Relearning is challenging for the aging brain!
It is sadly true that, as one ages, the brain become less adaptable. New languages are harder to acquire, for example, but that doesn’t even begin to encompass the difficulties inherent in the aging brain. For instance, years ago I knew how to tie a bow—any bow; ribbons, shoelaces—so that it was always perfectly straight and equal. I could do this without thinking. Now I must stop before tying a bow to intentionally review the technique that prevents it from coming out lopsided and uneven.
So it’s often with trepidation that I approach all the new nuances of language and interaction. I find pronouns (and their accompanying verbs—how does one connect the pronouns formerly of multiple reference, they and them, with their attached verbs? Does one use “is”, for instance? Or “are”? But I digress….) The real problem is, of course, that for upwards of 67 years, I’d used only she/he, him/her. Relearning the use of a pronoun of multiple reference to indicate an individual is essentially to learn a new language, and therefore (as an aging person who can’t always remember what I ate for breakfast today), challenging.
Never was this made plainer to me than when I, in 2021, decided to revisit a church that I’d briefly attended years before.
Unfortunately, the non-denominational churches which I preferred were no longer available to me; the area where one was located had deteriorated badly, and I felt uncomfortable going there alone, while another had closed completely. Of the two Unitarian Universalist churches that I might have chosen, one was distant and almost devoid of parking, while I found the other to be sadly unwelcoming to newcomers.
So I decided to revisit a Christian denomination church I’d briefly attended, recalling it as a place of teaching, rather than preaching, an ecumenical lesson.
The church seemed much as I’d remembered, and I found a lot to appreciate in the “kindness and courtesy” message. The congregation was invited to a reception after the service, and I decided to attend. A welcoming committee noted new faces, and I was handed off to a small group of people of varying ages who fetched me a cup of coffee and kindly invited me to sit with them.
I noted one member of the group whose gender seemed indeterminate. Clothing, hair, face—nothing gave one a clue, and I, confused by a series of quickfire introductions (never my strength, anyway, putting names to faces and remembering them), couldn’t recall having been told the individual’s name. Conversation in the little group flowed easily, though, so I avoided putting my foot in my mouth by the simple expedient of not addressing the individual directly.
But when I went to pour myself another cup of coffee, one of the group members accompanied me and said softly, “I just wanted to mention that we’re all very careful of pronouns for Chell.”
I’d just taken a sip from my fresh cup, but somehow managed not to spit coffee all over myself and my companion. “Chell”, you see, was the slang that all my older Italian relatives used for “penis”. Coughing, I windmilled one hand for my companion to continue while choking out the words, “That’s an unusual name.”
“Their deadname is Chelsea,” he explained. “But here’s the thing: Chell can’t stand to be misgendered. If you use the wrong pronoun, they’ll cut you out entirely—refuse to speak to you or even acknowledge that you exist.”
“I see,” I said slowly. “Well, thank you for warning me. I would not want to upset, uh, Chell.” (Nor chuchee nor ookee, either—and, no, I don’t know how the words are spelled; I just know how to pronounce my family’s Italian slang and the various body parts to which the words refer!)
I returned to the group, but kept to myself the thoughts churning madly in my brain, which had nothing to do with this individual’s unfortunate choice of name. My deliberations went more along the line of, “Well, Chell is obviously too young to comprehend how challenging individuals of my age find it to adapt to this mangling of English grammar as was once beaten into us by ruler-wielding, knuckle-slamming nuns. And, honestly, if Chell wants to cut me dead and loftily ignore me, rather than gently correct any misuse of a personal pronoun, well, I’ve been dumped by better and more important people over the course of a long lifetime. And what was that in today’s message about making the choice to be kind?!”
Not needing such dissonance in my life, I smiled at but didn’t interact with that group again in subsequent after-service coffee hours, and, finding I wasn’t really as happy with the church as I’d hoped, attended only a few more services before quitting entirely.
But, as I’ve said before in these essays: We really need a gender-free pronoun upon which everyone can agree; one which has never been associated with either female, male, or multiple reference.
And, for the love of heaven, if your name is Chell, don’t ever associate with old Italian immigrants!
You might also enjoy “We Need a Gender-Free Pronoun” from June 23, 2021. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.