On Being Believed

I recently watched a video clip of a school board meeting during which the voice of a lone advocate for the rights of transgendered students was drowned out by the pious singing of “Jesus Loves Me” by hundreds of opponents. As I watched, I flashed back to standing in the back of a junior high auditorium in my hometown in 1999, as hundreds of my fellow townsfolk gathered to address the menace of possibly not discriminating against gay people. I remember the signs, the hands to Heaven, the self-righteousness. I remember recognizing people. I could imagine how that woman felt — surrounded by a roiling mass of hate, fear, and ignorance.

All of a sudden, it seems like the national consciousness has focused on the rights of transgendered individuals, and, unfortunately for such individuals, their pleas for decency appear, at times, overshadowed by our cultural prudishness, uncomfortableness with our bodies, bodily functions, and any expression of maleness or femaleness outside a narrowly conceived boundary. It’s heartening to witness the President and his administration coming down on the side of tolerance, compassion, and common sense. It’s a challenge, though, because the biggest challenge for transgendered individuals is the same challenge faced by gay and lesbian folks: being believed.

At the heart of all opposition to gay rights, whether it’s military service, marriage, adoption, employment, housing, or public accommodations, is the notion that homosexuality is a choice. That, somehow, us gay folk could change if we really wanted to. If we wanted it bad enough. If we prayed enough. If we were religious enough. And, when none of those things worked, we just proved to those that would deny us our full humanity the depth of our immorality, perversion, and worthlessness. For some, they simply could not believe that we love who we love and, like them, have no control over it.

Now the same folks must accept that some people born of one gender identify with another gender. That some men feel, with every fiber of their being, that they are a woman. That some women, in every part of their soul, feel as though they are a man. And, for some, this culminates in surgery to permanently change their sexual appearance. For other, for a myriad reasons, the changes are less radical but every bit as fundamental. It’s not a whim. It’s not a passing fancy. And, maybe it’s not the norm, but it’s their normal.

The new challenge is to convince enough — not all, but enough — fair-minded Americans that transgendered individuals are telling the truth. They aren’t degenerates. They aren’t evidence of the devil. They aren’t unnatural. They aren’t the result of a President opponents hate because, truth be told, they feel his skin color is a disqualifying characteristic. They only want what others take for granted: to be heard, to be respected, to be treated fairly. To be believed.

Back in 1999, as I stood in the back of the gymnasium, I watched as my old martial arts instructor joined the throng, and I watched as one of the attorneys in the firm I worked for took to the stage to explain legal tactics to deny local civil rights protections to gay people. Undoubtedly, the crowd contained other friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. I couldn’t help but wonder then: what if I could just go up and say, “It’s me. The person you like. The person you respect. Why can’t you believe that this is who I am and that there isn’t anything wrong with me?”  I know it probably wouldn’t have made any difference, and that’s the most traumatizing aspect of it all: to know yourself but not be believed.


On Our Broken Bodies

After shoulder surgery at the beginning of the year, I grudgingly cut my exercise regimen to walking and not much more. Five months later, I started to jog again, but, today, almost ten months later, I enjoy a bonus gift from my surgery: ten pounds I can’t seem to lose. I feel like my body is saying, “Hey buddy, cut on me, I’m making you have all your slacks taken out.”

The weight gain after the shoulder surgery is really just the latest in a long line of betrayals. It’s difficult to pinpoint when it started. The 2014 bunion diagnosis? The 2013 orthotics for flat feet? The odd eye rash of 2012? The accelerating hair loss around 2010? The knee surgery of 2005? The need for glasses in 2001? The pulled hamstring of 1989?

Maybe there’s no real starting point. Maybe, once we reach adulthood, we’re all at war with ourselves, relentlessly and unsuccessfully bridging the gap between our limitless spirits and our increasingly limited bodies. Aches, pains, injuries, diseases — we want to be whole, our spirits are whole, but our bodies break down. Biological entropy.

Of course, it’s not just the failures that bother us, it’s the inadequacies too. The nose that is too large. The breasts that aren’t big enough. The spare tire. The bubble butt. The muffin top. At my gym, I frequently run into a fellow exerciser. He vigorously pumps away at the weights, working his shoulders, arms, and chest relentlessly. And, his efforts have produced results; he, indeed, has very large upper body muscles. When one glances down, however, you see the skinniest toothpick legs you’ve ever seen. Maybe he can’t put on muscle in his legs. Maybe he doesn’t want to. Who knows, but he stands as an odd (top heavy) testament that, even with our best efforts, the end result is still sometimes less than balanced, less than aesthetically pleasing.

