfair to my wives in my last life, the following will be something I would have probably never said before.

Yes, the way we talk about women is a problem.  Experience is a harsh teacher.

I have to be honest about something: part of the reason I didn’t transition sooner was because deep down, I had shit tons of internalized misogyny to deal with.

I grew up with a mother whose mental illnesses made her extremely emotionally unstable and gave her a cruel, vindictive streak. Early on I was taught by the men in my life to believe that that’s just how women were. That’s certainly how bad wives on TV shows acted, and how many men are socialized to see women: as an obnoxious pest who plays mind games and complains about not being appreciated. That is to say that the men in my life were not being mean-spirited by telling me that my mother was a “typical woman,” but they were repeating a meme that was soaked deep into the culture and I had really no point of reference for any other view.

But I also grew up with the option of living life as a man, and confronted with these unlikable visions of womanhood I could never imagine myself as anything but a man. I began to see a woman as a fallen, dirty thing and in my pride I thought “I am not fallen and dirty, so I must not be a woman.” I admired the Greeks and the Romans with their masculine ideals and came to see homosexuality as a morally superior form of love. From there my ideas descended into a morass of pseudo-classical homosexism.

Even when gender dysphoria began to hit, I still tried to love my homomasculine role as a gift, so much that I constructed a false identity around it. I had the perfect body to be a bear, and I found it surprisingly easy to bed cute guys who were looking for a big burly chub. It was such an ego boost to have a body type that so many guys actually preferred where I knew, if I lived as a woman, I would just be seen as fat and ugly.

As my dysphoria got worse, I felt like I needed to be cuter so I could get more guys to mount me instead, because I hated always being on top. I wanted to look more androgynous, or even become a fully passable “trap.” But from my experience, “feminine” meant “petite,” and I began to starve myself, setting limits of 1000 calories per day (sometimes going as little as 700) while purging with laxatives. I didn’t think back then I could be beautiful without losing weight.

Only now, in hindsight, do I see just how much these attitudes have been normalized, and just how much damage they do when that’s all you ever hear most of the time. I was completely at the beck and call of a culture that has surprisingly bitter contempt for women and I was none the wiser. Ultimately, had I not grown up in a culture that says women are irrational and vindictive, had I not lived in a culture that fetishizes masculinity as a superior virtue, had I not lived in a culture that puts so much emphasis on small, unhealthy bodies, I would have been saved so much trouble that I didn’t even know I was in at the time. I thought I was just suffering for the sake of “the good fight” of defending masculine virtue when all I was doing was more damage to myself than I had to.

Yes, the way we talk about women is a problem. It’s not cool to shame our bodies, our minds, and our existence. This isn’t about “getting a thicker skin,” this is getting to the heart of a culture that really needs to learn some respect and hold itself accountable for its attitude.

Epiphany

After digesting what I’ve found about William Longespee, I can now say that what he reminds me of in myself is not a positive trait.

He was a habitual pleaser who gave deeply of himself and put up with way more abuse than he had to.  That’s exactly the way I was before my transition.  I had been stuck in that same fucking rut for 8 centuries.

The whole thing with remembering past lives was a direct result of this trait in me.  In 2012 I was rooming with a selfish, manipulative person who never treated me in a civil way once he had the upper hand on me, and I still tried obsessively to be his right hand man… even if it meant forcing myself to remain a man.  One of the things I will never forgive him for was his negativity when I revealed to him that I wanted to transition and the way he used my vulnerabilities against me when I was done putting up with his bullshit.

He did worse.  I found out after he’d moved away that the roommate he had pretty much guilted us into agreeing to take on without even putting on the lease had been selling crack out of our apartment.  It turns out, I was in a situation that was starting to look an awful lot like the Santa Venetia years.

But our relationship was not always this way.  There were times when he and I seemed to be very good friends.  This was back when I was living in Vegas, at the start of my paranoid gun nut phase.  He seemed like a good person to have on my side because he seemed business-minded, I bought my first gun from him, and he was also a sadist who catered to some dark, self-endangering fetishes I had before I gained some confidence.  We joked, we played games, went out for tamales, we commiserated by phone on a regular basis when I was stuck in Arkansas, and he even helped me move to Portland.  I thought I’d really managed to get in good with a real rogue who could help me when the shit hit the fan, and at one time he trusted me to have his back if it came to that.

