Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some Christmas Thoughts


So here I am typing this. It is 11:30 on Christmas Eve. Robin has already gone to bed. We hoped to go to church tonight, but there was just too much snow, so we stayed home. Right at this moment, I feel the same pervasive sadness I do every year at this time. That is what I'm going to talk about.

Whatever complaints I might have from years gone by, Christmas was not one of them. As a child and after for many years, this was a holiday when family would gather around from everywhere at a designated place. Whoever had it could be assured a steady roar as we talked, laughed, caught up with each other's lives. I can remember helping aunts and uncles on occasion putting together toys for the next day.

See, call me silly, but when I was taught that family was important, I bought it. Hook line and sinker. They were important. They are important to me. I love every one of them so very much.

Some people do not handle gender transition well. In essence I became a pariah, shunned by the ones I love so much. Shunning is a terribly cruel process. Whatever differences cannot be talked about because nobody wants to talk. If only there was a way to let them know I did not do this "TO" them, but because it was my only shot at having any peace in my heart in this lifetime. If we could talk, we could explore our feelings, find ways to heal the hurt. I could explain it was not a matter of me lying to them all those years, but about me figuring it all out.

People tell me that it is their loss. But see, that is only part of the story, for we all lose.
Robin lost contact with her son as well. Same age as my daughter. I know Robin misses him so much.

So tonight I feel great sadness. I wish it could have been different. I had to do what I had to do, and the same was true for them. That doesn't make the absence any better.

So my prayer this night as Christmas Day approaches is this.

I pray for their happiness.
I pray for their health and hope the coming year is a blessed one.
I pray that they all find their happiness in this world.
I simply must pray that some day a spirit of reconciliation will be born and peace be restored. Until that day, may joy fill your hearts and love your souls.
Let the world be healed, the poor be nourished, and may we all study war no more. For this I pray.
For all my friends, acquaintances, my church family, and all who know me and are reading this now, may you all truly have a wonderful Christmas, Mithras, Yule, Kwanzaa, Solis Invictus, Chanukah, Eid, and a Happy New Year. May your blessings be!

Amen

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving for What?


Tomorrow inaugurates what could well be renamed our National Season of Chaos. Folks rushing to dysfunctional family meals with an assumed sense of gratitude though it does not always appear in their actions. The next day is Black Friday, where long lines of riot ready shoppers arrive at 4 AM for the doors to open in the stores, looking for those Christmas savings as they empty their already strained wallets of this week's and all next year's paychecks trying to create an illusion of that perfect Christmas most never really had but they don't remember it that way.

Now our family, that is, Robin and I, got off that merry go round several years ago and have never regretted the move. Our holidays are spent relaxing, attending certain events, getting together with friends.

I remember those Thanksgivings as a child. Often since Dad was home that day, we would get up bright and early to go squirrel hunting down at Big Eddy, now submerged under Lake Palestine in East Texas. Or perhaps we would go to Dallas to share the holiday with the extended family, or some years they would come to Tyler. After a grand feast the women would gather in the kitchen, talking quietly while cleaning up after long hours of cooking while the men collapsed on couches and the hardwood floor to watch football games that were never seen in their entirety, drowned out by the roar of riotous snoring from excessive doses of tryptophan and sometimes a bit too much beer as well.

Am I the only one who ever wondered why the women got stuck with all the work while the guys did mind melds with hardwood floors? Us kids would be running around playing, or often sitting quietly listening to the conversations and family gossip. Soon the sleeping giants would awaken, watch the replay footages from the games they were allegedly watching, and the roar of snores was replaced with the roar of conversation throughout the house as the women rejoined the living room scene, dishes all clean and ready to go for next year.

So what am I grateful for?

To ask that, it is good to understand what I am NOT grateful for. I am not grateful for a family that felt I was expendable, to be cast about because I was gay and transgender. It is really hard to lose so many people in your life that you genuinely love them, but they can't handle this new reality. Indeed they felt I did it to them? How could I tell them that I did what I did because it was my only shot at happiness? As the song goes, "They would not listen, they're not listening now..."

I am not grateful that I have a fully grown daughter who won't speak to me at all and heaven knows I miss her so much.

I am not grateful for losing my beloved Skip though I did find love again with Robin. Skip was a beautiful soul and his death was just too much to bear.

I'm not too thrilled about about the health issues I've had to confront in recent years.

Why then am I grateful? I am you know, and it is for these reasons and more that I give thanks this holiday.

I am grateful for a roof over my head, a steady income, a loving wife whom I adore, a rat terrier, and two black cats who love me without condition.

I am grateful for some members of my extended family who did not turn their back on me, or in recent months have reestablished contact. I never left my family. They left me. I truly miss the marvelous dysfunction of family, knowing I'll probably not experience it again in this lifetime. But their friendship means the world to me and I am grateful.

I am grateful for the level of happiness and contentment I found by pursuing those very things that cost me the ones I loved the most. The price of self truth is expensive, but worth every heartbreak. If one cannot be true to themselves, where else can it be found?

I am grateful for a wonderful church community who embraces me for the person I am today. Thank you First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, for your connections, for your love, for who you are.

I'm thankful for my many friends, here and elsewhere. This world is not meant to be a solo adventure, and the threads of their connections strengthens and secures my place in the wider scope of things.

I feel such gratitude for a clear mind and a gift for writing, and a penchant for photography. They form the means by which I don't always express as well verbally.

I am grateful for a program of sobriety without which I would not be alive today.

I'm thankful for that Creative Force, that Mystery, speaking through intuition, synchronistic events, daily miracles leading me through this life journey.

I am grateful for other writers and authors, some of whom have offered gentle direction, others inspiration through their own works, helping me be not only a better writer, but a better person.

For these and so much more, I give thanks.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Who is My G_d?


Who Is My God?

I’ve puzzled over this question for as long as I can remember, and the definition continues to shift. At different times in my life G_d or Godde, or God, or Goddess has been defined in dramatically different ways.

There was God the Father. As a child I feared God the Father. My own dad was the punisher, and God and Jesus got all wrapped up in one neat package. God is love they would say, but if you aren’t careful, you will surely go to hell. My momma discouraged that sort of hell talk, for a preacher had “preached her into hell” when she was 17, and those many years later that incident still burned inside.

There was God as the old man in the heavens, sitting back watching every move I made. I know I gave THAT God plenty to think about. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

What a prayer to say when going to bed. In my dreams Jesus was chasing me and I surely knew that if he caught me I would die. I related God and death pretty early on.

So I was raised Methodist, but had an entire section of the family made up of pastors in the Assemblies of God Church. I enjoyed the quiet reverence and ritual of the Methodists, but I have to say, the AOG beat their pants off when it came to music. But then there were the sermons. End of times. God’s wrath. The rapture. Now I had been around family all my life, so there was a real contradiction. My uncle carried me in his arms when he preached hell and damnation when I was only two years old. But I knew my uncle perfectly well and saw him to be a bit of a stinker from time to time. Over the years, I pondered that his hobby was writing advertising jingles.

