Grounded and Good!

I was in Chicago last week for meetings of the Union of Affirming Christians and the QCF Conference.  It was cold. When I’m in Chicago I am either freezing or sweltering.   Chicago needs a temperature makeover.

On Thursday evening I went to dinner with eight friends at an Italian restaurant near my hotel. We had a private room with a large screen TV on the wall, playing an endless loop of an old movie shot on the Amalfi Coast.  The movie starred Clark Gable and Sophia Loren and there were a lot of scenes with a young kid.  One time he was smoking a cigarette.  There was no sound so the plot remained elusive.

On Friday I interviewed the Executive Leadership Team of QCF in the morning’s main session, did a workshop with Jonathan, hung out with a friend in the afternoon, and headed out.  By the time I got to Left Hand Church for services on Saturday evening, I’d almost forgotten I’d been in Chicago.  It was a quick trip.

Church on Saturday was absolutely wonderful and, as is usually the case, grounded me in the ritual I need to thrive.  Knowing where I will be at 5:00 PM every Saturday is important.

Our TEDWomen talk was released on January 7.  Eight days after its release, the talk has been viewed over 650,000 times.  My TEDxMileHigh talk has been out for a year and has been viewed over 1.75 million times.  The TED talk has done in a week about a third of what the TEDxMileHigh talk has done in a year.

I had my season of obsessively counting media views.  The pleasure centers of the brain like watching counts climb on social media.  But the time comes, sooner or later, when the counts slow down and fewer people come up to you in airports thanking for you for your words.

Even if you happened to have been one of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century, eventually your movie career becomes an afterthought on the wall of an Italian restaurant, glanced at occasionally by a woman whose senses have been dulled by her second glass of the house red blend.

Do my children even know who Clark Gable is?  Sophia Loren is 84 and in a wheelchair.  I only know that because I just looked her up online.  Clark Gable and Sophia Loren are all but forgotten.  And what about the kid smoking the cigarette?  His name was Marietto, and he’s 71 years old now.  I hope his lungs are all right.

Jake Halpern writes in his book, Fame Junkies, that given the option of being a United States Senator, a Fortune 500 CEO, an astronaut, a university president, or an assistant to a star, twice as many American middle school students said they would prefer becoming an assistant to a star than any of the other jobs.  Let’s be clear about this.  They did not choose being a star.  They chose becoming an assistant to a star, carrying their bags, ordering their groceries, booking their haircuts.

Donald Trump is president because Mark Burnett knows how to turn marginally capable humans into stars.  Burnett, who is now a born-again Christian, doesn’t have a problem with what he ultimately did by placing Trump in The Apprentice.  He was just chasing views, counting his way to higher ratings and a bigger bank account.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that our TED talk has done well.  But it is far too easy to become enamored with even relative fame.  It is fleeting and fickle.  Fame is anything but grounding.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind, says religion gave the human race the ability to work together beyond the level of blood kin. Specifically, two elements of religion gave us that capacity.  The first was the ritual of religious practice, which serves as a steadying force in people’s day-to-day lives.  Second was the strength of the relationships that developed within one’s religious community.  Religious ritual and deep relationships allowed our species to thrive.  They still do.

Last Saturday evening at Left Hand Church was amazing.  Jen preached a bold and daring sermon.  Heatherlyn, Jason and Ben crafted a beautiful worship experience. Jody did a combination communion meditation and stand-up comedy routine that brought the house down.  But it wasn’t just the service itself that made the evening electric.  It was the depth of relationships that are developing at Left Hand.

Jen wrote about it in her blog post in our church email yesterday:  “I am moved and encouraged by your stories – both victorious and difficult.  You do hard things and emerge on the other side.  None of this is easy but all of it is beautiful.

The machine of celebrity uses you up and moves on.  I do not mean the people at TED or TEDxMileHigh.  They are wonderful!  I mean the machinery of social media and entertainment.  They were not created to serve human souls.  Left Hand Church serves human souls.

