Exchanging Housekeeping for Soulkeeping
Who are we when no one is watching? How do we spend our time when we have (or TAKE) a moment, free from obligation, expectation, or duty? When you aren’t doing things for other people’s comfort or approval, or to pay the damn bills, how do you spend your time?
CW: Trauma, rape, suicide.
I absolutely love my home. I never thought it was possible, given our checkered history together -me and this house my father built with his hands 70 years ago. But we have found a deep and abiding peace together, and I don’t want it to end.
At 22, I could not wait to escape this house and the people who lived here. I wanted something that was my own, to keep as I thought a home should be kept, to raise children who were loved and seen, two things I’d never really felt in my own childhood. I wanted a home and family where dinner was predictable, and we sat around a table cleared for the occasion, and ate together each evening. I wanted laundry cleaned, folded, and put away in the furniture made for such work. I wanted a place where we cared for and about one another, and did things as a family, not a bunch of people living in the same house, behaving as chaotically and erratically as we lived. I’d read about loving families, seen other, loving, functional families, but I had not really experienced one firsthand. I wanted what I never had, and set off to create it.
I did go on to raise two children, now grown and independent. Independent of me, too it seems. Another heartache for another time, Dear Reader. But I will say I spent 24 years fully immersed in being the very best parent I could be, guided by a good and steady therapist who helped me to learn how adults should behave in love, divorce, and parenting. Sure, I’d learned many life skills growing up -but they were all task oriented. Few things did I learn about loving. Plenty did I learn about controlling, manipulating, subjugating, abusing and neglecting. Patterns I made it my life’s work to interrupt in my lineage. All to care for and benefit everyone else, little, ever for ME alone.
I’d always wanted to own a bar where I could be the World’s Greatest Host. An ongoing party where I was the beloved Master of Ceremonies, and people would flock to share a great time, good friends, and good spirits. The pennies would surely grow into dollars, and all would be well. The story didn’t live quite that way -though it was a BLAST of a good time- and it cost a literal fortune to survive the endeavor for 5 years until COVID and the Governor of Pennsylvania put an abrupt and unceremonious end to things.
So, Life brought my partner and I back to the now-empty house where I grew up. I’d tried to sell the thing. Twice I was certain I had, and twice it all fell through at the last minute. I couldn’t rid myself of the place, and now I am grateful I couldn’t. These ten rooms and two baths, perched on 1/3 of an acre and lined with trees my father planted 7 decades ago, is quite the opposite of the hustle and bustle of the city where I had lived for more than 30 years.
One of the reasons I truly wanted to sell the place was because it was the scene of some very painful memories for the 3 children raised here. Excruciating memories I thought best sold off and “forgotten.” But Trauma doesn’t work that way, folks. It embeds itself in our bones. It informs our waking and our sleeping and the health of these bodies we each lug around or dance from during this brief earthly stint. This building is simply a building. Benign but for the stories we bring to it.
I set out to transform this space. To personalize it. To strip away the dusty carpets, the dated wallpaper, and the choking sadness I felt here. At first, just being here after my mother died in late 2017 was heavy, stifling, and something I preferred never to do alone. As we cleaned, and emptied, and cleaned, and emptied -the crawl spaces, the cellar, the long closets tucked into the eaves, the spaces packed tight from all the years of hoarding, displacing all fresh air and fresh thought with detritus held as precious, it got lighter. Being here became easier. Breathing here became easier. I kept only the things I truly wanted to see again, and sent the rest back into the world through donations, sales, and brimming dumpsters.
Somewhere around a year or so after my mother’s passing, I came out yet again, this time as trans. At first it was only to my partner and my very close, very trusted, and very tight circle. Hormone Correction wouldn’t come until later in 2020. Going completely public would wait until early 2022. So I came back into this space, at least privately, knowing I would “expose” the “secret” I was made to keep during those first 22 years. But my gender identity was but one of MANY secrets kept within these walls. So very many. It’s far easier to remove wallpaper than saturating shame. I have come to believe the Wisdom that infuses this incredible Universe intended my partner and me to be here, to live here, to know this peace and quiet at exactly this point in our lives. We each have so very much to heal, to overcome and outgrow, to get beyond. The air here -the space here- allows for exactly those precious processes to unfold.
