I hope you are enjoying the blog-type-thingy so far. This is part three regarding my thoughts on Paul’s Triad (part one was the Wild Sweet Orange thing on faith, part two talked about seemingly unrequited hope, and part three talks about…?) Okey dokey! Enough of that, let’s get started!
This bloggity is not very ambitious, I merely want to comment on the central point in the greatest work of American Literature to date. So… what is the greatest piece of American Literature you may ask? (you are probably not asking because I can tell y’all are pretty smart, anyway you look smart and not just because you have added glasses or turned off your smile maker – THAT just makes you look pensive, anyway, I am digressin’). The answer would be “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
I know that is the right answer because I read it somewhere, and so it must be true, and I have read Huck’s adventures several times and I really do think all those folks who wrote introductions to Huck Finn are right, I think it is the greatest thing I have read by an American author. I first read about Huck as part of my summer reading assignment after eighth grade in preparation to go into the honors AP English class in ninth grade. I was feeling pretty sharp and happy, because I was starting out in my very first “honors anything” ever, and I was going to be a brandy new Freshman, and it was all finally going to count toward some sort of real life consequence and such and such and such, so I was not even bummed that I had several reading assignments to do over the summer before school even began. I felt like I was starting something important enough to require a running start. I had to read some books and write some papers and I was going to have enough elevated and really clever and blindingly brilliant thoughts that I had to get started on it right away.
I had always enjoyed reading, and did not feel that I was being finagled by giving up part of my summer. Other summers I felt like I had to sneak my reading a bit, I would carry Tolkien and L’Engle out with me and hide behind the raspberry canes and read rather than doing faithful battle with the tendrils of morning glory, and by the end of the summer we had big enough morning glory blossoms in parts of that field that we could have sold them to the High Schoolers as prom corsages and perhaps made as much money as we did on our raspberries. This particular summer I did not have to sneak. Now I was doing important school work, that’s right I had homework in the summer for my (ahem ahem) HONORS CLASS. I felt (what’s the word?), HONORED and I had to get on it right away. It was arduous, I tell ya- lounging on the deck in our backyard while my siblings were doing the weeding. Near twilight the sun reflected on the windows of the houses at the base of Mt Timpanogas, dotting the mountain benches with golden beacons while the canyon breezes started to cool the dry summer evening. Bees sang, birds buzzed in the trees, somewhere a dog whistled, and a train howled mournfully in the distance as I followed Huck on his Mississippi journey – and such and such and such… anyway you get the picture.
I was lucky enough to have an introduction by some scholar in the version I was reading that said, AND I QUOTE: “Huckleberry Finn is the greatest novel in all of American Literature.” That person had a name, little tiny letters printed after that name, and was in print, so when it came time to do my paper – BAM! I had a quote… “Huckleberry Finn is the greatest novel in all of American Literature, according to so and so reference etc.” When I got my paper back my teacher had written “GOOD QUOTE!” in friendly red ink in the margins. Not a bad start, I tell ya, for the first school credit that “really counted.” So anyway, if any of you disagree with the fact that Huck Finn is the greatest novel in American literature, you will have to realize that Miss March (yes that really was her name, and no, I grasped nothing in her name to make me blush or giggle when I was in 9th grade), had already told me that it was a good quote- SO THERE!
But enough about me, (Lona drags herself away from the sparkly pit of cloudy reminiscence, Harvey just gazes out the window at the birds and yawns contemptuously). Let’s talk about Huck. For years I thought the beautiful climax of the novel was in Chapter 31 where Huck feels he needs to try to get right with the Lord and tries to pray…
“It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that n—–’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.”
It touched me rather deeply to hear Huck discover that one cannot pray a lie. When one gets down on the knees and asks God for something, you can’t really get away with bamboozling the almighty. You can talk and talk, and pray and pray, and state your case, but if you know that you are not really being truthful with God or yourself about your motives or reason to change, it does not really do any good to be praying, because if you are praying merely as an outer form or a conditioned structure rather than a real attempt to connect with the divine in a meaningful way that might actually impact your life, then you are just either doing it to “be heard of others” as the hypocrites do, or more dangerously, to keep yourself caught in the strange loop of self-deception and self-justification that buffers you from having to face your own shortcomings or cruelties. It is easy to pray to a distant, mythical, or imaginary god, but to pray with some measure of faith that God will interact with you, that He just might get mixed up in your “bidness,” requires painful and often even terrifying reflection.
