Communities and Chapels

Over the years I have worked in education, the for-profit world, and with multiple non-profits. I have never worked in government… until now.

The city manager of Englewood, Colorado, was a member of Left Hand Church when he lived in Longmont. We were at a party in December when I mentioned that a neighbor wanted me to run for the Board of Trustees in the town in which I live. I had always heard that small town politics is like national politics – you never please anyone.  But my friend said we all have our civic responsibilities and running for the town board would be good for me and for the town. He said more often than not, our particular town’s government was comprised of people who tended to work together, moving in the same general direction.

So, I gathered the signatures necessary and left my completed application with the Town Clerk and waited for the election on April 5. I figured I wasn’t likely to win, since I am transgender and all. Only I found out a few weeks ago that there will not be an election. Only six people filed to run for the Board of Trustees, and only one person filed to run for Mayor. Apparently when that is the case, everyone whose paperwork was accepted automatically becomes a member of the Board of Trustees, or Mayor, without an election. Huh. Now this is starting to get real.

After several weeks of training, on April 18 I will be sworn in as a member of the town’s Board of Trustees. I am eager to serve – seriously. I mean, why not? I am the pastor of a church, a pastoral counselor, a speaker on issues related to gender equity, and an author. Why wouldn’t I add public servant to the list? I have no idea if I will be any good at it or not. I’ll let you know.

Speaking of things at which I may or may not be good, did I ever tell you about the time I helped renovate the chapel with several church members and one of my co-pastors, who had to say repeatedly, “Uh, no, Paula, let me help you with that.” She was patient and kind, and the chapel is a beautiful, sweet intimate space. I get to preach in a place with a cool coffeehouse vibe.

Left Hand Church meets in the chapel of a United Church of Christ. Like every other chapel built in the 1960s, it was not given a lot of forethought. Adding a chapel was just what churches did back then. Nobody builds chapels anymore. They figured out that they don’t get used. This chapel collected dust and sat behind hideous solid brown doors, one of which defiantly pierced a splinter all the way through my finger when I was carrying it to the dumpster. Behind the doors was a neglected carpet, dirty purple chairs, and a giant mosaic of Jesus which left the room out of balance. Jesus didn’t leave the room out of balance, just the mosaic.

But my co-pastor had a vision, and with the help of a bunch of other lesbians with power tools, she brought it to fruition. She bought lots of mismatched chairs and recovered the cushions with bright fabrics which we put around wooden tables, and the whole thing looks just like our church looks– eclectic. If we’re expecting a lot of folks, we take out the tables and put the chairs in rows. If it is likely to be a more intimate gathering, we sit around the tables and talk and sing and listen and worship.

I touch a lot of the bases in my life. As a therapist, I spend sixty minutes at a time with precious humans and help them remove the obstacles hindering them from discovering their own answers. It is hard and holy work, helping them find the light hidden inside their hearts.

My church work is where I join with a group of people to figure out how to do life together. Outside of the family, the church is the only institution whose main purpose is to help people search for meaning together. That is why the church is always messy. Humans are messy.

And now I am joining my town’s Board of Trustees, caring for its citizenry. I won’t be helping individuals find answers; I won’t be helping fellow church-members search for meaning; I will be helping our town figure out how to be a better servant to its residents.

I hope I don’t let people down, though I am sure I will. It’s just the nature of things. I’m sure someone will have to say to me, “Uh, no Paula, let me help you with that.” But maybe I’ll do enough redemptive work to help keep the universe in balance. That is my hope.

My term on the Board of Trustees lasts for two years, probably just enough time to figure out what I’m doing. It took me a few decades to figure out ministry, and several years to become a decent counselor. Let’s hope I’m better at town governance. I don’t have that kind of time to get up to speed.

I have no intention of slowing down. I like to be busy. Between my speaking career, my pastoral work, my counseling practice, and now my service on my town’s Board of Trustees, I’ve got enough to keep me going for a few years, and that’s how I like it.  I’ve been saying that I’m semi-retired for about eight years now. I’m not sure any of the last eight years are what semi-retired looks like. But hey, it is my life, and I do want to make a difference while I’m here.

And so it goes.


