The sun is shining and the days are getting warmer. We may be about to emerge from our cocoons, and I’m reminded of last spring at this time when the world seemed like such a scary place. I stopped going to my office. I stopped going running because the trail suddenly filled with scads of people who were no longer going to work. Two of my best friends were trapped in Vermont, one was in the hospital. I met with clients all day on Zoom and then in the evenings, bewildered and disoriented, joined friends for virtual happy hours. Gone were side conversations and incidental run-ins with acquaintances.
I renewed my relationships with my neighbors, slowly, over the weeks as we dared to leave our homes, stunned, frantic, scared.
Eventually, I felt safe enough to go mountain biking, joined similarly isolated friends in outdoor meals, taking advantage of the improving weather and longer days. We gathered, carefully distanced, on decks, in yards, at the parks, still stunned, still disoriented. I spent hours plucking dandelions from my front yard and grooming my aging and cantankerous cat, Mittens, ducking back indoors to see clients on Zoom, urging them to not panic, assuring them they wouldn’t be trapped back home with mom and dad for too much longer. What did I know then? What did any of us know?
We knew we had to keep on. I kept on by throwing my hat in the online dating pool. I kept on by doing jigsaw puzzles and by hauling out the old Wii Fit. I went kayaking. I’ve already written here about how kayaking seemed a reasonable and safe first date in a plague. I watched ducklings from my kayak, monitored the lily pads’ blooming, spied on the great blue heron, and the parade of goslings. Kayaked at midnight to see the bioluminescence and did it again the next night and again a week later. Sat on the water in our kayaks and talked for hours with new friends and old.
I want to return to that feeling—the satisfaction of meeting someone new, of making a connection, of being in my boat, on the water, in my own skin, keeping on. In the face of a pandemic. In the face of a return to whatever normal will look like, in the face of a future that only unrolls a moment at a time.
So, I keep on. Working from home. Dating. Kayaking. Looking for The One. Making the most of the lessons I learn along the way.
I am reposting this today though I wrote it four years ago. Much has changed since then. I was thinking this week how we still aren’t completely free to be ourselves in public. I was on the Oregon Coast and walking down the beach behind what I assumed was a lesbian couple. We were at least a mile from the main beach and far from the public eye on a remote part of the beach before they held hands. They seemed oblivious to my presence a dozen yards behind them, but I couldn’t help wonder what if I had not been me, but someone who didn’t support LGBTQ rights? What if I were a homophobe and emboldened to act out as so many are these days?
It’s fitting that National Coming Out Day should fall during Mental Health Awareness Week. The two are inextricably linked.
We wore our cowgirl outfits to the wedding, after all the invitation had said country chic and it was being held outdoors in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the reception to follow in a barn. Me: black cowgirl hat, pointy-toed boots, Western shirt with pearl snaps, bedazzled cowgirl jeans. The Little Woman: ruffled skirt, black cowgirl boots, black Western shirt with longhorns on the shoulders, pearl snaps. We had road-tripped down in our Jeep, all 1600 miles or so, through eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. We were excited to see the family, to celebrate with my cousin Brad and his soon-to-be wife Megan.
TLW grabbed my hand when we got out of the Jeep and waited for my brother and his family and my father and his wife to debark from their vehicles and join us as we walked to the front of the (very upscale) barn. I let Nancy hold my hand then, but I could feel that familiar uneasiness creeping in the closer we got to the venue, and when I didn’t immediately see anyone we knew (i.e. members of the family) or anyone else so duded up, I pulled away and dropped her hand.
“So that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. “Really?”