Left Hand Church invites you to live fully, embracing pain and happiness, joy and sorrow. If you want doctrine to matter more than life, we are not your church.  If you want tight boundaries instead of expansive love, we are not the church for you.  If you want to decide who is in and who is out, then you’d better look elsewhere. If you want celebrity pastors and fog machines, ditto.

But if you want to be rooted in the rich soil of lives authentically lived, then head on over to Fourth and Kimbark at 5:00 on any Saturday.  We’ll be there, waiting for you.

 

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TEDWomen 2018 – Goodness Reigns, Love Wins

My TED talk came out yesterday.  As of this moment, it has had over 300,000 views in less than 14 hours.  I am a bit overwhelmed.  Jonathan and I are thrilled with the response.  It is an honor to share our story. I have put a link at the bottom of this post.

Our entire week at TED was a phenomenal experience, especially the extended time we were able to spend with the other speakers and TED staff.  Six weeks after TEDWomen 2018, there is one memory that stands out above all others.

The resort at which TEDWomen was held was a massive and beautiful complex nestled against the mountains outside of Palm Springs.  Walkways and manicured gardens ushered you from one lush location to another. I often found myself on the path from my room to the green room and nearby practice rooms reserved for the speakers.

On the way to the practice room I walked through a corridor with the registration area on the left and a waiting area for the entrance to the theater on the right.  The corridor was always bustling with activity.

The afternoon before the event began, the TED staff had been in the theater watching rehearsals all day, giving thoughtful advice and last minute suggestions.  Our rehearsal in the theater was over, but I was headed back to the practice room to meet Jonathan and Briar, our TED coach, to go over the talk one more time.  As I hurried through the corridor I saw a woman standing outside the theater door, leaning against the wall, looking intently at the screen on her iPhone.  I stopped to watch.

I could tell the woman was talking with a child, and not just any child.  She was talking with a child in whom she took great delight. Her eyes sparkled and she laughed heartily at something that was said.  Though the commotion around her was relentless, she was oblivious to anything but the screen and its precious image.

She spoke to the child.  If I listened intently, I might have been able to hear what she was saying, but that would have felt like a violation of sacred space.  There was an invisible boundary around her that begged for respect. I just watched.

I later learned she was talking to her child before bedtime back in New York.  Mom was in no rush, and I am sure the child knew it. Everything on the mother’s face said, “There are no two people in the world except you and me, right here, right now.”

The scene was touching under any circumstance, but to me,it had special meaning.  The mother holding the phone was Helen Walters, the Head Curator for TED.  Here was this woman who carried the burden of the programming of TEDWomen on her shoulders, yet she was attending to her child as if that child was the only person in the world.

I loved being a father, and when you watch the TED talk, it will be obvious that I adore my son. I always have, just as I adore my two daughters.  But as much love as a father might show his child, he never has the look on his face I saw on Helen’s face.  Only mothers have that look.

It is the look of a woman who knows every curve and ridge of her child’s body.  It is the look of a mother who discerns every subtle nuance of her child’s mood, and anticipates the child’s need before the child even knows to have it.  What I saw was the adoring gaze of a mother who loves with abandon, and treasures every moment in her heart.  Many of those memories will be pondered years later, maybe as her child goes off to college or gets married. Who knows?  Once a child is grown, there is often a far away look in a mother’s eyes, as she ponders those treasured moments from long ago.

When Jonathan and I practiced on the stage at the TED office in Manhattan, I got pretty emotional giving the talk aloud for the first time.  When we finished, there was applause and encouragement and suggestions. But in the middle of it all, Helen stopped everything and said, “Paula, are you all right?” She saw my tears and knew that I was, in fact, not all right.  I knew at that moment that I could trust Helen and the people at TED who took such good care of Jonathan and me.

There are times we get so caught up in the speed of this world that we miss the precious moments hidden in the corridors.

