Laughter

carli-and-dogs-laughting

Few things are more universally adorable than a baby in a full-blown belly laugh.  You know the kind, when the baby’s entire body seems to be laughing. And it doesn’t take much to elicit the delightful reaction, quite often it’s completely accidental.  A new sound, a funny face made by Uncle Craig, the puppy licking their toes.  It’s contagious, too.  You must be in a pretty foul mood not to crack a smile at the very least.  Dog lovers know that happiness and joy are not exclusive to humans either.  Your dog’s face when you come home, her whole-body-tail-wag is pure excitement, a joy-filled heart at the site of the person she loves more than anything in the world. 

When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried? For me it was about 20 minutes ago, when Carli was trying to get the maps to work on her phone but wasn’t having much success.  Feeling a little frustrated she said “damn it”, to which her phone replied “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with damn it.” An unexpected moment of hilarious silliness from a cell phone……fantastic! A few nights ago, Carli and I were watching a movie and near the end she was laughing so hard she was brought to tears.  I was laughing at the movie, too.  It was sweet and funny; the humor came at the expense of no one.  While I was laughing right along with Carli, I searched 30 years of memories for a time before she transitioned when she laughed so hard and with such unabashed emotion and pleasure. I simply could not find one.

I remember times when Carli was happy, joyful, amused, of course.  The typical life events that produce intense emotions did elicit pride, fear, joy, sadness in Carli.  But what I do not recall are the outward, public expressions of these emotions, like laughing so hard she cried.  Her emotions were always tempered, always measured and reserved. I chalked it up to her military bearing and never questioned it.  Being stoic was simply expected and anything less was often considered a sign of weakness.  Now we know much of this was self-preservation, a coping mechanism employed to avoid feelings she couldn’t understand and certainly didn’t think she could share.

People used to ask me why Carli was always angry.  I assured them she wasn’t angry, she just didn’t smile a lot. She rarely let anyone take her picture, and never smiled if someone was lucky enough to snap a shot.  She wasn’t much for conversation, either.  A good friend recently said the longest sentence he ever heard Carli say was about six words long and the topic was usually a tractor.  It wasn’t until she came out that her smile was spotted more often and she started to enjoy long talks.  It happened slowly over time, but the change is dramatic. She wears her emotions well, is unafraid to be expressive, and the feeling of freedom that surrounds her is palpable.

What breaks my heart are the years she spent burying her emotions instead of feeling connected to the people around her.  How hard must that be, to constantly hide behind a façade of stoicism, stifling the very emotions that make a human being feel human? And for what purpose? From my vantage point Carli had years of feeling human stolen from her because other people are uncomfortable or unaccepting or hateful or hurtful or bigoted or violent.  Because they deny the existence of the transgender person. Because their version of religion says God doesn’t make mistakes.

 I wish there was a way I could get all those years back for Carli. Can we get a do-over, please? Carli deserves to feel and express emotions just like everyone else, and I deserve to witness all the joy, bliss, grief, surprise, admiration, love, serenity……

She deserves to laugh until she cries. 

 

Every Day Love

Carli and I celebrated Valentine’s Day much like so many other couples. Carli gave me a lovely card and a gift certificate for a massage.  We went to the jewelry store to pick up the little paw pendant I ordered for Carli. We picked up a pizza and a salad on the way home and spent the evening enjoying being together.

But my question is what is so special about the love we celebrate on this one day of the year? Is it special because we buy cards and flowers? Cards and flowers are sold other days of the year, right? What about the every day things we do to express our love to each other that makes our lives beautiful? What about the cups of coffee that I prepare for the two of us every day at 4:45am? Do we do enough to acknowledge and celebrate every day love, or do we rely on this one day to pick up the slack for the rest of the year?

When Carli came out to me as transgender the emotions I experienced were so intense and complex they are difficult to describe. Guilt, fear, anger, grief, wonder, awe, joy, love, all taking their turn. Some of the emotions I felt early on have subsided, replaced with others that are just as powerful.  The one constant, the one unwavering, exponentially increasing, unquestionable emotion that clings to my very soul is love. Love every day.

