Non-Binary Mysteries 2: Solar and Lunar Symbolism
March 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
(This is my submission for Prompt #2 of the Non-Binary Mysteries. See the masterpost here.)
The sun rises, dawning color and warmth into the world, nurturing and burning, illuminating and changing. It visits any given area for longer and shorter times throughout the year, rising through the sky, falling through the season. Hours and seasons are set by its movements, heating and cooling, growing and harvesting.
The sun sets.
Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, a researcher found that people who fit solidly into the gender roles proscribed by society were far more likely to assign gender to words and objects than people who didn’t fit so cleanly into societal gender norms. Read up on Gender Schema Theory by Sandra Bem and the fascinating research and ideas within it. It’s a bit dated and incomplete, and yet it has usefulness within its limitations, like any model.
During a cognitive task study, people who were strongly gendered and gender-normative (“sex-typed” in Bem’s theory, meaning they process and integrate traits and information in line with their assigned gender, conforming to the cultural definition of what it means to be “male” or “female”) tended to remember more traits assigned with their gender role, and processed “sex-type congruent” information more efficiently… perpetually reinforcing their concept of gender normativity, a continual process of confirmation bias. When given a list of words to cluster either by semantic meaning or by gender, they were also more likely to cluster words by gender. They are “gender-schematic”.
In contrast, “cross-sex-typed” individuals (in Bem’s theory, people who processed and integrated information and traits in line with the opposite gender role from their assigned gender) had the lowest percentage of words clustered by gender, followed by “androgynous” individuals (people who process and integrate traits and information from both genders). They are “gender-aschematic”.
Strong gender-schemata provides a filter through which people process incoming stimuli… making it easier ability to assimilate information that matches the stereotypes, which further solidifies the existence of gender stereotypes. It is one model through which to approach reality, and a highly dominant one in a number of societies, enforced and reinforced throughout the culture. It is incredibly prevalent, too, in much of Neo-Paganism: Lord/Lady, God/Goddess, Male/Female, elements and correspondences all sorted into Masculine and Feminine. Sun God and Moon Goddess, in so much of mainstream Paganism.
The moon rises, lining the world in silver and shadow, the cool colors of night. The face of the moon waxes and wanes, cast in growing shadow, brightened in growing light. Months are measured by its cycles. Its pull sets the rhythms of the oceans, the tides and waves, and perhaps it even influences the rhythms of mind and heart.
What, then, for those of us who are gender-aschematic?
I am fortunate in that my tradition leans gender-aschematic, itself. Kemetic philosophy is non-dualistic and polyvalent, the One and the Many, both/and. Many seemingly contradictory things can be true all at once. There are deities with the title of “The Great He-She”. There are deities that are explicitly hermaphroditic, deities that are very male, deities that are very female, and deities that are downright sexless. There are deities that are more concept than person. There are deities that merge into one another, split into pieces, and those pieces join with pieces from other deities to make new ones, fission and fusion and fluidity.
The sun is a goddess and the sun is a god and the sun is a scarab. The moon is a child and the moon is a god and the moon is only rarely a goddess, but the gods of the moon are not strongly masculine. The sun and moon are not so much gendered as they are personified in many different ways.
The sun takes the form of scarab, cow and bull, lioness, falcon, cat and leopard, cobra, vulture, and heron. The sun is nurturer, warrior, queen, king, healer, lover, creator, avenger, guardian, mother, father, and son. The moon takes the form of ibis, baboon, and falcon. The moon is healer, defender, scribe, protector, creator, child, traveller, embracer, time-keeper, mathematician, magician, judge, mediator, arbitrator, counselor, and scientist. Both sun and moon are incredibly multi-dimensional, and go so far beyond gender.
Wepwawet is my Parent deity, and I associate Him with shadows and night – though not the moon itself. So often for me, He is gentle soothing darkness, and also an edge of mischief and unknown mystery. He is the moonlit crossroads where your shadow stretches black and long before you at the point of choice and possibility. He is a magician and something of a gambler, a warrior and a scout, the standard-bearer and guide. Yet He has never seemed strongly gendered to me, this wolf-wanderer of the ways between.
Bast-Mut is my Beloved deity, and She is most definitely the sun. She is Bast on Her throne, Bast Who is Mut, the Devouring Lady, the hunting-cat goddess crowned with uraei. She is an Eye of Ra, a title given to a number of martial or protective solar deities. Fierce yet motherly, regal yet warm, and I see Her in the kind of sun-warmth that invites basking, the sun that warms me slowly and gently down to my bones. For me, She is the revitalizing warmth of the sun, and I feel Her most strongly in the dark of winter when the sun shines forth and brings me back to life. She is joy and care, protective nurturing.
