Thankfulness 2019

Last year I invented a new holiday to celebrate, replacing the colonial concept of giving thanks for my family’s presence on this continent. (https://reidvanderburgh.com/2018/11/22/reclaiming-thankfulness/)

As the relationship saying goes, “It’s complicated.” The United States is my home. My family’s roots go back to the Netherlands and Britain. Family roots were abroad — nearly 400 years ago. Neither the Netherlands or Britain could ever feel like Home to me as the US does.

At the same time, I feel grief for the millions who were displaced and killed as my country was developed through colonization. I can no longer celebrate Thanksgiving in the uncomplicated literally thoughtless way I did as a child. I know too much.

Thankfully — I am able to feel thankfulness, and so I now celebrate my second Thankfulness holiday.

I have had more difficulty this year articulating my thankfulness. Now the day itself has arrived, and I find my amorphous difficulty crystallizing into something I can express in words.  Last year, I formulated fairly easily a list of what I was thankful for — specific people, specific events; this year I find my thankfulness rooted not in a specific anything that I can list, but in a profound shift in how I view the world.

My prayers these days are simple: “Thank you for all the connection and loving interconnection in my life. Thank you for giving me a loving heart and allowing me to feel the love and connection to friends and family.” I finish with a bit from the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Wanting Memories: “I know that I am you and you are me and we are one. I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand. I know that I’ve been blessed again and over again.”

I am thankful for music in my life. In joining my church choir recently I have come to understand music has always been an unrecognized ministry in my life. For decades I have had the experience in one chorus or another of becoming one with the audience and feeling how profoundly the musical experience brings us together. Sharing the air thins the boundaries between us, and our interconnection is brought to the forefront for a time. I have had the experience of being picketed by the religious right in a concert setting and seeing the picket signs gradually lowered to the floor, not to be raised again. Our interconnection has another name we use more often — love, stronger than any picket sign.

In my church choir I have recently had the same experience of helping bring people together in interconnection. Love your neighbor as yourself comes from my spiritual tradition. Love. That’s the message of every spiritual tradition. And that’s what I’m thankful for this year — feeling the love. And being in two choirs, with twice the opportunity to share the love.

I Before E. Take 2!

On June 5, 2019 I published a blog entry titled “I Before E”. In it, I wrote the following: “Looking at myself through the Myers-Briggs lens, I am an INFP. (Myers-Briggs assessment). The N and F and P are clear and beyond debate. (iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) The I (Introvert)? Not so much!”

In fact… The introvert? Not anymore!

I was first introduced to the Myers-Briggs assessment while in college. I don’t remember the exact class or the exact year, but it would’ve been sometime in the late 1990s. At the time, I scored undeniably INFP. I was not near the middle of the spectrum on any axis of the assessment.

In August 2019, I visited my home territory of the Bay Area. I made arrangements to get together with various friends and colleagues, one of whom is a psychologist. I looked for his phone number on his website, and happened upon a link to the Myers-Briggs assessment. Having just written the piece “I before E,“ the Myers-Briggs had been on my mind. On a whim, I clicked on the link and redid the assessment. Much to my astonishment… E NFP. Once again, the N and F and P are clear. No surprise there. And… ??? By a wide margin, E.

Over the years, my identity has found itself challenged multiple times. In 1974, falling in love with a woman, I concluded I was a lesbian. It had never before occurred to me to question my identity, and my world was rocked upside down.  In the mid-1990s, my identity was shaken to the core again upon the realization that I am a transman and not a lesbian. With my first assessment proclaiming me INFP, I read about this personality type; I felt a sense of coming home to myself. I have embraced INFP as my identity for over 20 years.

When did I become an ENFP?! How does this even happen?! My self conceptualization is turned on its head once again, visioning myself as an E instead of an I. And yet, re-reading “I Before E,” my extrovert nature is so clear! I love teaching, speaking with groups of people, meeting new people. I most enjoy myself when I’m with others, not when I’m alone. Sure, I need my down time, but too much of it drains me, rather than recharging me as it would a true introvert.

How does an introvert become an extrovert? Answer: when the introvert never really was an introvert because of personality type. Of all the scales on the Myers-Briggs, I believe the range between I and E is the most heavily influenced by social factors. At earlier times in my life, repressing my trans identity from my own awareness had the social effect of introverting me.