At that moment, self-preservation trumped self awareness. I pretended not to hear and walked a little bit ahead, suddenly flooded with shame and hoping that either the ground would swallow me whole or that a whole posse of cowgirl lesbians might be waiting for us just around the corner. Of course neither happened. Around the corner waited only straight (as far as I could tell) normally attired wedding attendees—maybe a bit more casual than normal wedding attendees, but still, straight, suit jackets, dresses, the occasional cowboy boot. I wanted nothing more than to turn heel and run, to safety, to the familiar, to someone I’ve never been nor will ever be: a taller, thinner, more feminine, more socially acceptable me.It did not matter one whit in that moment that I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me. It did not matter in that moment of panic that my brother was also wearing a cowboy shirt and cowboy boots and jeans and a cowboy hat. It didn’t matter that I had come out to my family years ago and that TLW and I were as accepted and loved and as much a family unit within the extended family as my straight cousins and aunts and uncles. All that mattered to me was my obvious otherness.
I did not flee. Even when I realized we were 45 minutes early and would have to mingle and make small talk or stand awkwardly with each other and sip the lavender water. I silently cursed the lack of pre-ceremony alcohol and our obsessive punctuality. I talked myself down from that internal ledge and tried to see us as others might. I tried to look at the individuals in the crowd and not at the crowd itself. I feigned interest in the barn and the surrounding grounds, and I eagerly greeted familiar faces as they trickled in. I reminded myself that I was 50 years old, goddammit and beyond (hahahaha) caring what other people thought of me and my life choices. I berated myself into behaving as if I actually believed that.
Eventually, I talked to enough people, had enough wine, ate enough dinner, spent enough time to re-inhabit my body. No one laughed at me. No one made fun of me for being a lesbian. In fact, just the opposite happened. I relaxed and opened up, and TLW and I danced. We danced together, alone, with strangers on the dance floor, and as we danced a funny thing happened: acceptance.
The wedding invitations had included RSVP cards to mail back. Each card asked for a song request, what song would we like them to play at the reception? TLW told me to put down “Same Love” by Macklemore. I seriously doubted that our song would get played—partly because it’s really not a dance song, partly because it’s gay. But wouldn’t you know it—about three quarters of the way through the evening, I heard those notes, grabbed TLW’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as I whooped and waved my hands in the air. We were the first ones out there, but not for long. My cousin wrapped us in a huge embrace and thanked us for coming. Strangers and relatives alike joined us on the dance floor in what felt like an enormous celebration of love. Period.
I wish I could bottle the feeling I had at the end of that night, wear it around my neck and sprinkle it over me before I walk into new situations, because coming out isn’t just a one time event. Coming out happens over and over and over again, every day, every week, every month.
Last week I had to write my Spiritual Autobiography for the Spirituality and Counseling class I’m taking this quarter. This particular assignment scared me a bit. More than a bit. In fact, just thinking about this assignment made me itch. By its very nature, the assignment implied that not only am I in possession of some sort of spirituality, but that I have been for most of my life. I’ve discovered over the past 15 years or so that the word “spiritual” conjures up positive happy feelings for a lot of people, yet there was nothing positive about my early spiritual development. In fact, I did not have a positive spiritual experience until just two years ago at the tender age of 51. Everything spiritual in my life up to that point came from either my parents pushing their religion on me or me trying to accommodate their wishes, or me fleeing from any and everything that even hinted of religion, spirit, or the supernatural. That’s what I have to work with: my own fear and dread regarding spirituality.
Sometimes, we get stuck in our stories, so I decided it was time to change the story. Below is what I ended up turning in as well as an art project I created to go with my paper.
It is time to change the narrative that has been my spiritual autobiography. It is time to rewrite my history from a power stance, from a strength perspective, from the view of a survivor rather than a victim. While my parents filled my formative years (ages 5-22) with radical fundamentalist christianity, and while those tenets and precepts haunted and dogged me for most of my life, I somehow found the courage to follow my own inner voice and at the age of 22 began shedding what held me back. I started to develop an ethos to call my own. I used to say that I spent the years between 22 and 51 avoiding all things that had even the faintest whiff of religious/spiritual energy, but in my reframe, I must say that I spent those years searching for a spirituality that worked for me. And, truth be told, I am still searching. Only in the past two years have I discovered the merest thread of a spirituality that may work, but when I look back, I can now identify the many sacred elements of my life that have been there all along. I just didn’t know that I could shift my definition of sacred to fit my needs. What I once thought to be profane is actually sacred, and much of what I learned early on to be sacred is, in fact, profane.
