The Shape of Our Dignity: Napkin Thoughts

Posted inCreative Voices

The words race across my neuroreceptors, as I am struck by a single thought. I live freely among chaos and process. I am. I am because of a once long-lost love. One solace I can attribute to the unit of parenthood of a lost childhood. One place in which so much love counters the lived hate I walk through life bludgeoned at me and “my kind.”

I lived in a bubble of lies and secrets. Only freed by my truth. Now, I attempt to heal the hurt I have no business trying to apologize for. These aren’t my faults. These aren’t my truths. They belong to others; the ones whose purpose was to protect me. I’ve had to learn my success squarely on my survival and journey. Those people can’t hurt me any longer. This thought, one in which I’m learning to trust in. 42 years of trial, error, success, real love, real loss, authenticity.

I sit here, dinner; alone. Yet, at home is my entire world. What once was lonely dinners, now only a meal of need while the family is there and I am on break from work. Sitting alone at a meal used to mean I wasn’t loved or mattered. I’ve eaten many a meal, truly alone. Today, I am not.

The meal I ordered is… anticipation. I found my thoughts rushing in as I stare deep into this clear glass of water. Is it refreshing? It stands tall against my straw wrapper and this napkin’s twin. The nutrition facts on the bottle of soy sauce stare back as its sans serif font takes me back to my obsession with…Helvetica.

I hear the most joyful voice roll in, a soft laugh, words of inspiration in a heavy Italian accent spill across the mic; a memory that lives rent-free in my head. The topic of discussion: intellectual elegance, of the extraordinary life of Massimo Vignelli. His sage advice envelopes my young, eager student/designer heart. That was over 12 years ago, when I clung to every word of the greats of our time.

Let’s face it— I still cling to the words of those before me and around me, so that I may remember their work, their fight, their struggle, their success. Without them, my path would not be so. I dive into their creative lives, led, curated, guided by the voice of an adorable mentor.

It’s been 16 years since I was a freshman, discovering a world outside the walls of a classroom, with 18 years of curated connections I’ve religiously devoured. She brought me a window into a world I longed to be a part of, continue to work to achieve in, and am reminded that we can work to make a difference; for others. My life’s purpose.

Make a difference. So that I can conquer my demons. So that others have a path. So that it does actually get better. So that what I am faced with will truly set me free. So that living a full life means considering what the outcome is; not only for myself. Make a difference.

These thoughts are a feeling, built up of time and energy. I shape them, tag them to a moment when that voice who leads became a face I met. Me a young pliable mind, eager to grow and learn. She stood there, a visitor to our place of community and learning, sharing her moments, her success, her story. I eat every word, ready to experience with her. She is warm, compassionate, courageous.

I longed to be like her— that one day, I too would be privileged to stand in the radiant confidence that others would emulate. It is an ultimate compliment when someone strives to live echoed in the glow of another remarkable life. When one might be inspired by moments of others’ success and hope to achieve even a single ounce of it.

There is a thread of commonality that reverberates from those we look up to and admire. We learn of each others’ origins, the things we dream/ed of, the moments that help us feel like we were never alone. It is the time stamp that is the only difference. When we embrace that which makes us unique and recognize the things that make us united, we forge community.

I met her before my outward transition. In a time when my authenticity shined by the way I strived for a better life for myself and others. In a time when my hair was hot pink or some shade of fire red, and my smile was still happy for the things I yearned to learn. I bravely asked a question— sadly, I cannot recall my words— but it only stumped her for a moment. Her presentation ended, but listening to her never stopped.

I then had the privilege of meeting her again, this time away from the comforts of classmates around me. I eagerly held her books, as the line formed of others that I recognized as a part of the common thread. We all loved the work and words she puts forth into the world. I, being the gentleman— well, gentle lady at the time— kept leaping to the back of the line, hoping to be last for a longer moment with her.

Pivot… more than a metaphor. That conference changed my life. To be a part of a community I longed to belong to; I felt so alive. I’d had the wonderful opportunity of eating breakfast with Maria Giudice. I listened to and was captivated by her New York accent and passion for designers to have a place at the proverbial table. Introduced to by a mutual friend, shook hands with, and was met as a friend by none other than Sean Adams. Had my portfolio reviewed by many influential people in design, taking every last word of their critique to heart, and pen, to continue to grow.

While a week of conference talks, activities, and networking as a design student can feel overwhelming and invigorating, it was the small moment I had with her that will always remind me I can make a big impact. It may have been that it was my birthday that made the moment so special, but she didn’t even know that. I didn’t even have the words to tell anyone I was actually celebrating 31 rotations alone, but not alone, in Phoenix.

She kept looking at me, head up between signatures and pleasantries. Did she notice and question my jumping backwards? I’m judging myself, breathless, anxious. You’ve got 30 seconds to make an impression, what do you ask her?

Finally, my turn came. I stumbled to say hello. Like a giddy schoolgirl, I fumbled my books towards her. She then paused.

“Don’t I know you? We’ve met before, yes?”

How could she even possibly remember me, a little nobody?

“Yes, in Salt Lake, you asked me the question I’d not been asked before.”

Why can’t I remember now, the words that were apparently profound? I’m certain it had something to do with my war against man, women in design, in my most feminist years of my life, the “angry” lesbian I was. I had a whole conversation of things I wanted to talk about and say, yet there, I was blushing, I’m sure, trying not to act like an idiot in front of one of my idols and sheroes.

Only a few of her works now signed in my collection, more books to get signed, and years have passed since the references of my academia were stacked in my backpack as a student. I cherish the moment with her; the one of magic, both her marker-scrolled autograph and the human connection we have made. It was a single moment that has continued to connect us in community.

Admiration, presented in course assignments, and nods to the greats in my learning to design and curate information. Like that of a course assignment during my Bachelor’s program: create an informational and interactive exhibition on a concept or person in design. Deliverables to include marketing material, environmental graphics, informational/educational materials or activity. Final will be presented as a pitch.

Designing Herstory: Influential Women in Graphic Arts (2012)

My brochure, as pictured below, a gate fold, an internally hidden poster, and only a small fraction of the most amazing women I attribute as inspiration and motivation. Small reminders to push past even my weakest moments; to achieve greatness. The working documents, sadly lost now, after my computer and hard drive containing more than 70% of my Bachelor’s work were stolen from me out of the design lab.

My admiration, nay geekdom, comes out when I teach my freshman courses; nine years after becoming a teaching assistant and now a total of 14 years in higher Ed. I still head towards a path of open possibilities. I tell students of the need to connect outwardly to the community you desire to be a part of. I describe the benefits of belonging to organizations like AIGA, and the opportunities I had as a student. I tell the story of meeting my own heroes. I gush my appreciations and fan moments, while my wife tells our friends, yeah, his girlfriend, Debbie, as I recount a quote relevant to the learning opportunity.

I hope one day I can be to a young mind what Debbie Millman is to me; mentor, creative life culturist, aspirational inspirationalist, and fellow October birthdayer. Thank you for your courage, compassion and guidance in seeking a remarkable life. You, and others like you, really do make a difference in the lives of others. Learning, growing, connecting, have helped me toward shaping a part of my dignity.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.