On the Passing of Margaret Stone Williams

My mother, Margaret Stone Williams, passed away on November 22, three months shy of her 94th birthday.  I was on my way to New York City to preach at Middle Collegiate Church when I received the news, and spent most of Friday making arrangements to get to Kentucky.  Mom had been receiving palliative care for several weeks, so we knew the end was near.  Still, you are never quite prepared for your mother’s passing.

Mom and Dad were married for 73 years.  At the time of Mom’s death, both were residing in the nursing home at Sayre Christian Village in Lexington, Kentucky.  Dad is still there.  He will be 96 in January.

My mother was born in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, an area that has more in common with the Virginia Tidewater than it does with the Scots Irish culture that permeates eastern Kentucky, where Mom spent most of her life.  Though she was the daughter of a tenant farmer, she would have felt more at home on one of the sprawling thoroughbred farms around Lexington.  But her reality was closer to the fictional Port William described in Wendell Berry novels.  My being is rooted in those Wendell Berry environs.  Whenever I am in that part of Kentucky, the land looks like it had been expecting me.

Mom did not see herself in a Wendell Berry novel, or a Jesse Stuart novel, another Kentucky writer whose works I devoured as a teen.  Berry and Stuart wrote about people rooted in the land.  Mom saw herself more as landed gentry.  There was something in the warp and woof of rural farming culture that left a deep wound in her soul that never really healed.  I never learned the genesis of that wound, though its effect was always in evidence.

With a two-year degree from Kentucky Christian College, Mom became a para-professional at East Carter High School in Grayson, Kentucky.  She was a voracious reader and a champion of education.  She loved that her eldest son had a PhD, and that I had a Doctor of Ministry degree.

Mom never really accepted my transition.  Dad has tried to do so, with grace and love and great struggle.  Mom came to realize she would never see me again if she wasn’t willing to see Paula.  I am grateful she allowed me to visit.  When a nursing home worker said, “Oh, this must be your daughter, she looks just like you,” Mom was stone silent.  From early childhood I had known what would happen if I revealed I was transgender.

If it sounds like my relationship with my mother was strained, it is because it was.  Mom was nothing if not complicated.  She was at once funny and expectant, persistent and determined, critical and guarded, fearful and prejudiced.  She was also extroverted, intelligent and curious.  That curiosity and extroversion rubbed off on her children and grandchildren.  My brother and I have always loved reading.  We don’t see each other often, but when we do you can be sure we will have stumbled across the same authors.  I’m currently working on novels by Luis Alberto Urrea, Wendell Berry and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Mom would have approved.

I so loved that Jonathan wanted to honor his grandmother by conducting her funeral.  He did a great job.  With humor and heart, he told stories that captured her essence.  Just last week I heard from Mark, an old childhood friend, who said he loved coming to my house because my mother would read to him.  I remember her reading to me in the first and second grade, when I was struggling to read.  With patience and persistence, she made sure I began third grade reading above grade level.  She could be very determined.

I suppose there were 50 or 60 at the funeral service.  Most of Mom’s friends are gone.  I was able to see a few of my own high school friends who worked with her.  It was wonderful visiting with them.  A number of women came up and offered their condolences.  I was grateful for their words, and the fact that most made sure to call me by name.  Other than my relatives, no men spoke with me.

Because we wanted my father to be a part of every aspect of the funeral, we did not have a graveside service.  He would not have been able to walk to the top of the hill where the grave is located.  But Jonathan and I, along with my brother and his son, followed the hearse to the cemetery, the same cemetery I mowed when I was in college, the same cemetery that was next to my grandmother’s house, where she took us on warm sunny days.

We walked up the hill and looked into the open grave, then watched as they lowered the casket into its vault.  I was reminded of one of the opening images of the movie Dr. Zhivago, when young Yuri Zhivago watches his mother be buried on a cold, windswept plain.  I imagine you always feel a child on the day your mother is buried.

I could not cry until I got back to the safety of a friend’s home in Colorado, where two close friends waited to comfort me.  I wept until I slept.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.

