Hope Flowing Through Words

Hope Flowing Through Words

This week, while purging my computer of unneeded files, I came across a “making of” documentary about a television show of which I was an executive producer back in 2003.  I had not seen the show in over a decade.  It unearthed emotions.

As I have chronicled my journey from Paul to Paula, I have promised to be honest and authentic.  I have not talked much about my family, and I have edited a few nasty messages from the comments section, but outside of that I have written about the story as it has unfolded.  Lately the posts have been tough to write.  You might be tired of the hard ones.  I am.

This past week one of the human beings with whom I am closest said while they enjoy hanging with Paula, this whole thing has been brutal.  That word, brutal, is etched on my soul.  People who love me still suffer.

These people understand the life I was living was not sustainable. As one of them reminded me recently, “Trust me.  I was there.  You were not going to make it.”

For a long time, only three people knew what I faced.  They also know how close I came to losing my life.  All three have to remind me every now and again just how bad it was.  I used every ounce of energy I had keeping it together in my work and with my friends and acquaintances.  They had no idea anything was wrong.  That is because I saved my despair for when I got home, or for my therapist’s office, or phone calls with my close friend.  Those three knew that to save my own life, I would have to bring pain to others.  When it comes to gender dysphoria, there are no good choices.

Which brings me back to the television show.  As I watched Paul talk with the producers about making the show, and watched Paul explain to the crew how the show came to be, I missed the guy I saw on screen.  Like so many of you, I missed his sense of humor and calm confidence.  I missed his ease in front of a crowd.  I missed his voice.

Please understand, I do not miss living as Paul.  What had been a nuisance in my twenties and thirties became horribly difficult in my late forties and unbearable after that.  The pain accumulates.  But I miss what Paul was able to accomplish in the world, and who he was to his family and friends.

My family and friends lost so much, especially my family.  They lost friends and co-workers and even other family members.  In some ways, their losses were worse than mine.  And they never had a chance to memorialize Paul.  We often use the word “passing” when we refer to someone who has died.  In my case, passing is the word that best describes the loss of Paul.  Paul passed on and no one had a chance to publicly grieve.  Not my family, not my friends, not even me.

Early on I would have dismissed the idea of needing a memorial service for Paul.  “I’m still the same person!” I protested.  But watching that documentary, it is obvious I am not the same person, as most of my family and friends continually remind me.  Is it too late to publicly grieve?  I don’t know.  Nothing about this is easy, not for anybody.

So, how do we move forward?  Without grace, not well.  So I write in the hope grace will increase.  I write to light the fires of hope within.  I write to give voice to the pain felt by others.  I write so evangelicals will stop pretending life is not complicated and moral choices are easy.  I write so transgender souls a step or two behind me can navigate through this minefield with caution.  I write because I refuse to live in silence and fear.  I write to honor those who have dared to travel this rocky road with me.  I write because hope flows through words.

I write because I agree with the words of Emily Dickinson.   A  word is dead when it is said, some say.  I say it just begins to live that day.

And so it goes.


Prevailing Love

Prevailing Love

I want to thank you for your response to last week’s post.  My readership was about twice its normal size, and a number of you wrote personally to say if I ever happen to see you in an airport, I should introduce myself.  My heart was warmed.  I also appreciated the comments made on Facebook (Paula Stone Williams) and in the comment section of my blog.  If you’ve not read the blog comments, I’d encourage you to do so.

Since several of you have asked, I have not heard from the individual I saw at LaGuardia Airport.  I do not expect to.  I imagine it is a bridge too far.  It is all right.

Your encouragement has meant so much because I am tired.  Last week’s post was painful.  We are made for life-long community.  Our lives are knit together by the continuity of lifetime friendships.  They, along with family, are the thread that runs through our days.  For me, that thread was severed.  It is one of my greatest losses.  I knew it was likely to happen, but I did not realize how complete it would be.  Thousands of my old friends are gone, and it does not look like many will return.  Few remain who can testify of my previous life.

A quick Internet search of the ministries for which I once worked finds, with one notable exception, no acknowledgement I ever existed.  I hesitate to list my previous employers on my curriculum vitae because I know if they are contacted, they will probably not respond.  The same is true of the institutions that granted my degrees.  Sermons I preached that were once on video have been pulled from libraries.  I have been removed from public consciousness.  While not unexpected, it erases my past.

My new friends are wonderful, but they know little of my previous life.  Just today I was talking with one of my new friends who had no idea I was once the CEO of a religious non-profit, or the host of a national television show, or an editor and columnist for a magazine, or an adoption caseworker for 25 years.  That part of my life is not accessible to this new friend.  He only knows Paula, the woman who preaches at his church regularly and prays for people during weekly communion.   In some ways that is wonderful.  I no longer have to contend with people who come alongside because of what I can do for them.  The people who are drawn to me nowadays are not drawn to my accomplishments.  They just like hanging with Paula.

Many new friends expressed shock at seeing a picture of Paul in last week’s post.  Most found it difficult to find Paula in Paul.  Friends from my earlier life find it difficult to find Paul in Paula.  Only a handful see the same person in both photos.

