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A return to ‘acceptably different’

  • Posted on March 21, 2015 at 11:01 pm

Back in August 2012 I wrote about being ‘acceptably different’, by which I meant recognising that at the time I was still quite visibly in transition, and that it was best to go with the flow, knowing that there was no hiding my ambiguity. A lot has happened since then, and in reality I have very little reference from day to day with my ‘trans history’. It isn’t that can forget it, or that I avoid it. It just happens a lot less these days.

A few days ago a colleague at work called in to say they would be late, and I was there early enough to be the one to take their call. They didn’t recognise my voice, probably thinking that I was one of the several male Andys. My voice without my face, I expect, sounds anomalous. It’s confusing.

I sometimes ask my partner (whom I trust to be honest) what my most obvious giveaways are. It seems love blinds one to these things though; it’s me, not my face or my almost absent waist, that matters. And yet I know, even though it really doesn’t matter, that she will always be able to ‘see the man in me’ because it’s there. A puberty and a life fed by testosterone inevitably does that to you, and nothing will change it. Together we can be honest about this. And it doesn’t matter. And yet to one of her friends, it (and/or our lesbian relationship) does, and she has had to decide whether to stand with me, where my trans history/status is not welcome, or ignore this and go to an event without me. I know that I/we carry the stigma wherever the stigma exists in another person’s mind.

Out walking one lunchtime this week with two female colleagues, we were talking about marriage, friendships and relationships, and how we all change, and have to accept that relationships of all kinds don’t always last well as a result. Co-dependency, possessiveness, restricting each other’s natural growth and development, are not good for us. ‘I’m not the girl I was at twenty!’, said my colleague. ‘Nor am I’, I replied spontaneously. And we all burst out laughing helplessly …

My partner and I sat together today to sort a financial matter out with a bank. Being divorced, I guess they had to be sure my credit rating could be verified, so one question was: ‘Have you ever been known by any other name?’ I declined to answer (is that suspicious?) because to do so would reveal more than a name, and that matter is now entirely and legally confidential. But I wondered: did the nice young man understand because he could see that I was a rather unusual-looking woman, and being in a cosmopolitan city, guessed my history? If he did, it didn’t matter.

So on the whole, nearly three years on, I find myself almost universally accepted. My voice hasn’t improved (I have probably gotten lazy), but I hardly ever talk about transition any more. My past is there, which can’t be avoided, but it is my past. It is not me now. So much so that as I browsed old photos with my partner this week, I realised that my only connection with my childhood in my mind, is to think of how I was as a little girl.

I have changed a great deal, even in the last two years, physically, mentally, psychologically and socially, but some things will always give me away, through appearance, habit, manner or simply the knowledge of how I used to live. And people still have to decide: am I acceptable. Thankfully, for almost everyone, I am. But the acceptance is as a different kind of person. And so I still check in with myself as to whether I am disappointed not to be completely and exclusively perceived to be a ‘normal woman’ – because I am not, and I cannot be.

On the whole, I am not. If I was in my twenties, I might be, but at least my face would be in a better shape and my body more youthful. However, I am aware that for many trans women appearance can be a burden. Confidence carries you a long way, appropriate dressing is very important as part of realistic expectations, and personal acceptance to save undermining yourself, essential. It’s all very well to talk about being acceptably different to other people, but accepting one’s own difference with good grace takes more than a brave face. If someone else looks at you and you can tell that they know straightaway that you are trans, you can say ‘well, that’s their problem, not mine’. But if, after as complete treatment as you can get or afford, you still look at yourself in the mirror and feel wrong, you’d better find a way of coping and understanding yourself.

In a therapy session before I had to walk away from my marriage, one of the counselors remarked that some trans women can’t cope after complete transition because they feel they can never be as ‘good’ as they expected or wanted to be. I already knew that wouldn’t be my problem, but I think now I would be less overall dismissive. So once again, if I have anything to say to people beginning or in transition, it would be that you have to dig very deep in your preparation for change, taking your imagination to the worse possible outcomes to test your fears. But also dig deep to test your reaction to the best possible outcomes. You really don’t know before those final steps quite how it’s going (honestly, truthfully) to feel. You can kid yourself that it’s everything you want, and you can equally kid yourself that you can manage without it. When reminded that surgical outcomes can be less than optimal, believe it could be you and test your resilience. But also, prepare yourself for the best of outcomes, and get to know your body beyond past experiences, believing that it can be acceptable, to a future partner and to yourself.

