How to Win at Life in Two Really Hard Steps

(This might seem like an odd place to start, but trust me — it makes sense.)

Almost no one seems to enjoy managing money.

For some folks, it's pure stress. I know too many people who were raised by parents who managed their money poorly, or not at all. When you live in constant fear of bill collectors, it makes a kind of sense to spend whatever you have while you can, before someone else gets their hands on it. But longterm, that strategy just means finances will always be tight, and it will always be a struggle to save for big purchases — and credit cards will always be a trap.

For others, it's feeling adrift, like there's no one they can really trust to give solid advice on how to do... any of it. When everything seems to come with hidden fees and pages of legalese... they've got a point. And credit cards themselves are the biggest lie of all, promising ease and only delivering more payment deadlines and higher interest rates.

Others have been screwed by the system -- or other people who exploited them -- one too many times. There's no good recourse for thefts like opening a credit card in someone else's name, or for using a partner's income to make your business a success at their expense. 

Whatever the background, what it comes down to is this: managing money sounds like torture to far too many of us.

To me, managing money sounds like the key to fulfilling my dreams.

Let me back up. I'm incredibly lucky not to have started with any of those hangups. 

And I went beyond lucky into charmed years ago: I started to enjoy managing money, setting goals, reaching them. For me, managing money well became a reward in itself. 

But maybe lucky isn't the best way to look at it. Luck was present for me, absolutely -- I grew up in a family where we actually talked about managing money, and where we always had enough of it. So those conversations weren't about stress. It felt more like we were talking about a game, and strategies to play it well. 

Calling it luck, though... implies that if you weren't also lucky, that's that. And that's not how I see it at all. Here's what I see.

I wrote about my idea of a luxury month a few years back. The gist is that it can be incredibly liberating to take a month off from buying physical stuff -- clothes, household goods, whatever it is. Instead, everywhere you are, enjoy just looking at all the things around you. You can walk into a store and walk out again with nothing. It may sound counterintuitive, but it's a powerful exercise not only in self-discipline, but in breaking free of the culture that says ownership is necessary for enjoyment. I've never liked being in stores more than when I knew I wouldn't bring anything home with me. No pressure to decide what to buy! I hadn’t even known that pressure was there until it went away.

Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. Maybe you’re like me, and the thing that matters most to you is being able to visit incredible, unique places like this. It’s a mystical experience for sure, but unless you’re a more accomplished hitchhiker than I am, managing money is a necessary part of being able to enjoy them. Just another paradox from your wannabe-capitalist system!

Indian Garden, Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. Maybe you’re like me, and the thing that matters most to you is being able to visit incredible, unique places like this. It’s a mystical experience for sure, but unless you’re a more accomplished hitchhiker than I am, managing money is a necessary part of being able to enjoy them. Just another paradox from your wannabe-capitalist system!

And the idea of money management, I think, is similar. It demands that we reframe our relationship with money. Instead of asking "what can I buy with this money?" it requires asking different questions. Questions like "In a year, what will I wish I had done with this money?" Questions like, "what matters most to me, and how can I use this money to support that?" And questions like "how can I make this money work for me, instead of the other way around?"

For me, that last one is the core question that drives money management. What do I want to accomplish in the world? How can money help me do it? I decided when I was 18 that doing my best to protect our planet was the most important thing to focus on. Because of that decision, I've lived with roommates almost my entire adult life -- the ecological savings are impressive, and with the right people it's great fun. (Not to mention, it makes housing way more affordable!)

We've all been trained to believe that owning more things — houses, cars, businesses, clothes, yachts, companies — is the only way to succeed. That's a load of bullshit right there, and it plays right into the hands of all the companies who count on you to buy their products. The only way to succeed is to first understand what success means to YOU -- your unique, individual, goals in life, the ones that bring you so much fulfillment when you work towards them that very little else matters. And once you've found what those goals are, give them your heart. Works toward them and don't let anything -- including yourself -- stand in their way. 

It may be that you discover your version of success actually IS owning a lot of stuff -- and that's fine! But if you're spending money out of habit, out of routine, out of fear, take this opportunity to stop. Assess what really matters to you in the world, and in your life. And then ask yourself -- how can I manage money to help me achieve my goal, feed my passion, nourish my soul? 

You might be surprised what those questions help you discover, and what you can accomplish. It's not an easy road, but… well, it's the only one that gets to where you want to be. And why would you want to walk on a road that doesn’t go where you want to be?

Sustainability: the doom and the hope

The Natural Step offers my favorite definition of sustainability. Here it is:

“In a sustainable society, nature is not subjected to systematically increasing 1) concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust, 2) concentrations of substances produced by society, 3) degradation by physical means, 4) and in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality, and meaning.”

That’s a lot to digest. Let’s back up and come at this from another angle.

I came across the concept of environmental sustainability for the first time in college. It wasn’t a great time for me — I was nearing the end of my first relationship, everything was mega-stressful, and it felt to me like there were very few certainties in my life. Enter sustainability, stage left, claiming to be the end-all be-all of all things environmental.

I disliked the idea instantly. On the one hand, it was perfect — an ideal of how Things Could Be that was equitable, just, that could endure for hundreds if not thousands of years. On the other hand, what did it even mean? How could a person or a society or even a single product ever actually get there? Didn’t the idea of sustainability imply knowledge, certain knowledge, that a thing was actually able to be sustained? And you’re telling me no one knows how the measure this??? Then what on earth is the point of having the concept?!?!?!!

… I tend to get worked up about things I care about, at least in writing. And I’ve come to appreciate the idea of sustainability more nowadays, but I have just as many reservations about it as ever.

Because the bottom line when it comes to sustainability is that no one knows what the bottom line IS. We have the concept. We have fantastic systems like the Natural Step’s Sustainability Framework that are designed to position organizations so they can pursue sustainability, incorporate sustainable technologies into their everyday business practices, and do the best they can within their mission. That’s great. But…. we have no actual understanding of whether x technology or y business practice is itself sustainable. We have no certainty around whether modern industrial civilization could ever be sustainable. The one thing we know (and even that is disputed by people who prefer putting their heads in the sand to actual breathing) is that our current society is not sustainable, as evidenced by the immense damage that human society has been doing to our environment for the last several hundred years, including the dangerously high levels of CO2 that industrial activity has dumped into our atmosphere. Among other problems.

My frustration with sustainability remains, because the concept remains so appealingly flexible. Anyone can claim that a thing is sustainable, but there’s no way to prove it. None. There is no certification for sustainability that I trust, but I still pay attention to little logos like “Rainforest Alliance Certified” or “Sustainable Forestry Initiative” on toilet paper because some certification is better than none, right? It absolutely is better to have the concept than not, better to have a certification than none at all, but part of me still longs for more certainty, longs for the ability to Know For Sure that something — anything — in my world isn’t built on an unsustainable foundation that’s ultimately part of the problem.

I suppose walking is sustainable, now that I think about it in terms of single actions….

… and that leads me to the other part of sustainability. The part of the concept that’s more personal, that people rarely talk about even though it’s hiding behind our best definitions.

“In a sustainable society, nature is not subjected to systematically increasing 1) concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust, 2) concentrations of substances produced by society, 3) degradation by physical means, 4) and in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality, and meaning.”

That part there, in the 4th criteria for sustainability. That part about there being no structural obstacles to people’s… health… to people’s impartiality or competence…

This might feel like a stretch at first, but stay with me:

Sustainability requires that people encounter no structural obstacles to their health.

For a system to be sustainable, it must help take care of the people it serves to organize.

The hardest part for me of coming to understand sustainability has been understanding this: our current society is not only unsustainable, it also systematically devalues sustainability. Sustainability isn’t “sexy,” and actions associated with sustainability are perceived as more feminine, according to an unusually depressing study discussed in Scientific American. That’s a death knell if I ever heard one.

And yet… to my mind, it’s also a tiny ray of hope.

What on earth do you mean, Elyria? It’s HOPEFUL that we’re living in a system that is doomed to fail?? How is that hopeful?!

In just this one little way: given the way people operate, systems don’t just end. Other newer systems grow up while big, old, entrenched ones slowly limp towards failure. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not a simple, pretty, or easy process. Call me a pessimist (ha! I don’t believe it!) but the fact that modern industrial society will not last forever because it fails to take care of people is one of the most uplifting thoughts I’ve had in weeks. People are already resisting that unsustainable system, in ways large and small. We have a thriving secondhand economy. We have apps that help people trade services like Simbi (the symbiotic economy), we have housing cooperatives and ecovillages and families that take care of one another in ways that are decidedly anti-capitalist. The seeds of something new are growing up all around us, powered by Big Industrial Capitalism… and Big Industrial Capitalism can’t do anything to stop them, because they work better. We’re in a period where there’s immense pressure and immense rewards for new ideas that work, and not to steal a page from Neil Gaiman in the intro to JMS’ “Becoming Superman” or anything, but sometimes, for some people, when you apply enough pressure to coal, what do you get?

In this case, I hope — we get to live, eventually, in a world where there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality, and meaning.

We get to live to see the diamonds after this industrial age crumbles under the weight of its own coal.

I hope.


This probably isn’t where you were expecting this blog entry to go! From sustainability to the end of modern “free-market” capitalism in such a short time? Unthinkable! But this is my blog, and sometimes ideas get linked in unexpected ways while I’m writing.

Heck, I thought this entry was going to be about sustainability and self-care, but that’ll have to come later. (You see it though, right? To do anything sustainability, the system in which a thing is done whether that’s a human system or a society-wide system must be able to keep on doing that thing in perpetuity. So of course it’s unsustainable to work out for 3 hours a day without eating really damn well, of course it’s unsustainable to scream into the political void with no response for four years (or four hours, unless you’re filibustering), and of course it’s unsustainable to resist oppression without taking time to recharge, however you need that to happen.)

What does sustainability mean to you? Can you envision a world where we have both gas-powered personal cars, and where folks don’t go bankrupt trying to treat the cancer that was the result of environmental degradation they never even knew was happening? Can you imagine what sustainability would look like? Chuck Wendig imagines it all too realistically in Wanderers — AI and a mysterious plague is sounding better and better these days — are there other stories you think paint a picture of what sustainability could look like? What do you hope sustainability could look like? How much would you be willing to give up of your modern industrial lifestyle in order to live in a sustainable society — if indeed anything has to be given up at all? Let’s talk it out!

DESERVE: the Rant



This is the word that inspired my very first rant. The concept is not only hollow, IT HURTS PEOPLE.

How, you ask?

Oh, let me tell you all about it.

Deserve is the cornerstone of entitlement. It's a mindset that has no place in the natural world. None of us "deserve" to live. WE JUST HAPPEN TO BE HERE. It is amazing and improbable and utterly boondoggling that we exist. And the minute we start thinking we "deserve" something from the world, WE FORGET that we are supremely unlikely beings who exist alongside a host of OTHER supremely unlikely beings who are entitled to exactly as much from the world as we are. 

Which is to say, nothing.

Think you deserve respect? NOPE. You might HAVE respect. You might get it because of your position in society, or because you're a man, or because you're wealthy, or because that's the way some parts of our world work. But that's not about YOU; it's about the system that other people ACTIVELY set up for each other. You have respect because other people GIVE it to you. 

Think you deserve to own a bunch of stuff and have a super comfortable life? DOUBLE OR TRIPLE NOPE. Maybe you BOUGHT a bunch of stuff. And now you own it. And you take care of it. That's cool, I guess, although I think owning stuff is generally a lot more work and less reward than people make it out to be. But the system we're living in allows for it, sure. Just remember, that stuff and that comfort is not OWED to you. Not by the world, not by any person in it. You don't deserve it, no matter how hard you worked. (And that means, by the way, that you might have to remember that people with a lot less than you might have worked just as hard or harder than you. But they don't deserve what you have. Neither, as it turns out, do you.)

Think some else deserves good fortune? Here's where things get reeeeally thorny. Maybe this person is really kind, and they've had a hard time recently. Do they deserve something good? A THOUSAND TIMES NOPE! I don't care if they're as saintly as all the saints who ever sainted. NOBODY DESERVES ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS TO THEM IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.


And now we get to the real meat of it. See, there's an idea behind the word "deserve." Maybe that concept is God, maybe it's the idea that the Universe has a will OUTSIDE OF US PEOPLE, but whatever that idea is, the word deserve MAKES IT INVISIBLE.

Here's what we really say when we use the word deserve: "I think some force in the world should give you good things." What we're definitely NOT saying is I, MYSELF, want you to have good things SO MUCH THAT I AM WILLING TO ACTUALLY MAKE THOSE GOOD THINGS HAPPEN BY GIVING THEM TO YOU. 

This concept of deserving. It hurts people who have actually done the really good things that you noticed. Because it puts the onus for DELIVERING those good things not on you, the person seeing and recognizing the "deserving" actions. No, instead the word DESERVE assigns a vague sense of responsibility to the world instead! You're saying, "Somewhere, somehow, it would be nice if a good thing happened to you."

What a weak little way of saying you think somebody's neat or has done some good stuff, but... well, even though you think they're neat, they're not sooo neat that you actually want to help them out. What a tricky little language trick that practically forces the speaker to do nothing but speak, and feel satisfied, like they've accomplished something when what they've actually done is fail to accomplish anything.

What a waste of breath the word deserve is.

Here's the fix. It's INCREDIBLY simple.

The next time you catch yourself saying to someone "You deserve," change the script. Instead, say "I'm so impressed that I, PERSONALLY, AM GOING TO MAKE SOMETHING GOOD HAPPEN FOR YOU RIGHT NOW. HOW CAN I HELP YOU?"

(And if you aren't willing to do that? That's fine. But don't simper and trick yourself into thinking you've done anything useful by saying the world "deserve".)

For the sake of all that's holy in our world, never, NEVER hide behind the limp little excuse that is word DESERVE. Eradicate it from your words.

You can do better than that ugly little concept. We all can. We surely don't deserve to do better -- but we're absolutely capable of it, and I think the world and all of us in it will be better off if we take a little more responsibility for making good things happen to each other. 

Being the force that replaces the word deserve is pretty empowering, when you get right down to it. And fun. And it puts you in a great mental place to spontaneously offer and accept help, whether or not you need it. Try it out sometime, and tell me how it goes.

Time: the endless alternative

This thing all things devours; birds, beasts, trees, flowers, gnaws iron, bites steel, grinds hard stone to meal...

The answer to Gollum's riddle, of course, is Time.

There is no way (that I know of) to escape the passage of time. But we can think of all the moments that we move through as one thing, we can name that thing "time", and we can decide what to do in it and with it. We can track it, measure it, use it to evaluate our effectiveness. We can be on time, out of time, in time, timeless. Time is an immensely powerful concept. It's also notoriously hard to get a solid grip on, and hard to spend wisely.

I worked in sales one summer during college. Like every salesperson on my team, I tracked my hours carefully, because that (combined with our sales dollars) determined how much we were paid. Of the 168 hours in a week, I noticed that the fewer hours I spent trying to sell knives, the happier I was.

I didn't last long as a salesperson, but I did learn a few valuable lessons that summer. The first was that spending my time on some things -- selling knives is a good example -- left me feeling drained, and that getting back to a balanced emotional state after even an hour or two of work took a good long time. I also figured out that spending time on a different set of things (going for walks, organizing my space, reading, making art) left me feeling energized, and those activities were what I would turn to after a few hours of draining work.