I have spent the past seven weeks living with my sister. I have never before lived with my sister as an adult. I was seven years old when she married and moved out of our family home. If the Myers-Briggs assessment was not enough of a clue to me, living with someone who is a true I tells me all I need to know about myself as an E. My sister much prefers being by herself to being in the company of others. She needs a great deal of alone time. I find myself leaving the house in order to be with others, even if they are people I don’t know. If I have been alone too long, particularly if I am not focused on a project, I find myself reaching out to others for connection, preferably in person or by phone. In retrospect, I hid behind the identity of I, and now feel much more at home embracing myself as E.

There is a lot of power in labels. I encourage all of us to reflect on the various labels others have put on us, and that we have put on ourselves, at various times in our lives. If you used the Myers-Briggs assessment at one point, do it again; if you have at one time or another needed to use repression or denial as a defense, if you have since centered more fully into who you are, your Myers-Briggs types may have shifted as well. The capacity for surprising ourselves is infinite.

 

Conditional Privilege

Yesterday was a rarity for me, a bus day. I loved not having to drive a series of errands downtown. My last commitment of the day was a meeting that adjourned at 8:30. I waited for the bus on a bustling street, alone in checking my phone but hardly alone. I didn’t give my solitary status a second (or even a first) thought.

My trip home took two buses, and it was full dark by the time I boarded the second bus. Fifteen minutes later, my stop. I started to reach for the cord to signal the driver to stop, but someone else beat me to it. And it was as I got off that I was rocketed back decades to a pre-transition time in my life as I realized: I never saw the person who also got off the bus, the person who rang the cord before I could reach it. Perhaps they were slow to reach the rear door I had used. Perhaps they were trying to go out the front door and were slow to gather parcels. Perhaps as the bus slowed they realized it wasn’t their stop and they never even moved. I don’t know.

I didn’t know where this person was. My street is fully residential. Quiet. Dark. I was SO aware I was alone. My knee was hurting from all the walking I’d been doing. I made an effort to walk without a limp. I stood up as straight as I could, to my full 6 foot height. I walked with a confidence I wasn’t feeling.

I never said to myself, “This is silly.” I lived 42 years female; it wasn’t silly at all. Was it necessary? Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m an out transman, 20+ years into physical transition and invisibly seen as a man. How safe AM I? In that situation, probably no danger at all. Note I still say ‘probably’ though I arrived home without incident.

When I teach about trans issues, I am often asked questions about male privilege, along the lines of, “What’s it like to experience male privilege now?” After last night, I have a story to tell that illustrates the concept of conditional privilege: I am safe as a white man as long as that’s how I’m perceived, with an assumption of cisgender identity. If I am known to be a white transman — am I still safe? No longer guaranteed.

I tell students: “I just came out to an entire class of people I don’t know. Am I safe when I leave here and walk back to my car?” Some of the students laugh a bit uncomfortably, as it never occurred to them I might not be safe. Those students who aren’t white don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety. Those students who live female also don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety.

I taught my first continuing education class for therapists in 2001. At that time, I didn’t yet have a website. I had just graduated with my counseling degree and had yet to establish my therapy practice. I wasn’t yet known as a trans therapist. It wouldn’t have been easy for the people taking this class to find out I was trans. I put some thought into how I would come out to them. I wanted them to assume I was cisgender and then come out, as an object lesson.

At that time, I was only a couple of years into transition; my lesbian community experience and socialization was still my framework for understanding social boundaries. With this in mind, I thought, “I know… I’ll wait until someone asks me, ‘What are you basing this on?'” I knew full well that if I was still a lesbian, teaching a class to other lesbians about some new way of looking at lesbian identity,  I would hear variations of: “Have you read so-and-so’s work? Have you considered this aspect? How do you know all this?” I assumed, as a therapist right out of grad school, teaching a class to licensed therapists who were much further along in their career, about a radical new way to view transition and gender identity, SOMEONE would ask, “How do you know all this?” I was so certain of this, I didn’t have a contingency plan for coming out. Which meant — when no  one questioned my professional authority, I didn’t come out to that class. I was thoroughly taken aback, and mightily puzzled. What just happened here???

I talked it over with a friend of mine who is a women’s studies professor, the head of the department at her college. She laughed at me and said, “It’s because they saw you as a man. I always get questioned when I teach. Some students don’t believe what I’m saying, because I’m a woman.” I was affronted on her behalf, and said, “You’re the head of the department! You have a master’s degree in women’s studies!” She kept laughing. And she was right: I was so surprised because I was being treated differently than I had been prior to transition. And the only difference was, now people saw me as a man, not as a woman. That’s male privilege playing out in my professional life. Twenty nine students took that first class: 22 women, 7 men. At a guess, I’d say over half the women were lesbians. Not one questioned my authority.