On the banks of the Ohio, in the city of Huntington, West Virginia, on a bright afternoon in May over half a century ago, Margaret Stone Williams gave birth to her second child.  For the gift of life and the love of learning she imparted, I am grateful.  For her intelligence and wit, strong will and curiosity, I am thankful.  Rest in peace, Mom.  It’s been a long and difficult journey for you.  It is time to rest.  I love you.

It’s What I Do

I have an acquaintance who says we all have talents and gifts, but we also have what he calls a “pinnacle gift.”  He describes a talent as something you are good at, but do not necessarily enjoy.  A gift is something you are good at, and enjoy so much you lose track of time.  A pinnacle gift is your most affirmed gift.  It is practicing your craft in such a way that people say, “She is one of the best.”

I have been blessed with a lot of talents and gifts.  I have been affirmed as a CEO, writer, counselor, teacher, and pastor.  But I have been most affirmed as a public speaker. I am very much at home in front of an audience, whether that audience is 5,000 people at TEDxMileHigh in Denver this past Saturday, or the worshippers at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City this coming Sunday.  Public speaking is what I do.

At the TEDxMileHigh after party, a number of attendees noted how comfortable I appeared to be on stage.  Once I settle into a rhythm, I do feel comfortable on stage.  It is easy to find that rhythm when you have an audience as amazing as those who attend a Ted related event.  The audiences at TEDxMileHigh are among the best I have ever known.  But as comfortable as I might appear, it is never as easy as it looks.

An inordinate amount of time and energy went into last Saturday’s speech.  After Briar and Helena suggested starting over, I worked for the better part of two days before declaring to both seasoned TED coaches that I didn’t think what they were asking me to do was possible.  They said, “Yes it is.  Try again.”  The final talk was edit number 29.

When the final script was completed, just a couple of weeks before the event, I began earnestly memorizing a few hours every day.  I memorize sequentially, beginning to end, and had most of the talk in basic memory mode about 10 days in advance of the event.  But at any TED related event, “basic memory mode” is not adequate.  The talk must be memorized, word for word.  The talk was memorized word for word about seven days in advance.  Except that it wasn’t.

When I have a script locked in, I usually have it truly locked in.  This talk did not follow that pattern.  Late Friday night, less than 15 hours before I’d be on stage, I forgot my lines in two places I had not forgotten them before.  That had been happening all week.  I ended up with about 12 transitions in the script that I kept forgetting, a different one each practice session.

When it happened at 11:00 PM Friday night, I cursed loudly and went to bed.  Saturday morning as I got ready to go to Denver, I went over the talk two more times, then another time in the car.  Every time, I got tripped up someplace new.

As soon as I arrived, I went over the talk in the green room.  Jennifer Reich, one of the other speakers, said she had just started to go over her talk for the umpteenth time and remembered pretty much nothing.  She asked if that was normal.  I said, “Yep.”  Jennifer was the third speaker and did an amazing job.  She did not forget a single line.   I kept going over my talk right through the first five speakers, until 10 minutes before I went on stage.  Not once did I do it without a mistake.

Then Jeremy announced me, and I was on the red TED carpet looking out at an expectant crowd.  Twelve minutes later I finished without having made a single error.  I had even thrown in an extra line or two.  When I walked off stage, I asked Helena and Maegan (another coach) if I’d really done okay.  They looked mildly annoyed that I had asked.  Later Maegan said, “Of course you nailed it, you are a pro.”

I suppose I am a “pro” in that I do speak for a living.  But I also know I work extremely hard on every single speech, whether I have an audience of 10 or 10,000.  I figure there are a lot of cumulative minutes out there I do not want to waste.  Last Saturday it was about 60,000 minutes.  That’d be a lot of minutes to waste.

This was not an easy talk to give.  You’ll understand why it was when the talk is up on video sometime in December or January.  I said a lot of hard things that are difficult for men to hear.  I also bared my soul, which is fraught with danger.  Baring your soul is one thing.  Shedding your sickness before an audience is another.  The line between the two is thin.

My daughter Jana was at the talk.  (I am at TEDxMileHigh with Jana in the picture above.) She sat with my friends from Left Hand Church.  They had to hurry back for services, but Jana stuck around through my book signing time.  She said, “My whole life I loved hearing you speak, but today is the first time I’ve ever heard the real you speak, and I could not have been prouder of who you are, what you said, and how you said it.”  A standing ovation is nice and all, but to hear those words from your own daughter?  That makes every minute of preparation worth it.