This blog is one place that brings both halves of my life together.  Before I transitioned I decided to chronicle my journey, hoping it might bring understanding and insight to my evangelical friends.  I expected a few dozen might follow along.  I did not know it would be hundreds, then thousands.  For the most part, however, the people from my old life do not offer to come by for a visit.  Early on I would not have been able to receive them.  There were too many open wounds.  Today I would welcome their arrival, particularly if they brought their memories along for the ride.

Mine is a pioneering journey.  They are no well-worn ruts from previous processions of wagon trains.  I know of no other evangelical leader who has followed this particular call.  And I have done it very publicly.  I should not be surprised when mean-spirited correspondence still arrives, or that most remain silent because they do not know what to do.  It goes with the territory.  It is also the reason I am tired.

Which is why your encouragement has been so life-giving.  Nothing feeds a parched soul like a kind word.  Thank you, my friends, for trusting my character enough to walk through your discomfort to remain by my side.  I know it has not been easy, but you have allowed love to prevail, and that is how the light gets through to the dark places.

I am grateful for your love and acceptance.  Truly grateful.

And so it goes.

It Would Have Been Nice

It Would Have Been Nice

A couple of weeks ago I saw someone I love at LaGuardia airport, but we did not talk. The person came out of the bathroom just as I was walking by, our gates on opposite sides of the concourse. The person almost ran into me. My heart raced and was broken, all in a span of seconds.

I hurried to the American Admiral’s Club where I texted my close friend, Jen, who was waiting for her flight on another concourse. I wanted to take the shuttle over and find her. I needed a friend. Instead I read a David Whyte poem on my phone and wiped tears from my eyes.

I assumed I knew where the person was headed and I was correct, going to another city on another airline. As I walked toward my flight I glanced over at the presumed gate and there the person was, seated with a family member, waiting to board.

I used to be close to this person, respected the person’s intelligence and wit, and thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent together. Why didn’t I say hello? Because this person has not reached out to me since I came out. No email, phone call, card or note. I have not written the person either, and that is by design. When I have initiated contact with evangelicals from my previous life, it has not gone well. So I have learned to wait until they initiate contact with me.

I definitely no longer walk up and identify myself to any evangelical friends I see in an airport.  One former friend told a coworker he had seen me. The coworker complained to the leadership where I was headed to speak, considering it unacceptable that I should be permitted to address that particular audience.  (My experience with non-evangelical friends has been completely different.  But alas, most of my previous life was lived among evangelicals.)

On a flight from Phoenix a few months ago I sat next to a man with whom I frequently worked for a couple of decades. He had no clue he was speaking with me. He called me ma’am. The person in New York also had no idea it was me, and did not suspect I was anything other than the tall woman I am. The person looked straight at me without recognition.

It was difficult. I have lost much of the life of Paul. I have many wonderful new friends, some of the best friends of my life really, but they are people who never knew Paul. The number of long-time friends who speak as freely about Paul as they do about Paula can be counted on one hand.

The experience of my family and close friends is instructive. No one from an evangelical background talks with them about Paul. They share no memories, open no scrapbooks, and make no mention of the decades we spent together. It is as though Paul has died. When someone dies, people usually share memories. No one shares memories about Paul. They don’t know what to do, so they erase me from the narrative. When they are in contact with my friends and family, they speak of their previous life together, but they leave out the person who shared that life with them.

I hope you are not reading any anger into this post. I am not angry, just sad. I am sad it is so difficult for so many people. I am sad that with a few precious exceptions, the people from my previous life find it too hard to acknowledge both Paul and Paula.

There are a lot of people I loved when I was Paul, people like the person I saw at LaGuardia. It is painful to no longer be able to visit with those precious souls. And to actually be within inches of a person you love but unable to say, “Hey, what are you doing here? It is so, so good to see you!” That was awful. It was as though I had been split in two. It filled me with sorrow. When I got on the plane I thought of Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem, The Limited:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.   Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.  (All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)  I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”       

It seems such a tragedy that I saw someone I love, yet I did not feel I could speak. Life is short. We are not traveling to Omaha. We are traveling to the end of our days, and what is lost is lost.

And so it goes.

She Is Called

She Is Called

Last week I attended the She Is Called conference in New York City.  For three days female church leaders from across the nation met for inspiration and conversation. I led one discussion and gave the closing keynote address. Truth be told, with my decades of privilege and little understanding of the challenges these women face, I wasn’t sure I belonged at the conference. I had much to learn, but I was not so sure I had much to contribute.

On the first day, pastors of well-known mainline Protestant churches in New York and Chicago spoke of their ministries. Those sessions were followed by several conversations about issues unique to women in ministry, like unequal pay and juggling the responsibilities of work and home. The experiences of these women were very different from my experience in ministry. I was painfully aware of my privilege. I was actually a little relieved when a reporter from the New York Times arrived to interview me about a story the Times is doing this summer.

