Stand Clear Of The Closing Door

I know I need all the help I can get in my quest to release control while keeping a tight grip on hope. Have you forgotten the power of laughter? Author Rae Ellen Lee provides a heartfelt reminder in this beautiful post.

While riding the subway in New York City a few years ago, I smiled every time the male computer voice sang out Stand clear of the closing door. Seemed downright ingenious, as mantras go. I mean, things can slam shut on you real damn fast. But if you’re mindful, you can stand clear, at least metaphorically. To me, that meant not shriveling up and losing hope, or letting my hair turn gray overnight, when life sends you an ambush.

Soon after this trip, my husband of 10 years realized he might really be a she. Was this a door closing? I chose to believe it was a passing fancy. I gifted him with a manicure, the kind men get, and let him sleep in my black half-slip. He frequented eBay, and packages began arriving, soon almost daily, containing pastel clothing with ruffles or lace, the kind I didn’t wear.

At the time we were crazy-busy with our business but I wrote every morning and night in my journal – a fair amount of neurotica, mind you, but also details of all the weird and funny moments, too. Part of me felt grateful, because aren’t we, as writers, required by cosmic law to celebrate when the unimaginable happens? And aren’t problems life lessons we can learn from? My brilliant and funny husband and I had always made fun of life. Here, now, was a new and strange opportunity for mirth.

But friends began counseling me. “How can you laugh at a time like this?” One of them even told me that if her husband wanted to become a woman, she’d take him out in a rowboat and knock him in the head. Police would find his body washed ashore. And she wasn’t kidding.

It was a bizarre time. But before moving to St. John we’d lived on a sailboat, and that, too, was weird. During our near-death sailing experiences, I cussed a lot and jotted notes in my journal. I thought, If I survive this, I’ll use this material to write a funny book. And I did.

I had chosen to marry this person, and in spite of our differences, we’d grown very close. I’d even chosen, reluctantly, to move with him to the sailboat. And when his gender dysphoria made an appearance, I had a new choice to make. Would I act like I’d stepped in something? Poor me; not again. Or would I try to understand my husband’s second-self, this other woman who had arrived uninvited? After all, this seemed like a good time to remember the Golden Rule. Thou shalt not be pissy.

The situation was painful for him to go through. But we continued to laugh and cry about things that happened, as if we were watching a sit-com together. And I kept writing in my journal. I also underwent counseling, hypnotherapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture. I practiced ho’oponopono, an ancient Hawaiian method of forgiveness and healing that actually works. I flirted with the law of attraction. I tried to take care of myself. I even scheduled a colonoscopy.

Don’t get me wrong. I never once thought Tom’s gender identity crisis was the best thing that ever happened to me. I also never thought it was the worst. I’d been in and out of lots of scrapes. I knew by then, of course, that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control what we do with it. Then, too, my father, a geezer of some renown in northern Idaho, had a terrific sense of humor. I’d grown up hearing him tell stories about his life, sound-bites that documented much of the 20th century. He laughed at his own foolishness and at his hardscrabble childhood in the Midwest. Call it using humor as medication.

And why not practice grace? How could that possibly make the situation worse? As William Zinsser says in How to Write a Memoir, “Call on the best of your character. Be ready to be surprised by grace.” So stand clear of the closing door. When things go wrong, look for the funny side and write down all the details you can. Then mine your journal to craft a story. Share it with others. Have the last laugh.

I know many others have chosen humor to soften life events. How have you used your wit and sense of the absurd to help you through a life-changing event?

Rae Ellen Lee is the author of two humorous memoirs, I Only Cuss When I’m Sailing and its sequel, My Next Husband Will Be Normal. She also captured her dad’s stories in Powder Monkey Tales. Her novel, The Bluebird House, is set in and around an old Montana mining brothel she renovated and lived in. All books are available in e-book format or print through her website, from online booksellers, or can be ordered from bookstores at no additional cost. Be sure to follow Rae on twitter @RaeEllenLee!

25 Responses to Stand Clear Of The Closing Door

  1. Wendy Reid February 21, 2012 at 7:04 am #

    This was a great post with some amazing advice. Wow, to be able to keep your sense of humor when your husband tells you that he wants to be a woman is nothing short of awe inspiring. When I read things like this, it puts my own life’s petty problems into perspective. Thanks for posting it. 🙂

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      Wendy, thanks for the comment. When things go haywire, It does help if you’re around someone who also has a sense of humor. They help to see the irony and absurdity in situations. Thanks again.

  2. Zwoman February 21, 2012 at 7:28 am #


    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      Z-car — is that you? It’s cold here in Bellingham, but my feets is warm in the wool sox you gave me before you escaped to that big island. Maybe we’ll all come down to see you.

  3. Laura Zera (@laurazera) February 21, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Such grace you have, Rae Ellen! I look for the humor in life’s trials, but find it hard right in the actual moment — it usually takes me a few years to be able to reflect and laugh. Thanks for sharing and it’s great to get to know you a little better.

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      Laura, I look forward to meeting you.

      One thing I realize now about my particular situation is that the other person involved had (still has) such a big, goofy sense of humor. And, of course, such strange and truly curious things happen when someone realizes they’ve been living the wrong gender. The dominatrix he met on an outing to The Big Closet (in Maine) was a real hoot.