I know a number of people for whom surgery was less than optimal, just as I know those for whom everything was good. I know that I was lucky, but I don’t want to speak from that as if it is the only outcome. I only want to say that I was very well prepared mentally, psychologically and physically, and that it paid off. To my partner, my body is perfectly acceptable, responds surprisingly well, and we are very happy together. To me, I am relieved – that I do not have to worry about being imperfect or, if ‘the man’ remnant still in me is visible, that it actually doesn’t matter at all. But I believe that I came through so easily only because I’d already explored the dark corners.

In sum, ‘acceptably different’ has gained two sides: dealing with people who know my past, and dealing with myself who has that past. The first can’t just be dismissed because there will always be the tripping moments (like those above). The second is vital, and must not be ignored. I hear too many people losing self-belief during transition, feeling defeated by the things they cannot change. If you have gender dysphoria, you have to accept your difference is something to live with – even after transition. The dysphoria goes, but the world doesn’t change. In a word: prepare. Prepare very well.

Passing, through, on

  • Posted on October 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Bed designs, 1982

I sat on the end of my bed this week to pull on socks, and broke the rail. No big deal, except that it’s the bed I made very soon after my wedding, out of about £20-worth of wood, to a design sketch that I still have (left), in biro on a scrap of ruled notepad. Degree finals exam notes are written on the back! It is still a bit special, and I’m glad I was allowed to claim it when I left. The problem is that it’s pine, and this is the one place where a large knot shouldn’t…

Passing: please be honest

  • Posted on August 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

As one who has been there, please take this as sound advice, not as criticism. I too stood behind my own front door wondering what would happen if I opened it and walked down the street. I too spent ages doing my make-up, trying to work out when too much was more obvious than not enough. In the shops, I too had to scan the skirts racks dressed as a man. I too walked the same direction of the traffic to avoid passengers’s eyes. I too took selfies and doubted myself, sat in the back corner of cafés and still got noticed.

I too played the passing game.

This week, just to show everyone I was doing fine after surgery, I quickly popped a picture of myself wearing flowery trousers, on Facebook. It wasn’t to invite or ask anything, just to say I’m OK. 60 ‘likes’ later, I thought: that’s nice!

And this week I dropped out of a transgender group on Facebook because I’d had enough of the constant parade of cellphone selfies (cellfies?), either in mirrors or at arm’s length, all captioned: ‘Do I pass?’. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the feelings, no, it’s the intended kindnesses that are unhelpful and disingenuous.

‘You look gorgeous, hun!’ can be true, but only in exceptional cases. What we really want to say to each other at this stage is, ‘Well done for trying, chin up.’ What we need to really say, is to share some tips on getting past the dead giveaways. We need to point out the obvious that we’d prefer went away, and tread an honest line between the knock-backs and the sound advice. This week I did read one honest and kind response, extensive and helpful.

What I really want to say is, don’t tell someone they are ‘passing’ when they clearly are not, because they have some things to urgently learn. It does them no favours to have a false impression, so is not a kindness at all. This is a very practical business, not a bundle of fun, however liberating owning your own gender feels.

I’ve written this from the MTF point of view, because to keep writing the alternative FTM in can be unreadable, and this is the way round I am most familiar with. But much applies both ways; don’t feel slighted.


Passing is a poor term that is supposed to mean ‘convincing in the gender role intended’. It is important, because you’re never going to gain confidence if everyone thinks you look, sound or behave like a man when you’re trying to live as a woman. If you are ever going to gain confidence in your gender, whatever it is, then looking like you’re in disguise, rather than natural, will not help. This is not to reinforce the binary model of gender, but to say that if you are trying not to stick out, do try to blend in. You will only do this through keen observation, not of other trans people, but cis people.

If you hold yourself as a man and dress as a woman, you will stand out. If you walk as a man, or gesture as a man, you will stand out. If your clothes feel unnatural to you, or if you dress inappropriately for your age or your social setting, you will stand out. If you speak (verbalise) like a man, and make no attempt to modulate your voice or change pitch at all, you will stand out. It’s a lot to do all at once, so go and use the Internet, scour YouTube, and practice out of public gaze until you understand what it takes. Find a cis friend or a trans friend prepared to weather your storms and need for attention, but only if they are prepared also to be honest.