Yesterday, I read an article about the fruitlessness of dieting. Turns out, the vast, vast majority of dieters gain almost all lost weight back within two years, regardless of the specific diet, age, sex, income, and any other health factor. That’s a bummer, but, hey, go ahead and have that dessert. What does it matter!? It’s just more evidence that, despite our ceaseless attempts to control our bodies, we most often fail, coming up short (or fat or skinny or lame or hurt or sick, etc.).

Perhaps we need to come to peace with these imperfect, frequently broken vessels we’ve been gifted. We should be active. We should try to eat a healthy diet. But we can’t expect that even perfect efforts will yield perfect results. They don’t and never have. The sooner we accept our broken bodies, the sooner we see the unblemished, amazing beauty staring back at us in the mirror.

On an Annual Goodbye

Edith Thomas slowly guided her silver sedan around the lush hills of Sparrow’s Trace Cemetery. It was a clear, sunny day in early October, but, at 79, she no longer trusted her eyes and reflexes as she once did. So, she drove slowly, humming her favorite hymns and pulling her hair back gently with her left hand. She slowed as she crested the high hill, pausing to look at the Gentry mausoleum as she always did. Still standing and still beautiful.

Edith glided down the hill, past the Smiths, the Flannigans, and the Browns, and she turned gently left at the Turners and the Vincents. As she arrived at the Memory Pond, she pulled over onto the side of the road and parked. A look in the mirror, a flutter of the eyes, a purse of the lips, a sniff of the nose, and an application of makeup later, she gingerly opened the door and stepped out.

Underneath the car landed two black flats, worn but still presentable at church. Like a series of blocks landing on each other came the hose, black skirt, thin black belt, cream blouse, black jacket with jade broach, and jade necklace. The assemblage was topped by a surprisingly youthful face, rose cheeks and deep eyes surrounded by an oval perimeter further fenced by short silver hair. Small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth betrayed her, but she bore a posture and pose of a woman twenty years her junior.

Edith took her flowers from the rear seat, shut the car door, and walked across the road and onto the grass leading to the Memory Pond. The grass was thick with the summer’s growth, and it appeared her slight frame did little to challenge the combined strength of the blades. She arrived at a small stone bench, her favorite, and sat, admiring the complete view of the pond. Ringed by Northern Red Oak trees, the blue-green water of the pond shimmered as if on fire when the breeze danced across. She closed her eyes, felt the sun on her face, and leaned back on her hands. She could hear the wind and the birds and a stray insect or two, as always, and, most importantly, she could hear nothing else.

She had first come to Sparrow’s Trace Cemetery thirty years ago to bury her parents. Then, she had the strength of her husband Kevin and daughter Emily to lean on. To depend on, really. Ten years later, with Emily living on the other coast, it was much more difficult when it came time to say goodbye to Kevin. Her college sweetheart. Her best friend. Her everything.

Her mind wandered to the breakfast table 21 years earlier. That’s when it started. Like every other morning, she had made Kevin his oatmeal and sliced his apple. It was just one of the daily rituals that gave their lives meaning and order and, honestly, happiness. They talked about Emily’s impending marriage, town gossip, and other things that surely seemed important. An hour later, that’s the first time Kevin felt ill. A pain in the stomach. She wrote it off to indigestion, but it didn’t resolve for hours. A few days later, the same thing. The next week, again.  Then, Edith and Kevin began the dance so many knew so awfully well: doctors, tests, more doctors, more tests, the Big C, tears, treatment, tears, treatment, exhaustion, treatment, hope, more treatment, more exhaustion, more tears.

A year later, at Kevin’s bedside in the hospital, while Emily had gone downstairs to get some coffee, Edith held Kevin’s hand as she watched him slip away. There was no commotion, no dramatics, no furious heroics from doctors and nurses. Fear becoming reality was surprisingly quiet. Edith just sat and held his hand. She knew the thought — that if she never let go he wouldn’t either — was foolish, but she couldn’t will herself to move. Edith felt Emily come into the room with the coffee, but to move to acknowledge her, to recognize her own daughter, entailed finishing her final moment with Kevin. No force in the universe could have caused that. She stared at Kevin, frantically trying to take as much in as possible, clawing against time, fighting in silence against an undefeated foe. It was not until Emily’s hand landed gently on her shoulder that the spell was broken. Still undefeated. Emily never knew that Edith’s subsequent tears embodied her anger at her for breaking the spell as much as they represented the pain of losing her husband.