In April of 2018, I lost one of the closest friends I will likely ever have in this life. She was my “3 o’clock.” Most afternoons she’d call me to check in, knowing my bar wasn’t yet open for the evening, and her brother, with whom she lived, wouldn’t be home for an hour or more. We talked about everything and nothing at all. We shared easy laughter, and so very much love -spoken and felt deeply. Her illness lasted all of 6 weeks, and she was gone. I have never been so very gutted by grief as I was once she had drawn her last breath. I could not save my sister.
I feel it still, when I sit quietly remembering as I am now. I was so very honored to know her so completely, love her so entirely, and share so very much with her. She knew all of me, and loved all of me entirely. I was left equally far more and far less with her passing. At 4'10" she was larger than this life by multitudes; a gifted musician, singer and songwriter, who embodied pure love, sharp wit, and the wisdom of all the ages. She called me her best friend. I cherish that title even as I will never feel I deserved such a distinct honor. She didn’t live long enough to join us here physically in this lovely old house, but she infuses it, as she does me, each day. These walls are now permeated with a Grace that chases fear and pain and defeat. Our Love does more for this space than scrub water and paint ever can. You can feel it as you enter. Peace abides here. A hard-won peace we brought here along with our hand-me-down castoff furnishings, the art of so many beloved Dear Ones, and the determination to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.
I assumed, by now, having lived here for 2 years, we’d be fully unpacked, completely redecorated, and juggling fabulous dinner parties and overnight guests on a bulging calendar of social activities. That’s not quite where we are. I poured all the money I had left into new windows, new sidewalks and a patio, picket fencing to replace rusted wire, and a host of other projects to shine this old place up and make it ours. So long as there was enough in the bank to keep on living, and keep on doing, I was focused on the tasks at hand. But money ran out as money does. And with it went much of my drive to finish up. I shifted focus onto just how we might stay here, in this place that is so very, very good for both of us. My focus shifted to my writing, and to the creation of our weekly Podcast, and to whomever might hire me for…anything.
We “gig” wherever and whenever possible, but we’ve yet to create the income we need to sustain this place, and ourselves, as we do the work of our souls. I do my level best to trust it is all working out, as it all has worked out “for the best” to get us to this place and this time that feels so incredibly right when it isn’t terrifying as all get out. I’m learning to sit with lifelong habits and have tea with them -examine them rather than deny their existence- to get my ass off the sofa when all I want to do is sit, and rest, and feel the breeze on a face that has cried far too many tears, but also laughed harder, longer and more often than most folks consider proper. If we count wealth in friends, connections, blessings, art, the feel of music, reading literature, belly-laughter and LOVE, we are rich beyond measure. If I could get the gas and electric companies on board with that, along with the mortgage company and the tax collector — boy howdy could we have one helluva celebration then! They do not accept love in exchange for services rendered -none of them. Sigh.
My partner has always been an artist. He got his degree in dance, and went on to be a dancer, choreographer, formed his own dance company and founded a renowned performance series to showcase emerging artists — Right after the NEA was gutted and money for the arts all but dried up. He is used to living with next to nothing and lives as gratefully and gracefully as any human I have ever encountered. That don’t pay many bills, but damn if it isn’t an absolute privilege to share my life with him. He is a thoroughly good and decent human, and not only does he love me, he cherishes me. None should dare ask for more than I already have, I suppose. But I do sit easier when I’m not desperately behind with the bills. Yet Again.
It has become my inclination to be aware that this life ends, faster than many of us would like, but not fast enough for too many. That fact is harshly real. My Dear One Jennica came into my life through the Trans Mother we both shared. I knew of Jennica long before she mustered the nerve to come into my bar and introduce herself. We became good and fast friends, and she’d often show up at the bar utterly dejected, but leave refreshed, renewed, and often at least semi-drunk. One night she did get drunk, but slept in her car rather than ask for a bed which I would have happily offered, just upstairs in our apartment. She never did make peace with the space she occupied in this world. I offered her some of my best advice. I supported her as a trans sister, a friend, and someone I genuinely loved. We texted back and forth. We chatted on the phone. We attended events together. And I was certainly not her only or closest friend. That was Shane, our mutual Dear One. It was Shane who found Jenn’s body. It was Shane who cleaned her blood from the walls so her sibling wouldn’t see it. It is Shane who carries far more trauma from losing her than I can ever know. I wear a portion of Jennica’s ashes around my neck, especially to events I would have experienced with her -Especially when I am doing an important interview or seeing a performance I know she would have loved. I got most of her clothes and shoes. When they packed up the apartment and realized we wore the same sizes. For all the world I would rather have than the remnants of her. I could not save my sister.