Yet there he was, treated reverently almost as a God himself by the people he preached to, and the same for his wife my aunt who was certainly more saintly than him. Another uncle was a preacher too, but he was so strict with those kids that three out of four had speech impediments. I think it was from fear. They gathered ministers around the country and took them to the holy land every years and walked where Jesus walked and were re-baptized in the Jordan River. Halleluyah.

Clearly that was not for me either. As I entered college, I questioned it all, and became a devout atheist. I jokingly referred to myself as an evangelical Atheist. It was then I found the Unitarian Universalist Church. But I must admit, my motives were more about debunking religion than anything else. When I moved away from Tyler, I just stopped going to church at all. There was simply no God during this period, or heaven, only what the rational mind could perceive.

At some point I began to hunger for a spiritual life, and decided to explore the Jewish God. I poured myself into my Jewish studies. I make no secrets to being an all or nothing personality and rarely do things half way. It was an amazing few years, and I prepared to go about the process of conversion. Looking back, I still could be very comfortable living within a liberal Jewish tradition. The ritual, the marking of the passages of time all were appealing. But it was interrupted by another pressing need.

I had been a practicing alcoholic since I was 15 years old. The effects of this abuse were taking their toll, and I reached out for help. In the process of becoming sober, certain key critical spiritual lessons were learned. Whether I look outside myself for a sentient G_d, opt for some Pagan rendition of Goddess, find power within a group of people or within mystery, it was critically important that I look outside myself for that something strong enough to make me stop drinking when all else had failed. I also learned that with my good I also could be a stinker at times, and that confession to another human being could be very cleansing.

So where could I find confession? I became a Roman Catholic of course. I immersed myself in Catholic studies. I found much that was good in the Mass. The ritual is powerful. Prayers like the Rosary can sustain when all else fails. I was to learn that from experience. I made a really good Catholic, much like I would have made a very good Jew. I am drawn to ritual observance and marking the passages of the season.

There was only one problem though. The Roman Rite does not appreciate gay people so much. When I met Skip, I was no longer welcome in my quite conservative parish. We attended a gay and lesbian Catholic group called Dignity. But when I began to transition, we were shunned there as well. Honestly there were other problems too. One is I don’t do well with authority. Two I don’t like the way women in the church are treated. Three, I had serious issues with the dogma as well as the portrayal of God and Jesus for that matter. As I studied scripture and relevant archeology and recent translations literary exegesis, it was increasingly clear that much of the church as it is constructed today had more to do with power and control and much less to do with the individual spiritual journey.

Then there was the problem that would not go away. How could anyone define God and heaven and what the hell was this hell for anyway. If God is love, then no loving God is going to send people to burn for an eternity. How do we even now this God or Gods are sentient beings. They are all constructs out of our own heads after all. Someone saying it is so does not make it so.

I left the Catholic Church, or more accurately was pushed out. I attended a gay lesbian group called MCC. While they studied the Bible as the word of God, they were not doctrinaire about it all and folks could legitimately differ, even on belief in Jesus. Everyone had a role in the church. Around this time, my beloved Skip had died and I needed a community and that is what I found. There was so much variety there. Ethnically we were probably about 50% white, 35% black, and the rest Hispanic. The services matched the diversity of our church. One day we might hear a more formal choral service, the next might be traditional black gospel, another time perhaps music in Spanish. We had old time gospel and opera. Church was a joyful celebration with clapping, shouting, hugging. The pastor opened each service reminding that we all are beloved of God, and we were worthy of that love. No breakdown along narrow dogmatic positions, but joyful worship. I could continue my own search while being nourished by community.

We moved to Minnesota. For a short time I attended a very liberal Methodist Church here, but ended up at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, First Universalist. It was a good fit, for my own concept of God and spirituality had evolved.

I am not certain of a sentient being called G_d or God. Nor can I be certain there is not such a being. I cannot define what will happen after I die. I don’t buy that the Jesus story was about him being a sacrificial lamb at all, but about spreading a belief of love for one another. I’m not Trinitarian at all. So what if there is nothing? Does it matter in the overall scope of things? Isn’t there a perfectly good argument for behaving in a loving giving way whether or not there is a reward afterwards? You may have one opinion of Deity or lack of, and I may have another. Both are just as valid for neither of us can prove our belief. That is the nature of faith.

There are experiences upon which I can draw which defines a perfectly good reason for practicing spirituality. I can see that if I behave in a loving manner, more often than not, it is returned in kind. I don’t have to prove it to notice the correlation.

I find comfort in prayer, to anything that is outside of myself. It was after all the realization that there was something outside of myself that led me to sobriety and saw me through the loss of a lover and a good friend.

I find spiritual exuberance in praise music. Never mind the dogma. It is another form of getting outside of my own ego and experiencing pure joy and love.

Isn’t it amazing how often these little synchronicities occur in our lives? I call it the mystery. I could call it G_d. Time after time, the right person is there in my time of need, and I feel pure gratitude, both for the person and for the mystery. It is another reason for gratitude.

There is a feeling, a transcendent moment in the face of good music, the beauty of nature, treasure of a loving act. That experience goes beyond the rational mind, once again into the realm of the indescribable. There I enter into the realm of the spiritual.

Physics offers some amazing theories. String theory, and one where all the strings are connected by one single strand, from which creation took place. It’s only mathematical now but this union of gravitational theory and string theory is intriguing. Even more so All the matter and all the energy we perceive right now, according to my physicist friend, is only 5% of the universe, the rest being composed of something called dark matter and dark energy of which we know absolutely nothing.

What does all this mean to me? It is enough to sing, to praise, to pray without defining G_d into a box. I can practice Pagan ritual or meditate or sing gospel music or dance or practice whatever brings me to that place where description fails. God need not have a gender or a human face though I am free to construct such if I feel the need. For me G_d is an archetype, a mythological construct that allows me to embrace what can’t be put into words. Together in community, it can have profound repercussions, not only for me, but for community as well. I do these things because for me they work. If they did not work, I’d try something else.

Perhaps when I die, there will be big Golden Gates. Perhaps I’ll be reincarnated. What I have power over are my actions today. My G_d has no name, and may not even be. It doesn’t matter.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bleh!

Okay, I've a bad cold. Not the swine flu, because there's only a low grade fever. No, just a good old fashioned cold. My world at this moment evolves around somehow disposing of all that drainage, finding new and innovative ways to be able to breathe, and loading up on vitamin C in a host of ways. Yeah, chicken noodle soup too.

I'm horrible to be around when I'm sick. I got it from Robin, but right now you would think I'm the only person in the world who ever got this ailment, in my mind now a ravaging disease that singled me out from all others for special misery. Ever so often, I release a pre-meditated groan just for effect.

Of course life goes on, and there are dishes to be washed, meals to be prepared, taking the dog outside for her constitutional. But between my ears there exists an echo, a sort of mindless numbing that is satisfied with simply enduring. As I write, another violent sneeze, and soon to follow gut wrenching deep lunged coughing that cannot be controlled nor should it. I realize the product is what prevents something worse like pneumonia, something to which I am very much susceptible.