Being married to a trans woman certainly provides a slew of every day opportunities to love each other that other couples may not experience. Reminding Carli to do the exercises her speech therapist gave her, and pointing out when I hear a feminine voice on the other end of the phone line when we talk.  Understanding that sometimes a 50 year old trans woman just needs to cry at a commercial that she wouldn’t have batted an eye at a few years ago.  Being patient when your wife isn’t quite ready to take the 29 year old wedding picture off the wall just yet. Answering the question “does this look okay” for the 10th time before we head out the door for dinner.  Okay, so that one probably happens to plenty of married couples, trans or not!

What about the love we share with others we are not married to; our children, coworkers, neighbors? The initial reaction from one of our sons was to be protective of Carli, and of me, wondering how he could possibly help keep us safe in a world that is often openly hostile to transgender people. As I’ve said here before, coworkers have been accepting and caring, asking questions so they may educate themselves on how to support Carli.  Neighbors have gone out of their way to express their acceptance and support of Carli, inviting us to share in community and church events.  Aren’t all of these every day gestures borne of love? Love not only for Carli and I but for humanity.

Yes, we do celebrate Valentine’s Day in the good old fashioned American way.  We spend money on things we could get for each other literally every other day of the year. Every other day of the year, days that are filled with little bits of love that we need to pay attention to, nurture, and acknowledge as wildly important to our well-being.  Carli meeting me in the kitchen with a glass of bourbon after a day that didn’t go quite as I planned. Helping Carli pick out the best blouse to wear with that particular pair of jeans. Carli doing the dishes every day.  Watching Carli snuggle a puppy; a puppy with big brown eyes who helped ease the pain of losing a beloved 16 year old lab mutt. Making coffee at 4:45am.  Love definitely happens every day.

First Hair Cut

When a family is transitioning there are so many firsts….first time in the appropriate restroom, first time trying on the correct clothes, first manicure, first time walking in high heels, first time wearing lipstick in public, and the list goes on and on.  Even though Carli has been living full time for 7 months she is still experiencing new firsts. Last week she had her first feminine hair cut in a salon. And she is beautiful!

Carli’s stylist took her time, making sure she understood Carli’s long term goal for her style.  She was kind and patient, explaining everything she was doing and teaching Carli how to style her hair at home. She told Carli if she just wants a refresher on how to style it, come back in and she will go through it with her again.  Everyone in the salon was so warm and accepting, we couldn’t have asked for a better first hair cut experience.  Carli left feeling pampered, confident, and beautiful.  Most importantly, she felt accepted by every single person. This is how all transgender people should feel after every “first.”

More often, however, firsts are fraught with anxiety and fear, sometimes for both of us. I vividly remember the first time Carli walked into the women’s restroom by herself. Up until that point I always accompanied her, and to be honest I did sit right outside the door, probably looking like a stalker myself, feeling more than a bit anxious and ready to jump into action if she was being harassed. What would that woman who walked in behind her say to Carli? Would she yell at her to get out, cause a scene, call the police or store security? We knew I wouldn’t always be there so both of us had to takes steps to overcome the anxiety and move past the fear. The anxiety has eased over time, but still occasionally sneaks up on me, especially when we are visiting new places.  The fear is still there, just beneath the surface, but as I’ve said before we refuse to give in to it and force Carli back into hiding.  Instead we allow it to simmer quietly, using it to our advantage to remind us to maintain a healthy awareness of our situation at all times.

Another memorable first for me, Carli and I telling her story to her new primary care physician during her first appointment at the recently established local transgender health clinic. I cried when I told the doctor that I fell in love with Carli all over again as I watched her emerge from 50 years in hiding.  Even the doctor was a little misty eyed.

The first time Carli visited me at my office, my coworker’s reactions were overwhelming.  They welcomed her literally with open arms, accepted her unconditionally, wrapping us both in warmth and love. I’m not sure if these people truly understand how deeply they’ve touched us, or how much they are appreciated. To them it was a logical, simple act of acceptance but to us it was……and continues to be…..a gift for which we can never adequately express our thanks.

