Well, That Was an Experience!

I had an interesting experience recently, jumping into the world of politics.  Last year I was asked to consider becoming a member of our town council here in Colorado, but at the last minute I decided against having my name considered.  Local politics can be brutal, particularly for a transgender person, and I was not convinced it would be good for me or the church I served.

In February I was contacted by the Mike Bloomberg campaign to ask if I would be willing to serve as one of 11 members of his LGBTQ leadership committee.  I said yes and a few weeks later was asked if I would be one of the co-chairs of his Women for Mike leadership committee.  Again, I said yes.

I was skeptical when Bloomberg first became New York City’s mayor.  I was aware of many of the crude comments he had made about women and transgender people, but I also saw that his policies in New York were different from his actions with his company, where his misogyny was little in doubt.  In New York, he blew it with stop and frisk, but he apologized for that mistake and supported policies that helped minorities.

When it comes to the fall election, I am a pragmatist.  I believe another four years of Donald Trump will threaten our democracy.  The Republican Party has proven to be spineless in the face of Trump’s tirades, and Mitch McConnell’s actions, beginning with his refusal to bring Merrick Garland’s name before the Senate, have been reprehensible.  It is time to vote out of office those who threaten our nation’s survival.

After the early unforced errors of Joe Biden’s campaign, I agreed with those who believed we needed an alternate voice who could actually defeat Donald Trump in the fall.  Therefore, when Bloomberg’s campaign came calling, I joined.  I found his campaign to be extremely well run.  They involved me in ways appropriate to my skillset and circle of influence, and I loved working with the staff assigned to the two committees with which I served.

What I was not prepared for was the anger from my friends on the far left, most of which are dedicated and tireless workers for the oppressed.  Not only were they angry, their rhetoric was caustic.  They exhibited the same lack of tolerance for an opposing view that I have seen far too often from the far right.  I appreciate their idealism, but I am old enough to know that idealism is not what brings down tyrants.  It is the general election I am worried about, and the unfair electoral college that served us poorly in 2016.  I am now a supporter of Joe Biden because I believe he has the best chance to defeat Donald Trump in November.

This past Saturday I gave a keynote presentation at the Mark Leadership Conference at Rutgers University.  I was impressed with the dedicated students who crowded into the sold-out conference to listen to ideas about how to lead our world toward greater justice for all.  I loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

What set this conference apart was that I heard no polarizing rhetoric, no cancel culture, no denigration of those on the right.  The extremely diverse group of students were coalescing around a message of dignity and hope, the kind of enthusiasm that can reverse the polarizing rhetoric we hear too often.

In addition to my keynote address, I presented a workshop on gender equity.  The workshop attendees were thoughtful, expressive, and open to all sides of the issue.  Some of the women thought I had been too tough on men, and it’s possible they are right.  The men in attendance were open-minded and desirous of recognizing their male privilege.  The whole day was quite a contrast to my experience with those who attacked my involvement with the Bloomberg campaign.  It gave me hope that we can bring people together instead of driving them further apart, allow for divergent opinions without vitriolic rhetoric, and make progress pulling our nation together.

I am currently reading Colin Woodard’s book, American Nations, in which he writes about the 11 distinct cultures that have made their mark in our US experiment in democracy.  The book has reminded me that we have never been a melting pot, but a stew pot, with each region and people maintaining their own distinct identities.  That we have managed to last 244 years is a testament to people like the Rutgers students, committed to unity – not uniformity, equity – not equality, and respect for all.

After transitioning and going through the massive rejection I experienced from the church, I have developed a pretty tough skin.  But I don’t think I want to make any more forays into the realm of politics, at least not in the near future.  I’ve faced enough poison arrows from the far right.  I don’t need any more from the far left.  The wounds accumulate and you get weary.  I would like to live in relative peace for a while, at least until my memoir comes out.  But then I’m pretty sure I left relative peace behind when I transitioned.  It’s one of the prices you pay for believing the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good.

I’m Writing a Memoir…

I’m writing a book, a memoir to be exact.  I am extremely fortunate to have a contract with Simon & Schuster, one of the world’s premier publishing companies.  But I also have a May 31 deadline to get the completed manuscript to my editor.  And yes, I did say a May 31 deadline.  And that’d be why you haven’t heard much from me lately.  Because it’s a May 31 deadline, for a whole book, like you know, 85,000 words – due May 31.

I’ve been writing in 800-word snippets for two decades.  I attended the Folio Show for magazine editors back when I was the editor-at-large for a magazine and I remember the editor of Rolling Stone saying, “If it can’t be said in 800 words, in today’s world of short attention spans, you may as well not say it at all.”  I’m not sure if anybody from the New Yorker was there.  If so, I kinda doubt they were in agreement, given their propensity for publishing articles that require a short vacation to finish reading.  But 800 words sounded good to me.