Edith glanced around the pond and watched the ducks swim. For many years after Kevin’s death, Edith felt just like those ducks — grace on the surface, but kicking and struggling like hell underneath the whole time. She came to the cemetery often to visit and that helped ease the pain to some extent. Like oatmeal and sliced apples, the ritual of the cemetery visit gave her grief order. Maybe even meaning. Eventually, she visited only on Kevin’s birthday, October 4. And, so, today, it was time for Edith and her grief to take a visit. And today, she had an important message for Kevin.

She got up from the bench and carried her flowers halfway around the pond. She carefully walked up and over a slight hill and into a large expanse dotted with trees and shrubs. She smiled as she passed the Callahans and the Benders, the Julians and the Roosevelts. Edith finally came to a large, gray headstone, beautiful in its simplicity. “Kevin Bryant Thomas, October 4, 1936 to May 17, 1995, Father, Husband, Son, and Friend” As she knelt to put the white roses down in front of the tombstone, her left hand rested on top of the stone and felt its warmth. She enjoyed the sensation more than she would have thought. After all these years, she still wanted Kevin comfortable, as silly as it was, and after all that had happened.

She stepped back and took in the scene. Behind the stone and white roses, the hill fell away gradually, undulating as far as the eyes could see. Trees dotted everywhere and melted into the sky. It was a beautiful vista, one of endless possibility for spirits with no possibility. She looked around and noticed numerous flowers in front of various tombstones and took comfort in at least that level of life in this place. She cleared her throat and looked again at Kevin’s tombstone.

“I’m back. Happy birthday. You’d be 79 today, Kevin. I always did like being married to a younger man.”

She looked away, smoothing her skirt with her hand. The wind had picked up.

“I think about you every day. I do. And I know I don’t cry anymore. I can’t cry anymore, Kevin. I don’t think you’d want me to cry.”

Her eyes watered.

“Well,” she began to laugh at herself, “maybe I still cry every once in a while.”

Her small chest began to heave a little, and she wrapped her arms around herself. She stood contrapposto, fighting for the right angle to balance her sadness against the wind. Her oval face trembled now, the emotions of decades acting like tectonics, moving, shifting, shearing underneath and overtop one another, all under the surface, evidence by the slightest twitch of her eyes, jerk of her lip.

“Twenty years, Kevin. Twenty years. I have come here every year for twenty God damn years.”

She smoothed her hair back and relaxed her shoulders. The wind had died down, mirroring the slow release of all that Edith had held back for the last year.

“Last year, Emily and Joe came here with me on your birthday. We stood here, told Joe our favorite memories of you. Made him laugh. You would have been a good father-in-law to him. That night, they asked me to move out to California with them. And Kevin,” the tears were tumbling down to the thick, full, green grass, “Kevin, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to leave you. I know, I know, but I didn’t want to leave you. Leave these visits. It was our life. Our life, Kevin, it was here. And it was a happy life.”

Edith stopped, pausing over her last words, looking away, unable to face Kevin or at least his earthly stone representative. Her shoulders had drawn up again, her hand cupping the broach he had given her on their 20th wedding anniversary.

“I told Emily and Joe that I would have to think about it.”

She wiped the tears away and caught her breath. Red leaves tumbled about her feet, one brilliant red leaf lodging in the white roses.

“While they were here on their visit. They helped me move some things up and down from the attic. Joe’s a strapping boy. He lugged those boxes up and down like it’s nothing. He brought down your old trunk from the attic. One of your old football programs caught his eye. We enjoyed looking at our college yearbooks. We were so young, Kevin. So young. When they left to go back to California, I looked around in your trunk some more.”

She paused again. Her tight face hid the delicate balancing occurring in her heart. Then, more tectonics. One plate slid underneath another, shearing off the scab she had worked so hard for the last year to build.

“I found the letters, Kevin.”

The beasts of hell had been released in slow motion.

“I’m sure you never counted on getting sick and dying so young. Were you going to get rid of them at some later date? Did you get too weak to go up to the attic to get them? Was that one thing you couldn’t ask me to help you with after your treatments? ‘Hey Kitty Kat, will you scurry on up to the attic and fetch the evidence that shows how our marriage is a scam? Thanks, hon.'”

“Did you die thinking about them? Were you keeping them to take trips down memory lane? Trips to remind you of your unfaithfulness. Trips to remind you how, with a small daughter and wife at home, you carried on a double life with a cheap office harlot for four years?  I guess we weren’t enough. Was that it? Did you want a trophy? Was it a conquest? Was I not exciting enough? Was I not dedicated enough? Did I not give you enough? Twenty God forsaken years, Kevin. Twenty years coming here. Twenty!”

