•May 27, 2018 • Leave a Comment

The myth:

La Loba, or Bone Woman (she has many names in ancient myth,) appears sometimes to wanderers, lost souls, and seekers in the desert. She is known to collect and preserve that which is most in danger of being lost to the world. Her sole work is said to be the gathering of bones, most particularly of wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, so the story goes, she arranges them before her fire and sings the living flesh back onto the bones.  The wolf, reborn, leaps up and runs into the darkness. Somewhere in its running, by what means we know not, (perhaps a trick of the light of the rising sun), the wolf transforms itself into a laughing woman who runs toward the horizon. (Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves)

Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst, tells us that the myth is primarily one of rebirth and resurrection. The scattered bones are the fundamental elements of who we are. Gathered together and sung back into life, we are transformed into our “wild” natural selves. There is a longing for such a transformation deep inside me. Of course there is. I am a transgender woman, after all. If I may be permitted to borrow the metaphor: it is a longing I feel “in my bones.” This longing is something many women feel, especially in societies such as our own, where fierce “wild” women are denounced as ‘whores,’ where witches are burned, where wolves (and wolvishness) are poisoned or shot. What bones remain, are scattered across the desert. In our dreams, however, (our collective dreams, Jung would point out) memory stirs–memory of a time when women and wolves were fiercely alive and whole. Our life work, Estés says, is the gathering of bones.


by Karen McLaughlin


This desert body I am become,

Possessed of neither tides, nor birth, nor blood, 

Dreams a memory of those;

Dreams a resurrection of sifting dust and rotting stone,

Of withered root and the smell of rising corn, 

Of keening beneath the fading stars 

To call the sun to rise.


Dreams an ancient woman who sees with blank blue eyes,   

Whose spreading soles are quilled with thorn, 

Who spits and stirs the dust with blackened nails, 

Whose voice is cracked with singing over bones.


This desert body I am become,

Inhabits a country in between:   

Has become both wise and foolish: child and crone.


I squint and pluck the whiskers from my chin.

I gather bones, both dog and crow,   

Arrange these relics before the flame.   

I breathe the smoke of burning tires.

My body dreams of wolves and howling women: 

The memory of bones that rise to bleed and sing.


Karen at the Core

•November 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Black, Seed, Dandelion, Close-Up, White, Macro, Wind

So the big news (for me, at least) is that I have begun training as a peer counsellor with Cowichan Family Life Association in Duncan. What follows is an excerpt from my journal for this past weekend. (Names and details have been altered.)

The exercise starts simply enough. We are handed two sets of instructions: one entitled “How to Care for Extroverts.”*and the other “How to Care for Introverts.”** We are asked to consider which of the items describes our own personal needs. I tick off 11 of the 12 items under Introverts: no surprise there and only one item under Extroverts: “Let them hug you.” Yes, I like hugs. We are divided into pairs; I will work with Marnie. Each pair is asked to discuss our choices with our partner, taking turns as either speaker or listener, with the listener paraphrasing and reflecting back the speaker’s comments: basic counselling skills, lesson two.

As I am listening, I consciously try to slow down the conversation, breaking it down into smaller, manageable bits, so I can paraphrase accurately and completely. Sometimes I paraphrase content, sometimes I reflect feelings or the meanings that appear to be attached to her comments. “It sounds like being a mom is a really important part of who you are,”  or, “I’m curious. What happened when he made eye contact with you? What went through your mind?” As the conversation continues, though, we start spontaneously reflecting back and forth. I know this is not what is supposed to happen. The focus is supposed to stay on the speaker, but I let the conversation take on a life of its own, and we drill further and further down into just who it is, we really are. At one point, she says, “Being a caregiver. That is who I am at the core. It’s just that important.”

I nod and consider. Perhaps this is true, but being a caregiver is something we do. Is what we do the same as who we are? I pose the question: “I wonder if it’s possible to strip away all the layers of our personalities, all the roles. I wonder if we can. What would we find at the core?”

“I am a caregiver. That’s who I am,” she says again.

Suddenly, I am struck by an image in my own imagination. I see a final layer being stripped away. It is black, rigid, and (this may be important) constructed. What is even more important though, is the discovery of what remains behind: a glowing ball of light. It would fit comfortably in the palm of my hand. In that instant, I recognize what’s at the center of who I am. Love. That is who I am at my very core: love. “Dang,” I think, “I like this woman.”

Later on, as our day draws to its closing, we are asked, “Are you a willow or an oak tree?”

Each of us, in turn, replies. “I think I am an oak. I stand pretty strong against the wind.”

“I am a willow. I will bend, but I will not break.”

I am the last to reply. “I am neither,” I tell the group. “I am a dandelion seed, floating on the wind,” adding mischievously, “looking for somebody’s lawn to settle on.”

