To divide, to rejoin

Our word ‘sex’ most likely comes from the Latin Secare, which means “to cut or divide.”

If we reverse engineer it, how could that root lead to the associations we have today; on the one hand, sex as an act, and sex as an old fashioned way of thinking about gender?

Let’s tackle the second definition first. In a world of binary gender, the idea of cutting or dividing is an easy way to maintain sameness and difference simultaneously between women and men. To be cut or divided means to be originally made of a common substance and only secondarily to deviate. Eve comes from Adam’s rib--she is of him, but different. If you remember our post on longing, we talked about Aristophanes’ conjoined beings, who were split apart by the Gods on account of their hubris, doomed to search for their other half eternally. Here we see the same idea.

It’s a convenient framework with plenty of gray area. What is universal and what is separated can change--and it has, and does--based on what cultures or thought paradigms dominate at different time periods. Certain cultures have revered the difference between male and female, built religious or ceremonial ritual around it, reserved specific roles for different sexes. Other cultures and epochs have thought of women as simply the un-perfected version of men. 

Let’s begin again. A brutally simple way of thinking about the word sex is that it first divides the world into male and female, and then becomes the act of sex because the most important consequence of the difference between men and women is the ability to procreate.

Creation is predicated on the conjoining of difference. 

But to divide doesn’t necessarily mean to divide in two, and the word sex isn’t the word reproduction. There is a way of thinking about the word ‘sex’ and its roots that offers an elegant and inclusive way of understanding a fundamental human experience. 

Sex is the space in which we most obviously confront the ‘Other,’ both in ourselves and in our partner. It doesn’t matter what genitalia we have: in the act of sex we become painfully aware, precisely because we are striving to be one, that we are unavoidably two. At even the furthest limit of intimacy our selves do not ever actually fuse. I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way, but more as a reason behind the power of sexual intimacy--we fail, vulnerably and gloriously, together. 

So perhaps we can understand the ‘division’ at the root of sex as a recognition of the sacred Other and our relationship to it. Maybe we can see how we are all cut from the same cloth--but cut nonetheless--into our individual selfhood, and how there is ultimately something very noble in our Sisyphean quest to make a one out of two.

In other words, maybe we can see that this quest for rejoinder necessarily has to fail, but that we also have to continue believing in some part of ourselves that we will eventually achieve it.

Words - Finnegan Shepard

Photography - Mischa de Stroumillo


Shaping the shapeless

Spirit is what moves us, or what we are moved by. 

It is the invisible made semi-visible in language, an imaginative rendering of the fundamental mystery around selfhood. Who is the I? How can I think about the I (If I am fully inside the I)? What is the relationship between my body and my self? If my body dies, what happens to this ‘knower,’ this self that does not feel as though it is housed within the body, since it is able to both be and observe the being?

The etymology of ‘spirit’ is curious. Spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which means “breath, breath of god,” and “inspiration, breath of life, life.” There are no direct cognates of spirit, which has led some linguists to believe that the word is an onomatopoeic formation “imitating the sound of breathing.” 

But there is a secondary meaning for spiritus: “disposition, vigor, courage, pride, and arrogance.” This twofold definition renders spirit both what defines us as human universally, and also as specific individuals. It groups us all as beings who breathe (and are therefore alive), and also what allows for our particular dispositions. 

Think of all the ways we use spirit now, and their divergent associations. We say “she’s spirited.” We ask for spirits at the bar. We have rituals (depending on our faith) around the departure of spirit from the body. There is a cult classic movie called Spirited Away

As English speakers in the 21st century, we’re primed to align life with breath. Following this logic, humans and animals are alive because they breathe, while things like rocks and rivers are inanimate because they don’t. But this is certainly not the only way to conceptualize the distinction between animacy and inanimacy. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer so beautifully explains in Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous peoples of North America built “the grammar of animacy” into their language: everything of this world is animate and verbal, everything created by humans is inanimate, a noun. This much more holistic treatment of what qualifies life aligns with Thomas Berry’s saying that “we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

So what are the conceptual consequences of our English word ‘spirit’?