Much of the work I have done in this house was to “show” my blood-sister that this place could be redeemed. It could feel happy in ways it never felt happy, and we could sit here together and feel love instead of angst and pain. A lot of the early work I did on this house was for her as much as, if not more than, it was for my partner or me. My sister had been raped here. My brother -our older brother- knew about it and held it over her head as a shameful secret he would “tell on” HER for if she didn’t do whatever his whims dictated, like clean his room, do his homework or make his bed. She endured torture from him just like I did. And since I could never “fix” him or the tempest of hate and violence he was, I tried to make up for it all with paint and varnish and plastic picket fencing. One day early last fall, as we sat on this front porch, about to go to dinner together, a casual discussion turned ugly. My sister made it clear our politics would never align -and this person whom I never knew as political prior to 2016- up and walked out. It’s been a year, and she still won’t speak to me. I left her with a few choice written words after the fact, written out of a combination of deep frustration and abiding love, but once again it would seem I could not “save” my sister.
The woman I have managed to salvage a bit through it all -at long last- is ME, Martha. The Seer behind my eyes. The feminine energy that permeates my being, thinks my thoughts, laughs my laughter and cries my tears. The woman, born with boy-identified genitalia, sentenced to a lifetime of never fitting in and never sitting still and never, ever knowing the idea of being enough. Just… Enough. Not having to fix or fuss or pretty up or glue other people’s pieces together. Just sit. As bills may pile, and cobwebs may gather, and cardboard boxes and plastic bins, now dusty, still remain filled. Just. Be. And be content. Rest. And not flinch. To softly and slowly -ever so slowly- unpack the bullshit in my being FIRST. Because I matter more than the stuff I will ultimately leave behind. I matter more than the people who turn away from me, no matter how much love I give them, because I am something they don’t want to understand. I matter more than my income, or my lack of income. I. Matter.
In all these years, through all these tears, everyone and everything ELSE has mattered a great deal. But ME? Honoring THIS Human? Allowing THIS human to breathe freely? Telling the world I am the thing I was told would be in danger and despised for the speaking of her very existence? Saying it repeatedly and putting it out across the globe, WEEKLY? Yes. YES! This often broken, battered, salty old broad, finally has a Place in this world. Whether she can ever meet this particular property tax bill is inconsequential in this moment. Because I am more than where I live. I am more that what I do or do NOT do. I am more than dusty tables, unopened mail, and cartons brimming with art collected over my lifetime. I am more than the scars and grief settled into my being. I am more than all the losses, and bigger than any Win. I -and this is true for every single one of us- am literally ALL I will leave this world with, and I am all I had when I showed up. When the choice for a Monday afternoon is between washing windows and writing out of my Soul, I will likely choose the writing every time. Whether any of it has value beyond these walls remains to be seen, but I hope it will. My work at this point in my life is to try -and I can only try- best I can and often as I can, to keep us Alive to keep going. Us. My LGBTQ+ Family. And that certainly includes ME, and me First this time. You really can’t pour much from an empty cup, Dear Ones. Please trust me, I have tried and tried and tried.
And so. The One I am coming to love most and first in this world, is ME. I need to. I’ve tried every other route I could conceive, every “Way” shown or insisted upon, and they all left ME wanting. Call me selfish. Call me whatever you want, actually. Because how anyone else defines me follows far behind how I now define and finally SEE my Self. I have yearned to be seen, but I was unwilling to first See. Oh, the irony. How could ANY of you ever celebrate or know that which I refused to share to begin with? So whatever you may tell yourself about trans folk, whatever you choose to believe, and however you choose to treat me as your fellow human (like it or not) I Love Me. I am forever forward listing my attributes. Giving myself huge breaks these days. Compassionately speaking to my Self as I would to someone I deeply care for. Because if I cannot know and love the human I am, what is the point to any of this mishegoss? Before I was ever entrusted with another life, I was entrusted with THIS one. There’s much reparenting to be done. There are a lot of cracks and holes to patch, and I start each day with a fresh coat of paint. I am far from perfect, but I am perfectly human. A human who happens to be trans, and also weary, and quite often afraid. But God do I love her. Slow and steady we will deal with life as it comes, and we might even need to move again. It’ll be what it’ll be. But I love the woman who is emerging from the ashes of trial and error and living and loving and getting knocked around -a lot. Turns out, maybe I am the sister I CAN save.
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