“And to whom am I speaking?” the receptionist says.
It’s a phone call that took too long to make. Before our son’s first birthday we will give him up to this clinic for surgery, hours of general anesthesia as they work to amend a congenital issue, hours when we can do nothing but sit beyond the wall and hope. The reality of this call was too heavy, too hard to face, and now it’s overdue.
“I’m his mom,” I say.
She doesn’t respond right away. I hear her shifting, biting her lip maybe, the long beat full of confusion, full of questions.
“Mirah?” she asks finally, naming my wife, the one who carried him.
“No, I’m Nora,” I say. “His other mom.”
There’s an irony here with this phone line between us. Out in the world I don’t always pass, but people see my clear signals, soft edges, the crafted normalcy—my femme outline buys precious seconds of goodwill. Maybe if I stood before her desk now she’d read my transness and all the rest of it in a way that made sense. Here there’s nothing but this tone and timbre, a voice she simply cannot square with this label I’ve claimed. In this moment I’m stripped down to my most discordant and immutable parts, rolled up and subsumed by that resonance.
“Well we don’t have anyone else but Mirah here in his records,” she says. “So who are you?”
Late one evening, a friend is working the register of a neighborhood consignment shop, the eclectic kind packed to the rafters with marvelous junk. A woman walks in carrying a battered case. She’s not there to sell—she just wants to get rid of this thing. My friend takes it in hand, unlatches the dusty case and pulls out an old Yamaha student guitar. Nylon strings, pegs that won’t hold a tune, a body cracked along the bottom seam—it’s perfect. My friend promises the woman that the guitar will find a good home.
Nominally, the guitar is for my baby—surround him with music from the start, Baby Mozarts and all that. But when my fingers touch that fretboard, I’m lost in a different childhood. I see a teen boy noodling on sunny lawns during high school lunch, cliché rock songs in gloomy basements, open chords and open beers under open night sky. I hope you had the time of your life. Decades expand between that last strum and these fingers, but they still remember the needle and the damage done. There was something though, back then, that never quite clicked⎯fingers that couldn’t follow a voice, lyrics that wouldn’t stick. A head that couldn’t hold both at once, a body that couldn’t accompany itself.
Music was always essential, from elementary school recorders through college marching band. There were so many horns over the years: the year I picked up tenor sax for high school jazz band; the rugby injury that left me playing trombone for my last high school concert, the only wind instrument a kid can play without working fingers. But clarinet was home. There was something in the fluidity, the clarity, the earnestness of its timbre. I was smitten too by the duality of its register, that contrast of impossible highs and lows that resonate in the depth of you, and the awkwardness, always a little, at the register break above Bb—a truly non-binary instrument. For so many years this was how I sang, this woodwind transmutation, pouring in my breath and receiving new voices.
It’s said that becoming a parent remaps your brain. Not unlike reformatting a hard drive, a quarter (give or take) of your mind and memory are wiped clean to make room for all this new knowledge, new skill and instinct; it’s a sea change, now coral bones, now pearl eyes, every moment rich and strange.
As the Yamaha slides into this chaos space, something is different. I feel it immediately, a facility and capacity that was never there before. Sitting on the floor as my son lies on the blanket beside me, looking up and out and all around him with those clear new eyes, so much past is present. The decades fall away, my fingers don’t miss a fret. And then, I add my voice. That is, after all, what he really wants to hear; with the certainty of instinct I know that voice is what he really needs. Hesitant at first, I’m not sure what will come of it, this thing that never quite meshed before. Yet stanza by stanza, it just works.
The space where it grows is sheltered, chrysalitic—a music held between us alone. Once or twice in early days, emboldened by success, I try to play for my wife too, and it all falls apart. I forget the lines, my fingers stumble, and suddenly everything is all wrong with my voice, its timbre and pitch. Abashed, fumbling, I quit halfway through the song.
But my son knows none of that. Alone, just me and him, we recommit, chord by chord, song by song. Old memories rising, opening. He looks over from his blanket and smiles as his mom’s voice—my voice—twines with the rhythm.
