By Daniel Holtzman
I got my dog Pepper last summer, and ever since then she’s been teaching me about miracles. Right now, she is resting her big head on my leg, nose against the laptop balanced there. She’s breathing deep and her belly is hot and waiting for scratches. I always knew that I wanted a dog, but I was embarrassed by the bareness of my desire – I wanted no less than constant love and contact, a warm weight against my body that would never grow tired of me, only drawing closer and more devoted over time.
Pepper, while sometimes a real piece of work, is also all of these things – quietly, and sometimes ecstatically. Whenever she throws her front paws onto my shoulders and I feel her heart beating against my chest, I am verklempt – overcome with the sense that I have exactly what I’ve always wanted. All I can do is squeeze her body and ruffle her fur, thanking God in the ways that dogs do – with delight made sweet not by the rareness, but the sureness of a need answered, again and again.
As Pepper and I have grown as companions, I have also been busy befriending my own body. After almost a year of taking testosterone, I can cross my arms and grip the solidness of the muscles there. I can feel my own vocal cords vibrating low and sure in my throat. But the euphoria is tangled, still, in shame. During the first few months that my voice began to change, each vocal crack and squeak felt like the raised eyebrow of a bitter parent. “Didn’t I tell you? That you were asking for too much.” Reaching too high, into the realm of things that, for many years, I only let myself think about late at night.
I remember standing in front of my mirror in middle school, drawing straight lines into my thighs and hips with a finger, tracing the shape I was sure I would never have. In elementary school, asking a teenaged babysitter when my voice would drop. Hearing only a laugh as an answer. Year after year, stealing the hoodies and heavy flannels my little brother was gifted for Hanukkah because I knew I could never ask for them myself.
Years later, when I finally realized that I could ask, the strength of my desires almost knocked me over.
For many trans folks, being able to speak these desires is a miracle. When I first voiced wanting a deeper voice as a child, I didn’t know that what I was asking was strange, or that other people thought it was impossible. When I finally voiced it again, I had spent many years learning that it was not the right thing to want. The fact that I was still able to ask, with some measure of hope, is extraordinary. Of course, the crazy things we ask for are often, simply, things we need.
When I first started transitioning, every change felt like a prayer answered. Honestly, it still does. Someone I love says my name. The shirt fits. Eighteen years after I first ask when my voice will drop, it does, hard and fast. I hear my voice resound, asking for things, making itself, and me, known.
These are miracles not because they shake the earth or defy the laws of nature, but rather because I was crazy and tender and hopeful enough to ask for them. I think part of what makes a miracle is not the answer but the question – being able to sense the edges of a desire and move towards it. Whatever invites our voice to ask, again and again. And what happens next can only be holy, because we dared to ask.
Once I did ask, I was answered with the extravagance of a dog parent, faced with their pet’s upturned and expectant belly.
I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” about her dog Percy:
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”
Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
Dogs don’t hesitate to ask for what they desire. They know that while “it would’ve been enough,” asking for more can be a kind of praying.
I need the cascade of miracles, the baffling abundance, the continuing jolts of everything that didn’t have to happen but somehow did.
I am learning that miracles can be both astonishing and mundane. My body provides me with exactly what I need in exactly the right moment of my life. There is nothing more miraculous or more natural.
Still, I sometimes can’t believe they’re letting me get away with all this. Maybe that’s the human in me – doubting, gaping. I was only supposed to be born, and named, once.
For Pepper, though, and for Percy, there was never any shame in asking, or uncertainty that the goodness would come raining down. Dogs don’t know miracles as miracles. Of course the sun will keep shining, they think. Of course the waves will reach the shore, again and again. Why wouldn’t they?
Philadelphia resident Daniel Holtzman is the editor in chief of New Voices.