If I taught that same class today, I wouldn’t be able to use the tactic of letting people assume I’m cisgender and then course-correct them. Nowadays, many students know I’m a transman before showing up for class. Unlike the students who aren’t white, or the students who are female, my experience of privilege shifts depending on circumstance. Conditional privilege is my lived experience more often than not, out as I am as a transman. Forty-two years living female, 20+ years living openly trans — my privilege will always feel conditional, no matter the circumstance.

As I was about to hit “publish” to post this blog, a new thought occurred to me. I’m not inserting it where it would rightfully go (several paragraphs ago) to illustrate that it took overnight for this thought to occur to me: perhaps the person who rang the bell to get off the bus was a woman who saw ME get up to exit the bus and thought to herself, “Nope. I’ll get off at the next stop instead.” My privilege may be conditional, but hers doesn’t exist.

The Power of Love

I have been singing in one LGBTQ chorus or another since 1986. I have seen my share of what I call the ‘turn or burn’ banner people, paraphrasing the most common theme of the banners carried by those who picketed our concerts in the early days: “Repent now, turn from sin or you will burn in hell.” In recent years, I haven’t seen the banner people picketing Portland concerts; I’ve seen the banners at Portland Pride, the negativity of their presence subsumed by the effusive energy of 50,000 people celebrating the diversity of human identity.

In mid-April of 2019, I went to a small town in southern Oregon with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. We sang a social justice concert to an enthusiastic audience of some 300 folks packed into a small church. Our chorus custom is to greet our audience after a concert, shaking hands and thanking them for coming. With that in mind, I exited the back door of the church after the concert, heading around to the front to greet our effusive audience as they left. My heart was wide open with love of life, the universe and everything, brought on by my newfound spirituality coupled with having just poured my heart out in song. I rounded the corner only to unexpectedly encounter three banner people, blocking my way up the church steps.

Not long after this concert, various chorus members reacted on social media, writing variations on: “It’s so ridiculous those people still picket our concerts; I find it laughable.” There was a time I would have said the same – but not that day. My joy-filled heart was furious; for the first time in my life, I took on the banner people head to head. I told them I was about to be baptized and that I was so glad my God wasn’t theirs. They began a stock response, asking what my so-called religion was, but I came to my senses. The only result of this conversation would be to lead my heart away from joy. I turned my back on them and went up the steps of the church, intending that our audience encounter me before the banners and trying to recapture the uncomplicated love I’d been feeling.

After greeting our audience, I changed my clothes and as I exited the church, saw one of the banner people coming my way. I had already unloaded my anger on my baptism sponsor (also a chorus member), one of the first people I saw after coming back into the church to change my clothes. As we were leaving, she saw my path converging with the banner people, and engaged with them in front of me, running interference for me. I ran to my car and drove off, leaving her alone with the banner people (sorry, Sue!).

Our hotel was some 45 minutes north from the church. I had carpooled from Portland with a fellow chorister, who may have regretted his choice of companions during that particular stretch of our drive. There’s no other word for it – I ranted, repeating what I’d already said to my baptism sponsor. I unloaded on him (sorry, Peter!) all I had not said to the banner people. When we got to our hotel and checked in, I unloaded again on my roommate (sorry, John!).

What was I so incensed about? That the banner people had the nerve to call themselves Christian. That I also now identified as a Christian. How dare they??? In case you haven’t noticed, I am highly verbal, in person as well as in writing. I wasn’t nearly done at the end of that 45-minute drive, or after ranting to my roommate for two hours. Or was it three?

I survived the anti-gay ballot measure era here in Oregon. The banner people are aligned with the same folks who tried in 1992 to amend the Oregon constitution thus:

“All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”

They failed. Tried again in 1994. Failed again. One of my closest friends, Amy, has since become a devout Episcopalian (as I am today). Some years ago, before my own spiritual awakening, she told me, “I started going to services and it felt great but it took a long time before I would tell anyone I was going. And it was almost a year before I could bring myself to take communion.” She, too, remembered all too well that anti-gay ballot measure era, and that the impetus behind the measures was a particular brand of Christianity. For me, and for Amy before me, for countless other LGBTQ people, the process is one of reclamation – I am a Christian, my identity to claim and define. No one else has the right to define me.

There is a lot to unpack here. Throughout my life, I have claimed identities that put me within the mainstream of LGBTQ. I have received great support from various aspects of LGBTQ communities for my exploration of identity. Now, for the first time in my life, I find myself exploring and claiming an identity that is mainstream within mainstream culture – Christian – and suspect within LGBTQ space. I am a Christian. The banner people call themselves Christian. If it’s my identity to define and claim, isn’t it also theirs to define and claim? What slippery slope am I on if I say they aren’t Christian? Isn’t it the same slippery slope they’re on in saying I’m not Christian?

