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pre-surgery life lessons from a magnolia tree
Tomorrow I’m having gender affirming surgery and in the last week I have had a really big urge to write about it but not enough time to do it properly so what I’m sharing with you today is a draft of something / random thoughts and ideas which I suppose can also double up as my final words if I die on the operating table.
I snuck into my landlord’s apartment to write about my tits because he’s got a garden and the sun came out in Brooklyn after what felt like 700 years. I’m writing about my tits because tomorrow I'm having gender-affirming chest surgery that I’ve been waiting just about as long for, whether I knew it or not (I knew it). The surgery I’m getting has lots of names, none of them quite right, which is fitting. I cycle through them all though, like I’m on some kind of transgender merry-go-round, where instead of drunk carnival horses I’m riding “aggressive breast reduction”, “non-flat top-surgery”, “mastectomy” or my personal favorite, “boob job”, until I feel queasy. Phoebe would probably say, leaning over a dinner candle, that all merry-go-rounds are inherently trans. Like soil, like The Little Mermaid, like those mobiles that sound in the breeze.
This is the Spring of my 33rd year and the extent to which my psyche (like yours) has been ravaged by capitalism is evident in both how long it took me to get here, and also how mean I can be to myself about how long it took me to get here. But then again, I tell myself I’ve always been a late bloomer. I had my first depressive episode at 21 (seems like a fake age to develop chronic depression?), kissed a woman for the first time at 23 (celebate and fearing hell for the following 2 years), and I was flat chested until I was 18, when I just woke up with double Ds one day, jangling in my purple t-shirt that did not used to jangle. My mum called them comedy breasts because we were all adjusting and I was very polite about it but I noticed the top of buildings a lot more after that.
In my landlord’s garden I kick the folding chair into a shape that can hold me and position it in the sun patch of course. I type away, refusing to admit I can’t actually see the laptop screen, when I’m disturbed by a gentle but defiant tap on the head. The petal - something between a sliver of ancient pottery and a gaudy wedding cake topper - is undeniably the buttery scoop of a Magnolia tree. We are not strangers. Soha became attached to this tree quickly upon us moving in upstairs, evidenced by the countless mornings I roll over in search of the warmth that has taken itself to the window, to look at the tree and the creatures that call it home through binoculars or a camera or sometimes just as it is. Aisha! You won’t believe this…
I have been in numerous relationships during which my partner oozed into a version of their rightful gender and I would feel proud of them, of us, of me, for carving out a space where that was possible. Yes, I was smug but I was also jealous! And while jealousy is an absolute horror to behold, doesn’t it just have so much wisdom if you’re honest about what it’s telling you you need? This relationship is the first time someone has doula’d me into new life, ushered me from where I was busy hiding, said, I’ll wait.
Soha feels everything in as much detail as she sees that tree, a disheartening gift at times. For example, when a too-warm winter weekend edges a Magnolia’s buds into a premature sense of security, and they begin peeking out, to bloom, only to be stopped in action when Monday rolls round and everything returns to frost. I watch her watching them, frozen in that vulnerable moment of becoming, like telling a joke that no-one laughs at, or another thing I have no personal experience of. Is it humiliation or transcendence? Is transcendence always humiliating? We root for them.
YouTube came out in 2005, when I was 15, and boy did I find those transition logs quick. I was insatiable for records of other people’s transness, transfixed, in awe, comfortable in something familiar, despite the thing remaining a deep secret, even to myself, until at least a decade later. My mum seemed to join the dots quicker, crying one night by my childhood bedside, at the thought of me becoming a boy. Please don’t make me grieve my daughter. I won’t - an easy promise. Too young to say I am just as disgusted by the idea of me being a man as you are. Could it have been easier though? To present to her from devastation, finally, a son, instead of this ever-changing in-between thing? I’m so malleable I can’t even claim lesbianism (embarrassing), so if you’re looking for the ways I’m a failure, mother, I welcome you to start there.
I can’t focus on writing because all around me this tree, ready to bloom giant, candy-mouse coloured petals upon first sight of the Spring sun, after weeks of lying in wait half out, half in, is absolutely throwing down. Petal after petal, in a dull, laid-back rhythm like a heavy flogger in the hands of an effortless top. Each petal is delicate and sure in this dance with the breeze. Every petal that falls feels so loud, I stop what I’m doing and honor each one in turn as they start to sing in chorus. Petal after petal rains pink onto me and the bed below, waiting peacefully to become mulch or to be cradled by Soha’s hands for her annual batch of pickled magnolia, because that’s the kind of thing that happens when two miracles come together.
The good thing about having the same therapist for eight years is that they can tell you when you’ve been thinking about something for eight years. They can suggest that feeling uncomfortable consistently for at least eight years is probably worth approaching with gentle curiosity or whatever a therapist would say. That just because you can tolerate something, doesn’t mean you should. I want to say a lack of curiosity is not the problem. That in fact a significantly lower curiosity drive could have probably saved me a lot of trouble in this life. Does everyone need to know what it feels like to have their dick get hard in their trousers?
It was easy to gaslight myself for a decade because I actually love my tits, especially when they're in someone’s mouth. There is no peace like when they’re in someone’s mouth. I still have thank you notes from men smothered to near death by these tits. These tits could feed queer America. These tits are the after photo. They are sun-drenched buoys in the Arabian Sea, saving and ending lives in equal measure, full and heroically resistant to even the most suffocating binder. Beth texts me: I love my body, I’ve worked so hard to love my body and to specifically not want to make it smaller. But my gender presentation has shifted and I want to wear button ups without straining the laws of button physics. I reply, these tits shall not be silenced and they shall not be hated, but what’s transness if not a long lesson in choosing which beautiful things are meant for you.
