Listening Can Speak Volumes

I do not have much interaction with those who lean to the political right.  The majority want nothing to do with me.  While that makes my life easier, it also makes it difficult to serve as any kind of change agent.  And our nation desperately needs change agents.

I have had a few opportunities to cross the divide.  Four years ago I spoke for a university affiliated with my former denomination.  My time with students and faculty went well, but when the professors wanted to bring me back, they ended up having to retract their invitation.  I receive five-figure paychecks for keynote addresses at state universities.  I spoke at the Christian university pro bono.  I even paid my own way.  But I guess having me back, even at my own expense, was a problem.

I was tentatively scheduled to speak at another Christian university when they surprised me with the news that I would not be allowed to speak alone on stage.  I would be followed by a second speaker who “does not believe being transgender is a thing.”  I told the folks that under those circumstances, I would not be willing to come.  They asked why and I said, “You are following me with a speaker who is denying the legitimacy of my basic identity.”  They didn’t see it that way.

Since that time, I have looked at the conservative world from a distance.  Last week I followed a social media thread of an evangelical friend who shared an article by a Christian who said he was going to vote for Joe Biden.  My social media feed includes few evangelicals, so it was a rare opportunity to look at how evangelicals responded.  While many were supportive, an equal number were not happy.  A lot of those folks were former acquaintances, mostly men, and white.  An inordinate number were focused on one thing – abortion.

Bob Woodward’s new book is yet another clear-eyed account of the narcissist who lives in the White House.  But here’s the thing, not many of those who were commenting on my friend’s shared post said anything about Donald Trump as a man.  No one defended his character.  They already know Trump’s flaws.  They will still vote for Donald Trump.  One said he was willing to vote for Trump based solely on the issue of abortion.

I know this is my own subjective reaction, but a lot of these folks seem frightened.  Their vision of America is fading, and they are not happy about it.  No amount of revelations about Donald Trump’s self-serving narcissism is going to change their minds.  They will vote for Donald Trump because their vision of a conservative (and white) America is fading.

But of course, all of that is my opinion, which might well cause them to point and say, “See, exactly!  Just one more liberal who thinks they know more about my life than I do.”  My opinion is not going to change anything, nor is their judgment of my opinion.  So, what actually will bring about change?

I am convinced two words have the ability to bring us together – narrative and proximity.  If we are physically close enough to be able to hear one another’s stories, we can begin to bridge the divide.  That is why I have been willing to speak at Christian universities pro bono. It is why I continue to refuse to lash out at those whose vitriol arrives in my inbox every week.  As we have seen graphically throughout the west, fanning flames does not put out fires; it spreads them.

I will be voting for Joe Biden in November.  I am proudly serving on his LGBTQ Believers Advisory Group.  But even if he is elected, it will not solve this great divide.  Until we come together and hear one another’s stories, the polarization will only increase.  A decent man in the White House is a good start, but it will not fix this divide.  An increase in knowledge about systemic racism is essential, but it will not fix this divide.  Only compassionate listening will heal our great divide.  And listening is not easy.

It is especially hard for me to listen when people tell me I am a freak, an abomination to God, and fuel for their nightmares.  In fact, the truth is that I cannot listen to those accusations.  It is damaging to my soul.  But I can listen to those same people tell me about their families, and the fact that they are working three jobs and still not earning enough to stay afloat.  I can listen as they tell me how their religion gives them hope in the midst of despair.  I can listen as they tell me how frightened they are of things they do not understand.  Listening can speak volumes.

I am reminded of the truth Jonathan Haidt talks about in The Righteous Mind.  Humans will change our minds, but only if new information comes to us in a non-threatening way.  As every parent knows when they tell a bedtime story, stories have the power to calm our souls.  They remind us that every last one of us is searching for love and hope and meaning.

I would love to hear stories from those willing to hear my story.  I have no problem finding takers whose stories are similar to mine.  While that it is nice, it does not heal our great divide.  Until our story-telling crosses the political divide, we will not restore decency to the conversation.  And if we do not restore decency to the conversation, I am afraid this great experiment in democracy will be over.  I want to be a part of the solution.  I want to listen.

I Didn’t See This Coming!

Okay, I’ve finally figured it out.  There is a secret ingredient in estrogen that goes straight to your prefrontal cortex and tells you time and again, morning to night, that you are not good enough.  It’s sort of a birthright of being a female.

When I was a man, I cannot tell you how rare it was for me to question myself.  Kindergarten and second grade were rough. Junior high was tough because, well, it was junior high.  And I was transgender.  But the rest of my life was a breeze.  In high school and college, I was singled out as a student of promise and got all the attention that came with it.  Once I graduated from college, life was even better.  I got the jobs I wanted at the places I wanted.  I knew my weaknesses, but they didn’t seem to hinder me much.  I rarely questioned my abilities.  Then I transitioned.

In January I spoke at a company in Washington, D.C.  I told their Chief People Officer that I didn’t think I had done very well.  In March I spoke at a university and told Tori from my speaker’s agency, that I didn’t think I’d been at my best.  I turned in the second draft of my memoir Monday and told a bunch of friends I thought it was okay, just okay.

