The O word
copyright Callan Williams
© 1998 <TheCallan@aol.com>
I remember the last time I saw Callan. It was a spring night, and Callan had come to Rhinebeck to a book signing I was doing. Callan was in her boy clothes, squatting under a cap from a plutonium reprocessing company she had bought at a dollar store.
After people left, we walked together though the quiet center of town. Callan had a piece of carrot go down the wrong way, so as we passed by her car, she grabbed the warm remains of a 44-ounce cup of Coke she had bought for 44 cents in her travels. She swigged the Coke as we walked.
“The 24 year old used the O word today,” she told me. After a few digressions on what the O word might mean, Callan finally told me what this word was that was so powerful to her. She raised the big empty paper cup to her mouth, using it as a resonator and boomed out the word, replete with echo: “Overwhelming.”
Overwhelming. The stories Callan told me that night were funny and sharp, Callan was up and animated, but they all were about the O word. How people, from parents to lovers, had cast her aside, and closed a door when they found Callan overwhelming. There were stories about kindergarten, when a teacher wanted to move her out when she found out she could really read, about lovers, and coworkers.
Callan was full of energy, entertaining and electric, but there was a sense of deep sadness, because she was having trouble believing that she could ever overcome the curse of her life, the sense that others could not see her or love her because she was overwhelming. We talked of publishing and art, of techniques and venues, of ways to help her share her gifts with the world. I told her clearly that I believed that there were other people who could find her as wonderful and attractive as I did.
Callan’s loneliness, though, ran very deep. Her performance was almost manic, to cover this sadness, and that upset me. This challenge, of packaging herself up to connect with people, which meant cutting down, was something that wore on her he entire life. She felt she was, as she said to me that night, a 5000 volt person in a 120 volt world.
I felt understood Callan. Callan said that was because we had a history together, and more than that, because I had worked so hard to understand the shared history of queer, transgender folks. I needed to understand that history, because I needed to understand myself.
Like a stranger in a strange land, the language of society was not Callan’s first tongue, and she always felt awkward and limited by it. She had the constraints of someone who learned a second language later in life, always forced and constricted in a way she was not in her beautiful native language, a language so many felt was overwhelming.
Overwhelming. Callan may have been overwhelming, overwhelming with ideas, overwhelming with emotion, overwhelming with pain & rage, overwhelming with energy and overwhelming with sprit, but it was my great joy to be overwhelmed by her in these ways, and to be a better and more enlightened person for it. It was when I let her wash over me that I felt the power, and it was a gift, a gift I honored.
I really believed that this gift was something that could be shared with the world, but for Callan, that was the hardest belief of all. She knew her loneliness, and every cut that came, the cuts which for her were tied up in that one word, the one that boomed through the streets of Rhinebeck, resonating in a paper cup. Overwhelming.
Overwhelm my defenses, let me see myself again in your mirror, show me the beauty that is awesome and overwhelming. This is your gift to the world — a gift that Callan really learned to believe she could never show in public.