Magnolias set their flower and leaf buds in the late summer and autumn, soaking in energy and then waiting patiently for the following Spring's flowering. A magnolia flower has both a functional male stamen and a female pistil. Bees and other browsing insects transfer pollen from the stamen to the pistil of a single flower. You know what they call flowers like that? Perfect.
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I thought grief was about death before witnessing my mother grieve me while I stood there in front of her (awkward). I wanna be righteous about it but I grieve me too. Or maybe not me, cause this is me, but something. I grieve the child who stood up, tall as a Magnolia in the middle of a family function, caught their own reflection and declared without hesitation that they would look amazing with a beard. I grieve the pure confusion they felt amidst the dramatic shushing that followed. You shouldn’t say things like that. I grieve innocence. I have been locked into a years-long grief process, grieving things I barely had words for. You know it’s deep when you overshare for a living but there’s this thing that’s the only thing you haven’t written about? It finds a way out though, with strangers in Facebook groups or the holy agony of a nipple piercing or another night, untouched.
Probably my most lavish and successful grief ritual was my time as a stripper. I made a pact with myself that if after dancing naked in an extremely sexualised environment that I love I still wanted them gone, I would have genuinely tried my best (not to be trans? idk) and could proceed. Somehow I could feel better about retiring the knockers if half of East London had paid to see them. What I didn’t expect, was this time to allay one of my biggest fears - that with the reduction of my breast tissue, would come some kind of loss of power. The tits run in the family, you see, and the family is chock-full of beautiful, insane, powerful women. What I discovered though, as objectively one of the ugliest strippers at the club and yet one of the most popular, was that my power was in no way limited to my accouterments.
Jacqui leans back at the wheel wide mouthed and says let me tell you something about Magnolias: They’re fucking old. And I wonder how 33 years feels to a 300-year old tree whose ancestors reach back 95 million, to a time before bees. How those Magnolia petals evolved to be so hardy to withstand the beetle-like critters that would pollinate it. How scars are built into the fabric of full life.
The list of fears that came up for me upon finally accepting that at some point I was going to need gender-affirming surgery is exhaustive: how do I explain to medical professionals that I’m looking for a mix of top surgery and a breast reduction in a way that yields the results I want? What if I regret it? Will the change trigger a depressive episode? Will I have trouble breastfeeding hypothetical children I may not have and may not have been able to breastfeed even if I didn’t have the operation? Will I ever enjoy sex again? Will an astrological curse befall me? Am I just fatphobic?
The good thing about having a trans therapist is that they can reassure you that the ambivalence doesn’t go away. They can share that they were ambivalent until they were put to sleep on the operating table, that sometimes they still are. That you’re allowed to not know the answers, and you’re also allowed to trust the part of you that picked up the phone and booked that first appointment, and then that second. With each day that I get closer to my surgery date, I bow deeper to that wise part and the ways it has lived inside me, waiting for this very moment to unfurl. I expected my ambivalence to last forever, for the surgery to be a somewhat begrudging act of desperation. However it’s (somehow) not an exaggeration to say in the weeks leading up to this surgery, as my body has taken control, preparing me calmly and diligently, that I have felt something like solid ground under my feet for maybe the first time ever. Something like peace. I can’t remember the last time something was so completely about me.
Across the street from Herbert Von King Park in Bed-Stuy sits one of only two trees in all of New York City that has been designated as a New York City landmark. The 140-year-old magnolia tree's conservation and preservation campaign was led by founder of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Committee, Hattie Carthan, who in 1968, aged 67, stopped the tree from being felled for an apartment complex. Shortly after, she established the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in the Brownstones behind the tree, now one of the oldest African American-led environmental centers in New York. She continued campaigning for beauty until her death in 1984, throwing block parties to raise funds to plant and grow trees. The weekend before my surgery, Soha and I walk over to the tree, boarded up and standing magnificent amidst scaffolding. A weather-beaten mural of Carthan beams. Look at god.
In my landlord’s garden the petals keep falling and it’s clear there is no fear or grief in the way this tree is transforming, so soon, once again. It’s hard to explain the freedom felt in watching the tree kind of casually, kind of flirtily discard these petals. I mean obviously I can’t speak for the tree but safe to say it’s not writing a think piece about the experience. In the garden I feel those lingering vestiges of fear leave my body and I wonder if nature is the truest form of unconditional love we experience. Doesn’t it show us everyday? I tend to feel critiques of the scarcity mindset are a bit overdone, and is it just me or is that word kind of hard to say, but as someone who will literally package and transport luxury candles back and forth across oceans instead of just using them, this lesson in trusting in abundance is key for me. And I do.
On Facetime I tell my mum I’m writing about Magnolias. I went on a tree walk, she says, rummaging for a notebook. I learnt this word - what was it? About how trees only let go of flowers and leaves when they’re ready. They aren’t just falling you know, they’re being let go. Abscission, that’s it. They know when it’s time to let go. I ask, do you? Could you trust that I do? She says trees are wiser than humans. Just say Bismillah.
At brunch with Farah I joke that I want to push my surgery date back. Not because I’m scared but because I want to revel in this BBE (before boob-job energy). That even in the disappointing, silent places where I would have hoped for rambunctious joy and support, I can make peace with the quiet because I can hear myself. Backlit by the sun they say, you have your own back. Is that what this is? That in taking this impossible step for myself towards comfort, I am asking myself, what other ways do I wish to be comfortable? In what other parts of my life shall I demand it? This is what they don’t want us to have?
By the time I finish writing this, the Magnolia has shed all of its petals, so much quicker than the time it took for them to bloom, and making way for fresh leaf sprouts, which will now take over. A pair of Blue Jays are busy making a nest in a light fixture shielded by the tree branches as I prepare for recovery in the bedroom I’ll be spending much of the rest of spring in, back straight, heart full, tits forward.
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