A deep--and perhaps fearful--attachment to self. A foregrounding of the individual over the collective. Our idea of spirit is what protects us against the unimaginable non-being. Our spirit is who we are, how we move through the world, and what we cannot imagine losing. It is where we house everything known, the shape we’ve drawn around the shapeless. 

As it came to be used in the 15th century, spirit is “the essential principle of something.” We may not know what that ‘something’ is, may not ever be able to mentally grasp what it means to live or die, but we nonetheless long to be essential, for the delicate thread of self to not be as inexplicable and distinguishable as we fear it might be.

Words - Finnegan Shepard

Photography - Mischa de Stroumillo


How enduring gracefully is the root of bliss

When you think of the word euphoria, what are the first associations that jump to mind?

Maybe you think of a state of giddy happiness, a kind of bliss that shrouds the entirety of self: mind, body, and heart. Maybe you think of the TV show Euphoria, and make a subconscious connection between being on drugs and being euphoric as two similarly altered states. Maybe you’ve heard euphoria used recently as the antonym to ‘dysphoria’, repurposed by the trans/gnc community to describe moments of intense joy in embodiment. 

All of these associations make sense, given our current definition of euphoria as “a state of intense happiness and self-confidence.” But the roots of the word carry quite a different connotation. 

Euphoria comes from the Greek Eu (meaning well, or good,) and Pherein (meaning “to bear,” or “to carry”), so Euphoros means literally “to bear well.” This becomes Euphoria, the “power of enduring easily.” 

There is an underlying current of injury or illness embedded in the word. It is picked up by medical Latin, and in 18th century English is a doctor’s term for “condition of feeling healthy and comfortable (especially while sick).”

So why is a word that for so many centuries was associated with suffering gracefully now a word that describes our most heightened experience of bliss?

There isn’t a linguistic answer to this--as you can probably tell by now, etymologies don’t offer placards explaining themselves, but rather a series of dots along an otherwise mysterious path, ripe for pondering and playful interpretation. So here’s my two cents:

To endure easily is to be in an altered and pleasurable state, because you have thrown off (at least partially), the shackled and lesser forms of finite pleasure and pain. 

As Peter Rollins says, “there is the trauma that happens to us, and there is the trauma that is life.” To be alive is to be embodied in a form that has aches and pains, that grows sick, that suffers heartbreak and anxiety and fear. To be alive is also to be forced to accept that there is no escaping these things. 

And if we accept that we must accept them, what next? Ideally, we learn to bear them well. It is no coincidence that many ancient traditions and philosophies circle around letting go of our attempt to ‘beat’ what harms or potentially could harm us, but to rather practice equanimity in the face of all states of being. This is a basic tenet of mindfulness and of stoicism (among many others). 

If we let our reality be dictated by our current state, we will be in a constant and unstable flux of feelings and thoughts. To endure life easily, then, might be understood as having one foot in the door of our continuous, lived experience, and one foot out. It would mean being present, aware of the contours of our experience, but not blindly tied to them. In this way, the term isn’t so literally medical: we do not bear well the pain of a specific injury, per se, but the broader difficulty of enduring embodied life generally.

As a trans man, the recent use of ‘euphoria’ to describe moments of embodiment is particularly intriguing when I apply this framework. Euphoria seems to work in two directions simultaneously. It’s the bliss of stepping outside of ourselves into an altered state not so precariously tied to the permutations and conniptions of our day to day life, and it is also being used as a moment of intense embodiment. If dysphoria is understood as a deep discomfort with the body due to a lack of identification with it, then euphoria is the opposite: it is waking up to the self as embodied. It is looking in the mirror and seeing, if only for a moment, you, and the light-headed joy that comes with it. 

