You can’t recognize a phoenix until it is burning. A phoenix never knows if it will survive the burn. In a year it forgets that it burns, that it’s a phoenix, so it doesn’t worry or anticipate it ever happening again. I’ve never radically transformed into anything or anyone, but I know folks who have. And I’m not talking about Leonard. I called Angela at short notice and she came to my house in three hours. “I told work my mom was sick,” she said, getting out of the car. “They let me have the week.” She was 28, black, trans, working in student admissions in a college across the state, but now, she was here at my house, rubbing hand sanitizer into her palms. “What are you doing?” I asked. “You said this was a birth. I need clean hands.”
Just having someone to talk to who has transitioned in any way is a help to a phoenix. “It is not the trans experience, exactly,” Angela told me after I explained what was happening to my guest, that we didn’t know who or what they will become, “but I can understand someone needing to talk through radical change. I run a group for people in life transitions—any life transitions. I’ve found that all transitions have similar touchpoints.”
I introduced her to Caroline, who ran a pet store, a mother of grown sons, who’d come all the way from across the country. “I felt drawn,” she said. I told her that was the effect my mother passed down to me so that folks in need could find me. She also gave me the ability to see fire forming around Caroline already. That’s how I knew what was happening. I offered them both something to drink while they talked. “How long have you felt like you weren’t the person you were supposed to be?” Angela asked. Caroline said, “Only in the last few months.”
Phoenixes incarnate as humans to have human experiences. But then part of themselves remember who and what they were and the tug becomes too strong. “I find myself standing in the pet store after hours, in the dark, listening to everything around me, all the chattering, the barking, the fish tanks bubbling, as if I lived outside.” She looked at Angela. “And it feels right.” She’d seen a psychiatrist; they gave her anti-depressants, anti-psychotics. She talked with a therapist. “I have dreams that I am flying. I’ve always had these dreams. But I can’t fly.” She looked at us. “Can I?”
Angela said, placing her hand on her chest, “I’m trans, and I counsel other trans men and women as they come into college. I also work with people in life transitions. So,” she looked at me, “I don’t know if sharing my story will help your transition. But if I can tell you about my bridge, then it might help you cross yours.”
Angela told her story about her life before her transition, “Nothing reflected who I was back to me. But I knew. I knew who I was.” She told us her story of telling her family, her friends. “Ultimately I defined who I was,” Angela said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone thought they knew before. What I knew before mattered more. And so I became who I always was, and made the outside match my vision for myself.” She paused. “Caroline, what’s your vision for who you are?”
“I think…” she looked at both of us, “I think I’m beautiful.” Angela said, “Oh hon, you’re beautiful now.” She shook her head, “No, beautiful like a bird– with red feathers and a long tail.” She paused, as if anticipating how we might think she was crazy.
I said, “That sounds wonderful.” She said, “You don’t think I’m crazy telling you I’m a bird.” Angela looked at her, “Him? He sleeps with a Yeti. He doesn’t have anyone else’s definition of crazy.” We laughed. Caroline said, “Wait, what?” We laughed again. I said, “It’s okay. I have a lot of experience with strange things. I believe you. In fact, I think I know what kind of bird you might be.” While rare, sometimes the phoenix in its human form will turn back into a phoenix, finished for a time being others, and content to be itself, taking all that it learned from a former life, and bringing that into the new version of itself.
I told her about a phoenix. She was not scared. She was relieved. She needed space to talk, to think about what a transition might mean to her family, to her job, and she and Angela talked into the night. They stayed for three nights, and in that time, Caroline grew feathers, and one day she had a bird’s head. “I’m hideous!” she cried. Angela held her hand, “It’s not all going to come at once. You won’t be satisfied with how you look—but it’s part of the transition.” She cried for hours, “I can’t go back, can I?” Angela asked, “Do you want to?” She said, “No, I have to find out who I can be.”
The fire. I had almost forgotten about the fire part. When she started to burn, she was startled. It happened during the early morning hours, before the sun had even risen. Angela and I rushed her out of the house. Angela stayed with her on the back patio. I fire-extinguished the guest bed. When I got back to them, Caroline was saying, “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. I’m excited about who I’m going to be.” Angela and I stepped back as the light became too bright to look at, and a rush of wind, and then flying in front of us was a beautiful red feathered bird with a long tail—a phoenix.
“Caroline?” Angela asked. The phoenix looked at her, and when it spoke it sounded like fire roar, a rush of wind and flame. “I am Caroline and DeShawn and Xin-Yue and Rebecca and Lily and Hans.” Its wings flickered like fire, and its tail danced up and down, side to side. “Thank you, Angela. You made this transition so much easier for me. I did not have counsel like this before. It was sometimes very frightening. I was very alone. But I wasn’t frightened this time.” She looked at me. “Thank you, Yukon. If you are alive when I transition again, I will find you. I must now go to Caroline’s family and tell them who I am.” And with that, her great wings flapped and helped her rise into the air, as the morning sun had already done before her.
Angela said, “I know so many people who are phoenixes. Born out of fire. They may not change into a bird, but they are just as magnificent when they transition into who they are.” She squeezed my hand, and we watched the phoenix move now like a slow comet, bright, blazing, back into the sky.