Hollywood and TED – I Am Blessed

For the past year I’ve been working with an organization called PopShift that is influencing Hollywood writers, showrunners, producers, directors, and others on the front lines of culture. Until this week, all of the events have been virtual.

This past Tuesday 60 television writers gathered with the PopShift staff and a handful of storytellers at a beautiful garden in the Hollywood hills. Each storyteller spoke to 15 writers at a time around campfires scattered throughout the grounds.

There were six storytellers, including a whistle blower at a pharmaceutical company, a psychiatrist who is a proponent of psylocibin, an undocumented immigrant, a cult survivor who helps others find their grounding, a young man who has experienced the injustice of our justice system, and yours truly. I was greatly inspired by my fellow storytellers, and thankful for the couple of hours we spent together before the writers arrived.

The evening was magical. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such an attentive audience, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. I was telling my story to a group of television story writers. Of course, they were going to pay attention to a storyteller.

I was moved by the other storytellers and their willingness to be so transparent. These were all people who had been through the dark night of the soul, and their wisdom was readily apparent. I am always amazed to be included in such circles. I am also pretty sure I don’t belong there, as if I received an invitation that was supposed to be for the other Paula Stone Williams. You know, the one who actually figured out life. I left the Hollywood hills humbled and inspired.

After a quick flight home to Colorado, I had another wonderful experience with TEDWomen. TEDWomen is meeting this week, with remarkable women speakers from all over the world. Immediately after the main sessions they have TED Discovery Sessions, in which a workshop leader tells a story and engages the participants in conversation. It was my privilege to lead a Discovery Session, the first time I’ve had that honor since the TED Summit in Edinburgh.

My session was entitled, Lost is a Place Too. I talked about my experience in the land of the lost after I transitioned, and about my time there over the past fifteen months. I talked about how this last season in the place called lost was in great measure of my own doing, and the sobering lessons of that reality.

I spoke about our gifts and our pinnacle gifts. After the first discussion period, I talked about what James Hollis identifies as our existential guilt, what I call our abiding shadows. I noted how those shadows are almost always the flip side of our strengths. I shared how often I must say to myself, “It’s all right to have an unexpressed thought.”

I joined a discussion group during all three discussion periods. I wish we could have had hours, not minutes, to hear these women’s stories. They were thoughtful, transparent, and to a person, emotionally moving. They all shared similar stories. Each has had great success and great pain, and the pain has always been more instructive than the success. I wish that was not the case, but it is. They also shared a remarkable resilience I rarely see in men.

I hesitate to say this, because I know I will get in trouble for it, but my experience is that women are stronger than men. Women did not start life as close to the finish line as men, and they are accustomed to things not going their way. They have not received the same kind of encouragement men receive, and when they find it within themselves to go on the Hero’s Journey, they gain that most rare of paradoxical gifts, great confidence coupled with great humility.

I did not have a cisgender female experience, and as I said in my first TED Talk, I will not live long enough to lose my male entitlement. I am not as resilient as the women in my session. I need a constant stream of encouragement. When I am not forgiven, or trusted, or respected, I turn inward and want to disappear. The women with whom I interacted have the same tendency, but they have found the strength to rise above it. Against all odds, they still believe in themselves. It is inspiring.

I brought the thin skin of a privileged male with me into my transition. Now that I have nine years of experience as a woman, I am learning that while a woman’s skin might be literally thinner than a man’s, in every other way it is thicker, and more protective.

When I finished the TEDWomen Discovery Session, I sat and stared for about a half hour. I had to take in the profoundly moving stories the women told. I might have been leading the session, but it was their stories that were the locus of the hour.

It is a privilege to be included in these august conversations. It was good to hear the television writers talk about their triumphs and failures, their joys and frustrations. They have a humility I do not imagine I would see in most of the actors who speak the lines they write, but it is certainly there in the writers themselves. They know the Hero’s Journey and are living on the other side of the dark night of the soul.

The same was true of the women in today’s session. I have been blessed with many opportunities to influence others. What I never fail to take in are the lessons all of these wonderful people bring to me. They are a gift.

And so it goes.

Two Great Fantasies

Just a fair warning, this is not a lighthearted post. It is about loneliness.

In the fall of 2018, Cathy moved 25 minutes away. I stayed in our comfortable and spacious mountain home. We share an office at the house where we see counseling clients and each other a couple of days a week. Cathy stays with me when the family is in town. Otherwise, we are alone.

Cathy and my best friend thought that if I did not transition, I would not survive. My therapist thought I would survive but noted just how much more depressed I was becoming with each passing year. The options weren’t great.

Then came the evening in 2010 when I was watching the final season of LOST and Jack, the protagonist, was called by Jacob, the God figure, to die. That was it. I knew I had been called to figuratively die. I sobbed on the couch until 3:00 in the morning, fell asleep for a couple of hours, then woke up and wept until dawn. It was two years before I transitioned, but it was put in motion that February evening.

We still don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. There are some pretty good hypotheses, but they are just that. I don’t really need to know what caused me to be transgender. For me, the proof is in the living. It is far more natural living as a woman than it was living as a man. Life is so much harder for women, and yet it feels right. The body I have is my body. It is me.