I wrote a weekly back-page column for the  magazine for 12 years, roughly 600 columns, all somewhere between 375 and 475 words.  Since I started my blog, most of my posts have been in the 800-1000 word range.  It seems I’ve gotten verbose.

It is not easy moving from writing in short bursts to writing long form.  I have written a first draft of seven chapters of the book, and honestly, I’m not sure much of any of it will survive.  My last TEDxMileHigh talk, completed in November (and probably headed to YouTube very soon) had 36 edits.  About a month before the talk, Briar, the head TED coach, suggested I start with a blank page.  I saw her at a party last night.  She said, “But I said it to you in the nicest of ways.”  Briar says everything in a really nice way.  I don’t know what I’d do without her.  I don’t respond well to people who say hard things in a mean way.

A TED talk is fewer than 1800 words, or to put it in perspective, one 47th of a memoir.  My blog posts are about one 100th of a memoir.  Do you see my problem?  It’s like asking a gardener to take care of a 160-acre farm.  I might be in a bit of trouble.

All of this to say I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to be able to keep to my weekly schedule for blog posts, or maybe not even the every-other-week schedule I’ve been holding to since I began writing the book.  I’m sorry about that.  I can assure you I’ll be back to a weekly schedule by July.  I have to write.  It’s air to me.  I’ve been writing a weekly magazine column or blog post since 2003.  I’m not gonna stop now.  But for a while at least, you won’t see as much of my writing.  You’ll have to wait until sometime in 2021 for the book to be published.

If you’re the praying type, I’d appreciate a few prayers for the writing process.  Writing a memoir is like pulling out your own teeth with a pair of pliers.  You go into it hoping it’ll be cathartic, but at this point, it just hurts.  You’re constantly riding that D. H. Lawrence line, “A writer sheds his sickness in his writing.”  You want inspire your reader, not depress them.  You want the pain that leads to redemption, not the pain that leads to drinking.  You’re always walking that ridgeline between triumph and disaster.  I feel pretty good about the introduction, and chapter one.  Well, maybe chapter one.  And maybe chapter three.  Maybe.

In addition to my excellent editor, I have a few readers who are honest but kind.  With their help, maybe I’ll find the right tone for the memoir.  We’ll see.

If I ever say I want to write another book, please give me a call and talk me out of it.  I’ll be greatly appreciative.

Five Traits We Need Today

I spoke this week at a corporation in Washington, D.C.  I have spoken there before and I love the CEO, CPO and many of the employees I have met.  In my opinion the company is way ahead of most in the areas of gender equity, and they’re working hard on racial equity as well.  But when I finished my time there, I felt the same unease I have felt after several of my recent engagements.  In this particular case, I didn’t feel I was at my best for the presentation, which was frustrating, but that was only a part of what made me uncomfortable.

When I am speaking on issues of LGBTQ acceptance and religious tolerance, I know what the problems are, and I know the solutions.  And the best part is that I see change on the horizon.  When it comes to gender equity, I do not have the same confidence.  As forward thinking as this company is, I’m not sure I have the words to effectively communicate the urgency of the need for gender equity.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult for men to truly understand the magnitude of the problem.  I find that well-educated liberal white males are some of the last to realize their significant ongoing contribution to gender inequity.  Just today a friend told me of a non-profit CEO who told his employees that his replacement would be a man of color.  He missed the fact that he is not the one who gets to make that decision.  It is the board that will choose his successor.  Even when white men believe they are doing what is right, they often do not see their own inappropriate influence.  They have been “woke,” so they believe, and they feel they have already addressed the problem.  I think of the infamous words of Donald Trump, “I am the least prejudiced person you’ll ever meet.”  Uh, huh.

If “woke” men had adequately addressed the problem, we would not still have women paid 79 cents on the dollar of what men are paid.  We would have more than 5.5 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 6 percent of Silicon Valley companies led by women.  At the rate America is going, it will be 100 years before we have pay equity, let alone any other kind of equity.

When it comes to living as a female, I am a novice.  I lived decades as an entitled male, and I have only lived six years as a female.  But that does not mean I do not see my power diminishing.  My words are not weighted as heavily as a man’s.  I am not judged on the aggregate body of my work, but only on my most recent offering.  I am constantly having to prove my abilities.  I am more often interrupted when I speak, and when it comes to being hired or booked for an event, there is a much higher bar for me than for men with the same level of expertise.