This is what gives me hope.  In spite of all the narcissism and self-serving madness in our corridors of power, we humans are going to be all right.  As long as mothers tuck in their children, whether near or afar, goodness will reign and love will win.

And now, our TED talk:

About That Glimmer of Light

The New Year arrives with bursting fireworks and great anticipation.  We hope for grand new insights, momentous opportunities and obvious pathways.  But the year never plays out that way.  What actually arrives is a glimmer of light on a road less traveled, suggesting a faint path forward.

Yesterday would have been my 46th wedding anniversary.  It is never an easy day.  I have written consistently and appropriately that my family’s story is theirs to tell, not mine.  I was pleased when Jonathan asked me to respond to five chapters of his book, She’s My Dad, but he was under no obligation to do so.

There was no proper or improper way for my family to respond to my transition.  They each needed to do whatever they needed to do.  That is still and will always be true.  When I was negotiating the life rights for a feature film to be made about my life, I only had a few conditions.  One was that I did not want any of my family members portrayed as the antagonists. The antagonists have been the evangelical church, and others who show little respect for the civil rights of LGBTQ people.

Jonathan’s story and mine have intersected fairly often over the past couple of years, as we work together with the WITH Collective of progressive churches.  With our TED talk being released this coming Monday, we are getting speaking requests.  We will be at the QCF Conference in Chicago on Friday, January 11.  Cathy and the girls have chosen to be more private, and I appreciate all of you respecting their privacy.

I loved being married, and I loved parenting, and I miss that part of my old life.  But like I said in the TED talk, I have always trusted that the truth sets us free.  Free does not mean easy or without pain. Trusting the truth is not easy, but it is good.  And the authentic journey offers little gifts along the way, reminders that we are not alone.  One reminder arrived a couple of weeks ago.

Every year, the robins return earlier and earlier to the foothills of the Rockies. Last year they came in early January. This year they arrived the third week of December.  Maybe they knew the holidays would be hard and wanted to give me a really early hope of spring.  Last year there were just two robins.  This year I am pretty sure I have counted six.  I know some people might say it’s just global warming that has them this far north this early.  I think not.

Any time you are in a winter season, there are always signs of spring.  The challenge is having eyes to see them.  No pie in the sky suggested here, just a willingness to keep looking, as you are able.

For me, the glimmer of hope has been robins, friends, family and co-workers.  The last three are always torchlights, blazing a path forward. The robins are there for the dark days, sipping from the waterfall off my patio.  The motor that keeps the water falling is its own little miracle, running non-stop for 11 years, pumping water, quenching the thirst of the early robins.

As they stopped for a drink, I took a picture of two of the robins yesterday. They are not obvious in the photo. You have to let your eyes rest on the picture for a while.  They were my glimmer of light on what is always a hard day.  The robins, and the good friend who checked on me early in the day, and the other friend who texted late in the evening to send a picture of socks with words on them.  I’ll leave it at that.

The robins stayed close to the waterfall all day.  Every time I looked out they tilted their heads and peered into the glass. They reminded me I was not alone.  We never are alone in these things.  We just think we are.  We humans have a tendency to think we are dying of thirst when we are standing in the middle of a crystal clear river, water rushing around our ankles.

The robins are nowhere to be found this morning.  They knew when they were needed. Today they are probably just outside a neighbor’s window, peering through the glass, with their sage wisdom.

Interview on Colorado Public Radio show, Colorado Matters

 

An extra post this week.  In the spring of 2017 and again later that summer, I was on the popular Colorado Public Radio show, Colorado Matters.  That summer appearance resulted in my TEDxMileHigh Talk.  Today I returned to Colorado Matters for an interview with Ryan Warner to talk about what has happened since.  The picture above was taken after the interview ended.  Here is a link to today’s interview:

http://www.cpr.org/news/story/paula-williams-has-lived-life-as-a-man-and-a-women-now-she-advocates-for-gender-equity

Wrapped in The Fabric of Love

I preached a sermon this past weekend about Joseph, the husband of Mary.  I talked about unsung heroes.  I am grateful for the heroes who keep me grounded. A lot of accolades have come my way over the past couple of years, and there is not a day that I do not give thanks for the dear souls who keep me on track.