Most words, I think, can be used either as blunt tools of communication, or as gateways into curiosity and delight. If you choose the second path, I have found more often than not that I arrive in a place with opposing meanings. In this opposition there is a second choice: to feel lost or ungrounded in polarity, or to see how fundamentally hopeful the coexistence of opposing yet mutually-reinforcing truths can be. 

By thinking about the word euphoria, I arrive here: that as humans, we are given the opportunity to find profound joy both by stepping outside of ourselves, and by stepping into ourselves. 

It’s not that the feeling is just handed to us, but still, the opportunity for it is there, both when I am able--if only for a second--to intentionally transcend myself, and in those moments when I run my hand over my now-flat chest and feel a sense of arrival at a home I’d spent my whole life imagining. 

Words - Finnegan Shepard

Photography - Mischa de Stroumillo


A spatial metaphor for our relationship to time

Probably the most famous association with labyrinths in the west is the myth of Theseus and the minotaur. (In fact, the word labyrinth is derived from Crete, where the myth takes place: it likely comes from a Pre-Greek word for ‘double-edged axe,’ a sign of royalty in Crete, and then later becomes labyrinthos, a palace with intricate passageways). 

In the myth, Theseus volunteers to be one of the fourteen child sacrifices Athens sends each year to King Minos of Crete, who released them into the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus, aided by princess Ariadne, is able to slay the minotaur with the help of two things--one obvious, the other not. Ariadne provides him with a sword, and a ball of yarn. Ariadne instructs Theseus to tie one end of the yarn to the door at the entrance of the labyrinth, and unspool it as he enters the depths. The sword (obviously) is for killing the monster. 

The ‘weapons’ Theseus requires are symbolic of the two obstacles he must overcome. On the one hand, he must slay the monster within, but then--equally difficult--he must find his way out again. Yarn serves as a physical and metaphorical embodiment of memory, or, more precisely, of the learning that comes from acting with intention and self awareness.  If Theseus were able to remember his path, including his missteps, he would be able to find his way out. The fact that he requires yarn can be read as a tacit critique of our capabilities (or priorities) as heroes in our own stories. We are so focused on reaching our goals, on going after the great monster, that we miss out on learning from our wrong turnings. We rush through the labyrinth towards the Minotaur, without realizing that the confrontation isn’t the only challenge. The challenge is also what comes after. 

In the context of a mythical beast, a ball of yarn, and a sword, this conundrum can seem remote or antiquated, but we need only change the props for it to feel relevant to us all. How often have you rushed to meet some deadline or spent a week anxiously fretting over a relationship decision, only to realize that the real work begins after? That the real work is almost always less romantic, more slow, and less easy to build an identity around?

Of course the interpretation of sword-obstacle and yarn-obstacle is only one interpretation of the myth. Myths are, by nature, able to be interpreted in myriad ways. But I think it’s a helpful interpretation if we are to play with the idea of labyrinths as a wider, more luxurious, and highly convenient metaphor for life. 

First off, labyrinths are a great spatial representation of how we only ever experience the present. In a labyrinth, we have extremely limited visibility: we are literally confined to being only--and exactly--where we are. This strikes me as a spatial parallelism with the Buddhist exhortation of experience only occurring in the present time. Labyrinths spatially sever us from a past and a future. They compress space, and can make us feel as though we are moving in circles rather than moving ‘forward.’ But to traverse a labyrinth (which is traditionally unicoursal, as opposed to a maze, with is multicoursal), is in fact to move towards an outcome, even if it isn’t felt as such. We may feel as though we are stuck in space, but that’s what the present is like when experienced without a context. 

Our reaction to this compressed or ‘limited’ experience is to revolt. Instinct leads us to want to rise above, to climb the labyrinth walls. It is no accident that depictions of labyrinths are always from above--it is only from a god like position that we can see the beautiful intricacy--the meaning--or a labyrinth. But this human instinct to have a greater perspective than our finite experience allows is a foundational part of what it means to be human. 