Fast-forward to the present day. For years now, I've been moving away from work that leaves me feeling drained. I own a small non-profit that lets me spend some of my time organizing other people's spaces. I end work feeling revitalized, because organizing is one of those things that feeds me, and my clients get to spend less of their valuable time on work they find draining.

Returning again and again to one simple go-to question, like "How does this make me feel?" or "What can I learn from this experience?" can be a powerful tool to ensure that the way you spend your time is working for you. Over time, you'll begin to understand which things you do are working for you personally, which are working for you professionally, and which are working for your loved ones. And you'll start to see more deeply into what you value, and key in on the things that are worth spending time on.

Whatever question you choose as your go-to, make sure you use it often, and with complete honesty. Don't be afraid to change how you spend time when you need to; for example, I keep a very strange sleep schedule because that lets me spend more time with my partner. And don't be afraid to hang onto patterns that work for you, even if it feels as silly as my habit of staying up all night organizing my bead collection when I'm anxious; the point is, go with what works for you.

What activities leave you feeling recharged? What obligations do you find most draining? What is one thing you haven't found time for in a few years that you really miss doing? Can you find one hour a week to set aside, and do it?

Beyond the Gender Binary

I remember a lot of what happened in elementary school. There was one particular person, a few years older than I was, who rode same bus I did. I could never figure out what gender they were, and that bothered me. It also intrigued me. I don't remember the face of any other kids on that bus as clearly as I remember the face of that person whose gender I still don't know.

From my own perspective, I was an odd kid the first few years of elementary school. I was assertive to the point of aggression with other kids, and I chased boys around the playground until they were all terrified of me. You probably would have called me a tomboy. By fifth grade, I had transitioned into a budding academic -- I focused more on schoolwork than other people, and I stayed that way for years. (It was adaptive.)

Growing up, I never thought of myself as a girl, or particularly liked "girl" stuff. My parents supported me in delving into those things that actually interested me, not in the things they thought I was supposed to be interested in because of my gender or my sex. Because of that support, the gender binary never felt terribly restrictive (or binary) to me. And it's only been in the last few years that I've really become aware of how the gender binary affects people -- and how many alternatives there are for breaking out of it, and how many people never fit in it to begin with.

I'll just talk about a couple of alternatives to the gender binary here, and then invite you to share your experience of gender at the end of the entry. I should say that gender is a category separate from (if often related to) biological sex, or genitalia; gender is a social and cultural construction, not than a physical fact.


Agender -- this is what I identify as! Essentially, people of any biological sex can identify this way. There's no surgery, no standardization, just a feeling that you don't fit in a "girl" box or a "boy" box. Being agender doesn't mean that you look a particular way or wear specific clothes. It means that my love of trucks as a kid is just as acceptable as a love of dolls would have been. It means that I can be exactly who I am, no matter who other people think I should be. It's a position that rejects the gender binary just by existing.

Transgender -- you don't identify as the gender that corresponds with the biological sex you were born with. Often, people use the term transgender interchangeably with the process of transitioning from one gender to another, but once you've transitioned, you (generally) identify as either male or female. The opposite of transgender is cisgender, where there is no disconnect between your physical sex and how you're comfortable expressing your gender. The myths about transgender people are persistent and damaging. The truth is that transpeople are far more likely to be the victims of sexual violence than cispeople are. Transpeople are slowly becoming more familiar to mainstream culture, but in the meantime, most people still haven't mastered basic courtesies -- things as simple as calling transpeople by the pronouns they choose.

Intersex -- is complicated! The term intersex covers a wide variety of reproductive or sexual characteristics that are not distinguishably male or female. Those characteristics can be anything from ambiguous genitalia, chromosomes that don't match a person's apparent sex, a mix of ovarian and testicular tissue... and people who are intersex may present as any gender, or as none.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of gender identities that offer alternatives to the male/female gender binary, but it's a place to start. I'll never know the gender of that person who rode the bus with me in elementary school. At least now I know enough to ask someone what gender they identify as, respect what they tell me, and not treat gender as the most important character trait a person can have.

Our culture has had a lot of boundaries knocked down in recent years, and we're just starting to question what the labels we choose really mean to each of us, and for our lives. So tell me, what does gender mean to you? How do you experience it? Does gender determine who you're attracted to, or who you feel safe around? Does gender restrict the clothing you feel comfortable wearing? Have you thought about what gender you identify as, or are you comfortable enough with the way people perceive you and interact with you that you never felt you had to struggle against those perceptions?

The Courthouse

I was nervous, but you wouldn't have known it to look at me.

The courthouse hadn't seemed this imposing before. But then, I hadn't ever needed something from it before.

It was the last day in November. 2016. Less than a month earlier, Trump lost the popular vote. He was expected to win the electoral college. Trump and his VP, Mike Pence, infamous for his support of electroshock therapy for gay people and other civil rights abuses, were set to assume leadership of the US of A.

As we pulled up outside the courthouse, my love and I, the irony of it almost made me forget the hollow feeling in my gut. My love, Michelle, was assigned female at birth, and the family never came clean about any of it. At eighteen, Michelle went through a growth spurt. His voice changed. He had rage issues. There's a word for that kind of gender-bending, these days: intersex. The word used to be hermaphrodite, but words change, and the words really aren't the point. Michelle is someone who doesn't fit in either the M or the F box that so many forms require you to fill out.

Neither Michelle nor I identify as gay. We love who we love. I'm agender, he's intersex. By some definitions, we're both transgender, but neither of us wants to transition; gender doesn't define us. We've both been married before. Both married to men named David, as it turned out, and divorced rather agreeably. But our state didn't legalize marriage for people like us, people with an F stamped on our driver's licenses, until the Supreme Court finally, forcibly, caught the whole country up with the idea of equal rights in 2015.

We had no idea how the people in our smalltown courthouse felt about gay marriage. Legal or not, they might try to throw up roadblocks. There was no way to know what to expect. As if just getting married wasn't enough to be nervous and excited about, we didn't even know if we would get that far.

The paperwork was all in my backpack. An unseasonably warm breeze ruffled my scarf as I pulled the pack from the back seat. Michelle, long black leather coat swirling dramatically, draped a long arm over my shoulder.

That always makes me feel better. Always makes me smile.

Michelle's hip had been acting up, so we took our time, trying to find the entrance to the courthouse. It was all the way around the back, of course. Construction. When is there not construction? But he kept his arm over my shoulder as we went, so I didn't mind.

I'd never seen a security guard at a small-town courthouse. Where I grew up you just walked in, got lost, asked directions, and eventually found where you were headed. No metal detector, no guard. But this courthouse was different.

The security guard looked us over, Michelle's long black leather coat, my short bright red hair. Told us we'd have to take the backpack back to the car, and Michelle's wallet with the chain, too. Chains can be deadly, I suppose. I took our packet of documents out of the bag and handed it off to Michelle. He extracted the drivers license from his wallet. We didn't say why we were there, yet, but I still didn't want to leave Michelle alone with the fellow. Granted, he was a full eight inches taller than the guard was, and plenty good at taking care of himself... it just didn't feel right. So as soon as I was out of sight of the door, I ran. Dashed to the car, dumped the backpack, dumped my coat. Dashed back, locked the car door with that handy little keyfob as I did.

I guess all the working out I do is good for something, because I wasn't even winded when I got back to the entrance. And everything seemed fine. The metal detector didn't turn me away. It wasn't until I asked the guard where we should go to get a marriage license that he stopped meeting my eyes. That's when that hollow feeling jumped up my throat again.

"First floor," he said gruffly. "Across the hall."

We wandered down the wrong hallway first, of course, and he let us wander for a minute before he finally directed us to the elevator. Polite enough, but still not meeting our eyes. We both knew he didn't approve. It was in every line of his body.

The first floor of the building was ornate, not like the bare commercial basement we'd come in through. Carpets, high ceilings, dark wood paneling, heavy frames. We found the probate court door easily enough. We hadn't talked about it, but both of us stood farther apart than we usually do. No more arm over my shoulder. We walked through the doorway, into the probate court office, and stood awkwardly for a long moment in front a counter that was almost chest-high.

Someone asked how they could help us. A young woman in a red sweater looked up when we said we were there for a marriage license. She hopped out of her desk chair and came over. We went through all the paperwork we had brought, made sure Michelle's W2 would work as a stand-in for his missing social security card (which we'd lost in an epic roller coaster adventure earlier this year). Everything was fine, until we said we'd both been married before.

Neither of us had brought our divorce paperwork. It hadn't even crossed our minds. I was reasonably certain I knew where mine was. I checked the time -- 3:30 pm, and the website had said to be at the courthouse before 4 pm to apply for a marriage license. We lived maybe 10, 15 minutes away from the courthouse. It was possible. Barely.

"If we can get the paperwork, do you think we'll still have time to get the marriage license today?" I asked. I was doing my damnedest to convey warmth, and worry, and the gut-sense that we were real people in a vulnerable moment.

She glanced up at the clock. "It really depends on how busy things get," she hedged. "But I think you'll have time."

I thanked her as we gathered up the documents. Just two more things we needed to grab to get this marriage license. Just two. We had time to get it done today if everything went smoothly. I knew we did.

If we didn't... our wedding might not quite work out the way we'd planned.

It wouldn't be a disaster, I told myself as we rode the elevator down. Not a disaster at all, as we passed the empty security station. We'd roll with the punches and find a way to make everything work out. But I did not relish trying to drag Michelle out to the courthouse again on another day. Bad enough that we both had to be there -- bad enough, with him on a tight writing deadline and a short fuse for people in general. Worse, because that deadline had technically already passed.

We held hands on the way back to the car. I could tell his hip was still hurting, so I didn't push the pace.

"I think we have time to get this done today. I know where my divorce papers are," I said as we plumped into our seats. "Do you have yours?"

"If I have them, they'd be in the black filing cabinet in the bedroom." He pulled his phone out and scrolled through news without really reading. "I almost didn't tell them I'd been married before. Not entirely sure I even have a copy."

I winced at that, but didn't say anything. If the papers existed, we'd find them. Maybe it wouldn't be today. But like we've already established, that would not be a disaster.

Not unless we can't get the papers in order until after Trump takes office and he or his cabinet find some way to re-illegalize gay marriage or make anybody who doesn't want us to get married bold enough to throw up more roadblocks. But we're not there yet so it really doesn't need worrying about and we really have better things to focus on right now. Don't we. Focus.

"Well." I breathed. "Let's see what we can find at home. Would you spin the pokestops on my phone while we zoom?" Michelle took my phone, and I eased out of the parking space and into traffic. He didn't look entirely happy about it. He and some friends had gotten me into the game, and now, just a few months after launch, I was the only one who still played much. The game was too buggy for the rest of them, or they were too busy.

I drove around the square slowly, slow enough that he could spin all the stops and get their rewards. We were almost out of town when a rare pokemon showed up -- a Lickitung, I think. (Let me just say for the record that I have no knowledge of Pokemon outside of this game. The creatures are bizarre and if it didn't reward walking and exploring new places so effectively, I would have nothing to do with it.) Michelle turned on his version of the game to try to catch the critter, but before it finished loading, traffic sped up and we were out of range.

"None of these fucking stops are giving me anything," he muttered. "They're all 'Try Again Later'."

"Ah," I winced. "They changed the game again. It's been that way for a couple days. If you're going over 20, nothing pops and you can't get any of the stops." I could tell he was upset, and tried to keep my tone lighthearted. "It's almost enough to make me stop playing in the car."

We were close to home already. Michelle went back to reading on his phone after catching one last poke-critter, while I navigated the maze of back streets. At a stop sign, I glanced over to my phone in his lap. It was stuck on one of the pokemon screens. I reached over and tapped out of it as we started up again.

"I really wish you wouldn't do that." His mouth was tight. He looked straight ahead.

"I was just closing out of the screen. The only reason I keep it open any more when I'm driving is to see if anything rare pops up. When it's stuck on that screen I can't do that," I explained.

"I just... you asked me to play for you. And now you aren't trusting me to do it."

That didn't sound like him. I glanced over as we pulled up to the house. "It isn't about trust, Beloved. You weren't paying attention to it, so I tapped out of the screen. But we're here - let's get our papers and talk about it more on the way back to the courthouse."

My divorce papers were right where I thought I'd put them, in the little black accordion file stuffed under my desk. "Any luck?" I called, heading to the bedroom.

"Got 'em! Right at the front." He straightened and held out a fat wad of official-looking paper to me as I came in.

I took the stack and checked the time. Not quite 3:40. "I think we've got time to do it today," I grinned.

As I pulled out of the driveway, I kept my phone closed.

"So... would you rather not play Pokemon on my phone when we're driving?" I kept one eye on Michelle and one on the road. He didn't seem quite so agitated, but he still wasn't calm.

"No. I'd rather you didn't play while you're driving. And I feel like an ass for saying it."

"Beloved," I began.

"Apparently it takes a whole lot of frustration to actually get me to come out and say it," he fumed.

"Beloved, that's exactly what I need to hear. I'm not good at subtle." I studied his profile, the straight nose, the proud chin. "But our relationship -- you know you can tell me what to do. There doesn't even have to be a reason as good as this one."

"It would just suck if you were driving and playing Pokemon and hit a kid or something," he said.

"Yeah, it would. I've been careful, but if you want me to stop playing while I'm driving entirely, I will do it. I promise. That's... that's what it means to me to be your submissive."

He looked up at that. "I know," he sighed as he glanced out the window. "And I'm trying not to abuse that power."

I put a hand on his leg. "Or abuse me. I know. But this - I can't tell you how much this helps me."

"This - Beloved, I don't know how you do it." We turned back onto the main road into town. "My whole life, if anybody told me what to do, I'd want to do the opposite. I told you about the shower revolt with my m

om, right?" He nodded. Suddenly, my eyes started to tear up. I hadn't been expecting a minor squabble to run this deep, but here it was. "Somehow, you get right past that contrarian streak. I love knowing the things you want me to do, because once I know them... there's nothing I want to do more. I love being able to make you happy."

There was nothing I loved more.

"Can I still play while I'm driving around the graveyard, though?" I asked, hoping. The graveyard was the best place to restock in town. It had become the second home for pretty much everyone who was still playing.

"Playing in the graveyard's fine," he said gently. "It just makes me nervous when you have it open all the time."

For once, I didn't argue, even in my head. He was right. And it actually felt nice not to split-screen my attention while driving like I'd been doing. It felt even better to know I was doing what he wanted.

Don't get me wrong, I was still nervous about the marriage license. But I felt more settled, not quite as hollow as I had before. The courthouse still loomed, but now we knew where to go, and we had all of our paperwork. There wasn't much that could go wrong, at this point.


"This just doesn't look right." The woman in the white sweater shook her head as she pored carefully over my divorce paperwork. "See, the judge didn't even sign this last page."

She called another courthouse employee over, and the two put their heads together. The official seal on the back page of the document was clear. The stamped date and certification was clear. The second woman looked up. "Where did you get your divorce?"

"Cook County, Illinois," I replied. Nodding towards the document, I said, "I do wonder if that's just how they do the signature there. I think this was a certified copy, not the original."

The other woman nodded. "You know, that's a good point."