The bible served as my early foundation, and I learned god was angry, vengeful, wrathful, and to be feared. Scripture seemed to mock my most deeply held personal beliefs—equality, justice, fairness, and the right to love who I wanted. I grew up with a sense that no matter what I did, I would probably end up in hell anyway: if I took communion without all of my sins being forgiven, if I had premarital sex, if I even thought about someone with lust in my heart. If I took the lord’s name in vain. If I read “secular humanism.” If I listened to non-christian music. The world became a place not to be embraced but to be feared, a land fraught with temptation and danger. I couldn’t even love to be in nature because if I loved anything more than I loved god, I was committing an act of idolatry.
Somehow, I managed to hang onto myself just enough so that the summer before I started graduate school (the first time, when I was 22), I began to seek out other perspectives. I started reading those dangerous books and making friends with non-believers, and listening to the still small voice inside that urged me to stand up for what I actually believed, not what I’d been told to believe. I stood at my kitchen sink one morning, washing the dishes and decided in that moment that I could no longer be both true to myself and remain a christian. Christianity had to go. Thus began the journey in which I started collecting my own sacred experiences.
I started dating women. Sacred. I met and had a commitment ceremony with my first long-term partner. Sacred (and a little profane, but that’s another story). We adopted Anna. So sacred. I started therapy and exploring my feelings, wants, needs, and desires. Sacred. I learned I was depressed and began taking a new wonder drug that lifted my fog and allowed me to enjoy the world. We adopted Taylor. Sacred. I learned to stand up for myself and my needs. Sacred. And painful. When my ex had our daughters baptized without my permission after our divorce, I returned to church (I opted for the Unitarians) for the first time in ten years in order to provide my children with an alternative to mainstream religion. Sacred, though I didn’t end up staying long.
I bought a house and set about making it a home for my girls and me, an act that I now see as a step on my path to a personal spirituality. I met and married another woman and we lived and laughed and loved for fifteen years. When same sex marriage became legal, we got married with my children as our witnesses. Our love had finally been recognized and validated as sacred. Much of what we shared was sacred—some of it was struggle, and when it ended, we left each other intact, emotionally, having developed a stronger sense of what was sacred in the other.
During those fifteen years, I did not spend much time thinking about my spirituality or my soul or the sacred. From my vantage point now, I can see that I did continue to cultivate and sharpen my own sense of sacredness, however. I spent eight of those years working with for a Catholic elementary school, and I came to understand, perhaps for the first time, that not all who are religious are judgmental and/or narrow-minded. At Sacred Heart, I learned that the individuals in a religion could hold different values than the institution itself, and that community more than religion or dogma is what compelled most people to attend that church.
Also while working for the Catholics, I realized that I needed to start taking my body more seriously, that it was in fact sacred, and necessary to a healthy long life. I started working out, and found a connection with others, sacred bonds of friendship, which, for me, represented the spiritual connections with others I craved. Eventually, after I left the Catholics, I started running and found whole new worlds of spirituality open up. More connections and new friends, time in nature, the dawning awareness that my body really is a miracle in its own right. I started my runs (especially the more challenging runs) with a meditation: “I am thankful for my feet. I am thankful for my legs. I am thankful for my lungs and my heart. I am grateful for the time to run and for the money I have to buy shoes and running clothes. I am thankful I live here where I can run on trails instead of sidewalks.” By the time I got through my meditation, I forgot that running hurts.
Before I started running, I generally felt as if I were living two lives, and I often said in therapy that I needed to pull my circles into alignment. One circle represented the me I wanted others to see, and the other circle represented what I did that I wouldn’t want others to see, probably the real me. As running became paramount in my life, I began treating my running time as sacred, inviolate. Pargament (our text book author) writes that when we discover the sacred, our sense of fragmentation dissipates and the sacred becomes a passion and a priority.
