There are more photos of me as a child in the water than anywhere else. Raised between the Everglades and the ocean, I spent my earliest days obsessed with swimming, with floating on my back, with the complete peace of silence under the surface. My cousins and I would develop elaborate water games and stories. We were merfolk, we were dolphins, we exchanged pebbles that we pretended were jewels for lessons in backflips.
I came by it naturally. My mother, who’d had me too young and was more like a bossy older sister, would show off her handstands and lung capacity. I’d wrap my arms around her shoulders and she’d kick off the sides of the pool powerfully, zooming around like a sea creature of her own creation. I’d hold on for as long as I could, then squirm to the surface to gasp in new breath.
We’re water people. Yet, I fled Florida as fast as I could. In my first week at college in Chicago, I convinced my dorm neighbors to walk to the beach with me. We sat on the cold September sand of Lake Michigan, my bare toes daring the water, and I felt a great loss for the land I’d left. My brothers were back home on canoes, motorboats, airboats.
I no longer even had a tub.
Years passed, I became a Midwesterner, the pull of the ocean quieted in me. I never went to the lake or public pools; the Chicago River was only a pretty slash across my commute.
Other things changed, too. I began to listen to my body, to learn to live in it in new ways. The words which had once fit around me — woman, lesbian — now felt like they belonged to someone else. I let it grow and shift and I tried to honor it. I went to the doctor and talked about starting testosterone. I joined a trans dialogue group and felt at home among these other people learning new words for themselves. I tried out different pronouns, different terms for my identity. I’m still trying them out, still testing for what fits. I practiced what I’d say to my colleagues, how I’d ask them to hold space for this news. I waited. I talked to a rabbi friend who said, “There’s an opportunity here. Honor this change.”
So, I booked a trip to the northeast. Mayyim Hayyim, which translates to “living waters” in Hebrew, is an accessible, welcoming mikveh (ritual bath) in Newton, MA. I’d recently gone through a Jewish affirmation process, confirming my Jewish life with three dips in a different mikveh, watched by a lovely attendant in Illinois, three wonderful rabbis signing the paper I now keep tucked into my sock drawer.
But this trip to the mikveh felt different. I’d never traveled by myself for anything but work before. I booked a bed in a hostel in Boston, confirmed with the attendant from Mayyim Hayyim that I’d be there before noon, and felt the nerves set in. I’m not that Jewish, you see. At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. Every year that passes I understand less what I mean. Certainly, a few years ago, I did not see myself as someone who’d fly across the country for a religious ceremonial bath. Who was I now?
I slept very little the night before.
The mikveh building is tucked into a corner of the parking lot of a synagogue. There is an archway that leads into a garden, which you walk through to arrive at the entrance. It all felt a bit magical. My hands shook as I pressed the buzzer.
I filled out a page of paperwork, made my donation, and was led to the preparation room.
Hineni. Here I am. The first step. I undressed, folding the men’s business casual clothing I’d worn to show respect for the appointment. I showered and scrubbed and made myself focus on each part of my body as I cleaned it, thinking of every inch of me as a gift. This is the body that brought me here. This is the body that left me in tears some days, but in that moment, it was exactly what I needed to carry me to that point.
I entered the room with the bath. The attendant had supplied me with their blessing sheet for a “gender transition milestone.” Standing at the top of the mikveh’s stairs felt like the milestone itself. I read, “The Hebrews are called ‘Ivrim,’ the crossing-over people. As we left Mitzrayim, the narrow places of Egypt, we transformed ourselves — a painful, yet redemptive, spiritual transition. So, too, do I cross through a narrow place, letting go of my own bondage, and moving toward personal freedom.”
Then, I entered the waters.
There are no words deep enough to hold the sensation of freedom. When you dip into a mikveh, your whole body must be submerged, no part of you touching anything but water. Held, perfectly, in between buoyancy and gravity for just a moment. And then you’re up, breathing again, new words of affirmation let loose from your lips, before once again returning to the water. And again.
“You have kept us alive, You have sustained us, You have brought us to this moment,” I spoke into the room. You, meaning “God,” whatever that word means. You, meaning the waters. You, meaning the fighting force that had pulled me through life, that I’d held onto like my mother’s shoulders.
And then I left, and began again.
Image via Zen Maldives/Unsplash