But even though the above passage affected me deeply and remained my clarion memory of Huck Finn for decades, it is only recently that I realized the true central ethical and aesthetic fulcrum of the novel (and perhaps all of American literature?) is not in that particular passage but in the paragraphs that come after. It is both exhilirating and heart-wrenching to grasp the levels of irony and tragedy that are circumscribed by Huck’s dilemma. What did he feel so bad about, in what way “warn’t” he square with God in the first place, what was his big sin? He had done all sorts of mean and misanthropic things in his little comic adventures up to that point, albeit largely in the name of surviving and escaping a dangerously abusive father; but the thing he feels worst about is helping Jim escape from slavery. From the vantage of our modern perspective we can be smugly offended that Huck would feel guilty about doing such a noble thing, but his milieu had beat the drum of slavery and racism so soundly into his little Hannibal brain, that he truly thought that he would go to hell for his part in that deed, he thought it was a really bad thing and he felt more remorse for this act than for any of the other things he had done to that point. It gave ME a shiver when I finally realized that the concern that motivated his earnest attempts at prayer was a hope that God would change his heart so he could repent of rescuing his friend, and it gives me an absolute CHILL when I realize with embarrassment that this dynamic was astoundingly opaque to my 9th grade self the first time I read this book.
Huck decides to set himself “right” before praying again, and resolutely writes a letter telling Mrs. Watson that he knows where Jim is and how she can come get him. After doing so he immediately feels better, he feels cleansed of sin for having done the “right” thing, he “repented” of the wrong that he had done in helping Jim escape. He is about to go and send the letter, but something holds him back. A pensive twitch nags at his spirit as he is about to put himself right with his world and with god as he sees it. Although the writing of the letter made him feel “light as a feather,” he just can’t send it. Twain does not name what it is that is binding Huck, but I would identify it as love. You have to just eat up this next passage with a shovel in each fist, here check it out!
“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:”
All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”—and tore it up.”
In the end it was not his faith, or his hope for salvation that guided Huck’s actions, it was his love and concern for Jim. I believe this is the critical attribute we should strive to develop during our time here. God has placed each of us in a situation where we will be tested in our capability to love. Many may be placed in circumstances where faith seems all but an impossibility, and hope can seem equally elusive, but faith and hope center merely on our own relationship with God in regards to our salvation. For Huck, and perhaps for each of us at some crossroads, we will have the opportunity to take a wider perspective outside of ourselves – to love, to care, to have compassion, and make sacrifices for someone else – for another of God’s children. Huck’s sacrifice is chilling on sober reflection, just think about those words, and that he truly believed them- “all right, then I’ll GO to hell.” As we become more willing to look outside of ourselves and make choices based on our love and concern for others, trying to help our fellows to have true joy, we are coming closer to developing the attribute which most essentially defines God’s essence, it mirrors what God has and continues to do for each of us. John tells us simply “God is love (1 John 4:8)”, and also tells us that for those who love “there is none occasion of stumbling” in them (1 John 2:10).
Anyway, there is more I could say about this, but I am going to try for once to avoid pivoting this too much back on myself and my little world again. (which means that I am immediately going to pivot this back on myself and my little world again). Suffice it to say that each of us are in turn the recipient and the cause of many likely little hells, or troubles for those we love every day. As a bona-fide non-transitioning-male-to-female-transgender-girl-voice-verified-sigh (ntmtftgvvs for those of you who find acronyms helpful), every day I feel that not transitioning from male to female is a little slice of hell, ranging from the tiny sting that occurs when one of the few people who knows about my quandary greets me often with the ebullient (and well-meaning) “Well hello young man!” to the kick in the teeth dysphoria that can occur almost every day just by seeing my pretty eyes and fairly lithe bone structure set squarely above my stubborn daily beard. These may seem like silly and vain things, but don’t knock it until you have walked in my shoes.