So I continue writing this missive, finding some strange delight in wallowing in my own misery while sharing it with the world. With time it will pass, and I shall renew my energetic love of life attitude, flitting about the house singing and driving Robin crazy. But today? Today is a day for exercising my own pathetic self pity, being miserable, and enjoying every minute of it. It could be much worse of course. Many are plagued with trials I could not even imagine. But not today. It's all about me. I'm going to bed now in order to wallow better. For those experiencing far worse, my apologies for my self indulgence. For the rest? "Ohhhhhh I feel horrible. " You don't need to feel pity for me. But it would be nice if you appreciate the considerable effort going into my own self absorbed state of mind. Oh and for the fact that I made the effort to do a blog entry today even though I am so painfully ill. Such dedication from such a pathetic creature.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Listening and surrender


After too long a hiatus, I returned to church today. The topic as are all this month are about listening. Today the theme of surrender was developed.

Sometimes my life baffles me. After the service, I went down to sign up for the small groups at church that will discuss the sermon themes. But when I got there, I didn't see where to sign up, and became distracted, and did everything but what I set out to do. Since this was the last day for sign up, I shall simply use this venue to share my thoughts of upcoming sermons for those who might care to read them.

It would be easy to kick myself repeatedly over my apparent stupidity today. But it would be not the right thing to do. In a real sense I have to come to grips with the person I am becoming. With age the brain gets cluttered and stupid moves are part of the course. If what I do is stupid, that doesn't necessarily translate to my being stupid. Prone to distraction? Yes. Prone to forget? Definitely. But not stupid. There are things I can do of course and I'm working on that. But sometimes I'm just going to mess some things up.

So back to the topic which was surrender. I thank whatever spiritual source is out there for surrender. It was when I began to learn the lesson, that my life was literally yanked from the jaws of death.

Way back in 1984, I was a horrible mess. I drank enough to black out on an almost daily basis. My job which ordinarily would have been secure was in jeopardy. My mom who if I got into financial difficulty or arrested could be relied upon to bail me out, figuratively and literally, retired and was no longer able to do that sort of thing. Of course all my spare income was going to fill the habit, alcohol and certain narcotic agents that were useful at the time. I had been arrested. I had been hospitalized for alcohol overdose. But finally one night in a drunken stupor, I suddenly entered a completely sober state. I could see what lay ahead and what my choices were. It was then I went to seek help, first to a psychiatrist, who referred me to a 12 step program.

Over the next weeks and months I learned surrender. My sponsor did not have the education I had, but turned out to be a really smart guy. One day he asked me, "You think you are smart eh?"

"I'm smart enough." I replied.

"College and all that?"

"Yep."

"Too bad. Smart people get drunk."

Wtf? Yeah that is what I said. He then explained it to me in words even I could understand. Smart people complicate things. They twist it to mean what they want it to mean. But to understand this program, to grasp what I needed to grasp, I had to quit being smart. Rather I had to become teachable.

He said, "plenty of time later on to get all analytical again. But here you have to let go. You have to surrender. You have to step outside yourself. Are you teachable?"

I said yes and he said we shall see. Not at once, but over time, I learned the wisdom of his words. He taught me how to step outside myself. I'd come to him whining about how cruel life had been to me and how I was having this and that problem. He'd look at me and start telling me about his life, and I'd forget what I was so upset about and soon I was helping him with his issues. Did you know it was a good six months before I figured out he was doing that on purpose? Service to others is the surest way to get out of ourselves.

He would take me on gratitude rides, down to skid row to visit with the folks on the street. We went to the hospitals to meet with those there either voluntarily or involuntarily. Somehow by grace I became teachable.

It wasn't the last time I've had to surrender. It happens with far greater regularity than I would like. When my partner Skip died, and a few weeks later my close friend Dee passed away, I had to just let go and focus all my energy to living one moment at a time for months while I healed. I wasn't capable of anything else. Looking back on those days, it truly was a miracle what happened. In and out of my life, gentle loving people entered, holding me aloft while I healed. I couldn't do it. It was something greater that was going on. That interconnected web of existence we talk about. Real live people coming in and touching my life, holding me, reminding me on some level at least that I also was still alive and we were all part of something far greater.

I'm 62 years old now. Life is pretty good. I'm surrendering to my unquenchable passion for food and more importantly the reality that I can't eat anything I want when I want it, and am trying to live in a more healthy manner. I don't know if I have a day, a month, a year, a decade, or even two or three decades left in this journey. I find myself thinking more about that inevitable journey that awaits, and have begun preparations for that day. But more than ever, it drives home also the sheer miracle of today, the miracle of now. Today I'm alive, and today I'm not alone but part of something much bigger than I am. Today I'm far more teachable than that shattered soul who sought help those years ago.

It is the contradiction, the paradox of spirituality. In dying to our self do we live. In surrendering all we become wealthy beyond belief. Though I have very little money and less in savings, I'm a wealthy woman. In surrendering to the greater, in abandoning the self, I've been made whole. There is no greater treasure. Very imperfect of course, but with others, even that can be improved upon. Heaven is not some place in the future in the sky. It is here, and it is now.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Second of Three




Wednesday is September 16, Grito de Delores or Independence Day. It is the date Robin and I were very publicly wed as part of a the GLBT celebration of this holiday in San Antonio. But like Mexico who honors several days as part of their Fiesta del Patrias, so it is we celebrate several days as anniversary. Here is how it happened.

I first began seeing Robin in September, 1999. We knew fairly quickly that this was something very special. That Thanksgiving she moved in and our real commitment began then. That year Thanksgiving fell on November 25, but we ordinarily celebrate the anniversary on Thanksgiving each year.

It was later that I realized we might be able to be legally married using the court case for Christie Littleton as our justification. We tried in Houston, but I learned they would not let me marry anyone, male or female. So it was that I contacted my attorney. We went to San Antonio amidst a furor of media attention, and obtained a marriage license. The glbt community in San Antonio were simply wonderful during that time, and they hosted and arranged our wedding for us. The day set for the wedding was September 16, to correlate with the Fiesta Del Grito de Delores. It was a wonderful day, complete with entertainment, a beautiful cake, media coverage, and of course the inevitable protesters.

One concern at the time amidst all the media hooplah was what the religious right wing might do to throw a wrench into the works. So it was decided that Robin and I would quietly slip over to San Antonio on September 10 and be quietly married and file the marriage at the court house. If then the religious wrong showed up with an injunction, we had a certificate all ready to show and they would be powerless to act. So it was we actually were legally wed on the tenth, but celebrated it publicly on the 16th.

Funny story about the evening of the tenth. We got a hotel room. That night about 9:00 or so, we got a call. It was a guy from Reuters. No doubt quite proud that he had run us down to this hotel in San Antonio. We had a lengthy phone interview with him and hung up. He may have found us at the hotel, but he totally missed we had been married that day. I only started talking about it a year or so ago, so it seems there are some things that can be kept from the press.

Which brings us to this week. Last Thursday we had a quiet celebration and over the weekend went out to eat. Wednesday we will do something special to mark the moment as well. We have been together ten years now, 9 years of it legally married though we both understand that what the courts give can be taken away.

What they cannot take away is the love and affection we have for each other. We remain two old sneakers, completely comfortable with each other and still very much in love. That I think is about all anyone could ever hope for.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recurring Dreams


I wonder sometimes if I were the only person who had recurring dreams as a child. I had two distinct dreams that were repeated over and over that I remember still so clearly today over 50 years later.

