I'm bad and that's good. I will never be good, and that's not bad. There's no one I'd rather be, than me.
-Bad Guy Affirmation, Wreck-It Ralph
I’m wild and that’s good.
When I talk about working with Loki, or really with any jotnar, the questions seem inevitable. How do I stand that energy? That intensity? That destructiveness? How do I live with so much chaos around me?
The real question, if you know me, is how could I not live with that energy in my life. There’s a reason I talk about monsterwork and destruction and deconstruction. That’s who I am, and that’s how I work. Jotunheim is a much better fit for me than Asgard. I ain’t no country club boy. When I see Loki, he’s free. When I work with the other jotnar, there’s no pretense of it being safe, or of them being tame. Ran is the ravenous ocean, Hraesvelgr is the churning storm, Logi is the wildfire and Surt is the fire at the heart of creation.
Why do I work with them? Because that’s the energy that I need in my life. Stagnation drives me up a wall, and more than that, it can actually make my OCD worse. There is a fear that, if things are calm, I must be simply waiting for the next chaotic thing. I’m happier when things are happening and changing, whether internally or externally. I may not have complete control over them, but choosing to give up control is still a choice.
People seem to worry that Loki is going to wander uninvited into lives that are happy and settled and completely fulfilled and tear them down for no good reason, or maybe because it’s funny. Loki is not actually the God of Fishmalk. He brings necessary change when things are stagnant. He changes that which needs to be changed. If you’re actually, honestly, in your bones happy with your life- well, he’s probably got better things to do.
Civilization is wonderful in many ways (medical technology and the internet are great), but wildness is also necessary, both within and without. To ask the jotnar to be safe, to be peaceful, to stand down from battling the Aesir... that is to ask them to be something they’re not. Asking “why do you work with chaos” is a meaningless question. We all work with chaos, every day of our lives. We are at the mercy of traffic, weather, cell mutation and the stock market.
The only question is how we acknowledge it.
Everything Louder Than Everything Else
I always feel like I’m living with the volume turned up to 11. For me, being a monster is like speaking capslock as my native language. Everything is experienced immediately and intensely, in a way society tells me is “overboard.” The details vary, as details pretty much always do, but the aspect of Buddhism that draws me in is the philosophy of experiencing each moment fully for what it is.
Whatever I am doing at any given moment, that is the thing I have fully committed myself to. If I’m on a mountain, I’m enjoying the hell out of that mountain right then, not worried about the next part of the trail or whatever pissed me off that morning. If I’m fucking, my partner knows exactly where my attention is at any given moment. If I’m working, the work is what matters and doing it right becomes important no matter how dull the job is. Telling me not to care is meaningless, and this can cause me a lot of stress at work. If I’m watching a movie, my emotions are fully consumed by the movie, regardless of how stupid I might look crying in Wreck It Ralph.
Being a wild thing means being in the moment, not in the past or the future. What matters is what I’m doing now, and whether I could be doing it even better than I already am. Whatever I’m feeling, I’m feeling it one hundred percent. (Even if that feeling is confusion, or even if I’m feeling two different things and I’m at 200%.) Every feeling is valid and important, it’s just what you do with them that matters. Anger and joy are easy ones to picture, and while Americans are acculturated to cringe at expressions of both, we at least know what they look like. That’s not the case with many emotions. Grief, for example, is felt keenly by monsters and most other creatures; I mourn loudly and messily, and I’m a sobbing mess when I get started. (Traditional Irish wakes as well as funerals with wailing and screaming mourners are both closer to honesty than the stoic, silent funeral that’s so common.)
Fear is a feeling like any other, to be felt completely in the moment when it overwhelms you. The beautiful thing about really feeling all of your emotions is that you become aware of the fact that every mood changes and every feeling passes. That fear will pass, and be replaced by anger or relief or bravery; in the mean time, you can appreciate it for the survival instinct it is.
Because every feeling is valid, there are no guilty pleasures, just pleasures. If I like 80s power ballads, then I am going to turn that Journey album up to eleven and I don’t care who hears me sing along. If I’m running, I’m doing it for the sheer joy of running, even if there’s someplace I have to end up as well.
I can tell you without shame that I love bad movies, 80s rock, and cartoons as much as I love deconstructing mid-20th-century American poetry and traditional blacksmithing and opera. None of those is more valid than the other, and I sing along with La Donna Il Mobile and Don’t Stop Believin’ with equal passion. Shame makes no sense. If I like it, it’s clearly worth liking. If you disagree, we can have a lively debate about it, or we can ignore ignore it in favor of things we agree on.
