Phuket is a grandly spiritual place. It’s a place where one can live without anxiety, enjoy the moment, and own one’s own strength. It’s a place within, and within the grasp of all.
Several years ago, I was at a large pagan festival on a secluded mountain. There were woodlands, meadows, cave-dotted cliffs, and sandy beaches by a long meandering stream. There were cabins and campgrounds, roads and hiking trails, areas with loud music, areas with solemn silence, untouched nature and an RV park and coffee shops. Participants could choose just about any camping style they wished in hundreds of informal little communities that sprung up spontaneously. There was no official Crone Camp, but that was how I thought of the little group of former strangers who all happened to pitch our tents or car-camp in the same little area, near enough to the river to go swimming easily several times a day but right on the road if we wanted to go anywhere else on the shuttle. Shaded by large trees, far enough towards the outskirts of the festival grounds that hardly anyone but us ever walked through, and close to a bend in the river that made a nice, deep, cool swimming hole where we all took to skinny-dipping, in the kind of heat and humidity that nearly flattened even me, a person accustomed to the weather in the Mojave Desert, and blessed with the knowledge that we were at a clothing-optional resort, it did not take long before we all started treating our camp as an area where one generally put on full clothing only to go elsewhere. Our general uniform was big shade hats, sandals, and optional sarongs tied at the waist.
One day a young woman came through the camp. She looked around at all the topless and naked crones, and asked me, “How do you do it? How do you get comfortable enough to just go around so unselfconsciously? I’m an art model and I’ve posed nude for artists at college but I can’t seem to just be in my skin like all of you do.”
It was a good question. This is what I told her. “We’re all older than you. Everyone here is at least 40. We’ve been through a lot and worked out our issues.”
“Do I just wait, then?”
“No, you have to go through all the work, sorry. Whatever issues you have, you have to work on them, and then get through them. Here are the ones I had to get through. When I was a little kid, when I was introduced to new people I always told them ‘I’m a girl’ because my parents named me a gender-neutral name and sometimes people thought I was a boy, and it frustrated me. I fought for my girlness. But at the same age, when I dreamed, I was always male. I was never a girl in my dreams. My waking self and my sleep self were different genders. When I entered puberty, there was something wrong. I had life-threateningly long periods and grew more body hair than the boys and developed a round stomach and people told me I was fat, including my dad. I ended up in the hospital getting a blood transfusion the summer of 8th grade and had to take medicines from then on. I also had asthma and terrible eyesight and when I got to high school it was hard to find a P.E. course I could survive, and I was eventually put in weight lifting, which was previously exclusively for the football team. It turned out I had a natural talent for it and grew muscle easily, just like a boy. I studied martial arts and wanted to enter a martial arts fighting competition, but my dad said I could only do it if I could fight in lightweight division, and I started trying to lose weight and couldn’t no matter what I did. Martial arts tournaments of that time period had the women’s lightweight division cutoff at 119 pounds, and I couldn’t get there. I tried for years. Dad kept telling me I was fat and ugly, and no man would ever want me, but he was also sexually abusive to me, so clearly he wanted me. Then in college I finally managed to drop the weight but my style had been banned from the kumite for being too violent so I still couldn’t fight. My round stomach really stuck out when I was so thin, and people would ask me if I was pregnant, and people would also ask me if I had arthritis because my knuckles stuck out because I was so thin, and I had really painful periods and sometimes I fainted because I wasn’t eating enough, but because my stomach stuck out I thought I was fat.
“That only takes my story up to the age you are now. So then a couple of years after college I got my first boyfriend. One day I was reading a magazine and learned about child sexual abuse and I started having flashbacks and remembered that I had been abused by my brother from the age of five as well as by my father. I told my boyfriend and he dumped me. My body started growing a beard, and I fought it with expensive electrolysis treatments that were never as permanent as advertised. A man who claimed to be a pagan teacher took advantage of me and then I was stalked by his girlfriend while I was trying to move to a new city away from my family for a fresh start. Then I started bleeding again and it wouldn’t stop and I ended up in the ER again for a blood transfusion, and I was too sick to work and lost everything. I was diagnosed with PCOS, polycystic ovary syndrome. I found out the reason I had a swollen belly all those years, even when I was thin, was because of the size of my ovaries. The doctor gave me Depo-Provera to try to stop my period and I gained 60 pounds in 3 months. Weight gain and depression were listed side effects, I got depressed, started having flashbacks to the childhood sexual abuse, and ended up in a mental hospital. I was released the next day but not before being completely retriggered about my childhood abuse by being subjected to restraints and a strip-search. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror and because I had no money I couldn’t buy clothes and ended up dressing from the donation box at the mental health center where I eventually found help. I found a wonderful therapist and got over the flashbacks almost immediately and got help for all my other problems, too. But in a well-meaning attempt to help me feel better about my body, my therapist also gave me clothes and makeup and taught me how to use it and dress like a woman and I became completely female gender identified for the first time, which I’m sure was not really her intent. I started to identify with pagan goddess images like the Goddess of Willendorf. I made art and poetry about the goddess images. I fully integrated all the differently gendered parts of myself.
“Labels. I tried to find an appropriate label for myself. Am I slightly gender fluid? Not exactly. Was I born a little intersex? Not really, the PCOS did not affect me until puberty, although it is genetic. Mid-thirties, I got tired of fighting the bleeding all the time and had the NovaSure procedure, endometrial ablation by robot. That meant I was healthy enough to work full time for the first time in my life but I also had to give up on the idea of ever having children. After that I started having normal menstrual cycles for the first time ever, and I was able to stop taking hormones, and suddenly I had a libido. I had considered myself asexual, and suddenly I wasn’t. I started experimenting. After a couple of years the label I settled on was mostly female bi switch, except that my internal pendulum swung so much the label didn’t mean anything about predicting what I was feeling myself to be and to be attracted to at any given time. Eventually I just thought, you know what? I’m fat, and I’m basically a woman but with some characteristics of men, and sometimes I like one sort of person and sometimes another and sometimes nobody, and sometimes I’m uncommonly strong and sometimes I can’t walk, and no label really works all the time, and I’m just me. Labels don’t help when they aren’t handy, and none of them really are. And eventually I just said, you know what?”
“So how do I get to Phuket?”
“Just work on whatever issues you have until they don’t matter to you anymore.”
She thanked me and went on her way. So that’s the road to Phuket, and I hope that having shared it with you, you can be on your way to Phuket, too, if you want to be.
[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]