A few weeks after PGMC’s venture to southern Oregon, I drove south again, alone, to participate in the first-ever Pride Parade in Roseburg. Several hundred people participated, representing all of Douglas County. Several hundred exuberant, exultant people – and a dozen banner people. In June, I saw three banner people drowned out by the 50,000 attending Portland Pride. In July, I saw a dozen banner people not at all drowned out by the few hundred attending Douglas County Pride.

I had no inclination to take them on this time. My mood was wholly different, in part because I had not just opened my heart in song. I was prepared to face banner people in Roseburg. Beyond that, however, I found that my heart was moved to action not by the words of the banner people, but in support of the few who reacted as I had after the chorus concert. There were a few people apoplectic by the banner people’s presence, taking them on, arguing the Bible with them. I found my heart reaching out to those who were so upset.

I didn’t take action – I’m still unfolding and didn’t understand precisely what’s my move here? I expect next year, I’ll have a better understanding. My impulse this year was along the lines of approaching an upset person and leading them away by the hand, providing a sounding board and helping them understand that there are better uses of their energy. Confrontation merely drains positive energy from an LGBTQ person or ally. That’s not the energy that will change a banner person’s heart.

The power of loving interconnection is my key – not engaging with the banner people, and holding safe loving space for those reacting from a place I understand from personal experience. Yes, the banner people are on the wrong side of history (I believe). Yes, their message isn’t truly that of Christ (I believe). And yes, love is the answer (I know). Loving interconnection includes a connection to banner people. They are in my prayers: that they eventually understand the error of their ways, that they can repair their own relationships with those they have hurt, and that they don’t cause more damage in the meantime. I pray for a time when ‘they’ become part of the ‘us,’ and I pray that I am never part of the reason that doesn’t happen. I apply the concept of inclusion awareness to this situation: expanding the circle so it’s not ‘us and them’ in the circle, but a new ‘we.’

Prior to the anti-gay ballot measure era, I had no opinion about religion one way or another. I was raised in an agnostic household: “We see some people believe in religion; we don’t, but more power to them if it works for them.” There was no emotional content to my family’s reaction to religion. After fighting ballot measures 9 and 13 here in Oregon, I was never again neutral about religion. This is why it took 24 years and a trip to China for me to properly understand my own 1995 spiritual emergence. At that time, barely a year after Measure 13’s defeat on the ballot, how could I face the prospect of embracing Christianity myself? I had asked for help one winter night in 1995, and God responded by entering my heart. It took 24 years before I was able to face that truth. But that’s the beauty of higher powers – they act anyway, whether we say thank you or not.

So now I say it – thank you, God. The power of love is in me and around me. May it be in and around all who encounter the banner people. May it enter into the hearts of the banner people. I hold out hope. On one southern Oregon concert tour in 1993, the banner people picketed a concert. Four came into the hall and held their signs up in the back of the room. As we sang, gradually they lowered their signs and by the end of the concert, their signs were face-down on the floor, never raised again. The power of love – the power of music – this is why we sing.

Receiving the Ninth Step

I received a text message out of the clear blue this morning. I cried even as my heart lifted with joy. My young friend Roy (of course Roy is a pseudonym) is safe. And happy. And 444 days sober.

Roy wrote to us in honor of the ninth step of the principles of AA – making amends. “I realize that when things went south for me, I was unable to show up as your friend. I recognize that it must’ve been hurtful and upsetting to see me vanish like that, without a word and without proper thanks for the time you spent as my mentor, or for the beautiful meals I shared in your home.”

Hurtful? Upsetting? No. Neither of those is the way I would describe how we felt. We were worried about Roy. We feared he was dead, or homeless, lying in a gutter somewhere, unable to help himself.

I responded to Roy immediately, telling him how happy we were to hear from him, and that we had worried about him as parents would their son.

As a therapist, I worked with many clients who were either in recovery, or embarked on a recovery program shortly after we started working together. However, it’s one thing to support a client who is making amends. It’s another thing altogether to be a worried friend, waiting to hear.

To those of you reading this who are in recovery, please know this: making amends has a deeper meaning to those you reach out to than your apology for past actions. Reaching out means to us an opportunity to reestablish relationship. And, it allows us the peace of mind of knowing that you are safe. You are alive. You mattered to us before you got into recovery; you matter to us still.

The honest undertaking of the ninth step means that your peace of mind, your centeredness, does not depend on our reaction to your reaching out. You are doing this on your own behalf, not to please someone else. I just wanted you to know.