And understand this: you will not be great when you start, you will need to grow a thicker skin, but that one day you will look back and cringe – because you are no longer like when you began. We are not gorgeous, hun, we are making do, trying our best. But we need the truth, matched by the determination to get each new thing right. And in the end a selfie on Facebook will not be about passing, but about looking happy and natural.

The biggest lesson to learn is that when you have tried to blend in, nothing makes so much a single difference as your own confidence. You will probably never be a paradigm of the femininity you have in mind (though you might), but that does not mean you can’t be just like a lot of other women your age. They are not all idealised magazine models either. But you can tell they are comfortable in their own skins and clothes. That is what you are aiming for first.

I see ‘passing’ much as I see transition: it is a process that you think about at the beginning and forget about at the end.

What about non-blenders?

This is an equally important perspective: those who almost belligerently assert their right to look different, even odd: ‘I am being true to myself, I don’t care what people think, why should I?’

Maybe for you this is important, at least for now, and indeed you have every right to walk safely, looking however you like. Attacks on goth-attired youngsters are not unknown, just as on any LGBT person. If being different is important to you, please just look out for yourself and play safe in places where violent and/or drunk people have been known to attack. No, it isn’t fair or right: the street is as much yours as anyone’s. No attack or abuse is your fault; just recognise things as they are, when you need to be safe – and report all hate crime, if not for you, for the next person.

But also recognise that not all of us are like this. Many of us going through transition do go through the ‘exciting phase’ – after all being set free feels pretty damn good. But to get on with life, whether it’s working, entertainment, shopping, meeting up with friends or whatever, we want to ‘arrive’, by which I mean becoming naturalised in our felt gender. For us, going out with friends who are non-blenders can make us very self-conscious. It isn’t transphobia, it’s just running counter to what we’re trying to achieve. We might be the most supportive person you’ve ever met, but that doesn’t mean we want to be blatantly outed by association. If we support you, try also to support us, and if that means trying harder, being more careful, blending (you may think it’s compromising), then at least think about your impact on other trans people.

But this is a digression: ‘passing’ means blending, not asserting our right to be immune from opinion. Some is unavoidable. Some of us do not want specifically male or female identification because we’re non-binary. People of all kinds and ages encounter problems when others can’t tell what we are. But this is not what I’m writing about here. Uncertainty is one thing, and society has to get over it. Being a non-blender is your choice, and all I’m saying, non-judgementally, is that standing out affects blending trans people too.

What about non-transitioners?

It is perfectly legitimate to see yourself as fluid or dual gender. Just because I have transitioned into what I guess is a binary way of life, does not mean that I have forgotten my early earnest assertions to be two-spirit, both in one person. If this is you, then the same applies. If you want to just live a natural blended existence, your aim is to feel comfortable in your own skin. It might be you like wearing a pink tutu at Sparkle, but just don’t expect not to get stared at for wearing a mini skirt and showing your stocking tops, in a too-shiny synthetic wig in the city on a Tuesday afternoon. If being dual gender is you, then why stand out in the female part, when you don’t stand out in the male part? If you like the attention and stand out in both, then feel free, but don’t protest society’s raised eyebrows. Maybe one day we shall embrace flamboyant lifestyles wholeheartedly, and maybe you can be an agent for change, but if you do not want to, as above, observe keenly, YouTube, practice and learn what it is to live and move as your fellow-gender friends and groups.

If non-transitioning is your holding-place, while you work out what you need to do, perhaps facing family problems, breakups and so on, you may find critical break points. Do you go for that permanent laser treatment on your face? Do you get your ears pierced? Do you pluck your eyebrows? Remove the hair on your body or legs? Or even grow your hair out? Only you can decide, but recognise that in these times of compromise you will need workarounds.

Most of all, this is a time to be working out just how far this will need to go, and if you don’t get it right enough to avoid stares, comments or worse, it will ruin the confidence you need to go the distance, or make a decisive change. Going ‘full-time’ without confidence is a psychological disaster. If you row your ducks up: name change, clothes to the charity shop, all your documents in order, gender clinic, counselling, support groups, etc., you need to roll over quickly and with certainty. Then is not the time for people to be telling you you’ll never make it, because you look ‘like a man in a dress’. And even if you have a fair idea that this is what they’re thinking but not saying to your face, it will make the whole process anything up to and including unbearable.