Yet, I am lonely. I did not expect to be alone at this stage of my life. I sleep with only my arm by my side. I have filled my life with meaningful activities and friends. I am a pastor at Left Hand Church. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lyons. I speak all over the world on issues of gender equity. I work with speakers for TEDxMileHigh and as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED. I love helping clients as a pastoral counselor. I consult with and preach for post-evangelical churches around the nation. My life is full and varied, more like the life of someone half my age.

I have friends with whom I take long rambling walks and steep, rocky hikes. I feel particularly close to my co-pastors and several members of our little church.

You say, “You have a good and fruitful life, Paula. You travel the world and serve in a plethora of wonderful positions. How can you be so lonely?” Because I am alone, that is why. Inevitably at some point in life, we are all alone. I was talking with a good friend last week about late in life romance. She has a friend who married in her 70s and had ten wonderful years with her spouse before he died. Now, her acute loneliness is great.

When you fall in love as an older person, that falling is no less powerful than when you were a teenager, which is remarkable. Your body is wearing down, your spirit is weary, yet new love taps into the life-giving energy of wonder. Losing love does not get easier as you get older. It still feels like an affront to the very forces of life. You are shocked to discover with Thomas Wolfe that, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

But after decades of a good marriage, you do not expect to suddenly be alone. You don’t think about these things, because you just assume your partner will always be there, and when you do pass on, it will somehow be within hours of each other. My father lived five and a half months after my mother passed. He was ready to go on the day of her funeral. The last thing he said to her was, “I’ll see you later.” That is how it’s supposed to be. Mom and Dad were married for 73 years, six months, and two days.

I wish I was not transgender. It has taken much from me. I would prefer that we figure out what causes someone to be transgender and fix it. At least we are moving in the direction of recognizing it sooner and stopping the late-in-life onset of pain and separation that is the lot of so many who are trans. If I could have transitioned in my late teen years or early twenties, I could have spared Cathy so much pain. Of course, then we would not have had our wonderful children and grandchildren.

We live life as it is handed to us, for better or worse. I am glad I was a husband and father. I wish I could have remained so. I am fulfilled and comfortable as a woman. but I hate being alone.

James Hollis said there are two great fantasies humans must relinquish in the second half of life. First, we must let go of the notion that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition. Second, we must give up the notion that out there somewhere is a magical other who will rescue us from existential isolation. Thomas Wolfe is right. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

The State of Flying

Today’s travel experience is just awful. I long for the days when an hour-long flight included a hot breakfast in coach. The airline industry was regulated back then. Jimmy Carter had not yet had the revelation that a free market was the way to go. When the industry was deregulated, I knew where things would go, and it wasn’t good.

I have flown 2.6 million miles with American Airlines. Most of it was with Allegheny, renamed USAir, a wonderful airline in the days when Edwin Colodny was CEO, making a decent profit but also providing passengers with a pleasant experience. Imagine that? An airline that cares about you. In fact, USAir had a marketing phrase, “USAir begins with You.” But then USAir was acquired by America West, with a decidedly different management culture. To make matters worse, the new USAirways acquired American, a legacy carrier with an attitude.

I was supposed to go to the White House in June for a celebration of Pride Month. My flight was delayed, delayed again, and finally delayed until the following day, when I would not have been able to get to the White House in time for the meeting. There were absolutely no options on any carrier that would transport me from DEN to DCA in time to hang out with a couple hundred of the President’s closest friends.

Three weeks ago, I was invited to see Elton John sing at the White House. The news reports said it was a wonderful evening in the cool September air. I wouldn’t know. It was going to cost me over $1,400 to get there and back in time to leave on vacation the next morning. And the way things have gone lately, I wouldn’t have trusted any airline to get me home in time to leave on vacation.

And oh yeah, about that vacation. The night before we were to leave, I received a notification that our flight from Denver to Phoenix would be delayed by three hours. They offered no explanation, but I’ve been flying long enough to know when an early morning flight is delayed the night before, it is because of required crew rest.

That meant Cathy and I would miss our connection to Maui. I am Executive Platinum with American and have been at that level for three decades, so I know how to navigate an airline website and phone system. Despite my best attempts, and those of an experienced EP phone agent, we could not find a single flight on any carrier that would get both Cathy and me to Maui the next morning.

The agent finally found a single seat from DEN to DFW and one seat from DFW to OGG. Cathy left Denver at 6:00 on Sunday morning and arrived in Maui at 2:16, about the time we were originally scheduled to arrive. I, on the other hand, could not get out of Denver until 1:57 that afternoon. I sat in the Admiral’s Club and watched with Neta, one of the club agents, while the flight that made up ours was stuck in a ground stop in Philadelphia. An hour and a half went by. I said, “The crew is going to time out.” Pilots can’t fly more than ten hours straight, and if they are going to exceed that ten hours while they are in the air, the flight is cancelled.

We looked for a backup on Monday. There were none. There were no seats on Tuesday either. We waited to see if the Philadelphia to Los Angeles flight would get in the air. It did, but it was four hours late. Thank goodness, the company switched equipment for our flight to Hawaii, so I finally got to Hawaii at 10:00 PM, about 2:00 in the morning, my time.

