“Congratulations!” I told the cashier in the dollar store.
“Why are you congratulating me?” she asked.
“You just told me that you were doing pretty well,” I said. “That’s a lot better than you could be doing! Congratulations!”
“I’ve never had anyone congratulate me for doing pretty well before,” she replied, “but yes, it is something to be grateful for.”
We live in a culture where people like to bond either about where they see their life falling short of their dreams or about big belief systems they carry. “Isn’t this waitress slow?” they will say, or “Namaste! God is Great!”
We don’t tend to take time to see, value and be grateful for the little daily things that make our life a bit better. Great weather, good service, an interesting question to ponder, some food, whatever, most people just rarely celebrate the good.
It’s really hard to drive out darkness. It is much easier to expand brilliance, lighting up one square foot and then expanding that light to a square meter.
Find something wonderful that lasts a minute, then try to double it and make it last two minutes. Pretty soon, you can go for longer.
Instead of focusing on eliminating failure, focus on increasing success. Keep making better choices and pretty soon bad ones won’t take up as much room.
To change the world, we have to first believe that change for the better is possible. We have to have real hope. If we keep focusing on the crushing problems rather than on the small, cumulative solutions, we will see ourselves as victims rather than as empowered to make change.
“Where are the wins?” I used to ask, knowing that while cutting losses can be useful, no organization ever thrives because they only have small losses. There have to be wins in the mix too, reasons for congratulation. We have to have heart to get better everyday.
I’m good at being a theologian, yes, and have done the pastoral work of service to others.
I have resisted becoming a missionary, resisted going out and pounding some belief structure, evangelism embedded in entertainment to reinforce the believers again and again.
My life has been about guerrilla actions. I never just took the spotlight, rather I stayed a bit off to the side, taking my own power by oblique moves that let me slide back into my own introvert safe space.
The first audience we are all issued, those parents and extended family who think that we are just fascinating and adorable, the ones who pay such rapt attention that we learn to amuse and entertain them, wasn’t so kind, indulgent and playful with me.
As the first born of two Aspergers parents, being smart was the only way I found to get attention. I read from Time magazine when I was four, followed politics and more.
Becoming invisible was the only way I found to feel safe, to absorb the blame and rage of a mother who made it very, very clear that we just were sent to make her unhappy and upset. I learned to fear and resist attention, especially from authority figures, rather than learning to value and crave it.
Having a corrupt relationship with that formative audience was expensive. It meant that when I needed the skills to engage an audience of my peers or of others parents and teachers, I just didn’t have the skills. And I certainly didn’t have the confidence that people would be a safe audience for my own sharing.
There are moments where I did have power over an audience, like my improvised comedy in junior high school plays, but those possibilities soon evaporated, as a shop teacher with no drama experience lead the high school performance group. Still, I knew I was different in a way that others found weird and corrupt, knew that I lived in a family where failure and self-pity held the highest value.
Instead I found my audience as a stealthy and witty manager of a program for high schools students at MIT, taking on a role that was usually filled by ‘tute students. Even getting my degree, finally, came because I ended up managing part of academic computing for the college. I was not a good academic, but I was a good manager, skills I had to learn to support my parents and to save myself.
An entrepreneur who resists the spotlight, though, is a failed entrepreneur. Taking visible responsibility is a key part of building vigorous organizations. Instead, I stayed enmeshed with my parents, even as I worked to understand the world, worked to manage issues around my own trans nature and the needs of the trans community.
The trans community and my local community never supported growing leadership. Instead, they fought leaders, lashing out with anger and blame, playing the old “crabs in a barrel” game. Working to claim individual power and being stigmatized and abused in the world does not make you an engaged member in human organizational structures.
I learned how to be a theologian and even how to do pastoral work. I watched as others did the missionary work.
What I didn’t do, what I was to hard for me to do, was to do the ritual work, the liturgical work that creates a safe, energizing and affirming place for people to come together, sharing and reinforcing values, supporting each other in the hard, hard work of making better choices everyday of their lives.