If you are not intending to put yourself through this kind of trauma, don’t do it to anyone else by suggesting they are ready and presentable when they are not.

Honesty, please

Honesty is not cruel, if it is constructive. Don’t tell someone they look crap, tell them too much pink doesn’t work on it’s own, try balancing it with a bit of grey. Tell them to learn to hold their head up and smile. Tell them about better foundation, or pan-sticks, tell them to moderate the eyeshadow, hint with mascara rather than plastering it. Tell them to brush their hair the other way, or to have it cut to the shape of their face. Tell them that to alleviate a square jaw, wear a lower, rounded neckline. Tell them that a really nice necklace is more distracting of an adam’s apple than a black polo neck, or that a lower heel would be really elegant.

Tell them things that have worked for you, point them to websites that help you learn to change your voice, or walk differently. Tell them that fun as those tights are, women their age tend not to wear them to work. Tell them that their body shape can’t do stripes, or to practice a gentler smile, a head tilt. Tell them what you have found to be different about the way that women speak, discuss, ask in shops, and gesture. Tell them how you have learned to observe, where has been better to go when in the learning phases, tips on discrete behaviour on public transport.

Tell them all these things, because that’s how we get there in the end. But don’t think it’s a kindness just to add your ‘gorgeous, hun’ to the Facebook accolades.

This is confidence game, not a pageant, and it’s hard work feeling natural. You grew up learning to imitate other boys and men so that you would fit in. There is a lot of undoing to do. You didn’t copy the girls’ mannerisms; they were doing it to fit in with each other too. Natural behaviours and fitting in only come with confidence, and the only confidence worth having is that based on honest self-appraisal and learning the work-arounds for the things you can’t change.

It isn’t about ‘passing’, it’s about confidently being yourself, with a bit of (honest) help from your friends. Don’t ask if you’re passing, ask what the most immediate giveaways are, and take it on the nose.


  • Posted on April 13, 2014 at 12:02 pm

You know those pictures on ‘inner beauty’? Heart warming images of the old and wise, the no-longer attractive, or even the disfigured and disabled. They’re an invitation to see people differently, and to redefine beauty.

This last week there was an online furore and newspaper columns concerning an advert (since withdrawn) for Veet depilation cream. Another broke out over men posting online non-consensual videos of women daring to snack on the underground. A lot of very sensible things were said, mainly by women, about being taught by a male-dominated society what was acceptable or not about the natural female body in order to be the desired beautiful, as if we owe it. We fart, shit, grow hair, get hungry, get stressed and cry. We just don’t joke about it the same way as men do. We want honest bodies. Female hair fetishists aside, hairy legs and arms are a no-no, a real turn-off. But then so are prickly legs and arms two days after. Our faces are so much more acceptable with make-up to enhance them, that it becomes a dare-to-bare thing online to show an un-made-up face on Facebook. The list of feminine attributes that require daily modification is not one made up by women.

You are beautiful if …
I find you attractive when …
I will love you more if you …
You are less beautiful when you don’t …
I don’t find you attractive when you don’t …
I only love you because you fit my image of what I need you to be …

I feel a need to be ‘presentable’ when I get ready for work each morning. I like to look ‘good’ if I’m going out or entertaining. Partly, it is so that I am not in danger of being misgendered, about which I am still a bit sensitive – not because I will be upset, but to avoid mistakes and explanations and chatter in the wings.

Almost every trans* person when they make their decision to start living as they feel has this worry. Trans men fear being too naturally soft and feminine, trans women fear being too naturally angular and masculine. When we say we want to ‘pass’ we mean that we want others to see us as attractive or beautiful people, not as mistakes, approximations, odd or ‘different’. Some you may look at and wonder how a particular transsexual person could ever have presented differently. I watched an interview with rock star Laura Jane Grace and felt (tattoos aside) how lovely it would be to have been so naturally feminine. I feel too old to be beautiful.