The sun has many different faces to me. There is the harsh beating sun-in-summer, Ra as King and Sun, the Apis-bull, Sekhmet’s wrath. There is the warming sun-in-summer too, Mut and Heru and Wadjet. There is the cool distant sun-in-winter, hawk and scarab, watching, becoming. There is the warm revitalizing sun-in-spring, Hethert returning from Her travels, Bast crowned in glory. There is the fading sun-in-autumn, Hethert-Nut as the Wandering Eye in Her departure.
Sometimes the moon sings to my blood, intoxicating and invigorating. Sometimes the moon is a rabbit and sometimes the moon is an ibis as Djehuty or a falcon as Khonsu. Sometimes the moon is a mystery, magic, and the hunt. Sometimes the moon is madness, its fullness corresponding with a spate of crisis in the mental health centers I’ve worked in. Always, the moon is genderless. Never have I experienced it as feminine, and never have I identified with the menstrual cycles that so much of modern mainstream Paganism associates with lunar cycles. I love the moon and thrill to the sight of it, sparking dreams and visions in my mind.
The sun is a different thing entirely. I connect so strongly to the sun, and I am keenly aware of its seasonal increase and decrease. The seasonal rites of equinox and solstice resonate with my heart and biochemistry, not for their celebration of the cycles of agriculture but rather for the marking of the sun’s departure and return. My mood brightens with sun’s presence and suffers significantly in its absence, seasonal affective disorder weighting my body and mind. The hawk in me is a solar creature, thriving in the daytime, hunting in the sun’s light. The phoenix I identify with at the core of my soul is solar above all else.
The moon sets.
The sun rises.
Non-Binary Mysteries 1: Beginnings
February 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
(This is my submission for Prompt #1 of the Non-Binary Mysteries. See the masterpost here.)
It always begins with stories.
Once upon a time – was the word and the character and the question. A blank page, a blinking cursor. A dream.
I read fiction, and wondered. I looked online as my roots were torn from me with multiple cross-country moves, and found a community of fellow fans. I made my own characters, penned my own stories, and wrote collaborative fiction in the form of roleplaying.
In researching werewolves for a novel, I found therianthropy: the idea that some deep intrinsic part of a person could be a non-human animal, somehow. A shock went through my system. What if all of the metaphors in my poetry and journaling were more than allegory? Could I be a bird and a human both? Could symbols be reality?
This was the dawning of my spirituality, though I refused to see it as such, as I was striving to be all things acceptable to my parents: straight, cisgender, monogamous, Christian. I was mired in the depressive swamp of my adolescence, denying myself so desperately that the voice of my soul could only cry out in symbols, metaphors, and stories. My repressed fury turned in on myself, leaking out in self-harm and self-loathing, snarling out through anger-ridden characters. My sexuality hid itself in cautious fiction. My gender only peeked through obliquely in the genderlessness of hawk-identity (though it expressed in childhood play, too, the neutral and masculine roles I took on, the characters I identified with).
Some of my friends came out as transgender (binary and non-binary both), and the question tickled at my subconscious. I wondered, and then I denied. I buried the inkling. Yet the question kept arising, and as I ripped away from Christianity with a tearing of flesh and soul, my objections shifted from “it would be unacceptable for me” and into “I’m not genderqueer enough for it to count.”
Stories – and experiences. A beloved friend invited me to a Samhain ritual, and felt a thrumming in my core when the druids called upon Manannán mac Lir. I attended the same grove’s Yule (that life-changing event that sheared me at last from the Christian faith that hadn’t fit me for years), and I staggered at the resonance I felt when they called Heimdall.
Gatekeepers, threshold-walkers, the crossroads and the way between. Transitions, liminal spaces. Neither/nor, both/and – this has long been my space, the role I fall into again and again. The cultural context of Manannán mac Lir didn’t fit, though, and Heimdall’s Norse context was closer, but still not right.
A cat walked across my path one night around a fire, as I questioned, meditated, and called into the night for a sign. I searched for cat-gods and found Kemet, and a kind of home: non-dualism, fluid deities, a world of Seen and Unseen. I explored the Names of Netjer, and the thrumming of resonance became a thunderous sound that filled me to overflowing and shattered me into wholeness as I recognized Wepwawet, Opener of Ways.
It is a colloquial Kemetic Orthodox saying that you can learn about a deity through their children, that the children of a Name reflect the character of their Parent(s). It’s my personal experience and belief that working with an entity brings forth the elements within you that are akin to that entity. Like my Parent deity Wepwawet, I live so often in the liminal, in the in-between. My Shemsu name in Kemetic Orthodoxy is Djeriwepwawet, meaning “Wepwawet is strong”, or Djeri, “strength”. It takes strength, resiliency, and endurance to occupy the middle-place, to hold the container for transformation, to keep the threshold.