“What would it take to plant you?” our instructor asks.

“Ah,” I tell her, “you misunderstand the metaphor. I have no need to be planted.” I recall that moment of discovery in my earlier conversation with Marnie, and I tell the story of my first encounter with the hawk…my hawk. (Ride the rising wind.) “Who is Karen at her core?” I ask, rhetorically. “Love. That’s who I am. That’s why I’m so drawn to this work.” My hand lifts upward, like the seed. “I am who I am, right where I need to be. Right now, in this moment, I ride the rising wind.”


*How to Care for Extroverts

(1) Don’t ignore them.

(2) Feed their egos.

(3) Let them be the center of attention.

(4) Don’t tease them for having a lot of friends.

(5) Take them to parties.

(6) Introduce them to new people often.

(7) Let them hug you.

(8) Learn that sometimes they will talk loudly.

(9) Keep eye contact.

(10) Don’t force them to be quiet.

(11) Don’t be startled when they suddenly start a conversation.

(12) Let them be friends with you.


** How to Care for Introverts

(1) Respect their need for privacy.

(2) Never embarrass them in public.

(3) Let them first observe in new situations.

(4) Give them time to think. Don’t demand instant answers.

(5) Don’t interrupt them.

(6) Give them advance notice of expected changes in their lives.

(7) Give them 15 minute warnings to finish whatever they are doing

(8) Reprimand them privately.

(9) Teach them new skills privately.

(10) Enable them to find one best friend who has similar interests and abilities.

(11) Don’t push them to make lots of friends.

(12) Respect their introversion. Don’t try to remake them into extroverts.

Criminal Record Check

•March 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So Karen (that would be me) walks into the local police station to get her criminal record check, which, in this particular instance, includes fingerprinting. (Apparently somewhere in Canada, there is a convicted sex offender with the same birthday as mine. “We want to make sure you’re not him.”)

I’ve had criminal record checks many times. Back when I was teaching, we did it every five years. Never got asked for fingerprints. Volunteered to teach literacy to adults after I retired. Criminal record check. Never got asked for fingerprints. Applied for a legal name change. Fingerprints.

A little creepy, this being fingerprinted, but probably that’s my own paranoia showing. After all, haven’t we been told oh-so-many-times that none of this is kept anywhere. “We are the RCMP, after all. You know our reputation. You can trust us. Absolutely.”

Creepy. Messy, too. At least the time I was fingerprinted for my name change. Not so, anymore, though. Now you just put your hand onto the glass plate, the computer scans it, and you’re done. Very Hollywood and Matt Damon. So I’m feeling a bit tight in the chest about all this, but I’m telling myself, and the woman who’s doing this, “I’m cool.”

“We’ll do your thumbs first,” she says, demonstrating. “Put them together like this and place them on the glass. Don’t press down.”

I do. The light scans. My thumbprints appear on the screen. Then a message: “Poor finger quality. Try again.”

Wait. “Poor finger quality? I’m being body shamed by a computer? The computer can’t see my fingerprints and this is my fault?”

“Try again.”

She takes a hand-wipe from a dispenser on the counter. “Let’s try giving them a wipe, and see if that helps,” she says. We try again.

“Poor finger quality. Try again.”

Three times we try. Maybe four. Finally, the machine is satisfied, and we move on to the right hand. One finger at a time. “Poor finger quality. Try again.” Every single finger. Both hands. We wipe. We switch fingers.

“Is this machine telling me I could have a life of crime?” I ask.

“You didn’t hear it from me, but yes.”

“I could be a spy.”

“You could.”

“Except for my bright green car. It kind of stands out.”

“So does an Aston Martin.”

“Good point.” Crime or international espionage. Who knew retirement could be so rich in potential?

We try again. And again. Eventually, we manage to get them all. All ten of them. The machine is happy, but my career in crime, alas, has slipped (pardon the pun) through my fingers.

“Just one more thing. We need your thumbprint on this authorization.”

“What am I authorizing?”

“Just to send it off for analysis.”

We wipe the thumb. I place it on the glass. The machine scans. “Poor finger quality. Try again.”

Poor finger quality. Embrace it, Karen. You have not been shamed. You have just been nominated the next president of the United States.



•March 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So Karen celebrated International Women’s Day by passing her S.A.R.P. exam today. You probably heard the sigh of relief outside your window early this afternoon. Yep. That was me…er, her. She is now officially a pioneer, part of the first cohort of front line workers in Nanaimo’s new Sexual Assault Response Program. Not bad for an old [trans] woman, if I do say so, myself.