In one dream, I look around me. I'm no longer on earth, but on some planet far away. Looking around, I see nothing, but I sense something is terribly wrong. I feel an itch on my tummy and reach to scratch it. My hands touch something terribly moist. With all due trepidation, I look down. My skin is gone over the entire trunk part of my body, baring the internal organs within a slick membrane.

::Gasp:: Looking around, there are creatures moving towards me. They seem humanoid, and their abdomens are stuffed, but clearly with human insides. I realize they are intent upon my guts for their next meal. I run this way, then that, but I am encircled. Closer, closer they come. I'm screaming now. "No! Leave me alone! Noooo!" They grab my arms, and move in for the kill. "No! Please don't! I don't want to die!" Just as they reach to grab my innards, I wake up.

Oddly the second dream was even more horrific to me. I fall asleep. I'm like any child, wandering, exploring. Then I look up and it is Jesus. This is not good at all. I begin running. Jesus runs after me. Up stairwells, down stairs, in and out of buildings, Jesus continues to chase me. Suddenly I discover I can fly. Into the air I go, but looking behind me Jesus is right on my tail! "I don't want to die! Please don't make me die!" Jesus keeps pulling closer. We soar through a maze of obstacles but he stays with me. Closer and closer he inches towards me as we fly through the air, the wind whistling past. My breathing is fast, then I begin to scream. MY heart is palpitating and "Please don't let me die this way!" Tears flow down my cheeks as I scream out loud, but most of the time Momma doesn't hear me because of the attic fan. Jesus reaches out to grab me and I know in that moment I will be dead and then... I wake up.

I told a Catholic priest this story many years later. He laughed and said I was playing out the poem by Francis Thompson entitled Hounds of Heaven.

. . . I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him . . .

In this poem amidst the author's own fears he flees the inevitable encounter with the Christ, trying to escape the love that awaits him. It was a marvelous theory I think, but marvelously wrong. My explanation was much simpler.

Bed Time Prayers.

Yep, each night as a small child we would kneel down and say our prayers.

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
But if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This guy was the original grim reaper and I was his target. From about ages 6 up to around age 12 the dreams recurred far too often, leaving me each time with palpitating heart, and sheets drenched in cold sweat. Clearly the prayer did it's job. It sure scared the Bejeezus out of me.

I don't think they do that much anymore. Most of the prayers today are about loving gentle things rather than the harsh realities of death. I think it is better now than then.


Friday, September 11, 2009

My Thoughts on 9-11


Today is 9-11. It is natural that we recall the lives of those taken on that tragic day. But I believe that is not sufficient, certainly not for me. So many lives prior to this tragedy caused by the machines of war, including our own. As we have played kingmakers on the global stage, as we focused on power rather than compassion, and the others did likewise for there are no innocents, ordinary men and women have continued to perish.

How natural it seemed that day to want vengeance for our loved ones. So fierce the need for retribution that we declared war not just on Afghanistan but also Iraq. Iran who had influence in Afghanistan offered to deliver the terrorists. Instead we declared them part of the axis of evil, causing them to withdraw the offer as well as back off on nuclear talks. We made the lives of American Muslims difficult because we could not separate the acts of a few terrorists from an entire religion. Soon the rest of the world began to engage in the labeling game, and a state of war ensued. A war that not only compromised so many lives, but also served as a justification for rolling back many of the American freedoms we hold so dear.

Indeed I do remember the tragedy of the lives lost at that horrible day on 9-11. But in fairness I cannot stop there. From 9-11 forward, here are the grim statistics.

9-11 2572
Direct and indirect deaths in
Afghanistan civilians
minimum estimate 11,760 (estimates range up to 30,000)
Coalition troop casualties
in both theaters: 5157
Contractor deaths 1360
civilian deaths Iraq 93042

That would be 113,891 deaths using the most conservative estimates. In reality the majority of civilian deaths were never reported. The killing continues even today. In my heart I hold all those people, each with their own dreams and aspirations cut short in the insanity we call war. These are but numbers on a page, but each one represents a network of family, friends, loved ones permanently marked with the senseless tragedy and travesty called war.

On this planet, we have many who are experts in the art of war. May we grow the number of peacemakers and may it be soon. This is my prayer on this day of remembrance. It is on this day that I recommit to the dream where we will study war no more.

"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Matthew 5:9

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My Cousin Gary


It occurs to me that an entire volume or two could be written, just about the adventures shared between Cousin Gary and myself. The first time we met was around my second birthday. We lived in Olney, Illinois. A whole slew of family appeared about that time to visit, including Sandie, Cheryl, and Gary. I learned I had a huge extended family living back in Texas, and judging from photos taken, we had a grand time.

A couple of years later, we moved to Tyler, and I began to see more of my family. I'd spend a few weeks in summer with cousin Gary and he would come see me as well. Early on, we were going just about everywhere when we got together. I can recall us getting on our bikes and riding from Irving to West Dallas. Imagine kids doing that today? We'd head out in the morning, get back around supper time, then go back out, sometimes not getting home till quite late.

As teenagers sometimes we would go help Uncle J.B. lay tile. When we could drive, there came to be a hard and fast rule between the two of us. We did not go anywhere without getting stuck or having car trouble. It happened with such regularity it became quite a joke. Such as the time we were driving from the airport and the car ran out of gas on the freeway. We had to run across the freeway to go down and call someone to bring us some gasoline.

Or how about the time we were driving in the Trinity River bottom? Now it was a dry summer, and we are heading out across a pasture with a cloud of dust behind us it was so dry. Suddenly THUMP and we were buried to the axle in mud. Out here in this dry baron field, a water line had busted and of course we found it and had to get someone pull us out.

Some years later another adventure. It was in the early seventies and we had driven across the country. We stopped in Los Angeles to visit Cousin Lannie. He took us to a couple of gay bars, but we were all too intoxicated to notice. Then we stopped at a Dennys. A group of drag queens were there, and we began laughing hysterically at their jokes. One came over to talk to us.

"Where are you all from?" she said.

"Dallas," Gary and Susie replied and I added "Tyler."

"Omg! You are from Tyler? I grew up there and my momma lives there. On Border Street!"

It was great fun, they put on a show right there in the restaurant even as several trucker types grumbled at the counter. Later we went back to Lannie's place of business where his partner was right where we left him. Standing at the counter of the print shop, resting on his hand sound asleep snoring. I've never seen anyone before who could sleep like that standing up.

Our group went on to Disneyland. On the way, exhausted and hung over, we stopped by the beach, laid out our bags and went to sleep. When I awoke, I realized I had made a really bad mistake. Lil Miss Blondie here had second degree sunburns on her face on one side. The other side was faced downward and was still white as white can be. At Disneyland, children would grab their mommies when they saw me. Ever so often, feeling a bit impish I would grrrr at them. Their screams were so precious.