As a university professor of mine once said, “to be human is to first try and fail to be god.” 

Ultimately, we can’t observe a labyrinth any more than we can ‘observe’ life. We can only engage with a labyrinth by participating in it. In fact, we tend to think about the high walls bordering a labyrinth solely as a function to block a person’s view from the inside, but we can just as easily examine the importance of blocking the outside viewer from seeing in. The impossibility of viewing a labyrinth from the outside is symbolic of our mortal, finite position: there is no outside, no before or after. We are always in the middle, always journeying, with limited sight ahead and behind. On the one hand, our path is determined for us. On the other, we have agency in the choices we make along the way. It is possible to be eaten alive, and also possible to slay the minotaur. 

It is possible to get lost, and also possible to find our way out again. 

Words - Finnegan Shepard

Photography - Mischa de Stroumillo


A deeper look at shadow

Shadow is one of those unusual things that we probably think about more in its metaphorical sense that in its literal sense. 

Sure, we experience shadow every day; when we cross the street to be in or out of the shade, when we pick a place for our picnic blanket, or when we are simply walking, and cannot help but drag along our other, two dimensional self. But unless you’re an artist and have trained your eye to see it, most of us bumble about not paying shadow much mind. 

This is peculiar, given that our ability to navigate the world is delimited by our access to light. As light technologies developed—first fire, but more dramatically, electricity—the potential for human activity greatly increased. It would seem logical that with the technology to produce as much light as we want (thereby resisting the natural binary of day and night) we would be able to conquer darkness entirely. And yet light’s presence always brings the necessary by-product of shadow. Only light in a vacuum—a black hole of light—would fail to cast a shadow. In simple terms, there is no light without shadow.  

And thus, trying to stick with the material, we have landed upon the metaphorical. Why is the idea of there being no light without shadow (and all manner of idiomatic parallels: “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” etc.) such a common cultural refrain? And are we potentially losing some nuance in our thinking by smudging the difference between shadow, and darkness? Is shadow merely a gesture at true darkness, the imitative younger sibling?

The word umbra, which means ‘shade or shadow’ comes from the Latin for ‘phantom’, or ‘ghost.’ It is the root for our word ‘umbrella’ (which casts shade over us), but also for our word ‘umbrage’, which means ‘anger,’ or ‘inclined to take offense easily.’ This is an intriguing pairing, but makes a certain kind of sense if we come to see umbra as reactionary by nature.

First, there was light, and then something existed in that plane of light, and as a result, cast a shadow. Or, first there was some action put out into the world, and as a result, anger occurred in relation to it. Anger is always reactionary, thereby secondary to whatever it is reacting against. This interpretation is also in line with the etymological root of ‘phantom’ or ‘ghost’ as entities that are secondary to life: only after something has lived and died can it become a ghost.

I find this to be a hopeful interpretation of the world. Light always brings shadow with it, but shadow is second fiddle, an afterthought, the necessary by-product of light. When we use light and shadow as a metaphor for our lives, we tend to use it during times of darkness, when we have lost touch with the light and fear that it will never return. 

The dualism of light and shadow serves as a reminder not only that the darkness will pass, but that it is natural—and indeed necessary—to have both. Unlike Game of Thrones, winter does not come to stay. Engrained deep in all of us is a fundamental trust in cycles: that within the timeframe of our lives, darkness and light circle around each other in relatively quick intervals. The night really does pass. 

How comforting it is, to think of darkness as both transient and necessary, and to have that reflected in the natural world.

Most hopeful of all is the fact that we have the ability to think in metaphor at all: that light and shadow don’t merely exist as phenomena in the world, but that we tell ourselves stories about them—that we can tell the stories of our lives in relation to them. 

Story is what renders meaning, and, like shadow, it’s attached to everything, if we merely take the time to look.

Words - Finnegan Shepard

Photography - Mischa de Stroumillo

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