"Is there any chance you could call them and check?" I asked. "I know it's a little late in the day, but it is an hour earlier there."

"Yeah, I think we could do that." She glanced back to the first woman. "Would you take care of it?"

"What, call Illinois? Now?"

Michelle and I exchanged glances.

"I mean, if Kim were here, she'd be able to tell and we wouldn't have to go through all that. I just don't know if they'll be able to get it done today." She talked to the other employee, as if we weren't standing right there.

"It's going to be really hard for us to both come back on a different day," I admitted. "We're writing under a deadline. If there's any way it can happen today that would be really great."

The younger woman in the red sweater, the one who had helped us before, piped up from her desk. "Isn't Kim in a meeting? She's still here, right?"

In the flurry, as someone went off to see where Kim was, we were left face to face with the older woman. The one who was so terribly concerned that we might both be forging divorce papers. The one who still wasn't making eye contact with either of us.

"Well, while they're figuring that out, are these papers ok?" I asked. Michelle hadn't had a lawyer on his divorce -- dissolution, technically -- but as far as we knew, everything was official. Just like it had been for the past 10-plus years.

The woman flipped through the stack of papers. "I don't see a judge's order here either. You say this was in our courthouse?" She met Michelle's eyes for the first time. "You'll have to check across the hallway, make sure they have all the papers there. You can both take a seat out in the hallway while we take care of the other one." She gestured to the open hall behind us.

Reluctantly, we stepped out into the hallway. It was almost 4:10 already. At this point, they could decide to close the office on a whim, and we'd be sunk. Michelle poked his head in the door across the hall where the records were and struck up a conversation with someone.

I checked my phone. No signal meant no pokemon, and no escape from the fact that there was nothing I could do right now to help our chances of getting a marriage license today.

I knew how much Michelle hated this kind of bureaucracy. I did too; I just tried to focus on the point and not get sucked into the hating. Once all this bureaucracy was finally done, we'd be able to get married. And that would be worth a lot more hassle than this.

I just hoped Kim would get out of her meeting in time, and be able to help us.

Michelle ambled back out into the hall, brandishing a tiny slip of paper clipped to top of the divorce paperwork.

"No surprise, but they had no idea why the office needed this," he said under his breath. "There was a lot of eye-rolling, but we're all set."

Right then, they called us back into the probate court office. We were whisked off to the back, where Kim was just sitting down. Standing off to one side while she finished a conversation over some case files, we had a chance to look around at her desk.

"Are those your kids?" I asked when she finally looked up.

"Almost. They're my grandkids," she said as she leafed through my divorce papers.

"You don't look old enough to have grandkids!" I was surprised - until she said that, I would have put her in her 30s, 40s at the latest. She was slender and moved quickly, but with a deliberate economy that made her come across as incredibly efficient.

"Well, bless you," she said, finally cracking a smile. "My son will be turning 32 soon enough. Still not used to it myself."

Without even bringing up the divorce paperwork, she picked up the phone and dialed. "I'm just going to check the records with the Cook County court," she said around the mouthpiece.

"Thank you," I mouthed, and we leaned against the wall to wait. While she was on hold or navigating automated phone menus, a couple other people stopped by to talk with her. One chatty, long-haired woman sat in a chair next to where we were standing and started talking offhand about how complicated the phone systems were. She had a pile of paperwork on her lap.

Another couple, a man and a woman, came in through the door asking about a marriage license. The older woman who had raised all the concerns about our divorce paperwork went to help them. I couldn't hear everything they said, but they walked out with their marriage license in hand before the phone call ended. I really hoped we could get ours settled today, too.

Right then, Kim got through to a real person. A moment more, and she was reading off the record number. Time flickered. The next few seconds felt like forever. She thanked the person on the other end and hung up.

"Everything's fine. You're all set," she affirmed crisply. It was 4:25 pm.

The other woman sitting by us leaned forward. "I bet I know exactly how that confusion happened," she started to confide. "It's a little complicated. They have this thing where..." she paused, shook her head.

I don't know if my face conveyed the urgency I was feeling, or whether she realized that her explanation might take too long. She cut herself off before I could. "But you don't need to hear this right now. Go on, get your license, and congratulations." She smiled and waved as she turned to Kim.

We hurried back to the main desk, armed not only with our small mountain of paperwork, but with official approval, too. The older woman in the white sweater who had helped the other couple started to stand up and head over to us, but the younger one who had explained things on our first visit beat her to it.

"I can take care of them," she said to the older woman with a faint smile.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind. Our full names, places of birth, parent's names, everything was cross-checked and printed on a form with ornate curlicues on the edges. One typo meant a swift reprint. We handed over the cash fee. She handed our driver's licenses back.

And held out our marriage license with a lopsided smile.

I think we thanked her several times. I remember wishing I had a business card to give her, though I suppose I know where she works and I could go thank her again any time. One thing I know for certain is that when we got our marriage license, it was 4:32 pm.

We walked out of the courthouse arm in arm. I made a conscious effort not to beam at everyone we passed, but I probably failed. I might not have been trying very hard.

We settled into the car. I leaned my head back against the seat in utter relief. "I am so, so glad we got that done today."

Michelle didn't respond right away. I looked over at him. "I... Beloved, aren't you glad about this? I mean, I know you love me, but you don't, I don't know. You don't really seem happy about this part of it."

"No," he said softly. "No, I'm not happy about this part of it. As far as I'm concerned, we're already married." He took my hand, held it to his chest. "We already have that bond in our hearts, ever since the public proposal. That kind of recognition is more than many cultures need to recognize a marriage as valid. So this piece of it, the bureaucracy, the license, isn't the important thing. Not to me." He kissed my knuckles. He seemed about to say something more, but he stopped himself.

"What is it?" One of his eyebrows had a quirk that usually means something's going on. It was quirking hard.

"You saw that other couple that came in while we were at Kim's desk? The man and the woman?"

I nodded that I had. "I couldn't quite hear what they were saying, though. What about them?"

"I thought you might have missed that. Maybe... well. I don't really like telling you things that make your view of the world more pessimistic," he hedged.

"I like my view of the world to be realistic. You know I can't do that if I'm missing facts. Besides, I'd rather have an accurate opinion than a comfortable one," I reminded him.

He sighed. "I thought you'd say that. Well. I heard the man say he had been married and divorced before." He shot me a look. "But the woman in the white sweater, who helped them?"

"She didn't even ask to see his divorce papers."

On Hygge

When I first came across the word hygge, I had no idea what it meant. But it intrigued me. And I couldn't figure out how to pronounce it. I looked it up. Within a few days, that odd little word gave my world a different shape.

You probably already know what hygge is, but like me, you probably don't have a word for it yet. It’s a feeling; hygge, at its simplest, is the art of intimacy. It’s coziness, contentment, and comradeship all rolled up into one. It’s a feeling the Danish folks who came up with the word pursue avidly; they credit it with being able to get through those famously long, dark winters up north.

Hygge is making time to sit down and relax, drink tea or eat a meal by candlelight, spend quality time with good friends, read a story aloud in front of a fire. It’s cultivating those genuinely joyful, relaxed, present little moments that make all the difference in how you feel about your life.

For me, hygge has taken on some very particular qualities. It tastes like coffee, or a perfect cup of tea. It smells like warm beeswax. It's the reason I read. I’ve always been a bookworm, but it was only when I learned what hygge meant that I realized exactly what I was looking for, in all the books I read and re-read; I was seeking hygge. And some authors are amazingly good at creating it. They write stories I come back to again and again. Tolkien, L.M. Montgomery, Robin Hobb -- from literature to fairytales, the stories I cherish most are the ones that bring me hygge, and hopefully bring some of it to the characters I love, too.

I want to make room for more hygge in literature, and in life. When I lived closer to many of my friends, I would host hygge nights. We'd all cuddle up by candlelight, bring stories to read aloud to each other, snack on tasty snacks, and just relax and listen and talk and be people together. But now that I live in Ohio, it's harder to get the people together who want to be part of that very particular quality of time that I love. 

That's where HyggeLit comes in. In late 2015, I decided to start reading stories aloud and recording them. That way, I can share some of my favorite moments in stories with anyone who wants to listen, no matter where you are. I get to read aloud (on my own schedule!) from my favorite red velvet chair by the fireplace. And if you want me to read a particular tale or part of a tale aloud, whether it's a short story or a five-thousand-page epic fantasy, let me know and I'll add it to the HyggeList. I hope you love listening to me read these stories -- but I'd also love to hear from you. Tell me your favorite stories. And tell me about the moments of hygge you cherish most, in literature and in life.

I still don't know how to pronounce hygge, but I do know that that's far less important than knowing how to feel it.So settle in with a cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, and light a candle or three. Let’s read some really good stories together. 

2016: a year without buying stuff

So far, it's going great!

My relationships are stronger: I'm spending more time with people I care about. My wallet is fatter: I'm not buying stuff I don't really need. I have more time for myself. And my heart is full of the things that really matter to me.

But what is this goal about, exactly?

Specifically, my goal is to buy no physical stuff other than food in 2016. I have a few built-in exceptions. My partner and I share a car, and we're not going to let repairs go undone, or fall behind on oil changes. I'll keep up on basic hygiene. When I run out of shampoo & toothpaste, I will buy replacements if I don't learn to make my own. If I need anything for my business, I'll do my absolute best to find it secondhand. Freecycle, the local Facebook Buy/Sell/Free group, and Craigslist will make that easy -- but I'm hoping I won't actually need any supplies this year.

Plus... I REALLY haven't found an acceptable alternative to toilet paper. And believe me, I've tried some weird alternatives on backpacking trips, from rocks to snow to twigs to leaves. Bottom line: I prefer toilet paper. It doesn't end up in landfills, and I always buy brands that are certified through the FSC. Only well-managed forests to keep this bottom clean, if you please! 

Other than that? I've found a couple of exceptions. If there are things my partner needs and I'm the one out in town, I will buy the occasional Physical Thing for them. It's an interesting exception for me personally, and not one I expected to encounter. I've written about it over on my blog

There's a surprising kind of freedom in buying nothing for a year. I find it makes going out into the world a much more engaging experience. There's no background script of "I wonder if I should pick that up for so-and-so." I'm free to just enjoy the things I find beautiful, with exactly zero sense of obligation to bring them home or possess them myself. The richness that surrounds us really is amazing. And I appreciate it so much more fully when I'm not worried about making it MINE. 

The idea of taking a break from buying stuff started a few years back, for me. I tried a single month first, and I liked the vacation from buying Stuff so much that I started calling it my "luxury month." 

More updates and background on this whole "year without buying Stuff" project are over on my alternatives blog

On Neighbor-Blaming (the sneaky new friend of victim-blaming)

You’ve probably never heard of neighbor-blaming before. But maybe victim-blaming has crossed your radar.

Just in case it hasn’t, victim-blaming is a spectacular bit of assholery where people blame the wrong person when bad stuff happens. Example: I am out riding my bicycle, wearing a helmet like I always do. A reckless driver hits me. Rather than blaming the driver for their negligent recklessness, people make sure to tell me that I shouldn’t have been bicycling in the first place. Maybe they think bikes belong on sidewalks (illegal in most places). Maybe they just hate sharing the road. But the why doesn’t matter. I just got hit by a car, and now people are telling me that it’s my fault.

Bicycling isn’t the most common scenario where victim-blaming happens, though. That would be sexual assault and rape. Every time you ask a rape survivor what s/he was wearing, and how much s/he had to drink, you subtly shift blame onto the shoulders of the person who was violated. That is wrong. Period. Full stop. The blame belongs in one place: squarely on the shoulders of the person (usually male) who did the violating. The same is true in the case of every violent crime. Would you blame someone who was robbed at gunpoint because they were walking in a bad area? That, my friends, is victim-blaming. May you never feel its shittiness directed at you, and may you never aim it at your friends and loved ones.

So that’s victim-blaming. But neighbor-blaming?

It’s just as sneaky a pattern, and just as ill-advised. Neighbor-blaming isn’t quite as obvious as victim-blaming, but once you know what to look for you will see it everywhere. Elections are a great example. I witnessed this exact conversation on a friend’s Facebook page last week. Neighbor-blaming is when you blame the loss of an election NOT on the people who voted against your candidate, NOT on all the millions of people who didn’t vote at all, but on the people who voted for a candidate you think is similar to yours. You’re not only shifting blame onto the shoulders of people who voted — you’re blaming the ones who believe things similar to you, who might be on the same “side” as you in later elections.

Another example. Say I’m interviewing for a job. As I head out of the building after the interview, another candidate goes in. I don’t get the job. Do I blame that other person who went in for my failure to land the job? If I do, I’ve just blamed my neighbor.

But let’s step back for a minute. Why do we do this in the first place? Why do we feel this need to assign blame when awful things happen? Why does our blame so often end up getting aimed at the wrong person? And what would be different if we didn’t fall into this pattern?

The reason we assign blame is simple. We want to feel like we are in control. To do that, we need to know why things happen, to assign responsibility in the right places, so we can avoid as many terrible things as we can, and protect ourselves and the people we love. That hope is terribly human — and it’s also terribly flawed.

Accidents happen. Some people are targeted. Others aren’t. Some of us are “lucky.” Some of us live in higher-risk areas because it’s all we can afford. I see blame as a desperate grasping towards order in the Universe. The things that make us blame each other are the ones that disrupt what we want the world to be like. The rapes. The robberies. The murders (often called shootings). The accidents. Violence, random and purposeful. Terrorism. War.

So why do we so often blame the wrong person? What makes it so appealing to tell a victim “you did something wrong and that’s why you’re suffering now”? Why do we tell people who voted for a Green Party or Libertarian candidate that they are evil or stupid, instead of focusing our anger on our flawed political system and the elected representatives who so rarely focus on the things that matter to us? Part of the reason is that we’re not very good at figuring out why things happen. Our world is immensely complicated. Thousands of factors contribute to every event. Even our top economists can’t tell us what the stock market will do. How are we supposed to understand how the world works when we only have a fraction of the relevant information? And if we don’t understand how things work, how can we be safe?

And that’s the core of it. The reason we blame the wrong people, the reason we blame at all. We want the world to be simple, and it isn’t. We want to believe that if we just avoid riding a bicycle, if we just don’t walk alone at night, if we just invest in a few conservative stocks, nothing bad will happen to us. We won’t be hit by a reckless driver, we won’t be raped, we won’t lose the money we’ve saved when the stock market falls. But that isn’t how the world works.

When we point blame at victims and at our neighbors, what we’re really doing is shifting fear off of our own shoulders. We take our fear and we turn it into anger, into blame, and we vent it at the people we’re close to. What that does is make them feel shitty. What that doesn’t do is make the world a better place.

If we stopped victim-blaming today. If we stopped neighbor-blaming too. What would we be capable of? Would we be able to focus on the issues that matter to all of us? Could we figure out how to address the root causes of economic inequality, violence, and terrorism? Would we be able to make the world a little safer — not in our minds, but in reality? Could we take responsibility for the things we’re responsible for, understand more about how the world works, punish people who try to harm us, and comfort each other when accidents happen?

