Monday, July 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Katahdins

Home leave, that's what it's called.  The time that a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) spends in the US after completing an overseas assignment is not a vacation per se.  Vacation is something we earn like most any other U.S. citizen who is working a job and career.  Home leave is different.  It was mandated by Congress, and we must spend it on U.S. territory.  I don't know when, and I don't pretend to know the rationale behind why home leave was instituted.  In my imagination I see it as one way to make certain that we don't spend too much time overseas, that we don't lose our U.S. roots.

After departing Bucharest, I spent home leave in both Washington, DC, and up at my little camp in Burlington, Maine.  I landed at Washington's Dulles Airport on June 14 and made my way laboriously by bus, Metro, and suburban train to Odenton, MD, where my sister was supposed to be waiting.  Do to a miscommunication, she had gone to the next station up the line, and I had a half hour to spend sitting on a bench, looking out on a typical suburban scene as commuters came and went.

I got out my Romanian cell phone.  Unexpectedly, it has been my tie, my lifeline to friends in Bucharest.  My Vodafone service with roaming works very nicely in the US.  I wouldn't use it for phone calls, but as I discovered during those thirty minutes in Odenton, texting is a wonderful way to stay close with friends and family from whom I am now separated by an ocean.  In the weeks since, that phone has been a constant friend and companion.

Those first days of home leave in Washington were a whirlwind.  First there was reunion with two of my sisters and the extended U.S. family.  There were medical appointments to attend to.  The highlight, however, was the Pride event at the State Department on June 19.  Secretary of State John Kerry was the keynote speaker and was accompanied to the podium by Congressman John Lewis and by Mara Keisling from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).  Everyone was in a celebratory mood in expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court would soon overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, but Mara reflected soberly that there is much more to LGBT rights than marriage equality.

With Mara Keisling at State Department Pride Event
On June 20 I boarded the Acela Express train for Boston, using the time to work on the photo-video that became Standing Proudly with Friends, 2010-13.  One night in Boston was followed by Concord Bus to Bangor and then Cyr Bus to Howland.  The Lincoln Shuttle took me the last 25km to my little town of Burlington.  I watched the last rays of sun from my front porch and took a long moonlit walk down main street.  Burlington is so out of the way and so small -- the entire population including distant, outlying areas is only about 350 -- that one can walk right down the center of main street past the General Store and Post Office with little worry about vehicular traffic.

My Little Burlington Camp
I began searching for property on Maine in 2008 and bought my 32 acres in Burlington in 2009.  I bought it at a time when I had decided that transition was impossible.  I had failed three times, and a fourth attempt there would not be.  Although I had visited my property briefly in 2011 and 2012, this home leave was my first visit of any duration since the long summer of 2010.  It was during that long summer that I came to understand that the long-hidden secret of my gender identity was becoming known through the mechanism of a noisy divorce.  By the time I left Burlington for Bucharest in October 2010, I had decided I had nothing to lose.  I landed in Bucharest with shaved legs and wearing a bra, certain that the likely outcome was going to be the end of a career.  I had decided that if I was to go down, it was finally time to go down as myself.  (See Pacing the Cage.)

It felt strange those first days to walk around the camp that had been the scene of my coming to terms in 2010.  There were still a few guy slacks and guy shirts in the closet, the only pieces of clothing from my former life that had not gone to aid Romanian flood victims.  Ironically, I found I had to wear some of them those first days, as none of the clothing I had brought with me was suited to the lively mosquito social life of Maine.  My neighbor promised not to spread rumors that I had begun cross dressing as a man.

The weather was gorgeous when I arrived in Maine, but it quickly turned rainy and cool.  I was stuck indoors.  The cabin's pseudo-solar system that provides 12V through cigarette lighter outlets gave barely enough electricity to power my netbook, and I spent the evenings by lamplight.  I began to feel rather lonely, wishing like anything to be back in Bucharest.

After several days of this, I put my FSO skills to work.  I may have bought my Maine property as a place to disappear, but one skill an FSO develops quickly is the ability to find and meet new people.  It was time to put those skills to work in Maine, not just overseas.