The American cultural ideal of the “polite fiction” is ridiculous. Most monsters will take you at your word; this is why honesty is so important in fairy tales. If you’re going to lie, lie big. Make it worth your while. But when in doubt, don’t lie at all, especially not to yourself or the people you care about.
Yes, this ends badly sometimes. Freaking out when someone “moves your cheese” is frowned on in the workplace. We’re expected to act like we’re simply okay no matter how we really feel. Maybe some people can learn to tamp down their feelings like that, but I never really have. If I’m angry, or if I’m happy, you’re going to know. (I’ve had bosses complain about my “oversharing” before, and I’ve worked on it, but it’s still hard.)
There is also a tendency toward violent reactions that’s not easy to understand if you’re not from a culture that allows honest feelings to flourish. I don’t punch people any more, but I am going to let you know what I think and I am going to call you on your bullshit if I think it’s deserved. Otherwise it not only builds up inside you, but it can turn poisonous, leading you to undermine whatever compromise you reached.
Even my anxiety is something I live at full volume. I don’t have any small, creeping fears. I have terrors, and I learn to live with them. I have my obsessive thoughts, and I think them loudly, and eventually I’m able to release them.
And that’s the amazing thing about living a life where you aren’t afraid to feel everything. Yes, it will hurt, and you will feel every inch of the pain. But the joy and the excitement and all the pleasures are that much sharper as well. When you know every feeling will pass, you learn to treasure all of them, even the anger and the pain and the grief, because you know you’ll never feel precisely this same way again.
This is all I have. I intend to enjoy it.
Gender in the Woods
A friend of mine came out as genderqueer and I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with gender. As a trans man, I’ve put a lot of thought into how I view myself and how I want the world to see me. At the same time, I’m still largely in the closet at work and don’t plan to publicly transition at this job. I spend half my day cross-dressing, essentially.
With as much as I write about opposing forces, you might wonder if this back-and-forth is difficult for me. It’s hard because I’m playing someone I’m not, it’s hard because I’m faced with daily microaggressions from people who don’t know there’s a trans man in the room, but on a metaphysical level, no, it’s not hard. It’s much harder to remember to answer to the right name, actually. I can put on the mask of Who I Am At Work and take on that female self when it’s necessary.
And it is necessary. There are different expectations for the way men and women handle themselves, even here in Greater Portlandia. Actions that would be praiseworthy go-getting from a man are aggressive when they come from me. I’ve made my peace with that, and learned to work with it, but I’ve never really gotten over it. Some days I honestly feel like a woman. Some days, femininity is a role I put on, somewhere between the bus stop and the office. I’m naturally receptive; people tell me things without meaning to. It’s not as useful as it sounds: I’m not good at building rapport, so oftentimes people get freaked out about it after they say it.
This is a kind of liminality, this shapeshifting. I know both sides; I choose how people see me and project what I want to be seen as. Despite the way Western philosophies tend to paint opposing forces as, well, in opposition, they are not inherently at war with each other. The struggle between the two takes place inside my head, and inside the heads of those who don’t understand that gender is not the sum of your parts. Being able to shift is a skill that has benefits. I feel better when I can shift freely, when I am choosing the role I play at work. There are skills that you learn when society treats you as a woman that are different than the skills you gain as a man. On good days I can shift back and forth, taking the skills and mindset that will help the most with whatever I’m working on.
People use 太极图, the yin-yang symbol, all the time without thinking about it, but if you look at it, you can see that it’s clearly meant to be in motion. One energy is rising, the other descending. Often you see the core of one energy inside the opposing energy. Getting stuck in one side or the other is stagnation. This is where stereotypes come in, from the 50s housewife to the dudebro – stereotypes that harm, by encouraging us to view the opposite force as the other.
It isn’t, though. Especially in the case of gender, where “masculine” and “feminine” are almost meaningless as personality descriptions anyway – pushing away parts of yourself because they’re not correct for your gender stereotype is not going to make you a better Barbie doll or GI Joe. Jungian psychology talks about the anima or animus, the part of yourself that is the opposite gender. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but I do think we each have an other-self that we have to learn to understand.
It’s a misnomer to call it an other-self, isn’t it? It’s still the self.
I think about Surt-Sinmora, about Loki, about the Serpent, about the other jotnar I’ve met who either switch gender at will or have none to speak of unless they need one. The further away you go, the less gender means anything at all. Learning to understand that, and to embrace the shapeshifting I do on a daily basis, has helped me to keep my sanity.