Then to San Francisco, after which we decided to make the drive right through back to Irving. On and on we drove, through the mountains up to the Continental Divide. We heard a funny grinding noise, but kept driving on in Gary's GTO. Down we went into the plains, through Oklahoma, then into Texas. AS we neared Boyd, Texas, the inevitable breakdown took place. That funny grinding sound was the bearings, and the left axle broke leaving us with no brakes at all. Coasting over to the side of the road, we came to a stop. Gary and I walked into town and found the owner of the auto parts store, then headed back. I'm no good at mechanics but he was and he set to work there on the side of the highway replacing the axle and bearings, his butt sticking out into the lane of traffic.

I stood out to wave cars over. Along came a woman, the rising sun in her eyes, and oblivious to me or the car or Gary kneeling there working. I jumped up and down and screamed at her. She noticed at the last minute and swerved. I dove for the ditch, and her car missed Gary's butt by about a foot. He was so absorbed (and no doubt exhausted) that he never noticed a thing.

We had many other adventures together as well. We camped in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and around Texas. We often took vacations at the same time. Perhaps some other tales of the two of us will surface from time to time. As well as adventures with my other cousins too, like Sandie and Kirby and others too.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The National Insanity: Healing our Brokenness


I’ve said before generally this won't be a political blog. But this has been gnawing on me for a time and I need to get it out.

Where did reason go? Have we slipped into some nightmarish world were visions and illusions have replaced facts? What in the hell are we doing to each other?

Everywhere I turn, more examples of this psychosis we seem to have entered. People attending rallies near where the president is, wearing full assault rifles over their shoulders? Just four years ago, two people were arrested because they had the other party’s candidate on their t-shirt, but now carrying armed weapons to a rally is free speech?

Yesterday I heard of a group demonstrating on behalf of health care reform. Across the way there are anti reform protestors. So according to TPM, the anti reform guy walks across the street to confront the pro reform people. He uses intimidation and pushes a woman back. He is 65, but tall and muscular. He then approaches some guy smaller than him, but the guy refuses to move back. The antireform bully hauls off and throws a punch sending the man to the street. The guy gets up and the anti reform person is all over him. Fighting back, the reform guy bites the bully’s finger off. So this man, this bully, this fellow who believes the government should stay out of health care, goes to the hospital where he is treated. He pays for it with medicare!

Seriously have we gone nuts? Talk-show hosts, news commentators, politicians, everyone seems to have lost total touch with reality. Birthers running around insisting Obama is not a citizen, never mind what his birth certificate says. Cries of fascism and communism, sometimes in the same sentence.

Oh the racism. I have not seen such racism since the sixties. Preachers praying for the death of our president, politicians proclaiming he is destroying our country. Four years ago, we heard Republicans saying anyone who disagreed with them were aiding and abetting the terrorists. Now they are labeling the president of the United States a terrorist? Some fools are calling for secession and the rhetoric is being ramped up more and more by the day. Republican leaders decry the racism against the poor white man. WTF?

Just this very morning, a huge controversy because the President of the United States of America is going to address school children alongside Sasha and Malia about the importance of working hard for their educations, and for their parents to be involved. Yet whole school districts are not going to let it happen, because they don’t want their children being indoctrinated? I repeat. WTF?

Probably saddest of all is that there is no longer reasonable discourse. Honest differences of opinion have been drowned out by the clamor of insane ranting of angry mobs. If it continues unabated, some fool is going to target this president. That seems to be what they want. What else could lead people to such incendiary hate-speak? History is full of instances where leaders were demonized and later assassinated. This must not happen here.

I’m not talking about meeting violence with violence. But it is time for those not totally devoid of their faculties to confront the haters, stand strong against their hate offering calm discourse as a replacement. We need to overwhelmingly tell cable television operators we can no longer stand by and let them continue to fan the flames. Commentary by Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck need not be debated daily on the television news shows. Would it not make more sense for experts in the relative fields to debate actual language in bills and real issues for Americans rather than persisting with extremists on both sides making arguments out of feeling rather than fact?

See if we do not change what we're doing, our democracy is in great peril. A democratic republic demands reasoned debate as opposed to just choosing sides. Compromise was always our strength. Presuming something did happen to our president, could you imagine the anger that would arise out of that? No, we need to confront the hate now, and quickly. Much of the disruption ultimately comes from profit motives, whether insurance companies trying to protect their obscene profits, or television networks trying to keep viewers watching by turning our country into battle for the absurd. One commentator the other night nailed it. Kent Jones on Rachel Maddow likened our politics to the old Jerry Springer show. He made a good point and that’s got to end.

So what can be done to bring us back from the brink of insanity? Writing letters to networks is a good start. Letting members of Congress know it is time to tone down the rhetoric if indeed they are promoting lies, which of course first means an honest effort to find the facts first. We should hold corporations accountable, and push for campaign finance reform that takes the power out of their hands. But also, becoming the change we wish to see in others. There is our most powerful testimony. When we become what we desire, our voice is magnified a thousand fold. There is a group I’m signed up with and have taken the pledge. Check it out and consider their approach. Imagine a movement in this country to simply Stand on the Side of Love. Their pledge goes like this:

“I pledge to defend the worth and dignity of every person. I embrace and support communities that are marginalized, such as immigrants, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, or religious minorities. No person should be excluded, oppressed, or violated because of who they are. I will harness the power of love to stop oppression. I pledge to stand, speak, pray, march and live on the side of the love.”

Imagine a world where we actually listened to each other and learned from each other. I would add to that group in the pledge others, like socialists and birthers and liberals and conservatives and the list goes on. Every single one of us came into this world with nothing and will leave the same way. We have that same grace we call our common humanity. Yes we have differences, but those differences should be debated using facts and experiences, not just made up propaganda. Those differences should be centered in respect, and yes love. Everyone has something to offer. Difference between reasonable people can be bridged through compromise.

Check out the website at http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/

Take the pledge, adding whatever groups or categories you think fits, especially the ones most repugnant to you. For me as an example, belligerent angry right wingers would have to be in the list. I'm sure for those people I would be right near the top. Take the pledge. Then live by the pledge, let it guide your actions. Together let’s heal our broken nation, and stand firmly on the side of love. Together as a broken people, let's begin to heal.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mrs. Brown's School of Dance and Etiquette


Note: The characters are fiction to protect the innocent and guilty alike from untold embarrassment, save where I mention myself. . Anyone however who grew up in Tyler, Texas knows they were there. Mrs. Brown was a real person.

Tyler was a small town that never really realized it was small. As cities go, it was quite prosperous in the fifties and sixties when this author was growing up there. Between oil money, the rose growers and a bulging middle class, it really seemed idyllic if a bit provincial. But even in a smaller place like Tyler, with a population at the time hovering around 50,000, drama could still be found.

There is no greater drama in a growing boy or girl’s life than facing those insane years we call puberty. For Jimmy, it meant the early peach fuzz that would later be called a beard to be shaved off. His voice changing, he stumbled over his own growing feet. He was attracted to girls but had no clue what to say or do. For gay kids like me, the daily torture of showering in the locker rooms after P.E. deathly afraid my body would give away my little secret. On top of it all there was a ferocious pecking order and if you were not at the top in that game of scratching and clawing, then life pretty much sucked anyway.

