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On Shapeshifting

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.

Burning Together

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..."

Embodiment

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.

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