Saturday, October 6, 2012

Dear Joanie, part 2

It’s been just a few weeks since meeting Joan Benoit Samuelson.  So much has happened since then; it feels like a month. Being invited to attend a viewing of Joan’s documentary film and running with her were events I couldn’t pass up.  I booked a room at the Radisson Manchester, just a few blocks from the Palace Theater; the location where the movie screening was to take place.  I invited friends and family to join me, and I wasn’t surprised I didn’t get any takers.  The event was very last minute, so I planned to go to the event alone, so I thought.  A day before the event, an acquaintance from high school, a friend on Facebook, said she’d love to go and was planning on bringing her daughter and husband.  Awesome!  I might actually know someone.  I don’t recall that we were very close friends in high school, probably just friends of friends.  But that didn’t matter now, she had reached out and I needed an ally. 

After checking into the hotel, I waited for help with my bags and relished for a moment in a compliment paid to me by the fashionable front desk woman; she liked my Coach wallet. It’s the little things in life that matter.  I made my way to the room with assistance from the bellhop.  He had a sweet disposition, despite a slightly un-tucked shirt and pants that didn’t quite fit. When I apologized for the number and weight of my luggage, he said they were nothing compared to Carrie Underwood’s baggage.  She had stayed in the hotel the previous week while performing in town.  That’s pretty cool I thought.  After saying thanks and handing him a tip, I closed the door and I kicked off my rain boots.

I had a little time before the evening’s event and found myself easily relaxing in my room. Looking out the large window to a wide view of downtown Manchester, I poured myself a glass of wine and sat in the easy chair.  I imagined what the country star did while she was in her suite last week.  Did she rehearse or did she look out the window like me?  I wondered if she saw what I saw?  On the streets below, people were coming and going with purpose and their heads down.  They were dressed in the predictable and practical New England way, nothing glamorous or high fashion here.  The evening was gray and breezy, and a large tattered American flag whipped in the wind high above the concrete plaza.   As I looked in the window I notice myself in the reflection, and while my hair was a mess from the blustery weather, looking back at me was a well-dressed woman.  There I was, a middle-aged trans woman, traveling alone, and about to meet my hero for the first time.

Moments before leaving the hotel room I received a message on my phone. Another friend from high school would be joining us at the theater.  Wow, how great is that!  I drove the two blocks and parked around the corner from the Palace Theater. I could have walked, but the weather forecast wasn’t encouraging for the rest of the night. In fact, there were severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings posted for all of The Northeast.  I later learned of a twister passing through Brooklyn.  It was a special evening indeed.  In the lobby I waited to see if my friends would show up and I thought; would I recognize them? Within minutes they arrived and after a welcome smile and tender hug, I relaxed. It was great to connect with people from the past, but now as Gia, I think it makes a difference.  At least it does to me.   

Joan took the stage carefully.  It was obvious she was nursing an injury.  While her accomplishments are great, she is a small woman. Her voice is humble and soft.  She appears shy with a large microphone in her hand while addressing an audience of hundreds, and yet she’s performed on the largest stages in the world, including the Olympics.  The film was moving and showcased Joan, not only as a dedicated and competitive runner, but also a humanitarian.  She uses her notoriety to help with numerous causes, especially protecting the environment.  The second part of the evening was hearing stories from three people who wrote to Joan, like I did, and shared what running has meant to them. Each person had a unique and courageous story, and I was humbled to be in the audience. At the conclusion of the evening I waited patiently for the right moment to finally meet Joan, say hi, and if possible, share a photo with her.  I was not disappointed.  She was generous and gracious with everyone’s requests, staying until every last person had the chance to say hi and have their picture taken with her.  She was nearly the last person to leave the theater. 

After a quick bite to eat, I found myself sleeping peacefully in my hotel bed, large enough for a queen, no pun intended.  The storm passed through the Manchester night, but my thoughts were elsewhere, the run with Joan and a flight to Atlanta in the afternoon.  I even requested a late checkout; so I could go to the event, and then return to the hotel to shower and change for my flight.  It’s these little details that I worry about the most and makes me so anxious.  Like anyone, I have baggage that’s not just luggage.  Coffee and breakfast arrived with a knock on the door early the next morning. I ordered room service the night before so I could enjoy the start of the day.  I was living large in Manchester. 

I put on my running attire and I drove to Livingston Park on the outskirts of town for my run with Joan.  When I run, I wear I head wrap, not my wig.  I haven’t found a practical way to run with synthetic hair.  So, showing up to the run without the hair I had the night before, can and did raise a few eyebrows.  This is an ongoing issue for me; I do feel more confident as a trans woman in public with female-like hair.  As I arrived at the meeting spot in the park, the clouds had all but disappeared.  Under the warmth of the late morning sun I walk among the invited guests, having conversations with the few who said hi.  The discussions were pleasant and running was the topic; what race was next? Joan was busy with pictures, and giving interviews to the local news.  Finally, a tall runner wearing a knit hat and a loud voice got our attention. He was the event organizer and set the agenda for the morning.  After introductions we’d go for a short run around a beautiful pond and Joan would try to run and talk with each of us, followed by some Q&A.  Sounded like a good plan, except for the introductions.  I wasn’t prepared for that, I’m sure I could think of something to say, but was I ready to share my story in person to a group of strangers.  We went around in a circle, with each person sharing a brief bio and why they were there.  The stories were personal, tragic, hopeful, and honest.  Then came me.  I took a breath and said, Hi, I’m Gia…and shared my story.  I think you’ve heard it before.

So we were off on our run.  Joan was next to me when we started, and we chatted a bit about Maine and some friends and athletes we knew in common, then she was talking with another guest.  I spent the rest of the run with three other women, learning more about their stories and upcoming events.  After 3 or so miles, we all met up for a short discussion and people had the chance to ask Joan questions.  Most of the conversation stayed with running, with questions about training, health and food, technique, and priorities.  We gave each other a round of applause, posed for a final group photo and then parted ways. 

I was quickly off to the hotel to change out of my running clothes and catch an afternoon flight.  Somewhere in my haste, I misplaced my glasses.  I got my first prescription in 1984 and don’t see very well without them.  All I had were my sunglasses, not exactly what I needed for five days at an indoor conference.  I drove back to the park after checking out of the hotel to see if I dropped them in the parking lot, nothing.  I still had a few hours before my departure and I knew the airport was next to a large shopping area. I thought if I could find a Lens Crafters I could get a new pair.  It must have been my lucky day; I got a new pair and made it to the gate with 20 minutes to spare.  I even had time to call my mom before my flight and TSA experience.  It was my first as Gia.  I was off to Georgia to attend the largest transgender gathering in North America.  Just a day before, I was a nervous wreck, anxious about meeting my hero and traveling to Atlanta.  My destination was waiting for me and with Joan’s spirit and my mother’s voice as traveling companions, I wasn’t going alone.  This trip wasn’t to find something new, but having new eyes to see.