My spirituality is a complex, nuanced thing. The liminal is part of it, being other and in-between, transformation and shapeshifting. Kemetic practice and faith is another part of it, and that too is non-binary and non-dualistic, fluidity within a structure. Animism and non-human identity is another piece, as is my lack of gender, as is metaphor, archetype, and all the myriad threads of story.
Every dawn is a return to the beginning that is Zep Tepi, the Kemetic first time. Every new year, too. Every birth from the phoenix’s pyre, every death, every new exploration. This piece of writing, too, is a beginning.
To the journey.
February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
A phoenix needs the flame
the sun, the solar flare
drawn to its beauty-bright
the incandescent sear
and burning hurts, it’s true –
too often or too soon
comes the risk of never rising
of burning out, consumed.
But every fire beckons
even with feathers bright and new,
drawn to each dark-shining beacon
to flames toxic and untrue.
It’s strange, this love of burning,
of heat and wind and flight,
when I shy from rocks and running
and the ocean is a fright.
Still, I’d rather death by sunfire
and the chances of rebirth,
than struggling in deep water
or a slow death on dark earth.
Loving a Wild Thing
May 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
If you fall in love with a wild thing, do not profess your affection with noise and flashy colors. She will startle and flee in an instant.
You must be patient and gentle. Do not lay traps; you may capture her presence, but possession is not love, and you will not truly hold her heart or spirit. Snares, collars, and cages only distress and injure.
Patience and stillness, consistency and awareness. If you approach, she will back away. If you leave, she is unlikely to follow. Instead, sit in the meadow and meditate in silence, or speak softly of the stories you know, or sing your heart’s song.
Entice. Be interesting, yet not too threatening. If a wild thing’s curiosity grows more insistent than her caution, she will approach. Pretend not to notice, and she may gain confidence and circle closer, until you feel a soft scenting breath on your neck.
She may draw near and dart away at the last minute. Yet if you are patient and intriguing, she will come by again and again, lingering longer each time.
Then, perhaps, she will love you too. Yet she is still a wild thing, and her trust is as wary as her heart. Strike her, yell, or run away, and you will have to start over from the beginning, but it will be harder and slower for your betrayal.
There are other ways to court a wild thing, of course. They (we) aren’t all alike, after all. It is this:
Become a wild thing yourself.
Perhaps you are half wild already. Yet we all have wildness within us, hidden in the marrow of our bones and in the deepest shadows of our psyches. There is primality in the hindparts of our brains, in the reactivity of the limbic system. Even the most domestic of dogs remembers the wolf lying deep within the spiral dance of his genes.
If you fear and deny your own wildness, how can you accept and love the wildness in another without seeking to capture it and break it and tame it?
Touch the primal place within. Greet your wildness with savage joy. Become feral, and meet the wild thing you love as an equal. Meet as two feral hearts at the edge of a tame land, kindred spirits in the timeless dance of challenge and chase, hunt and quarry, courtship with claws and teeth.
Love your own wildness, and the wild things might draw near to court you.
North Wind, Winter Sun, Rough-Legged Hawk
May 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
When I speak of hawk, I speak of Buteo lagopus, rough-legged hawk in North America, rough-legged buzzard everywhere else. I do not speak of the true hawks, accipitrinae, goshawks and sparrowhawks and such, bigger and rounder than falcons but still sharp-edged. I speak instead of buteo: heavy-bodied, opportunistic hunters, not too proud to scavenge; broad-winged soaring birds.
There are far more tales of falcons than of hawks, and often people mistake the two. Horus is a falcon, not a hawk, and certainly not a buzzard; Freyja is falcon-cloaked, not hawk-cloaked; and so on. Finding legends and myths of hawk as hawk – not falcon mistaken for hawk, or conflated with hawk – is nigh impossible. Searching for totemic interpretations of hawk just brings up “messenger, protector, visionary” over and over, and a lot of writing about red-tailed hawks.
How to discover myth within rough-legged hawk? I could begin with a list of facts: northern bird, rodent-hunter who won’t pass up carrion, feathered all the way down to its talons. Buteo lagopus will hover over open ground, looking for prey; it’s one way to tell it apart from other hawks. It nests in cliffs and Arctic treelines; it hunts in tundra and prairie from the air or from a perch. It builds its nests from sticks but sometimes even from caribou bones.