“I couldn’t do that work,” my friends tell me. Usually they couple it with, “You are amazing,” or “You are so brave.” I appreciate the compliment, but it feels uncomfortable, even undeserved. I have been doing this work with survivors of domestic violence at Haven, for several years already, and here’s the reality: when my friends think of sexual assault, they imagine a woman hurt, in tears, a woman utterly broken. They think only of overwhelming pain. They think only of the battered face, the bleeding wound. They can’t imagine having to look at it. That’s never been what I do. Every week, I sit with women who honor me with their stories. I sit with women who have been through horrors my mind refuses to imagine and bear witness to a strength, a resilience, and a courage so radiant, it takes my breath away. Who would not sit beside such women? Who would not sit beside such astonishing flames? I warm myself at the fire and give thanks for light, even in the darkest night of the soul.

No Idea

•March 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment
We were talking about advocacy. It’s going to be part of my job as a sexual assault responder. I offered the thought that I wasn’t looking forward to having to confront an RCMP officer on behalf of a survivor, an officer like the one who recently told a young teenager that she was lying, when she reported her sexual assault, or the officer who recently told another woman that she had “brought it [the sexual assault] on herself” because she had allowed a stranger into her house. (She operates a catering business. The assailant was a customer.)
“You have no idea what it is like to grow up as a woman,” I was told. There was a good deal of anger in the tone, and even more in the set of the jaw. “Women are told things like that all the time. They get that message right from day one.”
“I get that,” I said, “but these are professionals. They should know better. They should have been trained.”
“You have no idea,” she said again.
It’s called a “pivot” in political circles–changing the topic so you can go on the attack. Suddenly the conversation was no longer about the police, or about compassion for survivors. It was about me. I am so tired of hearing that  I have “no idea” from this person. It hurts. It’s meant to.
What she is really trying to tell me is that I can never be as ‘real’ a woman as she is. Actually, I am. As to having “no idea,” just for the record, actually, I do.


•March 3, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I took Zoee up to see my dear friend, Thelma, this afternoon. I found her dozing in her room. She was lying, curled up on her side, with her face to the wall. She did not look well. In fact, it was obvious, even before she realized we were there, that she was in pain, even more than usual, but she brightened when she saw us. As the nurse said later, when I commented that she seemed to be in a lot of discomfort today, “She has a lot going on down there.”

She rolled onto her back, reached out, and took my hand.

“Hi, Thelma,” I said. “How are you doing today?”

“Not so good,” she confessed. “I haven’t been out of my room for the past…” She paused to do the count. “…three or four days.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Not even to eat?”

“No, they bring it to me here.”

I glanced at her bedside table. The glass was empty. “Have you had anything to drink this morning? It’s not good if you get dehydrated. Can I get you some water? Would that go down all right?”

“Yes,” she said. “That would be nice.”

I took her glass to the water cooler. “Here,” I said, returning.

She struggled to sit up and sipped it through a straw. “That’s good,” she said. “Thank you.” She drank it all, then lay back down. “Thank you,” she repeated and took my hand again. “I love you.”

I kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, too. You hold a very special place in my heart.” With my other hand, I reached out and stroked her brow. We sat there in silence for a few minutes.

“Oh, that feels good,” she sighed. Gradually, her breathing slowed. Her eyes closed, and she sighed again.

Sometimes I wonder how much longer I’m going to last,” she said.

“Does that worry you?”

She looked at me. “Not really. I know I’m going to be safe.”

I nodded.

“And I will dream of you.”

I kissed her hand. Thelma is ninety-three years old, and I love her. I had no words. What else could I do?

Remembering my father (July 21, 1924-December 18, 2015)

•January 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Fifteen years ago, my mother died on Christmas Day. Four weeks ago, just a seven days short of the anniversary, my dad followed after. Christmas. I think I need to tell you about Christmas.

Dad was a child of the Great Depression. For him, childhood Christmases were heartbreaking, hungry, and austere, but for us, even when times were hard, Christmas Day was the very best day, and Christmas dinner the very best dinner of the year. Preparations would begin early in November when (a story in itself) the kitchen would be cleared, pop bottles  washed and laid out rows, the canning kettle filled , the bottle-capper set up, and we would bottle our own root beer. Later, there would be home made chocolates: peppermint (my favorite), chocolate coated raisins (also my favorite), vanilla and almond creams, and chocolate-dipped maraschino cherries. There would be shortbread, plum pudding soaked in brandy (Shhh…don’t tell Granny) and mincemeat pie. A week or two before the big day, we would drive out into the country to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree—a tree that would sometimes scrape the ceiling, if not quite scrape the sky. Dad would test and string the colored lights (too hot to be touched) and when he was done, we would help hang the decorations: delicate blown glass in silver, red, gold and green. There were children’s decorations, too—decorations of our own: bright silver bells, plastic snowmen with black top hats, miniature glass peacocks with fiberglass tails, and from mom’s childhood tree, perhaps half a dozen yellow plastic canaries. We hung old burned out lights on cotton strings: lights too beautiful to be discarded, lights shaped like Santa, frost-covered bells, snow-covered houses, Victorian lanterns, lights saved from our mother’s past, lights that glowed with memories older than our own. They may have looked tired and tawdry to others, but to our eyes, they were beautiful. Mom would pull out her Christmas music box, in the shape of a Middle-Eastern church, complete with clear Lucite spires and illuminated picture of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus in the stable. It looked, (so we children imagined), as Bethlehem must have looked if only we could have been there. Carefully, she would wind it up, and it would play “Away in a Manger.” It was a gift from my father, given her their very first Christmas.