We are social creatures.  In spite of the American myth of the rugged individual, we were made for community. Even God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are in community.  I’ve always had this image of them sitting on the shore of a mountain lake around a warm campfire, a full moon rising in the distance, and a couple of trout on the fire. (Hmm, I think I just described an imaginary Terry Redlin painting.)

The three are talking about life in the world of ordinary time, and the people whose lives they have observed.  The Spirit says, “You know, Paula Williams has had a lot of opportunities in the last year.  I’m glad she has Cathy and Jen and Christy and David and Aaron and that whole cloud of supportive heroes.  She’s been unusually blessed.  But then we have expected a lot of her, being transgender and all.”  Then Jesus says, “Yep.”  That’s all Jesus says.  Men use fewer words.

I sometimes feel a little embarrassed by the wealth of support I receive from so many.  I feel embarrassed because I still struggle.  With the kind of friends I have, you’d think I wouldn’t struggle so much.  I don’t think I’m stretching the truth to say that without my dear friends, I am not sure I would be alive.  Transitioning is not for the faint of heart.  And when you’re a church leader, it’s worse.  People vilify you.  You’re not a person; you’re a category.  They could care less about your humanity.

Then you get a modicum of fame, and even more conservative people start taking shots at you. They send you emails and Facebook messages and comments on your blog and you try to protect yourself from seeing them, but some sneak through and they always sting.

Which brings me back to the unsung heroes, the people who have decided I’m worth loving, even though I’m often so needy.  They see the toll it takes to be so visible in so many places, and they secure my grounding.  They hold me in their hearts.  They prop me up when I can barely stand, goad me when I just don’t want to stand, and stand back and smile when I am holding my own.

I look over every now and again to see if I’ve exhausted my unsung heroes.  Sometimes I have.  It pains me. I try to act like I’m stronger than I am, but they know me too well and you create this vicious cycle.  Me, wanting to give them a reprieve from glancing my way to gage the condition of my spirit.  Them, seeing that I suck at hiding much of anything.  And yet they keep loving me.  I am truly blessed.

Among my blessings is being included in a book by Daneen Akers, Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints.  Sarah Wilkins did the illustrations for the book, and her illustration of me is included above.  I’ve got to be honest.  I like it a lot.  Daneen told me the scarf is a symbol of my faith.  I also think the scarf is the fabric of love wrapped around me by all those heroes who keep me grounded and make me whole.

I Believe Hope Is Winning

I am having a hard time with the jumble of emotions bouncing around in my heart like a load of laundry.  I’m getting thrown every which way, struggling to keep any sense of equilibrium.

The TEDWomen2018 talk was exhilarating, but tiring.  To follow that up with the panel at TEDxMileHigh, followed by Jonathan’s book launch in Brooklyn on Thursday, followed by preaching at Forefront Church this past Sunday, was all a bit much.

I flew to New York last Wednesday, and on Thursday evening Jonathan and I headed to an event center in downtown Brooklyn for a photo shoot for an article that will be published this week in the New York Post.  Then we watched over 200 people stream in for the launch of She’s My Dad, Jonathan’s book about his response to my transition.

Jonathan spontaneously asked if I wanted to do our TED talk for the crowd, so we hopped up on stools and without a hitch repeated the words we had spoken in Palm Springs seven days earlier.  It is probably the last time we will do the talk live, so it was wonderful to do it for such a responsive crowd.

As if the book launch itself wasn’t enough, over a dozen people from my former life were there.  Well, 15 people to be exact.  I notice these things.

