I tugged the door open and walked into a tattoo shop Sunday night after spending the entire morning and afternoon listlessly wandering the streets of downtown Birmingham on my skateboard. I approached the front counter, flipped through a sample book, selected a font type, and requested a tattoo on my right forearm; no images, no bells, and no whistles.. just this word: “Kaizen.”
They sent me into the back immediately where an artist named Donovan was going to be taking my request. En route to his office, I stepped into a hallway briefly, my rainbow Vans swift and silent as they moved across the concrete floor. I had my backpack slung over one shoulder, and felt it bouncing against my left hip; my blue jacket was draped across the opposite arm, lazily dangling towards the ground. I was wearing a beanie, a plaid hoodie, and acid-wash denim jeans. It was cold outside and pretty comfortable inside.
I entered the room; he (Donovan) was already fumbling with the needle.
“Hey there! Thanks for seeing me so last min–”
I dropped my backpack onto the floor. “I’m sorry?”
He finally looked up, meeting my eyes. No smile.. not even the hint of a smile. “Which side do you want the tattoo on? Which arm?”
“Oh!” I nodded in understanding. “The right one — yeah, here” (gesturing).
Jesus. I thought to myself. I could just leave right now..
I sat onto the table, breathing heavily.
“Nothing to be nervous about,” he responded automatically, settling into his chair and motioning for me to move closer. “I’m not going to feel anything,” he continued. I laughed a little. “Wonder how many times you’ve said that today,” I smiled. “Honestly, it’s fine. That’s really why I’m here. I just wanted to feel something.” I draped my arm across his leg, palm facing up, and after he had applied a wet-copy of the tattoo, he looked up at me inquiringly. The placement was a little off-center; almost imperceptibly slanting downward and to the right. It was perfect. I nodded my approval.
He powered on the needle and I started feeling panicky. “Look.. I usually talk a lot while this happens.. I hope that’s going to be okay -”
“In one ear, out the other,” he mumbled in response.
“Okay,” I nodded, deciding to feel amused by his demeanor. “Well, I’m going to wait until you start. And then I’ll probably start talking.”
He powered the needle on and asked “Ready?” before he started. Yes; ready. And there it was; that familiar burn. I wanted to jerk away from it and surrender to it all at once, all in the same feeling. I sighed. Yes, there it is. I’m feeling something.
“Well,” I began, “I’ve been married for 5 years. I just realized that I was gay this year and we’re getting divorced on Tuesday.” I stopped. Yeah.. that’s all, really, I thought to myself. That’s f*cking it.
“Well that’s weird,” he perked up immediately, suddenly in the room with me, “because I knew you were gay the second you walked in here.”
And then Donovan and I became friends.
People think, say, write, and share things – hundreds of thousands of things – on the reg, but some of these things can come across (unexpectedly) as pretty striking. They’ll touch you, and it suddenly feels like a ghost is in the room; they’ll move you, and it’ll seem like your world just titled on its axis just a little, rendering a clearer focus and a view that’s even better aligned with and attuned to reality than it could have ever possibly been before.
And things that people have said (in passing, via text/email.. while looking straight into my eyes) have made an impact on me; in particular, at this present moment, I can think of 6 things: 6 simple but radical thoughts and pieces of advice that really stood out to me, and right here, just a paragraph or so further down into this post, they’ve all been neatly compressed into perfectly digestible and memorable quotations. These words, phrases and their meanings consistently stay at the forefront of my mind. They’ve impacted my world, and they’ve influenced my decision-making; they’ve guarded my well-being, and they’ve soothed and engaged with my soul. I hope that one, or some, or maybe even all of them will resonate with you also.. that’s why I’m sharing them today. Below, you can read each quotation along with a short snippet that details the what and the why.
Oh — and kaizen? We’ll talk about that later. Promise.
- Guidance from my motorcycle technician: “Just keep looking in the direction that you want to go in.”