As parents we treasure our children’s firsts, documenting each step, each new tooth, each newly mastered skill religiously in photos, videos, memory books, and we eagerly share these with our friends and family.  Watching Carli experiencing each of her firsts feels very much like this for me, but with one heart breaking difference.  Many of Carli’s firsts were experienced before she could live openly and authentically, so she didn’t get to share these with other people, we had to keep these precious moments between us.  Like the first time she sat on the patio wearing a dress, enjoying the sunshine on her face.  Alone. I watched her, cried, and I was simultaneously overjoyed and heartbroken. To see her so happy flooded me with joy, but knowing that she missed 50 years of joyful moments is crushingly sad.  This image left a permanent mark on my heart.

There will be many more firsts, but never again will Carli have to keep them a secret. This is how all transgender people should be allowed to live.  In the open, sharing the excitement of new experiences with friends and family.  Not in hiding, avoiding the sun.

How Many People Make A March?

Overwhelming, peaceful, profound..
Overwhelming, peaceful, profound..

We didn’t attend the Women’s March in Indianapolis last Saturday, although we had every intention of attending when we woke up that day.  An unfortunate emergency home repair found my wife, Carli, in the crawl space for several hours instead. She can fix anything!

Attending the march would have been a challenge for us; neither of us are fond of large crowds, but we wanted to do this for all the reasons anyone else wanted to march.  Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, underrepresented minority rights, basically ALL human and civil rights are legitimately being threatened by an administration we do not understand.

Living in Indiana we are acutely aware of what Vice President Pence believes and we’re frankly terrified of what might come in the next four years.  However, we decided early on that we would not let this fear overwhelm us or drive Carli back in the closet.  She is truly, deeply content for the first time in her life.  No one is going to take that away from her, or me!

We started to feel guilty about not attending the march, but it occurred to us that perhaps we might have been just two more faces in a crowd of friendly, like-minded individuals.  Was this going to do anything more than make a statement that might resonant for a couple of weeks and then be replaced in the media by the next argument over policies, legislation, or poorly worded tweets by the Commander in Chief? While we truly want to be part of the wave of social change, perhaps there was a way we could do this that would touch people other than the friendlies we would have mingled with at the march.  They already know us and our community after all, maybe this is equivalent to preaching to the choir.  We don’t care to have our faces on tv, we aren’t very creative when it comes to making signs, and megaphones are terrifying. So, what did we do?

We went to a food festival, of course! We spent 4 hours strolling from booth to booth, most of them staffed with people from right here in uber-conservative Trump/Pence loving Indiana. There were “make America great again” hats on several heads.  I wore my safety pin and #i’llgowithyou pin.  We tasted everything from rhubarb liqueur to gin, cherry chili beef jerky to corn chowder. We sat with a mother and her teenage son who were enjoying brownies and gumbo. We learned how tequila is made and were amused by the elderly couple who were sneaking extra little tastes during the demonstration. We chatted with dozens of people who may or may not have interacted with a transgender person before in their lives, that they are aware of at least.  Not once did Carli get misgendered.  Yes, there were some sideways looks thrown around and we really have no way of knowing if people guessed Carli is trans or not, but chances are pretty good that a 51-year-old trans woman who is in early transition is fairly easy to spot yet.  Overall, we were treated with civility and courtesy.  And we had a marvelous time! Every person we interacted with is another person who may have left that day thinking that trans people are A-okay.  They aren’t freaks of nature, or fanatics, and they can have spouses who love them more than life itself, the way I love Carli.

My question then becomes, how many people does it take for it to be a march? 500,000 in Washington, D.C. or 30 in Antarctica or 2 at the fairgrounds in Indianapolis?  Carli and I were kept from participating in the organized march but did we all accomplish something important, something with the potential to change the world even if it’s just one person at a time

?  I like to think we did.  

Look Around Moments

 

opal-sleeping
Opal covers her nose when she sleeps

I had to get this written down before my day kicked into high gear, so this is a little choppy, simply a stream of thoughts and emotions.

Remember to look around.