It does work the other way round too, so this is not just a feminist diatribe. My ex-wife had a thing about men wearing smart overcoats. I had one. In fact because I was reluctant to wear one, I had several, because none was quite right enough to want to wear it. What I really disliked was that I did not want to be the handsome man, and there is nothing like a smart overcoat to make you a handsome mature man. What is more, at the age of something like six or seven, my Mum produced an overcoat as junior imitation of grown-up smart. (One did this, then, when ‘going to town’) and I hated it. Other men say the same about the hairstyle their wives like, which isn’t quite what they want.

We want other people to be attractive. We want them to be beautiful to us.

I have had this enormous fear since transition that I will never be attractive to another. I get the kind of heart-warming admiration-of-the-inner, phrased as bravery or courage, which can be a way of saying ‘nice spirit, shame about the face’. Why do I feel that people need to focus away from my appearance, or like the female body au naturelle, need it to be more conforming to be likeable, let alone lovable? I feel this! I epilate, do my make-up, check my breast development, buy hair products, and brush to hide my male-pattern hairline recession. And still no-one has given me a second glance that indicates attraction! I pass. That feels like a grade ‘C’.

A beautiful dance, a dance of the beautiful

On Friday night I went to 5 Rhythms dance again, after a very mentally-active week at work. I needed the lyricism, maybe the chaos, certainly the flow … Unusually (because this rarely happens) someone chose to dance with me, and what followed was the most wonderful, tender, almost symbiotic experience I’ve had for years. It was a dance of shared understanding, of empathy and trust. Maybe not unusual in 5 Rhythms for a lot of people, but deeper than anything I’ve experience there so far. I was glad that the other was damp with sweat too; we both were, and we were close enough to blend it, and it didn’t matter, it was almost part of it. It was two women sharing something unspoken but understood, in dance.

I had spoken exchanges afterwards with three people that affirmed something I also shared in the group circle. ‘Tonight I was going to say it was a beautiful time. What I realise I really wanted to say, is that tonight I felt beautiful.’

I have no idea where my dance comes from. It is unlearned, uninstructed, arrived out of the blue at the age of 56, and finds me with a surprising balance, lightness of feet and grace. Others say so.

And I felt beautiful. Don’t place me in a disco with a square metre of my own, to jerk around to 4/4 tunes. Give me a hall where I can explore space and really move. I am beautiful, not because I have a wizened face and wisdom, not because I’ve navigated the very difficult experience of being transsexual with courage, but because I express the inner with grace and to no-one’s pattern but my own.

This morning I used the epilator on my legs and arms. Because I like it that way, not for anyone else. And I am still a 40A and happy with that.

Dis-appearances: stealth or skin?

  • Posted on July 27, 2013 at 9:05 am

We have evolved and survived – we being every living creature on this planet – through expert pattern recognition of things that matter most. For a bacterium, perhaps a chemical signature, for a bat an auditory echo, for an antelope, stripes moving the wrong way in tall grass, for a human, maybe a facial expression or the face itself. In fact our senses are all designed for pattern recognition, to know food from poison, welcome from warning, friend from foe, mate from challenger.

But for us as humans it has become incredibly complex. An actor is not really threatening you; their terrifying violence will become beans on toast as soon as the camera stops or the curtains close. And we thrive on novelty and invention, so the challenge of the unfamiliar is always with us. Sometimes we lose and a real danger is not spotted: insecticide toxins, environmental disaster, over-confidence is a dangerous place, early experiments with radioactive substances. Sometimes we win, and a new invention raises our game, an unexpected relationship becomes love, a crowded room of strangers becomes a welcome.


Military technology that deflects radar enquiry (stealth) removes pattern from the response. Signals are absorbed, scattered and confused. You don’t get back a clear picture, or any meaningful picture or signature at all. It’s better than being ‘under the radar’. Its purpose is to confuse, to be invisible, so that an infiltrating mission, aggressive or surveillance, can go undetected.

As a borrowed term, I am very uncomfortable with adopting it for living as a transsexual woman. I am not intending to deceive anyone, but neither do I want to stand out. I want to adopt normality, not invisibility, and as trans* people do gain more acceptability in society, the fear factor will reduce. Being ‘found out’ is not something I want to happen. I want the conversation always to be:

‘You’re trans, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Oh. OK.’

In other words, my pattern has been noticed but it means I am friend not foe.

