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Paula Stone Williams: Finding Beauty in the Broken Pieces

Paula Stone Williams

I was warming a cup of tea and it slipped out of my hand, shattering on the kitchen floor. The cup, a Cath Kidston mug, was one of my favorites. I own a dozen Cath Kidston mugs, but this was my only blue mug. It reminded me of my grandmother’s china. I love a cup of Irish Breakfast Tea in the morning, and the Cath Kidston mugs hold a full 16 ounces.

I like the feel of the mugs in my hand. That particular style is no longer available. When the mug shattered, I cried so hard I could barely catch my breath. I wept as I swept up the pieces and carefully placed every last speck of glass on a dinner plate. I placed the plate, hosting its shards of glass, on the dresser in my bedroom, awaiting a miracle. I do not cry easily. Throughout my life I have needed prompting to bring me to tears. Movies are reliable at drawing out my emotions, but to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time tears flowed on account of breaking glassware.

My life is difficult. Yours is too, I know. Life is not easy for any of us. Those we love slip through our fingers, and we are shattered. When you choose to love someone, you are also choosing grief and loss, because even a lifelong love is eventually lost, either from your own death or the death of the beloved.

Life includes a steady stream of losses. We lose the warmth of the womb, and the hearth of home. We lose the joy of tucking our children into bed and after that, our precious grandchildren. We lose the parents we love and the memories they take with them. And finally, we lose ourselves before we ever really find ourselves. We have hopes for what lies beyond the grave, but they are the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.  

Life is a short pause between two great mysteries, and if you are wise, you trust life’s flow. Like the river that runs through the town where I live, my life’s flow was interrupted by a great flood of biblical proportions that changed the landscape not only for me, but for those I love. For everyone, there was a great shattering. As our family’s ground was shaken, the myth of certainty was exposed. Everything we assumed our family would always be was up for examination. Courage and bravery were reimagined from the conventional notion of life as a series of reactions to the realization that life is an opportunity to create your own narrative.  

Joy and happiness are not synonymous. Happiness comes pretty much when you expect it. You get a promotion, you are happy. You get a bigger tax return than you expected, you are happy. Happiness comes where you expect it, and I have known much happiness in my life, both before and after my transition. Joy has a life of its own. Even in the midst of a great trial you can be surprised by joy. It arrives as the faintest whiff of an oasis in the desert, a thing of wonder in an unexpected place. Joy does not have to be overpowering. In fact, most often it arrives as a whisper, not a shout.

Joy has come in the middle of a counseling session, when a client makes a breakthrough they have been working on for a long time. It arrives when you are talking with someone you love at 9:00 on a Saturday evening and she cannot see her way through great pain, and you realize you know how to help her, and you do. Joy arrives when a relationship you thought had been lost comes back to life, wounded, but somehow deeper and more abiding.

Joy comes when you discover a new poet whose words bring that most elusive of gifts, insight. It comes when your granddaughter says, “I love being at your house, GramPaula.” It was a moment of great joy when Jonathan’s girls announced that henceforth and forever more, I would be known as GramPaula.  The other girls took to it quickly, though Trista had already christened me Paula Blossom, a name so precious I can hardly stand it.

Joy comes when you are able to comfort your former wife in her moment of grief, because usually you can’t. You are too much the cause of that grief. Joy comes with love, the kind you thought you might never know in your new body. And like all loves, it is tender and tenuous and vulnerable, but still, it is joy.

There is no way through the desert but forward. You cannot go back. Fear makes you want to go back. Happiness makes you want to stand still. But joy calls you forward. I can understand how Odysseus felt when he finally returned to Ithaca and his beloved Penelope, only to discover that he was called to go on yet one last journey. That is my life. When I transitioned, I thought I had returned home to Ithaca. I could finally rest. But it was not to be. There was another call I could not refuse, the call to keep moving forward through the desert, the call to lessen the suffering of others, to speak about gender inequity, transgender acceptance, religious tolerance, and the call of the Hero’s Journey.  It was all summed up in a line I inserted into my first TEDx talk the night before I spoke, a line I used again when Jonathan and I spoke for TED Women, a line I have used several times in this memoir: “The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good.” If you follow it, you may not know a lot of happiness, but you will know joy.

I wrote in my blog about the shattering of my blue Cath Kidston mug. I told my readers it was no longer in production, and I had spent quite a while searching for a replacement, but finally gave up. A few weeks later a large box was delivered to the building in which Left Hand Church meets. Inside, wrapped in a mile of bubble wrap, was the same blue Cath Kidston mug. One of my readers had found it in a British store and sent it to me. A few weeks later I received a second copy from another reader.

That is the truth of my life. Yes, I get hate mail, but I also have anonymous friends who search far and wide for an exact copy of the mug I broke. One of the new mugs is with my other Cath Kidston mugs in the kitchen. I gave Cathy the second one. It is her favorite mug.

And the original mug that sat in a dinner plate on my bedroom dresser? It is there still, all the broken pieces exactly where I first placed them the day the mug shattered. I left it there, waiting for a miracle. The broken mug has been replaced with two perfect ones, but my favorite mug in the whole house is the shattered one on my bedroom dresser. It is the miracle, to be reminded that even when you are shattered, you can still be a thing of beauty.

Excerpted from As A Woman, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Paula Stone Williams.

More info on As A Woman can be found here.

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