This morning I was gifted more reminders to stop and look around at all the good surrounding me. Carli didn’t jump right out of bed today, she could sleep in a little bit since she had a doctor appointment later in the morning.  Look Around Moment #1:  Carli has a primary care physician who specializes in transgender health. She also has access to health insurance that pays for hormone replacement therapy, counseling, and speech therapy. Carli sees her primary care physician every three months. Look Around Moment #2: Carli has a job that provides sick leave and vacation days so she doesn’t lose pay every time she sees one of her health care providers.

As I was getting ready for work myself, I looked across the room and just couldn’t resist crawling back under the covers for just a few more minutes.  Looking over at Carli, cuddling Opal who has her cute little head laying softly on Carli’s cheek…Look Around Moment #3: The human being sleeping there, curled up with a puppy, is simply amazing.  She is kind and gentle, brave and strong, and her heart gets bigger every day.  I love her more every day.

Checking my phone I see the text messages our sons sent me last night. Look Around Moment #4: We have two intelligent, kind, resourceful, loving sons who we talk to almost every day.  There are no parents more proud of their children than we are of ours.

Hopped in my car to leave for work and when I started it the rattling noise it was making yesterday was gone.  I spent three hours at the car dealership yesterday to figure it out. They were attentive and helpful and didn’t charge me for the visit. Look Around Moment #5: I also have employment that allows me take care of car troubles or other necessities when they pop up instead of having to wait or work it around a difficult schedule.

My family is far more fortunate than many others.  Careers, family, health care, housing, all things we sometimes take for granted are only a dream for so many people. We are privileged and we recognize this privilege comes with great responsibility. We do our best to call out racism, misogyny, bigotry, inequality, and hatred when we see it.  We advocate for people whose voices are frequently ignored, knowing that our privilege opens doors that are unfairly closed for others. We make our lives as transparent as possible so others may see that relationships can stay intact and evolve after a partner transitions. But in doing all of this I feel like we forget to look at each other sometimes.  We forget to acknowledge the joy and beauty that is right in front of us because we are intent on fighting against a massively flawed system and a society that appears to be rapidly moving in the wrong direction.  We forget to look around.  This morning I looked, and I love what I see.

Not done yet

sewing-machine

When Carli went full time in July one of the first things she did was empty her closet of all the boys clothes, other than a couple of androgynous shirts she has to wear on occasion for a handful of people who have yet to fully accept her for who she is. (That’s a story for another day.)  I remember the relief on her face as she packed away the remnants of that person she never really was, filling her closet instead with pretty blouses, skirts, and feminine pieces that fit her personality and style much better! Boxes and boxes of clothes were piled in a spare room, waiting to be donated to local charities.  As we went through them months later we realized that many of the shirts were just old work shirts or casual shirts with lots of wear on them.  They simply weren’t in good enough shape to donate.  The only reason Carli had kept most of them for so long was because she simply hated shopping for new boy clothes.  They never felt comfortable to her so she avoided purchasing anything new unless she absolutely had to.  So, what to do with a bunch of worn XL men’s shirts?

Make a quilt, of course!  A coming out quilt!  A way to pay  homage to a beautiful person who doesn’t have to hide anymore, but who did the very best she could while hiding.  It’s not done yet; this project is time consuming, frustrating, and there is no guarantee the quilt will turn out anything like the picture I have in my mind. I was meticulous with my measurements, cut every tiny piece with precision, and still ended up with pieces that aren’t perfect.  I sew them together and sometimes have to rip them apart and try again.

Seems a lot like life in general.  You take what you are given, piece it all together, and hope that it turns out okay. Sometimes things go a little sideways and you have to make adjustments before you can move on.  You learn to overlook small flaws, accepting that it’s okay to be less than perfect.

Less than perfect definitely describes my quilting ability. I’ve only put together a couple of quilts before, nothing fancy or special.  But this one is very special.  I am transforming Carli’s old boy clothes from something she hated to touch into an heirloom we can cherish.  The pieces of material she was required to wear because of our flawed concept of gender are assembled into a functional, beautiful quilt that will last a lifetime.  The quilt also has tiny pieces of new pink material stitched alongside the old blue stripes, denims, and plaids, blending old with new.  Carli’s previous life in hiding is being acknowledged, hopefully in such a way so she knows I loved her then, even though I didn’t know she was in hiding. And I love her now.  The best parts of the old Carli blending beautifully with the new Carli.