Still needed after all these years

This morning I listened to a voicemail on the Portland PFLAG phone line. The caller was a woman in tears, most distressed at having realized she is a lesbian. “This morning” is June 6, 2019. I make note of the date because this distressed phone call seems more like a reaction from decades ago.

The Portland Pride parade is a week away. At PFLAG, we are having back-and-forth email exchanges about who is staffing the booth when, do we have enough PFLAG Loves Me stickers to lovingly sticker every person who attends the parade and festival? I also sing in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. Every year, I face the dilemma – which contingent do I parade with?

Long lost in my history is the visceral memory of when this dilemma did not exist. There were no contingents, just a general mass of people marching in the street with signs seeking visibility, social safety, and some level of legal protection. This parade was not yet a parade, with joyful spectators lining the streets. It was a protest march, unpublicized and taking the general public unaware every year.

Had this woman called for support at that time, pretty much anyone would have understood the angst she was going through. Coming out and coming to feel okay about your identity was a difficult process at a time when there were no positive mainstream representations of any form of acronym-based identity.

And – does that mean it isn’t difficult today? This voicemail of June 6, 2019 says that it is. As a therapist, I understand that the pace of change is slowest at the family level. We will have equal protection laws on the books long before we can safely say that most families are completely fine when someone comes out with an acronym-based identity. Many families are more fine than they used to be, and  people are coming out at increasingly younger ages, but there is still a long way to go before we can say acronym-based identities are just as valid within US society as straight or cisgender identities.

Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate, and this is the focus of Pride in this day and age. With the upbeat tone of the Parade and the largely-positive media coverage, it can be easy to miss the fact that there are still people who need a great deal of support when they come out.

If this woman comes to Pride and sees nothing but smiles and laughter all around her, I hope she is able to make her way to the PFLAG booth where she will find the people who will give her the biggest hug she is able to receive on this day of celebration. Perhaps then she would be able to look back on Pride as a personal celebration, the anniversary of receiving her first congratulatory hug for saying out loud, “I am a lesbian.” And her first PFLAG Loves Me sticker.

I Before E

Not long ago, I was given an impromptu opportunity to play stage manager for two friends who were rehearsing a duet. Their performance was that evening, and they were more than a little scattered with excitement. I took charge, making sure they had all their costumes together, their props, and that we left on time. I drove.

Nearly 40 years ago, my friend Pam asked me if I would be the stage manager for a newly-forming theater company. I had never even heard the term ‘stage manager’ before, but I readily agreed to come along and see what it was all about. A number of my friends were part of this new endeavor, and I wanted to support them and be part of it all.

Pam knew full well what a stage manager did, and knew that it was right up my alley: Keeping track of all the details of a production, finding the right props, making sure they were placed backstage in the right place, riding herd on the actors to make sure they were in the right place at the right time, etc.

Playing stage manager for my two friends in preparation for their duet took me back to a role I had not played in several decades. I was able to put the role on but the experience also showed me how much I have changed.

Time was, I would have described myself as a detail-oriented person, as behooves a stage manager. Now I find myself more at home in the big picture. Post-transition, post-spiritual awakening, I find that my natural inclination is to view the big picture. Prior to understanding my identity, I wasn’t living in the details so much as I was hiding in them. I could not afford to look at the big picture; I would have found it difficult to maintain the needed distance between myself and my true identity as a transman.

Looking at myself through the Myers-Briggs lens, I am an INFP. (Myers-Briggs assessment) The N and F and P are clear and beyond debate. (Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) The I (Introvert)? Not so much! It all depends on the circumstances…

The following anecdote will come as a complete surprise to anyone who knows me. When I was in eighth grade, 13 years old, one of my English class assignments was to give a three minute speech to the class, on the topic of our choice. All term long, I managed to evade my turn. I was terrified at the thought of speaking in front of my class. On the last day of class, the teacher called on those of us who had managed to evade the speech, and we had to get up in front of the class and with no preparation at all give some kind of a speech.

Of course, I was the first person the teacher called on. I got up,  petrified and certain I would have absolutely nothing to say, and then inspiration struck. What happened in that moment is something I have experienced often since, but this was my first time to feel the exhilaration of holding court with an audience. I started talking about how terrible the cafeteria food was, and my classmates erupted in applause and laughter. I was giddy with the excitement of performing.

Looking back at various such experiences over the years, I believe that my identity as an ‘I’ was largely determined by my need to stay out of the limelight: I did not want to be noticed – as a girl. (And thinking back to that eighth grade class, especially not as a 13-year-old girl!)

