I wrote this post a year ago. It was published on August 19th because I finished it after midnight, but it was August 18th, 2010 when I learned the news that induced me to write these words. I publish it again, here, on the one-year anniversary, this time with an added epilogue.
Several days ago, I made a post about lots of things, but mainly, about playing the banjo. What I didn’t tell you is what induced me to take the banjo out of the closet and prepare to bring it back to life so I could start playing it again. Well, actually, not what induced me, but who. I would like to tell you about a very special person.
I have this friend. He’s an unlikely friend, actually. I met him in December. He and another man were consultants hired by my employer to provide leadership instruction to the managers.
I’ve been in leadership training before, but this was not “training.” What they gave us was something completely new and special. I think the closest term I can conjure for it would be “mentoring.” And it really resonated with me. Since December, I have used the information I learned from them almost every single day in some facet of my life. Mostly, I use it at work.
But it wasn’t just the material that hit home. I really liked the two men who provided the mentoring, one of them in particular, an Englishman from London. When they came back a month or so later to give the course to another group of managers, I saw my soon-t0-be friend in the hallway and he heartily shook my hand, happy to see me and I him.
I asked him how long he and his colleague would be in town because I wanted to “hang out” with them. He said that they were leaving that evening, unfortunately, and would only provide the leadership course one more time for the company, at one of our sites in Europe the following month. Luck would have it that I was going to be there at that site at exactly the same time as them.
The next month when I was across The Pond, I met up with them for dinner at an old hunting lodge. A dusty deer head hung on the wall above our table and a stuffed badger was on the floor near my chair. We talked about the company and we talked about leadership, but what struck me the most was that they wanted to talk about me. They were interested in me, in my career and in how I was doing, and I wasn’t used to that sort of attention.
And then, my soon-to-be-friend, when he saw me admiring the handsome beer glasses, he finished his beer, disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared from the men’s room drying a freshly rinsed beer glass with a paper towel. He handed it to me with a smile. (The glass, not the paper towel.)
I wasn’t sure what to do next, as I was not in the habit of pilfering beer glasses. He said, “If I were to accidentally break that glass, would the waitress charge me for it? No, and she would have to pick up the broken glass. If you take it, you will be saving her the work.”
I was so surprised. Here was this distinguished, late-middle-aged, goateed gentleman speaking proper British English, sneaking a beer glass for me like he was some college kid. Well, with that, poof, he went from being a professional acquaintance to being my friend. That really started it, this friendship of ours.
When we parted, he told me to write to him and tell him about “just one thing” that I had observed or thought about in the realm of leadership. This was a difficult task actually, because he was such an astute and experienced person. I walked around for a couple weeks trying to see something or think of something that I thought was worthy of a discussion with him.
After some time had passed, I received a message from him with a story and he asked for my thoughts about it. I realized that he was not going to let me off the hook. After I responded, I received this reply from him,
“It’s a grey day here in London, cold and damp and yet when I read your e-mail just now it felt like the sun had come out. You have brought a genuine smile to my face so I can say truthfully that, right now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
He seemed to have taken it upon himself to mentor me, which was amazing and humbling to me, but also very gratifying. I was touched.
Our discussions became so engaging that we would exchange emails several times during the day. The first thing I would do when I got up in the morning was turn on my computer so I could read the message he had sent while I was sleeping. Once he wrote,
“If we can’t sit down together, eat, talk (and steal beer glasses) then these letters are a satisfactory substitute. I am enjoying our communion. I find it stimulating and it gives me much on which to ponder. I hope also that it provides something of value to you.”
Often, he would send me a story and deliver his message as a metaphor. I would study those stories for days before I felt confident enough to reply and try to decipher the message. Once, I must have gotten it right because he wrote that our conversation was “drawing us toward a syncronicity of understanding.” That actually scared me because I thought our email exchange might stop. I wrote,
“If we come to a synchronicity of understanding, will our conversation come to an end? If so, I might pretend to be slow.”
“No, indeed. Then it gets interesting – we argue about what it means. It goes on for years…”
He was patient and encouraging, always mentoring, always supportive, and always with his brilliant sense of humor. As we became more invested in this friendship, I wanted him to know me, the true me, and not the person I present to my colleagues at work. I decided that I had to come out to him, that I wanted our friendship to be built on truth.
So I wrote to him about trust and about communion and about friendship, and about my life and my true self. And I sent the email and went to bed and hoped for the best. When I awoke the next morning, I found his reply as follows,
“Good morning, Anderson
I’m happy for you that you’ve made this decision and, for myself, humbled that you should feel confident enough in our relationship to share it with me. No-one I ever stole a beer glass for has honoured me so. Thank you.
I can have no conception of the myriad considerations you must face, I can only offer you a constant (virtual) presence and a ready ear. I may, of course, add the odd pearl of wisdom (if I ever come across any!).
If this would be a source of satisfaction for you, it would surely be a source of gladness for me. My thoughts are summed up in the words of Joseph Addison:
‘True happiness is of a retired nature, and an enemy to pomp and noise; it arises, in the first place, from the enjoyment of one’s self, and in the next from the friendship and conversation of a few selected companions.’
I suggest you continue to enjoy your true self and I will enjoy the friendship of a remarkable man.
Warmest regards, R.”
His letter brought tears to my eyes. I cannot tell you how my coming out to him and his acceptance of me transformed our friendship. The richness it acquired, the depth, the emotional connection. I would not have thought it possible had it not happened.
That’s when I tried to learn more about him on a personal level. He didn’t want to talk about himself very much at first, and when he did, it was always about his family more than him. It was obvious that he was proud of his wife and children and loved them very much.
When we talked about personal things, he would answer my questions and say a little bit about what he was thinking or doing, and then would turn it back in my direction with a comment such as, “That’s quite enough about me.” Over time, he’s opened up more and more and our conversations became a nice balance of the personal and professional.
(I also told him about this blog, but he refused to read it. He said he preferred to know me through our direct correspondences.)
So fast forward a bit and we come to the part about the banjo. He mentioned that he and his wife were going to hear a performance by Béla Fleck, a Grammy Award-winning banjo player. I was surprised – I didn’t expect an Englishman to even know of Béla Fleck, let alone have an interest in banjo music. I thought, that’s so…. American.
I found out that not only was he a fan, but that he owns a banjo that he acquired over 30 years ago but gave up trying to play. He wrote,
“I picked up a little way back then but tutors were thin on the ground in the UK. Then, just like you, it went into a closet for years. By coincidence, I dug it out and did a little light renovation just this year. Mind you, I found I remembered virtually nothing and time has stiffened my fingers.”
Then I got an idea — something I could do in return for everything that he had done for me, something we could do together. I was so excited about this proposal, I could hardly type it out fast enough,
“Do you think your fingers are too stiff to ever play again, or might they loosen up with some activity? I know I don’t have to tell you that sometimes when people want to make progress on a seemingly big task — lose weight, write a book, train for a marathon (okay, granted, that last one is more than a seemingly big task) — they can adhere to their regimen better if they tackle their task with a buddy. Then they can keep each other motivated and there is a commitment between them that keeps them engaged. Maybe we could do something along those lines and set a goal, like, say, be able to play three rolls and two licks for each other over Skype by the end of one month of practice. I suggest the Peter Wernick book as a teacher, but perhaps there are a couple banjo instructors in London if you need a live teacher. Then we could up the ante for month #2. Are you game, Sir?”
His reply was immediate and enthusiastic,
“A splendid idea! I have long recognised in myself that there are things I have very little chance of doing without a constant companion e.g. learning Italian, playing the banjo etc.. I don’t know how you view August in the US but in Europe most of it is written off with vacations (perhaps you owe it to yourself to be a little more European this year?). Still, I will seek out the Peter Wernick book and suggest we begin in September. I don’t know why but autumn seems to fit very well with such a project.
I am exceptionally pleased that you were gracious enough to make this suggestion. Made my (good) day. Bless you for the thought.”
I received multiple emails from him that day. He told me that he had ordered the Peter Wernick banjo instruction book I recommended. Then he told me about a DVD he had seen when he was younger about John Hartford that inspired him to play the banjo those 30+ years ago. Then he wrote to say he had found the DVD on-line and would order one for me too if I would like. I thought he almost sounded giddy, and then was sure of it when he wrote,
“You don’t know what you’ve started. Man, I’m so excited about this.”
As we discussed our upcoming banjo playing, I talked to him about the things I wrote about in my last post, about being detached from my emotions for so many years, and because of it, about not being sure of myself, feeling like I don’t even know myself at times. I wrote, “I can be so dead sure about other people but with myself I sometimes have this blind spot,” and he replied,
“You know your instincts are sound – they’ve been tested in a much more severe way than most of us ever experience. Despite everything else, you instinctively knew you were a man. I know that you needed to keep a Draconion grip of your emotions to deal with this but consider: you know what’s right and wrong. You know what is good and what is bad. You know what you love and what you despise. You know what gives you pleasure and what gives you pain. In short you have a complete set of functioning morals and emotions (this probably rules you out for ever becoming a politician but never mind, live with it).
In the library of emotions, you are a fully paid up member. You may select, take out and enjoy any that you wish. It is your entitlement. Know thyself? As I’ve said, you already do. Decide to trust what you know. Don’t worry about whether you should/shouldn’t, ought/ought not, deserve/don’t deserve. Your personal code of ethics won’t let you do anything ‘bad’.
As we used to say in the sixties “If it feels good, do it!
Carpe diem until we can corripe cerviasiam!”
And with that, we made a plan to reconvene after his vacation when he returned to London on August 22. In his absence, I pulled the banjo out of the closet, bought the metal polish and made the post on Sunday about banjos and other former pursuits.
The past day or two, I have been thinking of the update I will give him on all that has happened since he left on vacation, and I have thought that I need to hurry up and get the banjo polished so I am ready to go by September 1.
Until, that is, I returned home late from work today and opened my Inbox. There was an email from my good friend’s wife. When I saw it, I think I stopped breathing. Like the day I lifted the lid on that banjo case, I didn’t want to open her email because I knew what I would find inside, except this time it was worse. Much worse.
It seems that my friend had a heart problem for years that he hadn’t told me about. He passed away on August 10th in Italy.
Now people, as I sit here grieving, I tell you this story because I want you to know that if you have not been fortunate to have a friend like him, then please know that there are people like him in the world who love us and accept us and celebrate us for who we are, whether we are trans or non-trans, young or old, men or women or other.
And if you don’t have anyone like him in your life, then I suggest that you search for someone like that, and if you find them, lean on them, don’t be afraid to talk to them, tell them what is in your heart, revel in their friendship, because there is not much in this world that is worth more.
In the meantime, take his words with you. Go on. They are precious and should be shared. It’s okay – I think he would not mind.
At the time that I wrote this post last year, I was scheduled to attend the 2010 Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta. I had the plane tickets and hotel reservation. In the end, though, I didn’t go — I canceled everything.
Instead, I went to London to attend the memorial service for R.
Now some people might think that London is an awfully long way to go for the memorial service of a person I had only known for nine months. In fact, a couple people did say exactly that to me. But for me, there was no choice. I couldn’t not go. And so I went.
The memorial was held in a museum very near a former home of R and his family, a place they lived when the children were younger. It was special, not a typical home, and was associated with the museum. I can’t say much more about it out of respect for the family’s privacy, other than to recount that R’s wife remembered with a smile how R came home one day with an idea to move into this special home. They ended up buying it and living there for several years.
I was a bit nervous going there, not knowing R’s family, but they helped me to feel at ease. R’s wife and children were very polite, warm and welcoming. His wife did make a comment about the number of emails that R and I had exchanged. I had the sense that she was curious and wanted to understand it. I tried to explain how we met, how he took an interest in mentoring me, how much I had appreciated that and appreciated him. I’m not sure that I was able to adequately articulate the depth of my friendship with her husband.
R’s family knew about the plans R and I had made to play the banjo together and we talked about that a little bit, about R’s excitement around that opportunity. It felt good to hear how much enjoyment he got out of the anticipation itself.
They introduced me to a few of the people there, other family members and some friends. They were very careful with the use of pronouns, or perhaps the non-use of pronouns, as though they didn’t want to get it wrong so found ways not to use pronouns at all. I wasn’t sure whether they knew before I got there that I was trans. My impression was that they didn’t and I was touched by their efforts.
I saw R’s colleague there, the man who had worked with him to provide the leadership training at my place of employment, which was where I first met R. The last time I had seen him was in the old hunting lodge where we had dinner together and R stole the beer glass.
The colleague introduced me to his lady friend and to other professional acquaintances and friends of himself and R. He seemed pleased to be able to introduce me using my true name and gender, which I had told him about prior to going to London. At one point, he put his hand on my shoulder and said quietly, “You know, your name, it’s just so… right. I almost can’t imagine that you went by anything else.”
Most of the time during the memorial, however, I was by myself. I explored the museum, I nibbled on the food that was offered, and I watched the 70-or-so people in attendance. Some of them watched me as well — a few stared. I wasn’t sure whether they were trying to figure out who I was, guess my gender, or both, but it really didn’t matter to me because I was interested in other things.
I watched the video montage the children had put together of photographs of their father. I read all of the cards, letters and emails that R’s wife had received from people who knew him. I studied the special home they had lived in. I moved around the museum with a glass of wine in my hand, passing small groups of people and listening to them talk about R, telling stories, remembering, sharing their memories of him.
In essence, I was looking for him there, searching for clues, accumulating bits of information about the man I knew and yet didn’t, attempting to understand who and what he was about, trying to know all of him through the images and the written and spoken words. It was like gathering just a few pieces of a puzzle in the attempt to form a complete picture.
I contemplated how, unlike the other people there, I would never know R in the long-term like they did, would not be able to build on our friendship, would never have the chance to sit down with him and reminisce over shared times long past. I felt cheated.
And then, I heard his words.
“What’s this?” I imagined he would have asked. “Why are you looking into the empty spaces? Of course, you could make wishes, but where would that get you? On the other hand, you could consider what you already have.” And then, adding with a chuckle and a gleam in his eye, “Let’s begin with one stolen beer glass.”
I have a photograph of R that one of his children gave me. I keep it on my desk in my office at home. I think about him, sometimes regularly, sometimes not as much. His words come to me when I need them. Sometimes, when I must give some thought to what I will say, to how I will interact with others, to the way in which I will manage a situation or try to bring people together, I think to myself, “What would R say?” Usually, I hear his words, and they help me.
Next to my desk is my banjo in its case, still leaning against the wall where I left it right before I found out that R had died. I haven’t touched it in a year. I haven’t played it.
But I also haven’t put it back in the closet.