She Showed Up

She Showed Up

By all outward appearances it was a successful life. I ran a growing nonprofit, served as an editor of a venerable magazine, taught courses at colleges and seminaries, preached in the rotation at two megachurches, hosted a national television program, wrote a few books and did a lot of other stuff befitting a Renaissance person at the turn of the Millennium.

But my life was not my own. It was handed to me in the cradle, developed in Sunday School, honed in Bible college, and encouraged by a lot of good people who would have panicked if they had encountered the real me. How do I know? Because they panicked when they encountered the real me.

A few years ago my long-term therapist said, “This one thing remains. It is time to find someone who specializes in its treatment.” In my first session with my new therapist someone in the room said, “I don’t think I want to transition to live as a female, but I do think I need to go on hormones.” I looked around and no one was there but the two of us, so I knew the person talking must’ve been me. A threshold had been crossed. Two years later I was on spironolactone to block testosterone and estradiol to give my body the estrogen it craved. My physician said, “Your body has great estrogen receptors. It’s been screaming for this stuff.” I had heard the screams since adolescence.

So, in the summer of my 63rd year I became Paula. I did not want my descendants to come to my grave and read, “Here lies someone who never showed up.” I decided to show up.

I knew a lot of people in the church. In the four months after I incorporated Paul into Paula, exactly 18 of those people got in touch to show their support. (Many more got in touch, but not to show support.)  I’ve met face-to-face with 8 of the 18. Eighteen of the maybe 6,000 church people I spent four decades getting to know. Doing the math, it seems I have heard encouraging words from roughly three tenths of one percent of the people in my Christian Church world.  As I said, I had good reason to keep the real me under wraps.

I have received some messages that were well meaning, but not exactly encouraging. One minister of a large church wrote, “I have to be honest. I would have preferred that you kept this private to your grave.” Another said, “It’s a shame you can’t have a memorial service for Paul, then just disappear.” There were a number of responses along those lines. These were all good people, overwhelmed, afraid maybe, concerned for me in their own way.

I find it ironic that I received a decidedly different response from my friends who are not affiliated with the church. Every single one of those people has chosen to accept the new me.  Every.  Single.  One.  I will let you draw your own conclusions.

In spite of the upheaval of the last year, my life is good. I am calmer, happier, no longer depressed. I still have my moments, particularly early in the morning. Poet Fleur Adcock wrote, “It is 5 A.M. All the worse things come stalking in and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.” When those moments arrive I know I am abiding in fear, not hope. Fortunately a good cup of tea and a bowl of Cheerios and I am back in the land of hope, ready to begin a new day as me, Paula Stone Williams, pilgrim on the human journey, recipient of grace, Ambassador-at-Large in The Kingdom of Showing Up.  All things considered, it is a good kingdom in which to dwell.

The End of Our Exploring

The End of Our Exploring

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost. Dante began his Divine Comedy with a sentiment for the ages.

About fifteen years ago I got lost while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a rare day for Colorado, cold and rainy. I was the only hiker on what they call an “unimproved trail,” a truly apropos phrase. Somehow I wandered off the trail onto an elk path and the elk were in no mood to tell me how to get home. I did what I had been taught to do. I backtracked until I found the trail.

I had a strong feeling if I kept hiking forward, following the elk path, I would run into the Emerald Lake Trail. My compass told me I was headed in the right direction, but the trail back was a sure thing. I took the sure thing. I was safe, but I did not get to Emerald Lake, one of the prettiest spots in the park.

When you are hiking alone and there are bears and mountain lions, it is probably a good idea to go back the way you came. After all, it is just a hike. Life, however, does not afford that option. We must go forward, even if going forward takes us down a faint, meandering elk path a very long way from home.

