Our story begins with a girl with long, golden hair just before a monk enters wielding a pair of cow shears. I’ve been sitting in the monastery bathhouse, mapping the pathways on my face that have brought me here: the angular lines that asserted themselves when I chopped my hair into a boyish pixie; the slopes softened by leftover baby hair from the years when everyone called me “Goldie,” short for “little girl with a golden curl.” The monk’s apology—“Couldn’t find the scissors!”—brings me back to the present.
In my spiritual tradition, renunciates—feminine and masculine—sometimes shave their heads, expressing an intention to depart from a universe where girls with long golden curls act as the sun. The ritual is a prayer to be drawn into the orbit of faith in which the sun is love itself, personified as Radharani, the feminine aspect of God.
But, when I watched my ponytail fall to the floor, I was surprised by the lurch in my stomach. The definite markings of my femininity would soon be swept into the forest, leaving uncertainty: How would I embody femininity now that I had chosen to withdraw from traditional feminine expectations? What form would femininity find now that she wasn’t serving an agenda outside herself? What was her agenda?
“Looks like Maya!” the monk exclaimed, referring to the pile of hair, noting that it looked like the mop-haired dog lying at my feet who was named after the Sanskrit word for illusion—Maya—one of Radharani’s many forms.
Maya, the energy that binds us in temporal affection, also means “to measure.” When femininity—the fountainhead of devotion—expresses herself in relation to possibilities that expand and collapse with the rising and setting of the sun, ironically, the ever-changing world she gestates in her womb appears from within itself as static, quantifiable, and knowable.
But as the outer identity Maya had nurtured fell away with a snip, I wondered: What had I built with my devotion to her? Perhaps the certainty of the female body I called home was nothing more than a sandcastle formed on the shore of an ocean of doubt. Perhaps I hadn’t built anything at all.
In my tradition, we perceive of Maya as a partial expression of God’s feminine aspect. While Maya is pictured meditatively as an unearthly, armored goddess, when Radharani is fully herself, she appears as a simple saint, her unweaponed arms raised in joy as she dances out of love for God. Like the ocean tide rushing and receding in response to the moon, Radharani moves in accordance with God’s innermost will. When femininity expresses herself fully, she appears as full faith.
In traditional symbolism, femininity corresponds with chaos. She is the ocean shifting over the unmovable ground of being, possibility enveloping objective truth, uncertainty enlivening the certainty of love. The more she becomes herself by devoting herself to God, the more her waters deepen. Full femininity, full faith, is the full, deep chaos of love.
Rituals seem to begin and end, brief as the bell tones that pulse through them like heartbeats. In the same way, acts of renunciation often appear to occur in a solitary moment, or in this case, in a single snip. But, if we conceive of the bell tone as the sum of all sound, a symbol of sound itself, then we understand the rituals encircled by its ring as eternal acts, eternal windows within time.
I was born in a female body, but the ritual of renunciation taught me that embodying femininity is an eternal process, woven between the tension of male and female forms. Little by little, like water, femininity fills me, takes my shape, moves me. As compassion personified, she inhabits even our sandcastles of doubt and nurtures them into solid homes. For her, every form is a vessel for faith. She knows that femininity is not female—not necessarily. Rather, femininity is our desire to dance with God.
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