Recently I made a recommendation to a nonprofit that was on the whole, rejected.  In my previous work I had made very similar recommendations dozens of times.  Not once, ever, were the recommendations rejected.  Were they accepted in the past because the recommendations were sound, or because I was the long-term CEO of the organization overseeing the nonprofit, or because I was a powerful white male?  More than likely it was all three.

I do believe things can change, but it is going to require both men and women to make adjustments.  Today I will write about the major shift we would see if men embraced personality traits more commonly associated with women.  For instance, deference is difficult for men.  Men equate deference with defeat.  But if men could learn the value of deference, we would get much closer to gender equity.  I realize a lot of men are allies of women.  But they don’t take the additional step of becoming accomplices.  An ally is still in charge of what he is doing.  He is the one who says, “Go get ’em!  I’m with you.”  But he’s doing it on his own terms.  An accomplice defers.  An accomplice says, “What do you want me to do to assist your cause.  You decide.”  Being an ally is not deferring.  Becoming an accomplice is deferring.

A second trait men should develop is learning to compromise.  Nowadays, compromise is seen as defeat.  Just a few decades ago we had politicians who knew compromise was a valuable art form signifying wisdom and maturity.  Not anymore.  Now men provide egregiously partisan quotes like Mitch McConnell’s infamous, “Winners make policy; losers go home.”

A third trait men could develop is the ability to truly listen.  Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men.  There are a lot of reasons there are more female psychotherapists than male psychotherapists, but I imagine one of the reasons is that there aren’t enough men willing to be quiet and listen for a full hour.  We could make major strides toward gender equity if men would not speak until every woman in the room has spoken and finished her thoughts.  It would also be wonderful if men would stop interrupters.  Nothing will change bad behavior more quickly than a well-placed, “I don’t believe she has finished talking yet.”

A fourth trait is something men complain about, incessantly.  Ever since #MeToo became a part of the American vocabulary, I hear men say, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say and not say anymore.  It’s maddening!”  That is a good thing.  Women and minorities have to give up one or more parts of themselves when they go into a meeting dominated by white males.  They have to give up their language, accent, preferred form of dress and other parts of themselves, just to accommodate the desires of the dominant culture in the room, white males.  Now, for the first time ever, those men are having to give up some comfort.  Finally there is an opportunity for white men to feel appropriately self-conscious.

A fifth trait I’d love to see men develop is the understanding that power is not a zero-sum game.  In my most recent TED talk (which by the way, should be out on video in the next week or so), I had planned to finish the talk with the following lines:  “Men, we will not achieve gender equity when you give women more power.  We will achieve gender equity when you give women your power.”   When I tested the talk out a time or two, men bristled because they saw their power diminishing.  Before the TED event I changed the line to ensure the audience that power is not a zero-sum game.  I said, “Men, we will not achieve gender equity when you make sure women have more leadership opportunities.  We will achieve gender equity when you make sure women have your leadership opportunities.”

Will men hear what I am saying?  I don’t know.  When I was crafting my latest TED talk, I told Briar, my coach, and Helena, the curator, that I wasn’t sure I could create a talk that men would truly hear.  They didn’t let me off the hook.  They said, “You need to try.  This is important.”  And so it is.  Achieving gender equity is worth the effort.  We have a long way to go, but I do see a hope on the horizon.

Good Work on a Gray December Day

Over the last couple of years Jonathan and I have done several podcasts and a few television and radio shows.  Most of the time the hosts want to focus on how my transition affected my son and our family, with a secondary focus on how the churches we serve handled it all.  Jonathan is always articulate, honest and gracious.

In December we were interviewed for All the Wiser, a podcast featured by Apple Podcasts last week and listed as one of the top 50 social and cultural podcasts in the nation.  The host of the podcast is Kimi Culp, a former producer for NBC, ABC, and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

On the day of the show the Denver sky was gray and the air felt more like a winter day in Seattle than a typical cold sunny day in Denver.  My mother had passed away two weeks earlier and I was fighting a terrible cold.  As we went into the studio where we would be connected to Kimi in LA, I was out of sorts, thinking more about the TEDxMileHigh event Jonathan and I would be leading that night than the 90-minute conversation we were headed into.

Jonathan and I sat across a table from each other, mouths close to the windscreens of our microphones, only our eyes visible to each other.  Kimi deftly switched back and forth between us with her probing and thoughtful questions.  I’d heard Jonathan answer most of the questions before.  On Red Table Talk I watched as both Jonathan and Jana articulately and emotionally spoke of the journey of the past six years.  That show has been viewed over 3.5 million times, our family story out there for the world to dissect and judge as each viewer sees fit.

