by Ashten Shope
It feels like my body is spinning, barreling toward no destination in particular, as I walk. My thoughts are flung out by the centripetal force of my spin as my sympathetic nervous system takes over and guides my footfalls. I grasp the door handle of the East Carolina University Art Gallery and step inside. On my right are ceramics and resin pieces. My eyes land on two resin vaginas, one red and one gold. I look into their labia as if they are the eyes of great hurricanes. I turn away and look at the piece I came to see; I make landfall. The white curls and swirls and twirls of garbage capture the rhythm of my mind as I stare into the eye of the sculpture Remember Me, Katrina.
The sculpture is made of used plastic coffee lids and other plastic refuse, swirled and curled into massive vortexes that hang on a wall in the gallery. It’s named after the hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast back in 2006. I was living in Baton Rouge at the time, a young child still lost within themselves, battling the internal storm that seemed to be blowing me apart as I continued to grow – life raging against the dying of the light; these were the growing pains of gender dysphoria. The sculpture is mesmerizing; but, what makes it so beautiful is the fact that this massive piece of art is made entirely of trash, which speaks to who Katrina was – a hungry quagmire of wind and rain that turned a lot of treasure into trash. Now, with this sculpture, this edificial altar with Katrina’s namesake, trash is turned back into treasure.
When I was living through Katrina’s landfall, huddled in a windowless bathroom with my parents during her climax, I began to wonder if I had caused it. There was so much turmoil within me surrounding my identity that I thought, perhaps somehow, the feelings that were ripping me apart on the inside had spilled over into the world. The storm within myself made me view myself as trash, while the corporeal hurricane outside turned my home to trash as well. Remember me, Katrina? Your kindred heart of darkness. We were two vortexes swirling around trying to find ourselves, our place in the world, while destroying everything we touched in the process.
The aftermath left in Katrina’s wake was incredible. New Orleans took the brunt of her arrival and was decimated by her stay. My father was a lead coordinator for the relief effort and would drive to New Orleans every week to lend a hand and oversee the recovery work. I went with him once. We arrived at a checkpoint near the Ninth Ward and I stepped out of the car and eyed the destroyed neighborhood. Structureless foundations of what used to be homes and family-owned businesses stretched as far as the horizon. Nothing was left, not even the bones of the lives who once lived there – desolation was all that remained. My father and I made our way to the only building still standing, an old stone church converted into a command center.
“Not everyone was as lucky as we were,” my father said to me. He was right, we were lucky. We still had our lives and our house was still standing, but I didn’t feel lucky. I felt responsible. I felt like I owed Louisiana some sort of apology for the maelstrom that still blew within me, for the storm that a had somehow birthed from my wombless body and released itself into the world.
Years later, I finally started my own rebuild. I was twenty-two years old when I got my vagina. Reincarnated, I breathed for what felt like the first time. I was a born-again person, a born-for-the-first-time woman, and a dead man walking. I had to die in order to live. I had to embrace the turmoil of transgender rebirth, tear open the soft velvet of my pelvis and push through the storms of the dysphoric life I knew in order to thrive.
The wholeness that came with my body finally matching my brain brought clarity to the places that had none before. It felt validating to finally be able to look in the mirror and see the woman I was always meant to be staring back. This is a strange dynamic to describe. For a transgender person, the brain develops dissonantly to the body. The frailty of genetics and hormones causes the opposite gender identity to manifest. For the first two decades of my life, I constantly fought against my inauthentic flesh in order to function. May 23, 2017, I awoke in the recovery room of the North Carolina Specialty Hospital. The hurricane that had raged within me for so many years had finally passed, and I felt like, for the first time, I could begin to rebuild my tattered life.
However, even though the storm of gender dysphoria was over, the evidence of its rage was still present, much like the devastation in New Orleans after Katrina. There are still challenges. That church-made-relief-center remained closed once the recovery effort ended, the surges of gentrification reclaiming it. I, a bishop’s daughter, have been excommunicated from the church because of my transition. Some changes are just too hard for some people to adjust to. Since Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico now has the highest concentration of plastic waste of any other body of water. There will always be consequences to every storm. But yet there is still a hope for recovery. The city of New Orleans has cleaned its streets; the broke neighborhoods, once desolate wastelands, are now beautiful neighborhoods. Even though the church has rejected me, I am still loved by my family; we were lucky because we held onto each other through the storm. The Gulf of Mexico is still polluted, but the state of Louisiana has put a recycling effort in place, and an artist even made a sculpture to help.
One of my favorite poems is “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas. It vehemently commands that we rage, rage against the dying of the light. This poem comes to my mind whenever I think back to the storms in my life, and when I stood in front of that swirl of coffee cups I thought about the rage of that hurricane and the rage within myself. I thought about the sound of the wind as it uprooted trees and tore off roofs; I thought about the sound of my voice as I came out to my parents and raged against the storm that had raged in me for so long. The command was clear: rage, rage against the dying of the light.
After it all, I wish that I could say I’m completely healed and put back together. That the storm is over, and the levies rebuilt, however that wouldn’t be the whole truth. But, even though Hurricane Katrina showed me how devastating a storm could be, she taught me that storms are finite. They’re recoverable. The devastation doesn’t last forever. There will always be brokenness to put back together, and even though I’m broken, even though my pieces are scattered in the wind, I’m still here; the storm has not claimed me. But, even though the storm no longer rages within me in the same ways, I’ve found that a new rage has been sparked. I’m still raging against the dying of the light. The rage of destruction has been replaced with an energized rage to rebuild, to recover, and to keep the light shining. The hurricanes that come into our life don’t just rage to destroy. I’ve learned that the turmoil they bring sometimes ends up being the very turbulence necessary to interrupt the stagnancy that keeps us from growing. The destruction they bring, devastating as it might be, wipes the slate clean for a new beginning. This was the lesson in the swirls of used coffee lids and in the rage of a poem. Do you remember me, Katrina? Because I remember you.
Ashten Shope is a graduate student working on her M.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at East Carolina University in North Carolina. Having published her first book, Wild Horses, at age fifteen, she has chosen to pursue her passion for writing after stepping away from medical studies.