I am the recipient of decades of entitlement. These women had received decades of subtle and not so subtle messages that they would have to labor twice as hard for half as much. They talked of working while parenting in ways that were unknown to me. I thought I was an involved father. I realized I had parented like most fathers, focused more on providing for my family than truly sharing parenting responsibilities. I did juggle parenting and ministry, but juggling two apples is not very challenging. These women were juggling five or six apples, with a couple of sharp-edged knives thrown in for good measure.

The She Is Called conference did have a few things in common with similar male retreats. The attendees were powerful people who were serving in influential churches. They had great theological knowledge and excellent practical ministry skills. But that is where the similarities ended. In their keynote speeches these women did not tell, they showed. They did not give instructions; they provided suggestions. Their ample confidence was tempered by a matching humility. Lectures were punctuated with opportunities for audience input. There was little to no posturing, but there was a lot of supportive collaboration.

By the second evening I knew the message I had prepared for the final keynote was not the one I wanted to present. I grabbed an offering envelope from the back of a pew and wrote down what I know:

  1. There is no way a well-educated successful American male can understand how much the world is tilted in his favor. It is all he has ever known and all he ever will know.
  2. A woman’s knowledge is always questioned. When I spoke as a male, people listened and followed my lead. When Paula speaks, people listen, but question whether or not I really have a grasp of my subject. Not only is it maddening, it eventually causes me to doubt my own knowledge.
  3. There is a reason God came to earth as a man. Men needed more help than women.

We can only speak from our experience, and I wanted to find ways in which my experience might be helpful to these incredible women. They are the ones who will change the cultural narrative and bring America together. Their fierce intelligence and strong encouragement will cause them to move right past the men in power, too busy posturing with other men to notice the women passing them by.

I want these women to understand just how powerful they are. I want to see them fight for their rightful place leading Christ’s church. I want to see them fully own their extraordinary ability to soar beyond the macho males with whom they work. I want to see them empowered as I was empowered. I know they will handle power better than I ever did, because they are more balanced than I ever was.

There is hope for Christ’s church. Change is coming. I saw it this week. Change is coming, and these women are the ones who will bring it about.

And so it goes.

The Long and Winding Road Toward Peace

The Long and Winding Road Toward Peace

I spent a lot of years all pent up inside my other self. I expended so much energy trying to get by it’s a wonder I got anything done. Never far from my consciousness was the realization that 41 percent of those with gender dysphoria try to end their lives. That painful awareness is always present, like a film over your days. You can never wash off that film. It accumulates.

I was not unproductive. I ran a large non-profit, preached in megachurches, served as a television host and magazine editor and columnist. But I was spinning in pain, like a top wandering aimlessly across a table until it finally crashes onto the floor. I thought speed and busyness would take me through my days without having to confront my true self. It did not.

How many Americans are running at a crazy speed because they refuse to slow down enough to experience their pain? We are addicted to speed and use it to avoid all manner of existential realities.  Once I finally acknowledged my pain and that I was not okay, life got better.  I had named the unnamable.  I would deal with my pain and healing could begin.  My addiction to speed ended.  Peace descended in the midst of all the turmoil, and life got better.

I am still busy. Some of that is in my nature. My father still sits down at his computer every week to work on his Sunday school lesson. He drives to the nursing home every weekday and spends two hours with my mother. Dad likes to be busy. So do I. I work out six days a week, mountain biking, road biking or running. A lot of my busyness is working on projects that might result in work that pays. I lost a comfortable salary when I transitioned, and had my pension pulled. I need to work.

Now, however, I work without the preoccupation that was ever present earlier in my life. I work from the overflow, not out of avoidance or fear. I have learned it was not only my gender dysphoria that caused me so much distress. I was also struggling under the weight of evangelicalism, with its belief in inerrancy and other doctrines I had come to reject. It was all too much. Often I crawled into bed amazed I’d made it through the day.

I often wonder how weary God must be. There is a scene in the movie, The Shack in which Mac, the protagonist, sees God seated in the garden, eyes shaded by sunglasses and resting in a chair. Mac says, “Catching some rays?” God replies, “Oh honey, you have no idea how much work I’m doing.”

God knows something about my fatigue. In the garden Jesus faced the reality that none of his disciples could hold space for him through the night. In conversation with God, Jesus asked for his cup of suffering to be removed. All he heard was stony silence. Jesus was afraid he might die in the garden. He was sweating blood, a highly unusual condition that results from extreme emotional duress. Eventually God sent angels to minister to him. Jesus understood what it was to be utterly exhausted.

In some ways I have more energy now than I have ever had. There is no underlying noise to remind me that so much is out of balance. I do occasionally feel my age, but I’m not ready to slow down. I’d like to work with this high level of energy for at least another 10 years. It is good to feel comfortable in my own skin. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.

My motivation to remain busy is no longer related to avoidance. It is all about a renewed sense of purpose. I believe in the church, not in the church that builds walls, but the church that breaks walls down. Not in the church that sees God as an angry parent, but the church that understands God never stops loving. That is a message I feel compelled to spread. It is a message of urgency. God is inclusive, not exclusive. Christianity is transformational, not transactional. Religion is about loving relationships, not judgmental exclusion. And that, my friends, is a message for which I am building great energy, while feeling very much at peace.

And so it goes.