I had just decided, while leaving the car dealer’s parking lot on a sticky-warm afternoon in April of 2014, that I simply wasn’t ready to plunk out thousands of dollars for a newer model (and obv overly-priced) vehicle. With my ’99 Neon truly “on its way out” (it still is, btw; the struggling vehicle #canteven and has killed in traffic three times over the course of the past week), my mind reached in, out, and around itself, desperate to produce an alternative, viable option. “How can I get around, from point A to point B, without going into severe debt? I just need something reliable and economical.” I’m not sure how, exactly, but my mind returned from its search with the report that it had retrieved the following answer to my query: get a damn scooter. Oh yeah! A scooter! I thought to myself. Those do exist. So I followed the instructions. I did get a damn scooter. I drove to Max Motorsports that same afternoon and picked out a simple, European model that glistened in the sun; a brown and creme-colored Genuine Buddy 170i. “Ever ridden a bike before?” My tech guy, M, had asked.
I’ve shared this story before, so I’m not going to become overly-detailed about it. In short: He spent the following 2 hours giving me a free “scooter basics” + “safe riding practices” lesson using the adjoining street. As I was practicing my starting and stopping, swerving around wildly and learning to gauge just how much throttle needed to be used, M flagged me down from the side of the road. “One thing you’ve got to remember to do,” he began, walking toward me and lowering his head, “is to keep looking IN the direction that you want to go in. Don’t get caught up with looking down at your fuel supply, or even at your speedometer.. just keep your eyes on the road, looking directly in the direction that you want to go in. Always.”
I did. And the act of focusing, of honing my eyes in on a certain area, or spot, or direction, quite literally kicked my swerving to the curb. I genuinely noticed a difference.. and it was not only in the increased smoothness of my riding; mentally, I had also experienced a surge in confidence.
Today, I’ve upgraded metal and now drive a motorcycle around town; a Suzuki TU250x (a bike with gears!). I live in a fairly hilly neighborhood and, at certain speeds, and especially in the dark, even with more than 18 months of experience under my belt, I still experience a jittery, anxious excitement as I’m preparing to round a corner. “Will I actually make this turn,” I ask myself, “or is this bike going to flip OVER or slip out from UNDER me and send me flying through the air or skidding across the concrete? And if either of those things does happen, I wonder which one it will be and how much it’s going to hurt?” Every time I find myself shying away from a turn, I’ll hear M’s words replaying in my head: Just keep looking ahead in the direction that you want to go in. And then, instead of shying away from it, I remember to lean into the curve; to reset my gaze, follow it through and, eventually, I exit it. Fully in-tact and smiling, with a racing heart and a firm grip on the throttle. Every single time.
So far, anyways.
- Sage wisdom from my best friend: “Yes.. you are a prisoner. But you are also the prison, the guard, the door, the lock, and the key.
I can’t tell you – in recent months – how many mini-meltdowns I’ve had, and how knowing and remembering this (please see above) spared me from experiencing any full-blown breakdowns. Really, it boils down to this: you are in control, so take control of your mind, your heart, and your circumstances. Steer the ship. Don’t let feelings or external sources subversively or unreasonably sway you from the truth (whatever the heck that may be).
- Assertion from someone dear and brilliant who is walking along a path that is similar to my own: “(Of course I am.) Why would I say I was if I wasn’t?
Many people have questioned the truth/authenticity of my recently admitted orientation and state of mind/being due to the fact that I came out “so late” in life. Honestly? I questioned it, too. Hard. I grilled myself like a cheese-and-pickle sandwich, and, in the aftermath of all of that, I’m fully confident and completely at home with my assertions. I’m also okay with the fact that people will continue to question and disbelieve and, probably, even look down on me.. it’s just a part of it. I accept that. I hold no grudges. I don’t blame them, honestly. I’d think I was kind of crazy and unbalanced, too. But I’m not.. I promise.
- Statement from anonymous: “It’s such a stupid thing to worry about; losing you when you’re already gone.“There’s just no sense in forever mourning what was lost. Love that it was. Appreciate the experience, find beauty and experience healing in the very sensations of pain and sadness, and hold the memories close to you, but not so close that you lose or compromise your present self in them.
- Encouragement from a garage located in downtown Bham: “Decide ur life.“Aka #getyourlife. And.. I’m working on it. It’s very hard.. determining, what is a selfish decision? Also: what is a selfless one? What is necessary, and healthy? What is excessive, what is bearable? What is a matter of preference, and what is a matter of identity? It’s all such a fine balance. There’s more gray in the spectrum than I’d like for there to be. That’s just how it is. Do your best. Be honest with yourself, and do the best that you can.