I went over the talk in my mind while I was running today.  I thought of changes I could have made that would have improved the talk.  There were several.  I am rarely satisfied with my work.  I always want to improve.

I am a speaker.  It is what I do.  I try to speak words that will make the world a little better than it was before.  Sometimes I succeed.  Sometimes I don’t.  Saturday wasn’t perfect, but I did the best I could, and that’s about all we can ask of ourselves.

TEDxMileHigh Imagine

 

I am one of the speakers for TEDxMileHigh’s Imagine event on November 16.  I love Helena and Briar and Jeremy and all the good people at TEDxMileHigh.  They run a wonderful and inspiring show. TEDxMileHigh is one of the largest TEDx events in the world, and from my perspective, one of the best!  It is such a pleasure working with them.  It was my TEDx talk two years ago that launched my speaking career on  issues related to gender equity.

Occasionally people contact me and ask for help putting together a pitch to do a TED or TEDx talk.  I’m not a curator for TED events and have no idea what causes someone to be chosen to do a talk, so I’m not much help.  But I do know how much work you have to do once you have been chosen.

I have kept track of how many edits I have done for my upcoming talk.  Each dated edit has about four or five smaller edits embedded within, and at this point I am at dated edit number 22, including two edits I named “Try Again” and “Try Again2.”  That’s because Briar, my coach and the head of coaching for TED, and Helena, one of the leaders of TEDxMileHigh and also a coach for TED, kindly told me exactly 19 days ago that I needed to “start with a blank page.”  In other words, in spite of all of my brilliant writing and wonderful edits, my talk was not measuring up to their expectations.

Briar and Helena are the kindest and most upbeat humans you will ever encounter.  They bring sunshine with them all day every day.  (And Helena has the most beautiful engagement ring known to man.  Just sayin’ ) So, when Briar and Helena tell you to start over, they do it in the nicest of ways.  But they are also very clear.  You start over.  Doing a TED talk is not for the thin-skinned.

So, I started over.  And I ended up with a talk that has been painful to write, because it has asked me to examine my post-transition life for signs of lingering privilege.  But the problem is that I do not want to examine my post-transition life for signs of lingering privilege.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I lost a lot when I transitioned, and lingering privilege is a right of mine, dammit.  Except of course that privilege is no one’s right.

I am memorizing the talk now.  That’ll take the better part of two weeks, which gives me hundreds and hundreds of opportunities to be reminded of my desperation to hang on to my remaining white male privilege.  Sigh.

It’s not that hard speaking when you do not choose to be vulnerable.  You just talk and people laugh and life is good.  But being publicly vulnerable is another issue.  You always risk crossing the line D. H. Lawrence talked about when he said, “A writer sheds his sickness in his writing.”  Not a good thing.

Being willing to be human and vulnerable can be healing, both for you and your audience.  But it also can be exhausting.  To be vulnerable in front of a crowd of 5,000 and millions more online can be very exhausting.  Our Red Table Talk episode has been viewed over three million times.  That’s a lifetime worth of vulnerability.  I’ve watched the show exactly three times and that’s enough for me.

I speak because I can, and because it is important.  Not every transgender person has had the opportunities that have been afforded to me.  Those opportunities have given me a resilience that allows me to speak candidly about my life.  It still does not make it easy, but if not me, who?  We all have a responsibility to advance the narrative from within our own experience.

I have learned a lot as a female, and I believe it can be helpful for men and women to learn from my story, both to validate their own experience, and to help them explore areas for potential growth.

If you live in the greater Denver area, I encourage you to come to TEDxMileHigh Imagine at the Bellco Theater on Saturday, November 16.  This year’s speakers are an amazing group of inspiring men and women.  I am enjoying getting to know most of them, and I feel honored to be speaking alongside such capable and dedicated people.

It Had Never Been Expecting Me

I have received a lot of correspondence since our family was interviewed on Red Table Talk.  It’s taken me back to pondering the ins and outs of my transition.