It’s Not Them

Anne Lamott didn’t know the person, but she liked the tattoo on his arm, “It’s not them.” My son has solvitur ambulando tattooed on his arm, Latin for, “It is solved by walking.” I like Jonathan’s tattoo. I walk or run for 45 minutes to an hour, six or seven days a week. I find it cathartic and life giving. When I run and walk long distances, I solve things. A lot of people walk and don’t solve anything. In his retirement, Richard Nixon walked every morning, though it apparently didn’t solve much, since he never seemed to grasp the significance of his failure.

I, for one, do not need a tattoo that says, “It’s not them.” That is because my default mode is to say, “It’s all me.” There is a tattoo burned on my consciousness with those words. When you grow up with a narcissist, you learn quickly that you must acquiesce and admit it is always you, even when it isn’t. It’s the only way to live in peace, since that parent is where the locus of power resides.

I was in my thirties before I really stood up the narcissist in my life. It’s in chapter 19 of my book. Still, more often than not, my default position when something goes wrong is to focus on what I might have done or said to cause the problem. It is far easier for me to say, “It is me, always me,” than to say, “There were mistakes all around. I’ll own mine and you own yours.” When we were married, Cathy wanted me to fight more with her. Instead, I just rolled over. I assumed she was right. It did not serve our marriage well. Come to think of it, it does not serve our friendship all that well either.

So far in this post I have been talking about one-on-one relationships. I have not talked about entire classes of people. When it comes to conspiracy theories and whatnot, I may in fact need the reminder of the guy’s tattoo.  I find it too easy to dismiss entire classes of people. Over the past five years I have become a part of the polarization that has affected our nation. My Facebook feed is all from the left. My friends and work are all heavily tilted in that direction. There are few environments in which I rub shoulders with people from the other side of the divide.

Part of that is because I am transgender, and a lot of people from the other side want nothing to do with a transgender person. Eighty-four percent of evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth, though there is not a single Bible passage that would indicate that.  Two thirds of them also believe the United States already gives too many rights to transgender people. Since the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, the battle lines have been redrawn around us. Though we are only .58 percent of the population, transgender people now receive the wrath once reserved for lesbians and gays. More specifically, the target is on the backs of transgender children and adolescents, those least able to advocate for themselves.

Which might be why I find myself wading further and further into the culture wars, aligning myself with those fighting for basic civil rights. Not many of those fighting for trans rights are also into conspiracy theories, Donald Trump, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

I do know that the more distance I gain from the anti-trans, anti-vaccination crowd, the less I think about them. And the less I think about them, the less empathy I feel toward them. And the less empathy I feel toward them, the less human I see them. Do you see the problem? None of this is even remotely okay. Once I start thinking like that, I am the problem, and I need to be reminded of the guy’s tattoo, “It’s not them.”

I believe the only solution to our current divide is through narrative, to tell our stories to one another, to get in the same room, around the same table, and talk about the common human experience. I have always found it powerfully redemptive to counsel people who do not share my political views. I learn so much, and gain so much empathy and understanding through our work together. Our shared human experience is evident in spite of our differences.

We know that humans like to tell themselves that we are more interested in knowing the truth than we are in belonging. Not so. Belonging has always trumped truth. That’s how people remain in religious fundamentalism for generations; it is too painful to leave. They know the center doesn’t hold, but as long as they remain in the tribe, their friends do. Having lost literally thousands of friends, I get it. It can be lonely outside of your multi-generational tribe.

I want to be a part of healing the divide, not widening it. As a transgender woman, I have few opportunities to interact with people from the right. Just today I was made aware that my book is part of a controversy at a library in Mississippi. The book is displayed along with three others from the LGBTQ+ community. Apparently, the display caused the mayor of the town to withhold over $100,000 from the library and brought a lot of angry folks to a meeting of the board. I wish I could show up at the library and let people talk with me one-on-one.  Not about the book, or the display, but about who makes the best sweet tea in town. Finding the common ground that can unite us is critically important if we are ever going to bridge this divide.