I suppose those questions aren’t the first ones we should be asking. The first question should be how we stop blaming the wrong people. Because it’s terribly appealing to just sit back and blame the victims, and if that doesn’t work, sit back and blame our neighbors. It’s easy. It makes us feel better. We don’t have to do anything except point a finger. And when victims and neighbors are around to be blamed, we can ignore the fact that there are people in the world don’t care what we think. We feel powerful, because we understand Why A Bad Thing Happened. But we can do so much better than that.

This is your wake-up call. I’m not going to say that you’re part of the problem if you’ve been neighbor-blaming or victim-blaming. (Ironically, that would also be neighbor-blaming.) What I’m going to say is that if you really care about other people, heck, if you care about yourself, you can do better. We can all do better. 

The next time you hear about something horrible, STOP. Don’t assign blame just yet. First, ask what you can do to support the victims or the survivors. You might never get past this step, and that’s just fine. But if you do — if you reach a point where you’ve offered supportive words, where you’ve listened or hugged or offered financial support — and you still need to do something, get political. Look into why it happened. Dig deep. Don’t blame a radical or fundamentalist ideology without looking into how that ideology developed. Don’t blame a weapon without understanding how it was acquired. Don’t settle for easy answers, and don’t keep what you uncover to yourself.

When you’ve gotten used to blaming people, it can be hard to change. You might miss that feeling of righteousness, of false invulnerability, you used to feel. But I promise, your friends and family won’t miss the asshole you used to be. And who knows — if enough of us manage to stop blaming the wrong people, maybe we’ll be able to take on the people and the systems who are responsible for doing terrible things to us and our world.

Framing: Optimism vs. Realism

It seems like simple enough advice: always look on the bright side of life. 


It also seems simple when people tell you to be realistic.

Hint: neither of these things is actually simple. And they really shouldn't be offered as competing alternatives.

We do ourselves a disservice when we frame things as either / or. EITHER find a bright side and make that all you see OR be realistic (and what... don't notice the up- and down-sides that are part of pretty much everything?).

Looking on the bright side is a discipline, the same way exercising is a discipline, or doing your best at work is a discipline. It takes time, and practice, and sometimes you need time off. Same with being realistic: sometimes reality is too bitter, sometimes it's too sweet. Sometimes your version of being realistic is balanced and accurate, sometimes it's skewed.

I've seen people get too caught up in looking on the bright side of a bad situation -- I've done that myself. For years, looking on the bright side meant that I didn't talk to anyone about my abusive stepmother, because I was too busy focusing on how the whole situation would be over in a couple more years when I left for college. I trained myself to pretend to see bright sides everywhere, even when I didn't.

But for the record, *only* looking on the bright side is a terrible idea. It's like looking away from things that scare you. Hint: it doesn't make them any less scary. Only confronting them - being realistic - can do that.

Looking back, I wish I had been more realistic about the situation I was in. I wish I had realized that my actual feelings were just as important as my desire to see the good side of a bad situation.

Realism and looking on the bright side don't work as alternatives. Use one and not the other, and you'll end up with a pretty unpleasant perspective on life. But when you find a balance between these two disciplines, these two ways of thinking, you can do remarkable things. You can start a business without risking your stability. You can see possibilities other people don't, and you can chart a path to achieve them. And you can get out of the situations that aren't worth staying in until those eventual bright sides come to be.

The Meaning of Life

The meaning of life always feels like a secretly taboo question to me. Like if you ask what the meaning of life is, or even think about it too much, you've given away this crucial piece of information: You've just told everyone that you don't know what the answer is. Or if there even is an answer. 

I edited a book recently that delved into this question. There isn't much I can say about it that's kind or helpful. Mostly, the answers the author presented were simplistic, materialistic, and soul-numbing. But at least he was willing to consider the question. And that was enough to get me thinking.

Maybe asking about the meaning of life is asking the wrong question.

If we ask it that way -- what is the meaning of life? -- there's a hidden assumption to the question that, when I actually think about it, I realize I need to unpack. That assumption is that our lives have external, objective meaning. We could paraphrase the question as, "What is the point of my life?" or "How will my life affect people other than me?" These questions are also worth asking. But they lead to very different answers than the question, the real question, that I hear when people talk about the meaning of life.

The question I hear is more like "What gives my life meaning?" or "What really matters to me?" That's a question that can lead to life-changing answers. When you really strip down your life and your priorities, how would you answer? Would your answer be friendship, or family, or love? Would it be taking a career path that feeds your soul and enriches your community? Would it be making as much money as you possibly can, regardless of ethics? Would it be just getting by and having time to relax once in a while?

Your answer to that question -- what really matters to you? -- is one of the hardest and also most important answers to arrive at in your life. It means committing yourself to your answer, committing to think about what you're doing in the world. Or what you're not doing. It means taking responsibility for your choice. And once you've done that, once you've managed to articulate the things that matter most to you... it means being okay with those answers.

That part might be easy for some people. It isn't for me. I never feel like I'm doing enough. Never have. I volunteer at a local food bank, and I'm training to volunteer at nearby Cuyahoga National Park. I work with clients who have hoarding issues at whatever rate they can afford. I edit books and write poems and blog carry my fair share of emotional labor and support my family and friends... and none of this feels like enough, because there's always more I know I could be working on. I could go to law school or med school or get a PhD, and earn more intellectual legitimacy. I could have a full-time job instead of working for myself and my partner.

There will always, ALWAYS, be things in the world that I'm not doing. One of the curses of being reasonably good at a reasonable number of things is that there's no clear life path to follow. It's not like I have a SINGLE BURNING PASSION to follow -- rather, I have many passions, from art to community building to sustainable living to... you get the idea. And that's the key thing I'm pointing at here.

The world is full of fascinating, worthwhile things to do. Each of them could comprise the meaning of someone's life. So I propose we use this tired, sneaky old question about the meaning of life to help us sift through all that fascination and discover an answer. I suggest we think not about the things that are the most fun while they're happening, but the things that leave us feeling fulfilled, energized, satisfied; the things that give meaning to our lives.

And did I mention that my Beloved & I got engaged?

I used to say that my life goal was to help create a more sustainable society. I love sustainability; I love the insight it offers into the deep entanglement between people, places, and the economy. And my life goal is still true. But the people side of that tripartite equation is closest to my heart right now. The people I care about give meaning to my life. 

Maybe this isn't quite the kind of answer you thought you'd find here. I won't claim it's my final answer. I intend to use this question about the meaning of life to keep on sifting through the ideas I come in contact with, and make the question into a tool to help me focus not only on the things that matter to the rest of the world, but the things that matter to me.

I don't think there is a right answer or a wrong answer to this question about the meaning of life. There are plenty of other questions buried in the substrata. Implicit: what do you believe about the nature of life? of God? Do you rely on external perception or your own internal feeling-states or some other measure to identify meaning? Do you believe in reincarnation -- and does considering the meaning of many lives yield a different answer than the meaning of just one? (and if so, why?) What even constitutes 'meaning'? What do you care about? What needs to change in the world? What's the best use of your time?

So I'll turn this around on you, reader. Which of these many questions about life and meaning and everything would you prefer to answer? And -- what would your answer be?

Trans Folks are Changing the World

{Background: I was invited up to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh as a keynote speaker for their Trans Action Week in 2016. It was a pleasure to be part of the conference, and the visit spawned some new projects I'm pretty excited about. I was able to record the talk, and the video recording is now on Youtube. Below is the text of the talk I gave. Feel free to cite it (with credit, of course). The statistics from the National Center for Transgender Equality are all available here. If you have questions about the content, feel free to contact me and ask.}

Text version below-- click for a {Link to view the google document}.

Trans Folks Are Changing the World

Thank you all for being here.

I’m Elyria. And I’m going to try to be as honest with you as I've tried to be with myself while I was preparing this talk. Let me start with a short introduction. I want to tell you a little bit about me -- specifically, about my gender identity, and why it matters.

I identify as agender. To me, that label means that I don’t really feel like I’m male or female, masculine or feminine. I don’t feel like gender offers much insight into my character. Calling myself “agender” and talking about that label with people makes me feel like I'm giving people a chance to see me for who I really am, and to connect with the "real" me. Sometimes that label helps me contextualize choices I made growing up -- everything from what games I liked to play to who I wanted to be friends with. Sometimes reminding myself “I’m agender” just helps me understand why I feel a little alienated or confused when people talk about being strongly identified with a binary gender, or scheduling a "girls night out". It also has a really interesting side effect of making me feel more connected to things in the world - like places, like ideas - the things our language tells us don't have a gender at all.

But realizing I was agender is a pretty recent development. That word - agender - is a word that I haven’t known about for all that long. It’s only been a couple of years since other people I knew started to come out as agender, and it took a little while for me to realize that maybe I could apply that word to myself, too. Mostly, the agender identity helps me affirm that I am myself. There are still days when I reach for earrings and almost stop myself because, somehow, it feels like wearing things in my ears isn't "agender" enough. But that's the beautiful thing about finding a gender identity that works for you; you get to decide what it means. Gender identity doesn't depend on how you dress, or even the pronouns you use or don't use. Gender identity is who you are, not how other people perceive you.

When you interact with the rest of the world, it's never that simple. Many of the struggles facing transpeople and non-binary gender people are about changing perception, about getting access to care, and about simply being recognized as the people we really are, not the people society or our own bodies tell us we are, or should be. And it is a struggle, even for those of us who have managed to build stable lives and partnerships and communities that accept and cherish us as we are.

So, how does my gender identity matter?

There are a couple of ways to answer that question.

One answer is that my gender identity matters because having a non-traditional gender identity changes my perspective. When there is no box you can check on your passport application that reflects who you are -- when Ms. and Mr. both don't work -- you start to understand a little about what it feels like to be excluded in more serious ways. You start to develop compassion for people who have gone through all kinds of similar experiences. That's how my gender identity matters to me; it gives me insight into the identities and challenges facing many of the people I care about, and it helps me affirm myself internally.

But my gender identity starts to matter in different ways when I share that identity with other people. With you, with my family, with my friends, with the clients that hire me to organize their homes. Talking about gender gives me an opportunity to let people get to know me as a real, whole person, and to replace whatever stereotype was in their head with a picture that's a little more realistic, and maybe give them a picture that's a little less likely to make them uncomfortable, or afraid. When we finally replace the singular image the media offers of transpeople with a mosaic that reflects more of our lived experience, it won't be too soon.

Identity is a tricky thing. I still feel like I'm settling into being agender. It's not that anything has changed about who I am inside. It's that the framework or the lens has changed; I have a word for something that has been true about me since I was born. I don't have to call myself a tomboy. Calling myself agender helps me affirm ALL of who I am. Everything fits. I don't have to attach gender to my hatred of nail polish; it just feels weird on my fingernails. Shopping is NOT an inherently feminine thing; I don't have to bring gender into my ethical views on buying things secondhand, or not buying things at all. Sports aren't inherently masculine; I can dislike watching them and love competing just as much as I ever have. And gender doesn't have to have a place in any of my views. It is SUCH a relief.

But like I said, identifying as agender still feels new to me. And understanding that an agender identity is also a trans identity feels even newer.

I confess, I was surprised when I was invited to give a talk here. I worried that some "real" transperson wasn't being invited because of me, someone who had experienced discrimination based on their gender identity, someone who could actually speak for an immensely diverse community of people. I thought about it for a few days, and realized that my concerns boiled down to two main questions.

1. "I’m agender. This sounds like a transgender conference. Can I really call myself transgender without disrespecting the differences between me and all the trans people I know who have chosen to transition, or the intersex people who have lived with complicated biology their entire lives? Am I a legitimate part of the trans community?"

2. "How can I (one person) speak for a whole community of radically different people?"

I don’t usually like referring to dictionaries, but for once they came in handy with that first concern. Here’s the dictionary definition of what it means to be transgender:

Transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. (x2)

That was NOT what I was expecting. And it's a pretty broad definition. It’s definitely broad enough to encompass many experiences of gender. But it’s almost too broad to be helpful. It’s not like all people who “do not conform unambiguously” have the same experience of gender; many transgender people feel a strong identification with the binary gender system. In that case, being trans has to do with being in a physical body that doesn't fit your lived gender identity. Non-binary people identify outside of the male/female gender system. As far as I could tell, there’s only one thing agender and transgender people all have in common: we’re not cisgender. That is, our gender identities don’t match the physical traits of the bodies we were born into. Because of that, most of us have probably experienced gender dysphoria at some point in our lives -- the feeling of our external & internal identities not matching up. But other than that, we could have everything or nothing in common. There is incredible diversity, when you look at all the people in the world who fall in the “not cisgender” box. Some are intersex, born with ambiguous genitalia. Many intersex babies are operated on at birth, and are generally shoved into the "female" box because that's easier. Some people identify as agender, like me, or not like me at all. Some people have made up their own words to describe their gender identities. They’re gender outlaws, or dinosaurs. Some are transitioning from male to female, or female to male. Some have decided not to transition and it's just as important to honor their gender identity as it is to honor the identity of trans folks who do transition. Some trans people realize mid-transition that they like exactly where they’re at, somewhere in between the binaries of the way our culture tends to see gender. Every person has their own story.

I struggled for a while with that, even after the dictionary assured me I was trans. There is no way that I - or any one person - has lived all the different ways there are to be trans. Somewhere in there, I realized that STRUGGLE is actually another thing we have in common: all of us have a relatively complicated relationship with gender. We’ve all struggled with gender identity at some point.

And somewhere in there, I finally got it. I grapple with gender. I am a legitimate part of this mysterious group that “does not conform unambiguously” with conventional ideas of gender. I could decide to speak here without trying to make it about a whole community of people. I’m don't think it’s really possible, or ethical, to try to speak for people you’ve never met, or listened to. The only person I can really, honestly speak for is myself. And that’s why my gender identity is important. It’s part of who I am, part of my experience of the world. If I didn’t tell you that I was agender, would you know it? Would you know that my gender identity influences the way I see the world?

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m not going to pretend that I have perfect insight into what every transgender person or every non-binary person thinks, or believes, or experiences. I’m not going to try to speak for an entire community, especially when I only know a few dozen people who are part of it. What I am going to do is speak openly as myself, share what I’ve read and learned about communities that have experiences that are like and unlike mine, and offer my perspective on all of that. Because, when it comes down to it, as much as I don’t believe I can speak for anyone else, I also don’t believe that anyone else can speak for me.

I’m one voice in an amazingly diverse community of people who have grappled with gender, and we each come up with our own ideas of what to do about it. I’m proud to be part of that community. I don’t think the community or any member of it is perfect, nor are we above criticism. But I love how we honor our own identities, and each other's identities. I love that we feel so deeply about who we are that we’re willing to risk our health and our relationships and our livelihoods -- to be honest, to be ourselves. I love that we don’t all follow the same path. And I love the times when we support each other, when we reach out and help each other through rough patches, when our other support structures have failed.

So - that’s a little about me. A tiny peek at one facet of who I am in terms of gender. Now that we have that shared ground to start from, I want to talk with you about some amazing people who are trans or have non-binary genders, and the ways they're changing the world. (The title of the talk is "Trans Folks are Changing the World, so I'd better get to it.)

Trying to pick out who to talk about -- has been a process. It's been a wonderful process, and I've learned a lot, but I finally admitted that I wouldn't have enough time to talk about all the amazing trans & non-binary people I looked into in my research. There are just too many possibilities. Such problems, right?