- A wish from my grandfather: “Remember who you are, and be yourself.”And I think I have finally have. I buried him for so long, but I’ve found him, and he’s awake now, and we’re one now.
So now, let’s talk about it. Kaizen. What the hell is “kaizen”?
I was leafing through audio transcripts at work a few months back — audio transcripts for training modules (I work in a training, or developmental, department). As I was perusing our inventory, somewhat strategically and somewhat randomly flipping through pages, my eyes zoned in – completely out of context – on a word in the lower, middle section of a particular page: kaizen.
Kaizen? I breathed the word out loud, listening to how it sounded. It sounded incredible. It made me think: strong. brave. It whispered “fearless” in the honest sense of the word.. where there’s a fear there, right there in front of you, but you’re okay with it. You aren’t afraid to look it in the eye. You can face it without fainting, without turning away, and without bowing down to it. You’re courageous. Valiant. Resilient. Strong. Stable. Open. Hopeful.
So, I googled “kaizen” and here’s what I got:
Kaizen is the practice of continuous improvement. Kaizen was originally introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai in his bookKaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success in 1986. Today Kaizen is recognized worldwide as an important pillar of an organization’s long-term competitive strategy.
Continuous improvement. To me, that signals growth. It signifies learning. Unlearning. Relearning. New learning. It requires open-mindedness. Honesty. Bravery (truly, it takes guts to be honest.. with yourself more than with others). Fearlessness. Dauntlessness.
And the word touched me.
I gazed at it — etched into my forearm; the letters still raised, the surrounding skin still tinged with red — for a moment while I was sitting in the attorney’s office this morning, officially filing the paperwork needed to separate myself – on paper – from the human being who I love most on this planet. Heart-wrenching. Words can’t even begin to describe.
I pulled up to the office feeling, mostly, stable. Ready. Prepared.
I entered the building, located the correct suite (the very first door, to your immediate left), entered a boardroom, sat down, eased my backpack onto the floor, wrapped my jacket around me a little closer, took a sip from my water bottle.. made small chat with the secretary, who was helping my attorney complete and file paperwork..
and then he walked in. Christopher.
I heard the door open.
“Is that him?” The secretary nodded towards the front.
I turned around.
He was wearing a red button up, covering what I recognized to be the “Kikkoman’s soy sauce” t-shirt that I purchased for him but a few months ago at Target.
His beard, a coppery red with shades of orange, was growing out again. As of this morning, it had reached a solid medium length.
Wearing blue-gray khakis.
Wearing blue, yellow Adidas.
It was too much. It happened so suddenly. I became blinded by tears. The secretary left the room, discreetly, and returned seconds later with a box of tissues, offering a quiet “here you go, darling,” as she set them onto the corner of the table that was closest to me. I took one tissue. Two more of them. A third, a fourth. I stopped counting. I lost count.
They had my name wrong on the paperwork. “Her name changed to Jace on 9/17,” the attorney pointed out. Reprint three copies.
Then: they had listed the address incorrectly. “There’s another 4 on the house number,” she realized. Reprint three copies.
They forgot to list out a few of the assets. “A Neon, A Vue, and a.. Suzuki? A motorcycle?” Yes. “And the Vue is his?” Of course it is. Silently: We bought it at Royal Automotive, from a dealer named Jim, when Chris started catering four years ago; I had saved up money while waitressing at a Cracker Barrel in Florida (for college), and we ended up using the money to make a down payment on the Vue.. I wanted him to have something reliable to get around in. I still do. “And you’re getting custody of the pet.. Bruster?” Yes, but that’s just a formality. We’re sharing him. God; is this real?
I pulled a book out of my backpack, needing to distance myself from what was happening. I read in it for the space of about 15 minutes, sniffling at 20-25 second intervals and tearing up every few moments.. reaching for the 7th, 8th, 14th and, maybe, 16th tissues.
We signed all of the papers. I was curious, so I asked: “Are divorces usually.. contentious? Stressful? Or are people usually pretty amiable?”