      • Molly Greene February 21, 2012 at 10:50 am #

        Rae, I am in awe of your ability to view life events through rose-colored glasses. I’m with Laura, it usually takes a little time and distance for me to gain perspective. Dstance = how far can I run before I think it’s funny? Thank you so much for the lesson! Thanks so much for sharing on my blog! Can’t wait to meet you in person!

        • Laura Zera (@laurazera) February 21, 2012 at 11:26 am #

          It’s all going down in Bellingham this summer. 🙂

          • Pamela Beason February 21, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

            yes. It is going down in Bellingham this summer.

            And how the heck do you get a picture to show up in a comment on this website?

          • Molly Greene February 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

            Mine shows, and Laura’s shows! Maybe an issue with your gravatar profile? Not sure!

        • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 11:46 am #

          Molly you are so dear. I’m so enjoying this flurry of activity. Thank you for this marvelous opportunity to participate.

          • Molly Greene February 21, 2012 at 11:59 am #

            Re: Bellingham, Yaaaay! Re: guest post – the pleasure is mine, and I’m deeply grateful you were willing to share. Grateful for all my fabulous guests, now and in the future!

  4. Stuart Haddon February 21, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    This is a very fine post – beautifully written and recounting what must have been very difficult experiences with humor and great humanity. Thank you for sharing, Rae Ellen.

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 10:47 am #

      Wow, Stuart. What a lovely comment. Thank you.

  5. Pamela Beason February 21, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    I love your “have the last laugh” attitude, Rae Ellen. None of us will get out of this life alive, so we might as well enjoy the time we have here on earth. I’m always amazed at those who choose to live life shackled by grudges. The past is over. The important question is: what are you going to do from now on?

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      You nailed it so well, Pam. It’s the “choice” thing, which isn’t always easy and sometimes takes a few kleenexes.

  6. Rolando February 21, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    This is a great post Ellen. The worst problems we face are those that come from within because it is much harder to envision how to solve them. The problem you mention, due to its nature, would have defeated many women who would have ended up opting for a divorce. I am glad that you were able to deal with it in part by using humor and like you say “a sense of the absurd.” I have faced and am still facing problems where the solution depends on others, not me. I have found that imposing my will to solve other people’s problems only makes it worse, but learning not do so means accepting the possibility that the problem will not be solved and that a person whom you like or love will get badly beaten by life. This “live and let live” (or “live and let die”) type of letting go is hard for me to accept. Humor (especially dark humor) and a sense of the absurd have greatly helped me over the years in trying to make my peace with these situations.

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 21, 2012 at 10:38 am #

      A lovely comment, Rolando. So as not to mislead anyone, in my case there was a divorce. But it was best for both of us. We are still very dear friends — she occasionally offers wardrobe tips, as I’m a bit of a tomboy.

      It can be hard to let people go so they can live their own lives. It can be a gift to them, though. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

  7. JB Rowley February 21, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Wow! I don’t think I could have been as gracious and understanding in the same situation; your attitude toward your husband and your support at the time must have meant a lot to him. Your sense of humour might have taken the edge off but I imagine you both went through a harrowing time. All the best. JB

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

      JB — you’re right, it wasn’t all funny! But boyohboy was it “interesting.” And my husband had a great sense of humor and wit, so that helped us both. I don’t want to go through that again, though. Everyone’s experience of such an event would be different, I believe.

      When I started dating again, my friends all said, “Before you get involved with someone, be sure to check out his underwear drawer.”

  8. Stephen C. Spencer (@PaulDMallory) February 22, 2012 at 6:20 am #

    “Grace under pressure” is how Ernest Hemingway famously defined “guts.” (It’s also the name of a 1984 album by Rush…but that’s not important right now.)

    If Hemingway’s right, Rae Ellen, then you’ve got the commodity in abundance. I very much enjoyed both the style and content of your post, and will consider it a pleasure to so inform my legions of followers. This one, they shouldn’t miss!

    Nice going! (You too, Molly! *waves*)

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 22, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Stephen — or should I call you Paul? It’s easy to get lost in a character in our novels, I find. I like that notion sometimes, and it’s a less expensive “departure” than the air fare to a foreign country! Thank you so much for your kind words.

  9. Ron McCabe February 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Rae Ellen~Great piece! I felt like I was reading a female version of myself (I have no gender issues) right down to life aboard. I even use Zinsser’s last name for the maiden name of my protagonists wife in my novel Betrayed. Check out the nonfiction stories I wrote back in the 90’s on my website. Just for fun! ~ Really enjoyed your piece. Molly does a great job of find very nice people!

    • Rae Ellen Lee February 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

      Ron – thanks for the comment. Betrayed sounds intriguing as a title, since we’ve all experienced that in one form or another. And, yes, I feel honored to “meet” Molly so soon after wading into the twitter stream.

  10. Lisa Gomley March 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    Rae Ellen,

    That was a wonderful post! If that is not the perfect example of grace, I don’t know what is. I like that you said it was the not the best thing…but not the worst thing. It is so easy for us to react before thinking in some situations. And as you mentioned…we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can control what we do with it.

    Kudos to you for how you handled that situation and kudos to your ex for risking everything to be her true self. I am so glad that it sounds like you are both doing well and glad that you still have a relationship.

    Take care and thank you for a wonderful post!