Don't even get me started on trying to pick out trans & non-binary people in history, before we came up with those terms. We can't ask people who are dead what their gender identity was, so if they didn't leave some record of it we'll never know. But I think it's worth wondering about - if they had had the words for it that we do now, who would have identified as trans or non-binary? Emily Dickinson, who scholars believe loved her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert? Perhaps some of the Greek philosophers - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle? Sappho, the famous lesbian poet? How many people through the centuries have had gender identities that "don't conform unambiguously" to notions of male & female? We'll probably never know, but every culture has developed ways of contextualizing alternative genders. We show up all over the world. Being trans isn't only a modern issue, even though some of the words we're using to describe ourselves, and the ways we can change our bodies to reflect our identities, are very new.

I've done my best to pick out a few modern-day people who represent different types of identities - from gender identity to race to religion to sexuality and more. There was no way I could include everyone, even if I took a full day to give this talk and tell you about the work thousands of amazing (and sometimes controversial) people who are trans or non-binary are up to. But I can almost guarantee that if you look for a trans person in any kind of category, however you want to define the category, you'll find them. Orthodox Jewish professor who went to my synagogue before she transitioned: Joy Ladin of Yeshiva University. Monica Jones: transgender student & sex work activist. Transgender Republican who is also an Olympic athlete: Caitlyn Jenner. My favorite folk singer / songwriter Dave Carter, who died early in the process of transitioning. Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black fame; reality TV star & LGBT activist. Comedian and activist Eddie Izzard. Korean Pauline Park, co-founder of the New York Center for Gender Rights Advocacy & first openly transgender grand marshal of the NYC Pride March. Film director Lilly Wachowski who was just forced to go public with her gender identity, co-creator of the Matrix with her sister, Lana. Neurobiologist Ben Barres, with Stanford University, campaigner for women & gender equality in the sciences. Kate Bornstein, Jewish escapee of Scientology, cancer survivor, author of foundational books that explore her own gender identity. Cleopatra Kambugu, of Uganda, where public attitude is incredibly homophobic and transphobic: the new "Pearl of Africa" series is based on her explorations of gender, her struggles, and her transition.

And those are just the names of a few people out of hundreds. Thousands. There are millions of people in the world who don't identify as cisgender, and there are probably millions more who are still coming to terms with their gender identities.

And I'm only going to talk about a few of them in any depth. A few people who are trans or non-binary -- people who "don't conform unambiguously" to notions of gender -- people who are changing or have already changed the world.

How many of you have heard of Patrick Califia?

Patrick is a transgender author. He's in his 60s now. He was born in Texas, into a Mormon family. When Pat came out as a lesbian just after high school, his parents had him committed to a mental hospital. Once he got out, he moved to San Francisco and continued to write stories and nonfiction. He identified as a butch lesbian for years, and built a public identity as a lesbian author. Many of the communities he was part of rejected him at various points because he wouldn't stop talking and writing about his transgressive interests; some lesbian groups disapproved of his interest in BDSM, some feminists disapproved of his sex-positivity. Patrick chose to transition in 1999, despite knowing it might be hard for some of his audience to accept the change. He's published over 20 books in his lifetime. His titles will give you a good idea of some of the topics he delves into:

Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex

Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality

Doc and Fluff: The Dystopian Tale of a Girl and Her Biker

Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex

Feminism and Sadomasochism

I first encountered Pat Califia's books through one of my roommates, probably 5 or so years ago. She lent me her copy of Speaking Sex to Power. As soon as I opened it I was hooked. I had never read such insightful commentary on what it felt like to have a gender identity that didn't fit society's ideas of what was acceptable, or on the scale of the challenges transpeople face. Patrick's ideas and the evolution of his gender identity are translucent; he hasn't tried to erase the years he spent living as a woman and a lesbian. He's just as open about the fact that he doesn't feel entirely at home in his body as a man or as a woman; for him, transitioning eventually became the best of a bunch of non-ideal options. My favorite quote about his writing is from Janet Hardy:

"He's got a phenomenal mind. ...He's willing to get a hold of a thought and follow it through to the end, even if it doesn't feel comfortable."

Since Patrick is a writer, and a very eloquent one, rather than paraphrasing what he has to say, I'm going to share some of his words and thoughts with you. These are a few excerpts from the preface of Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism.

"Most of the literature about transsexuals has been written by self-proclaimed experts, from a position that claims to be academic or scientific, and therefore objective. …

"I am uncomfortable with the stance of the objective outsider who, because of a sheaf of credentials, purports to have a point of view that is more important or powerful than that of transgendered people themselves. In medical and feminist discourses, transsexuals are stereotyped as patients undergoing sex reassignment, the troubled clients of psychotherapists, or faux, man-made "women" created by the patriarchy to act as moles in the war between the sexes. This gives the experts a privileged voice and disenfranchises differently-gendered people. In autobiographical or fictional accounts, they may set down what they perceive to be true about themselves and the world around them, but it is the medical doctor, therapist, academic, and feminist theoretician who interpret "them" for the rest of "us" and thus claim to be the voice of reality.

"There is a powerful assumption here about the audience, as well, that it is constituted for the most part of "normally" gendered people. The setting-aside or excommunication of the transsexual from the main body of society is a vital, and easy to miss, part of this conceptual process. I suspect this is a strategy for reducing the anxiety of a reader who might otherwise be forced to confront his or her own failures at living up to gender stereotypes. It makes it easier to disavow or avoid imagining altogether guilty pleasures that potentially may be taken in deliberately violating these norms. In industrialized Western society, it is a thought crime to imagine oneself in the body of the other (always opposite) sex, or appropriate any of the artifacts of the other gender's role. To be differently-gendered is to live within a discourse where other people are always investigating you, describing you, and speaking for you; and putting as much distance as possible between the expert speaker and the deviant and therefore deficient subject.

"I have tried to examine the claims of medical professionals and scientists with all the tools of rational intelligence and objectivity. Despite my work as a therapist, I am not comfortable allying myself with supposedly objective experts, or positioning myself as one of their colleagues. The claim that anybody is objective about transgenderism should be met with profound skepticism. Anyone who confronts gender variation has a highly personal and emotional response. Transsexuals challenge our ideas of health and mental dysfunction. If we have a sense of "rightness" about ourselves as men or women, gender outlaws scramble it. Gender dysphoria - even someone else's - literally gets us by the short hairs, where we live, between our legs. When such visceral responses are ignored, they surface in other ways. I trust the investigator who outlines his or her own biases much more than the expert who compulsively excludes the personal element from his or her prescriptions and explanations. In matters of sexuality, we understand so very little that any claim to authority is premature. The best we can do is speak our own truth, make it safe for others to speak theirs, and respect our differences."

Pat Califia's books and ideas and perspectives on gender and sexuality are insightful and necessary - as much so now as they were when he wrote them, even if some of the labels he uses aren't the ones we would use now.

Those very changes in labeling are one of the reasons Pat Califia's words still hit me so powerfully. I've seen many more recent writings find creative ways to leave out pronouns like "his" and "her" altogether, in favor of the inclusive and pleasantly ambiguous "their." His book was written in 1997, and still uses his / hers. While this may seem like a small change, it's worth paying attention to; it's real progress. In some circles, maybe still on the edges of the mainstream but maybe not, the default assumption is not always that we have to describe every person we write about by their gender first, and everything else later.

But that manufactured divide between transpeople and "normal" people that Pat points out is still alive and well. We still have bathrooms that separate us into two groups - male and female. Nobody I know does that at home, so why do we do it in public places? We still ask each other what the gender of our babies is going to be, and many of us buy gifts for the still-unborn solely on that information. We don't prepare parents for the possibility that their baby might be that 1 of every 100 who isn't born with "standard" genitalia. States don't have consistent laws that let us change the bureaucratic representation of our gender to reflect our actual gender - for example, Tennessee won't issue a birth certificate reflecting an accurate gender even if you've had surgery and obtained a court order verifying it. Most other states will issue an accurate birth certificate... at least, they will to people who have the time and resources to get sex reassignment surgery. And a court order. And of course, there's no possibility of creating a bureaucratic identifier other than M or F on official documents for all the non-binary people in the world - that would be far too complicated for us to deal with.

I want to read you one other excerpt, before I get lost in ranting. Patrick Califia says this just perfectly.

"When well-meaning physicians perform surgery on infants with ambiguous genitalia, surgery that may make their families more comfortable with the gender the doctor assigns to the baby, but will also impair that child's sexual functioning as an adult, it isn't right. When a young boy is forced to receive punitive psychiatric treatment because his mannerisms are judged to be effeminate, it isn't right. When a teenage girl is incarcerated in a mental institution for refusing to wear dresses, or for having a sexual relationship with another girl, it isn't right. When a man loses custody of his children in a divorce case because his wife reveals he dresses up in her undergarments, it isn't right. When someone who needs sex reassignment surgery can't obtain it, either because it's not locally available, or because insurance companies and government programs won't foot the bill, it isn't right.

"The violence, discrimination, and hatred heaped upon differently-gendered people is an enormous wrong. This bigotry will stop only when the rest of "us" are able to accept our own gender conflicts and pinpoint our own prejudices about biological sex and social sex-roles. I hope that someday gender will be a voluntary system for self-expression, used chiefly to enhance the pleasure we take in one another's unique realities."

We've still got a long way to go before we get there on the large scale, but keep that it in mind. Pat Califia does a brilliant job of showing the connections between the challenges that face lesbian, gay, and trans people - and he's been doing that since before we all got used to lumping people together in the LGBT acronym.

You can find Pat Califia's books on Amazon and in some local bookstores - if they don't have any of his books, ask for them. This is something I've learned about writers, recently; they won't usually ask you to do this, but asking bookstores to put their books on shelves really helps. So does leaving them amazon reviews - especially 4 or 5 star ones, when you feel their writing is worth it.)

But despite everything Patrick has done, from educating around the country on HIV / AIDS prevention to offering affordable counseling to trans people of color in CA, like too many trans people, he's been struggling with a host of medical issues. Some of those issues have made it hard for him to get much work done the last few years. In the weeks leading up to this talk, I asked him where to direct any of you if you wanted to support him, as he has supported trans people around the world. I haven't gotten an answer back yet, but I'll reach out to the folks who organized the conference when I do. In the meantime -- go look for his books.

How many of you have heard of David Bowie?

Surprise! Almost everyone. It still feels a little strange to include him here, the same way it felt strange for me to affirm that as an agender person, I'm also part of the trans community. As far as I've been able to suss out, Bowie never identified as transgender. His androgyny is legend. He was some flavor of queer, and at different times he publicly asserted that he was gay, and later that he was bisexual.

Bowie's performance career and the genderfluid personas he created are incredibly powerful. They're incredibly visible. And they still speak to people of all gender identities today. It's not that David Bowie was the first man to wear a scarf, or a dress, or makeup - far from it. But I've seen the effect that Bowie's life and music and his personas have had on pretty much all my close friends. Sometimes it's a subtle influence, something that brings a smile to people's faces when they think about watching Labyrinth. Sometimes it's social, like the DJ who played Dance, Magic Dance at a convention and pulled almost everyone onto the floor. The best part is that Bowie's influence is widespread enough now that we don't always notice or remember his part in it.

A lot of people saw Bowie as constantly reinventing himself. It's a view that reminds me of one of the criticisms I've heard of trans people in general. As far as I can tell, the idea is that there's something immature about being in a process of exploring gender, maybe that it isn't worth spending a lot of time thinking about, that eventually that process will end and we'll end up with a single, solid gender identity.

Bowie has something to say about that. "I don't have stylistic loyalty. That's why people perceive me changing all the time. But there is a real continuity in my subject matter. As an artist of artifice, I do believe I have more integrity than any one of my contemporaries."

Take what Pat Califia has to say about gender - that one day it could be an individual system of expression - and what Bowie has to say about style. They get at this point in very different ways, but I think both of them would be on the same page. The idea of style, the idea of gender, is presented to us when we're very young as immutable. We're supposed to have "loyalty" to one gender, one style. We don't get to pick and choose - we're assigned one gender at birth. Isn't that what identity means? We're supposed to take the weird divisions our culture makes between girl and boy to heart, and ignore anything that falls in between. We're not supposed to notice the discontinuities between our lives and our selves and these enormous gender boxes. But we can all see them. Trans people and intersex people and non-binary people make those gaps glaringly obvious. Bowie was really good at playing with the gender boxes, and stepping deliberately outside them. His lack of what other people would call stylistic loyalty gave him the freedom to explore how artificial gender boundaries really are. And while some trans people do end up identifying within a binary gender system, many of us identify outside of it, outside the boxes, in the gender wilds.

Most of the things we've learned to associate with one gender or one sex role really are artificial. Of course women are strong, of course men have emotions. Of course some men like cooking and some women don't like shopping. Someone asked Bowie once why he was wearing a woman's dress. He said he wasn't: he was wearing a man's dress. Of course. And it's just as artificial - just as silly - to imagine that the growth people go through in their lives won't involve changing the ways they express and understand their gender. Most of us still assume that everyone has a single gender identity 'destination'. Take too long to find the gender that fits, try on too many hats, and even other trans or non-binary people may end up rolling their eyes.

I've had conversations with a lot of trans & non-binary people about how hard it is to find an identity that fits. I had a friend in grad school who identified first as a transvestite. He loved dressing up, and he looked great in heels and dresses. His eventual decision to transition ended the relationship he was in. And a couple years later, he decided not to transition after all. His family wasn't exactly supportive. The thing is… throughout that process, no matter what he was calling himself, no matter what labels he felt fit or didn't fit, that person was still my friend. The qualities I appreciated in him - wit, insight, his art - those didn't go away because he changed his mind a few times about the words he used to describe himself, or because he tried out different ways of dressing on different days.

David Bowie really never settled into a single gender expression. He kept exploring, and there were parts of himself in every character he brought to life. Is there something wrong with that? I don't think so. I see a lot more wrong with the idea that at some point we should STOP exploring, and settle down into a single identity, even if we never find one that actually fits.

Bowie wasn't an intellectual. He didn't make great strides forward in thinking about or articulating the challenges facing trans or non-binary people. He was a flawed creature as much as we all are. And that's actually why I wanted to bring him into this conversation. He was exploring. He brought up questions for his audience without having answers for them. And he had fun while doing it. There was a playful streak in his exploration, and a fearlessness, that I haven't seen very often. Maybe that's because of Bowie's privilege, and the fact that as a white male pop star he was able to visibly play with gender in ways that many poor trans people of color can't do safely in public. But there's something infectious about playfulness. Why else do we get our news through comedy shows? When there are so many serious things wrong with the world, we all need breaks. We need to relax, find things to laugh about. I think that's why so many of my friends love Bowie's work - he feels like one of us, it feels like he took the internal gender struggles we've all had and made them into something more fun than we had realized they could be. That's an amazing gift.

So yes, Bowie's transgression of gender stereotypes helped change the world. I definitely encourage you all to go and watch some of his movies, and some of his on-stage performances. And enjoy them.

I've watched people bond over Bowie's work, or his play. He helped create community among the people his art resonated with. That's exactly what the next two people I'm going to talk about are doing, too.

How many of you have heard of Sasha Alexander & Olympia Perez?