For Barb, her body was changing too. She was beginning to learn to use makeup. Not only had she grown taller, but her breasts were beginning to bud too. That wasn’t all though. She began to her horror to experience her period. She whispered into the teacher’s ear that first time. Quietly she smiled, and was prepared for such eventualities. What would it have been if she had Mr. Peter’s class that hour? She shuttered at the thought. Every moment was high drama and emotional overload relieved by periodic nervous giggling the occasional shrill scream. During these years, dislike became hate, sorta cute meant OMG GORGEOUS, and there was no superlative too extreme. She and her friends whispered feverishly about this or that boy either in a little huddle nervously looking about just in case, or in long extended telephone conversations. For Janet, it was a bit different as she kept looking at Barb’s face and body and she wanted but, no, that would be wrong. So she just sat quietly as all the others went on about their boyfriends real or imagined.

Amidst all this bedlam of rampant hormones and extreme drama, Tyler Junior High students had one more hurdle to pass. That of course was Mrs. Brown’s School of Dance and Etiquette. The very name still sends shivers through my body in an involuntary flashback to those grim days. This was a fate as demonic and cruel as anyone could face anywhere in the world. Forget Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay and water boarding is over pretty quick anyway. But those classes? They lasted all three years of Junior High.

Here’s how it worked. The class was in a large hall, or it seemed large to us. There were chairs on each side of the wall. The girls all sat on the East Wall, the boys on the West. Each girl was dressed in an appropriately frilly dress, much to the chagrin of Barb who would rather be in jeans given her choice. They were all made up, little ladies preparing for their day to be introduced to the larger society. They whispered nervously to each other. The boys were all dressed up in Sunday finest. Their shiny shoes, perfectly tied ties (Mom had to make sure it was just right) crisp white shirts with starched collars, and suits were in contrast to their nervous scratching and coughing and the look of terror on their faces screaming help me get out of here!

A slim, stern appearing woman immaculately dressed rose, tapping a pointer against the table to get everyone’s attention. I wondered if the pointer was used to keep us in line since clearly there was nothing to point at. I had a vision of her slamming that across somebody’s knuckles. Had she been a nun before coming here?

“My name is Mrs. Brown. We are here to learn basic etiquette and how to dance. Please stand up everyone. She pointed to one of the boys in the class. “Come here. Now how would you ask a lady to dance?”

He stumbled a bit then said, “wanna dance?”

“Nice try, but a gentleman makes a lady feel needed. Approach her,” pointing at the blonde headed girl near the end.

He did. “Now, bend from the waist to a half bow. Everybody watch!” He did so and several of the boys started giggling. “Shut up and pay attention! Now what do you say?”

“Wanna dance?”

“No try this. May I have this dance?”

“May I have this dance?” He stammered.

The girl responded, “Sure!”

Mrs. Brown said, “Complete sentences please. ‘I would love to.’” Okay, no object to the preposition but we didn’t notice. Well I did because I also had Mrs. Lowe's Class of Grammar also and could be a bit of a smart ass from time to time, if only to myself.

She went on. “We’re going to learn several dances in this class. We start with the Foxtrot. Later we will do the jitterbug, the waltz and the cha cha cha.”

The entire class snapped their heads towards her at once. One of the bolder students spoke up. “What about the bop? Or the slow dance? That is what kids are doing now.”

Those dances are vulgar. I am here to teach you proper dances for young ladies and gentlemen.” Instantly she jumped into her first lesson with the fox trot.

Thus began three years of clearly defined hell. Awkward nervous boys dancing with girls they were afraid to even approach outside the class. The stench of nervous perspiration filled the room regardless of deodorant anyone used. Still the classes went on for what seemed forever. The final gathering was a dance at the Rose Gardens. In the hall there was a small pond with goldfish in the center. The boys had to do something to make the event memorable. That was when Jimmy spoke up. “Um, Bill?” Bill was the football hero with enough nerve to fill a hall this size. “I’ve got ten dollars here. You want it?”

“Yeah sure.”

“Well you gotta do something for me first.” Jim whispered in his ear.

A smile crossed his face. After a few dances, the teacher played a waltz. To the music of Strauss, Bill rose and danced with an imaginary partner around the room, circling around the room with this invisible woman. He circled around, closer and closer, then dancing right He through the middle of the goldfish pond. Water splashed everywhere to the beat of one two three one two three! The entire place broke out in laughter and applause. Mrs. Brown was apoplectic, screaming for him to get out of the pond assuring him she would be telling his parents. The dance came to an end, as did Mrs. Brown’s Class of Dance and Etiquette.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Better Living Through HRT


Ever so often I will insert a blurb about my gender journey from male to female. This is one such accounting, this time about hormone replacement.

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There is always a certain shroud of mystery that surrounds those of us who change our gender. I think lots of people associate some sort of fascination or sexual fetish with women’s clothing and focus on that in trying to understand it. Clearly there are some transsexual women who go all out with fashion and trying to be some Hollywood ideal. In any group of people, including among transsexual women, there will be considerable variety. Others relate to the characters seen on Jerry Springer, drag queens acting out in perpetual high drama, only in six inch stilletos. Again, there are some who might fill that bill, but it was not my experience. It is my experience I try to share.

I’ll not go into detail here the feelings of being misplaced, different, like nature had performed some really massive joke. Nor about the times I had gone out in my alternate persona, wary lest serious bodily harm be dealt because in this country breaking gender rules can carry a huge price. Or the very real concern when I went to my employer to discuss my change how I could just as easily lost my job. Some of those stories will have to wait until another time.

What I want to tell is what happened when I first began HRT. Those are the initials for Hormone Replacement Therapy. For me, that involved large doses of premarin along with a medicine that interfered with production of testosterone (male hormone) called aldactone.

What followed was a near instant ecstatic transformation. No, I’m not talking about breasts. They grew over time of course. Oh I’ll always be a member of the itty bitty titty club, but they are a part of me now. The skin softened, and a new layer of fat was deposited. Frankly with my back problems I’m grateful I did not end up with some double D’s. But what I am talking about here is the removal of the effects of testosterone. It was as if I’d spent a lifetime with a cloud over my brain, and suddenly it was liberated. I became more relaxed, happier than I had ever been before. There were new levels of social discernment that had escaped me before.

Now some will argue that since testosterone sometimes lends to greater agitation, then of course it would be this way. But my female-to-male (ftm) friends describe something very similar when they begin taking testosterone. I can’t tell you scientifically what happens, but I do have a theory. Whatever causes a person to feel disconnected with their gender in the first place, may well feel the presence of their birth hormone as a foreign body. It was like my body, mind, and soul had been cleansed of a detrimental poison, even more so after I had the final surgery that removed the testosterone producer completely save the trace amounts all women possess. It really was testosterone poisoning!

Now there are women everywhere who can attest to the power of hormones. I’ll add my own amen to that sentiment. The sheer breadth of my emotional life grew exponentially with the presence of estrogen in my veins. For me, it was the most glorious liberation I would ever know. Yes I had lots of mood swings early on as I learned to cope with this new terrain akin to an emotional roller coaster. I laugh now recalling how I thought I must be the only person who ever experienced this ride. A girlfriend just laughed, telling me to deal with it. “We’ve all done it, only most of us did it when we were 13.” She was right of course.