Five years ago, almost overnight, I lost almost all of my work and church-related friends, as well as a lot of extended family members.  When any of those people show back up in my life (without judgment or an agenda) it is time for celebration.  It is difficult to have your life’s friendships split in two – to lose hundreds of friends overnight, and to have to build new friendships from scratch.  It’s doubly difficult to do it at my age.

Among the 15 were several of Jonathan’s lifelong friends, people I’ve known since they were in elementary school.  I also visited with a couple I worked closely with at the Orchard Group for over 20 years, and another friend who also served with us back in the day.

I saw two nieces I had not seen since transitioning, and five pastors of Orchard Group churches that were planted in the last 10 years.  It was exhilarating, and tiring.  Whenever I meet someone from my old life, my discernment skills go into overdrive as I try to determine whether or not they are comfortable in my presence.  For many, it is a difficult reunion, and I can almost always tell.  These people were instantly supportive, one and all.  Time and again I was moved to tears.

The party ended around 10, and continued at a bar in the neighborhood.  I didn’t go to the bar.  Exhausted, I headed back to the apartment to relieve the babysitter and head to bed.  I slept soundly.

Friday morning Jonathan and I took the train into Manhattan to do a podcast with a female executive who was at TEDWomen in Palm Springs.  She leads peptalkher, a company that works to bring about pay equity.  On the podcast, it was so satisfying to hear Jonathan’s words about the discoveries he is making about gender inequity.  He has not had the visceral experiences I have had.  His knowledge has come through hard work.

Saturday was spent finishing my sermon,  because on Sunday morning I preached at Forefront Church.  Before the first service I connected with two more friends I had not seen in over five years, a Long Island couple I dearly love.  They know what pain looks like, and they are full of wisdom and grace.

Then I preached for both services.  It might have been the most exhilarating part of the last two weeks, but it also might have been the most draining.  It felt like one of the better sermons I have preached.  I have preached different versions of this particular sermon before, but this time was special, at so many levels.

The title of the message was, “Lost Is A Place Too” and Forefront is a church full of people who know exactly what I was talking about.  They are people who have gravitated to a post-evangelical churches because they are honest and authentic and can no longer abide by doctrine that does not pass the common sense test, let alone a hermeneutical or exegetical test.  These are people who have suffered at the hands of the evangelical church, but still they are here, full of heart, working out their spiritual lives in community.  Time and again I was moved to tears.

Sunday morning also stood out because it was the first time I have preached in an Orchard Group church since I was let go after 35 years of service, exactly five years ago this month.  I am afraid I have not yet begun to process all the emotions related to that.  I am pretty sure a lot of tears need to be shed, but I’ll wait until I’m in a safe place before I let that happen.

After church on Sunday I met with Linda Kay Klein, a friend who wrote the best selling book, Pure, about growing up in the purity movement of the 90s.  We enjoyed a leisurely lunch, talking about the joys and fears related to putting your story out there for the whole world to see.  I told her, “Never read the comments.  Whatever you do, never read the comments.”  The book is excellent.  (Gloria Steinem wrote an endorsement and Linda was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.)

Because I needed time alone, I walked all the way back to Jonathan and Jubi’s apartment, where I spent the evening with the girls putting together gingerbread houses that are now proudly displayed near their Christmas tree.  The evening was heavenly.

Yesterday morning I walked the girls to school and hugged them goodbye, grateful that they are not yet old enough to refuse a hug in front of their friends.  Then I made my usual stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and came back to the house to pack and leave for LaGuardia.  Jonathan and Jubi came back from the gym and we talked for about five minutes.  He expressed his thanks for my willingness to come, and I left pretty quickly, before I broke down in sobs.

This has been a hard journey, and it will continue to be.  But I believe hope is winning.

 

Well, That Was Quite The Week!