Like Moses and countless others who have set out on what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, this past year I left home. I would prefer to have departed with a detailed topo map, trails marked in red, instructions in the back for what you do when a mountain lion sees you on the lunch menu. Unfortunately, the kind of journey I am on does not include maps. I shouldn’t be surprised. When you leave home nobody gets a map, not even Jesus. A compass is all you get, and you don’t have a damn option in the world but to trust it, with its quivering needle pointed toward what you oh so desperately hope is magnetic north

Your mind is not your compass. Your heart is. Women are pretty good at trusting their internal compass. Men tend to let their brains do the deciding and brains know little about matters of the heart. Leaving home, of course, is always a journey of the heart. Initially you reject the call, sometimes for decades. Once you do leave home, you inevitably come to the place where you regret having left on the convoluted journey in the first place. But you follow that quivering needle through the long road of trials, and maybe you get through to the other side. Mark Nepo quotes an old woodsman who said the reason people get lost is because they don’t travel far enough. They lose their confidence and turn around, never knowing they were almost out of the dark wood, almost home.

Jesus answered his last public question by telling his listeners to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. He might have put the heart first because he was just in a mood. Or not. Maybe he put the heart first because he knew good and well that only the heart has the fortitude to keep on traveling through the long dark night. Only the heart truly knows the way home, even if it’s never been there before. And only the heart knows that when you do get home, it’ll look like it’s been expecting you. The light on the porch will be on and there will be a steaming cup of Darjeeling by the easy chair. As you pass through the doorway, the liminal space between darkness and light, you will be greeted by a comforting hand on your weary shoulder – just like the one on the son’s shoulder in Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal.

Since I changed genders I’ve been spending a lot of time lost on a very faint elk path. Sometimes I want to go any direction that will get me back to something I recognize. But of course that is the voice of reason, the voice of the privileged entitled life, the voice of the kind of control I knew most of my male life. And it will not do. No, the only route home is through the wilderness, over the road of trials, trusting the integrity of the journey to bring me to a place I recognize as home.

It was 1943, a time when home was so elusive for so many. In that unsettling year in the middle of World War II, T. S. Eliot wrote these words:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half heard, in the stillness

Between the two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always –

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well

And all manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

                                    Little Gidding V

                                    Four Quartets


Trusting The Flow

Trusting the Flow

Every day I hear the sound of water returning to itself as it falls and swirls its way over cold hard stones. The water is stuck in a perpetual cycle, falling downward only to be pushed back up. Like Sisyphus it rises and falls, going nowhere.

I walk down to the river toward unfamiliar places carved by a storm of biblical proportions. The river, more a stream most seasons, now meanders through fields where Black Angus once grazed. It makes its way into and out of its old riverbed, following the instructions of a fickle Mother Nature. I find peace in the river, even in its altered state. In spite of all the new twists and turns, the river still knows where it is going. The river is moving. The river is not stuck.

I was. Stuck, that is. I’d been through my own storm of biblical proportions and I felt more like the water feature in my backyard, cascading down only to be pumped back to where I began. I read the words of poet Mark Nepo: “Can you endure your uncertainty until it shows you another deeper way?” I did not like Mark Nepo.

Last spring I visited friends in New England. Though it was mid-March, the full moon cast its scattered shadow on fresh-fallen snow. David was not feeling well. Carol and I talked by the fire. She looked at the stuck me and said matter-of-fact, “You cannot go back. You have to let go.” Carol is a prophet. She tells the truth you do not want to hear. You hear it because you know you are loved.

I have to fill the water feature every seven days. The water, weary of its circular journey, gives up and evaporates. My babbling brook is not self-sustaining. It requires electricity to run the pump and a human to fill the basin. The water feature has to be handled. The river does not have to be handled. In fact, if you notice, every time the Army Corps of Engineers tries to handle any river they only make things worse. Rivers should not be handled. They should be trusted.

So, I trust the flow.  Occasionally I try to stand still and withstand the rushing waters, but I am learning that does nothing but exhaust body and soul.  I already know you cannot go back upriver.  Last week, on my blog at, I wrote about a hike long ago when I did go back.  And yep, sure enough, I did not get where I wanted to go.  Interesting how that works.  Only by moving forward, trusting the flow, do you reach your destination.

Raging storm or meandering stream, we all must let go and trust the flow. It is the only way to reach the freedom of the open sea.

One Step At A Time

One Step At A Time

Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, begins with these lines:

            One day you knew what you had to do and began

            Though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.

We are all subject to those cacophonous voices. Early in life we focus on mom’s voice, with every other sound fading into the background. In our formative years we listen to other authorities. I’ve always been amazed when NCAA basketball players clearly hear their coach from across the floor, when I can’t hear the person next to me in the same noisy coliseum.