We so often expect the impossible. Testosterone is a one-way street when it comes to the physiology of voice, a frequent betrayer, and we are conditioned to see our deepend voices as discordant with our womanhood. We’re pummeled by outside pressure, by nasty looks and even violence, such that we often cannot parse out what this resonance really signifies to us, cannot re-imagine how, in a perfect world, this may all fit.
But I think of Sessi Kubawara Blanchard writing on trans femme experiments in voice, the potential and possibility. Tits, curves, and a soft face from hormone replacement therapy, hair sufficiently mermaidish—but my voice bellows as a bass and cracks when approaching atmospheric altitudes. [Cis people] expect a transsexual woman, like myself, to relentlessly pursue normative feminization for all regions of her body and behavior. My voice is subterranean and I do not want voice feminization surgery to slice the stalactites of my vocal box until rays of passability wash in. My deep voice feels good.
And I think of Dr. Girlfriend, the arch-villain from the cartoon Venture Brothers, Jackie O’s doppelgänger with a deep, gravelly, mannish voice. She is ever-compelling in her contrasts, the inversion of a joke. Was she meant to be trans? I’m stuck on that question, the debates around it, until one day I stumble on a discussion that turns the whole issue sideways. A Reddit user observes that It’s kind of sweet how Dr. Girlfriend doesn’t even really sound like a dude anymore to a fan. In a remarkably sensitive thread, fanboys turn this over and grasp something essential, and almost (but not quite) name what they’ve found. Yes her voice is deep and masculine. But Dr. Girlfriend is a woman—and so, necessarily, her voice is a woman’s voice. And as these boys get to know her, that reality sinks in. Their Dr. Girlfriend is something of a trans ideal. She’s in command, she’s vulnerable, she’s sexual, she’s angry, happy, loving. She’s a human being like everyone else in the cast. Ultimately, she’s a woman not in spite of her voice but in celebration of it, something to be held boldly and without apology. Was she trans? If so, she’s Utopian trans—ideal, impossible.
I think of a dark living room in the early 2000’s, lost in the glow of my parents’ TV as everyone sleeps. Flipping through dead-hour cable, I land on HBO, and a documentary that grabs me with inscrutable intensity, the pull trans stuff always had before I could bear to say why. Backstage at a Thai cabaret, two trans women talk while preparing for a show. The first woman is presented in the film’s problematic gaze as complete: all the hormones, surgeries and training necessary to become a woman. That’s the story I know, the only one I know. But the other woman hasn’t pursued any of that. She explains it as a religious value, a Buddhist teaching, an ethic of the body that counsels her against medical intervention. For her, this ethic stands beside her womanhood, and neither is less for the other—no becoming is necessary, she just is.
A decade later, that woman’s voice is still in my head as I take my own account. We’re all confronted with this question, our personal ethic of the body. How we mind the body that carried us this far, what it owes us and what we owe it in turn. How do we bend it to our needs, what do we hold in fierce defiance? I needed to turn my dial to girl, but I met my own strong ethic there: only what’s needed, and never feel false. For so long I thought that transition required a detailed roadmap, a meticulous plan, but when I finally made that leap, an ethic was enough. And for my voice, I knew that endless training and twisting didn’t fit—it would have to speak for itself.
One winter evening, at the start of my transition, I sit across a gay bar table from one of my best friends. It’s the first time Evan and I have been face to face since I came out to him as trans, and we are at Crush to celebrate, drinking cocktails of whiskey, soda and hand-grated ginger. We first met eleven years earlier when we both played clarinet in the University of Oregon marching band, and since then he’s been my closest queer friend. I had in turn been his best ‘straight guy’ friend. Tonight he wears the same long homemade rainbow scarf that I remember him wearing around campus often back then. He takes that huge rainbow scarf from his own neck, hangs it around mine, and I realize suddenly that he means for me to keep it.
“Welcome to oppression,” he says.