On this particular December day I was emotionally exhausted.  When the interview was over I felt like my responses had been perfunctory at best.  Jonathan, as always, had been articulate and poised, honest and gracious.  While I know that telling our story is for the greater good, it is hard to hear over and over how your calling was someone else’s nightmare.  Of course, my calling was my nightmare too.  We virtually never experience a call as a moment of joy.  A call is always to a deeper and more difficult journey, more akin to a nightmare than a sweet story.  But as any Jungian therapist knows, nightmares are necessary.  They bring difficult subjects to the surface and demand that we pay them mind.  Telling and retelling our story is always exhausting, but it is also always cathartic.

Yesterday Kimi sent me the link to the podcast. It went live earlier this week. http://bit.ly/ATW_PaulaJonathanWilliams  I had no intention of listening to it last night but decided to listen to the first minute or two to see if I sounded as tired as I was that day.  Before I knew it, I had listened to the entire podcast.

Kimi asks questions as one acquainted with pain, unafraid of delving into its depths, whether it be in her own life or the lives of those she interviews.  Her questions were compassionate and thoughtful.  When it ended I thought, “All the people on that podcast were trying to get it right, to tell the truth as they understood it, clearly, succinctly, and redemptively.”

I closed the podcast and turned to one of the books I am currently reading, Living an Examined Life, by James Hollis.  I opened to page 61, where I had stopped earlier in the day, and immediately read these words:

“There is no going forward without a death of some kind:  a death of who we thought we were and were supposed to be; a death of a map of the world we thought worthy of our trust and investment; a death of expectations that by choosing rightly we could avoid suffering, experience the love and approval of those around us, and achieve a sense of peace, satisfaction, arrival home.  But life has other plans it seems; indeed, our own souls have other plans.  And there is a terrible price to pay for ignoring or fleeing those intimations and summons to depth.”

Just before that paragraph Hollis said, “If there is such a thing as the soul, then it is the soul that ultimately tips the balance toward change, toward a more authentic stance in the world.

Every day we must decide whether or not to move forward, whether or not to encounter life as it meets us and make the most of it.  At the end of the podcast Kimi asked my favorite quote.  I did not hesitate.  It is a quote from Dag Hammarskjold.  “For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.”

Always Forward, Through the Desert

William Butler Yeats said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”  Years ago I borrowed the quote and exchanged “Being Irish” for “Being a Mets fan.”  If you look up “longsuffering” in the dictionary, you will find there are no words defining it, just a picture of a group of Mets fans.  The Yeats quote still resonates.  Nowadays I might say, “Being human, she had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained her through temporary periods of joy.”  Life is good, but it is not easy.

James Hollis suggests that the two great existential threats faced by humans are overwhelmment and abandonment.  The first arrives in childhood and reminds us of our relative powerlessness in this capricious world.  While that feeling never fully dissipates, our capacity to deal with life’s capriciousness increases with age and maturity, though it is an easier journey for white males who unknowingly enter a world tilted in their favor.  Women and minorities have a tougher time.

Regardless of race or gender, we all struggle with the fear of abandonment.  It causes us to chase after achievement so we can experience the reassurance that comes from the accolades of others. The fear of abandonment is also why people remain within the confines of fundamentalism.  We hold onto outdated theologies in ways in which we would never hold on to outdated medical procedures.  We acquiesce to all of those primitive rules and prejudices because we want the security the tribe provides.  In the process we might be selling our intellectual integrity, but at least we won’t be abandoned.

For many who remain in fundamentalism, intellectual freedom is not worth the price of abandonment.  I understand.  Having been abandoned by my religious tribe (though not by all the individuals within that tribe), I know the psychological, spiritual and emotional toll of having been abandoned.  It reenforces that abiding sense of tragedy Yeats was talking about.

The fear of abandonment can cause us to stay loyal to that which we have outgrown.  We only move beyond those boundaries when something beyond the need for security  demands our attention.  We move beyond those boundaries when we finally realize we have been called to something larger and that if we ignore that call, it will be at our own peril.

We cannot answer the call to authenticity without a death of some kind.  We have to leave behind the world that has become too small for us.  We must abandon the maps that lead to decisions that diminish our lives and develop new maps that lead to decisions that enhance our lives.

It is paradoxical that even though we may really, really want to grow, we are still reluctant to abandon those old maps.  They no longer work and leave us stuck, but they are our maps dammit, and we cling to them.  That is why as much as we might want to grow, usually we do not move forward until our old maps are taken from us through an unwanted divorce, or being fired from a job, or forced out of a career.  Even though we know it is past time to abandon them, those maps have to be ripped from our hands by a force greater than our own egos.

