But you did change

When Carli came out to the world we did our best to help people understand that not much would really change. Certainly her outward appearance would be the most dramatic change but the characteristics that made up her being would remain relatively unchanged. Her hobbies would still be her hobbies. She would not forget how to fix all the things (she really can fix anything!) She would still enjoy tinkering on small engines and cars. But recently someone challenged us on this assertion, saying “you said she wouldn’t change but she did.”

I had to take a step back and really think about this. Had Carli changed more than I realized? What about me; had I flipped on my interests in response to all the other changes? Maybe I just didn’t see it because I was too close to the situation.

When we were newlyweds Carli was always working on some project. She is a skilled woodworker and has all the tools. She builds beautiful garden furniture! She has rebuilt more car engines, carburetors, lawn mowers, and garden tractors than I care to remember. We didn’t buy a new lawn mower until she got orders to Korea and I insisted she leave me with a self-propelled push mower instead of the rescued and repaired mower that worked but took some finesse and brute force to use.

In the 31 years we’ve been married, we’ve hired contractors just 3 times for home repairs or installation.  We hired a guy to install new vinyl siding on our house in Utah…well, actually the guy was driving by our house, had extra siding on his truck and he thought our house was in desperate need of new siding. He was right.  There was no way we could tackle putting a new roof on a 3,000 square foot single-story house. That was a big check to write but it had to be done and we are fortunate to be able to hire that out. Most recently, installing a new gas fireplace and necessary chimney flue required licensed professionals. Don’t knock the trades, people! These professionals are highly skilled and do important, necessary work!

We’ve done all other home improvements ourselves, learning how to do it all as we went along. Remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, drywall, electrical, plumbing, painting, finish carpentry. When the garbage disposal sprung a leak while Carli was gone, the boys and I crawled under the sink and figured out how to replace it.  We’ve learned it all.  Carli taught herself how to fix the vehicles, she didn’t have anyone to show her how to drop the transmission out of the truck while it was sitting in the driveway in base housing. We crawled under the truck and figured it out.

I remember working for hours and hours on complex cross-stitch projects to give as gifts. I made the boys clothes when they still little enough to force them to wear something handmade, back when it was still cheaper to make it than buy it. They had some darn cool handmade Halloween costumes!

Many of things we have done over the years we did out of necessity. When we were younger we didn’t have money to hire auto mechanics or plumbers. We couldn’t go out and buy a new lawn mower just because the old one started smoking. We had to fix things, there was really no choice. It was luck that Carli had a knack for it and that she didn’t hate doing it.

When I was confronted with the statement that Carli had indeed changed and I started thinking more about it, perhaps she and I both had changed more than we realized. I still had doubts about what caused the changes but we couldn’t deny the fact we didn’t enjoy certain things as much as we had in the past.  We no longer enjoy crawling around on our backs under cars or sinks, but did that have anything to do with her transition? Or was it just that we have gotten a little older and it’s harder to get back up? Being under pressure to repair a vehicle that is needed to get to work or fix a drain that is leaking all over the kitchen is not fun. I have 100 cross-stitch patterns I would love to make, but I simply lack the dexterity, eyesight, and hours of interrupted concentration required so it’s become more frustration than enjoyment.

There are some things that serve to trigger unpleasant emotions for Carli, mostly things that in her mind she associated with hyper-masculinity, but from what I have observed she has reckoned with those emotions and is not as easily triggered by these things now.  She is learning, as I believe we all must do, that activities have no gender. If you like to do something, do it.  If you don’t like it and it can be avoided, don’t do it. If you like to do something but no longer have the physical capacity or time, perhaps it is okay to let it go and move on to the next thing. Right now we would rather be covered in garden dirt than grease, although we have 1966 Mustang in the garage that needs some serious TLC over the winter.  We aren’t done with grease just yet!

 

31 Years

Thirty-one years ago today Carli and I were married in a tiny church in Port Austin, Michigan.