It’s a poor start, little more than bones and air. It’s difficult to extract symbolism from something that is so tactile, so present, so here-and-now. Hawk is the hollowing of my palate into a beak; hawk is the cramping of arms into wings; hawk is prickling feathers beneath my skin; hawk is high-alert, sensitivity to environmental stimuli, birdpanic; hawk is the sense of the eternal now, present-moment without real awareness of future days or past weeks. Hawk is an ever-present experience. How do I view it as myth and archetype when I can’t even find cultural myths to guide my sensing?
I’ll start with symbols. Associations.
Rough-legged hawk is not air so much as wind, spring wind and north wind; it is the rustle of high-plains grasses. It is a sun-bird, too, but not the hot southern summer sun of Vulture, nor the fierce pounding warrior-sun of Falcon. Rough-Legged Hawk is a colder star, arctic sun over tundra and winter prairie, warm enough to ease the chill of winter, bright enough to illuminate mouse-skitter and hare-movement.
Rough-Legged is a creature of borders, nesting where cliff and tundra meet, prairie and treeline. Hunter and scavenger both. Rough-Legged Hawk feels like early spring, late fall, the edges of winter – as contrasted with Red-Tailed Hawk, which I always associate with warmer times: late spring, summer, early fall, the warm summer sun; more direct. Rough-Legged Hawk is a bird of in-between times and places, transitional.
If I were to make my own stories of Rough-Legged Hawk, I’d write how he came by his colors. His chest feathers are like an impressionist’s watercolor painting, as if Monet dabbed his brush on the rough-legged’s breast. Or like snow on frozen high-plains earth. That’s what strikes me each time I see one up close, at the local bird rescue, or in pictures; rarely in the wild, so near the bottom of its winter range. Did the snow fall on her as she nested, and she refused to move, and the winter left a smattering of white across her head and chest? Was he too foolish to find shelter in a storm, or too stubborn? Did the spirit that painted the animals run out of paint when it got to Rough-Legged Hawk and have to spread it out as best it could?
How and why does he hover, when so few birds his size know how? Did he learn it? Rough-Legged Hawk isn’t so clever to steal the knowledge from others, like Crow or Raven might have done. But perhaps he scavenged it somewhere, if another bird or insect were so careless as to leave the trick of it lying about.
Hawk has taught me mindfulness, living in the here-and-now, present-moment. To really see, not just move from point A to point B without noticing my surroundings. To sit apart and watch, observe, focused and quiet. Open awareness, unblinking hawk-gaze.
For me, Rough-Legged Hawk in particular is about flexibility, practicality. He is not so consummately opportunistic as Grackle or Crow; there is a consistent core of constancy about Rough-Legged. But he is flexible within that core, not passing up elk bones when looking for nest material, not passing up carrion when looking for food. No use in being rigid, but remain true to what you are.
Simplicity. Too often I make things more complicated than they really need to be. Things are simpler for hawk: soar, nest, hunt, perch. Human-anxiety is a thing of words and worry, of racing thoughts, too much stuff, too many concerns. Birdpanic is a thing of too much stimulus, overwhelmed by the over-abundance of noise/sights/activity in an oft-human environment, my mind gone wordless, thinking reduced to pure sensory input. There is a distinct difference between these two types of anxiety for me, and I experience both. When I am human-anxious, it helps to become more hawk: simple, focused on the now, tactile, experiential; soaring, perching, feel the wind in my feathers. When I am in birdpanic, it helps to become more human, focus on human-thoughts and human-skin to shift away from sensory bird-mind; and it helps to indulge hawk-need, to remove myself from all the noise and bustle of a crowded place, get into open air where I can see sky; breathe. Both approaches involve simplifying – simplifying my thoughts, narrowing my focus, reducing the complexity of the situation.
Transitions, borders, the in-between. Nest in one environment, hunt in another. Migrate. Movement within a range. There are things that are Hawk in general and there are things that are Rough-Legged Hawk specifically; being a border-dweller is one of the latter.
Perhaps I’ve been more connected to Rough-Legged Hawk as symbol, myth, and spirit than I ever realized.
- Sohl, Terry L. “Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo Lagopus.” South Dakota Birds and Birding. Web. 06 Apr. 2011. <http://www.sdakotabirds.com/species/rough_legged_hawk_info.htm>.
- “Rough-legged Hawk, Life History, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rough-legged_Hawk/lifehistory>.
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve written on what phoenix means to me, and what it means (for me) to be phoenix. I’ve talked about how it manifests in my spirit and mind, the traits within me that I attribute to “phoenix”. I’ve written a great deal on expressing hawkness, on maintaining a necessary balance between hawk and humanity. But what about expressing phoenix?