I was grateful no one on RTT asked me the obligatory transgender question, “Did you feel like a girl stuck in a boy’s body?”  That is a common narrative regarding transgender women.  While I am sure it is descriptive of some people, I do not know of a trans woman who uses that language to define her childhood.

I usually say that I knew from the time I was three or four that I was transgender.  It is a simplification.  I was about that age when I realized I could not choose my gender.  Until then I assumed gender was a choice that needed to be made sometime before school started.  When I realized gender was not a choice, I was not so much devastated as embarrassed.  Why had no one told me?  Once I understood the truth, living as a boy was not a terrible thing.

I liked boy “things” more than I liked girl “things.”  Earth movers and backhoes and machinery of all types interested me, as did team sports.  I loved playing with girls, but I was not into dolls and such.  Occasionally I would pray for my gender to change, but it was not a nightly occurrence.

What I did know is that I was never really comfortable in my male body.  Something just did not seem right.  And when puberty arrived, nothing felt right.  That is the first time I truly hated the male experience. During my high school years I came to understand that I wanted to date girls, but I also wanted to experience life as a girl.  I was sure it was a secret I would take to my grave.

I loved being a father, but I did not like being a man.  Fatherhood agreed with me.  Maleness did not, though it served me well, as a pastor, CEO, public speaker, and all the other professions I crammed into my active portfolio.  I had an alpha personality and was driven to excellence and achievement.  In that regard, the privilege and entitlement of being a white male worked in my favor.  But I never felt at home in the world of men.  It felt like I was in a never-ending play with no final curtain.  I could play the part well, but I would never have given myself rave reviews.  I would have said, “He seems a little wooden in the role, as if he thought the role had never been expecting him.”

As I have said on many occasions, I felt called to transition.  I might (or might not) have been able to remain in the male role for the rest of my days.  There are differing opinions about that.  For the sake of my family, I would love to have been able to do so.  But the call to become Paula reached into the farthest corners of my being.  I paid a great price to get here, but you reject a call at your own peril.

Given that reality, you might be surprised to learn that while I definitely prefer life as a female  over life as a male, I still cannot say I am completely at home in my female body.  But then are any of us ever really at home within the confines of a human body?  As embodied souls, it seems like we were made for more than this.

I live in the borderlands.  With its rocky shores, brambles and bindweed, it is not easily inhabitable.  Every foray into the realm of males or the realm of females is a journey to another land.  I am comfortable living and breathing within the realm of females.  There is never a day I do not want to visit that land.  But it does feel like I am visiting – an extended visit maybe, with voting privileges, but always as an ex-pat from another land.  My home is in the liminal space of the borderlands.

I am not saying women do not welcome me in their land.  They have been wonderful, far more accepting than I ever imagined.  But though I understand the language of women better than the language of men, neither feels like my native tongue.  It’s like I speak Latin in a world in which every tongue is derived from it, but no one speaks it anymore.  The language I speak sounds familiar to both women and men, but opaquely.  The whole world sees me through a glass darkly.

I do not miss my past life, though I am proud to be the person who lived it.  I am comfortable where I am now.  It is home, and it does look like it had been expecting me.  And that is good enough.

Red Table Talk

My children and I recorded an episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk in September.  Jonathan and Jael joined me on the show.  Jael was interviewed here in Colorado.  The episode was released on Facebook on October 7.  I thought everyone who worked on the episode did a marvelous job.  Jada, Willow, and Adrienne were wonderful.  They could not have been more supportive.  Though we taped for almost two hours, the show was edited in such a way that virtually every salient part of our conversation was captured in the 27 minutes that ended up in the final edit.  Everything was fairly presented, without bias.  I am truly grateful.  Red Table Talk is a transformative show, tackling difficult subjects with grace.

I’ve heard from a lot of people since the show aired.  The usual group of fundamentalist haters has been active, but most of the comments have been supportive and thoughtful.

I have also heard from a lot of transgender folks who recently transitioned or are hoping to transition.  Many of them would like to visit with me by phone or in person.  I have had to tell them that I am not in a position to do so.  I remember when I was agonizing over whether or not to transition,  I wrote a few well-known transgender women and heard nothing in response.  Because of my experience, I try to answer every single person who reaches out to me. If perchance you have contacted me and I have not returned your correspondence, I apologize.