I didn’t take the spotlight. Instead, I did that work as I had learned to do, as a guerrilla, making and hurling bombs of enlightenment and caring. Facing the kind of institutional and reactionary resistance that comes from people resisting change, instead of creating a cadre, organizing a movement, coming together with others and shaping a church, I did my work in stealth, sharing the best that I could offer.
I was good at the work I did.
I was good at caring for my parents by staying in their shadows, even driving from the back seat. By playing small, I learned to not threaten or scare them, instead keeping them feeling cared for.
I was good at sharing ideas and structures that could help those who wanted healing, even as I stayed hidden from those who wanted to resist and silence their own inner voices by acting out against those kinds of voices in the world.
I suspect, though, I was also good at building organizations, at managing change. At least those who heard me engage their own struggles to do so found me a source of insight and inspiration.
I stayed in the shadows, though, never taking that leadership role, instead sidelining myself as an individual contributor.
There is an clerical name for those who stand up to lead a ritual or a rite, those who take the spotlight to open spaces where people come together in respect and grace to open themselves to a connection with the divine.
That name is “celebrant.” They lead a shared celebration, by a few or by a multitude, that brings people together outside of self focus, instead participating in a moment that reminds them of their connection to the past and the future, their connection to other people and to all living things.
Celebration wasn’t something I did in the spotlight. Instead, I celebrated small, human moments, for example, by congratulating the cashier at a dollar store on having a good day, offering a moment of sly humour and gratitude.
As I have looked for shared celebrations that I can sign up for, I found people celebrating things that I didn’t value. They often celebrated group identity over individual possibility, celebrated separation over connection. Leaders were preachy preachers, comforting the believers with the differences between good us and bad them instead of teachy preachers, asking us to go deep and engage the divine surprise growing by opening, by revelation, by empathy and vulnerability.
I haven’t been able to find a celebration that I find affirming and energizing to me.
And I haven’t tried to stand in the light and create that space, asking others to join me in that gathering.
Instead, I got more and more hermetic, depleted resources keeping me off the grid, a place where most of them could never be replaced or renewed.
To have the celebrant we want and need, it occurs to me, we first have to be the celebrant, ready and willing to come together in celebration of what we value.
As a transwoman, there are lots of reasons to want to stay invisible. We know we don’t have the training and confidence in our womanhood that people raised as women do. We know how easily we can be slammed and how hard it can be to recover from those hits as they shake us to the depths of our experience. Our struggle against resistance is hard and wearing, depleting our confidence and vitality.
The reasons for transpeople to be very visible, to stand up and lead, to be change agents in the world are even more compelling, but they are not written into our fears and our experience. We get very little affirmation or support in modelling and encouraging change when we challenge the neat lines and boxes that others believe give them safety and comfort.
We are not used to giving each other support, in coming together to celebrate the power and the possibility that is in our gifts. We don’t get the values of respect and diversity reinforced in our lives. We feel the threats more than we feel the potency of connection and shared caring.
Too often we celebrate the trivial, the sensational, the destructive and the separating. These are the kind of celebrations that serve marketers and politicians who know how to use emotional pulls to manipulate us. The values are hidden under easy entertainment, going unquestioned in scary ways. They don’t ask us to step up and be better, rather they ask us to surrender to popular biases and expectations.
Standing up, calling out and working to gather those who need to celebrate values that we consciously want to share, values around the power of the divine surprise to open our hearts, challenge our minds and transform our perceptions, is a good thing.
Standing as celebrant is the first thing that feels affirming and delightful to me. It also seems, however, beyond my resources.
I know how to celebrate the small things that make our life better, the choices we make to be more present and more open, to heal and grow through engagement and gratitude.
Standing up to lead others in that celebration, creating spaces and rites that allow us to share that power, well, that is more problematic for me.
Celebration, though — always a key part of trans expression through time and around the world — feels important to me, important to follow. You just have to get the values and the energy right.