First, you must understand that – for me at least – phoenix is intensely abstract, all myth and poetry and spirit where hawk is tactile and neurons and heartbeat. It is not something I need to manifest on a physical level, not like muscle and strength and short-cropped featherhair with hawk.
Yet it manifests all the same, merely in subtler ways. In social interactions, falling into the role of mediator, networker, connector, translator of differing communication styles: diplomat. Phoenix expresses when I bring people together, introducing kindred spirits, or when I make a new connection.
It is in the way I greet the sun when I step outside, tilting my face to the warmth and heat and light, drinking it in. Far more than fire, phoenix is a solar bird.
I express phoenix through ritual work. If I go too long heavily shielded and grounded and guarded, bindings upon my spirit and self, shut off to the subtle realm, phoenix suffers – trapped, chained to earth, unfueled. I have done this before, three years of locked-down isolation of my own making, bound in stress and fears of falling into delusion. It did me far more harm than good, a slow suffocation. Beginning ceremonial magic, structured though it may have been, felt like freedom.
The visualization I was taught for the LBRP (Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentragram) involved imagining oneself growing taller and taller, feet rooted to the earth, crown reaching to the light at the center of the universe, lengthening towards it with each measured four-fold breath. I still use that visualization sometimes, but far less laborious and more effective for me is this: sinking into my Tiferet center and launching upwards from there as phoenix, all movement and soaring joy. The first time I did this was sheer ecstasy, flight after so long grounded, freedom to stretch, to move. I/phoenix spiraled up through space and stars to that central light, dove into it, bathed in it, burned with it, dipping and wheeling to catch brightness into feathers and beak and talons. Then a dive back down, down, a burst of divine light at Keter (“ateh…”), streaking brilliance through my body, down to Malkuth and bringing the light of the universe into the earth itself.
Ve-geburah, ve-gedulah, balance points, sitting wholly in my body, ablaze with light and will, connected with the Higher Self that I perceive as phoenix. Le-olahm. Amen.
Phoenix manifests in ritual and magic, though not always the same way each time. I can be a roaring fire, transforming energy into clean fuel, a veritable batter. This is ecstatic, a trance of connection and output, raising power, firebird passion. Or I can be still and controlled, intensely focused, heron-shaped, bennu or feng-huang in an edged Will.
There are physical expressions, too, though far fewer than with hawk. Phoenix is in the hennaed redness of my hair. When I take meticulous care in the grooming of my appearance, this is a little bit phoenix for me, odd as it may seem. Sometimes I dance phoenix like I dance hawk, ecstatic trance to music.
I want to learn fireplay, and firestaff. I want to dance with heat, and I want to light people aflame. I know someone local from whom I can take a fireplay class; it’s on my list of things to learn. Firestaff might be trickier.
Thus I express phoenix and manifest it in my life. Through the social dance and in physical dance. Through ritual and magic. Through precision and passion, hair and style, reverence for the sun, and perhaps someday soon an intimacy with flame.
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Once, I wanted a body long and lean, all bird-boned lightness. When I looked in the mirror, I expected on some level to see sharp features and steep angles and was startled every time by softness and curves. I envied the angular androgyny of some of my friends. I’ve come to accept that this is simply not my physiology. I am wide-hipped and broad-shouldered, heavy-boned and solid; even trimmed of excess fat, I won’t have the lean slender lines that aesthetically appeal to me.
I realized, as I began to mold my body through movement and nutrition into something more to my liking, that I didn’t want to be insubstantial or waifish. I realized that I liked having substance and solidity. When I began systematic bodyweight strength training, building heavy layers of muscle, I found that I felt increasingly at home in my skin. I developed an awareness and command of my body, my movements and limbs, that I didn’t have prior to strength training.
Rough-legged hawk is in the Buteo genus, heavy-bodied raptors with broad wings and a penchant for scavenging so that they’re called buzzards in much of Europe rather than hawks. This is in contrast with the Accipiter genus, quick lighter-framed raptors, goshawks and sparrowhawks, sometimes referred to as “true hawks”. Rough-legged hawk soars and sometimes hovers. Rough-legged hawk is not quick and agile enough to hunt most birds on the wing, but rather hunts rodents in an open field from the vantage of a high perch, launching from perch to prey.
There is substance to rough-legged hawk, weight and solidity and strength. To be buteo is to be a heavy bird. I want power in my limbs, I want heavy muscle, I want to be all controlled movement and potential forcefulness. The more physical strength I develop, the less dysphoria I seem to feel: gender dysphoria, body dysphoria, species dysphoria… they intersect in this instance. I appreciate GreyGhost’s point about flight as an expression of strength, weight as a stabilizer in flight, gravity as both ally and opponent. It resonates for me regarding buteo as well.