In the summer 2013, Sasha Alexander started to organize events that were explicitly focused on the black trans community. He had a background in working for social justice, making media, working with LGBT youth, and political activism. He organized under the hashtag #blacktransmedia & #blacktranseverything on twitter.

The catalyst that started #blactransmedia was an attack. In August of 2013, a black trans woman named Islan Nettles was attacked in Harlem. She died from it.

Sasha attended a vigil in her memory that catalyzed a lot of community members to step into more visible positions. He came to the understanding, like many people who see injustice do, that no one would give him permission to do what he felt needed to be done, and no one would invite him to do it. Nobody was going to make a job for him and let him know to apply to it. So he started organizing events to hold space for all the black trans people whose voices were getting drowned out in all the movements they were part of. He organized screenings of films by black trans artists, and raised money to bring some black trans artists to New York. He organized holiday celebrations for the black trans community.

Less than a year later, Olympia Perez joined the #blacktransmedia project. She's a poet, artist, and facilitator, and Sasha's focus on the black trans community resonated with her experiences and the things she wanted to change about the world. Together, Sasha and Olympia have been invited to speak all over the world about the work #blacktransmedia does.

They're both black and trans. They saw a need in their community and they started working to meet it. #blacktransmedia isn't a huge political force yet, but it's helping amplify the disproportionate discrimination and injustice facing black trans people. It's a voice and a project that does a wonderful job of holding space for a community that's marginalized in too many directions to count. Olympia and Sasha are creating a space where black trans contributions are seen, supported, respected, and honored.

They're also in love. It's still incredible to me that loving the people we love is one of the most revolutionary things we do. For Sasha & Olympia, their love is part of their activism. The way they understand each other and their struggles and their achievements helps them hold space for the community they're creating. Too many of their tweets are about violence against black trans people, because there is too much violence against black trans people. They know we don't gain anything from downplaying the violence, or looking away when awful things happen to black trans people.

Sasha and Olympia are still pretty young. They certainly don't have the kind of reach that Pat Califia or David Bowie do. But their work through #blacktransmedia is changing the world. They're helping make black trans people more visible, helping give the black trans community love & space that nobody else gives it, helping put the struggles black trans people go through more in the public eye, even when the public eye would rather look at celebrity trans people like Caitlyn Jenner or Lilly Wachowski or Laverne Cox.

So much of our shared conversations these days depends on the media. And we only see a few people there. Who can capture the attention of more news outlets, who has more followers on social media? That's one of the reasons I think Sasha Alexander and Olympia Perez are perfect examples of how trans people are changing the world. They're not huge celebrities. They're people. They saw something that needed doing, and they started working on it. Go check out their work -- look up the #blacktransmedia and #blacktranseverything hashtags on twitter, and see what they have to say.

Most of the things that change the world don't happen in the limelight. They happen between individuals, between friends and family. I asked a few trans & non-binary friends if they had any transgender heroes when I was getting started on this talk. The thing that struck me is how many of them mentioned trans people they knew personally, not the trans people everyone knows about.

And that's where we come to it.

Look around. Look at each other. These trans folks who are changing the world are all around us.They are us. WE are changing the world.

There's no single way to change the world. And there's no single way to be transgender, or non-binary. There's no single way to be a trans ally if you're a cisgender person. Part of the strength of this community is that we have so many faces, and so many voices, and so many unique and deeply considered perspectives.

There are only a few threads in common between all the people whose names I've mentioned. One of the big ones is that they don't keep their gender identities secret. That's not something it's safe for everyone to do. Sometimes, we all have to compromise - for our safety, for our families' safety. But the more of us that come out about our identity, the more reach we collectively have. The more people who realize that a trans person is one of their good friends, or that they're related to a trans person, the less likely they are to demonize trans people for being trans.

One of the things I've been struggling with is what to do when people parse me as female. In a couple of cases, when people have offered compliments that included gender, I've gently tried to tell them that I don't identify as female. I'm not sure they really understood what I meant, but I'll keep working on that. For people who are androgynous, or who don't show clear signs of their gender history on their face or their body, passing can be pretty easy. And while blending in may feel like security, I would argue that it's actually the opposite. Blending in, passing, doesn't help us. It may in the short term. But in the long term? We're hiding important parts of our identity. We can't be accepted for who we are if we're not honest about it. And our silence doesn't do anything for the rest of the trans community. Silence may be more comfortable, but in the long run our silence makes it easier for discrimination to continue.

So I'm asking you, when you safely can: talk about your gender identity with the people you know. Go farther than only asserting your pronouns. Help give the people you talk with more realistic images to bring to mind when they think of transgender people. Talk about gender and what it means to you with your family. Tell them that no trans person has ever attacked someone in a public bathroom -- but that plenty of trans people have been attacked in bathrooms. Take the conversation to places where they can relate, because there are places where none of us fit those weird gender stereotypes that tell us what colors and activities and kinds of people we're supposed to prefer.

Talking about these identities helps people around us to explore their own identities, and to come out eventually if they feel a need to. Part of the reason I think it took me so long to identify as agender is that my family is full of strong Jewish women who are fierce about their womanhood and their feminism. Both my mom and her mom chose to pursue careers in astronomy, and ran into incredible sexism in their colleagues and the institutions where they worked. They both spoke out often about how important it was to get more women into the sciences, to create a scientific culture that championed women and rewarded them fairly for the work they did. That's a wonderful undertaking, and a necessary shift. But it had the side effect of making me feel like it was important to my family that I act like and be another "strong woman." Paradoxically, my own feminism kept me from coming out as not-actually-any-gender-at-all. Now that I have, it feels much more honest to talk about women's rights and feminism -- and trans people's rights and transgenderism -- because I'm not hiding in part of a group that I don't actually identify with. And I recognize that many, many trans people have a MUCH more difficult and dangerous time coming out than I did. But all of us can use support, and having conversations about gender identity is a kind of support we can all offer each other.

So -- being open about who we are is one important piece. Being open about who we are is changing the world. But only being open isn't enough.

I've talked here about a few trans people who have already done some important things. They've written books, explored and interrogated a lot of important ideas. They've started the long slow work of tearing down stereotypes, and used their personal platforms to do so. They're creating communities for marginalized groups under the trans umbrella. But there are so many things trans people still need. Those needs aren't the same from country to country, or person to person. We need better laws to prevent people and organizations from discriminating against us. We need doctors who respect us and our identities. We need people to stop attacking us for being ourselves. We need the world to change.

In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality finished up the most comprehensive survey of discrimination against trans people that has been done yet. More than 6400 trans people participated in the survey. The Center titled the report of the survey's findings "Injustice at Every Turn." In summary:

"This study brings to light what is both patently obvious and far too often dismissed from the human rights agenda. Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.

Let me share a few of their findings here, so you get at least a high-level idea of the discrimination transpeople face. While some of these numbers have changed in the last few years since the survey was completed, most are still far too high.

  • Employment discrimination: Survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population at the time of the survey, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.

  • Widespread mistreatment at work: Ninety percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.

  • Over one-quarter reported that they had lost a job due to being transgender or gender non-conforming and 50% were harassed.

  • Large majorities attempted to avoid discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition (71%) or delaying their gender transition (57%).

  • The vast majority (78%) of those who transitioned from one gender to the other reported that they felt more comfortable at work and their job performance improved, despite high levels of mistreatment.

  • Overall, 16% said they had been compelled to work in the underground economy for income (such as doing sex work or selling drugs).

  • Housing Discrimination: Respondents reported various forms of direct housing discrimination — 19% reported having been refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity/expression.

  • One-fifth reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender; the majority of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (55%), 29% were turned away altogether, and 22% were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.

  • Almost 2% of respondents were currently homeless, which is almost twice the rate of the general population (1%).

  • Suicide: A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).

  • Health care discrimination: • Health outcomes for all categories of respondents show the appalling effects of social and economic marginalization, including much higher rates of HIV infection, smoking, drug and alcohol use and suicide attempts than the general population.

  • Refusal of care: 19% of our sample reported being refused medical care due to their transgender or gender non-conforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color in the survey.

  • Uninformed doctors: 50% of the sample reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care.

  • High HIV rates: Respondents reported over four times the national average of HIV infection, with rates higher among transgender people of color.

  • 57% of transgender respondents experienced significant family rejection. But -- in the face of extensive institutional discrimination, family acceptance had a protective effect against many threats to well-being including health risks such as HIV infection and suicide. Families were more likely to remain together and provide support for transgender family members than stereotypes suggest.

The conclusion of the study is worth sharing, too:

"It is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people within foundational institutions such as the family, schools, the workplace and health care settings, every day. Instead of recognizing that the moral failure lies in society’s unwillingness to embrace different gender identities and expressions, society blames transgender and gender non-conforming people for bringing the discrimination and violence on themselves.

"Nearly every system and institution in the United States, both large and small, from local to national, is implicated by this data. Medical providers and health systems, government agencies, families, businesses and employers, schools and colleges, police departments, jail and prison systems—each of these systems and institutions is failing daily in its obligation to serve transgender and gender non-conforming people, instead subjecting them to mistreatment ranging from commonplace disrespect to outright violence, abuse and the denial of human dignity. The consequences of these widespread injustices are human and real, ranging from unemployment and homelessness to illness and death.

"This report is a call to action for all of us, especially for those who pass laws and set policies and practices, whose action or continued inaction will make a significant difference between the current climate of discrimination and violence and a world of freedom and equality. And everyone else, from those who drive buses or teach our children to those who sit on the judicial bench or write prescriptions, must also take up the call for human rights for transgender and gender non-conforming people, and confront this pattern of abuse and injustice.

"We must accept nothing less than a complete elimination of this pervasive inhumanity; we must work continuously and strenuously together for justice."

I grew up with a Jewish tradition that includes speaking aloud the names of people who have died recently who we are mourning. My rabbi suggested that sometimes we include not only the names of those we know, but also of those that have been forgotten, whose names we will never know, whose stories we will never hear.

There are millions of trans & non-binary people who are changing the world. We'll never hear most of their stories. Maybe they think their story isn't worth sharing. Maybe they've been silenced. Maybe they're too busy trying to get by to think much about it. Maybe they were killed because of who they were. Maybe they just don't want to talk about their struggles. We know some of their names. But we will never know them all.

(I want to take a few silent moments now to honor the trans people who have died, whose names & stories we will never know. Speak their names aloud if you know them, or to yourself, or hold them silently in your thoughts.)

(Thank you.)

It's important to talk about the challenges and the injustices transgender people face. But that's not the only thing happening in our communities. It's important to recognize that our efforts aremaking a difference in the world around us. And I think it's also important to talk about the ways gender identities influence our own worlds, on a very personal level.

I started by telling you a little about my gender identity. I want to take a minute now to talk about my partner, Michelle. My fiance, actually - she proposed just over a month ago. Most of the people I've been in relationship with have been cisgender, until recently . Michelle isn't -- she's intersex, and she's been very open with me & with the public about what that meant for her growing up. Her family never told her she was intersex. She found out about 10 years ago. She had a lot of surgeries as a young child, and it turns out one of those was done to "correct" her gender. She still has intense gender dysphoria, but she's decided not to transition physically for a host of personal and practical reasons -- she loves her singing voice, she's built a celebrity career on her name, and she doesn't want the health complications that come with taking hormones. And she definitely doesn't want more surgery than she's already had. That all makes perfect sense to me.

So, early on in our relationship, I asked her what name and what pronouns I should call her by. "Michelle" didn't really feel right to me - I told her I had pretty much always parsed her as male. She said at first that it didn't really matter to her. Many different people call her many different things. Fair enough. But eventually I asked how she thought of herself, and she let me know the name she identifies with, Seth, and said she thinks of herself with male pronouns. We also talked about how to reconcile that real inner identity with her public persona, and settled on a system that so far, seems to work pretty well. In public, or talking about Michelle to other people, I generally call her Michelle and use female pronouns. In private, Seth is my partner, soon to be husband-partner, with a body that doesn't reflect much about who he is. He likes to call the body "false advertising."

So when I hear people complaining about how much work it takes to get somebody's new name or new pronouns through their head, I have to say -- it sounds pretty weak. I can hold two completely separate identities in mind for a person I interact with every day. It's actually easy. All I have to do is remember that I love and care about that person, and that using the right words when I talk about them is one way to show that love and care. It's like remembering somebody's name in the first place. You don't have to get it down right away, but eventually if you keep calling someone by the wrong name, eventually they're going to feel like you don't care about them. And they're going to be right.

To be fair, I've been good friends with people who have changed their names and their pronouns for almost 10 years, so I have some practice juggling names and pronouns. But it's not rocket science. It takes some real mental effort at first, and probably some apologies when you inevitably muck things up.

It still breaks my heart to hear Seth talk about what happened when he first discovered he was intersex. At that point, trans people and intersex and non-binary people weren't nearly as visible as they are today. And his friends were pretty much assholes. They were too attached to the "Michelle" identity they were used to. They didn't realize that the person they were looking at wasn't "Michelle," or that perceived gender shouldn't matter as much as a person's feelings of being seen, and understood.

I haven't had most of those experiences. I have my own struggles with gender, but I don't know what it's like to be intersex, or what it's like to find something like that out when you're 30. But our experiences don't have to be the same. Love and care let us empathize with experiences we've never had. We can support people we care about, even when we don't understand why they need support.

This kind of empathy is exactly how communities grow. We're not all the same. We just meet, and start to care about each other. And we make an effort to see our similarities, not just our differences. We recognize and respect each other's complicated gender identities, even when they're not complicated the same way ours are. Even when identities contradict each other. I worry sometimes that we get so focused on the nuances of how we're all different that we'll lose sight of the things we share -- whether that's the love between partners, the struggle with our own gender identities, or the goal of creating more accepting and diverse communities. We can take everything we learn from struggling with gender, and turn it into acceptance and support for each other.

Each one of us is so much more than just a gender identity. We all have passions, ideas that excite us, projects that we'll gladly spend our lives working on. Science. Acting. Teaching. Counseling. Medicine. Sex therapy. Computer programming. Occult studies. Parenting. Politics. Music. Law. Buddhism. Environmental justice. Film. Relationships. Theology. Human rights. Social Media. Organizing. Writing. We're at our best when we pursue the things we care about passionately, and we have the capacity to make our gender identities part of that work in ways that work for us and support our trans and non-binary communities.

So -- what do you want your story to be? Do you want to be the one to tell it? There's space in the world for all of our voices. I've started talking more about gender identity in the last few weeks. Plenty of my friends didn't know that I was agender, since there isn't a pronoun I like enough to insist they use. Almost everyone in the world is probably related to or friends with someone who is trans. That trans person may not be out -- it may not be safe for them to be out. But maybe you & I can be.

I'm sharing my experience of what it means to me to be agender -- and what it definitely doesn't mean. Seth and I volunteered to talk about our gender identities on a radio show a few weeks ago. When I talk with people who aren't familiar with trans issues, I try to go well beyond pronouns; as important as pronouns are to affirm our identities, focusing too much on pronouns is missing a golden opportunity to talk about the kinds of discrimination that end people's lives. I'm trying to find ways to bring gender and transgender perspectives into my poetry. And I'm here, giving this talk to you.

