Every other Thursday I clear off a section of the kitchen table and gather my tools. There is ritual in this: I have built it carefully, timed the motions out over years. Needle, vial, tray, and song, always the same one – “The Line” by Phish. It is enough to make my hands steady and my breath relaxed as I find the best spot for injection, clean it, press the plunger down slowly into my leg.
When I chose the path of medical transition I thought that dedicating the act of injecting testosterone would be a good piece of devotion, a gift of intention and pain. Blood too, occasionally, when I do something slightly wrong, blood enough to run down my thigh and onto the floor in three dark stains. But as time has passed I see it more as the act of a magician, not a devotee – a reflection of my will on the world, my actions on my own fate.
There is an idea of the self that says I am the interaction of my body and my soul, the physical and the ineffable. Who I am, now, is an expression of that interaction, a third thing forged by the first two. This equation seems straightforward, but it does not, in my experience, reflect the complex and transitive nature of what is going on.
I have always felt like an equation with some numbers missing. Unmoored from my body, unmoved by its needs, I have grasped it with both hands and tried to find a way to hold on. I have found weak spaces in my joints where the fixtures will not hurt and pinned myself to it like an insect. I have pruned myself to grow into its hollow spaces and built it out to fit more readily.
I do not understand the things it has done in return.
At eighteen years old, my two best friends and I drove for hours to the nearest reputable tattoo parlor. Each of us got one of the Bohemian ideals from Moulin Rouge – something to bind us together, to preserve how we saw ourselves, how we thought of each other in that moment. I got ‘truth’, between rib and hip on my right side, and agonized over font and placement, what it meant and what it could mean.
Years later, I met a man who had the entirety of Picasso’s “Guernica” tattooed on his right arm. The whole of it – the crazed horse, the dying man, a town shattered by violence. “What does it mean, for you?” I asked him, admiring the sharp contrast of the blocks of color.
He shook his head. “My friend wanted to do it. It doesn’t mean anything. And if it did, when I got it – meanings change. People get older. The thing you’re referring to shifts. Isn’t it enough to have something beautiful?”
I understand very little of my spiritual life. This may be the lot of an ecstatic, the dreams and visions and half-recalled trances that leave images burned into my memory free of exegesis or homily. I am full of stories that have no meaning: walks along empty river banks and violent clashes with the monsters of the mind, all encompassed by my neurotypicality.
For a long time I have looked for meaning. If magic is the translation of the divine into the real, and I the translator, then isn’t meaning my calling? Is that not the act of the Magician, hands turned up to receive wisdom and down to enact it? If I experience these things, then there must be a language that can make sense of them, can turn them into something useful for my work. Not my own language, perhaps, but the wisdom of those who have come before.
“Have you seen my Trickster tattoo?” I asked, much younger than I am now, and pulled up my pant leg. It is a blocky and old fashioned thing just above my ankle – fire ringing a spider, a coyote, and a hawk. A devotional piece. “See – it’s three different trickster characters from different mythologies.”
“Oh,” she said, looking at it and then at me, hesitant. “And… do you find it wards them off?”
The problem with asking people what something means is that they have proven very eager to tell me.
I have learned to keep my stories to myself, to tell them in ways that do not invite interpretation. Someone else’s meaning, imposed on the fractals of my body and my soul, locks them down, stops them from finding their own balance.
As an example, take Jan Fries.
I do not have a bone to pick with the man himself. His writing is of a school of thought that makes me go a little cross-eyed, but there’s nothing wrong with it. We reach different conclusions, but he reaches his in interesting ways, and I am happy enough to come along for the ride.
I am not at all convinced, though, by his thesis that seidr, the Icelandic magical practice of which we know very little, was originally tied to induced physical shaking. That thesis is pervasive, has entered a certain branch of Paganism as truth, if not necessarily fact, and has influenced the way Heathen magic is taught – or at least how it was taught to me.
Which means that I was asked to make myself shake, in company, toward the end of jolting myself out of my body and into a spiritual experience. For some, I am told, this is incredibly effective – but I am a beast that only needs to close my eyes to leave my skin. We are so tenuously tied together that I have chosen the way I stand, the length of my stride, and the set of my shoulders, as parts of a greater uneasy truce. Forcing the relaxation that comes before shaking means bringing more awareness to the physical shape of me, the ways in which it might move if I allowed my control to slip. It upsets the balance in a way that locks my focus to the here and now – which is not the best place to do visionary work.
The bone I have to pick with Fries is in the mouth of the friend who, after seeing me in a seidr lesson, walked up and touched my arm. “You know,” he said, “there was more feminine energy in your aura during that than I’ve ever seen in you. I think you could really learn something from this.”
He meant it as insight, as recognition, as one queer soul seeing another. He did not mean to trap me, again, in the cage of my body.
I have not gone back for another lesson.
Now I am the only one I trust to interpret my dreams.
There is one, from high school, that I remember clearly. In it there was a room. It was out of place, in the way rooms can be in dreams, off of a hallway that existed somewhere and some-when else. I remember the room more than the hallway, the color of its light, the smell of it, the jumble that filled it up.
I have never seen that room in real life. I do not know whether it is an accident of the mind, a memory, or something else. I have no reason to remember it so clearly, as if I could close my eyes and step into it.
Maybe one day I will take that step, into the litter of paper and the yellow of putrefaction. Maybe then I will learn what it means.
One of my friends has burn scars on his hands, raised and smooth, and a bitter smile when he’s asked about them. “I wasn’t listening,” he’ll say, and then put one of the hands over his heart, theatrical. “Bless them.”
He wears all of his lessons, that one – the faded square against his thigh, the tattered ear, the two he has not yet saved up for. I don’t have any scars – not yet – but I recognize the feeling. It’s an ache that is almost jealousy. What must it be to have the gods write themselves so clearly?
This year I grew a witch mark on my hand. It’s small and dark, on the first knuckle of my middle finger. Not out of place – my grandfather’s blood has these marks in it, freckles or moles depending on who I’m speaking to. I have had them since I can remember. But this one is new, and small, and in a place that would mark me clearly, in a trial, for what I am.
I am delighted by it. Here, at last, my body is echoing something I decided long ago. My palms are clean of the symbols that might mean second sight, my star chart straightforward and empty of any overtly mystical suggestions, but here, at last, is the symbol I should not need. I am my own charter, impossible to mistake.
Some nights I have no memory of my dreams, and I wake up wearing thin scratches on my face.
There is never any sign that they have bled. I would not know they were there at all if I did not reach up and feel the line of slightly raised scab beneath my fingers. Witch-ridden, I think, my head a mix of referents as I go to check if the scrape is visible in a mirror. Myself riding myself.