Still, in hindsight, there was a lot of negativity about him.  Everyone was an “asshole” or an “idiot,” and he always had choice words for easy targets.  He kept having good business ideas and then not following through with them. He was pretty open about some of his more warped ideas too, and he told me some things that kind of scared me even though I’m reasonably sure in hindsight that he was full of shit.  Also, I kept getting followed by clean-cut men in unmarked Crown Victorias after I started hanging out with him in Vegas;  I later learned that there was indeed a reason for that fact which I will not discuss here.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this guy was King John in a previous life (pretty sure he wasn’t), nor am I suggesting that William Longespee was into edgeplay because he had a wounded psyche.  But I am suggesting that the same reason I put up with this guy is at least in part the reason Count William didn’t join the barons’ revolt until the very end when it didn’t really matter because King Louis of France had arrived.  He put his lot in with people he found useful because they found him useful.  That’s exactly what I did to myself.

For that matter, that’s what Phil did too.  He tolerated major assholes because they tolerated his addictions, even fancied them his friends, then got burned in 1972 when his house was trashed and his manuscripts got stolen.  Also like me, Phil was under surveillance (except in those days it was gold-colored unmarked Plymouth Valiants in his rearview if memory serves).

I broke a pattern 800 years old by this gender transition.  I finally transgressed into territory that forced all of the superficial people out of my life, and although it was a devastating experience it seems to have been a karmic jackpot.  I’ve pretty much been dealt a hand that forced me to either stop being a useful idiot to bad people or die, and I’m better for that.

I just hope I remember this lesson next time around.

The Eyes Have It

I have never posted a photo of myself here.  In part, it’s because I don’t want to give away my identity (though it isn’t exactly a closely-guarded secret).  However, a while back I found a photo of myself that to me showed something very revealing.

I decided to place it side by side with a photo of Philip K. Dick, but even though it’s a pre-transition photo I might still prove recognizable so I cropped it so that just the eyes are showing.

Here it is:

theeyeshaveit

The photo on the left is Phil in 1974, shortly after his experience with Valis (at least to the best I can determine that’s about when the photo was taken).  The photo on the right is me, in the spring of 2004, sitting in the Blowing Stone pub in Wantage, Oxfordshire during a trip in which I also spent a substantial amount of my day in Wiltshire (countryside Longespee would have known well).

Without showing the whole face it’s hard for me to prove, but to me it looked like the exact same expression: pale, blank, and haunted, a thousand-yard stare that looks right through the viewer.

There are some obvious soft tissue differences in the folds above Phil’s eyes and the effects of aging (I was only 19 in the 2004 photo), but what I found strange when I measured the face was that everything from the bridge of the nose up is more or less the exact same proportions.  This also shows my eye color.  I was unable to find a good photo showing Phil’s eye color but according to records his eyes are variously described as “blue” and “blue-green.”  My hair is also brown like his but with less of a red highlight.

The comparison proves nothing, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

The Real War Against The Machines

While talking with a fellow who remembered a medieval life in wartime quite vividly, I was trying to convey what stood out for me about war on the Western Front and how I perceived the conflict.

I came to the conclusion that I felt absolutely no resentment toward the Germans and never have.  If I have any resentment it’s largely personal and internalized for allowing myself to get dragged into a war I didn’t have to fight.

In fact, in all my memories the greatest menace was not the soldier across the trench nor even his gun.  The threats that affected us most directly were the numerous impersonal ways of killing, where those who cut us down never even saw our faces.  Bombs and shells that left nothing of our comrades to bury; steel traps that mangled limbs; gas that drowned teenage boys in their own lungs; machine guns that made killing an entire platoon from a hundred yards away a casual task; it seems that no matter what uniform you wore, it was the machines we battled most directly and the machines that always won.

It may be true that every machine had a human being behind them but think of what that human being had to become to make the decision to use those machines in such a way.  They had to be cold, logical, and detached and the most cold and detached of all were the top brass of our various militaries, who saw each of us privates as just another integer in an equation toward gaining the upper hand.  To make the most of a mechanized war, they themselves had to become like machines, think like them, and employ them in the most ruthlessly optimized way possible.

If you think of what happened after the war, how entire economies became based on building military machines and the movement toward automation and ruthless optimization hit new peaks, it could be argued that the science fiction scenario where human beings are enslaved by machines in an apocalyptic battle has already happened.  We are nominally in control of technology inasmuch as these machines do nothing without our behest, but functionally technology controls us and everything we do.

The fellow I was talking to then mentioned Tolkein and how his writing was influenced by the mechanized death he saw all around him in France in 1916, and it clicked for me: this is why Phil was so fixated on the question of what makes us human and what happens when the takeover of humanity is so complete that machines no longer be distinguished from humans.  I was as much afraid of machines becoming human-like as I was of humans becoming machine-like to adapt to such a world and in my previous life’s books, you can see it in profound detail, how a world that doesn’t even know it’s lost a war with its own inventions is slowly squeezing out the last of its humanity.