But oppression is the last thing I’m feeling in this moment. As I finally name it, as the old facade cracks, this new self emerges like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, full and fierce and ready for battle. I can’t even explain where it comes from, this wild presence, gesture, posture—and voice. I’m bowled over by the power of the queer code switch. A lifetime of buttoning down, scraping out monotones, and suddenly my free voice is darting every which way, rising and lilting, flying through the pitch scale. There’s poignancy here, with this friend, all those years I studied him silently, noting the way his liberated queer inflections came and went on account of context, company, safety. And now my own voice is free, hasty and ravenous after so much lost time. Never planned, never intended, my voice flows and floats into whatever intuitive womanhood fits in context.
In this flux, it’s hard to track what still embodies real, if there is such a thing, until there is no such thing. And in this, I soon find that there is still a home for those familiar old tones. My wife comes up behind me in our kitchen one night, slides her arms around my waist, and I feel the difference, the implicit trust; the low sigh I give with her breath at my neck fills my chest, deep and resonant. And that’s ok. Here, where she sees me fully, there is nothing to justify, nothing that I need to become for her. I can simply be.
At five months, he’s too young to have a favorite song. After all, he can’t speak yet, can’t even walk, crawl, or eat solid food. But here he is, dancing along with special vehemence. He likes music, he likes my music, but this song seems to reach him like nothing else.
The flower said I wish I was a tree
The tree said I wish I could be / a different kind of tree
Cat wished that it was a bee
My wife holds him steady, on his own two feet, and as he recognizes the chord progression, that opening lyric, his grin cracks impossibly wide, baring those first two teeth. He shakes his head back and forth, rolling it around with that particular newborn ecstasy, that first aesthetic joy without any notion that joy could be wrong.
Turtle wished that it could fly
Really high into the sky
Over rooftops and then dive / deep into the sea
Time collapses into that old Moldy Peaches song and onto the rooftop of an old sorority house in Eugene, Oregon, then (as now) an anarchist student co-op. PBR tallboys are cracked as the sun sinks down into the Coast Range foothills, a gauzy sunset. It’s George W. Bush’s second term, and Kimya Dawson is experiencing a moment post-Juno, but her anti-folk wanderer aesthetic hits deeper here. Friends will be off soon with the coming summer, graduates dispersing, Forest Defenders headed out to the woods to stand between logging crews and native trees. Summer travelers will start arriving any day now to fill our porch couches. The house in the fall will not be the same, as the community always shifts term by term, but we still have this moment, this found family watching after a fading day. Somebody pulls out a guitar, and begins to strum.
When I first picked up the old Yamaha, all my fingers remembered was their old high school boy music, all that embarrassing 90s alt rock. As my son and I settle into the task of crafting music between us, that repertoire won’t do. What I really need to say, what I really need to sing are those deeper songs, the chords etched in my bones.
Early in transition, a memory followed me, just breaking the surface in glimpses now and then. An old plum-colored Plymouth Voyager minivan, fake wood paneling, a musty bench seat. Mom driving us across town on a hazy afternoon, summer heat and weak AC, the tang of smoke from burning fields. And from the car’s tape deck, that country singer’s voice. Forest science degree in hand, Mom decides to stick around her university as a part-time researcher, foregoing the academic job track. The future is a big open question; the only thing certain is her determination to raise us, my siblings and me, here. In five or six years she will find her vocation as an elementary teacher, bringing forest science to her fourth grade classes. At her first school, she will grow her own forest for her students. But in the summer smoke, in this Willamette Valley college town far from her family, far from the world, nothing is written yet. There are things she will apologize for that I will never remember, her frustration and failures, her anger at the injustice of man’s narrowness and fear. There is my awe and amazement of her, for which I will never quite find words. Fir dust, loam, river silt. You’ve got me dancing down these muddy roads / soft sand between my toes, feeling fine. Her hands mucky with ceramic clay, her feet kicking that concrete wheel. Our fingers stained with watercolor. You in your elegance and humor fill the room/ your love and your concern. Her curiosity, her love of things that grow. Thank you for being here.