I express and manifest hawk in other physical ways as well: things that ease my discomfort with my body, that help my reflection in the mirror be a little less startlingly strange. I keep my hair cropped short in an undercut, a pinfeathered buzz of hair beneath a longer crest. The prickling shortness quickly grows to the softness of down until I shorten it again. I find myself preening my own hair (feathers), particularly just after cutting it; the feel of it is as much an expression of hawkness, for me, as the look of it is an expression of gender.
Certain activities express hawkness for me, or provide an outlet for it: dancing, sometimes, when I can reach an ecstatic trance state through movement and exertion, so that it’s more like shapeshifting, flying, soaring; being in high places, rooftops and upper decks and clifftops, perching on the edge (fearless) until worried observers call me back; running, on the rare occasions I decide it’s worth the aftermath of stabbing pain in my knees. That doesn’t do much for the reflection in the mirror, but it helps ease some of the pent-up bird-needs, which means hawk is a quieter influence in me, and thus helps calm the feeling that my skin doesn’t fit right.
I’m very tempted to get a tattoo, eventually: rough-legged hawk wings stretching across my back and shoulders and extending down the upper part of my arms. I don’t know that it’d do anything for the feeling of discomfort in my own hide, but it would be an external, visible representation of an integral part of me, and that has its own value.
Balancing Feathers and Pinions
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
For me, it looks like this:
I stood in the central community building of my university, a tall airy structure of glass and concrete, open all the way to its ceiling several stories up. Classes had let out, and swarms of students poured in from connecting hallways and outer doors, passing through, stopping for conversation, yelling across the floor. A cacophony of noise and movement and people.
Something in my brain shut off, or turned on; but either way the chaos around me drowned out all conscious thought and words. My skin prickled with the realization of feathers beneath it, the roof of my mouth seemed to hollow and harden into a beak, tongue turned stubby and inflexible, lips motionless. I found myself hunching, wide-eyed, arm-wings held just apart from my sides, fingers splaying spasmodically.
A panic flooded my head. Noise / danger / loud / out! Despite the wideness and height of the building, I felt claustrophobic. Suffocating. I grasped blindly for conscious thought, words, humanity, but my pulse raced and my beak gaped. Overwhelmed.
Out out out out out out out
I shook from the effort of keeping control, walked faster than was seemly but I didn’t run and I didn’t shove anyone in my haste to get outside.
Fly flee escape fly
I pushed through the double doors and into the open air, blue above me, breeze in my feathers/hair, concrete below. There were people here too, and cars, but nothing for the noise to echo off of, and far more space. I drew in deep breaths of air, my heart rate slowing, my mind stilling. I focused on fingers, hands, words, the boundaries of my skin.
That was six years ago, and I still remember it so vividly.
I didn’t have this problem for the first couple years after consciously identifying as bird. It wasn’t until I started suppressing it, trying to deny parts of it, that I began experiencing intrusive shifts and increasing difficulty with control.
When something affects you, ignoring it or denying it doesn’t make it go away. If anything, it just affects you more adversely because you’re not being mindful of it and not taking steps to manage it. I don’t know what really causes the experiences I identify as “bird”, but trying to suppress those experiences or rationalize them away has more ill effects than not.
So I suppose the first step to balance, for me, was accepting that yes, I am avian in some way; and yes, it impacts my life.
I found some effective short-term tricks for controlling my shifting. The main one is shifting towards “human”. If birdness becomes sharply prominent in an environment where I can’t afford to indulge it, like at work, I focus on words, sentences, speaking; I focus on fingers, manual dexterity, things impossible with wings or claws; I focus on where my physical skin begins and ends, reminding myself that I am here and now and human. I imagine pulling my feathers in, pushing bird-mind down beneath the surface.
But this is a temporary solution, resorting to hard control and suppression. When that’s all I do, birdness comes clawing/flapping up more often, more harshly, harder to suppress each time – until it gets to be as difficult to control as in the above description. There are longer-term solutions.
I mentioned acceptance. That’s the first step. Then: striving for balance. For me, that means finding safe times and places to immerse myself in bird-thoughts, bird-awareness, feathers and beak. That might mean taking a walk in a park, or standing on a balcony and feeling the wind, or even – weirdly – dancing, at a club or around a fire (depending on your preference – I like goth clubs for this, myself; I don’t get bothered, everyone dances in their own space, and I can lose myself in music and movement, fly inside my mind while my body goes through the motions of it all).