For those who have a family member who has transitioned, I recommend my son Jonathan’s book, She’s My Dad, published by Westminster John Knox Press.  It is an honest, engaging, redemptive story.  Included in the book are responses I wrote to five of the chapters.

For those wanting to read a good memoir on transitioning, I recommend Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There, Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life, Deirdre McCloskey’s Crossing, or Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.  All are excellent resources.

If you would like to know more about my own thought process as I went through my transition, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning of this blog and look at my entries from 2014.  That is when I wrote the most about the journey from Paul to Paula.  Throughout the last five years I have written about it occasionally, though there has been no rhyme or reason to the timing.  This blog tends to be less strategic and more stream of consciousness.

I know it may be hard for some to understand, but at this point in my life, my transition no longer occupies a lot of space in my daily existence.  I knew when I transitioned that as a well-known pastor, I had responsibilities.  I could not just disappear into the crowd.  I would need to be public about my experience.  But nowadays, only about one in ten speaking engagements is about being a member of the LGBTQ community.  The rest are about gender inequity, a subject about which I am very passionate.

I never speak for the other members of my family.  Their story is theirs to tell or not tell.  It is up to them.  Jonathan has been pretty public about it all, but until Red Table Talk, my daughters stayed pretty quiet.

For those who would like to speak with me, I am truly sorry I am not in a position to do so.  My work with Left Hand Church, my pastoral counseling practice, and my active speaking schedule keep me extremely busy, and I simply do not have the bandwidth for individual conversations.  I do have plans to write a memoir in the near future.  My agent is currently sharing my book proposal with editors.  I will keep you informed of the progress.

In the meantime, thank you so much for your words of encouragement.  My children and I were hoping the Red Table Talk episode would help families going through the experience we faced.  We always knew that as a family we would make it through the dark night to the light of dawn.  It is good to share that hope with others.

Integration

Most of my public speaking is on the subject of gender inequity.  Working toward gender equity is a passion and a subject with which I am comfortable.  Last week I was in San Diego speaking to a group of financial advisors.  About 80 percent were male.  The men were politely receptive, but the women were far more enthusiastic.  It is what I have come to expect.  It is difficult for men to grasp the extent of their privilege.  Most would like to see gender equity, they just don’t want to give up their own power in order to make it happen.  I understand.  I once had a lot of power, and still retain a lot of power.  Giving up power is never easy.

While I knew giving up power would be necessary when I transitioned, I had no idea how profoundly my life would change.  I had a lot of ideas about what life would  be like as a female, but ideas don’t fare so well in the face of reality.

I thought transitioning would solve all of my gender identity issues.  While it did make my life more peaceful, meaningful and rewarding, I still feel as though I live in a liminal space, somewhere between male and female.  The borderlands are my home.  I will never have the experience of a cisgender female, and in many ways, I never had the experience of a cisgender male.  We know from fMRI studies that the brains of transgender people, studied before hormonal treatment, function somewhere between male and female.  I could have told them that long before MRIs existed.  I never felt comfortable as a male.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several opportunities to reflect on my life as a man.  I’ve been providing pictures of myself as Paul to the producers of Red Table Talk.  Looking at the pictures reminds me that integrating the two halves of my life continues to be a challenge.  I’m not sure I’m any better at integrating Paul and Paula now than I was three or four years ago.

There was some progress at the beginning, when Paul was still fresh in my memory.  Now, as my male life recedes from view, I am forgetting how it felt to be a guy.  I still know all the things Paul knew, but there aren’t many people who would tell you I am the same person.  I am not.  I am fundamentally different.  I keep finding myself speaking of Paul in the third person, as if Paul was a distant relative, not the person who shares my heart.

My friend Christy always affirms me when I use a sermon illustration about Paul.  She says, “I like that guy.”  Not many others talk about Paul that way.  Usually when people make a reference to me as a male, it is to question the alpha-based actions they see at work.  They say, “Whoa, is that Paula speaking or Paul?”  I usually say, “Paula’s allowed to be an alpha human, you know.”