We don’t have a video of our wedding, but here is a link to our 30th anniversary vow renewal ceremony… 30th

When I tell people we’ve been married for 31 years I usually get a variation of essentially the same response. “Wow, that’s a really long time. Not many people stay married that long anymore. You should be really proud of staying together that long.” We are proud I suppose, but that’s hardly the first thought that goes through my mind when thinking about the life we’ve made together. Nor are we trying to be boastful when talking about our marriage in successful terms. We’ve worked at our marriage like most couples have, pushing through our own unique challenges, fortunate to have grown closer rather than farther apart.

When I started this blog it was with the intent to demonstrate that marriages and families can and do survive transition. Marriages can and do survive a lot of tumultuous times, with or without one spouse being trans. So what do you think makes a marriage last?

I’ve heard people say you have to learn to compromise, that’s the secret to a long marriage.  I disagree. Compromise means that no one wins; everyone has to settle for a level of disappointment in whatever disagreement they’re up against.  Compromise would be me telling Carli that she could dress in women’s clothes but only around the house, never in public. This wouldn’t have been a solution, it wouldn’t have helped Carli live authentically and it wouldn’t have helped me learn to be a true ally.

Compromise would have been Carli supporting me in pursuit of a Masters degree, but not in pursuit of a Doctorate. That would have been half-hearted support, and likely would have had me justifying not pursuing the PhD by telling myself I wasn’t smart enough anyway, even if that thought never crossed Carli’s mind. Although it might have been easier on everyone as far as lost sleep, frozen dinners, and tables covered with endless piles of research papers for years!

What about learning how to argue? What is that supposed to mean? As a society we’re quickly losing the ability to intelligently debate issues over which we disagree, but we are darn sure good at arguing for arguments sake. Perhaps over the years Carli and I learned to simply skip over those things we disagreed about and jump right to what really matters. The issues that matter cannot be addressed through arguments, but require compassion and understanding. By the time Carli transitioned, we were very good at getting to the heart of issues through dialogue.  Really talking WITH each other, not AT each other.  Listening more than talking.

At the end of the day we don’t have any magic advice for people about how to make a marriage last. We don’t profess to be perfect in way, shape, or form. But we can say that marriages and families can and do survive transitions. It has nothing to do with the art of compromise or solid arguing techniques, but rather the openness of heart, mind, and soul. It has everything to do with loving each other enough to build each other up instead of constantly tearing each other down. It has everything to do with stopping on the side of the road to watch a beautiful sunset together. It has everything to do with celebrating the shared life we’ve built together.

Happy Anniversary, Carli.  31 years isn’t nearly long enough. Let’s do this forever! I love you!!

Old Furniture

I have refinished quite a few pieces of old furniture, and an entire kitchen full of oak cabinets. Every time I go through the process of refinishing a piece of wood I am struck by the parallels that can be drawn between the lives of people and the lives of wood furniture.  Okay, so this might take some explaining, so bear with me.

Take this old bookcase for instance. It had been abandoned when we acquired it, dirty, neglected, but Carli and I saw so much potential in this piece.  Its life was not over by any means, so I set out to discover what it should be doing with its life now.

When I start refinishing furniture, it usually begins with applying a chemical stripper to remove the old paint and varnish. I always use the mildest stripper I can find so I do as little damage to the environment and the wood as possible. Perhaps it’s silly, but it’s always hard for me to wait for the stripper to work, I am anxious to see what is hidden under the years of old finishes and paint. I never know what the wood will look like.

Uncovering the wood gives me the first glimpse at the life the piece has lived.  There are usually scars, worn patches, sometimes haphazard repairs made by previous owners. The scars tell stories of how the piece might have been used, worn spots where a child might have pulled a beloved storybook off the shelf night after night, asking their parent to read it just one more time. Or maybe the scuff marks are from heavy repair manuals for a car that has long since been hauled to the salvage yard. The gouges on the top where something sharp and heavy may have been dragged across the surface by someone who had little concern for the well-being of the piece. Until I remove the layers of paint and old varnish I can’t see these scars and wear. They are hidden from view but they remain, ever present. We may not see them but the piece of furniture feels them every day and cannot forget about them because they have contributed to what the piece is today.