I am very comfortable as a teacher, leading workshops, facilitating groups, giving speeches – put me in front of an audience, and I am in my element. I won’t even say “put me in front of an audience as long as I prepare, and I am in my element.” I am perfectly willing to spontaneously get up in front of an audience and talk about almost any subject.

Does that make me an E on the Myers-Briggs spectrum? Not precisely. I still prefer the company of a few good friends at a time, rather than a large group of acquaintances. I would not want to go to a party where I didn’t know anybody. If I find myself in that kind of situation, I look around for the other introverts in the room, and pick one that I think I would like to talk to. We then go off in a corner and become friends.

One of the gifts of transition is the opportunity to revisit who we really are. I am nowhere near the ‘I’ that I would’ve thought earlier in my life. That quadrant of the Myers-Briggs assessment is especially open to reevaluation post-transition. Many of us were not really introverts at earlier times in our lives, but it sure made a convenient hiding place.

A 24-year-old epiphany

It’s been about 9 months since my return from touring China with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. How appropriate — long enough as a gestation time. In the first few months after my return, I attempted to make sense of the spiritual awakening that came my way during that 10-day trip. I have never in my life had such an intense experience in such a short period of time, changing me to the core. Given that I include transition in the mix, that gives an idea of how life-changing this trip was for me.

I puzzled and wrote and processed with several helpful friends during the fall of 2018. I came away from all that conversation with a much more centered perspective on my identity: I am an honorary lesbian transman, happily married to a woman, singing baritone in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. All me, all the time. I was at peace with my identity, though still mystified by the speed of my spiritual emergence. I didn’t yet see there was a connection between these various processes.

Come January 2019, I began preparing for my baptism, approaching on April 20. Extending my introspection about identity during the fall, I became more introspective about the history of my spiritual identity. My curiosity was aroused.

During the summer of 1995, as I have written in several blog entries recently, I experienced a breakdown of self and identity unlike any other that has ever come my way. However, sometime during the winter of 1995, my life did an abrupt about-face. I went back to school, got my Bachelor’s degree, went off to graduate school, got my Master’s degree, became a therapist, wrote two books, numerous book chapters, and built a life for myself. Oh, and in the midst of all this change and growth, I transitioned. So… I went from a complete breakdown of identity and sense of self to a jubilant sense of renewed purpose and joy in life? Why? What just happened here? I came back from China asking that same question.

Recently I re-read some of my writings from my grad school days, and therein lay the answer, not only to the mystery of why my life did an abrupt about-face that winter of 1995, but also a new explanation for China:

“I still had periodic bad times, particularly on Friday nights. Sundays had structure because of evening choir rehearsals, but Saturdays had no structure to them, and a structured schedule was much of what held me together that fall and winter. I dreaded Friday nights, always followed by a day with no structure. Whenever I had bad nights, I would wake from a crushingly depressing dream, always, it seemed, at 3 AM. I came to dread 3 AM, a time when I felt no one else existed in the world.

“One such night I woke and was so depressed and in such despair that I just said through my tears, to no one in particular, “Help me. I can’t do this anymore.” And suddenly I felt… lighter. I would not describe it as the presence of God or any other deity known (or unknown) to humanity. I just felt a release from the sense of isolation I had lived with for so long. I no longer felt alone and knew I had come through a darkness that would never be quite so overwhelming again as it had been in recent months. I later learned to call this the dark night of the soul, and to realize I had survived a spiritual emergency. All I knew at the time is that I was through the worst.“

When I re-read this passage, describing a night I had forgotten, I laughed at myself. These days, spiritually woke, I would totally call this “the presence of God, or any other deity known (or unknown) to humanity.” Before this visitation by grace, I was a complete mess. After… well, the rest is history.

After… There were clues along the way that my real spiritual awakening began not in China, but that winter night in 1995. Here are a few examples:

  • I chose a graduate school that focused on a holistic view of people as a mind-body-spiritual whole.
  • My mother and sister both died in 2004. I was alone on Christmas Eve, and overwhelmingly lonely. What did I do? I took myself off to church. I looked to religion for solace. I didn’t find it – I wasn’t ready to be open enough for that; nevertheless, church is where I went.
  • When I met Cristina in 2007, a devout Orthodox Christian woman, I investigated converting to Orthodoxy. If this tradition were already welcoming and affirming, which some generations from now it will be, I would have converted happily. My deepest spiritual experiences have been in Orthodox services, long before the trip to China that turned out to be the last step on my journey. (Or perhaps I should say, the first step on the next stage of my journey)