My attorney set his glasses down onto the table, thought the question over for a few seconds, and then looked up. Chris was still in the room.
“I’ve been doing this for about.. 14 years now,” he began. “On my own, here at my practice, I’ve done maybe.. 15-20 of these (uncontested divorces), and of those, this has been the most amiable.”
We finished; it was time to leave. Chris shook his hand. I shook his hand. Chris shook the secretary’s hand. I shook the secretary’s hand. Chris had his hand on the door —
“I’ll message you later,” I said quickly.
“I love you, Chris.”
Some of you may be wondering, so let me tell you: I wouldn’t change a single thing about the past 5 years. Marrying my best friend, Christopher, was one of the best decisions I ever made. He was the best husband a girl could possibly ask for or even dream of. Period. And that’s just it..
When I realized that I was a transgender gay person (not bisexual — sorry; I kind of lied to you all on that one; if it helps, I was lying to myself, too) earlier this year, I began asking myself, “what exactly does this mean?” I realized, with a sinking sensation, that it meant that things were about to change radically. Quickly. Drastically. At the very onset of my discovery, a ball had been set in motion, and it was now rolling around outside of my control; knocking things over, catalyzing processes, clunking into unrealities and unearthing actual realities, and gaining momentum at an alarming rate all the while. Things made sense suddenly. It was blissful, euphoric, and it was startling.
Oh.. me: transgender. Gay. Okay.
So that’s why I tried to use the restroom like a boy would (..standing up…) at age 4, only to realize that it didn’t work for me like it worked for Bobby. I remember thinking — at age freaking 4 — “that’s weird. I guess I’ll have to sit.”
And that’s why I felt so offended and humiliated when I turned 10 and my mom brought a two-piece swimsuit home from Dollar General for me to wear to the beach that summer. “A two-piece? That’s mortifying.” I remember feeling shame.. anger, even. “I should be wearing long shorts.. shorts that go all the way down to my knees. That would look right.”
And that’s why I felt so out of place in PE, and so misinterpreted at the skate park, when all I wanted to do was hang out with other boys.. not flirt with them. Not seek out their attention. I just wanted to be one of them; it really felt like I was. Until I noticed how they looked at me. How they saw me differently. What they generally wanted, and expected, from me.
That’s why my voice has always taken on a subtly lower tone when I’m in a room full of only females. It’s subconscious.. it happens without me realizing it, but people have noticed and pointed it out to me. I can see it, I can hear it now; it happens on its own because I truly view myself as something “other” than them on a subconscious, biological, psychological level. I am not a female. I am a male. A male in the presence of females. That’s exactly how it has always felt.
And that’s why it nearly murdered me to have my best friend, M, abandon me 5 years and 5 months ago. We were best friends for 8 years. 8. I have been crying over her, pining for her, ever since. Every couple of months, catching me falling back into another “I miss her” mood, Chris would say out loud: “God — I realize that she was your best friend for a really long time, but really? You’ve got to get over it.”
“What’s wrong with me?” I’d ask myself. “He’s right. He’s totally right. Why can’t I stop loving her?”
Oh. That’s right. Because she was the first girl I ever fell in love with, and one who I would have married and loved for the rest of her entire freaking life. That makes sense.
Magic Mike came out a few years ago and I couldn’t understand why women were being so fussy about it. A man with his shirt off? Really? There’s nothing attractive about that. Should there be? I’d like to be flat-chested..
Then there was The Dark Knight series featuring Christian Bale, a man with a perfectly defined face and great features, and women raved over how “sexy” he was. I didn’t view him as “sexy”.. I couldn’t. I just liked batman. Honestly, I really just wanted to be batman.
Chris’s aunt gifted him with a scarf on Christmas three years ago –a scarf I’d describe as being something along the lines of gender-neutral to masculine. I remember watching him as he was sitting on the couch; seeing him handle it, trying it on, and feeling so incredibly sad. Feeling so jealous of him, and then feeling ashamed for feeling jealous. Where he had been given a man’s scarf, I had been given a womanly cardigan from Stein Mart. Chris didn’t like wearing scarves, so he gave it to me, and I kept it hanging on my side of the closet.. never actually wearing it because I felt like I didn’t really have the right to wear it, but I still liked having it there; hanging, on my side of the closet. The scarf is pictured at the bottom of this post. I’m finally wearing it.