Even more concerning to me is the question as to whether heaven itself will be a hell. The Mormon Transgender person has many musings about the resurrection, and who we will be. It would be difficult to fully outline the Mormon heaven here, but suffice it to say that it involves being resurrected to a glorified immortal tangible body and the continuation of joys and covenants of family life. If I am resurrected as a glorious man, I have hope that God may make it so that I just love it, but doesn’t such a power seem a little terrifying in and of itself? If it weren’t God doing the re-boot it would seem Orwellian. If I am resurrected as a woman, I picture myself squealing an ecstatic “YAY! I JUST KNEW IT! I JUST KNEW THIS IS WHO I AM, SEE I TOLD Y’ALL!” but then looking over at my beautiful wife and saying a subdued “oh, yeah, you are still not a lesbian are you, and does this now mean that God is going to give you to some other schmuck?” Well you see, I really love my wife, she is gorgeous for one thing, and loving and kind, and we have and are still raising some wonderful kids together, and have had the tender bond of having lost and buried a daughter together, and she has a dry direct hilarious wit and I cannot picture myself having any degree of happiness without her being happy.
I am going to say very little about how I feel strongly that transitioning could be a potential disaster for our family, (I vehemently deny that it would be a disaster for every family). My wife and I have a deep love, but I don’t think our marriage would withstand that particular journey, and I feel somehow it would be especially hard for my daughter who is herself entering those tender teenage years. I have prayed seriously about this, and the answer I have received is that the loving thing to do for my marriage and my daughter would be to not transition, and by golly she is a good girl, and I certainly don’t want to hurt her.
Another option would be to take relatively lower doses of female hormones to try to suppress the dysphoria without changing my social gender and limiting changes to my appearance. This is an approach taken by many and seems to be a little more common in a smattering of blogs by Latter-day Saint transgender individuals. I have also pondered and prayed seriously and often about this option, and must say that I received some rather direct answers that if this option were ever supported by my wife, then it would a good choice for me. I have never disclosed this revelation to my wife, and I would never picture her giving approval even for this option, so you might expect that I might feel bitter at not having received the answer I wanted. But that is the thing about praying, you can’t pray a lie, and you have to be prepared to get an answer that you might not want, otherwise you are just talking to yourself. The reality, however, is that when I have received this particular answer to prayers, and it has been confirmed again and again, it is accompanied by such a sweet feeling of peace and comfort, that I have felt no feeling that God is holding out on me at all. I have felt his love and concern for me as His child on a profoundly personal basis in regards to this answer and this has helped me to some extent to deal with the persistent press of dyshporic feelings.
All this helps me to have joy in my quandary: joy that I must be learning something or other through this ridiculous mess, and joy that I have been blessed to no longer have to feel one ounce of shame or regret about being the transgender girl I am (at least in my heart and brain and second life), and joy in trying to shape my actions in this sphere based primarily on the imperatives of love by trying to continue to act like an honorable man and priesthood holder for the duration. I believe no less a Mormon “Rock Star” than David O. McKay himself said that when he wasn’t really feeling like a good missionary, he could act like he was a good missionary and he would be blessed (Remember the whole: ‘What ‘ere thou art, ACT well thy part’ bit?).
(This is a link to a sermon by Quentin Cook that in part explains the David O’McKay reference and in an ironic twist to my situation warns about the dangers of wearing masks to hide our true selves):
So I will try to ACT in the role God has given me. I will ACT as the strange guy who cries even at lousy movies (even at Avatar, can you believe it? yuck!), but inside I don’t have to feel shame about BEING a transgender woman and perhaps even a daughter of God. I will try to ACT out my social roles as husband, father, and priesthood holder in my church, but I will no longer be ashamed about feeling deeply that I should have female breasts (even if only tiny ones) and no beard, and should have borne children and yada, yada yada (insert all sorts of categories ranging from the improbable to the impossible here). Why should I try to have my outward actions not reflect my inner realities? It is because I am trying to choose love within my own little world. It is a kick in the teeth to feel the dysphoria, but it is an indescribable joy to feel the love for the wonderful family I am fortunate to have with me. I really should get an Oscar for the acting, but the love part is real.
I want to be clear that my decision not to transition does not lessen my happiness for those transgender people who have been able make a joyful physical and social transition. I have met enough people in the transgender community that I have no illusions that transitioning solves all of life’s problems, but it really does seem to be the only reliable treatment for the whole dysphoria thing. Such a transition may not ever be in the cards for me, (I am still however going to keep shaving my legs- hehe, there is that at least- and they really are pretty sweet legs when they are shaved, and my wife doesn’t mind too much if it is not swimsuit season). But I can still be happy for those who are happier because they have transitioned. Some people in my little circle may say that my soul might be in jeopardy for feeling so supportive of such individuals, to which I can only say: “All right then, I’ll GO to hell.”
Love y’all, Lona
All rights reserved, Lona Gynt November 2015.