No one changes maps without spending time in the desert.  While those of us who really want to grow might willingly undertake a few brief forays into the desert, we will always return to the land we know until returning is no longer an option.   An old adage says suffering is the fastest course to completion.  Authentic suffering forces you forward, through the desert.  No wonder it is a journey we resist, given the virtual guarantee of overwhelmment and abandonment.

If you read this blog, there is a good chance you are a person who has said yes to the desert.  In the desert I sometimes awaken with a feeling of overwhelmment and the abiding sense of tragedy Yeats wrote about.  But as the sun rises over the ridge east of my house and slowly makes it way to the mountains of Roosevelt National Forest, I am reminded just how sacred and holy this journey is.  And as I so often say, it is for the greater good.

Living authentically is the best gift we can give our children and grandchildren and the generations still to come.  It is courage and endurance that allows us to make our way forward, through the desert, in the direction of the warm and life-giving sun.  And yes, we will experience tragedy on the journey, but I dare say that if we are willing to go through the tragedy, we will discover that it is joy that truly abides.

Not Being Afraid of Yourself

I often receive encouragement about my courage and bravery and it always embarrasses me.  I had a tendency to be dismissive until I realize how genuinely these compliments were given.  Now I express thanks.  Still, I do not feel courageous or brave.

When you grow up with someone who tells you they are perfect, and that notion is reinforced by a religion that teaches you must be perfect as Jesus is perfect, you believe perfection is attainable.  Unfortunately, it causes you to feel shame about the most basic of truths, that you are human.

When we receive good ego formation we learn early in life that we are flawed, but those flaws do not make us unlovable.  When we do not receive that assurance, we spend the rest of our lives searching for proof we are loveable.  In that desperate search for acceptance, the last thing we feel is brave or courageous.

In Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chögyam Trungpa defines the warrior not as an agent of destruction but as one who is brave.  He observes, “This is the definition of bravery:  not being afraid of yourself.”

Why would we be afraid of ourselves?  As James Hollis says in Living an Examined Life, Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, “We weren’t born that way (afraid of ourselves.)  But soon we learn experientially, and increasingly consciously, that we are tiny, vulnerable, and dependent on the huge powers around us.”  He goes on to say, “Whatever powers nature invested in us are easily overrun by the forces outside of us, and so we learn to deny, even fear, the powers within.”

Hollis later says the second half of life begins not at any chronological moment, but at the point at which we are obliged to radically consider who we are apart from our histories, roles and commitments.  A lot of people never arrive at that moment.  Many are too frightened, and with good reason.  John of the Cross had a name for what Hollis is describing.  He called it the Dark Night of the Soul.

I chose to consider who I was apart from my histories, roles and commitments.  It has not resulted in an easy life.  It has required a commitment to the truth, even when that truth renders you terrified and exhausted.  Not being afraid of yourself is hard work.

I was hoping that not being afraid of myself would allow me to confront and overcome a lot of my weaknesses.  I’ve learned you don’t overcome them; you just see them more clearly, which is a mixed blessing.  You better appreciate why people become annoyed with you, but you lament that your blemishes will not be erased.  Perfectionism returning to roost.

Not being afraid of yourself demands paradoxical strengths.  You must be at once gracious and unrelenting, accepting and demanding, vulnerable and self-protective.  You must be your own prosecution and defense, and ultimately, judge.  You must see yourself with a clear but compassionate eye.  If all of that sounds hard, well…

Transitioning genders strips you of status and standing.  You discover that some people were in a relationship with you because you were useful to them.  Others cannot bear your attempt at authenticity, because they have already convinced themselves they are unable to do the same.  You are too much the reminder of the road they did not take, the one less traveled by.  And of course, there are others who truly believe you were wrong and that your transition is unforgivable.  It’s sad, but it is what it is.

While my transition was devastating for my entire family, they have all responded by choosing to go on their own Hero’s Journey, with its road of trials and deep dark cave.  I hate seeing them in pain, but I understand its necessity.  My love for them is stronger and deeper than ever.

I gravitate to friends willing to go on a similar journey, those who risk everything because they believe the truth sets us free.  They make difficult decisions and awaken the next morning with a vulnerability hangover, but move forward anyway, because they believe it is the only decent way to live.  Their belief in themselves and in a loving gracious God, propels them through the desert, unsure of the destination, but certain of the direction of true north.  Their heart knows the way.

I love these friends and family members who journey with me.  I respect the pain they uncover in my life as they also uncover pain in their own.  The truth is empowering, if painful.  It is freeing, if costly.  And as I say often, the pursuit of truth is sacred and holy and for the greater good.

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.