Eventually we begin the process of differentiation. We become our own person, formed by our past experiences but now making our own way in the world. Some people complete this process by the end of their 30s. Others still have not completed the process well into their 60s.

When you are raised in a conservative religion, differentiation is difficult. You are expected to follow the rules – not just until you are 21 – but forever. The more restrictive the rules, the more difficult it is to differentiate. It is fascinating to see that attendance at the most restrictive churches is often far higher than it is at more liberal churches. Is it because the conservative churches hold the truth, as they claim, or because their congregants are frightened to invite mystery and complexity into their lives, and are therefore more likely to remain within the fold? Jungian analyst James Hollis certainly believes the later when he says, “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.”

In so many ways the clear boundaries of family and faith were nurturing for me, except when they were not. The church was of virtually no help with being transgender, the biggest struggle of my life. It did not help me when I was 20, nor when I was 30, nor when I was 50. The lack of assistance left me bereft. I tried talking with leaders in the church about my struggle when I was 20, 22, 25, 33, and so on. I was greeted with the typical responses you already suspect. “If you pray diligently God will remove this thorn in the flesh.” “Struggling with something like this builds character.” (That is actually true, though not in the way church people might expect.) “This is clearly wrong (Old Testament scripture offered) and you must fight against it.” The predictable list goes on.

What these superficial instructions do is drive an inquisitive young person toward the questions that have no answers – the ones that when asked cause your minister to reply, “Oh Paul, how could you ask that?” As if the person’s obvious displeasure should be enough to send you on your way, repentant. “Have I ever led you astray? You must trust me on this.” Well, come to think of it, I have no idea if you are leading me astray if you refuse to respond to the question I am asking.

Aware of my struggle, but before he knew of my transition, a person I deeply respect commented on my blog and quoted Wendell Berry. Jayber Crow, the protagonist in the novel of the same name, is struggling with difficult questions and seeks out a wise old professor who says,

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.'”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

Not until I was 30, when I asked a retired gentleman to become my mentor, did I have a wise older person like Jayber’s professor in my life. He knew my issue and never judged me for it. Instead, he gave me permission to see my struggle as the massively difficult issue it was. He said, “Your heart is steadfastly turned toward the truth. But in situations like this, in which the truth is so difficult to discern, you must join Pascal and trust your heart.”

A couple years ago I mentioned to my psychiatrist that I had written a 10,000-word journal about my struggle. To my surprise he asked to read it. After he finished the long document, he wrote, “Poignant, and painfully free of self-deception.” It seems wise people know the truth is hard to tell and the truth is hard to tell. It is difficult to discern and even more difficult to disclose.

For decades I attempted to integrate Paula into Paul. I was left profoundly depressed and deeply unhappy. Eventually my family doctor said, “Among the very difficult choices you must make, it seems transitioning may be the only one that is sustainable.” I did not want the doctor to be right. Finally, when I had no other choice, I trusted my heart and transitioned.

There were many things I did not fully understand when I began this journey, as is true with any monumental journey. Just ask Odysseus. When you transition everyone in your world is forced to transition with you, and none of them are excited travelers. But those who love you work through their struggles and remain in your life. The few who have done so are discovering what I am discovering. It is far easier for me to integrate Paul into Paula than it was for me to integrate Paula into Paul. That is a truth I can easily discern.

I have lost much and continue to lose much. I will not lie, the losses have been staggering. Have they been worth it? As my cousin Jane said, “Your smile says it all.” Continuing the journey has definitely been worth it, authentically trying to become the person God envisions, and allows me to form.

I know many of you will disagree, particularly that God might have envisioned Paula. But the time has come to stop writing and telling me, “Your soul is in danger.” I have considered your words for decades, and I am going in a different direction, one that is firmly formed by the kind of wrestling with God that comes through long suffering.

I do not know what the future holds. Of course, no one is privy to the future, one of the wonderful complexities of human existence. But I do know how I shall travel this road – one step at a time – and forward.

The Journey ends with these words:

             As the stars burned through the sheets of clouds there was a new voice

            Which you slowly recognized as your own

            That kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world

            Determined to do the only thing you could do

            Determined to save the only life you could save.   

And so it goes.