China was not a 10-day experience that resulted in a spiritual emergence. China provided the last bit of catalyst needed to allow me to recognize my 1995 spiritual emergence for what it was. China provided exactly the right factors:

  • We were in a country where I saw no churches for 10 days, allowing me to experience my spirituality without external influence. Back in the 1990s, I was deeply and negatively affected by the anti-gay ballot measures put forth by a few fundamentalist Christians. I had never realized how much those experiences affected me until I didn’t see a church on every corner.
  • Traveling about all day every day by bus, we were in a country where not only did we not understand the language, we couldn’t even read the signs out the bus window, forcing us to interact all the more deeply with each other. I had long conversations about transition, religion, and my history, revisiting my early transition time for the first time since I experienced it. One of my bus mates was a deeply spiritual person, affording me an opportunity to talk about trans identity in the context of my emerging spirituality, for the first time ever. I needed that witness, a non-judgmental person who was wholly supportive of my process and would later become my baptism sponsor. (Episcopal)

I have noticed a striking parallel between my transition process and my spiritual emergence process. In 1995, asking the simple question, “What would it be like for me to walk around the world as a man?” changed my self-perception forever, in the realm of gender. It had taken me three months of angst and breakdown of identity to reach that simple question. China provided a confluence of conditions balanced and poised in such a way that they provided the final catalyst, allowing my spirituality to emerge in its fullness, ready to be labeled accurately. Perhaps because it was my second go-round with identity questioning, and I was starting from a more centered place to begin with, it only took 10 days in China for me to come back with a new self-perception, that of a religious person. Ten days – and 24 years.

 

Intention is Everything

Lent took on a whole new meaning for me this year. Having a newly-awakened spirituality, I learned what the season actually means. Like most of my non-religious friends, I used to crack jokes about Lent, viewing it as a form of self-imposed martyrdom: “So what are you giving up for Lent this year?” It always seemed to me faintly ridiculous to give up a favorite food or beverage just because Easter was coming.

Now I understand Lent as an opportunity for self-examination and exploring my life. What are my goals? How do I approach each day such that I am fulfilling my Nia? One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Nia means purpose, as in the purpose of my life. In undertaking this level of self-examination deeply, I surprised myself by being most drawn toward examining my eating habits. Am I really hungry, is that why I’m eating right now? Why did I choose to eat what I am eating? How do I feel now that I’ve eaten it? How do I know when I’ve had enough? My eating habits became more conscious than not.

At various times in my life, I have tried to modify my eating habits. This change in behavior has usually been the result of a conversation with some kind of healthcare professional. In other words – a diet. My Lent exploration marked the first time I have looked at my food intake and food choices from an approach that was not based in physical health, or on someone else’s input. My approach this time was one of curiosity, without judgment of the answer.

In the five months since the beginning of Lent, I have lost 45 pounds. I know this because my wife was curious, as my clothes were fitting differently. I was wearing shirts I have not worn in 15 years. I can’t wear any of my pants without cinching a belt. My wife asked me to weigh myself; she now tells me I’m half the man I used to be. Because I had not been approaching this as a diet, it had not occurred to me to weigh myself during the process.

I call my new approach to food, intentional eating.

  1. Am I hungry? This may seem like an easy question, but it is also a loaded one. There are many kinds of hunger. So – is my stomach empty and my system craving the nutrition of food? Or am I seeking to fill a different kind of emptiness and using comfort food to do it?
  2. What do I most want to eat? This also may seem like an easy question. However, what is nutritionally sustaining to my body may not match the foods I have thought of as comforting in the past. Because I am now eating to sustain my body, I am more aware of what my body craves as sustenance. I inhabit my body in a new way.
  3. How do I feel now that I’ve eaten it? There are various foods that are no longer a regular part of my diet. I’ve realized I don’t have a sense of well-being after eating bread, for instance. So, I no longer buy it. I’ll have some garlic bread with eggplant parmesan. They go together. And, my body will tell me one piece is enough.
  4. How do I know when I have had enough? If I am eating for reasons other than sustaining myself physically and mentally, the part of me that is aware that I’ve eaten enough may be silenced. If I am eating to fill an emotional need, the physical cue of feeling full will not quiet that appetite. Most often, my hedonism used to get in my way; I would continue to eat because it tasted good, my taste buds overruling my body’s attempts to say, “We’ve had enough now!”
  5. I am hedonistic about food. Faced with a table full of my favorites, I let my body dictate my choices. It will tell me when I’ve had enough. This probably means eating a little more than enough; the resulting feelings in my stomach will be sufficient cue to stop. What I find is that ‘enough’ is a much smaller quantity than I would ever have predicted pre-Lent.