When all was done, beneath the glowing tree, Mom would spread a sheet like snow, and place the old cardboard Santa, and our part in the preparations was done

On Christmas morning there would be fruit salad and sausage rolls, and that long, delicious agony of anticipation as we waited for breakfast to be over and for the grown ups to finish their coffee. Already, our stockings would have been emptied of chocolates, nuts, candy canes and oranges, crayons and pencil sets, intricate wooden or wire puzzles; once, (oh, wonderful!) a gyroscope that would balance on the tip of a pencil. In the living room, Dad would be “Santa” and one by one, he would pull each present from the pile beneath the tree: “To Diana, with love; To Craig, Merry Christmas, To Joey, love, Dad…From Santa, with love, to [me].”

Sometime in the afternoon, the company would start arriving. The silver would be polished; Christmas roses, candles, and cloth napkins set upon the table. There would be dogs underfoot (St. Bernards, just so we’re clear) and once the turkey came out of the oven, one or two cats as well. When the bird was carved, and we all finally sat down, gathered would be grandparents and uncles and aunts, and cousins, and Dad would raise his voice above the din in mock complaint about all the gol-darn freeloaders come to eat his turkey and stuffing, not to mention his sweet potatoes and cranberries, and especially his Christmas pudding. Look what he had to put up with.

“Pass the creamed corn, you cheapskate Scotchman,” Uncle Jack would snort.

“Creamed corn? Sheesh, really? You already got most of the potatoes!” My Dad would offer him a bowl. “Look, I’m a nice guy. Have as many brussels sprouts as you want.”

“I don’t want your brussels sprouts. I want the creamed corn.” Someone would pass him the bowl, and eyes locked with my dad, he would take a spoonful. A big sloppy one. And then another.

It was an old and comfortable routine, one of their favorites. It meant everyone was right where he belonged, and we would all dig in.

In the afterglow, when all had been cleared and the leftovers put away, Grandad would settle into the armchair and light his pipe, puff once or twice, then light his pipe again. (He smoked a pound of matches for every ounce of tobacco, my uncle would teasingly say). Gran would spread her new jigsaw puzzle across the card table and begin to sort the pieces. Others would sit down to a Monopoly game that would go on far, far into the warm darkness of the night. That was Christmas.

I remember one Christmas in particular, at our house. Gran was there, and my sister. (Both gone.) Uncle Jack (gone) and Aunty Betty and cousin, Eleanor and her family (we haven’t heard from them in years), Mom and Dad, Craig and Cheryl, our children and theirs. It was a Christmas just as I have described. I think there was probably a Monopoly game.

Late in the evening, I glanced out the window and noticed the driveway light had turned itself on. “It’s snowing,” I said, to no one in particular, and the room went suddenly still. Our green Christmas (this is the West Coast, after all) was turning wondrously and unexpectedly white, and there in the light, stood a doe and her nearly grown fawn calmly gazing back at us through the window while onto their backs, the first feathery flakes of snow came drifting down. It felt…sacred.

“Someone should write this down,” my father said quietly. People nodded in agreement. “I think this is the best Christmas we’ve ever had,” he said. “Ever.”

There have been others, good ones, but none like that. Then Christmas changed the day my mother died. Sadness seemed to settle on him—on all of us—like ashes fallen on snow. Family dispersed. Doors were closed; invitations regretfully declined.

Those last few months in the lodge, were such a gift. Zoee and I would visit him in the evenings, and he would feed her cookies. “She’s a good friend,” he would smile. “She’s so gentle.” He would scratch her behind the ears, remembering other dogs and happier times. When it grew late, and the cookies were done, and it was time to say good-night, I would kiss him on the cheek and tell him, “I love you, Dad.” His eyes would tear, and he would take my hand and hold it tight. He would kiss me and say, “I love you, too.” It was so hard to let him go.

The night before he died, he didn’t respond. If he heard me, I will never know. More than anything else, he wanted one more family Christmas like the one I have described. I did write it down for him, finally. Here it is. Family is coming. Christmas, at least in my heart, is near. I love you, Dad. It’s going to be the best Christmas. Ever. They’re predicting rain, but maybe there will be snow.