Isn’t this how people often deal with their own scars and perceived flaws, cover them up so the world thinks they are undamaged? Don’t we often filter what others see out of fear of rejection, caring more about not hurting other peoples’ feelings or not being a disappointment than about our own well-being? Rarely do we embrace our scars because they remind us of the pain we felt in acquiring them, but they are a part of us and they helped shape who we are today.

So I set about uncovering the true nature of the bookcase, the varying shades of wood, differing grain and textures. Every nuance that makes this piece unique.  I sand as gently as I can, not wanting to cause any more damage, just bring out the natural beauty of the piece.  This bookcase was obviously made to be a work horse, utilitarian, with no intricate details. Much of the piece is easy to clean, but it has patches that need extra stripping and sanding. Isn’t this, too, like people? Sometimes our sadness or pain can be wiped away with a hug and a gentle touch, and other times it takes a lot of work. We have to go back again and again, facing our fears and scars over and over because they run so deep.

My philosophy with refinishing furniture is always to let the character of the piece speak out loud. With this bookcase, I didn’t even use stain, the color variations are so beautiful and the scars and watermarks make it come alive. All it needs are a few coats of protective finish.  Speaking for myself, I could use an extra coat of protective finish from time to time. Sometimes mine wears thin in places, too, leaving me vulnerable to cracks and dents and chips from whatever life drags me through.

I always use the best quality brushes and finishes I can, giving the furniture layer after layer of protection from further damage and extending its life. The brushes I use are expensive and it takes a lot of time to care for them properly.  It can take 20 minutes or more to clean a single brush, and it must be thoroughly cleaned in between each of the three coats of finish but the investment is well worth it. People need the right tools, too, when learning to live openly, embracing their vulnerabilities.  In this way, I see health care providers, mental health providers, friends, and loved ones as analogous to the tools I use on my furniture.  They are critical to our continued health and well-being, but they, too, must be treated well.  They must have their own protective finish that helps prevent them from being scarred themselves in the process of helping others.  Your friends and loved ones need your attention, just as you need theirs. Sadly, not everyone has access to care they need, or are lucky enough to have understanding loved ones to help them through. They are left to care for their finishes on their own, with few tools and little guidance or support.

And here it is.  The bookcase is finished, reassembled, with a fresh purpose.  It is ready to hold a particular set of books that make us think about a dear friend we lost many years ago. Each time we look at this bookcase we will think of George, his crazy sense of humor, his loving friendship, the way he challenged us to grow, and we will remember how grateful we are to have known him.  We’ve held on to these books literally for decades, searching for just the right piece to hold them.  This little bookcase is perfect, with its true nature on display for all to see, with all its flaws, proud of the life its led and ready for more.

Carly has shed 50 years of old paint and varnish, uncovering the beautiful person she was always meant to be. I tried to help her through this refinishing process, using the right tools, alternately handling her with kid gloves and elbow grease.  She continues to reward me each day for the time we’ve invested in each other, sanding, protecting, polishing, and always letting each other shine in our own beautiful, dented, scarred, wonderful way.

 

Being Married

A week ago our younger son married his lovely fiancé, in a private ceremony witnessed by a very few special friends, at a park that while extraordinarily beautiful could not compare to the beauty of the bride or the beaming adoration of the groom. They are perfect together, they complement each other, they complete each other and fill each other’s lives with everyday joy and simple love.  We’ve watched our son do small, romantic, thoughtful things for his beautiful partner, like picking out a Christmas wreath that may have inspired the gorgeous colors they chose to paint their bedroom.  His beautiful bride indulges his eccentric whims without flinching, like his love for right-hand drive Japanese cars or taking up space in their house to grow Ghost Peppers from seed.

