We are who we are

I grew up a tough little tomboy perpetually riding in my older brother’s wake, and often wished I had been born a boy as well so that I could do all the things that he could do. Well into my teens, strangers would ask me, “are you a boy or a girl?” and my answer often surprised them. Even so, I have always known and accepted (at some stages more gracefully than others) that I am a female person in a female body. The longer I live, the more I appreciate the gifts of my gender, even while chafing against the restrictions it also imposes. When I entertain the idea of being male now, I find it distasteful. I won’t get into the details of why.

I will confess, I don’t really understand transgenderism and I know I’m not alone in that. Gender is an enormous component of one’s identity, and having any confusion around that is a ticket to all kinds of struggles: personally, interpersonally and socially. The first distinction we make about any person is “he” or “she.” With few exceptions, human beings are not able to conceptualize or tolerate anything outside of or in between those two poles.

But I do understand and give mad props to unconditional love and clear-eyed acceptance of people as they are even when they are not what we want them to be or wish they were. That’s why I so appreciate the story of Jeff and Hillary Whittington and their son Ryland as told in the CNN Films video “Raising Ryland.” (Sorry, video preview is not available.)


As soon as he could speak, 3-year-old Ryland began telling his parents that he was a boy and that he wanted to cut his long hair and wear boy’s clothing. They were understandably shocked and incredulous, and they could have shouted him down, mocked him, or isolated and punished him into complying with their understanding of which gender their child was biologically assigned at birth. But they didn’t. They listened to him. They supported him. They defended him. They loved him. And no matter what or who he chooses to be later in his life, he is always going to know that his family has his back, and that he is a person of value. There is no greater gift that parents can give their children.

The Whittington family.

The Whittington family.

In an open letter, Hillary Whittington warned all their friends and family that should they choose not to support her and her husband’s decision to accept their child as he is, they can expect that their relationship with the entire Whittingon family will no longer progress because “Our child’s happiness is most important to us.” Amen! Really, what else is there? Maintaining the appearance of “normality” for the sake of keeping society’s approval? Rigidly demanding adherence to a single definition of reality that their child is unable to accept? Living in isolation, shame and fear until somebody breaks down, or dies? All because of a simple quirk of biology? No.

We are who we are, and I hope that someday human beings will learn how to see one another as souls and spirits with infinite potential rather than as mere bodies born to play ancient, predestined roles.

I wish this little boy and his family all the best.


The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.


Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.


Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.

With all my heart

The last item on my daily to-do list is to read the day’s meditation from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. He is a teacher and a poet who has distilled the wisdom he’s gleaned from living with and nearly dying of cancer into a 365 short essays that explore every facet of human life and the human heart.

Today’s essay is titled “Unconditional Love,” and it has illuminated for me a concept that has always been dear to my own heart but that, I now realize, I’ve never fully understood.

In truth, unconditional love does not require a passive acceptance of whatever happens in the name of love. Rather, in the real spaces of our daily relationships, it means maintaining a commitment that no condition will keep us from bringing all of who we are to each other honestly.

I have always thought it meant putting up with the most outrageous mistreatment from others and perpetually turning the other cheek, but Nepo clarifies that, in fact, “Unconditional love is not a hole in us that receives the dirt, but the sun within that never stops shining.”

Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.

I wish I could have offered this kind of love to every friend and lover I’ve ever had–and if any of them are reading this, I apologize for being too afraid and too dishonest with myself to be able to give it to you. Had I known better, I would have done better.

I did get it right, though, once in my life. I once had a friend with whom I shared a complete and uncompromising trust, which meant we were in the business of full disclosure: how we felt about ourselves, how we felt about each other, how we felt about our relationship, what we wanted, what we needed, who we were beneath all our layers of imitation and artifice. I have never had another friend with whom I have been so emotionally honest, and who not only reciprocated that honesty but also allowed me to love her to the fullest capacity of my heart. As it turned out, that was quite a lot. Unfortunately, she had no love for herself and therefore nowhere to receive my affections past a certain point. Loving someone who doesn’t love herself is a trail of tears that ends in loss, and inevitably she sent me down that trail and through a shattering series of losses because she was too afraid both to feel what she felt and to receive how I felt.

But for that brief, shining moment when I stood with another human being inside the same circle of trust, I was able finally to see clearly who I am and what I was made for. I had always camouflaged myself and my most tender feelings for fear of scaring others away, which is what usually happened anyway, but this friend would not be scared away no matter how much I revealed to her. I thought–we both thought–that ours was a friendship for life that would illuminate all our days going forward with joyful warmth. I have never looked forward more eagerly to anything in my life than what I believed would be this long walk together.

Nepo has another meditation for late November that describes perfectly what happened between me and my friend:

When we can look into each other, however briefly, without any agenda or scheme of desire or need, something indescribable and essential makes us more than we are by ourselves. … It seems the angel of relationship can only appear when our hearts pump our eyes open. It is such a powerful feeling that many things can go wrong. I can feel an aliveness that I think is only in you because it has been awakened between us. So I might only want to be with you and thus abandon myself. Or you, feeling stirred way down in your depth, might be frightened by such a feeling, and thinking it is I who poked you there, you might run from the most beautiful thing to come your way.

We did indeed summon the angel of relationship and it folded its wings around us for a short time in which, I believe, we both experienced a profound healing of places broken deep inside. I will always be grateful for that time and for that healing. I was not frightened by it, and I never wanted to abandon either myself or her. I wanted to live in that feeling for the rest of my life.

What I think happened–although I will never know for sure because my friend would never tell me–is that the angel stirred something down in her depth that she did not want to see or face, and out of that stirring arose a lie that, once spoken, had to be defended. The defensiveness soon turned to hostility that shattered our circle of trust and sent the angel of relationship away. The loss we have both suffered cannot be counted; our hearts will always bear the scars of the choices we made in our ignorance, our pain, our anger and our fear. There is no going back now to the place where only truth lives.

The gift I have received from this heartbreak is the knowledge that what I was with her, I can be again with others: open, honest, fully transparent, and committed to bringing all of myself to my relationships each day. Loving another person with all my heart was the best gift I have ever had the grace to give or to receive.

My hope is that I will, in time, transcend this loss and rebuild the circle of trust within myself from which my light and warmth can shine into the world. The angel of relationship demands nothing less.