Her scream ran down the hills. The grass and the leaves listened. Her emotional weight bent the light around her.

“You didn’t even have the creativity to come up with new pet names. Kitty Kat, how stupid was I! How many more were there? Did you get it out of your system, or was I an ongoing fool? Was it nothing to you, all an act? Or was our family all an act? Was I on stage or in the audience? Please let me know, I want to know.”

She stopped and breathed. Her first parry complete. Exactly as rehearsed. For months.

“I want to know, Kevin. I deserve to know, Kevin. I deserve….”

She trailed off as a car rounded a corner in the distance. She straightened her jacket, smoothed her blouse, reset her shoulders.

“I deserved better.”

The tears that had been dried by the heat of anger rolled onto the shore again.

“I’ve come here for twenty years. It gave me strength to remember this amazing man. This amazing husband. This amazing father of my child. Do you think I liked being alone? Do you think this is how I wrote my future? Do you think I wanted this, this, this non-life? I’m known for the past, not the present, much less the future. I’m a living museum exhibit. I’m spread so thin, Kevin. Why, Kevin, why?”

“But I held on to you, because you were wonderful to me. And, then, I read the letters. And I’m holding on to a dream. Holding on to a lie. A fiction.”

“Did you regret it? I wish you could tell me you regretted it. Tell me it was your worst mistake, made you love me more, made you even more committed. Tell me any one of the lies people tell each other in such situations. Tell me something. Anything.”

Edith’s shoulder’s slumped, her youthful posture and strength sapped.

“I haven’t told Emily. I won’t tell Emily. Not because I’m protecting you. I’m not. I feel sorry for you, that’s why. You cheated yourself out of loving someone completely. I don’t want your daughter to know you did that. She would think less of you, as I do. I still love you. I cannot change that, but I also can’t un-know. I will forgive you in time, but I won’t forget.”

The plates rested. An equilibrium had been reached. The trees, the leaves, and the grass were still.

“I’m moving to California next week. I won’t be back here again. I’m taking Emily and Joe up on their offer. I gave you twenty years of widowhood. That’s nineteen too many.”

She turned to walk away, took three steps, and stopped. Edith wheeled around, walked to the headstone, and removed the red leaf from the middle of the white roses. Kneeling, she whispered, “I still love you, Kevin. I’m angry, but I still love you. I was faithful, and nothing ever changes that. I loved you. I gave you what I had to give.”

Edith continued to kneel, for a long time, hugging the tombstone, crying, and offering “I loved you” as a quiet, rhythmic chant that rolled over the hills, among the leaves, and through the thick green grass.

When there were no more tears, when she had wrung all of the farewells and goodbyes from her soul, she turned and walked away over the hill, never to visit her husband, her only true love, ever again.


As Edith approached her car, a landscape worker was fixing some equipment near a tree, and she stopped and watched.

“Oh, hello mam. How are you?” the young man asked as he walked toward her.

“I’m okay, thank you,” Edith responded, her red eyes and streaked cheeks attesting to something different.

The young man had had many such encounters and tried to be as respectful and as unobtrusive as he could be, but felt moved in this instance to add, “It’s never easy to lose someone, is it?”

Edith took a long look at him. So long that he feared he had been inappropriate, only to hear her respond, “No, it’s not, especially when you learn that you had lost them long before you thought you had.”

The young man didn’t understand.

“May I ask you a question?” she asked.

“Yes, mam, of course.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes I am. We have two little boys.”

“You must have your hands full.”

“We do, but we get by. We’re happy.”

“Good, now I have a favor to ask you.”

Confused again, the young man replied, “Yes mam?”

“What’s your wife’s name”


“Tonight, when you get home, I want you to take an envelope and write on it ‘I love Theresa and my sons.’ That’s all. Don’t write anymore. And put the envelope in your dresser, where you’ll see it everyday.”

“Mam, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I want you to remember that everyday, and, if you ever get tempted to put any other letters in there, you’ll see that envelope. Give yourself the chance to love someone completely.”

The young man still unsure what the elderly woman meant simply replied, “Yes mam. I think that’s a good idea.”

“Trust me, I know it is.”


Edith got in her car, wiped clean her face, and began winding around the hills of the cemetery toward the exit. She no longer felt the inertia of the place, that grounding force that retains and retards. The trees and the leaves and the grass passed by, no longer interlopers on her pain, but a more unified whole.

She pulled under the ornate iron gate, paused, and turned right toward home. The feel of the last tenon releasing was not the snap she had expected. More of a gentle release. From her own hand.

On the First Scuff

They say the first cut is the deepest, but that’s not quite right, is it? It’s the first scuff that’s the deepest.