Gender is real, but it’s also not the be-all and end-all society treats it as. It’s a part of who you are right now, and a part of whatever work you’re doing, but it shouldn’t be a prison any more than light or dark, or ice or fire, or any other dichotomy.
It’s easy to get caught up in things that I think define me, to hold on tight to them long after they stop being relevant. Modes of dress, ways of speaking, even hobbies and aspirations have a way of sticking around.
Not long after my child was born, I gave up the thing that I thought defined me. I walked away from working, from passing as female. I donated my entire “women’s clothing” wardrobe to the thrift store in one swoop. I finally came out to my parents after agonizing over whether I was disappointing them when my life was taking such a hard left turn from what they expected. I admitted to myself that some friendships were gone and never coming back.
As a part of sorting through that, I fell back on old definitions of self. I was listening to the music I liked the last time I lived with my parents, I was dressing like I had before I started out into the world, and I was doing it all unthinking. Having forced myself out of one ill-fitting self image, rather than build my new one, I fell back onto the archaeological finds underneath. I knew I was doing it, but I wasn’t ready to stop.
Now is the time for honesty, as we go into the darkness, as the Hunt rides. There is no room for fighting with myself. Just trying things on, one at a time, and seeing what is comfortable and what pieces fit.
This is also a magical act, a kind of shapeshifting, a part of transition. It’s kind of exciting, knowing I’m growing into the person I was meant to be.
It’s an easy trick to fall into, thinking that shapeshifting inherently takes you away from your true self. None of us are who we began as, though, and while going back can be comforting, it’s also confining. I can’t pick up where I left off being 11 or 18 or 26. I’m doomed if I try.
I am a shapeshifter. The answer to my question is to go forward, not back. To discover who I am, what I am, what kind of person I am in the situation I’m in now.
Loki brought all of his cunning to bear, and his brothers brought their poetry and their logic, but all of his attempts to woo the lady were for naught.
Finally he went to her with neither plan nor plot, simply to ask a question.
"If it will see you on your way," Brigid sighed, "then ask."
"Why do you refuse all my attempts at courting?" he asked, and she thought he looked sincere.
"Oh, I wish you'd asked me that when you started," she laughed. "I prefer the company of others of the female manifestation in my bed."
Loki looked as if she'd struck him. "That's all?" And then he left.
A week later she returned, her angular body reshaped, and looked at Brigid expectantly.
"It's not just a matter of shapes, Loki. It's energy and the way you carry yourself, the way you think of yourself. I'm not just interested in what's between your legs."
Loki left straightaway again, and Brigid thought the matter settled. She didn't see Loki again for several years.
One day a great sorceress from underhill came to Brigid's adoptive lands, with an entourage of handmaidens. One of the handmaidens captured Brigid's attention, and she sought the woman out.
"You are not mortal," Brigid said to the woman. "Why do you serve this sorceress?"
"She has taught me something I needed to learn."
"And what is that?"
"How to be a woman."
At that, Brigid recognized her as Loki and she had to admit she was intrigued. "Stay with me, and we'll talk. I'd like to know more of what you've learned."
So Loki turn her leave of the underhill sorceress, and she and Brigid spent some time talking of magic, and energy, and the shapes they wore. They had never been pure energy as their parents had been, but their essence remained.
"And fire is the most changeable element," Loki added.
Brigid smiled at that. "And metal the most unyielding. Yet..."
"Yet you change in the presence of the flame that burns hot for you."
She put an arm around Loki's waist, drawing her closer. "I do. I suppose metal can take a great many shapes, when it is close enough to the fire."
After, as they lay together, Brigid thought more. "Are you more satisfied in this form than in your first?"
Loki considered that. "There are many things I enjoy about a female manifestation, but there are also things I miss. I suppose I don't feel any more attached to one than the other."
"Well, I suspect I could get attached to this one..."
I was born with misplaced cells in my brain, trying to make it do something it was never meant to do.
This isn’t a metaphor. This was an epidermoid brain tumor.
Pagans talk a lot about being embodied, accepting and learning to love the body we have. Strange fences spring up when we talk about fighting our bodies or changing our bodies. “Taking care of” our bodies is considered a good thing, though exactly what that means can vary. Exercising to change your appearance is acceptable, even encouraged. Tattoos and hair dye and piercings are common.