Witnessing their love take root, blossom, and grow strong over the past couple of years has made me think long and hard about what it means to be “married.” Carli and I met in June 1986, married in November 1987, having spent not nearly as much time getting to know each other as we might recommend to our children considering marriage. But our marriage has not only survived, it’s thrived.  We’ve grown so much closer over the years, we’ve weathered innumerable storms, many that would have totally sunk other relationships but for some reason unknown at the time we determined to ride it out……..stay together and work it out.  Whatever IT was we were determined to work IT out.

And we did.  To top it off, we genuinely love being married.

So what does that mean? Being married? For a long time I’ve felt that people may be more enamored of the institution of marriage, and not so much of the long-term commitment required to actually BE married. We’ve heard for a long time that same-sex marriage threatens the “institution” of marriage.  What in the world does that mean?

I am sort of accidentally in a same-sex marriage.  In 1987 Carli and I had no idea we were entering a same sex marriage. I wore the requisite frilly wedding dress, Carli wore a dashing Air Force uniform, we recited the standard vows, celebrated in the typical Huron County and Airman fashion with a DJ, an open bar, paper flowers for decorations, and a big dinner. We were completely unprepared for the standard stuff that was in store, not to mention the transgender stuff that came along later.

So when I contemplate what it means in this country to get married, I think we fell into the same trap 30 years ago that many people fall into still today.  They confuse the act of getting married with the act of being married.  They value the institution of marriage more than the unconditional commitment to another human being marriage requires. Over the years there were many times we could have just hung it up and called it a day.  Left each other, never looking back at what we left behind, only thinking about ourselves and our own personal desires.  But for reasons again unknown at the time we stayed together and worked it out.

Today we know why we stayed together.  We needed to be together, we were meant to help each other, even if we questioned it or didn’t understand along the way.  Our commitment to each other as human beings was stronger than any preconceived notion of what “marriage” meant. We had absolutely no idea 30 years ago that we would live in Utah for 10 years, or Carli would have to travel 200 days out of every year, or that I would earn a Ph.D, or that Carli was transgender.  We knew none of this.  

We didn’t know we would spend countless hours tearing out and replacing drywall, or planting, harvesting and preserving vegetables. We didn’t know we would learn how to fix cars or replace plumbing or electrical outlets, ceiling fans, or swamp coolers. We didn’t know we would refinish cabinets and antique furniture, lay hardwood flooring, install tile and carpet, and map the fastest way to the nearest emergency room.

We didn’t know we would lay awake at night worrying about our sons, waiting for phone calls from California or Japan. We didn’t know we would move furniture and belongings dozens of times.  

I definitely didn’t know I would help Carli learn how to apply mascara or hairspray.  Not that I was able to help much in that regard, but I did what I could.  Because that, my friends, is what it means to be married.

Being married, in my estimation, means being there for your partner, for the family and life you have created together.  That’s it.  Please take special notice I am not saying I have to be there for Carli as if it’s a one-sided deal.  No, not at all.  Be there for your partner. Carli had to be there for me as much and as often as I had to be there for her.  Sure, there were plenty of times when one or the other of us seemed to be investing a little more in the deal than the other but that investment has always been returned.

To me, marriage is synonymous with us. It’s not something that anyone else imparts on us or expectations laid at our feet that we must live up to or we fail. It’s what we have built and continue to build together.  It’s not words strung together in anticipated fashion.  It’s the dailies.  Making coffee for each other every morning, adding a tablespoon of fiber for good health. It’s taking the puppy outside in the morning so she can sleep a few minutes longer.  It’s asking if the plant lights on the peppers need to be shut off before bed.  It’s finding a wreath with the perfect color to paint your bedroom. It’s helping her with her mascara.