With Members of MaineTransNet
A quick Google search informed me to my delight that Pride in Bangor would be taking place the week after my arrival.  Into the car and down to Bangor I went.  First there was a movie evening.  Then there was an LGBT Art Walk and a dance evening before a festival and the Pride March itself.  I made a number of new friends.  I was particularly happy to make friends with John Gregory Music and Mark Stanley Bridges-Music, who had had much to do with organizing Bangor Pride.  Greg and Mark became my unofficial guides and escorts those evenings up to and including a tango lesson.  I was equally happy to meet several members of MaineTransNet and to march alongside two of them in the Pride March.  Doug Kimmel, one of the organizers of the Maine affiliate of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), was quick to invite me to his home the following week.

A Traditional July 4 in Burlington
The sun finally came out for the 4th of July, and my little cabin no longer felt so damp and cold.  Starting with a pancake breakfast at Ye Olde Tavern and continuing through a parade and after-parade events, I felt I had gone back in time to the 4th of July celebrations of my childhood.

Biking and kayaking.  I did these in quantity, my legs getting used to hills again after over two and a half years on the flat streets of Bucharest.  On Saponac Pond I crossed to the creek that feeds the lake and ran up it a distance.  When my son came to visit for a weekend, we borrowed a tandem kayak from a friend and used it to go down the creek as it empties from the lake, exhilarated going downstream over a small set of rapids and fighting for all we were worth to get over them again as we returned upstream.

Katahdin.  I climbed it in 2010 just as the reality of my situation had begun to dawn on me.  It's not an easy climb to Maine's highest peak.  In fact, it's one of the hardest I have ever done.  In 2010 another hiker took a nice photo of me on the summit.  Would I repeat the climb?  I debated with myself for days before throwing the tent in the car and heading to Baxter State Park.  It rained hard through my one night of camping, and I thought it doubtful I would make the climb.  In the morning, however, the ranger on duty said the forecast had improved and that the weather would only get better through the day.  I threw on my day pack and headed for the trail.

Katahdin 2010
It was no easier getting to the top of Katahdin this year than it had been in 2010.  It was a lonely, strenuous climb and descent.  It took me thirteen hours in total up the Abol Slide and back, far longer than it would have for a more experienced climber of a younger age.  I was in fog for much of the ascent, but the air cleared just as I reached the top.  The longer I stayed, the clearer it became, the view being like one would expect from an airplane coming in on its final landing approach.  The lakes far below and the mountains in the distance came into view, the same lakes and mountains I had seen when coming to a decision point in 2010.  If that view was calling me forward in 2010, the same view in 2013 was showing me where I had gone, the distance I had covered.  My skin tingled and not just from a cold wind.  In three years I had done what I had assumed four years ago was impossible.  I had really done it.  Another hiker asked if I would like a photo and graciously did the honors.  I now have the two photos as bookends to the greatest three years of my life.

Katahdin Today
If I still felt a bit lonely on the long descent, it fell away as I got back to Burlington in the late evening.  Waiting for me was a message from Bucharest that the LGBT small grants program proposal that I had worked hard on for two years running had been approved and funded by Washington.  Something I had done would continue to make a difference in Bucharest even as I no longer have a physical presence there. The connection with my Bucharest home continues.

Five weeks after leaving Romania, I am again in the Washington, DC, area.  A language exam awaits me at the Foreign Service Institute on Monday, and I start my new work assignment on Wednesday.  My year in Washington is about to start.  When I move into my apartment later this week, the two Katahdin photos will be on display.  Like bookends, they bracket the greatest three years of my life, the years when the impossible became reality.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Standing Proudly with Friends, 2010-13

Thank you, my dear Romanian, Moldovan, and American friends and family who stood with me during these, the most important three years of my life.  I dream of you every night, and I think of you many times throughout the day.  If you are wondering why it has taken me so long to write since leaving Bucharest, the answer is that I was preparing a surprise that is only now ready.  It's a photo-video of my time in Romania, and it is my parting gift to all of you who have meant so much to me.  Think of me as you watch it, just as I think of you with love as each and every photo passes, bringing with it a memory.  I will not forget you, and yes, we will see each other again.