But this is a very difficult one indeed, because being trans* is not like being gay or lesbian or bi. I do not need another trans* person in order to have a relationship that is normal to me, whereas being gay or lesbian does. So I may need to be openly lesbian whilst not openly trans*. Being trans* is a diagnosis that has treatment to make you as un-trans* as possible. I used to think I had to live as if I was a man, because of my physiology and social expectation, but that is history. It is over; done; finished.

My male features, some of which I can do nothing about, like hand size, large big toes, a broader ribcage, will always make me noticeable. So I really do understand the grief a younger person feels, that correcting their genitals and torso, even their face, may still not be enough to assert without explanation, their own gender. If it didn’t matter to anyone else, it wouldn’t matter at all. But can I really ever be the object of desire to another? A frightening thought.

We present patterns to those around us, and they recognise and respond. I cannot make my big toes slender, but you can let it be completely OK. I don’t need stealth, you need to adjust your pattern recognition response. Being trans* is normal, not disconcerting or repulsive. The trouble is, I am in charge of myself, but I cannot change society around me except by slow, if vocal, influence. I am living now, today; tomorrow will not do for social acceptance.

Under the radar?

We do live with pattern recognition, and society assuredly has not adjusted. Most of the time I am just flying under the radar. I get on with life, I make myself look as normal as possible, whilst expressing my personality and individuality. I do a good job at work, I meet lots of people in many different settings. Being transsexual is not an issue. Until …

‘There’s that man in drag!’

As I left my flat a few evenings ago, a young man (isn’t it always?) in a car, announced this loudly to his friend. He was announcing his insecurity. His pattern recognition (maybe he has been around since I moved in, and remembers the earlier days) still says: ‘I know what to do with man, and I know what to do with a woman. This person confuses me. They are only in my book of shapes as a man in drag, and I have no better understanding. I feel safer by alerting my friends to something I don’t understand, rather than saying nothing because it doesn’t matter.’

As always, this young man spoke about himself, not me, but yes, I did find it offensive. And disappointing. Why was I being mis-identified at all?

I have no need to avoid this person in future, because the problem on one level isn’t mine at all. But if I could wave a magic wand, and become an attractive woman, would I? Well, maybe I would, just to avoid the hassle. But being stealth-configured to avoid hassle, risks the accusation of deceit, and frankly, I should not need to hide anything.


A lot of popular software applications, from this blog to games, offer alternative ‘skins’. The same thing underneath, no change in functionality or rules, just pink instead of green, flowers instead of camouflage. As an alternative to stealth, adopting a different skin, is perhaps feasible. I am what you see, and I want you to recognise that this is only a skin, and that yes, we have all chosen these presentations: I, as a transsexual woman with my style, and you, as a cis-person with your style. Or as a lesbian with your dyke style, another with a femme style, and so on.

So instead of stealth, in place of acting, and renouncing fear, throwing away the pattern-recognition manual for gender, I want you to know that inside I am exactly what I say I am. And that my skin is my familiar garb, not for you to question, but to understand why I wear it.

My ribcage does not make me a man. My dress is not drag. Ask me and I will be straight with you, and explain as best I can. But I will not hide just to assuage your prejudices. I did not choose this, just as you did not choose your gender – or your shoe size.

Well, this is what I would like. I am horribly aware that even for me, there are those I counted even as friends who ‘don’t know how to relate to me’. Even my wife and daughter don’t know, so have distanced themselves to a safe place for them. Yes, me, a threat to their normality: you can’t be my dad so you can’t be my parent. You can’t be my man, so you can’t be my partner or lover. Pattern recognition has destroyed my family, and there is no stealth imaginable there. If anything, living before realisation was stealth, and I have renounced it.

All around the world, every month, trans* people are murdered for being unfamiliar to the pattern-recognition handbook. Stealth would present a constant fear of being discovered, the radar points too low, the unwillingness of society to learn new patterns is not there. They are hated for being different. I am lucky. Very lucky.

Out in my skin

I can’t get out of my skin, I own it. But this is the bit I also choose. I choose for taste, but also for acceptability, not to hide, but to present. Some have a problem with it, but I don’t. Stealth? No. Discretion? Maybe. I am confident in my skin. But see me beyond it, because that’s where recognition really lies.

Related poem for reflection and fun: Patterns