I continued on estrogen therapy for some years beyond my surgery, but like so many other women, I quit taking it when word came out of the harmful effects of prolonged estrogen replacement therapies. Since the testosterone production glands were no longer there, it was not essential anyway. Oh guess what! I was treated to the entire array of hot flashes, night sweats, and moodiness that comes with “the change.” Was I ever glad when that was over!

Hormones of course but were one of many things necessary to make the body conform to my natural energy and nature. They were but one step along a way including electrolysis, mannerism adaptations, and of course surgery. They are not what makes a person a woman, but rather are only physical and cultural manifestations of gender. I’ve known biological women who were more masculine than most men I know after all. What makes a woman who she is resides in her spirit and heart, a sort of energy that is readily recognizable as feminine. My attorney in processing name and gender changes, referred to me (and others taking this path) as female to female transsexuals for we are not becoming a woman, only correcting the physical attributes that stand in the way of fully realizing our true selves.

In recent years, I’ve been on a new journey. Early on, it was essential to immerse myself in “all things woman.” A lifetime of denial encourages that sort of thing. I also wanted to hide from that part of my life, in part because it was so often an unhappy time. But now I embrace my feminine side, while reaching back to pick up the parts more masculine I left behind.

See I don’t believe anyone is entirely masculine or entirely feminine. Despite societal rules to the contrary, we are a marvelous blend of the two, with some leaning towards high femme while others are ultra masculine. This is regardless of the original birth gender on the birth certificate. Sadly we place all sorts of behavioral strictures in the world we live in. Mostly I think it was to hold women back by demanding submission as part of role expectations. Anyone recall the sitcoms from the fifties? Things like speaking in passive voice, living a life around making her husband happy without consideration of her own needs, expectations that did not carry into the halls of power. All of society was tilted towards the male of the species. Women have been finding their way out of that quagmire for decades now and correctly so. That is another stereotype with sadly enough examples to lend to the assumption. Transsexual women behaving like June Cleaver. That drives me nuts. Women have worked very hard to be free from those patriarchal notions. Turning the clock back is just unacceptable. To me June Cleaver play-like is akin to someone exchanging one role-play for another. It has nothing to do with self-truth at all, and perhaps much more to do with too much television as a child.

It’s so much easier to be myself! For me, surgery was the only way to be me. For those who don’t understand, feel fortunate you don’t have to understand. A fun exercise though is to imagine if you are male, that you have a female body, but felt just like you are now. How disorienting that could be every day of your life. Today, I’m a whole person, not compartmentalized as before. It’s not for everyone, and there is nothing evangelical about being transsexual. But for those born with this something that demands we correct our gender, it is a blessing to live in this day and time. Rather than playing a role, I’m being rather than acting. Someone in fact asked me awhile back, did I identify as butch or femme. I just smiled and replied, "I'm just Jessica."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It Wasn't Funny Then: Transgender and the Puberty Years


If life is not complicated enough, try being transgender when you hit puberty. Even better, transgender and gay. It can be a real hoot in retrospect, though it sure was not all that funny back then. I've been blest to be gay as a male, and now gay as a female. Nature really is quite the merry prankster it seems. Let's go back a bit. At the age of three, I had told my mom I was a girl. Nothing like a bit of panic in your mom's eyes to send a child into a deep retreat. At least it was that way for me. All along, behavior I wanted to engage in was consciously replaced with a sort of faux masculinity. Heck to get respect this child learned to speak East Texas (which I still do to this day) and I even artificially deepened my voice. No wonder the other kids thought I was pretty weird.

Invariably however, hormones do what they do. For me it was in the seventh grade and my voice started changing with those sudden shrill sounds that came from nowhere and whiskers began to pop out. I would shave over and over trying to get rid of them. My face today is uber sensitive and constantly breaks out. I blame that on my efforts back in the day.

Then there was the matter of that thing between my legs. It had to go somewhere. I wore tight underwear, tucking it back between my legs after shoving the "jewels" inside the body cavity. I even went to sleep that way.

Now a bit more background here. My parents were not big on talking about sex. Daddy finally tried when I was a senior in high school. What I knew I got from encyclopedias and medical texts. In the seventh grade I really was ignorant about what was going on inside my body.

Now I was an avid reader. One book I read was a Pearl Buck novel about the Dowager Empress. It was an amazing book, speaking of castratos and concubines and elaborate palaces and handsome princes. Reading into the night, I fell asleep, book in hand.

Fading into a dream world, I'm walking in a meadow of beautiful flowers for as far as the eye can see. I'm wearing a cute little white dress with petticoats which was the style of the time. Over the hill was the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life. He rode towards me, smiled and asked if I needed a lift. His hand stretched out and in a smooth seamless move he pulls me up onto the horse behind him. I reach around his waist holding tight, my face pressed against his smooth shirt. I can smell his scent through the fabric. I hold on even tighter, and it feels so right. My heart is beating fast and breaths are shorter! I rise up a bit, gently kissing his neck and I need him to stop so badly now so I can kiss him properly. My hand wanders down his body lower and ...

I wake up suddenly. Something is filling my pajamas and it is warm and wet. I've just had my first wet dream, but I had no clue what it was! Horrified, I wonder if I've damaged my insides, but am too afraid to go talk to my parents who would surely have a major fit if they knew. How could I tell them anyway? That dream... Why I had tucked my genitals...

The warmth became cold, and quietly I snuck into the bathroom frightened to death. I cleaned up the mess as best I could and washed out the underwear that served as barrier from my pj's. Then after hiding the underwear in the closet to dry, I crawled back into bed. Clearly I had not died. It really did feel kind of good.

Whether a child is transgender or not, my story shows the importance of teaching children the basics of sex education. Wet dreams and masturbation are normal occurrences, but for the person who does not understand what is happening, it can be traumatic. The story is also how important it is for an honest relationship to exist between parent and child. Parents, you may not want your child to be gay or transgender. But regardless of what you do, they are what they are. How much better to be able to be open and honest. In my case I was both, but had to be delayed because of secrets. Sometimes the guilt and secrets are too much. What if they had told me, you can be exactly who you are and we will love you for it? I grew up in a different time, but it still happens today. Happy is the child who is true to self. My story is funny now. It was not funny then.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My Aunt Johnnie: A Tribute


Actually she was my great aunt, sister of my grandmother Ollie. Aunt Johnnie is a woman who loved a good story as much as anyone, with a gentle laugh I'll always remember. Sometime years earlier, grandma Ollie and she had some sort of falling out. Sometimes I'd hear uncles say derogatory things about her. Daddy just said the difference was between her and grandma, and nobody else's business but theirs.

One early story was shared by my grandma. Aunt Johnnie was little girl at the time, maybe 4 or 5 years old. She had wandered out into a corn field. Someone sighted her coming towards them, and what they saw made them scream. "Johnnie you put that down right now! NOW!" She dropped it and it crawled away. "It" was a rather large rattle snake. She had been dragging it by its tail and it had coiled back and was about to strike.

Aunt Johnnie finished the story. "I didn't know what a rattle snake was. Good thing it was a cool day. Apparently the snake had come out to take in some sun. It's a wonder I wasn't bit. Momma wore my butt out for that."