Finding ways to express my birdness also helps. This doesn’t mean wearing birds on t-shirts or jewelry – no, what I mean is engaging in activities that are soothing or comfortable to rough-legged buzzard. Hiking at the intersection of cliffs and prairie, buzzard’s preferred habitat. Scavenging, in my own way; whereas hawk might go for roadkill meat, I scavenge the other leavings of deceased animals: bones, game-bird feathers, and the like. Perching in high places where I can get a good view of the ground below.
When I express my birdness regularly, in places and times of my choosing, I manage to find a better balance between human fingers and avian pinions. After a while, I stop needing to consciously make time to be “bird”, because the divide between human-mind and bird-mind blurs to nearly nothing, until I am at a stable constant state of bird-and-human-at-once, aware of both.
It took a while to get there. There were three years between the birdpanic experience detailed above and the following journal post, in 2008. This is what balance feels like, for me:
I have been comfortably, constantly aware of my birdness these past few months. There have been very few shifts; it’s been an ever-present thing instead. Not just frazzled pin-plucked feathers during times of anxiety or stress, I’ve not just experienced birdness in skittering frightened flapping-panic, but in contentment as well. This is rare, and it’s wonderful, and I’m really liking the constant sense of feathers.
Not prickling and itching under my skin like I sometimes perceive the feathers, but just there, everywhere, fluffing with cold or pleasure or happiness, standing on end with threat or irritability, slicking back in fear or worry or miserableness.
I have felt more fully bird than I ever have, and it is day to day and ever-present. My feet are bird feet, long and clenching-opening-curling; my mouth is also a beak, hollow palate, nibbling-tasting-testing everything (pens, necklaces, the edge of my shirt collar or sleeves); I am aware of movement and my own movements and the strangeness of my eyes.
It hasn’t felt unusual at all, though. It took me a few months to realize how constant my awareness of my birdness has become, because it feels so natural.
A Raptor’s Primary Senses
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
My eyes are weak.
I’ve had vision problems since childhood. Astigmatism. Severe near-sightedness. Glasses, contacts. I’ve always been protective of my sight; I read so much, I depend on my sight for so many things, that going blind is my greatest fear.
People talk about being “eagle-eyed”, about seeing as sharply as a hawk. Vision is a raptor thing, their primary sense, right? You hood a falcon to keep it warm, restrict its sensory input. You cover bird cages at night. Some birds (some songbirds, and budgies) see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Sight is a primary mode of perception for many birds, most of whom have a poor sense of smell (vultures being an exception), though quite a few rely on hearing as well.
What, then, for a near-sighted hawk?
Here’s the thing: while I rely intensely on sight, it is not my primary sense. I am not a visual thinker. I am tactile, I think in texture, I translate my perceptions into tactile imagery, and I feel this makes a certain sense for a bird-person.
Think on it. Feathers in the breeze, communicating a host of information on air pressure, wind speed, and wind direction. Flight is not a visual feat, but rather a tactile one. Filoplumes feathers are sensory feathers, transmitting information on movement and vibration much like a cat’s whiskers, indicating when a contour feather is out of place, and possibly even helping the bird gauge airspeed.
Touch is one way birds bond. Allopreening is mutual grooming, and the bird being preened exhibits visible pleasure. Parrots are visible examples of allopreening as they are highly social birds, but ravens do it too, as do mourning doves, owls,caracaras, and there is even interspecies allopreening. The mated pair of red-shouldered hawks at the wildlife center I used to volunteer at also engaged in allopreening.
So perhaps it isn’t so unusual for a hawk-person to think in texture and rely on tactile feedback as a key sense, particularly a near-sighted one like myself.
The Alien Avian
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Humans are social creatures, pack animals by nature, apex predators, and of course – mammals. It makes sense, then, that other apex predators, other mammals, and social apex predators in particular would translate more cleanly into human bodies, and be more recognizable. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the disproportionate number of wolves in the therian community, and of big cats.
In comparison, birds are alien creatures: of the sky and sometimes the ocean, with only rare species residing primarily on land (ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi). They occupy a different sphere entirely, treetops and cliffsides and wind. They are hollow-boned, feathered, and beaked; they are egg-layers and nest-keepers.
Many people have a good grasp of body language and cues when it comes to mammals. Some of this is due to early and frequent exposure to cats and dogs, and some of it might be simply that the cues are similar to human ones: a mobile face, lips curling in a snarl for canines and humans both, eyes widening or narrowing, a hunched slinking posture when threatened or a big forward posture when threatening, and so on and so forth. We can read “feline”, we can read “canine”, and even “equine” or “bovine” are comprehensible with little previous exposure. The nuances might take study to learn, but beyond that, humans speak the same basic language as most other mammals.
