Are You There God? I’m Coming Of Age (Again)

When I was in middle school, I attended a writing camp every summer (which already tells you how many friends I had). And every single morning, to start our day, our counselors would teach us a new word. One that’s stuck with me all these years is the Welsh word “hiraeth.” It’s a word for which there is no English translation, but one everyone can still feel all the same. It defines “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” I couldn’t explain why I was so taken with it then, but I found myself thinking back on it at odd times throughout the rest of my adolescence, and even moreso as I struggled in young adulthood to reckon with the divide between the life I’d been living and the person I truly was. And it was in those moments, finally, when I realized why it had resonated with me so much.

In less than a month, I’ll have my second birthday as “me.” Not just my second birthday as this me – as Zoë – but what feels like my second real birthday ever. Because I don’t think I ever truly lived until I came out; I merely existed, floating from place to place without ever being emotionally present, even if I was “physically.” In some ways, this is cause for celebration. I’m only going to be 24 after all. I (hopefully) have many more years ahead of me to live life “right,” at long last. But despite all there is to be hopeful for in the future, I still find myself stuck in the past from time-to-time instead, looking back at – and grappling with – all I missed. I have all these memories of a conventional American childhood and adolescence, but they don’t feel like mine. They’re wrong. I used to joke that Leonardo DiCpario might have implanted them Inception-style in my brain when I wasn’t looking to give me the illusion of having experienced your average Midwestern upbringing, but the one thing he forgot to account for was the emotion. There’s an inauthenticity to them that still remains. Because I grew up the wrong way.

I’ve (gradually) accepted that “not growing up as a girl” doesn’t make me any less of a woman, especially as I’ve come into my own physically and socially. That doesn’t mean my life has miraculously become “easy” overnight – it never will be, which is another thing I’ve gradually had to accept – but I know who I am and am proud of that, and I surround myself with people who see me the same way I do. However, for all the joy that comes from finally existing in my “fullest form,” there’s a constant melancholy I must combat concurrently. I first felt it when I started undergoing “Puberty Part 2” at the ripe age of 22, when I began HRT. My body was changing (yay boobs!), my emotions were all over the place (apologies to my roommates), and my sense of self was shifting by the day, as I continued to pick apart and piece together the entirety of my new identity and discover who – and what – Zoë would be. But though I was supported by so many throughout the start of my transition, I simultaneously had never felt more alone in my entire life. And that was because no one could understand what I was going through, since they all went through this years ago – when we’re supposed to.

I honestly don’t remember much of my first “phase” of puberty. I notice that more nowadays than I did as a child – my ability to hastily repress the hardest things I’ve ever experienced, without even realizing it. It was a skill I developed early, apparently. What I do remember is how it felt – the feeling that my body was becoming something it wasn’t meant to be, and something I’d never be able to change. I would stand in front of a mirror for hours on end overanalyzing all the subtle alterations to my appearance that developed day by day – my broadening shoulders, my (minor) muscle growth, my fine facial hair, and on and on and on – and try to will it all to stop, as if I somehow possessed the supernatural ability to reverse biology (if I did, I would’ve transitioned a long time ago). It was then too that I remember paying more attention to my diet than ever before, “experimenting” with disordered eating for the first time to maintain my thin frame (and unintentionally laying the foundation for even worse habits to come).

It would take six more years for me to finally come to terms with – and accept – my transness, but that didn’t stop me from envying my female classmates and their bodies (while refusing to interrogate or explore these feelings further). I continually compared my wiry, lanky physique to theirs, wondering how and why I’d been cursed with this flat chest and curve-less torso. It didn’t help too that most of my closest friends were women, so it’s all I was ever surrounded by. I wanted to share their stories and feel this experience alongside them, but I was kept on the outside looking in. It didn’t impact the intensity of our friendships at all, but I still couldn’t help but think that we were missing a crucial point of connection not being able to undergo all this together – this seemingly universal stepping stone to that ever-elusive “womanhood.” I felt like all my female friends were on one side of a fence, growing up and growing closer without me, while I was on the other, screaming to be let in where I belonged, but no one could hear me.

But our physical development is only one part of puberty. The other is social, as we try (and fail) to figure out who we are as people, both on our own and with one another. I won’t sit here and say I didn’t enjoy any part of adolescence or didn’t have any “normal” adolescent experiences, as I still did the “typical” teenage things – sneaking out, kissing boys, stealing alcohol (sorry mom and dad if you’re reading this one), etc. – but there was, most often, an emptiness I felt through it all at the same time, because it wasn’t enough. I was held back from ever actually pursuing most of my crushes because I’d had the misfortune of being a girl born in a boy’s body – something they weren’t attracted to. I didn’t get to go to Homecoming or Prom with them in the dresses I’d shop for online every night before promptly emptying my carts, knowing it was no more than a fantasy. Hell, I never even got to live my dream of being a cheerleader, as cliché as it may be – something I would’ve sought out without a second thought had I already been who I knew I was.

I got to hear all my friends’ stories – who they were talking to, who they’d hooked up with, how they’d done this or that for the first time, and stuff like that – but I never had anything to add. When we weren’t hanging out and making memories together, I stayed at home and kept to myself for the most part, hoping it’d all fly by faster (yet simultaneously feeling guilty for feeling that way since these were supposed to be “the best years of our lives,” and I was merely moping through them). Of course, crushes/relationships/what have you aren’t everything – not in adolescence and not in life in general – but they’re still such a huge part of how we come to better understand ourselves and how we relate to others, and this was an education I’d end up lacking. And even when I did “give dating a try” a few years later in college, every experience would be awkward and unfulfilling, because I wasn’t doing it with the right people or as the right me. So I just gave up entirely, accepting that love – that love – might simply be something I’d never know.