Because my intentions don’t stem from an external source, I have been able to take these questions seriously. I don’t use them to beat myself up. If I eat a bit more at one meal then another, I am doing so because the answers to the above questions informed how much I ate. What I have learned is, once I take these questions seriously, I don’t find comfort food comforting emotionally. It just makes me feel sick; the quantities I used to have to eat to comfort me were far more than my body could enjoy. However, in taking these questions seriously, I am also taking myself more seriously. And in so doing, I am able to look at my emotional needs seriously as well and address them more appropriately than by eating.

A byproduct of intentional eating is that I am able to understand what my body wants as sustenance. I would rather have an orange for dessert than ice cream. If I have cake, I’m satisfied with a bite. Cake does not appeal as a form of sustenance. My taste buds enjoy the bite; the rest of my body would not enjoy an entire piece. I thoroughly enjoy my morning coffee, but after a cup and a half, it stops being enjoyable. So I stop drinking it for the day. A backhanded advantage to being a food hedonist – I enjoy my food far too much to be willing to feel sick from eating it.

I am eating what human beings were always meant to eat, the fruits of the land. Without a lot of processing. I’m not eating raw, I do cook things, but the things I’m cooking are all things that my ancestors would have recognized as coming right off the farm. I feel more in touch with myself as a creature of the earth. This feeling of harmonious connection has led me in the direction of becoming vegetarian.

I am writing this blog entry in large part because various friends have approached me in the past few weeks. A 45-pound weight loss is noticeable, and they have noticed. I’ve been asked variations on, “How did you do it?” I have told them about my approach, my conceptualization of intentional eating. That’s the easy part. Harder to convey is that the more important question for me is, why did I do it? The food-consciousness approach I’ve taken is the basis for many diet plans. For me, however, this weight loss has been a by-product of a wholly different goal. Losing weight wasn’t my goal; being mindful of my Self and how I move through the world was my goal. During this Lent season, this seems to have translated to mindfulness about food.

The Gift of Social Media

I have quite a presence on Facebook. Just ask any of my 943 Friends. I consider it one of my missions in life to make people laugh, or to feel better by lifting them out of the mundane or depressing for a moment. I often read posts from people slamming social media – people are disconnected from each other because they’re always on their phones, it’s too easy for disagreements to escalate to a point of never speaking to someone again, etc.

There is merit in these criticisms. There is a photo collage on a wall in my local queer community center. The collage depicts a time I remember well, the early 1990s when Oregon was facing the first of several anti-gay ballot measures. Most of the pictures were taken at public events of one kind or another – marches, rallies, political speeches. What struck me most was the undivided attention being given the speakers. Every eye was focused on one thing, and one thing only. Our attention was unanimous.

A photo of the same event today would capture a scene with half the people not paying attention because they are texting, and the other half not paying attention because they are taking pictures of the speaker and everyone else at the rally, including themselves. The remaining 5% are listening but not with full attention because they are irritated by the majority. Everyone is operating on the assumption they don’t need to pay attention in the moment because the speech will be widely available later via their favorite social medium. And they’re right.

I sing in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. I know full well that much of the power of our performance comes from sharing the air with our audience, singing live and in person. Recordings of the chorus are far less powerful than the chorus live. The same holds true for life in general – the point is to LIVE it, not RECORD it.

If I feel this way, then why have I titled this piece the GIFT of social media? Several reasons…

Sandra. Kathleen. Naomi. Dawn. Gayle. People from my past – some I haven’t seen in over 40 years – with whom I wouldn’t be in touch at all if we hadn’t found each other on Facebook. These reconnections are reason enough for me to look kindly on Facebook.

And there’s another reason. My brother died on March 13. Writing comes as naturally to me as breathing. Part of my grieving process meant sitting at the keyboard letting my feelings flow in words. I wrote a eulogy for my brother and posted it to Facebook. Within hours, I had received such an outpouring of loving support, exactly right for me in that moment.

For someone more on the introverted side, the support I received that day was perfect. I would not have wanted to face the in-person support of 150 people saying some variation of, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” As it is, I was able to feel the love and not feel alone, while being alone.

Used properly, social media provides a level of connection quite comfortable for an introvert. The danger for the introvert is to use Facebook to completely replace face-to-face interaction. Sharing the air is still important. At chorus rehearsal after I posted my brother’s eulogy, several people came up to me and gave me big hugs. Perfect support for this introvert – 150 people giving me support through Facebook, and five giving me heartfelt hugs. I felt the love.