I’m using Carli’s grandmother’s antique Singer sewing machine to piece the tiny two inch squares together, deliberately forcing a needle to make tiny holes in the fabric so it can be stitched back together with fresh white thread. I have an intense sense of nostalgia using this particular sewing machine. It’s almost like I can feel extra love being channeled into every stitch. Call that goofy, I don’t mind, but remember I also use Carli’s grandmother’s antique stove to do all of our canning.  I swear it makes the food taste better! Using this sewing machine and stove reminds me that we can still be connected to our past while we continue to move forward.  We take pieces of our lives apart that aren’t working anymore and put them back together in a way that makes more sense, more beautiful, more useful, more authentic. Sometimes other people or circumstances force the pieces apart and it’s not always what we wanted, but we still pick up the pieces and put them back together our way.

It’s not done yet but the quilt will eventually be finished. When do you suppose people are “done?”  Do we get to a point in our lives where we think we are done, we have nothing to learn or change, no room for growth? What about our country? Did we think our country was “done”; that we shouldn’t expect big changes to happen anymore, good or bad?

Nope, not done yet. I think we’ve only just begun.

I hear you, Universe!

universe-love
Three things happened yesterday that made me think perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something.  Two affirming personal interactions and one profoundly moving presidential address all occurring on the same day.  All of them with a common message that speaks loudly and clearly to my heart, making me more committed than ever to continue telling you about my life with Carli and the love that we share.
There was a retirement party at work yesterday so there were quite a few people on campus who I don’t get to see very often.  We shared stories and laughed and enjoyed each other’s company.  As one person was walking out the door I shouted to him, I needed to give him something to take back to his office but I never get to see him.  Great timing! While he was in my office he asked if he could talk to me about something personal.  Of course, let’s close the door and chat.  He asked if Carli would be open to speaking with his church congregation about her experiences as a transgender woman.  They are a small congregation and want to know how to support the transgender community, but they have no transgender members. They have no transgender members.  But they want to gain understanding, and help and support anyway. This request touched me deeply. These people have no dog in this fight, but they still care and they still love.
Another person in attendance was a colleague who retired a couple of years, before Carli came out to me.  I haven’t seen this person since he retired but he was a great mentor and friend while we worked together.  He would often tell me, when seeing me frustrated or angry and ready to hang it all up, “Hang in there just six more months.  Whatever it is, it will have passed by then.”  He was always right, 100% of the time and I use his calm perseverance as a model of how I want to live my life.  The first words he said to me yesterday were “you look so happy.”  Of course, I had to tell him WHY I was happy.  He assumed it was something at work and he was fairly stunned when I revealed the real reason I am happier now is because I have a transgender wife in place of a sullen, sad, sometimes angry husband. We spoke at length, he asked logical questions, and I provided the usual responses. I told him Carli and I had briefly considered leaving the state for a more trans-friendly place, but we quickly dismissed this idea.  If we left, ran away, we could no longer be part of change. We felt then, and even more so now, like we have a responsibility to tell the transgender story in order to open hearts and minds but much of the time we simply don’t know how to do it.  My dear friend said had he read this story somewhere in a magazine or online, or watched a program about it, it would have been easy to brush it aside with little thought.  But because I looked him in the eye and told him the story personally it touched him deeply, it touched his heart.
Then, last night Carli and I watched President Obama’s farewell address.  Yes, friends, I cried a little but not because I will miss his presidential presence (although I will), but rather because he said some things that spoke directly to my heart, reinforcing what my friends said earlier in the day.  If you have something to say, say it.  In person.  Face to face with friends, acquaintances, and total strangers.  Run for office. Be involved.  Care for one another. As a citizen of this country we are obligated to continue on the path toward true equality.  It is fundamental concept that our country was built upon. These three events colliding on one day so completely overwhelmed me with the possibilities at hand, the evidence of a loving society right outside my door, how could I possibly ignore this sign? So today my energy is renewed, my faith in humanity once again inching upwards, and my storytelling has just begun.
Much love, friends. We’ll talk again soon.