Skirting the Issues: Sensei

Talk about serendipity.

It was a hot, steamy Friday in early August, 2006, in Cedar Rapids. Still presenting as a crew cut man with glasses then, I wore a suit that day — Mr. Lawyer — because I had been in court. Now late afternoon, I sat in my shiny black BMW at a downtown bank drive-through making a deposit and chatting with the remote teller via closed circuit TV.

A woman in shorts and a tank top appeared on the nearby sidewalk. We made eye contact as she took the few step to my car and asked, “Can you tell me if there’s an outdoor café around here?” She was visiting from Minneapolis and had some down time to explore this foreign place on the prairie.

I sized her up in the second before replying. She was blonde and cute, a bit short — both in hair and stature — and wore a Blackberry on her hip.

“Well, there’s sort of an outdoor place,” I answered. I started down a list of directions to a coffee shop that hosted a couple rusty tables and chairs on a cracking sidewalk, only to be interrupted by the bank teller, who sat in a windowless office a block away and thus couldn’t see what was going on.

“Is everything alright?” asked the TV screen voice.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m talking to someone who needs help with something.”

I quickly realized that it would be much easier to simply drive this stranger to the coffee shop than it would be to give her directions.

“I’ll just take you there,” I said. “Why don’t you get in the car?”

The woman hesitated.

I turned to the TV screen and pleaded, “Could you please tell this person that I’m safe?”

The bank teller smiled, “Oh, we love Ed. He’s so nice!”

That was enough to convince the stranger — who quickly shared her name, Colleen — to get in my car.

We never made it to the coffee shop and instead ended up at my favorite downtown bar. A moment’s camera click would have caught two strangers giggling, a mutual attraction unfolding, and the beginning of an on-again, off-again, on-again romance that would last nearly a year.

Before it ended, Colleen changed my life. She was wise and fearless, a survivor in many ways, and loving. Most of all, she was Buddhist, something which at first repelled me — I grew up Catholic (yikes!) and knew absolutely nothing about Buddhism; I thought of it as a voodoo religion.

“You’re suffering because you grasp for things that aren’t attainable,” she said countless times. “The world doesn’t operate according to the Krug Plan.”

And thus I started down a very long road toward understanding basic Buddhist precepts. I came to learn how all of us are interconnected in so many ways, joint participants in the human condition. Phrases that Colleen regularly tossed about — like gratitude, compassion and kindness, and mindfulness — became my phrases, too.

Most important for me was newly understanding that my fear of various things, such as how transitioning genders could negatively impact my then-teenage daughters or my law practice, caused me to both vacillate and avoid transitioning.

Eventually, I found enlightenment through Buddhism, which allowed me to face my fears and begin the long and arduous process of shifting from male to female. Eventually, what I had feared in fact came true (I lost one daughter [thankfully, only temporarily] and my law practice), but nonetheless, as a Buddhist I took those losses in stride. Just as Colleen had instructed, I didn’t suffer the losses and instead accepted them as inevitable.

The seismic change in my life took me to Minneapolis, where I made a fresh start. I often tell others that but for meeting Colleen and becoming Buddhist myself, I wouldn’t have found the freedom (or courage) to be the true me, Ellie.

Fast forward to another camera click, one that again catches Colleen and me, but this time it’s April, 2015, over dinner at an outdoor restaurant in South Minneapolis. Reconnected now as friends, I tease about how I had to coax her into my car on that day in Cedar Rapids. We laugh at the silly things we learned about each other during our love affair.

Our laughter masks profound sadness, something which preceded meeting. “My body’s riddled with cancer,” Colleen reminds. She doesn’t have much time left.

I soon sob and grab her hand to kiss it. In between tears, I say “I don’t want you to go, Colleeni. I want you to stay in this world.”

Of course, I was back to grasping.

Ever the teacher, Colleen again instructs: “I’ve had a good life with my family and friends. We are nothing in the end, other than grains of dust.” Still, I see that she is crying, too.

“Please know that you’ll live on in me,” I offer. “You are my sensei and your wonderful words are now part of me. When I talk to others about compassion and kindness or gratitude, truly it’s you who is speaking.”

Colleen smiles.

We’re silent for a moment, good Buddhists taking in the moment. At night’s end, we hug and I hold tight. I don’t want to let go.

But knowing so much more now, I let her slip free.

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Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].

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