Last week, I notice the first scuffs on our new car. A year old, I knew it was inevitable, but, still, as I rounded the corner in the garage, my heart skipped a beat when I saw the scuffs over the rear driver-side wheel. I didn’t run into anything, so I can only surmise a rock hit the car. The damage is minimal, and you wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out, but, still, I know. My wonderful, beautiful new car, well, it’s not ruined, but it felt that way for a moment.

We’ve all been there. If not with a car, after buying a great new pair of shoes. They look so clean and snazzy on your feet. The gleaming white, the spotless sole, the vibrant colors. And, then, after a trudge through the mall food court, you spot the black streak down the corner of the toe box. In that moment, something inside you dies.

Your love is never the same, is it? The funny thing is, it’s something of a relief when the first bump, the first scratch, the first scuff happens. You can finally exhale, no longer protecting its flawlessness. You can relax. It’s as if you achieve a healthy equilibrium, a healthy perspective on something that is, ultimately, not important. But, until that first scuff, all bets are off on rationality. We are the guardians of the unblemished.

We treat people the same way. As parents, we protect children from any and all harms. We know it’s a losing battle, but that doesn’t stop us from going above and beyond (and beyond that) to insulate little Timmy from all the ills of the world, physical, mental, and emotional. As neurotic as we are at keeping our kids unblemished, we oddly value adults that have been around the block a few times. That have a few scuffs and scrapes. We call it life experience. Wisdom.

I’ve never considered my shoes or car wise, but I have noticed that, once broken in, once stripped of the veneer of perfection, I actually enjoy them more. These things wear into a level of comfort, of ease that brings me happiness and satisfaction. You learn the feel of the car, and you love the feel of the shoe. Not perfect, but just right.

It’s a good reminder that, sometimes, the mistakes people make, the flaws they exhibit, well, that’s just their journey to wisdom. Their journey to being, feeling, and doing good.

On the Danger of Terrariums

A few years ago, I became fascinated by terrariums. Living in a town home without a yard, space is at a premium, and terrariums are like a travel-size garden in your home. Once you’ve selected your container (typically glass), you can fill it with whatever moves your spirit: river rocks, moss, dirt, sand, shells, feathers, twigs, plants; the list is endless.

The distinguishing feature of terrariums is their miniature effect. Encased in a glass bell can be an entire world. High-end terrarium makers will concoct entire scenes to populate their terrariums, and they are true living works of art.

The miniature worlds created in terrariums give the illusion of total control. The terrarium’s maker controls the contents, the arrangement, the water schedule, the sunlight, the soil mixture, and so on and so on. The maker can create the appearance of perfection, devoid of ugliness or disorder.

What makes for an impressive terrarium produces in us something very different. Indeed, the pursuit of the appearance of perfection tends to only produce pain. Almost a decade ago, my then-partner sat me down one June evening and confessed a nine-month affair. In retrospect, there were a few signs, but really not many. You have to give him credit for his duplicity. When I consider the events of those days, I no longer focus on the unparalleled violation of trust; I focus on my own strange reaction. I didn’t yell. I didn’t rebuke. I didn’t even cry. Like Boxer in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” I decided the problem could be worked out. I could work harder. I could control everything. In a peculiar, emotionally-retarded reaction, I tried to assuage his guilt.

It can only be said it was a prolonged, stunning repression. It took me almost a year to understand and acknowledge that it was not my problem and that I deserved better. I can only explain the intervening year as an effort to present a picture of perfection, a picture of total control. Such was the power of appearances that an otherwise intelligent, independent person tried to repress the equivalent of a psychic bomb. Why did I not stand up from the couch on that June evening, utter the choicest of curse words, and walk out the door? Shock may explain the first few hours and days. Weeks maybe. But, at some point, I chose the appearance of a perfect happiness over dealing with the greatest pain I ever encountered.

I look back on that time with great sadness, but, through that pain, I learned important lessons. Everything isn’t always perfect. You can’t control it all. Such basic lessons, but we continually screw them up. We badly want things to be just so, and, when life does not give us our desires, some of us engage in acts of psychic self-immolation. Lost, hurting souls that would be well advised to just let go. Just let go.

The danger of terrariums is not selecting the wrong plant or choosing the wrong arrangement. It’s the idea that we can create and control a thing of beauty. That we can achieve perfection. Terrariums need oxygen and water and light and tending. They are not hermetically sealed. And neither should we be. We have to accept imperfection, recognize that we cannot control every facet of our lives, and embrace the sometime ugly realities of life.

At that point, we become even more beautiful.