I’ve lip-synced in front of the mirror for years, mouthing the words to the songs that my favorite lead male artists were singing, feeling so – again – envious of them. Soooooo f*cking envious. Thinking, you’re a dude, you’re a guy, and it’s so easy for you to be that. It’s so effortless. Do you even know how lucky you are? I would give anything to be like you.
I’ve watched businessmen – as cliche as it sounds – strolling down sidewalks, sipping on coffee; climbing up and down stairs, carrying briefcases or messenger bags; sitting at desks, with one leg folded across the other — perpendicular — and they’re leaning forward, looking confident, seeming perfectly at ease. Again, it’s effortless. And they’re always wearing jackets, suits, or blazers. Always. I want to look just like they do.
I’ve lost 35 pounds in the last year and now look almost entirely boob- and *ss-less. Is that good news? You can bet your bottom dollar on it. Truly; for the first time in my whole entire life, I’m just now starting to feel comfortable in this body. At home. Finally. Finally.
“But when did you actually realize that you were gay?” People have asked (and the ones who haven’t asked have wondered). And that’s a really good question. It’s been a slow unveiling (because I had so many walls to break down and layers to strip off).. but the event that I cite as the defining moment when my soul started awakening was (and I’ve told the story before, so I’ll keep it brief this time):
I was walking through Publix last winter, wearing my bike gear and picking up a few odds-and-ends groceries that Chris had forgotten to purchase at Whole Foods. As I was rounding the corner, about to walk through the freezer aisle, a gentleman called out: “Hey dude! Nice helmet!”
I turned around, beaming, and thanked him. His face fell when he saw me — my face. “I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he apologized. I felt devastated.
When I say devastated, I mean, devastated.
It was unreal.
“What.the.hell. is WRONG with you?!” I asked myself. “Seriously — why did that bother you so much? I don’t get it. You’re so weird.”
So that’s when it all started to really unfold for me. And from that precise moment, it took me an entire year to fully understand (to the degree that I do now) – and accept – myself.
Kaizen. Continual improvement, eternal changing, constant growth.
It’s a journey/adventure that is forever in-progress, but so far, life has led me to right here. Sipping on a Russian Blue latte at the Redcat Cafe. As far as the south and its fine set of standards is concerned, I’m a complete mess and a total failure: an agnostic, divorced gay person. Really; could it get any worse?
But as far as I’m concerned, I’m closer to myself than ever before. I’m nurturing my soul. I’m finally paying attention to it, listening to it, warming up to it.. keeping IT warm. Growing has been so, so painful, but as painful as it has been, it’s hurt far worse to hurt others while in the process of finding, embracing and supporting myself. More than anything, breaking the heart of the person who I love more than anyone else on the planet has hurt. It’s a terrible burden to bear.
I remind myself, now, that we’re all seeking to employ and embody kaizen. We’re all on journeys. Mine is, admittedly, feeling pretty turbulent right now, and that’s kind of scary, but there’s a definite beauty, a perfect, long-sought-after quiet, in the terrifying, electrifying center of the storm. I described it (like this), recently, to a friend:
“The people I used to rely on so heavily — they’ve become ghosts to me; statues. I lost some to religion, others to family, one to death and one to love. In a way, I wish I wasn’t gay. It would be so easy to continue on with life as it was. But it was a hazy world then. This one is turbulent and lonely and depressing, but, it’s at least real. It sounds selfish to say I prefer it, but.. how could I not? It’s honest.”
I still don’t know where I’m going with all of this, exactly.. but it’s no longer a concern. I’m done trying to pin down a future that I can’t see or possibly create yet, because the required time, thought and energy involved in engineering and ‘following through’ with that process is massive and exhausting (and it is honestly all a wasted effort). Destinations and destinies aside, I’m confidently navigating life moment by moment, relying on honesty, intuition, instinct, compassion, and the spirit of adventure to be my everlasting guides.
Hi. I’m Jace. I’m still here.