In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what has become known as the Serenity Prayer. Niebuhr’s actual prayer was not exactly the same as the one that has been popularized. Here is his prayer as originally written. I prefer the original.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

The Merry-Go-Round

I was a fearful child. I refused to ride on most of the attractions at Camden Park, the amusement park near my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Even the merry-go-round was more than I could handle. The horses had menacing gazes. The lions gaping mouths were ready to devour small children. The merry-go-round had a brown bench with a narrow seat and a high back, colorless among the brightly painted ponies. My mother made me go on the merry-go-round once and tried to coax me onto one of the horses, but I went straight to the brown bench, where I sat until the ride mercifully ended. She never made me go on the merry-go-round again.

My mother was fearful of life. As a child who paid attention, I did not miss the fact that the person I depended on to navigate through the world of big people was a frightened guide. That is how we inherit intergenerational trauma. Mom never got over her fear. She tragically gave up and quit trying, never getting out of bed the last ten years of her life.

Over the past decade I have had reason to be fearful. I lost hundreds, even thousands, of friends and acquaintances, to say nothing of losing my job of 35 years and a large pension. We make it through life by holding onto the notion that we are in control of our lives. We are not. Well, we do have control over whether we eat three chocolate covered strawberries for breakfast, which I may or may not have just done, but most of the big things are out of our control. You might have noticed.

Every time I pick up an Anne Lamott book, I am struck by how transparent she is about her shadow sides. Invariably, I find myself in the pages, unable to put the book down. Her shadow sides are similar to my own, only she writes about them with so much more clarity than I do. She also writes with more self-compassion, which makes her words easier to digest than mine. When I write about my shadow sides, my friends say, “Give yourself a little grace.” But they don’t know what it is like to live in this body. I really do want to get it right, though I miss the mark so often.

If we are committed to the process, we go through many conversions in life. We begin our adult lives fulfilling the unfulfilled dreams of our parents. That works until it doesn’t. Then we move into what Carl Jung called the second adulthood, in which we begin to focus on our own dreams and aspirations. As the years progress, we find we have fewer friends but deeper friendships. We are more interested in being in relationship than being right. And most frightening of all, we realize that when we are called, we no longer have the luxury of rejecting that call. We can no longer claim that we need to put the kids through college and save for retirement. We are forced to look the call straight in the eye, knowing time is running out. Will we show up or will we stay locked in our comfortable houses? Because of our predisposition to remaining comfortable, the call in the second half of life does not come as a moment of joy, but as a moment of terror.

Assuming you do answer the call, the surprises continue. You find you might be called time and again, onto ever more frightening journeys, the kind that will show your every flaw and demand that you work on the stuff you’ve avoided for decades.

I’ve read that the sixties are the most productive decade of life, followed by the seventies, followed by the fifties. If we haven’t done so in our forties, during our fifties we find the courage to answer the call. Our sixties are when we find our stride. Our seventies are when we realize there is yet another call, one we never anticipated. This one is easier to navigate. We’ve already failed enough to know that failure is good for the soul. We let our wisdom make the major decisions, looking deep inside our own souls for our sense of direction, knowing that looking outside ourselves never works out so well. I don’t know anything about the 80s, but I’m watching two mentors closely. They are still finding new ways to serve and grow.

I still occasionally get overwhelmed by fear. After every blood test I anxiously await the results. Things happen when you get older. Our bodies wear out. Mine has been very good to me. I still mountain bike and run and hike and all the things. No one ever thinks I am the age I am. But you can’t outrun time. I remember the day my mentor, Jim, said he was going through his final conversion, giving up his attachment to his own body. He was 98.

I will be back in Huntington, West Virginia next month. It will still be winter, so Camden Park will be closed. That’s fine with me, though I would like to know if the same merry-go-round is still there. I wouldn’t be frightened of the horses and lions now, though I still would not ride on them. I’m prone to vertigo when I spin. The spinning of the planet is enough of a challenge, thank you.

It will be good to be back in Huntington. I will be speaking at Marshall University, where my father worked on a master’s degree. Huntington is only about 30 miles from where my parents and other family members are buried. In many ways, the region is still home. When I return, it looks like it has been expecting me.

I am not as fearful as I once was. I have looked life straight in the eye and done the hard work. I don’t ride on the brown bench in life. I ride on the wildest pony, and when I go back to the Tri-State region of my youth, I am reminded of just how far I’ve come.

And so it goes.