When I finally did come out last year and start to transition, there was an initial wave of euphoria stemming from my excitement over finally getting to do the things I’d long been denied. And even though there are still certain experiences that elude me – at least at the moment – much of that euphoria does remain. However, what I’d never anticipated was for the anguish of my youth to remain as well. Because, despite all the opportunities I have available to me now – socially, sexually, and so on and so forth – none can fill the void left behind by the aimless adolescence I’d endured on emotional autopilot. And only “hiraeth,” a word we’re not even taught in the English language, could explain what I was feeling – a homesickness for a home to which I could not return, and a home which maybe never was. The nostalgia, yearning, and grief for the lost places of my past. The mourning for the “right” adolescence I never knew.

I didn’t understand how film – and the coming-of-age genre in particular – fit into all of this until the last year or so, when I really started thinking and talking about how my past tied into my present and confronted my most complicated feelings about transitioning. It only really hit me when I realized how little coming-of-age films meant to some of my friends, compared to how they meant literally everything in the history of existence to me, even when I had grown far past the protagonists’ ages. Why was I rewatching The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, and Booksmart on a loop while some of my friends could see them once and be content? Why did I continually return to them for comfort, and know that, when all else was wrong in the world, they’d make it feel “right” again? Why was their relatability not reducing as I grew older, but instead remaining constant, year after year?

And because I think about everything in “movie terms,” the solution had to be described that way too, as I soon saw that I was stuck in a movie of my own – and the “time loop movie” at that – as I was trapped in an endless coming-of-age that had started around the time I turned 13 and hadn’t stopped. When I couldn’t look to my friends for mutual understanding as I continued to come-of-age well into my mid 20s, I knew that Nadine, Christine, Molly, and Amy knew how to navigate the storm that accompanies an adolescent’s erratic social and emotional development. And at the same time, while watching their stories unfold, I would imagine they were mine as well, vicariously living through them to fantasize about what my “correct” female adolescence would’ve been like. What could I have done? Who could I have been with? Would I have sent that text? Would I have gone to that party? Would I have told that boy how I felt? I’ll never have the actual answers to those questions, but these movies made my envisioning just a little bit easier – and stood in for all the time I’d had stolen from me.

This was also why Euphoria, for all its flaws, came to hold a special spot in my heart, and always will. I know deep down that I never would’ve transitioned in high school even if I could do it all over again; the town I grew up in was just barely tolerant of the handful of queer kids in our class, and I’m not sure they even knew what “transgender” was. But I still return to that regret of not having come out sooner here or there, wishing I could’ve avoided so much pain that would arise in the years to come and perhaps even put a stop to the male puberty that drove me mad day after day and has made certain things about my body irreversible. And so, not only was Euphoria’s Jules the first character that made me feel like “being trans” and “being happy” didn’t have to be mutually exclusive experiences, but she also allowed me the space to see what high school could’ve been like had I been the me I am today. Sure, it still wouldn’t be a walk in the park. But there was so much love and light in her life all the same – and I could never previously comprehend how much I needed to know that that was possible.

These were all films and shows set during high school – the time in which I’d felt I’d missed “the most.” But it wasn’t until I watched Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that I realized how much I needed a “middle school movie” too – something that could speak for the “early” adolescence I’d never known (and never would), when cis girls actually begin to become “women,” experiencing their first crushes and kisses, their first female friendships, and, of course, their first periods. I’d read the book before, so I was mostly aware of what I was in store for, but watching it unfold before me was something else entirely. To my surprise, I never knew I missed these moments before this movie. On the one hand, there’s a certain sadness that accompanies that awareness – being reminded of the biological differences between cis and trans women is always brutal, with my inability to ever carry my future partner’s child being one of my biggest insecurities – but on the other, what this cast and crew have created with this adaptation of one of the most foundational feminist texts of all-time is an inclusive odyssey that lets us all in on Margaret’s physical and existential evolution. She is us. We are her. And I was too.

It’s all so ravishingly and refreshingly real that it’s practically impossible to be a passive viewer not swept up in its thorough and tremendously textured storytelling, which gives us some of the most intricate insight into the female experience that I’ve ever seen on screen, no matter how old Margaret is. Its primary goal is most certainly to make girls around Margaret’s age less insecure about (and unsure of) their changing bodies and the difficult new social dynamics they’re encountering, but when it wasn’t even trying, it managed to also fill in some of the holes of my own history, allowing me to imagine my (right) 11-year-old adolescence for the first time and feel like a fuller person. Before, I didn’t even know I wanted that. And now, I can’t imagine living without it – and I’ll never forget that this movie gave that to me.

One thing that scares me about my ongoing transition is how long I must endure this “endless coming-of-age” (even if it is right there in the word itself). I often think about how my body will be different next year than it is right now, and how I might look back on 23 and 24 and mourn the moments I missed then too, while still in my earliest era of transitioning. But I’ve found that I’ve already started gravitating towards films centered around the chaos and confusion of your 20s as well – thank you Kicking and Screaming and Frances Ha – and started to sense a pattern emerging. When I first felt “hiraeth,” I’d hoped that someday, somehow, I’d stop feeling it eventually too. And slowly but surely, I’ve accepted that it’s something that’s impossible to outrun; even when it isn’t the first thing on my mind, it’ll still always be there, like a ghost haunting the back of my brain, unable to be eradicated or exorcized entirely. But I’ve found that film – and coming-of-age film in particular – has helped me fill in the blanks of those “lost places of my past.” And though there remains a “home to which [I] cannot return,” the ones these stories have given me are pretty good too.

You can read Zoë’s review of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. here on Next Best Picture.
Oscar Central’s review of the film can be found here.

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