There are fine books on the transgender experience, but I can’t say any of them have helped me with the integration puzzle.  It still feels like two different lives.  I think it would have helped if we had memorialized Paul in some way.  But back when that would have been helpful to my family, I wasn’t ready.  I was way too excited about being in my new gender.  (Truth be told, sometimes I think it might not be a bad idea to lock transgender people in a closet for the first year or so.  Our giddiness in those early days does not match the pain made manifest around us.)

This morning our interview on Red Table Talk had its debut.  I was very pleased with the show.  It’s rare that you shoot a television show and you’re happy with the way it was edited.  I thought the show was fair-minded and positive.  I am grateful to Jada and Jack and Katy and Dena and Chelsea for making this such a wonderful experience.

There was a fair amount of conversation about the difficulty all of us have had integrating the two halves of our common family experience.  It gets easier with the passing of time, but it will never be easy.  I suppose that is how things are for those who blaze a trail.  Not many evangelical pastors transition genders.

I’ve repeated the same three sentences in both of my TED talks: “Would I do it all again?  Of course, I would.  The call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good.”  I’m doing another TEDxMileHigh talk this fall (November 16), but I don’t think the line is going to fit in the new talk.  I wish I could find a place for it, because living authentically is sacred and holy and for the greater good.  But as many have discovered before me, few things that are sacred and holy and for the greater good are ever easy.

By the Light of the Night

When I transitioned from male to female, I lost four jobs, my pension, and the vast majority of my friends.  On my bad days I wondered if my demise was inevitable.  I was lost. But it is okay, because that is also when I realized lost is a place too, and there are times when you have no choice but to spend time there.

It was a time of great fear and questioning, what John of the Cross called, “The dark night of the soul.”  As I have quoted many times, I believe it is what Dante was talking about at the beginning of the Divine Comedy when he said, “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.”

Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night in a blackened room and try to stumble your way to the bathroom, only to stub your toe on the corner of the bed?  You know, if you had waited a minute or so after you opened your eyes, they would have adjusted to the darkness.  You can still see in the dark.

I live in a low light community in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  After 35 years in New York, when I never knew the phases of the moon, in Colorado I always know if the moon is full or nearly so.  Since I follow it all month, I also know if it is waxing or waning.  It is waning now, but still formidable.  It was full when I came home from Los Angeles last Thursday.  A harvest moon illuminates like twilight.  But even when there is no moon, if you are willing to sit in the dark for a while, the stars and ambient light in the atmosphere are enough to light your way.

I am not saying it is fun to find your way by the light of the night.  But sometimes it is necessary.  Fortunately, you eventually make your way to dawn.  Daylight is good.  Life is easier in the daytime.  Happiness tends to come during daylight hours.

Happiness comes pretty much when you expect it.  Grandchildren laugh, you’re happy.  The first day of vacation, you’re happy.  You get a promotion, you’re happy.  Happiness is tied to external circumstances.  As a privileged white man, happiness came often.  Privilege brings more than a fair measure of external happiness.  Privilege does not necessarily bring joy.

Joy comes when you find your way in the dark.  Joy comes when you wait long enough in the place called lost until your eyes have adjusted, and you have enough light to see.  Joy comes in that moment when you finally see a way forward, or at least the first step, and you take it.

There is a particular kind of joy that comes when the step you see in the dark is one that empowers others to embark on their own journey into the dark night, or into the light of dawn, depending on the day.  The joy is in the knowing that their journey is sacred and holy and for the greater good, just like yours.

Odysseus wasn’t done journeying when he returned to Ithaca and was reunited with Penelope. He was a lover of experience and accepted another final journey, not back out to sea, but inland.  He was to travel until he got to a place in which people did not know an oar when they saw one.  There he was to plant the oar that he carried with him, as an offering of propitiation to the god Poseidon.  Only then did he get to return home and live into “sleek old age.”

Like Odysseus, we are all on a journey, maybe our first, maybe our last, but all into the unknown, undertaken when it’d be much easier to stay on the couch with our feet propped on a hassock, binge watching somebody else’s journey.  But this living is serious business, and we are pilgrims, always drawn forward through both the promising dawn and the dark of night. And for all the uncertainty of each journey, we can know these two things.  We will not be without love, and if we keep our hearts turned steadfastly to the right, there will be joy.