I think I need to revisit this in my writing.  I’ll be chewing on this for a few days.

More Thoughts on the Future of Religion, Part 1

This will be an age of great upheavals when it comes to religion.  Old ways are on their way out and new ways are on their way in.  Traditions that do not stand the test of time will topple like dominos and those traditions worthy of keeping or reviving will become the new norm in a broad number of faiths.

It’s already happening.  The West is in crisis and many people no longer feel that traditional religion has been a positive role in their lives and many have given atheism serious consideration.  However, rather than seeing a broad trend of disaffected people remaining atheistic, I think we’ll see a wide array of responses.

Of course, many religions are simply changing to keep with the times.  Pope Francis made big news recently with his endorsement of things like the life sciences and compassion toward the LGBT community, things that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago; but it’s also refreshing to someone who isn’t obsessed with the apocalyptic idea that society is going insane due to a lack of traditional values.  There are those of us who believe that society is going insane because our old ways have brought us to a place where we can no longer use them to find our way and we must find new ways forward now.  Increasingly, that attitude has confronted religions that have had their relevance challenged the most, and many of them are finally understanding that they have to grow or the day will come when they will no longer be a voice that anyone will listen to, like the priests of the Roman gods were by the 2nd century.

The religions that change the least seem to have the most defections.  I’m one of at least two or three people I know who was raised Southern Evangelical, became a progressive Christian, then an atheist, then a Pagan before moving on to various different systems we were comfortable with.  That exact trajectory.  This is very much a millennial phenomenon.

Part of the reason for all that bouncing from one religion to another has to do with our culture of information addiction.  Mine is the generation that spends hours reading Wikipedia, or culture-savvy sites like Snopes or TV Tropes.  Once we get going on a religious trajectory, we find that unlike any generation before us, we have a massive library of nearly every sacred text in existence right at our fingertips.  I cannot emphasize what a drastic change that is; it makes the introduction of the Gutenburg Bible in the 15th century or the advent of the first English translations of Eastern religious texts in the 19th and 20th centuries seem like child’s play when you think about the scale and scope of what the DIY adept can learn, and it’s all free.

Provided the powers that be don’t shut down sites like the the Internet Sacred Text Archive, over the years more people who feel the need to cross-examine their beliefs will begin to adapt many ideas and find expressions of religion and spirituality that suit them.

Furthermore, some of us have learned that the beauty of freedom of religion is that once we’re out of our parents’ homes, we can observe whatever religious practices we want and we’re free to stop following those practices if they don’t work for us.  This is a very wonderful and liberating thing when you realize you really do have some expectation, in the West at least, of your explorations being respected and protected from interference by dominant groups.  The right to unpopular opinions has been my generation’s greatest tool for exploring ideas that work even if it is abused by some people.

Many people in my generation use the term “spiritual” to differentiate themselves from established religions, but the term is vague and poorly defined.  It can encompass many things and I think over time, a vocabulary will emerge to identify the traits of these myriad new strains of thought rather than simply describing them in the broadly non-commital term “spiritual.”

Religion is not dying.  It is surviving and adapting to a crisis of culture where we suddenly find ourselves near the end of the modern era asking ourselves, “what comes next?”

In part 2, I’ll discuss what the character of the new religious spirit is and what the religion of the next era will aspire to.

Windfall

Taking a history class that covered Angevin England has actually given me a pretext to do a little more research about William Longespee, and what I’ve found is fascinating.

First of all, the best source as far as modern history books are concerned for information about William Longespee is just about any biography of King John or a good history of his reign.  In fact he was such a central figure in John’s troubled reign that he remains inseparable from the narrative.  How exactly he managed to keep from being stained by King John’s reign, I don’t know because he was loyal most of the time.

Second, I discovered two interesting coincidences with John’s life.

There was an episode that took place in Sherborne during a revolt in Devon.  William Longespee, warned of an ambush awaiting him just a little further up the road, turned back only to be berated by John (though he later went back and the soldiers who waited for him fled in terror because he had brutal Flemish mercenaries with him).  Sherborne, incidentally, is six miles from Yeovil and John was born in a house along Sherborne road.  This is yet another instance where a distance of only a few miles separated important events in both lives.

Another interesting fact emerged.  A while ago I had a memory that during John’s life, I had a weakness for card games and lost money and items (including a keepsake box I kept my cigars in) by gambling compulsively.  It turns out that William Longespee was fond of cards and also, an habitual gambler who often had King John pay his gambling debts.