I met yesterday with the leaders of a conference for which I am speaking and when I got off the call I thought, “They’re probably wondering why they even booked me for this event.”  A small thing happened at church last week that left all three female co-pastors questioning themselves for, like, three days.  Then we had to talk about it, and talk.  It had to leave John, our other co-pastor, thinking, “What’d I miss?”

When I was a man, I never understood why women were so so often so insecure.  Now that I am a woman, I understand only too well.  Women are insecure because the world has made women insecure.  After six decades of unbridled confidence, just six years as a woman have left me with half the confidence I used to have.  It is not because I am transgender.  The only people who treat me prejudicially because I am transgender are evangelicals and right wing bigots and there are not many of those in my life.  Most people treat me like I am a woman and always have been, and therein lies the problem.

There are a lot of ways in which men treat women that cause women to feel less than.  Being treated as if you do not know what you are talking about, being interrupted when you speak and subjected to constant mansplaining are not exactly confidence builders.  Since my first TEDxMileHigh talk, I’ve heard from women all over the world thanking me for validating their experience.  We live in a patriarchal and misogynistic world.  But that is only half of the problem.  There is another reason women are insecure.  Women do not empower each other. They see each other as competition.

Women have been taught since childhood that they have to be perfect to compete with men, and they not only expect perfection of themselves, they expect it of each other.  Because there are fewer leadership opportunities for women, they are more territorial than men, and more inclined to see another woman as a threat, not an accomplice.  That has been an unwelcome reality of being a female.  It is a competitive female world out there.  But like many great truths, it is paradoxical.  Women are competitive, but they are also collaborative.

The female heads of state of Norway, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand have all successfully battled the Coronavirus.  They are empathetic, so their fellow-citizens are more likely to listen to them.  They are collaborative, seeing scientists as equals, not subordinates.  They compromise easily, make quick course corrections when they realize they are wrong, and have humility and confidence.  On the whole, I’m convinced women make the best CEOs and government leaders.  They are collaborative but make no mistake about it.  They are also competitive.

I’ve doubted myself more in six years than I did in the previous 60.  I’m serious.  If most women feel this way, and most of the ones I’ve talked with feel this way, then I don’t know how they’ve survived this long.

Or maybe I am completely wrong and have no idea what I am talking about.  Maybe the patriarchal world has had nothing to do with making us this way.  Maybe I was right in the beginning.  Maybe there is a secret ingredient in estrogen that goes straight to your prefrontal cortex and tells you time and again, morning to night, that you are not good enough.  All I know is that this doubting myself is just one more thing about being a woman that is nowhere near what I expected it to be.

I Know, I Know…

My deadline to get the second draft of my memoir to my editor at Simon & Schuster is Monday night.  I’ve been working on it pretty much nonstop for the last few weeks.  It has been mentally and emotionally taxing.  To have to go back to intimately painful moments and not just write about them, but also write about the emotions they stirred, is a little too much in the middle of a pandemic.  My mother died in November, my father in May, and it has not been an easy nine months at Left Hand Church.  Put it all together, and you might have noticed that you haven’t heard from me much.

First, the memoir.  I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to write a memoir for a major publisher, and I am definitely grateful for the substantive advance, but I am not a great writer and I want to write a great book.  My friends Nicole Vickey and Carla Godwin have helped me with the book, and both assure me it is good.  But I am not in pursuit of good.  You get one shot with a big five publisher, and I want to make it count.  Good I can do.  I’m finding great to be painfully elusive.

It turns out I can tell you pretty much every thought I’ve had throughout my life.  What I can’t tell you is what I was feeling when I had those thoughts.  Like so many men, I counted on others to tell me what my feelings were.  This week I keep waking up singing a line from Leonard Cohen’s HallelujahI did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch, I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.

I want to get it right in the telling of the memoir, but I don’t even know what right is.  I realize how often I counted on Cathy to tell me how I was feeling.  It was an unfair burden for her to carry.  When I transitioned and Cathy and I separated, I still wanted her to identify my emotions for me, but she lovingly told me it was not her job.  Unfortunately, I transferred it to one of my best friends, who finally took her leave.  Now I’m trying to feel and touch and we’re in the middle of a pandemic and I have a book deadline.

When your editor asks for more emotion and you write every possible emotion you can identify and still your former wife, on reading the manuscript, says, “I still don’t know what you were feeling,” and you answer, “It’s because I don’t know what I was feeling,” you start to question whether your book will ever get to great.  Which causes you to spend inordinate amounts of time on the book and stop writing your blog altogether.

I know I am not a bad writer.  I also know I am a better speaker than writer.  Even if I am talking into a camera instead of before a live audience, I have an easier time putting my feelings into words when I am speaking.  Which brings me to the church.

As with every other church in America, Left Hand has had to pivot to online services.  John Gaddis and I have carried the lion’s share of the preaching, and Heatherlyn has been there each and every Saturday singing her heart out.  We tape the services on or near John’s front porch, and much to our surprise, well over one thousand people watch the services every week.  Our real time viewers stretch from the Philippines to New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Ireland and England.  It turns out our people have a lot of acquaintances all over the world.  Well, that and my TED talk, which is again being smiled upon by the algorithm gods of YouTube.

In January I stepped down as one of the co-pastors at Left Hand but remained as teaching pastor.  Aaron left completely in January and to everyone’s surprise, Jen left in May.  This month we went back to a co-pastor model, with four co-pastors – Kristie Sykes, John Gaddis, Nicole Vickey and me.  We will work within that structure for at least the next year or so.  We lost some folks, but the church is doing well.  Most new churches face a crisis sometime in their first three years of existence.  It either kills them or makes them stronger.  It looks like it has made us stronger, which is a good thing.  But if you are a blog reader, it also has meant no blog posts.  Do you see a theme developing here?

And then there’s the death of my parents.  I’ve always been close to my cousins on my mother’s side, and Dad was the last of the parents from that generation to pass.  He was 96.  The first died back in 1981.  I was talking with my brother who said, “Now, it’ll be one of us that goes next.”  It was a stark reminder.  The truth is I’ve already lost one of my cousins, who I loved dearly.  But yes, we are the next generation to go.  It is not fun being reminded of your own mortality in the midst of a time when you are mourning the passing of your parents, in the midst of a pandemic.  Which again brings me to the blog posts.

I will write weekly again, soon.  I promise.  The book has to be done by the end of September.  Until then I’ll be sitting by the fire on my patio with my laptop in my lap, editing away, looking at the beautiful sunsets ironically caused by the multitude of wildfires burning in Colorado.  It’s a good metaphor for life – beauty amidst the burning.

My Hometown

It was an interesting weekend in my Kentucky hometown.  About 20 Black Lives Matter protesters, led by a student from my college alma mater, were confronted by 250 counter-protesters, including men on roofs with assault rifles.  The pictures in the newspaper were cringeworthy.  I probably should not have been surprised.  After I transitioned, I was told it would be better if I did not attend my high school reunion.  They said, “There might be trouble.”

I have not been back to my hometown since my mother’s death, when a few high school classmates, all female, talked with me about the state of affairs in our little town.  All were educated, generous-hearted, and I dare say fierce women who have worked hard to bring much needed education to their neck of the woods.  They reminded me that there are definitely two sides to my Eastern Kentucky home.

I am not going to mention the name of the town because the 250 counter-protesters represented only about one percent of the county’s residents.  They did not speak for everyone.  The county is 99 percent white, with a median family income of $35,000.  There are a lot of similar counties in Kentucky, most of them made up of people of Scots-Irish descent.  They have been fighting pretty much everybody for the better part of 2,000 years.  I love the way they are portrayed by the writer Chris Offutt.  These are Appalachian people, clannish and proud.  They have fought an inordinate number of our wars for us, have remained on the edge of poverty for generations, and tend to look unfavorably on outsiders.  And yet.

It is true, I have been rejected by a lot of people in my hometown.  When I went back for my mother’s funeral I was greeted by one sole man.  But a number of my mother’s female friends, all in their 80s and 90s, greeted me warmly, by name.  They did not misgender me, or speak unkindly, or gossip about me in the outer hallway.  They paid their respects to my mother, and to me.

That little Eastern Kentucky town nurtured me.  When I arrived as a 15-year-old from northern Ohio, people welcomed me.  From the owner of the five and dime to the school principal to the the radio station program director, I was offered opportunity and friendship.  I was loved and encouraged and told, “You are going to make something of yourself.”  Of course, I did get more encouragement than at least half the population, because I was a male.  But a lot of my female classmates received the same encouragement, if not the same opportunities.

I was voted most likely to succeed in my senior class, and I did, because of that love and nurture.  The bank president helped me understand the importance of managing finances.  The radio station chief engineer taught me how things worked in the real world.  My high school teachers were saints, earning next to nothing while giving their whole hearts to help us move beyond the limitations of our Scots-Irish Appalachian roots.  I love my hometown.  And yet.

My hometown also helped me become a racist, who stayed unaware of my racism for all of my male life and the beginnings of my female life.  It taught me that men were to lead, and women were to follow.  It was an insular culture, suspicious of government, post-secondary education, people from either coast, Roman Catholics, Jews, and, well, anyone who had come from afar.  And afar wasn’t far.  You could come from elsewhere in Kentucky or West Virginia or Southern Ohio and not be suspect, but outside of that, you were watched with a wary eye.  And yet.

I had a wonderful high school teacher who walked me through the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and why I should care.  My father and his good friend, the town physician, were always deep in conversation about the broader world and the complexity of poverty, and working with people where they are, as you try to move them in the direction of broader knowledge and understanding.  There was the young teacher who pretty much forced me to go to an honors weekend at a state university where I heard a Kentucky congressman talk about the idea of what America could be, if we dared to be great.

I had good friends who received the same kind of nurture and went on to become physicians and engineers and Fortune 500 CEOs and bank presidents and social workers and teachers and school administrators.  Many of them came back home to serve those who showed up as counter-protesters this past weekend.  They taught their mothers and fathers and know the fears that cause them to keep their families close and their weapons closer.

If this protest and counter-protest had taken place in any other small southern town, I would have thought, “Oh God, I’m glad I don’t live there.”  But it didn’t.  It happened in a town that shaped and formed me.  No, I would not want to live there now.  I am fortunate to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a transgender woman can be asked by a neighbor to consider filling a vacancy on the town council, serve as a pastor in a church that doesn’t pay much attention to my gender identity, and be positively profiled in local newspapers and magazines.  I get a lot of nasty mail.  I need to live in a nurturing place like Boulder County.  But I still love my hometown.

These are complicated times.  There are bad players with bad motives, but most people are just unaware or frightened or both.  Most of the counter-protestors this past weekend are not bad people.  They are just sadly uninformed.  What would it mean to love them well?  How might I make the kind of difference in their lives that causes them to see those 20 protestors as made of the same stuff of which they are made.  Today, I have no answers, just sadness.  The town that nurtured me well was not very nurturing this past weekend.

There are times I am not very nurturing either, times I am self-centered and frightened and just plain ignorant.  We all have a tendency to want to take the speck out of our sister’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own.  But we are all human, made in the image of our creator.  We all get misty eyed when we sing Amazing Grace, stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, and cry when our babies are born and our mother’s die.  We all want to love and be loved.

I don’t know how to fix this divide.  I am so tired of it.  And I do love my hometown.

Well Now, I Believe That’s a Fire

I’ve kinda been all over the place lately, from feeling hopeful to angry to frustrated to hopeful again.  In other words, my life during Covid-19 is going pretty much like yours.

Over the weekend the Washington Post played a video of a young Methodist associate pastor surrounded by an angry crowd that descended on Gettysburg because they heard Antifa was planning a flag burning at the historic site.  The pastor, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, was there to visit the grave of an ancestor.  His timing wasn’t great.  Looking for someone to confront, 50 right wingers surrounded the associate pastor, who recorded the encounter.  One guy said, “Just because you’re gay you think you can say this stuff.”  The pastor said, “No, I’m a Methodist pastor and my denomination does not allow that.”  The pastor was eventually rescued by a park policeman who suggested it might be in his best interest to move along.

The whole thing was surreal.  I can imagine a friend of the pastor asking, “What’d you do today?”  “Well, I was out minding my own white, straight and definitely not gay Methodist pastor business when I was surrounded by an angry mob.”  After watching the video, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while.  It’s taken about a day to process it all.

About a half hour ago, I came to my back patio to start writing this post.  Immediately I noticed a forest fire a few miles west on the east-facing slope of Coffintop Mountain.  Since the fire is nowhere near hiking trails or dwellings, I’m sure it was started by a lightning strike from the dry thunderstorm that blew through an hour ago.  The fire is definitely growing.  I just went inside and got my binoculars.  When you live in the foothills of the tinder-dry Rockies, forest fires make you nervous.

I feel better now because I can see helicopters dumping buckets of water on the fire.  When they release the water, it looks like a firehose from the heavens.  I’m sitting here fixated on watching the helicopters unleashing their Bambi Buckets.  It’d be nice if God put out fires like that.  You know, “Angry mob surrounds young pastor – God drops well-aimed 250-gallon Bambi Bucket. Video at 11:00.”

God is subtle.  I want God to make herself definitively known.  Buckets of water.  Well-placed lightning bolts, with captions running up each greased streak, “Do not piss me off!  Signed, God.”  I want to see God clearly at work in the middle of this madness.  I want God to speed up the development of multiple vaccines, including the cool RNA ones that are easy to reproduce.  Then I want God to require all anti-vaxxers to take courses in how to protect an entire species.  Or maybe you could take care of the right wingers and anti-vaxxers with the same required course – Identifying Trusted News Sources.

I know, I don’t sound very sympathetic, not even toward the associate pastor.  Since when is an appropriate defense, “I’m straight and you can believe me because I’m a Methodist pastor.”  That’s the best you could come up with, really?  Like I said, I’m not feeling charitable.   But hey, that forest fire looks like it will be coming across Hall’s Ranch any minute now before it burns through town and destroys my house, so this feels like no time to be diplomatic.  I need to get this post written before I have to fill my car with important documents and flee.

I preached last Saturday at Left Hand Church.  (You can always find a link on my public Facebook page – Paula Stone Williams.)  I suggested that America is not God’s favored nation.  I doubt anybody from the Gettysburg Antifa-fighters watched the message.  The truth is that God has not had a most favored nation for a few millennia.  But that does not mean God does not love America.  Truth is, I love America too.  In fact, my love for my country demands that I examine how she behaves.

In my sermon I suggested we can measure America’s progress by answering three questions.  How well are we loving the planet?  How well are we loving each other?  How well are we loving ourselves?  I found both good news and bad news in each of the three categories.

When it comes to loving our planet, I met an amazing TED speaker last week who is chronicling ancient tried and true green answers to everything from building bridges to treating sewage.  (You should look up “Root Bridges of Cherrapunji.) Another TED speaker noted that the number of people who believe America has a problem with systemic racism has doubled since 2016.  Sixty percent of Americans are finally getting it.  That’s a long way from where we need to be, but at least there’s progress.

I really am hopeful.  Yes, American exceptionalism has caused us to turn a global pandemic into a partisan divide, but on the whole, it looks like Americans are caring for their neighbors.  For the good of the cause, the entire country shut down for a couple of months.  That our federal government squandered that collective consciousness is not the people’s fault.  We did what we were asked; we focused on the greater good.

We are a story-based species, which takes me back to the Antifa-fighters and the pastor and the anti-vaxxers.  They each have a story, and you can tell from my snarkiness that at the moment I am not really open to hearing theirs.  I am angry, and I am not ready to give up my anger.  Which clearly means I am a part of the problem.  Of course, the truth is that we are all a part of the problem.  None of us will hear the story of another until we can make peace with our own story.  And that is hard work.

Teilhard de Chardin was rejected by the Roman Catholic Church.  But somehow, he remained willing to do the hard work, which is why he was given to writing lines like this: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Then again, maybe that’s not the best choice for a quote, considering the forest fire at Coffintop.  But the smoke is diminishing, for real.  The helicopters with their Bambi Buckets are doing their job.  The news just said the fire is under control.  Now, if I can just get the fire in me under control.

Very Good News, Indeed!

I was surprised by this week’s monumental Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights.  I cried when I read the headline in the Washington Post.  Unlike the two minority opinions, the majority opinion written by Neil Gorsuch was clear, cogent and consistent.  The discrimination to which I have been subjected is, in fact, about my sex.  I wish Aimee Stephens, whose job loss led to the lawsuit, had lived to see the decision.  She is a hero.

It is important to note, however, that the decision would have done nothing to stop me from being fired, because religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination laws.  The separation of church and state provides a safe haven for those who would continue to discriminate.  That is not going to change, at least not for anyone identified as clergy.  Evangelical churches might try to tell you that their religious freedom is threatened by this decision, but let’s be very clear.  It is not.

Nor does the decision immediately guarantee health care coverage for transgender people, something the administration withdrew this past week.  Nor does it immediately change the ban of transgender people serving in the military or guarantee fair housing across the nation.  The decision does not have any effect on employment in companies with fewer than 15 employees.  They are already exempt from Title VII.

When I mentioned my initial response to the decision on my Facebook account, there were a lot of comments and likes, over 500 and counting.  I even heard from a physician who was very kind to me on the day I was fired from the Orchard Group.  I am humbled by your encouraging words.  They mean the world to me.

The decision will not much affect my day-to-day life.  I am fortunate that I have found sources of income that are not dependent on my gender identity.  But I do have many friends and acquaintances who are greatly affected by the decision.  They are breathing big sighs of relief.

There are a lot of ways in which I am at a disadvantage as a transgender woman.  I do have to be concerned when I go to a new medical provider.  It is not always a positive experience.  When I travel outside the United States, I restrict myself to Western European nations and other countries with a positive history toward transgender people.  For my own safety, there are parts of the United States I avoid.  And for my own sanity, I stay away from evangelical churches.  But all in all, I do not face the same difficulties many other transgender people face.

I was a comfortable and successful white male.  As I often say, I brought a lot of that privilege with me.  I have a beautiful home in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.  I have a loving family, a wonderful church, and good friends.  I am able to earn a living doing what I love to do, preaching, speaking, counseling and writing.  While it is true that my income is a fraction of what it once was, I am still far more financially comfortable than most.  I am aware of my privilege every single day.

Twice a year or so, the views of my TED talks increase exponentially and garner thousands of views a day.  Cumulatively, they’ve had over 5 million views.  When their popularity soars, I hear from a lot of people who are considering transitioning, at least one or two souls every day.  I try to answer every piece of correspondence I receive, though I am usually unable to do more than provide a brief reply.  People often say, “Well, you transitioned, and it worked out well for you.  I’m thinking it’ll work out well for me too.”  I encourage them to be cautious.  I remind the people that I have been incredibly lucky.  A single TED talk changed my life in ways I never imagined and gave me a platform far larger than I experienced in my previous life.  I now earn four times as much for a single speech as I was ever paid for speaking when I was Paul.  That is not the experience of most transgender people.

A lot of people write and tell me how brave I am.  I very much appreciate their kind words, and I do know I am brave.  But my bravery pales in comparison to trans women of color, or those in Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East.  I am very aware of my blessings.

This week, a lot of LGBTQ people in the United States are breathing easier.  But until housing, healthcare and military service are added to the good news of this week’s Supreme Court decision, our work in the US is not finished.  And until LGBTQ people around the world have basic civil rights, and systemic racism is dismantled across the globe, we will be far from having the just and generous world this fragile planet so desperately needs.

Grief Observed

I have not written a blogpost for five weeks, which is about four weeks longer than usual.  The truth is that I am grieving.  I am grieving the loss of my father, which though expected, was more difficult because I could not be with him for the last days of his life, or have a funeral service, or be there for his burial.  It is difficult to grieve from a distance.

Last night I dreamed I could not find my father’s grave in the cemetery where he and my mother are buried, a cemetery I have visited since childhood, when my grandparents lived nearby.  In the dream I kept walking from grave to grave, growing more and more desperate as gravestone after gravestone did not reveal his name.  He died five weeks ago yesterday, and the last flowers are wilting from the many beautiful bouquets I received.  I want to keep them alive just a bit longer, a visual reminder of my grief observed.

In 2013 our town was devastated by a flood that permanently changed the landscape.  There are still areas waiting to be repaired.  In the first months after the flood, whenever I became weary of seeing the damage, all I had to do was leave the Lyons Valley and drive a few miles in the direction of normalcy.  Today there is no normalcy to which any of us can drive.

We know the major gateway through which grief comes into our lives.  It is through the death of a loved one.  The truth is that eventually we will lose everything and everyone that is dear to us.  A decision to love is a decision to grieve the eventual loss of that love.  It is inevitable.

But there are other gateways into grief, many that we are collectively experiencing now.  In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow – Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller describes five gateways into grief.  In addition to the loss of a loved one, there is the gateway of what we expected but did not receive.  We all arrive on this earth with gifts to offer the world to lessen its suffering, but as we journey through life, we are surprised at how often our gifts are not welcomed.  We begin life excited about the offering we might bring, but end up grieving that what we had to offer never found its full expression.

The third gateway into grief is the sorrows of the world, long ago acknowledged by the first noble truth of the Buddha – suffering exists.  The suffering we see around us now is for many of us, the worst we have ever known.  From the streets of Minneapolis to the ICUs of Elmhurst, Queens, our senses are overwhelmed with troubling news that ushers in great grief.  For millennia, we only received news that was local and filtered by our community.  Today, much of the world’s grief is a touchscreen away, confronting us over our morning tea.  As it makes us aware of injustice in the world, this is good.  But the human brain was not designed for the kind of neural bombardment we receive today.  We cannot bear all the sorrows of the world.

The fourth gateway to grief is grieving the love we have not known.  As we grow through adulthood, there are awful aha moments that arrive unexpectedly.  We did not receive the love we needed from those who had been entrusted with our care.  Unfortunately, all of us who live into adulthood discover we are still wounded children in adult bodies.  Our children also eventually come to understand that painful truth as we bring those wounds to another generation.  In family systems theory it is called Multi-Generation Transmission Process.  That is a fancy way of saying people who have been hurt, hurt others.  Hurt people hurt people.

The fifth gateway to grief is ancestral grief.  That is what we are experiencing now across America.  From Washington to Minneapolis to Hazard, Kentucky to Seattle, we are collectively grieving our systemic racism. Every white person in this nation has benefitted from 400 years of racism, and we carry that ancestral grief with us.  It is time to be more than allies. It is time to be accomplices, asking people of color, “What do you ask of me?”  Their ancestral grief is monumental.

It is difficult to find the strength to do that work when all the pathways of grief converge and overwhelm.  But we are stronger than we think.  We are more capable of change than we realize, and grieving done well is empowering.  Consider these lines from Naomi Nye:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing

You must wake up with sorrow

You must speak it till your voice

Catches the thread of all sorrows

And you see the size of the cloth.

On the Passing of David James Williams

My father, David James Williams, gently passed from this life on Sunday evening, May 3, 2020.  He was 96 years old.  Dad was born on January 28, 1924 on the banks of the Ohio River, in the town of Martins Ferry, Ohio.  He was the youngest of six children of a car inspector for the Nickel Plate Railroad and his wife, who baked the communion bread for their church.  Dad graduated from Kentucky Christian College in 1946, and over the next 43 years held ministries in Advance, Indiana; Huntington, West Virginia; Akron, Ohio; and Grayson, Kentucky.  In 1989 he and Mom retired to Lexington, Kentucky where they lived for the last 31 years of their lives.  Mom preceded Dad in death by five months.  One of the last things Dad said at her funeral was, “Time to go.  I’ll see you later.”  Later has arrived and I imagine they are picking up where they left off, after 73 years of marriage.

A few months ago, I bought a mug from Cath Kidston, though not your typical Cath Kidston mug.  This one had a western theme with a cowboy twirling a lasso while riding a bucking bronco.  Though I had no idea why, the second I saw the mug I knew I had to have it.  Monday morning, about 12 hours after my father’s death, a memory stirred.

My father was always busy.  I understand.  I inherited his need for movement.  On Saturdays he mowed the lawn, cleaned the garage, weeded the garden, swept the basement and washed the car.  And he did it all in a flannel shirt my mother absolutely despised.  The shirt was a black, white and red print of cowboys on bucking broncos.  I thought it was the coolest shirt in the history of mankind.  When dad was wearing that shirt, I knew no matter what he was doing, he would be happy to have me close by.  He needed the diversion I brought from whatever job he was tackling.

Dad was not all that handy.  My father had a knack for turning small repairs into major catastrophes.  When he tried to put up a pole lamp (a thing in the 60s) he somehow broke the lamp, cut the cord, and burned a hole in the carpet, all in a matter of about 30 seconds.  I mean, that’s pretty impressive.  And he did it all wearing that flannel shirt, and the grimace that went with it.  Whenever Dad used his hands to do anything other than type, he wore the same grimace, usually accompanied by a lot of muttering and a trip to the hardware store for parts that had somehow been destroyed during the repair process.  It turns out the grimace and its attendant mayhem are genetic.  I can type faster than a streak of lightning, but outside of that, my hands should be forbidden from attempting the simplest of household repairs, all approached wearing the same grimace, though not the same shirt.  My New York handyman, also a friend, used to say, “Why don’t you stick to earning your money speaking and pay me to put that shelf up for you.  You’ll save us both a lot of grief.”

I am pleased I share other traits with my father.  We both were way more interested in asking good questions than in finding answers.  We knew a lot of the big questions cannot be answered on this side of time and space, and are likely to be elusive on the other side as well.  We both found people interesting, all manner of people, and never encountered a subject that bored us.  If your passion was archery, we’d talk with you about archery for hours.  It left us both with a lot of basically useless knowledge.  Dad and I both loved the church, and though it sometimes treated us badly, we never lost our conviction that the good news of the Gospel is indeed the hope of the world.

Dad was a better pastor than I.  Everyone loved him.  He was gentle, approachable and kind.  He was not a great preacher, but he was a great lover of people.  And he loved me.  My father delighted in me.  Right up until the last two years of his life, he loved talking with me about theology, politics, anthropology, music, or any other subject that struck my fancy.  Dad was eternally curious.  He was also honest.  If I had a big problem and asked for his help, he often would answer, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you.  You’ll have to puzzle over that one on your own.”  I found that wonderfully freeing.  If my own father didn’t know the answer, it was all right for me not to know the answer either.  He gave me permission to say, “I don’t know,” and to realize it is often the most holy of answers.

One of the reasons I wanted to make it through life without transitioning was because I knew it would bring great pain to my family, including my parents.  Yet my father, who was 90 when I transitioned, chose to embrace me as me.  He had plenty of questions, but unlike most evangelicals, he was willing to listen and learn. Dad lived as though there was one truth that triumphed over all others.  I saw it in how he treated church members and strangers and all manner of humans, including his youngest child.  Dad believed that love wins, and every ounce of my own theology is born of that same conviction.

My father is being buried this morning, next to my mother, in the little cemetery in Grayson, Kentucky where my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousin are buried.  It is the cemetery just north of where my grandmother lived, the cemetery where she took us for picnic lunches in the cool summer grass when we were children, the cemetery where I rolled down the hill laughing and looking up at the cumulus flecked sky, reveling in the simple goodness of being alive.

When I think of those picnics, and the love my father showered upon me, and the mystery and wonder that this precious life is even possible, I am filled with gratitude, and carry on, in my own heart, the same firm conviction that breathed its truth into my father’s soul – that above all else, love wins.

Carl Jung described life as a short pause between two great mysteries.  My father lived his short pause to the fullest, a true gentleman, living joyfully, trusting in the slow and steady work of God.  Enjoy eternity, Dad.  I know you’ve got a lot of questions you want to ask and people you want to love.  And I hope that when you explore your new home, and look in the closet, you’ll find that flannel shirt waiting for you.”

It’s Raining in Colorado

It is my birthday and it is raining, which is a fine thing.  I moved to Colorado 14 years ago, not knowing that it does not rain on the Front Range between October and April.  Not a drop.  One year it rained for 10 minutes in February and people got out of their cars and looked at the sky and then checked the calendars on their iWatches.

When Cathy began teaching here, she got a blank stare from her third graders when she said, “April showers bring May flowers.”  They thought she might be slightly deranged.  I mean, her New York accent had already thrown them off.  “Wait, Mrs. Williams, how do you eat an ahrange?  What is an ahrange?  And there are no April showers.  There are April snowstorms.”

Two weeks ago it snowed 24 inches.  I had to use my industrial sized Mac truck of a snowblower, the one that warms the earth two degrees every time you fire it up.  Then lo and behold, just 15 days later I pulled out my Honda lawnmower to give my lawn its first cut of the season.  For the 12th straight year, it started on the first pull.  (That’s why you pay twice as much for a Honda.)

I needed the lawnmower not because of April showers, but because 24 inches of wet melting snow wakes up a sleeping lawn.  When I mowed the lawn yesterday, the lawn had no idea the coronavirus was going on.  It was yawning and wiping the dandelions from its eyes and grateful for the haircut.  It didn’t hear me muttering under my breath, “Yeah, you get a haircut, while my hair looks like I’ve been manning a remote outpost on a Pacific atoll since WWII.”

But back to this morning’s rain.  Colorado gets 300 days of sunshine a year.  And when I say sunshine, I don’t mean like Dublin, where they say, “Did you see that?  Over there?  The clouds parted for five seconds.  It was glorious!”  No, in Colorado we see the sun all day, 300 days a year.  When the rains finally arrive in May, we rush outside and watch the foothills turn green before our eyes.  The prairie grasses get all happy and  prairie dogs run around the fields hanging from lampposts, holding their little umbrellas.  It’s really cute.

You can’t see the mountains, but you know they are there because of those 300 days when you see them reaching out to touch the sky.  So, when the rains come, you take comfort in the mountains and their unseen stability.  Today is one of those days when I need that unseen stability.

The fox showed up in the backyard this morning, the red one.  He drank from my water feature because the water is fresh for a change, instead of the recirculated stale stuff that’s usually there.  He looked up longingly at the doves on the birdfeeder, then stared through the window as if to say, “You know, you could have put that birdfeeder closer to the ground.  Just sayin…”  Ever since we’ve all been quarantined, the fox talks to me a lot.  He’s lonely too.  Just the other day he was telling me about being chased by a mountain lion the night before.  I did not have much sympathy.  I said, “Well, now you know how the chickens feel.”  But I digress.

Today’s rain is misty, the kind I liked to run in when I lived on the south shore of Long Island.  It feels good on your face and breeds contentment in your bones.  Unlike a cold, hard rain, the mist quenches your soul’s thirst for all that is close in and nurturing and good.  These are hard times, with attacks coming from unseen forces, like viruses.  You protect yourself and trust in the truth of things.  You pull in and wrap yourself in a wool sweater and let the cool mist fill your lungs and pretend you are back in Dublin in an earlier time, before viruses and losses and such.

The doves left the birdfeeder and the robins returned, and I went out in the mist to refill the feeders and take a quick picture of the misty view to the southwest where the hidden mountains beckon.  When I got back in the house a Lazuli Bunting was eating at the feeder.  No, I’m not a birdwatcher.  I know exactly two Colorado bird species by name.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunting are here all the time, along with the Tanager family.  They all seem to get along well.  I think they vacation together.

Then I came back inside for my second cup of tea.  I’m drinking from the blue Cath Kidston mug a kind person sent me after my first one shattered on the kitchen floor.  The broken one is carefully gathered on a dinner plate that sits on my bedroom dresser.  I was going to glue it back together, but I actually prefer it sitting there broken into a thousand tiny pieces.  It reminds me you can be shattered and still be a thing of beauty.

I am going to go out running in a while, but I want the mist to be just right, Long Island consistency, drops large enough to kiss your face but not cause you to inhale any viruses.  Because, well, you know.

And so it goes.

 

 

Happy Spring!

I was doing pretty well during this time of isolation until it snowed 12 inches Sunday here in Boulder County.  The snow melted quickly, and by Wednesday afternoon most of it was gone.  Then Thursday it snowed another 12 inches, 24 inches in five days.  Boulder has had 151 inches of snow this season, breaking the all-time record for snowiest winter.

I spend most of my days writing my book.  The first draft is due to my editor in two weeks.  I’m getting close.  I’ve saved the most difficult chapters for last, because that’s what you do.  But I can’t write all day.  In fact, if I’m lucky, I can write five or six hours a day before my brain turns to mush.

I used to surf the New York Times and Washington Post during my breaks from writing, but I only let myself do that once a day now.  More than that is too much.  My first and third TED talks have been doing well of late, so in-between writing sessions, I sometimes check their views.  I know.  It’s pretty pathetic.  “Hey, I wonder how many people have looked at my red sweater and blue scarf and thought to themselves, ‘Really, she wore that in front of thousands of people.’”  I mean, what else am I supposed to do?  I live alone and there’s 12 inches of snow on the ground and it’s 26 degrees outside.  The highlight of my day is catching up on this season’s This Is Us episodes, which I do every night at 10:00, when what I want is a good cry.  It always delivers.  I’m spreading the episodes out.  I only have three left.

The newer TEDx talk is up to 175,000 views, which is nice, but it’s slowing down.  The first talk is inching close to three million views, though it is also slowing down.  It may be a few more weeks before it hits that milestone.  That’s a lot of views for a TEDx talk.  Views tend to rise and fall with the moods of the algorithm gods, but it feels pretty good to have both videos doing well.  That is, until I compare them with other videos.

The number one cat video on the Internet has had 174 million views, 58 times the number of views my first TED talk has had.  There is a great white shark with a GPS monitor on her fin who has over 130,000 Twitter followers.  Her name is Mary Lee.  I have like 12 Twitter followers.  Yeah, I think I’ll stop checking my TED talk counts.

I made a video today for Colby Martin’s new book Shift, about the difficult journey from condemning theology to generous theology.  I was excited.  It meant I could take a shower after riding my stationary bike in the basement.  Showers are when you get inside a glass box and water comes out in droplets all over your body.  It feels very good.  I used to take showers, in another life.  Then I put on make-up and sent a Marco Polo to my friend, who has been watching Marco Polo’s of me all week in which I am not wearing make-up.  I look like the “before” picture from a face cream ad.

Anyway, I put on light blue spring jumpsuit with a white spring sweater so I could make the video look like spring, even though the neighbor kids are sledding outside.  I’m going to keep it on all day because it’s spring, dammit.  So even though I have to get virtually naked every time I go the bathroom, I’m going to stay in the jumper.  Tomorrow I am going to wear stiff pants, the extremely tight ones you wear outside that are made of denim.  I am going to wear them just because I want to wear them.  Actually, I want to make sure they still fit because, you know, those M&Ms did arrive.

I want the snow to melt so I can go mountain biking.  But with the amount of snow we’ve had, the trail won’t open until, I dunno, August.  It’ll be way too muddy.  If I have to ride my stationary bike in the basement one more day, I might start screaming.  But that’ll be fine, because there is no one around to hear.  If a woman screams in her basement and no one is around to hear, does the scream make a sound?

Right now I can see three golden eagles outside my office window, circling high over the ridge just south of me.  They are riding the thermals up, then circling slowly down until they catch the next updraft.  The eagles came to remind me that there is nothing new under the sun, and this too shall pass.

Hang in there, friends.  Try on the stiff pants once every couple of weeks, check in on your neighbors, call the people who live alone, and trust in the hope of spring.

And so it goes.