How do you respond when you are asked to speak for one of the most prestigious speaking events on the planet?  You say yes. That’s what you do.  Then you start preparing for TEDWomen2018.  You write, rewrite, and write again until you have a script that says in 12 minutes what you and your son took 202 pages to say in a book.

You fact check, just to be sure, and edit one more time before starting to memorize. You spend every waking moment working on your script, because some things can’t be fixed in post-production.

You fret over what you are going to wear and over the rehearsal that went great this morning but really shitty this afternoon.  Then you look into the theater where you will speak.  And if you’re a seasoned speaker, your heart drops a little, because you are afraid it is not a speaker-friendly room.  Creating energy in the space will be a challenge.

But you forget about that pretty quickly as you start meeting people.  The first are your fellow speakers who have arrived early for rehearsals.  You have meals together and are a bit star-struck.  You get to know the TED staff a little better, and you’re thinking they were all Fulbright Scholars by the age of 12.  And now you are utterly and completely intimidated by all the brilliant women in the room.

You go to bed the first night thinking, “There must have been another Paula Stone Williams they intended to invite.  You know, the one who got a 1600 on her SATs and went to an Ivy League university before she discovered the cure for the common cold.  Surely they invited the wrong Paula.”

The next day you meet the rest of the speakers and now you are doubly sure there must have been some curious mistake that brought you here.  Because you are in a room with a person who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and with the theoretical physicist whose first ever observations of cesium atoms demonstrated a connection between chaos theory and quantum entanglement.  Then there is the civil rights activist who founded the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez.  And the woman who…well…you get the idea.  By noon of the second rehearsal day you’re quite sure you just need to pack up and go home.

But you realize these people are as interested in talking with you as you are in talking with them, and it starts to occur to you that maybe there is a reason you are here among these amazing people whose bios have some kind of “Top 100 in the World” honor on them.  You still don’t know exactly why you have been included, but you accept it as a reality, which gives you the ability to turn your attention away from your ego needs and toward the things that matter.

You realize the majority of these women are unique, in that they have great confidence coupled with great humility; a lot of ego strength without much ego need.  You remember you spent most of your life with powerful white men, who when they came together, started positioning themselves for power.  But that is not happening in Palm Springs.  Everyone is in this together.  The group is collaborative, not competitive.  These women work from a sense of abundance, not scarcity.

By the end of the second day you are thinking, “Oh my goodness, these people are going to change the world.  They are changing the world!  There is hope!  These women are holding it in their hands! And, oh wait, I’m one of them!”

As for the actual TED talk, I guess Jonathan and I did all right.  I can’t speak for Jonathan, but I was not at my best.  We both asked a lot of ourselves and I was a little disappointed with what I delivered, though the attendees were wonderfully responsive.

It is a complicated thing to do a TED talk with your son, and have the talk focused on the pain you brought into his life and the lives of the rest of your family. It is hard to practice, over and over, the words that express the pain, grief and loss everyone experienced.  It is hard to lay it all out there in front of the women in the theater and women from all over the world who are watching the simulcast.

I came home Friday night, spent Saturday speaking on a TEDxMileHigh panel in Denver, followed by evening services at Left Hand Church, and then went home to watch the raw speaker’s cut of the video.  (And before you ask, sorry, I can’t share that video, and no, I do not know when the edited version will be available.)

Saturday morning and again Sunday afternoon I kinda fell apart.  But I am the luckiest woman in the world because I have friends who hold space for me when I fall apart, and let me cry on their shoulder and speak the words only those who love well can speak.  And then it’s Monday and you are back at work again, and it all feels like a dream.

So that’s what I did since my last blog post.  I spoke for TED and I came home and fell apart and was loved by people who are not much bothered by me falling apart.

Come to think of it, being loved well by those friends might have been the most important thing that happened all week.  Thank you Briar and Jen and Mara and Nicole and Jason and Cathy and the other person who knows who she is who loved me so well in the midst of her own great pain.  You are all the reason this authentic journey is full of such joy.