Let me ask you this. What can you do to help end discrimination against trans and non-binary people? What are you passionate about? How can you connect your interests to the needs & interests of other trans and non-binary people? Can you start a trans group at your college, or with other alums? How can you support trans people of color, who are the most common targets of discrimination and abuse? Can you be open about your identity with your family, and with your friends who aren't trans themselves? Who else can you talk with? Can you host a holiday dinner for trans folks who aren't welcome at home? Can you write an op-ed for a newspaper and share some of your story with people you've never met? Can you start or join a trans support group where you live? What can you dream up to do on social media to amplify trans voices? Can you do any or all of these things? And can you do them while taking good care of yourself and making sure you're not in danger?

I don't have the answers to all those questions, but you do. So keep asking yourself: what can you do?

Transfolks are changing the world. And there's a lot more that we still need to change. So let's offer each other help when we can, and remember to ask for it when we need it. Let's find a place for every single person who wants to stand with us. Let's create vibrant support systems in every community. And let's come up with a hundred new ways to make the world a better place -- for people of every color, and gender, and non-gendered identity to live, and love, and be themselves.

Thank you.

Let's talk public bathrooms.

A few points to start from.

  1. Public bathrooms are not the same as locker rooms. People don’t (usually) strip naked in public bathrooms. Ideally, they go in, relieve themselves in the relative privacy of a stall, and leave.
  2. Too many people (trans people, women, children, men, all kinds of people!) are the victims of attacks in public bathrooms.

There are plenty of public bathrooms that are single-user and still gender-segregated. It’s quiet silly. I – an agender person who usually passes as female – prefer using single-user men’s rooms because IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT THE SIGN SAYS. I will be the only person in that bathroom until I am done. While I’m there, the bathroom is for whatever gender person I happen to be.

(Ok, the only way in which is matters is that now I know they really don’t clean men’s bathrooms as often as they clean women’s bathrooms. Ugh.)

If only one person is in a bathroom at a time, the bathroom itself does not have a gender identity that needs protecting. Women can use the men’s single-user bathroom. Men can use the women’s. And people who are neither women nor men can use whichever the hell they want.

…but in that case, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop differentiating between genders for single-user bathrooms? Come on, save on signage AND get that stupid dress figurine and that ridiculous square dude off of every single wall ever. NOBODY ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE THAT ANYWAY. Besides, I hate dresses. I’m going in the bathroom for the people who wear pants. Those signs really drive me up the wall, because they’re so completely arbitrary, unnecessary, AND hurtful to people who don’t fit in simple gender boxes. So why enforce the unnecessary that is also discriminatory?

Single-user bathrooms, though, don’t seem to be the problem. Or they’re a pretty easily fixable problem: just change the signs. (Although I *would* be interested to learn if attacks happen in single-user bathrooms as much as they do in the bigger stall line-ups. My hunch is they don’t, but I could be wrong.)

The main problem seems to be multi-user bathrooms. So let’s talk about those.

I’ve been misgendered before in public bathrooms. Maybe you have too. Older women (usually) see my short hair (and miss my figure? I’ll take it!) and tell me I’m in the wrong place. I say I’m not and they realize what they’ve done and apologize profusely for their mistake. (Meanwhile, I’m just happy that for once, I came off as masculine enough to trip their boy-sensors.) That’s the extent of my unusual bathroom experiences. And even that is too much.

Isn’t the purpose of a bathroom… using the bathroom? What do we actually gain by separating everybody out by their biological sex, other than excessive lines for some women’s rooms, and a weird sense of who’s allowed somewhere and who isn’t?

I’ve thought about this a lot. It seems to me that we gain exactly nothing.

Think about it. What if families could go to the bathroom all together (instead of bringing their opposite-gender kids into the bathroom the adult with them uses, which happens all the time)? Seems pretty reasonable. What if groups of people out on the town could go to the bathroom in packs, and watch out for each other? Cool!

If we take away those weird gender divides that bathrooms have, it seems to me that we suddenly have safer bathrooms, because more people are in them. More people of all genders = less secluded = not a good environment for attacks – on anyone.

Now, I travel alone a good deal, and have for a while. So I know that going to the bathroom in a group doesn’t always work. (And my guess is that people who are alone in bathrooms are the most common victims of attacks, unless there’s a group of attackers involved.) There will probably always be times that people are alone and vulnerable in those bathrooms… unless…

This might be a little farfetched, but it might not: what if places that offer public restrooms also offer a security person (or two) to keep the people using those bathrooms safe?

I mean, I’d rather have some privacy in the bathroom, but I don’t think my privacy is more important than other people’s physical safety. And I’ve already given up a degree of privacy when I use public bathrooms.

So here’s my proposal: bathroom desegregation. Put stalls up around the urinals too, while we’re at it. Let go of the habit of splitting groups up by gender when they’re peeing behind closed doors. Create a shit-ton (ha, ha) of security jobs while we’re at it. Make sure that NOBODY in any bathroom is an appealing target for the sick, awful people who want to beat us up or rape us. And take away the target those stupid gender signs brand on trans people’s foreheads. Take away the social awkwardness that gender policing in bathrooms has given us. Everyone belongs in public bathrooms, because – as that lovely kids’ books says – everybody poops.

Public bathrooms are for everyone.

It would be great if they were safe for everyone, too.



PS – And we can totally come up with cooler signs for public bathrooms. I challenge you…

my perspective on Israel & Palestine

I worry about what's going on between Israel and Palestine.

About me: I'm Jewish. Like the rest of my mom's family, I'm proud of my heritage and the values that are central to being Jewish; the value of education and doing good deeds (mitzvot) were the core concepts of Judaism that resonated for me, growing up. I had a Bat Mitzvah when I was 13, and led services at my synagogue many times while I was in middle school and high school. I've never been to Israel or Palestine.

Disclaimer: I'm no expert in who's done what to whom. I know the basic outline; Israel was founded in 1948 as a Jewish state, and the local Palestinian population was driven into more restricted areas. Both sides have attacked and fought off attacks countless times. I know the United Nations sees Israel as an occupying nation, and has condemned those of their actions that violate the Geneva Convention. I know Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens. Some of them are under Israel's control, with no ability to vote. The UN has also - sort of - recognized Palestine as a country.

When I was in college, I took classes on the Israel - Palestine conflict. We looked at issues of resources, especially water rights. We looked at terrorism and imperialism. I had taken classes on the Holocaust in high school that moved me deeply. I read Leon Uris' Exodus, Michener's The Source. And through all the classes, and all the history, one thing kept bothering me more and more.

Partly, it bothered me because I couldn't see a way out of the conflict. Nor could anyone I knew. Not the other students, not our professors, not the leaders on any side of the conflict. It seemed like a completely intractable problem. In a way, it still does. Why else do we keep seeing war after bombing after suicide bombing after war after... was there even a place where any of us could imagine peace in the Middle East?

And it bothered me because of how strongly the situation in Israel and Palestine reminded me of how early Americans had treated the people who were native to this continent, who were here before us. Growing up, I had a decent education in some aspects of Native American culture. I learned from Native teachers, volunteered for a month when I was 16 on a reservation in Wyoming, home to members of both the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes. (They used to be enemies, and they still wound up on the same reservation.)

Every person I know and respect abhors what our forebears did to the native people in this country. We all know the stories - we drove native people from their lands, pushed them onto smaller and smaller reservations, took away their ability to live as they had for centuries by claiming more and more of their land as our own, gave them smallpox blankets. And the native people fought back -- some of them, for a while. They used the tactics they were able to use; guerilla warfare, night attacks, any tactic that would work. (Many were the same tactics we Americans did when we fought for our independence. They are the tactics any small group willing to use violence will turn to, especially when they're outgunned and want to keep fighting for their cause. This is true regardless of how just or unjust that cause is. But that isn't the point.) Even though Native people fought back for many years, they aren't fighting now. Reservations are disproportionately poor places. The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is the poorest area in the entire United States. Many Native cultures, languages, and ways of being are in danger of disappearing entirely. That kind of loss impoverishes everyone, not just the young Native people who no longer see the value in their heritage, or their own perspectives.

Everyone I know and respect expresses -- at the very least -- sorrow about how things turned out in this country. Many express shame and regret the aggressive tactics our forebears used to take over a country that didn't belong to them.

But few of those very people recognize the parallels between the way American was established and the way Israel is establishing itself now.

It's not a perfect mapping. The Middle East is far more densely settled than North America was, for one thing. The technology gap isn't quite so dramatic. But the Israeli government claims that Palestine is not a legitimate country, just like we did to Native people. (A country does not have to be organized like ours to exist or serve people.) The Israeli government applies different laws and standards to Israeli citizens than it does to Palestinians. Israel is taking over more and more territory that once belonged to Palestinians, just as the reservations we set aside for Native people have shrunk dramatically over the years. The tactics Israel uses to govern will never lead to peace. The tactics Palestinians use to resist will never lead to peace, either. But at the end of the day, Israel is doing to the Palestinian people what America did to the Native people.

And we're helping them do it.

There are a lot of points that could be made here. I only want to make one.

I want to live to see peace in the Middle East. 

I don't know how to get to that point, but I know we're not on a path to peace now. I hate seeing my people, the Jewish people, harm others, and I hate seeing people harm my fellow Jews. I refuse to believe that there is no way to bring peace to the Middle East.

Like most reasonable people, I see violence as the failure of diplomacy. If the state of Israel can only exist in a perpetual state of violence, then the state of Israel has failed. And if that's true, then Zionism - in this case, at least - is a trap. I don't particularly like the Zionist idea; I prefer a clear separation between church (or synagogue) and state.

None of us know what to do when our dreams and ideals - like Zionism, or manifest destiny - lead to so much death and suffering. We become complicit. We cause suffering in pursuit of those ideals, and when dreams go south, they take a toll on us as well.

I'm no different. I have no idea what I or anyone could do to forge a livable peace in the Middle East. Maybe a joint, multi-cultural state that incorporate Israelis and Palestinians is possible. Maybe separate-but-sort-of-equal states would be more palatable to those who live there. Or maybe Israel is not a state that can exist in the Middle East without constant violence. Early Zionists suggested that the state of Israel could be established anywhere; it wasn't a dream that was always tied to the Holy Land. Nearly 60 years after it was created, Israel is still fighting. Israel gets military support from the US to the tune of $3+ billion per year. Why are we supporting a conflict that has no end in sight? How can we call it support, when our aid only serves to draw out the struggle?

I'm worried about what's going on between Israel and Palestine. I don't have a solution for it. But I'm willing to consider any options, at this point. I believe in the resilience of my people far more strongly than I believe we need to control any particular piece of territory. This dissent is certainly anti-Zionist. But it is not anti-Semitic. I hold these beliefs because I want to see my people live, and live wisely, without the stains on our conscience that we are earning from our callous, unethical treatment of another people. This dissent shows far more loyalty to my people than blind support does, especially when the Israeli leadership is in clear violation of international treaties.

The Jewish people and the Jewish culture existed without a homeland for thousands of years. It would be supremely ironic if claiming a homeland led to our downfall.

However it happens, I hope we can find a way to end this endless war soon. I'd like to visit the Holy Land before I die, but I will only go there when a government controls the area that does not commit war crimes. I will only go to the Holy Land when the people who control it have learned to treat all the people they govern with respect. I will only go there when going there would not make me complicit in war crimes.

I hope that day comes.

What Really Matters

6 weeks ago, I stopped buying any physical stuff other than food.

There’s a good long tradition of people giving up what seem like necessities, and accomplishing great things. People take vows of silence, or decide they’ll only walk so they don’t have to use oil. John Francis gave a TED talk about his experiences doing exactly that. 17 years of silence, 17 years of only walking. His TED talk is about listening, and how hard it was for him to really listen when he was just waiting for someone else to stop talking, so he could get his turn.

6 weeks isn’t much, compared to 17 years of that. Even 6 weeks has made a difference, though. I’m looking forward to seeing how the world looks after a year of only buying food.

So far, one of the most interesting pieces has been seeing what exceptions to my self-imposed rule I’m willing to sit back and consider.

There are a couple of things that I have no problem listing as exceptions. They’re on that original sheet of paper I wrote up – toilet paper, gas, anything my car or my bicycle need to run well. They’re not quite necessities. I could walk to the grocery store 3 miles away, I could walk or bike everywhere instead of using my car. But these exceptions I’m willing to make are ones that give me many more possibilities than I would have without them. Or, in the case of toilet paper, make me a lot more comfortable about personal hygiene.

They also don’t take up much time. It’s not like getting an oil change sinks me deep into a brainspace where I can’t stop thinking about buying more bright socks. I mean, socks are awesome. Mine just won’t have any new friends join them for the rest of this year.

But there another class of exceptions that I wasn’t expecting. It has to do with my partner. First, I should say that my partner has been incredibly supportive of this whole goal-complex. We’ve talked about how to avoid getting me gifts that are physical stuff, and how much I usually prefer gifts that are shared experiences anyway. And I’ve made it clear that getting a physical thing as a gift once in a while wouldn’t upset me. My outlaws got me a really wonderful little dragon on a chain when I visited – it’s perfect, I really like it, and since I didn’t ask for it in any way, it doesn’t feel like it breaks my goal. Point being, my fears have been allayed. This is a good experiment, and it’s not causing stress on the relationship-front. But something is happening.

My partner writes. A lot. And is a giant introvert. This pattern helps writing be a thing, and I support it. I’m often the same way. But I like getting out a little more often than they do – say, 2 or 3 times a week instead of once a week. And when I’m out, if my partner needs or wants something, I have no problem picking it up for them. That has already included a few seasons of CSI, the occasional grocery store run that involved paper towels, and… I end up wondering what happened to my ICK MATERIAL GOODS PUT IT DOWN AND RUN reflex. (It’s a pretty awesome reflex to have developed. I hear it’s pretty funny to see in person, too.)

Turns out it’s pretty simple. I am deeply committed to my goal of buying nothing – for myself. But I’m also deeply committed to this partnership. My anti-materialist goal is mine. It’s not my partner’s goal. Ultimately, it comes down to this: I don’t want to make them go out to the same store I’ve just been in to get paper towels to clean up the cats’ occasional hairballs. It would be a perverse way to apply what was meant to be an empowering goal for me. To do it and stand by that choice, I would have to prioritize my goal over my partner’s peace of mind, and – here’s the thing that has me really happy today – I’m not willing to do that.

And we’ve finally arrived. This is exactly why I chose the goal I did. I knew it would be hard. I knew it would be rewarding. And I suspected it would show me what – if anything – I cared about as deeply as I care about living gently on this dear little planet.

So here I am, delighted. Choosing to buy no physical things this year has already shown me how deeply I care about my partner. And it’s shown me in no uncertain terms that they respect my choices. They don’t share my personal commitment to not buying stuff this year, but they support me to do it anyway.

It’s an odd direction to approach Valentine’s Day from. But this year, on this famously corporate holiday, I won’t be buying flowers that are slowly dying. I’ll be celebrating the things that really matter – the things I can see so much more clearly when they’re not buried under a pile of symbolic gifts, hidden intentions, and feelings that haven’t found words.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. I hope you can use the day to celebrate the things that matter most to you. 

leaving the billboards behind

The thing about alternatives. The best and worst thing. Really good alternatives are hard to see from the highway.

Now, this can be awesome. If you love venturing off the beaten path, challenging yourself, being a maverick, wandering the wild looking for answers or other paths or even the right questions to ask, you’ve probably found some really neat ideas out there. Alternatives to pretty much everything — capitalism, religion, community, work, leisure time — exist somewhere in the world.