Holding my infant son, it strikes me that she is the same age in that memory as I am now. And all the bewilderment of now pours into that image, into that memory, the folk guitar spilling from the minivan’s speakers; I understand finally the baffling enormity of it, how a parent never stops being a child. At these moments of transition, of worlds turned upside down, it’s her I need, the her of now but also the her of then, that place, that time.
Now mom is visiting Portland to see my son, to help us out in these early months. She’s in the rocking chair feeding him a bottle. He’s almost asleep, and I’m playing my way through a few staples on the Yamaha. I take a breath, and start in on “Carolina Pines,” picking my way through that open G, C, G, D, those extra licks thrown in to get the feel right. And then that opening lyric, my fingers and my voice flowing together. Finally she looks up from the bottle.
“Kate Wolf!” She says. “I used to listen to her all the time, years ago.”
That’s right Mom. I know.
And then my son is ten months old. One day he takes three short steps, seven, twelve, and by the next day he is walking all around the house in forward strides and sideways crab shuffles. He walks up to a heavy wooden chair, grips the seat, and he bangs both hands down on it. I sit next to him and bang my own hands down, getting good resonance from the solid maple. He beats. I beat. Then I start up a polyrhythm and he jumps in with his own consistent beat, his eyes alight with connection.
This question of legacies, of through lines, quickly becomes overbearing. I recall elementary school genealogy projects, the neat branches of trees, man and wife, succession and tradition. But to be a trans mom is to be sui generis. Trans women with children who transitioned used to be told to leave and never look back, sparing their children from their affliction, for their children’s wellbeing⎯it often now feels without precedent, without history and, too, without a knowable future. Until recently, my state required trans women to give up their ability to have children as a penance for recognition. Across the globe laws seek to ensure that kids like mine will never be born. So many think that what we are, him and I, his body next to mine, is not supposed to be.
And in the sea there is a fish
A fish that has a secret wish
A wish to be a big cactus / with a pink flower on it
Parenting in this space brings with it a particular fear, outside voices you know speak poison, but you can’t help but hear—what if this kid picks up too much of me? What will he remember, and what will he carry? What if they are proven right? And so I am startled to realize one day just how trans this song, Kimya Dawson’s Treehugger, my son’s first favorite, truly is. Full of the isolation in form, of yearning to transcend, to shape shift. And the circular nature of it, how one person’s ideal is another person’s cage. Yetis long to become sea monsters, so they can return to the sea. But also, too, there is the hope of connection in our distance. That song burrows in so deep for him that all I have to do is sing one or two a cappella lines and he starts to shake his head, rocking out in that babyish way of his. And I remind myself: I put many songs in front of him, so many diverse scraps of a life, and left it for him to choose. He picked this one.
And the flower would be its offering of love / to the desert
And the desert so dry and lonely
That the creatures all appreciate the effort
The first thing a baby learns is silence. From the overwhelming constancy of a mother’s heartbeat, that cacophony of blood, they are ripped away into the still empty of a world apart, a world alone. They seek anything then to ameliorate the betrayal in that silence—white noise, the thrum of a car’s engine, the din of a crowded restaurant, a parent’s voice, singing.
After my son is born he is too disoriented to cry much; he looks around, shapes just beginning to form, his eyes so new but already searching. I pick him up and hold him to my breast, the softness of his skin, the impossible curves of his little nose. I can feel his confusion then, his fear. Holding him tight, I pace the room and start to sing a lullaby. He relaxes a little, but it’s not enough. And so I drop my register, across the awkward break and down the scale to the deepest part of my chest, my deepest voice rolling through us together as I cradle his head, as he nestles into me, enfolding us both. In a moment, he is sleeping, his breathing strong and rhythmic, and I sing on, past us, filling the room, lost in this resonance. And suddenly this voice is deep enough to hold him, deep enough to hold us both, strong enough, even, to hold at bay that awful silence of the world, for this moment at least.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden