Clowns to the left of me…

It’s Peace Sunday at my church today, so maybe I can finally get this damn essay finished.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this: You’re at a movie, and the people behind you won’t stop talking. The previews are still running, and you’ve already heard about his dog’s kidney stones, her cousin’s messy divorce, and every single calorie he’s eaten for the last two weeks. You glance over your shoulder once or twice–aggressively, you think–just to see if they might notice there are other people in the theater.

They don’t. They keep talking, and even if the movie is Taken 17 and you know he is saying “Hang on, Kim, I’m coming for you!” you still want to hear Liam Neeson talk.

If you’re like me, you are getting angry. In your head, these people behind you are losing their “peoplehood.” They’ve become idiots, or jerks, or, my husband’s favorite pejorative, clowns. Any hands up yet? Hold that thought.

Last year I started doing water aerobics, and I loved it. No matter how old you are, you probably won’t be the oldest person in the class. Ditto for how much you weigh, or how long it’s been since you’ve worked out. Unlike upstairs in Body Pump or Spin Like a Lion is Chasing You, you don’t need to be fast, perky, or own cute leggings. Sure, we’re all wearing bathing suits, but we’re standing in water up to our armpits, so no one is judging anyone else’s jiggling. It’s perfect.

Make that almost perfect. My only problem with water aerobics is that you do it with other people. It’s not like yoga, where everyone downward dogs on her own mat. Here in the pool, as soon as the music starts and you’ve claimed your turf in front of the four-and-a-half-foot marker, the Man Who Breathes Too Loudly will move into position just off your left shoulder. You take a step to the right, and the Man Who Stands Too Close will move in. Before Buddy Holly is done singing about Peggy Sue, you’ll be one flutter kick away from giving a stranger a bloody nose. Some days I think I would like water aerobics better if I could do it inside a shark cage.

Case in point. All last winter, the Man Who Won’t Stop Talking and the Women Who Egg Him On came to every class I took.  These people [by that I mean clowns, idiots, jerks] don’t care that I teach teenagers and had heard my name called by someone who needed something seven hundred and ninety-two times that day. Sensory overload is real. One time years ago when I got home from school, my husband said, “Let’s go to the grocery store,” and I started crying. Maybe water aerobics isn’t for me, I thought more than one time.

If your hands aren’t too full, hold that thought, too.

As I said, it’s Peace Sunday, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a decent person while our president does things like wake up one morning and try to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

It’s easy to be outraged, to call him a clown or a jerk or an idiot. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s not like I emerged from the womb knowing that gender is about what’s in your head and sex is about your genitals. For a long time, I was weirded out by the idea that someone with male genitalia could know deep down they were a woman, or vice versa. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I didn’t try to wrap my heart around it.

Then a few summers ago my school did some seriously powerful training about children who get marginalized. Jess Clark from the Solace Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Fe came and talked about the trans community and how to support trans kids in schools. He talked us through the difference between things like the sex you are assigned at birth (“It’s a girl!”), your gender identity (“I’m a girl”), your gender expression (I present myself to the world as a girl), and your sexual orientation (I like boys).

Jess’s message was simple: Gender is more complicated than we’ve been raised to believe. In one of my favorite moments, he pointed out with gentle humor that in polite society we don’t tend to go around asking people what their genitals look like. Check.

I thought about the kids I teach who are gender nonconforming and how they struggle. I thought about the kids I taught years ago, kids who were living with an unspoken, and at the time unspeakable, pain. Some of those kids have transitioned since I knew them, and their stories make so much sense now.

Bear with me for one more awkward transition. Recently I read in The Sun an excerpt from an interview published in April, 1984. In it, Deena Metzger says, “I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament–learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world.”

She was explaining how hard it is to think about achieving world peace when “Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like.”

You can put down all those thoughts you were holding now; I think I’m getting to the punch line.

One night a funny thing happened after water aerobics. The Man Who Won’t Stop Talking followed me into the hot tub. He kept talking. I closed my eyes, hoping he’d talk to someone else.

“You’re a teacher, right?” he finally stuck his arm into my shark cage and asked. At that word, I opened my eyes and dragged my better self off the bottom of the hot tub. Then he said, “I must drive you crazy.”

There it was. I laughed, agreed with him, and just like that, The Clown Who Won’t Stop Talking and The Stuck-Up Jerk Who Won’t Talk to Anyone (that would be me) turned back into people.

So then there’s Donald Trump and his terrible idea. I want to tell him to lean into the idea that makes him uncomfortable.  I want to tell him that trans kids have a higher than average suicide rate, and we should try not to make their lives harder than they already are.

I want to tell him to believe those trans soldiers when they tell him the truth about their lives.

But, of course, I can’t tell Donald Trump anything. In most of my circle, his name is code for idiot/jerk/clown. And I don’t disagree–I think he’s dangerous, and sad, and unhinged. But what I learned that night after water aerobics is that if I want someone to stop driving me crazy, I have to build a relationship, not a shark cage.

I don’t have any idea what that means on dry land. I don’t know how to keep resisting things that appall me while staying in relationship with people whom they don’t appall.

I just know it’s Peace Sunday, and that quote about disarming on the inside won’t stop following me around.

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