But it can also make finding worthwhile alternatives too challenging. We don’t all have the time to go tramping around through vast uncharted swathes of mental terrain until we find the perfect idea. Sometimes it’s easier just to stop at Target on the way home, and pass the hours we would have spent on research with our families.

I’ve been thinking about what kinds of pieces I want to put up here on the alternatives blog. I know what I don’t want. I don’t want this to become an advertisement for the least worst of mainstream options. That Goodwill / Salvation Army post was relevant to many of you, but we came away from it realizing that Goodwill is nowhere near as good as it could be (even if it is better than Salvation Army, for those who care about LGBT civil rights). I’m sure there’s a value in comparing big box stores, or comparing similar products many of us use, and sometimes that’s what I’ll do.

What I really want is to use this blog to focus on the ideas people have dreamed up that actually make the world we all live in better. Define better however you want — more sustainable, more supportive, more fair, more engaging, more just, more equitable. All of those, and more.

Too often, we don’t get to see the really amazing things that are happening around the world. They’re too far off the highway, and we don’t have the time to explore what’s beyond the end of every back road and still get home by the end of the day.

So I’m going to take a little while longer between blog entries here. I’m going to dig deeper, find alternatives that aren’t just the least worst, but alternatives that are actually good. And I’ll share what I find here, along with how you can get involved with them if they call to you.

Meanwhile, let’s come at it from another perspective. What have you come across in our world that struck you as poorly designed? What seems irreparably broken? Just asking these questions, I’m thinking about politics, healthcare, homelessness, sexual assault, pharmaceutical maneuvering, student debt, that undercurrent of ownership in relationships… and I don’t know nearly as much about alternatives to those things as I want to. Maybe you have more to add — maybe you see systems that don’t work every day at your job. Here’s your invite: chime in any time.

I’ll be somewhere off the beaten path, far from the billboards, finding whatever I find.

Hello, world.

(This is the first entry from the "alternatives" blog, which has since been combined with my wild adventure & poetry blog here on

Welcome to alternatives.

This blog is for everyone who makes choices -- so, it's for everyone.

If you think you don't make choices, it's for you especially.

Too often, our choices don't seem to matter. The gap between the wealthy & powerful and most people in the world is vast. The rules of the game are constantly being redesigned to keep things that way. Surely the choices we make every day won't really change things. Not enough. Not in any meaningful way.

I believe that our choices do matter -- not all of them, and not all the time -- but some of the things we do without thinking matter immensely. And some of the things we think matter even more.

I'm starting this blog in order to look more systematically at the ways our choices spiral out to impact the world around us, and how our approach to making choices can spiral back in to change the way we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it.

No topics are off limits. I know I'll delve into the things I'm passionate about: how we interact with our environment, home spaces, polyamory, poetry, art, relationships, family, kink, intention, contemplation, gender, philosophy, and probably religion and politics too, at some point. I insist on respectful dialogue, and I won't spend a lot time to moderate comments, which is shorthand for me saying that I reserve the right to block you. But I sincerely hope I won't have to.

The thing is, I believe in the power of people. Especially people who don't always believe in themselves. In a sense, this blog is about empowerment; mostly empowerment by understanding where we are already powerful.

So take a look around. Think about the choices you make every day, once a month, once a lifetime. If you have a question, ask it. And as you go back from alternatives into your everyday life, take this question with you:

"What can I do differently, and what would it change?"

A new Mother's Day practice

desert sunrise - painted when I was in high school

desert sunrise - painted when I was in high school

Today, I decided to do something new for Mother's Day. 

It wasn't quite a spur of the moment. A week ago, I visited the town I grew up in. I happened to drive past my mom's favorite garden center. The sign out front said, "Remember Your Mother." I had forgotten Mother's Day was coming, and the sign made me stop and think. I've never liked Mother's Day. It feels obligatory, not heartfelt; a Hallmark holiday, no depth to it, another excuse for marketing campaigns and a deterrent to meaningful reflection. So many people have relationships with mothers who were neglectful, abusive, or absent. So many people have mothers who have died. So many people have stories that are more complicated than brunch with the family or flowers or a card, and the Mother's Day hype isn't gentle on those people.

I loved my mother dearly. I took care of her for 9 months, while she struggled with cancer, and they were some of the hardest months of my life. Those months will never be repeated, because my mom died just under a year ago. 

But I want to remember her the way she was before she was sick, too. And today, that's what I did. I remembered that when I was in high school, she used to walk clockwise around her house, through the gardens she adored, and scatter pinches of tobacco and cornmeal, saying what she was thankful for. I think she did it every day.

I can't tell my mom what I did in her honor today, but I can tell you what I did, and I can tell you why. 

Today, for Mother's Day, I went outside. I walked through my new garden with my mother's little boxes of tobacco and cornmeal. (Yes, I saved them, and yes, I knew where they were.) I walked clockwise around the house, and scattered pinches of the stuff, and murmured aloud what I was thankful for. For water, wind, and shade on unseasonably hot days. For being home. For raspberries and wood poppy and cardinal flower and trillium and bleeding heart, and all the others. For dear friends and family. For all the love I have in my life, even now. For having had my mom in my life for all the years I did. 

I can't tell my mom that I liked the slow way my thoughts moved when I was saying thank you, scattering tobacco and cornmeal. I can't tell her that I noticed more plants growing today than I did yesterday. I don't know yet if the cotoneaster I planted and forgot to water will survive, but I watered it - because I took the time today to see it, because of her. 

I can't tell my mom that I think I'll keep doing this morning ritual in her honor. Not every day, but often enough to keep in touch with the back yard. And that also makes me reflect on Mother's Day, and wonder why it's just once a year. The gestures Hallmark tells us to make on this day are sweet, but they're not satisfying, at least not for me. It's the times when the world isn't shouting at me to honor my mother that I most want to honor her. And it's those times, the random days with no title, when it feels most genuine to me to say - hey mom, I'm doing this because of you.

So I'll keep walking around my garden, scattering tobacco and cornmeal until they are gone. Maybe then I'll uncover a new ritual, or start an art project, or write. I'll make another step on this path of healing and grief. I don't think I'll know what my next step is until I'm ready to take it. It will be new, as this old idea was new, but it will also be tied to the memory of my mother, who I loved and miss dearly. 

One final thank-you, mom. You know it already. I used to say it every time I came home, and I meant it in all the ways it can be read. 

Thank you for having me. 

My mother's garden.

My mother's garden.

What do you care about?

This may be a difficult entry. Not the reading, but what I'm going to ask you to do at the end of it. 

I've been thinking a lot about mortality recently, and about the framework death puts around life.

I've been thinking, particularly, about the thousand ways I've found to distract myself from doing exactly this kind of thinking. It's not comfortable to think about mortality. It makes me itch to get up and do something, prove I'm still alive, stop just thinking and watching time tick past. Do something worthwhile, specifically.

We all have our avenues of distraction. Our world teems with them, businesses profit by them, malls extol them. Anything can be used as distraction. Many of the distractions we turn to may well have worth in themselves... but, when we use them as a distraction, that worth is undermined because we're trying to avoid the very thing that, when we confront it, can prove to be the opposite of the thing we thought we were afraid of. 

Ok, that got a little convoluted. Let me try another approach.

A few nights ago I spent the night alone, near sleepless on a mesa in Chaco Canyon, wrapped in a thin fleece blanket against the cold, waiting to see the lunar eclipse. I went to this place I used to visit with my mom because I love it, because she loved it, because it feels like home to me in a way I still don't understand, a way that intrigues me. I brought books and a flashlight but found that I had no interest in reading. I had an interest in... being. I sat on cooling stone watching the stars and the moon and as the hours passed, I remembered how to ask questions slowly, in place, and absorb its answers. Questions circling around mortality, around the ways people become obsessed with new and extremely unlikely ways to die, while looking away from the obvious risks (driving, poor food, lack of exercise) that are behind many more deaths than, say, plague or ebola. The Desert showed me that that is how people are. We fear things that feel different far more than we fear what feels familiar. We ignore the things we could change in order to argue with things we can't. In a way, arguing gives us a handle on a mortality that is ultimately inexplicable, inconceivable, so different from the rest of our existence that trying to understand and explain it has become a focus of fantasy, of religion, of all of our inner and outer lives in ways that sometimes we cannot admit even to ourselves.

But that is how we are. Sometimes we need to argue with mortality, shout into oblivion, even if we are the only ones who hear that shout. But sometimes, sitting on a mesa in the bright moonlight, we are capable of seeing that need, and capable of thinking that maybe it's time mortality argued for us, instead. Why shouldn't we put our own finite-ness to work against our tendency to look away from what is uncomfortable? Why shouldn't we use mortality, deliberately *use* it, not to enable endless distraction, but to focus ourselves on what we care about?

What do you care about?

This isn't a trick question. This is where things get interesting. 

I sat on a mesa in the cold for 5 hours. I'm only asking you to take 5 minutes, for now. But take those minutes to focus, and do NOT distract yourself from this question. Do not reach for your cellphone - no, not even if it buzzes. Do not think about the errands you have to do before you sleep, or eat. DO let your thoughts stray along the paths you love most. DO think about the people you love, how you feel with them. DO think about the times in life when you have been most content, felt most alive. 

And ask yourself: what do you care about?

When I work with harmonizing clients, this question - what do you care about? - is a key part of what I talk about with them. I don't always ask the question directly. Sometimes I ask if anything is missing from their home - sometimes I ask what they use each space in their home for. But I've found that the things we keep in our homes often fail to remind us of the things we care about most. Sometimes they oppose them; sometimes the sheer volume and time it takes to take care of the Stuff we own gives us less time to spend with people we care about. Sometimes the stuff we own takes up space that could be occupied by friends, by musical instruments, by a cozy corner in the sun that reminds us to take time, read a book, drink some tea, relax. Sometimes the Stuff that's right in front of us - distracting us? - makes it harder to think about what we care about. Surely what we care about *is* what we have chosen to possess... isn't it?

I don't believe that what we care about most is easy to find, UNTIL you figure out exactly what it is - and seek it out. 

I'm sitting in a mall right now - sophisticated torture, waiting for my car to be fixed, watching people create themselves from a limited array of objects, watching people shop.... And it feels like a trap. It's a plastic, sanitized mass delusion, what I'm watching. It is distraction masquerading as achievement. Congratulations! Ch-ching! You have purchased something, earned points, made progress... towards... well, towards what? 

That's for you to decide. 

So here's the hard part. The part where we try to get mortality to argue on your side, bold reader. 

Take your 5 minutes. Sit inside, walk outside, but focus on the question of what you care about most. Friends? (Which ones? Why?) Activities? (How often do you get to do them?) Your family? (Do they know?) Your career? (Why do you love it?) Money? (To what end?) Freedom? (What does that mean for your life?) Being alone? (What does that mean to you?) Helping others? (How, and who, and in what ways?) Art? (What do you love about it?) If it helps you narrow things down, ask yourself - what would I wish I could have done differently, if I died tonight?

There are no wrong answers, unless you settle on something you don't actually care about because what you do care about doesn't seem "good enough". You happen to be the only person qualified to say what is good enough, and in my experience, doing what you think you should (instead of what you actually want) is a distraction from doing what actually enriches your life.

So - pick one thing you care about. And take the next 10 minutes (or more) after that to bring more of what you care about into your life. Plan a family outing. Call a friend you haven't talked to in too long. Reach out to a prospective business partner. Take some time for yourself. Donate your time or money or stuff you don't use to a cause you care about. Make a space in your house that reminds you to play music or invite people over. (Invite a Harmonizer to help you.) But don't wait on this. Do it. Life is short, and this is something you care about immensely.

And then tell me what you did. And tell me why it matters, to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Living with loss - emphasis on the Living.

Taken in the desert near Flagstaff, shortly after I moved there.

Taken in the desert near Flagstaff, shortly after I moved there.

A church near my home has a sign out front that keeps catching my eye: "Live like someone died for you". 

The first time I passed the sign I cried. It was too true; my grief over losing my mom was fresh.

The second time I passed the sign, I got upset. My mom didn't die *for* me. It was cancer. Not a gift. How dare some church make me feel guilty - more than I already did - by implying that there was a debt placed on me by the fact of her death? It was a cruel thing to say, when I saw it that way.

The third time, I read the sign differently, and this is the interpretation I haven't been able to get out of my head. I read it as support -- and a surprisingly effective push to do exactly the best I can do, no less. Bear with me, and I'll try to explain what that means.

The fact that people die doesn't impose a debt on those who haven't died yet. Being alive, though... well. Living is precious, and it doesn't last forever. I don't have a choice about living with loss. But I do have a choice, some days, to live well and fully with my loss, and to let the memories of my mom give me strength, and remind me that she wanted me, quite simply, to be happy.

Every single one of us had parents. Grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors, going back to the birth of humankind. We'll never know most of those people. Some of us don't know any of them. But one thing I suspect almost all of our ancestors had in common is a desire to see their children content and fulfilled in their lives. And most of them have now died. For us? Not exactly. But they are gone, and we are here, and one way we can honor their memory and that intention - paradoxically? - is to find the life that fulfills each of us, and live it.

When my mom passed away, my life changed. I don't know all the ways it's changed yet, but I do know that I value gardens more, and that the urge to teach people about the sky and the seasons is getting stronger. I've started drinking tea more. But more than taking on aspects of a dear absent person, in the past few months I've found the impetus to follow my own dreams. I've moved to the Southwest, where I've wanted to live for ten years. When I'm here, I go out to meet the high desert or write most days. 

I think I've finally actually understood that time is short, and precious, and if I don't work towards the world I want to live in now, I never will. I wish I'd worked up the gumption to make this move to the desert years ago. I wish I could share what I'm thinking and doing and seeing now with my mom. I hate that it took someone close to me dying for me to actually live in a way that fulfills me, to live in a way that doesn't feel like putting off what I need until it's convenient. (Hint: it will never be convenient to put off what you need.) 

So that sign on the church near me? Now, when I pass it, it's a blazing reminder that if I'm not challenging myself, if I'm not doing the things that really fulfill me - making art, writing, having good conversations, supporting people I care about, going adventuring and entangling myself fully with the world - I'm not doing the best I can, for my mom, for all the other people who aren't alive any more, and for myself. That's on a good day.

There are other days, and they're just as important. I don't know how to talk about this, but I know it belongs here, somewhere. Hours before my mom passed away, after she had stopped talking, the last time she moved under her own power - she sat up in her hospital bed to give me a hug. For an hour. Just me and her, until my arms were asleep and my back was cramping from supporting her weight and I didn't have any tears left. I don't remember what I thought about during that hour. What I remember is love. Just love. Maybe that's more important than all the rest of these words put together, because that hour was the greatest gift I've ever received. It's a gift that clamors to be passed on, to grow in the sharing. It will take my entire life to do justice to that gift, and doing justice to that gift is already remaking my entire life. 

I'll leave you with that, for now. Not with any obligation, but with the slender beam of a flashlight shining on a path that I'm trying to walk. Maybe it's a path near your own, maybe it's one you saw years ago but said, "not yet". Figure out what that path is, for you... and don't wait too long to step onto it.