I turned 40; here’s what I’ve learned
I was born on July 11th, 1980. I’m told it was a quiet summer. A recession had just ended, CNN had just launched, and Ronald Reagan was just nominated as the GOP candidate for president. Billy Joel, Queen, and Elton John were big. And the Empire Strikes Back had just been released, becoming the biggest movie of the year. None could anticipate that it would be the decade of AIDS, conservatism, Chernobyl, and the personal computer.
Of course, I knew none of this. I was just a plump newborn, in a conservative rural town on the Eastern border of Oregon near Boise, Idaho. My Mom was a primary school teacher who missed her family, and couldn’t take the postpartum tinnitus any longer. My Dad was in food quality assurance, making sure that everyone’s beans were safe to eat. While I don’t remember much of living in Ontario, I now know it was a town of crabgrass and dry heat, and in Malheur county, which apparently means “misfortune” in French. At the age of 3, I’d learned enough to know that we were leaving forever.
My first memory of school is my pre-school Halloween field trip. It was memorable because I didn’t go. My Mom was late for work and had dropped me off outside of my pre-school. I went inside, noticed that no one was there, and turned around only to see my Mom drive away (why was the door unlocked?) I cried for a while. I watched a garbage truck pick up the trash. But I soon realized that I had all the toys to myself and played alone for hours, without having to negotiate with anyone or follow my teacher’s rules. My parents and teacher were mortified, but I was transformed: I learned that I could take care of myself.
I loved elementary school. I adored my teachers, I had loyal friends, and I lost myself in writing, arithmetic, history, stories, painting, illustration, music, science. I even loved gym, where my free love instructors let us play with parachutes, race in “butt” scooters, make up weird games, and plan evening circus performances for our parents. Every day, my passionate teachers eagerly sated my hunger for novelty. My favorite teacher, Mr. Hardt, taught us how to do arithmetic in Roman numerals, read us Greek mythology, and challenged us to see math and science through the eye of an artist. I learned that the world was a wondrous place full of curiosities and that I wanted to see and understand all of it.
Middle school wasn’t nearly as fun. I liked girls, but also felt that I might be one, even though everyone was telling me I was a boy. I tried to act and dress like other boys, which was humiliating. I think the other kids knew that something was different about me; they called me a sissy, told me not to lock my knees, refused to pass to me when I joined the basketball team. One of my peers, who was smaller than me, saw my vulnerability and exploited it for three years, shoving me into lockers, calling me homophobic slurs, threatening me in and out of class while my classmates and teachers watched. I escaped the bullying and my gender confusion with science projects, math puzzles, and calculator programming. I learned that the impersonal nature of STEM, at least when pursued in isoaltion, could be a refuge from hate.
My high school years were pubescent, full of shame and academics. I gave myself to homework, hid from myself and others, and only submitted to my emotions in controlled settings like games and movies. While my friends found their angst in grunge, I plotted my escape to higher education, took community college classes after school, and worked at a grocery store to pay for my college applications and AP Exams. I searched for a college that would mirror the intellectual playground I’d had in primary school, overflowing with wonder. But my narrow devotion to studying, my avoidance of extracurriculars, and—probably more than anything—my lack of self, limited my college options, keeping me close to home at my public state university. I learned that all perfect grades get you is a report card once a quarter.
My university wasn’t quite the intellectual palace I’d hoped for, but it was close enough. The independence from family gave me a space to briefly glimpse what I really was: a disgusting transgender monster that deserved no love or attention. I ran from myself as quickly as I could, replacing it with a confident, successful young man that no one would ever see as the creature I really was. And so I escalated my escapism, diving into student leadership, into classes, into research. I learned I could take 21 credits each quarter, work part time, and still get straight A’s, make friends, and build a research career, while not learning a single thing about myself.
In my twenties, I found a more efficient way to escape: become a parent to a curious and beautiful child and devote myself to her and her mother. I loved parenting, but I also needed it, to help erase myself. This wasn’t so great for my marriage or my mental health, but it was excellent for getting a Ph.D., building a career in research, and being an attentive parent. My twenties lacked dating, bars, casual sex, studying abroad, couch surfing, risk taking, and finding myself, but I didn’t miss a thing—that is, until I got divorced, when I learned that one can build a life without a self, but it won’t last.
In my thirties, I built a cozy cage around myself. Seeking tenure kept my mind busy. Starting a company kept my calendar busy. Falling in love kept my heart busy. Being a parent kept my feet busy. Every day, I felt my mind grow sharper, my heart grow fonder, and my self grow emptier. My scholarly Sasha Fierce earned respect and money and tenure. At home, I was distracted, but reliable and attentive with everyone in my life. At work, senior faculty called me aloof and overly critical, and encouraged me to share more of myself, lest I might not get tenure. I learned that rotting from the inside out is a slow way to die.
A year ago, I turned 39, and finally decided to be me. I came out as transgender, and then learned more in 9 months than I have in the rest of my life. I learned that accepting myself required a kind of self-love I didn’t know existed. I learned how much of my self loathing wasn’t about me, but other people’s ignorance and hate. I learned that not wanting anything comes from not wanting yourself. I learned that denying myself joy wasn’t a personality trait, but a toxic way to avoid self-care. I learned that much of the world hates me because I’m trans. I learned that privilege is visible only to those who lack it or learn to see it. I learned that losing privilege is destabilizing. I learned that vulnerability is the only thing that can change the world, but it’s all too rare and exhausting.
Most of my grandparents have lived until their late 90’s. If I live to 90, I wonder what I’ll have learned. Will I learn to be at peace? Will I learn to care for myself? Will I learn to stay healthy? Will I learn to grieve, to regret, and to recover in ways that strengthen me instead of deflate me? Will I learn to overcome shame? Will I find joy? With the changes in my life in this past year—being out, a pandemic, my empty nest—it’s never been harder to imagine my future. But from now on, I know that whatever I learn will come from listening to myself rather than running from myself, and that this alignment will not only help me heal, but finally learn what it means to live.