But surgery? Surgery is somehow Too Much. There’s a point where you’re somehow rejecting the body you were “given”. Depending on the kind of surgery, it's cheating. If you’re talking to a certain contingent of the Goddess movement, or some conservative heathens, or other pockets here and there, changing your gender is somewhere on a spectrum between “lying” (to yourself, to other people) and self-mutilation. You’re supposed to love the body you were given.
Some trans people love their bodies, or are learning to do so. Some are pushing for acceptance, and for their bodies to be recognized as legitimate. This is an uphill fight; I wish them luck.
As for me, my body is monstrous: it is incorrect, it is socially unacceptable, it has tried to kill me in multiple ways, with dysphoria and brain tumor and cancer cells. How do you love that which both keeps you alive and tries to kill you? I have never learned the trick of it. I fought my body every time I stepped into a changing room, experimenting with presentation but never happy with the result.
I was working in an office and expected to dress smartly. I didn't have to be particularly femme, but I needed to wear clothes that fit and looked decent. I struggled with shrugs and cardigans and straight-leg trousers. Eventually I went to Loki and said "Look, you know how to be both genders, right? Can you just teach me how to be feminine so this isn't so hard?"
Loki took me to the Iron Woods. We spent some time on astral shapeshifting. My mental image could easily be a bird; why was a woman so much harder? Loki pushed me through hangups about my body that I'd had since puberty, and let me know that it was okay to pretend to be a woman instead of somehow succeeding at being one. I learned to look at myself without seeing myself, a kind of glamour that kept me functioning.
I was satisfied with these lessons. Grateful, even. But even as I wrapped myself in tops from Torrid and trousers from Lane Bryant, my body betrayed me. I convinced myself that I was learning to love my body, but eventually I realized that I was just pretending to love it.
I had forced a truce with my body, but my body wasn't done with me yet. I found the first lump in my breast when I was 27. Precancerous cells were removed with minimal surgery, despite the fact that the oracle of family history said they would return. I found myself disappointed the medical system didn't believe me that I'd be better off without them, the first cracks in my "self-love".
Just as I was getting back on track with forcing myself to love myself, an MRI to rule out a structural issue for my vertigo brought a surprise: another tumor, this one wrapped around the nerves in the back of my brain. It wasn't cancerous. It wasn't even symptomatic. It was, I convinced myself, pretty good (for a brain tumor). As I recovered, I kept repeating that idea: my situation wasn't that bad. I should love my body. I should be grateful.
I asked my goddesses for help accepting my body and making peace. I got dreams where I was buried and my body rotting. I got visits with my cousin who died of breast cancer at the age I am now. During my last lumpectomy, Loki told me that the problem would be solved soon enough.
I thought he meant I should push forward with transitioning to male as soon as I could, right up until the surgeon called to tell me they found cancer, and now he could recommend the mastectomy I'd asked about.
"This is also shapeshifting," Loki told me as I waited for that last surgery, post-cancer diagnosis. I thought about cancer cells hiding in my body, wondering if they were moving, trying to spread. I felt like a monster. I was more at home in the Iron Woods among Loki's kin than I was in most human society.
I'd reached a point where I couldn't ignore the truth. I can’t just flip a switch and get along with my body, so I (and my doctors) have to do what can be done to make my body more comfortable and less murderous. Breasts were removed, taking cancer cells with them. A tumor was gently excised, the scar behind my ear largely forgotten except for biannual checks. Hormones are injected, a biweekly ritual where the blade is plunged into the chalice and then into my body, and dysphoria is reduced. A hundred smaller choices begin to add up.
Loki was right. This is shapeshifting in a literal way. My chest is flattened. Since then, the shape of my body is different due to the hormones as well. My body and I are still monstrous, but at least we are monstrous on our own terms. I am doing my best to get my “mental self” aligned with my physical self by bringing the body into alignment with the way I see myself. It’s more permanent that way. It's better for my mental health, too. Not only can I see myself in the mirror again, but other people are starting to see me too.
I'm grateful to Loki for both lessons. The first got me through a difficult time when I didn't have a lot of options. The second is changing my life for the better in the long haul. I'm much happier being a monster and being a man. That's not the lesson I expected when I first asked Loki for help, but it's what I needed to hear.
In the long run you have to accept that the body you’re in is yours, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it as-is. That's not what you do when you accept that an apartment you’re living in is yours. Change it so that it works for your life. Don’t have a dining room if you don’t have fancy dinner parties. Add a workshop for your woodworking projects. Embracing embodiment doesn’t mean settling. It means making what you have healthy for you.