Her husband Luther had been gassed during WWI. He suffered with chronic problems with his lungs for the rest of his life as a result. One day at a family gathering, he was sitting there. He had false teeth and I noticed he didn't have them in. He grinned at me. "Want to see what those teeth look like?"

I nodded yes, moving closer.

"Here, I got em here." They were wrapped in a piece of cloth. Unwrapping them slowly, he proceeded to set them on the table. I moved even closer, to get a good look. He set them on the table. CLACKETY CLACKETY the teeth opened and closed making a loud clacking noise and I jumped backwards. They were trick teeth and they sure tricked me. He laughed out loud, and red faced, I joined right in.

Back in another time, Aunt Johnnie and Uncle Luther lived in Amarillo, Texas. My daddy finished the tenth grade which was as far as school lasted in Petty in North East Texas. The photo of that old school house is the one I chose to post above. Grandpa wanted him to work on the farm but daddy would have none of that. He was planning to move to Alaska to make his way there. Then he received a letter from Aunt Johnnie. She told him he would not do so well without an education, and asked him to come to Amarillo to stay with them. "You'd have to get a job to pay your way, but you can stay with us and finish your highschool.

Well he did, and entered college there where he studied until WWII broke out. It was in Amarillo that he met my momma, who worked there for American General Life Insurance. He saw her in the second floor window working as a typist and when he got off from his job at a service station across the way, walked over and yelled up to her. On the spot he asked her out. She said no, but he kept coming back, and finally she said yes. Which created a minor problem because he already had a date for that night. No problem because it was momma he wanted to go out with.

Daddy always felt a great sense of gratitude towards Aunt Johnnie. She came often to visit us, more so after Luther died. During those visits, she showed her own wit and intellect, encouraging me to take my education seriously. When I had my accident in my senior year, she came to sit with me. She discouraged talk by some that I should just wait and make up what I had missed the next year. She and my parents agreed I should use homebound training and I'm so grateful for that.

She slowed down a bit as she got older. I recall one day when she was about 85 or so, complaining because when she mowed the front yard, she had to rest a bit before tackling the back. "Must be arthritis," she said. The last time I saw aunt Johnnie was when she came to visit my mother in Louisiana. She arrived with Aunt Willobeth, and my cousin Alice Jean. We had a wonderful visit, then went to walk through Hodges Gardens before they headed back. Sadly all three are no longer with us. Alice had an accident a year or so later and did not survive, taken way too soon. Aunt Willobeth died just this past year. Aunt Johnnie lived to be 101, active until near the end. She was around long enough to touch not only daddy's life, but my own as well.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why Grandpa Was a Sharecropper


This is a story passed along to me, filled with the frailties of our human condition. It seems important to tell such tales. If we only focus on a past through rose colored glasses, we miss the true human drama that our ancestors experienced that in many ways are exactly the sorts of things we encounter today.

First a note about my grandpa on my daddy's side. He was not a tall man, and mostly I remember him with his white hair, and the dark glass which covered one eye he had lost when he was young. I remember us sneaking into the bedroom when he was sleeping to stare at the empty socket where an eye once had been.

Grandpa had a fierce temper and would argue with a fence post. My mama was the same way, and they tell the story that everyone was walking on pins and needles over what would happen when the two first met. Well true to form, he snapped at her, and she snapped right back. What followed was a ferocious battle of pure stubbornness of epic proportions. Suddenly they both broke out laughing and were as close as any two people ever could be after that.

But this story is about a much younger grandpa, a man who did not get many breaks in life, spending much of his younger years as a share cropper trying to eke out an existence raising and picking cotton on shares with the landowner. How had he come to this place? The story began with his father, my great grandfather.

Grandpa Jimmy had been part of a large family as were most in those days. His daddy was fairly well to do, with real estate holdings in the Paris, Texas area. He loved my great grandma by all accounts, and all should have been well for him, but for a sometimes cruel fate. Great grandma took ill and died soon after. Grandpa was terribly lonely when a young woman in the area began to pay him some attention. The story I heard was that she was 16, which would be shocking now, but not so much back then. He was totally infatuated by her and soon they were married.

Now his new wife had her own family to worry about. Quietly and carefully she began transferring resources over to her family members. Then great grandpa died and a young grandpa Jimmy was on his own. Without education or resources, the only choice was sharecropping, and that is what he did. He later met grandma Ollie and they began raising their own large family not too long after.

One story of note I've always held onto. My grandma Ollie was generally a quiet woman. Most of my memories of her were of her insistence in her later years of not having anyone interrupt her when her soaps were on. Also of the great family gatherings where she and the women would be busy in the kitchen, the men sitting around the table swapping lies, and us kids crawling under the large dining table between legs, both chair and table legs, and the humans jabbering above us. It was our fortress or our getaway, depending on what the game called for. Then we all would gather around for a wonderful dinner, much of the produce raised in the garden and chickens slaughtered from the back yard.

Well there was a younger grandma too. On one occasion, they had been told to vacate the shack where they were living. Grandpa left to try to find work elsewhere. While he was gone, grandma heard a noise outside. A crew had arrived and informed her she had to get out that moment because they were going to tear the place down. She reminded them the boss had given them two weeks, but he was not interested in negotiating.

"Just a minute then," said grandma Ollie. She walked into the house. Out she came, a shotgun under her arm. "If you don't git out of here right now, I'm going to pepper you," she warned.

The crew leader's eyes got really big then. "We...we'll be back soon. With the sheriff!"

"Couple a days and I'll be gone anyhow. Just leave us be." As they told the story, her voice never raised, but was cool as a cucumber. Grandpa found another job and soon they were gone.

Later in life, grandpa Jimmy and my uncle Hilyard went into business together repairing shoes. We used to visit my grandparents about once a month or so. Then one day, grandpa went to the doctor because of severe headaches. It turned out to be brain cancer. They found it too late and he was going to die. I'll never forget those days. We visited him in the hospital, and then he was out for a time before going back to die. There was an old custom that I think really had value all its own. We all gathered, then he called us in, one at a time. This was not an ordinary visit. This was a ritual, one where he thought carefully what he wanted to pass on to each one of us.

My turn came. "Yes grandpa?"

"Come here and sit on the bed beside me." I walked over and sat down as he instructed. I was ten years old. "Won't be long, you'll be growing up and going to work."

I nodded.

"Your work is a piece of who you are. Take pride in the job, no matter what the job is. If you're working for a boss man, make him look good by the work you do. There's more rewards to work than just a paycheck." I thought he was done, but he motioned for me to hold on a moment. "You got some of the stubbornness of your mama. I like that." I grinned and so did he, then he motioned me to send the next one in.

When he died, we all took our turn sitting up with the body. It's an eerie feeling sitting in a mortuary late at night with a body all alone. But there I was, ten years old, doing my duty. The casket was open and most today would be worried what it would do to the child. But I'd seen my other grandpa and slept in the room adjacent where I could see his body stretched out on a kitchen table when I was five, so this was small stuff. I remember the drive to the cemetery, then all of us gathered around.

At that young age, death was still something uncommon. I'm much older now. Death is no longer such a stranger. So many since have died. Aunts, uncles, cousins friends, my parents, my soul mate. From each I've learned and grown however. I remembered grandpa's advice. It served me well in my working years. Seems it really was good advice.