Abba, Amma, Adonai: An Australian Journey in Gender

“Abba, Amma, Adonai,” Peter and I recited, the Lord’s Prayer flowing from our lips as we read from the Koora Retreat Centre prayer books.

We were sitting in Peter’s home, a train car remodeled into a one-bedroom house with large, beautiful windows that looked out into the Western Australian bush. Outside was sheer wilderness—shimmering golden-brown dirt, scrappy bushes with thick leaves, a few thin trees twisting toward the sky. Birds soared in swirls of heat above.

Peter, a retired Anglican priest with a white, bushy beard, and his wife Anna (also an Anglican priest) run the desert retreat center, which I stumbled across last February. I returned in October to spend a month with them.

I joined them in their railway carriage for morning prayer at 7:30 a.m. each day, and though Anna was out of town this particular morning, Peter and I decided to meet anyway. Somehow, our conversation had turned to gender.

“So Anna tells me you use the pronoun ‘they,'” he’d said after we’d finished our Bible readings and before we’d launched into prayers of the community. Soon we’d run the gamut from the spectrum of gender to the limits of English pronouns.

Peter admitted he struggled with “they” as a pronoun but said, “To me, you’re just Alexis.”

We closed our prayer books after finishing the Lord’s Prayer and offering blessings to one another.

“That’s you,” Peter said a few moments after we finished.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Adonai.” He paused. “Well, it’s like ‘beloved.’ But it’s not male or female like the others.”

Abba, father. Amma, mother. Adonai.

He told me about the words for God–how the names the Hebrews had for God reflected God’s characteristics. El Shaddai–God’s nurturing and sustaining nature. Yahweh–God’s unchangeable, everlasting nature. Adonai–a loving bond.

“Yes,” Peter said, as I collected his prayer book from him and stacked on the bookshelf beside my chair. “Maybe the Hebrews had it right.”

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Continue reading “Abba, Amma, Adonai: An Australian Journey in Gender”

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Everything I Don’t Remember: Myanmar, Mohinga, and Memory Boxes

Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi

I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.

It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.

I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.

I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.

I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.

I flip through the pages, searching. Continue reading “Everything I Don’t Remember: Myanmar, Mohinga, and Memory Boxes”

Queer Hair, Don’t Care: On the Liberatory Practice of Cutting My Own (and Others’) Hair

The hair clippers felt heavy in my hand as a humid December breeze blew in from the newly harvested rice paddies of Ninh Binh province. Palm branches danced over my head, throwing shadows on the 30-something Swiss woman who sat in front of me. I looked down at the back of her head, then at the clippers in my hand. Sweat gathered at my temples and in my palms.

In the seven months I’d traveled through Asia, I hadn’t found many short-haired women—and none like Caroline, who buzzed her hair as short as her partner Mario’s. And a small homestay in Ninh Giang, a sleepy Vietnamese town about two hours south of Hanoi, was the last place I expected to find three women with short hair like me—Caroline and the two owners.

Mario, Caroline’s partner, had already taken the first round of cutting Caroline’s hair with my clippers, and he asked me to help with some of the details. I took off the blue plastic guard, the metal teeth glinting in the sun. I switched the clippers on, and they buzzed in my hand as I brought the metal edge close to Caroline’s scalp, tracing a clear line along the curve of her ear. Continue reading “Queer Hair, Don’t Care: On the Liberatory Practice of Cutting My Own (and Others’) Hair”

Lace and All: A Story from Bali

I was sick in Bali last week (tummy troubles), and though I picked up some antibiotics, my Airbnb host mom (who’s pretty much like a homestay mom to me by now) also took me to the temple to pray for “no sick.” She lent me clothes to wear so I could go with her–a lacy shirt, a sarong–special clothing that women wear to go to the temple.

The day before, at the end of a nice chat, her 20-something son had asked me, “So, do I call you ‘miss,’ or…?”

“Uh, either,” I said.

“But… I mean,” he fumbled, perhaps thinking I didn’t understand him. “Are you a girl or a boy?”

“Uh, well… I’m in between.”

He gave a perplexed look.

I smiled. At least I’d tried. “‘Miss.’ You can call me ‘miss.'” Continue reading “Lace and All: A Story from Bali”

Eyeing the Divine: Photos from Nepal

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Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

When I think about my time in Nepal, I think about movement. Cars and motorbikes hurtling past me, the winding roads on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, birds swirling in flight around the eaves of temples and palaces.

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

As a traveler, Nepal was hard for me. I struggled with confronting poverty in Kathmandu, a region still recovering from the earthquake that killed thousands of people in 2015.  I didn’t know what to do with my own economic, white, and American privilege in Bhaktapur. I got sick in Pokhara and was grappling with grief.

There were many bright spots, of course, including hospitable hotel owners who shared their stories and their vodka with me, fellow travelers who wandered the city streets with me talking about feminist theory, and raucous street performers that enlivened squares during the holidays.

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Colorful rangoli decorated home and business entrances during Tihar, the Festival of Lights — Boudhha, Kathmandu, Nepal

I hold all of these impressions in my hands at the same time, but when I look back on photos of my month there, I can’t help but be awed. I knew even while I was taking those pictures that I wouldn’t appreciate the beautiful complexity of the place until long after I’d left. Continue reading “Eyeing the Divine: Photos from Nepal”

A Grief Remembered

“After the first death, there is no other.” –Dylan Thomas

It was Pokhara that broke me.

I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu and struggled to process my experiences in Bhaktapur. So, after I applied for a meditation course in Lumbini and they told me they were full, I hopped on a bus last November and headed to Pokhara, a small city on a big lake nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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I found a little place tucked onto a hillside and near Phewa Lake. I finally had a kitchen. There was a hammock. The view was phenomenal. I was going to be there for two weeks, alone except for a couple evenings sharing drinks with my Airbnb host and a visit from a friend I met in Kathmandu.

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It was just what I needed, I thought, after all the hustle and bustle of India and a frenetic week in Kathmandu. In the first few days, I congratulated myself on finding the best and most beautiful place to write. Because that’s what I was there to do.

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It was about the fourth day that I faltered.

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “I’m writing blog posts, but why can’t I write fiction? I’m journaling each morning, but why do I still feel so heavy?”

I don’t know what it was, but it was then that I dug up a shard of memory: Paul. Continue reading “A Grief Remembered”

What to Do, Kathmandu?

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

“What to do, Kathmandu?”

My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.

I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

I wanted to know what Kathmandu would do. What anyone could do in the face of such odds. Continue reading “What to Do, Kathmandu?”