As running began taking over my life, I began to wonder if it might not be time to stop taking the Wonder Drug, if it wasn’t maybe masking my (normal) responses to a difficult world. I found the new clarity to be sacred, and I redoubled my efforts in therapy to seek enlightenment, a search which led me to body work: massage, acupuncture, breath work. And on the massage table I had what can truly be described as my first encounter with The Divine. My massage therapist always finished our sessions with a blessing, her hands on my head, channeling love and oneness (that’s what she said, I just figured it was a nice way to signal the end of my session). This time, however, she stood at the head of the table, her hands hovering over my hair, and I could feel a new and different energy fill me up, a surge and a tingling from my scalp to my toes. She stood there for a good ten to fifteen minutes while something or some being left her and entered me.
Once I dressed and asked her what had happened, she just laughed and said, “You’ll have to ask Spirit.”
I wrote a haiku (that’s another sacred thing in my life: writing) to commemorate the event:
She laid hands on me Channeled a Divine spirit– Broke through to my Soul
That encounter with Spirit (or whatever/whomever) on the massage table served as a breakthrough of sorts, or at least it opened me up to the possibility of a spirituality absent of religion and a sense of The Divine unattached to the particular form of god on which I was raised. I felt pure love. And though my skepticism wasn’t completely eradicated, that experience gave me permission to explore my spirituality in ways I didn’t ever think I would want to. I now attend what I call Not Church, the local Bellingham Center for Spiritual Living, on a somewhat regular basis. They offer a 9:30 a.m. service in which there is no music and no singing, no “meet and greet your neighbor,” all things from traditional church services that tend to make me anxious. We end with a 10-15 minute meditation.
I’ve dabbled in meditation and mindfulness. Both sacred experience, and in the process, I’ve sort of fallen in love with Buddhism—the sacredness in not grasping, in letting go, in silence, in pausing. I feel as if these past two years have made up for a lifetime of ignoring my spiritual life, and if I were to describe myself spiritually, I would have to say that I am becoming a Warrior of the Light, as described by Paulo Coelho:
This quarter, as I continue working towards my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I am taking a course on counseling the LGBTQ population. Here is the course description as it appears in the syllabus: This course provides an overview of clinical issues, contemporary theories, interventions, and research relevant to the treatment of sexual minorities. This population includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender clients, as well as those clients who identify as other than heterosexual (e.g. Queer, Pansexual, Omnisexual, etc.), or are questioning their sexual orientation or gender in any way. Psychological, social, cultural, and developmental issues are explored within the contexts of theory and practice. Emphasis is on affirmative mental health services for sexual minorities, including the importance of developing an awareness of the cultural, historical, and social realities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Readings, discussion, videos, presentations, experiential activities, and guest lectures/panels will serve to heighten awareness of problems such as homophobia and heterosexism as they affect the therapeutic setting, the counseling relationship, and the process of psychotherapy.
Students have to pair up to lead class discussion each week, so I signed up for week two (last week), which was to cover Lesbian Identity. I wanted to be done with the assignment early on in the quarter, AND who better to lead the discussion on Lesbian Identity than an actual lesbian?
Imagine my dismay when I realized the articles we’d been assigned to read were all sadly out of date. Two were at least ten years old, and the third, a study done on 15 lesbians who lived in the UK, looked at clothing and hairstyle choices and how they correlated to coming out, data that hardly seemed relevant for a counselor in training in the Pacific Northwest.
The findings certainly didn’t match up at all with my own experience. Coming out for me had nothing to do with how I dressed—I started shopping in the boys’ department when I was a child. Ask my mom. My short haircut has nothing to do with being a lesbian and everything to do with being lazy. And the fact that I look hideous in long hair. Never mind that all the women in Bellingham—lesbian, straight, queer, bisexual—look and dress alike. There’s a uniform: fleece, jeans, hiking shoes, short hair. We all look the same, a confounding and complicating fact of life for the women (and men!) who reside here.
So, armed with my indignation and determined to find more useful data, I put out a call to my Facebook friends. Would any of them give me permission to use their pictures and their sexual identities for a Lesbian Identity Quiz? The responses overwhelmed and heartened me. Assent and identities flooded my inbox. My friends—lesbians, straight women, bisexual women, queer women, were all intrigued and excited about this project. I began creating a PowerPoint slide show, the most stunning one I have ever made, full of my friends’ bright, shining, and beautiful faces.