Birds speak a different language. It might be motivated by the same things (fight/flight, fear/aggression, hunger, territory), but it doesn’t look the same. A bird’s expression doesn’t show in a mobility of facial features, but rather in the subtle pinning of pupils, in a gaping or clacking beak, fluffing of feathers (and there’s a difference between contented fluffing and a threat display) or slicking back of feathers, head-bobbing, head-weaving, preening, plucking…
Social birds are easier to relate to, and easier to study; they’re more motivated to communicate. It’s far simpler to study a parrot (and the psychology of african grays, for instance, seems similar to that of humans), which is a highly social flock bird, than to study a raven, which is social on a much smaller scope. Their intelligence may be similar, but it’s trickier to demonstrate the intelligence of ravens than it is for parrots, perhaps in part because so many of our measurements of intelligence (and methods of taking measurements) are based on intensely social, mammalian humanity.
Translate a bird into a human, and what do you get?
People often have a hard time reading my tells. It takes conscious effort and it’s taken a lot of self-training to make facial expressions, to display feelings and affect through standard facial (and vocal) cues. When I am not feeling well, I often don’t make the attempt at facial expressions, usually because I’m more focused on my mental state than on communication of that state – and in some respects, I think I fall into the behavior Tsu described: “an injured bird hides.”
When I am anxious or agitated, it shows in my physicality: shifting my weight from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching my feet repeatedly. Fidgeting with my scalp, short-shorn hair like pinfeathers and down, stress-preening, feather-picking. My eyes go wide and staring when there’s sensory overload, too much stimulation for hyperalert hawk-mind; my head swivels to look at every sudden motion. My breath rate increases, going rapid and shallow under intense stress; this is a normal physiological reaction for anyone’s anxiety, but it’s not joined by an anxious expression, it doesn’t display on my face. My face lacks emotional expression to the point where I have had coworkers, managers, and casual friends walk up to me when I am in the midst of a full panic, and they choose that moment in which to comment on how calm and laid back and mellow I always seem to be.
It’s not just stress and anxiety that manifest primarily in body language, either. Interest expresses as a sharpened intensity, hawk-stare, turning the entirety of my attention to a single point. Often my mind is split several ways, but when something trulycatches my attention, it commands all of it, all of my focus. I lean forward, my gaze is as still as my face; I fidget less. When fully engaged, fascinated, I become less animated, more still, more intent. I seem more serious when I’m very interested in something, razor-edged. Happiness is a softened gaze and fluffed phantom feathers; relaxed contentment means slower movement, increased comfort with physical contact, swaying side to side, limbs loose.
It’s different socially, too. This is more of a hawk thing than a general bird thing, because plenty of birds are highly social, flock creatures: parrots and geese and crows, to name a few examples, though I’m sure their form of socialization looks very different from mammalian pack dynamics (and I would love to hear the social perspective from a flock bird person at some point). Rough-legged hawk is a solitary bird, or pair-bonded at most, apart from sometimes roosting communally in winter territory and forming small flocks in migration. I understand group dynamics and hierarchy thanks to observation, study, and social psychology classes; it’s not an ingrained knowledge or an instinctive understanding. Thanks to being human as well as hawk, I am a social creature, and I need social contact and meaningful relationships in my life. However, socializing with people who are intensely hierarchical can be strange and stressful for me, and I react poorly to attempts at shoehorning me into a hierarchy in a group setting. (I deal with it better in a work environment, where I’ve learned to accept it and can see the efficiency around it; but in social, casual, or friend groups, I see no point to it and deeply dislike formations of hierarchy.)
I have no patience for dominance displays in general. Fortunately, I do not trip the dominance/hierarchy-aware instincts of most of my intensely hierarchical friends (wolf-people and even some cat-folk). That’s where I prefer to be, in a group setting: non-hierarchical, outside a hierarchy if one exists within the group, seen neither as a threat to dominance nor someone to be dominant over. It sometimes means I fit oddly in a group setting, or don’t mesh with the larger social fabric of a group; a part and apart at the same time. It can make finding meaningful, nourishing community difficult. Most of the time, though, I don’t mind.
A bird is not a mammal, and it’s hard to describe what it’s like as a bird in human skin when all our language is mammalian, when my body is heavy-boned and featherless, soft-faced, toothed instead of beaked. It’s like trying to translate a complex concept from German or Japanese when there’s no word for it in English: it takes paragraphs and pages to convey even half of it, and so much is lost in the translation even then. Bird is alien and other – closer, maybe, than reptiles with their cold blood and scaled thoughts; closer, perhaps, than the wet world of fish, or the colony-existence of bees and ants. Yet it’s alien in comparison to cats and foxes, wolves and horses, a psychological uncanny valley of almost but not quite comprehensible.