TW: suicidality, rape mention, transmisogyny, dysphoria

One day around this time last year, a little blond toddler wouldn’t leave me alone at a coffeehouse I frequented in Oakland. I pretended to ignore him, not just because I don’t really like kids—or because enough parents have clued me in that they don’t want bearded trannies near their offspring that I’d try to keep my distance anyway—but because I was having a really hard day.

On top of being mid-downcycle, I had just been harassed earlier that day by some men on the street, and was feeling dysphoric and suicidal and trying to keep myself together with coffee and sheer force. I was not to be trifled with by somebody’s fucking white cherub.

But of course this would happen to me, I reflected darkly. I don’t do pets, and pets love me. I don’t do kids, and kids love me. It’s like the non-smoker’s curse—no matter where I stand in proximity to my friend’s cigarette, the smoke always clings to me.

And careless as smoke did this kid waft over. He cooed at me until I finally said hi and he babbled an introduction bashfully. He stared at me with open pleasure, his sea green eyes shining with wonder, and insistently grabbed my index finger with his tiny hand.

He might as well have gutted me.

I teared up before I realized his parents were coming over. I braced for impact, but they just apologized; they had been ringing in their order and he had slipped them, they were sorry for any inconvenience. I said it was cool. I didn’t tell them I wanted to die and that this was a major wrench in the plans. We chatted for a minute while their spawn barnacled to my hand, about where they were from, where I was from, until I was released as suddenly as I had been captured.

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I’ve only written about it maybe once before, a brief note so I don’t forget, but that’s unlikely; I think about it all the time. Maybe I’m a little superstitious, but part of me believes that if I write it down this way, it’ll be unreal the way histories are, rather than unreal in the tradition of hagiographies.

That in an effort not to be sentimental, to record faithfully the events of that day, I will tell you all the facts—that I was drinking a honey latte and he was wearing a button-down plaid shirt and that his mother smiled like she was in on my secret—and elide that in that moment I was struck by a memory of Gleipnir, the impossibly strong silken ribbon of Norse mythology forged from six supposedly impossible things.

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When I was a child, my first grade teacher gave to my mother to give to me a storybook of collected age-appropriate German fairytales. It was green and hardback and thick and it was the first book I had in which the edges of the pages were printed in that glittery gold material usually reserved for bibles and this seemed almost as magical to me as all the stories in it.

I read every one of them probably a dozen times or more; my favorite was a decidedly cleaned up version of “The Six Swans” (there’s probably a lot to unpack there) and I remember rereading the book cover to cover in my bed with a kind of visceral presentness—the semi-slickness of the pages, the lingering smell of my teacher’s perfume, the pleasant ache of reading a story and really connecting to it for the first time.

But the story that has stuck with me the most is only a fragment; I’ve never been able to find the original. It tells of a mother and her son who, for some reason or another, keeps literally floating away from her while he sleeps. I only remember the falling action, that she ties an enchanted thread around his left ankle which keeps him bound to the earth. It’s supposed to be a happy ending, and I guess it is as far as Germans are concerned.

I remember wondering how such a fragile thing could tether a person that way. I asked my mom one day and she laughed and she laughed until she cried.

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I try to forgive that Gleipnir was created out of treachery to bind the wolf god Fenrir until the end of days for being a bad dog. I try to forgive that the word bad comes from a transmisogynistic slur about as old as the Prose Edda. I try to forgive that one of the six impossible things is the beard of a woman. I try to forgive how much my mother hated her menopausal whiskers. I try to forgive that I never told her she could bind a god down if she wanted to. I try to forgive myself that I couldn’t do the same for her.

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In the year since, the events of that day have haunted me. I count up all the ways it was impossible: the uncanny timing, the banal setting, the bitter honey, the chill parents, the impossibly gentle hand—that anyone could look at me that way.

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Grace is alternately defined as:

1) the free and unmerited favor of god, or

2) the simple elegance or refinement of movement.

This is not for most people a tension, but because I was both raised in a family whose Lutheran faith centers on grace and because I had a stroke in utero that left me mildly palsied on my left side, I have jerked between definitions for most of my life.

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One night a few years ago, my boyfriend spent the night with me and somehow wound up cradling my weak hand in his (“Let me hold this hand,” he pled) as we lay there naked under the cover of darkness. When I told one of my mentors about it one day at my favorite Thai place as part of an update about my life, he peppered me with questions. What were the circumstances? How did it happen? Did he ask first? How did it make you feel? I only remember how I answered this last one: Held.

Afterwards, there was a long silence, and I felt restless, so I started in on some other shit and he snapped at me, “Don’t speak. This is a sacred moment. Sit in it.”

So we sat in it together for awhile while the afternoon gilded our Tom Kha until, eventually, I paid for us and left him there, great lion of a man, professor-musician-provocateur-pastor-mystic, struck.

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My life is full of memories of hands. My dad’s calloused hand pushing my finger into loam to show me how far to plant a cucumber seed. My grandmother’s ugly tubers, swollen with arthritis. My mother’s fat soft hands, her applause, the beatings; hands I inherited. My brother’s teenage hands with their perennially bruised knuckles. My best friend’s cracked, eczemic hands. My piano teacher’s hands, crooked from a lifetime on the keys. My rapist’s hands, eerily nondescript except for the pressure, holding me, holding me down.

And my lovers’ hands, all one thousand of them, teaching me how to pray.

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In dharma practice, we are taught how to hold thoughts and feelings in the mind without clinging, just as we can hold a river stone in an open palm without forming a fist. Indeed, we can better appreciate it if we don’t cling: the smoothness of its surface, its delicate weight, the admirable way it seems to polish the light.

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The name Gleipnir literally translates to “the open one”.

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I have been practicing the dharma for half a decade and nothing prepared me for the impossibly gentle hand of a toddler named Oliver wrapped around my finger.

Sometimes at night when I want to die my mind wraps around his name as though it’s the only gift I’ve ever been given. Sometimes it is.

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Don’t speak. This is a sacred moment.

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He will never know he saved me, precocious half-pint agent of grace. He’d be about four now, probably, and pretty soon he’ll be a preteen and irritate the shit out of everybody, and then he’ll be a young American and hate his parents and hate Oakland, and he’ll date around a lot and probably fuck around on the people he’s dating—I say that statistically, not judgmentally—and soon enough he’ll be another man and he’ll be broken and glorious in the specific way Californian men tend to be and I’ll be alive because of him. And I’ll never be able to forget him until the end of days, because he slipped some invisible string around my finger to keep me from forgetting the way he looked at me like I was the grace-gift there and the way things could be and I’m trying, Mom, I’m trying to forgive that too.