And it wasn’t just about the pictures. Women sent me stories too, about their sexual orientations, their choices, their gender identities. Intimate stories. I had been gifted with very personal revelations. My excitement for the project grew as I realized I had tapped into something elemental here. Don’t we all want to be seen? Don’t we all want to know how others see us?
The enthusiasm for this project caught me a bit off guard. I heard from some Facebook friends I hardly know, from others I hadn’t heard from in years, from some I have never even spoken to in person. A few I had been close to once upon a time. And a handful with whom I have just a nodding acquaintance. The eagerness surprised me, heartened me.
A couple of people sent me specific pictures, but the rest told me to use whatever I wanted from their Facebook photos. I set about culling just the right pictures from dozens of Facebook feeds. Some were easy to find, others not so much. Many pictures were taken with significant others: wives, husbands, lovers, kids. I needed clear, easy to see photos that wouldn’t reveal anyone’s identity in an obvious manner, i.e. no wedding or family pics.
I didn’t want to bias the results via the pictures I chose, but I faced a dilemma: what picture actually best represents someone? Given the opportunity to choose a picture of a straight woman in a dress or a cowboy hat, which would I opt for? Or, my friend who has a biracial baby—what message would it send if I included a photo of her holding her child? For my lesbian friends, would I choose photos of them that emphasized their more masculine traits or their more feminine sides? I have to say in retrospect that my choices probably skewed the results.
I set up the slideshow with six pictures per slide, and when I clicked the mouse, the pictures disappeared one at a time, revealing each woman’s sexual identity (lesbian, bisexual, queer femme, or straight). I printed slideshow handouts to give to each class member, so they could write their best guesses next to each picture. I looked at my work and was proud. This was going to be a kickass class discussion and presentation. I could hardly wait.
Imagine my surprise then, when I introduced the quiz in class and the instructor immediately objected. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Is everyone comfortable judging other people like this? I’m not sure this is okay.”
I stood there, stunned, and wondered for a moment if I had made a serious error in judgment. I explained that I had everyone’s permission, that each participant hadn’t just agreed but had enthusiastically and wholeheartedly opted in. My classmates rallied to my defense, shutting down the instructor’s objections in short order. I passed around the handouts and fired up the slide show.
When they had finished the quiz, I went through the slide show quickly so they could compare their answers. I didn’t linger over individual identities, nor did we discuss anyone’s picture or what made someone look like a lesbian or a straight woman. Instead we talked about what it was like to judge people based on appearance. One female student said she refused to make any judgments about the individuals, saying they all looked like beautiful women to her. The instructor refused to take the quiz, as well. But she also refuses to label herself. Honestly, I have to say I have some judgments about that.
We discussed the safety of being identifiable, the politics of passing for straight. I (being the only self-identified lesbian in the room) talked about the changes in the past ten or fifteen years. How I used to feel like no one would know I was a lesbian because gays and lesbians weren’t part of the social or political discourse. Now, I feel like I’m always identified, categorized, and labeled. The discussion meandered from there, eventually covering a variety of topics, but one that we kept bumping up against and then turning away from, how to meet this population in our counseling offices.
And there’s the lesson—or should have been. How will we counsel lesbians when they come to us? What will we know about Lesbian Identity? Is it important that we know how a dozen or so UK lesbians changed the way they dressed when they came out? Or better that we know it’s nearly impossible to identify someone by the way they look? That 50% of the time we can tell a straight woman from a lesbian? That hardly anyone will know a queer femme when they see one, and more often than not bisexuals are invisible?
My tiny experiment revealed that, in this instance at least, we are right about our assumptions approximately 50% of the time regarding sexual orientation. I’m sure there are many more ways I can exploit the data for better/more interesting information, and I have my more mathematically inclined friends working on that for me. I’ll publish those results when I get them. In the meantime, here is what I have.