About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won’t like you at all.Rita Mae Brown
What does it mean to “be who you are?” And how do we get “comfortable in our skin,” as the saying goes, able to accept ourselves fully and know that not everyone will understand us, let alone come to love us just as we are?
I met Grapefruit Punk in the North Cascades near Stevens Pass, Washington. She is a person who has chosen to identify as gender neutral. I have to admit, I’m not entirely comfortable using ‘they/them’ in place of ‘he/she.’ I totally understand the need for gender neutral identifiers and a more fluid understanding of who we are as human beings, but as a person who loves words, a plural term for the singular feels awkward.
The gender theorist Judith Butler reminds us that, “Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act… a doing rather than a being.” I find her words a balm when considering my identity as a hiker having taken on the enormous challenge of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, but also post-PCT, as I navigate my future and try to blaze a successful career path.
At a recent presentation, a retired professor from St. Catherine’s University asked me what I planned to do when I could no longer walk. Talk about a challenge to one’s identity! I told her that if walking was out of the question, I’d roll down the trails or better yet, find a few hardy assistants to carry me on a bier. I added, a bit defensively, that I’d always have my pictures and memories to satisfy me, organizing them into a cohesive story likely taking the rest of my natural life.
As though that first question wasn’t enough to make me sweat, she then asked if I’d “touched the infinite” while walking. I laughed and admitted that yes, I did by talking to my goddess every day, a gender-specific term for the holy spirit that has left more than one follower scratching their heads curious about the state of my spirituality.
She seemed satisfied with the answer, though stayed after to talk more, ensuring I was boned up on the transcendentals (I am not) those properties of being that correspond to the three aspects of human interest and their ideals; science (truth), the arts (beauty) and religion (goodness). All at once, I realized these three are a key to understanding, knowing and accepting the self. I’ve always referred to the triad of mind, body and soul needing an equal amount of attention and nourishment, but Plato’s signifiers feel far more descriptive, and in fact, prescriptive on the optimal manner in which to lead a balanced life.
I find it no accident that the young hiker Elise decided to camp next to me that gorgeous evening in the forest with only the babbling brook and the Varied Thrush as our companions. “They” wore an odd home-made dress sewn from orange fabric dappled with tiny elephants, their head fully shaved hidden under a baseball cap jauntily worn backwards. When I finally sidled over to strike up a conversation, it was their generous smile that won me over.
Elise gave herself that trail name, Grapefruit Punk. Yes, they love eating the fruit, but it’s the entire gorging of its juiciness that seems to reflect their own take on life and art as a dancer and living statue. Art and beauty were center stage that evening, as was science and truth in the concrete reality of this massive trail looming in front of us. But it was religion and goodness, too, showing up in the conversation as we both expressed our doubts. Did we have enough faith, determination, and the requisite centered and focused nature to tame the anxiety and uncertainty we would invariably face in the coming months?
There was no answer that night as we climbed into our ultralight tents and wished each other sweet dreams. G was up and out before I finished breakfast, disappearing down the trail. It would be a full month before I caught up and we shared a day in Oregon walking through forest fire detritus then dodging mosquitos for a welcome afternoon swim. When I slowed down in the afternoon, my muscles seizing up with cramps, they waited for me to catch up at a pristine lake. G introduced me to powdered magnesium and gave me half their supply before disappearing again.
This morning, a follower sent me a video of a choir singing a song by American composer Randall Thompson. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts commissioned Thompson in 1959 to write music for their bicentennial celebrations and he chose words by a poet associated with that place, Robert Frost. The cycle came to be known as Frostiana, Seven Country Songs. In typical Thompson fashion, the music elicits goosebumps of nostalgia and longing coupled with a kind of wide-eyed innocence.
The final song in the set is called Choose Something Like a Star. In it, the poet looks to the heavens and asks the star to guide us in our earthly existence, pointing out the paradox that “dark is what brings out your light.” He asks the star to say something, anything in either of his starry languages of Celsius or Fahrenheit, but please tell us something! In the end, the star stoops down to our level quietly suggesting “when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be staid.”
I caught G-Punk the following month, after the Sierra but with still 700 miles of desert before the Mexican border. They were parked under a Joshua Tree, crying, totally out of steam, lost and unmotivated. I shared the shade for a few moments, trying to bolster their resolve and help them reclaim some of their defiance and nonchalance of Washington. My feeble attempts didn’t make a dent and I felt old and out of place. They talked to me like I was an annoying parent just getting in the way. Still, G gave me their entire stash of protein bars certain they’d drop out at the next road.
But that was not to be. Grapefruit Punk walked on, all 2,653 miles to Mexico, every step pushing through fear, loneliness, boredom, and frustration but also with feelings of elation, joy and surprise. Afterwards, they returned to Chicago to pick up where they left off and as far as I know, with a firmer understanding of their identity and sense of belonging.
It’s darkness, sometimes, that allows us to shine our brightest, and it’s a task undertaken with acceptance that every moment won’t be easy, each step requiring our best intention obligating a reckoning with how we see and accept our true selves on this trail called life.