When we finally took off for Hawaii, I thought of those poor people from Philadelphia who had been on their plane for eight hours, about the time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to Europe, and still weren’t in Los Angeles.

If this stream of consciousness post is disjointed, that is my point. This post feels like those twenty-four hours. And remember, I’ve been doing this for five decades. I have a lifetime pass for Cathy and me to the Admiral’s Club, purchased for $400 in 1982. (They stopped selling lifetime passes in the 90s, when they cost $6000.) I get free upgrades to first class. Even when I’m in coach, I get free food and decent seats. In other words, I am about as pampered as any frequent flyer in today’s world. And still, that trip was awful.

This is what happens when profits come before people.

I still remember an early morning flight in 1979 from LaGuardia to Buffalo. We were served pancakes with honey butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, and maple syrup. The picture above is of the type of plane we were on, a BAC-111. That was then. On my recent flight to Los Angeles, two hours and fifteen minutes long, I was served mixed nuts, in first class.

And so it goes.

Take a Deep Breath, Mom and Dad

If your child says they are gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual, or asexual, I have some advice. When they tell you this interesting news, respond by saying, “Oh,” without alarm, like you would if they told you they were going to Walgreens to pick up a few things. Then be curious. Ask how they came to that conclusion, and how the new insight makes them feel. And whatever you do, do not be judgmental.

Teens need to separate from their families of origin. It’s in their DNA. It is their job. They also have brains that are not yet fully formed. Our job is to encourage their individuation and differentiation, while providing guardrails to the excesses that could have permanent consequences.

Those guardrails do not include opposition to their gender and sexual exploration, at least not unless they are wanting surgeries or medical treatments that will permanently change their bodies. No matter what your evangelical church is telling you, no hospital or physician anywhere in the United States is doing gender affirming surgery on minors. Very few are doing any surgeries at all. The hormonal treatments that are prescribed are reversible.

Do you remember when Goth was a thing? Yeah, for some kids, all things gender is today’s version of Goth. It is a chance to show your independence and say, “I’m not like you, Mom and Dad.” I mean, think about it. Why on earth would you ever leave the people who have provided your every need unless there was something seriously wrong with them? They need to find fault with you. It makes it easier to leave the nest. And besides, there are, in fact, plenty of things wrong with you, and by the time your kids hit their teen years, they’ve figured out what those things are.

If your child is in their intense phase of separation, what do they need from you? They need curiosity, understanding, and patience. Your child might indeed be gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual or asexual. But the statistics say it isn’t likely. The number of people who are transgender stays steady at around .58 percent. Yes, about one half of one percent. The number who are non-binary is similar.

Whatever is happening in your child’s phase of visible separation, be curious and talkative with them. Listen. If you listen long enough, they will eventually share the pleasure of their emerging souls with you.

Be patient. Be glad your children are being raised in a time in which they can age-appropriately try on different identities in a safe environment. Encourage their exploration, and their tolerance of others. Don’t rush them to the courthouse to help change their name yet. If necessary, that can come later. But you can call them the name they prefer for as long as they prefer it, whether it be a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Let it be an adventure.

Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. If your child from an early age has been protesting that they are not the gender listed on their birth certificate, you should listen up. Kids who present as transgender at four are likely to be transgender at forty. On the other hand, if your child declares at thirteen that he or she is transgender, then you might want to just abide, and see what happens. There is a good chance it is a phase of their necessary differentiation from you.

When should you be concerned? If your child becomes sullen and withdrawn, with few friends and consistently dark moods, it may be time for intervention. And anytime a child threatens to harm themselves, it should be taken seriously. It is not a time for watching and waiting. It is time for the help of a therapist or physician well-educated in the issues common to adolescents.

It is also important to note that things are hard for all kids right now. They just finished two years of education in front of a screen. They are behind and they know it. And the pressures they face at school and with their peers have been horribly exacerbated by social media. They are more likely to need help in life much earlier than we did, and we need to provide the help they need.

Now, a word about the politicians who are trading children’s mental health for a few right-wing votes. Shame on them. Children are dying. The anti-trans laws like those recently passed in Texas are terrifying in their disregard of science, and for any positive regard for the children those lawmakers are sworn to serve.

At our town board meeting two weeks ago, we talked about the mental health of the teens in our town. I took a long walk with a fellow board member the following Saturday, and we considered what we might do to provide the help our kids need. That is the appropriate response to adolescents, not the book banning, treatment prohibiting, reactionary rhetoric of politicians and self-righteous evangelicals.

I have five granddaughters, all between the ages of 12 and 14. It is so much fun watching them unfold into the fulness of themselves, unencumbered by the religious purity movement of my generation. They are full of themselves in all the right ways. Yet, I see them struggle beneath the weight of expectations and I am grateful they have parents who see them, who truly see them, and who are committed to providing them just the right amount of freedom to come into themselves.

This living is serious business. I have a friend about my age who says growing old is not for sissies. I agree, but I would add that all of life in the year 2022 is not for sissies. These are not easy times.