We Are Family

Last week, a 14 year old girl and her Mom; a Southern-born, Indian-bred self proclaimed “fat, hairy, brown femme-trans-masculine queer bodied magic pony;” an engineer/activist transgender woman; and a critically acclaimed actress, African American transgender woman made me cry and made me proud all in one night.

Sera, the 14 year old, was born Seth. Every night, starting at age three, she asked her Mom, Amy, “When is God going to make me a girl?”

Over the course of several years, Seth began being Sera…at home. By the time Seth was in fourth grade, he began transitioning at school, growing out his hair, dressing more femininely. By sixth grade, Sera was fully transitioned at school.

That transition, as you might imagine, was not always readily accepted. Sera was and is bullied…by kids and even parents.

Her Mom always told her, “You are an individual.”

And she is. She’s a bubbly 14 year old girl, talking excitedly with her hands in front of 500 people. She and her Mom both seem nervous, and utterly brave.

At the end of their tag teamed speech, Sera addressed us as if we were all going through what she has been going through, as if our mere presence in that auditorium meant that we understood, as if we were all still 14. And I realized that we all do understand, because no matter how old we are, if we think back, we can tap into that feeling of insecurity and uncertainty that comes with being a teenager, that overwhelming desire to belong, that unbelievable angst and longing for something you cannot name.

Anne Lamott wrote, “This is a difficult country to look different in…and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.”

Whether you think back to your teenage years and acknowledge that you were the bully, the target, the popular kid, the fringe kid, or the invisible kid, you know now (at least I hope with all of my bleeding heart that you do) that we are all much more alike than we are different.

After the speeches and the candlelight vigil, there was an after party where the keynote speaker and Orange Is The New Black star, Laverne Cox graciously posed for photographs with party-goers. And when the music got started (courtesy of Megan Jean and The KFB), the kids from We Are Family started dancing. Laverne quickly joined them, and everything, the room, the air, the light, just got brighter and lighter and together and better. And I thought to myself, “God, we all need to dance more,” because remember what it feels like to be in your body and move and feel free? It was music and dancing and laughter and people being exactly who they are.

WAF

And it was miraculous.

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Sera and her Mom weren’t at the after party, because after all, she’s only 14, but this is what she left us, her fellow, forever 14 year olds, with:

“People are going to say to you that ‘it gets better’ and you’re not going to believe them. And the truth is, it hasn’t gotten better for me yet, but I promise to come back and tell you guys when it does.”

On our Dads

Dad and me: 1974

Annie Dillard on her Dad, Frank Doak, from An American Childhood:

“I looked up from my book and saw him outside; he had wandered out to the lawn and was standing in the wind between the buckeye trees and looking up at what must have been a small patch of wild sky. Old Low-Pockets. He was six feet four, all lanky and leggy; he had thick brown hair and shaggy brows, and a mild and dreamy expression in his blue eyes.”

Anne Lamott, on her Dad, Kenneth Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Mary-Louise Parker on her Dad, John Morgan Parker, from Esquire magazine:

“You just wanted to make sure all of us on the sidelines watching you run were taken care of and felt good about ourselves. Maybe that sounds like you got a bum deal? No, sir. You’ve had tough breaks, but I never met anyone better at enjoying what was put in front of him. At hearing new things, testing the unknown, conjuring the miraculous.”

Me on my Dad, John Paines Badman:

“Once in a while after dinner, you’d walk into the study and take your trumpet down from the top shelf of the closet, pop the latches of its crinkled leather case and lift the purplish-red satin that revealed the horn in red velvet repose, patiently waiting for its cue. Putting the mouthpiece in place, you’d exhale your warm breath into the horn, giving it life. You’d walk aimlessly through the house, playing whatever floated through your mind. Bits of jazz standards, songs whose origins I wonder about now. I never knew what prompted you to pick up your horn on any given evening. I never asked you to play. It seemed sacred, mysterious, and magical, far beyond what clumsy words could ever convey.”

Mary-Louise Parker to her Dad:

“We all miss you something fierce…to convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible. It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.”

Imperfect birds, new nests

Imperfect Birds is Anne Lamott’s new novel. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, although I love it already since the title is from a poem by Rumi, “Each has to enter the nest left by the other imperfect bird.”

As it happens, I wrote a poem about a nest a few years back. It’s rife with the angst that only the end of a relationship can bring. It’s also full of resolve and assertion, one of the better side effects of break ups we so often forget. I dedicate it now to Anne Lamott and Rumi: amazing writers, wondrous teachers.

A bird builds a new nest on top of the last
Making use of what is still good, viable, strong
Rather than starting from scratch
Already knowing the tree is solid
Having stood steadfast through seasons
Of frosts, winds, weather
And the branch on which the nest resides
Holds fast with quiet strength

A bird knows about beginning again
I’ve not known the loss of my unborn
To the tomcat or the thunderstorm
My loss came slowly over time
But was no less shocking
The discovery in the morning light
But it was I who dismantled the nest
In the literal sense
Leaving a trail of notes, anger, sobs
A neat pile of pottery shards
A vase, broken promises
Alongside a dustpan, a broom

When I left the nest for the last time
I half expected it to crumble behind me
But it remained
At least its façade
Some deaths, it seems, start slowly
Like a rot from the inside out
For so long I thought of the loss
As an explosion
That left an enormous hole
Scraped clean for certain
But deep, vast and dark

It took an entire year
Of trying to fill the hole
With all the bits I could find
Some fit, others didn’t
Some brought moments of sweetness
Of peace amid grief

Until the following spring
When I saw the very same bird
In the very same tree
Build that new nest
On top of the last
Using the strong red yarn that remained
Adding new twigs and odd pieces
Until it was ready again
For life

I could have spent two lifetimes
Trying to fill a hole
That was never mine to begin with
But I’d rather rebuild
With what I’ve already got
The red yarn
The strength of my limbs
My odds and ends
Because I think, after all,
I was meant for the flying
Not the filling of holes
I was meant for feathering a good nest
I lay down this shovel for good.

Dear Dad

Happy Dad: sandwich & scotch

Today marks six months since my Dad died. This is one of my favorite photos of him: standing on the patio in our backyard during a party, sandwich in one hand, scotch in the other, supremely happy.

The idea that six months have passed is both hopeful and daunting to me. Never have I been more amazed at the way time expands and contracts, accelerates at break neck speed and then stops entirely.

The experience of grief is something I constantly remind myself not to fight against. When in doubt, I try to breathe and surround myself with friends.

My Mom and Dad both trained me to “look up” the things I didn’t understand. So, like Joan Didion, I often turn to books for research, for solace. I have read Didion. I have read Auden. I have read Lamott. I have read Dillard. They all help.

My Mom spent the holidays with me, our first without Dad. They were strange days, one of us trying to “out-happy” the other one day, talking at length about the man I called Dad and she called husband over oysters and beer on others.

During the first weeks after Dad died, I thought I might have lost my ability to write…or perhaps my reason. The first words I “had” to write for a work project following his funeral felt wrong and sounded hollow to me. The client was happy, though, and I realized that it might be a long time before anything felt right or sounded good to me.

That’s grief.

I agree with Joan Didion that grief is nothing like what you hear. Nothing like we expect. The better news is that my moments of joy are also nothing like what I’d expected.

This morning, I flew back to Charleston from an incredible weekend away. As the plane took off, I looked at the glittering lights, a sight I always love. It occurred to me that if my Dad is truly in me and all around me, he was seeing it, too. And while I still carry the ache of missing him, I am happy knowing that perhaps my Dad and I share something larger: vision. And I can carry him with me wherever I choose to go.