My Western Pennsylvania Snow Globe

Author’s note: My name is Rachel, and I consider myself to be the product of a typical Pennsylvanian upbringing. Fire hall marriages with cookie tables, going to Idlewild Park on a hot summer day, and eating home-made gobs on my back porch, are all things that I remember from my childhood. I am transgender, and many of the things that I write about deal with that subject. I am extremely grateful to have been granted this space, in order to introduce myself, and also, to speak about my experiences as a transwoman in rural Pennsylvania. I hope to write more about my family, upbringing, the act of becoming one’s self in such a small place, and also, maybe, a little bit about technology’s relationship to the LGBTQIA+ community.

My first question: Have you ever held a snow globe in your hands?

Most have, and our shared experience is of shaking these little spheres, watching synthetic flakes float around inside of the translucent bubble. As we hold them, gazing inside, the glitter, or white flakes, slowly settles upon the figurines at the center. Some of the more expensive models of snow globes (also known as water globes or winter globes, in certain parts of the country) play music with tiny electrical or mechanical components. Some even have lighting, aided by a battery or a wind-up motor. Snow globes come in two varieties—they can be intricate, well designed heirlooms, or they can be cheap, mass-produced, throwaway items. Sadly, as time moves forward, less of the delicate, hand-crafted, heirloom kind, and more of the factory-built, mass-produced, hastily-constructed kind, are available. This is a tragedy, and one that closely relates to our current economic times. It isn’t the only tragedy to befall these small, single serving capsules of wintry life, though.

The real tragedy of a snow globe is one its very existence: the contents can never truly be touched or experience interaction with the outside world. The components are hermetically sealed inside of that plastic or glass bubble, and if the seal is broken, the scene is ruined and the water or chemicals contents will leak out. So it is for that reason that many snow globes are welded or glued shut. A person can look at, but never touch, the items inside.

I have had over fifteen holiday seasons post-transition. Each one has left me feeling like I am holding a snow globe, crafted by my time on this planet. I can look into the plastic, peer beyond the hazy scratched surface of the shell, and see memories that once brought me joy. From the moment that I took on my journey of self-discovery, I have never been able to do much more than peer inside, watching the fake snow swirl around a scene that I will never interact with again. My family keeps me at a distance. I am the weird cousin that went through gender transition. I am the brother-turned-sister that is never invited. To my extended family, I am dissonance—the one relative that stood apart from the others and just couldn’t be normal. I didn’t do this because I wanted to, but because I had to. Despite that, I am apart, forced away from those that once loved me. Now, my existence is only tolerated, with fake smiles and awkward greetings.

The plastic barrier of my personal snow globe surrounds a stretch of lumpy, bucolic hills in rural Pennsylvania. Scenes play out in that bubble on an annual schedule, and those are the ones in which I was, at one time, a continuous participant. One of the fonder ones is of the family making dumplings and cookies together. Another includes cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, all gathering from around the area for the holidays. Yet another is the celebration involving food, beer, and music, coinciding with  the placement of packages beneath the evergreen tree draped with long strands of incandescent bulbs.

My personal snow globe is the cloudy encasement of a little diorama. The bubble surrounding it is thin but resilient, too formidable for me to ever break through. It is comprised of Facebook posts that I see, news clippings from local journals, gossip from the one or two family members with whom I still communicate, and YouTube videos that remind me of what things used to be like in our tight-knit circle. The bubble is also fortified by the feelings of otherness that I have internalized. I am no longer welcome, but I can watch and remember, aside from the occasional uncomfortable interaction.

My personal snow globe plays a musical score. Those lively melodies are the sounds of polka emanating from the worn instruments of older, talented relatives. The songs, accented by the murmur of my family as they mingle with one another, sharing stories about long camping trips and attending Steelers games. The jovial laughter that punctuated the conversations in those times acted as staccato flourishes on a symphony held together by family bonds. I listen now, in the room where I sit, writing this to you, and there is unbearable silence. I wish to hear that holiday music one more time, played by the uncles that shared stories between accordion breaks.

In my personal snow globe, there is a spot that I once occupied, little footprints where I used to stand, a space I used to take when I pretended to be someone else. As I look at the people inside, they appear just as vibrant and colorful as before—the uncle that told long-winded stories about coworkers at the mill, and the cousin gesturing to show the likely-exaggerated size of the buck’s rack, another trophy deer that he shot during hunting season. There are the little boys in the family, playing with new toys that they got as presents from Santa. (My spot was with them, of course.) There are the girls sitting by the fire, talking with grandma and my aunties, sharing stories about school activities and boys. Those people are all so lifelike, so colorful, and I am turning gray. Outside of a snow globe, time passes by, even if things are frozen on the inside. Seventeen years after my transition, I have fine creases in my face and gray hairs poking from my temples. Some would say that I have become someone new, but I feel like I am the same person as before. I am frozen on the inside as well.

My personal snow globe sits on a table decorated with scenes of a small-town Pennsylvania life. Everyone in my little village seemed extra courteous, extra kind, and happy despite the economy, or the condition of our Main Street. Even as local businesses were replaced by the shiny new Wal-Mart up the highway, or even if older members of the community passed away, this time of year glossed over the fissures forming in our way of life. Even if the mills and the mines were closing, and even if the only work left was locate down Route 22 in the big-little-scary-city place called Pittsburgh, we remained strong because we had each other. Transition changed that, though, and I moved to that big-little-scary-city place.

I was no longer welcome on the table with, or in my snow globe. People would stare as I entered the pizza shop, or they would snicker and point at me, whispering to each other in the isles of the local Giant Eagle. Former classmates would share pictures of me on a private message board, mocking my attempts at self-discovery. Slowly I evolved on the outside, but I remained stuck internally. Parts of me longed to be able to eat at that pizza shop again, or to shop in that store, but I felt like an intruder. I felt like a stranger in my hometown when all I wanted was to belong once more.

The table that my little personal snow globe sits upon is in a room, meticulously constructed by me, over the course of a decade and a half. The room is built of internalized transphobia and shame, things that permeated myself through the experiences of growing up different in a community that cherished conformity and straightness. Walls of this room that I have built for myself are roughly nailed together by rusted spikes of the knowledge that I will never experience the childhood that I wanted. I will never again take part in the familial celebrations that I used to look forward to every time the days grew short and the nights grew long.

The room where I keep my personal snow globe is a part of my house. It grows colder inside, when trees start to pop up in living rooms and menorahs are places on windowsills. The first snowfall is not a reminder that this house exists as a prison for me, but a reinforcement of thoughts that are there year-round. This house is haunted by the ghosts of a little girl and a young woman who never had names, and never had lives. They exist as specters that will live on as people that could have been, but never were. I often grieve for them when I am alone. I furnish this place with memories and experiences that they will never have to enjoy for themselves. Instead, there is a place, in that personal snow globe, on the table, in the room, that the ghosts long to occupy, but not even the ethereal can penetrate that thin plastic ensconcing everything that I valued.

Every year I am compelled to find the personal snow globe of mine. I take the key off of the top of the door frame and press it into my palm. I am driven to enter the room where I keep my snow globe, pushed by the commercials on TV, or the chatter of coworkers, talking about their holiday experiences. I am required by myself to walk toward the table, dragooned by halcyon memories of the Sears Wish Book, gingerbread, strings of lights, Eat N’ Park Christmas Star commercials, and Auld Lang Syne at midnight. I pick up the snow globe that houses my past and I give it a slow, mournful shake, remembering things so strongly, so vividly, that their power overwhelms my senses with their cloying nostalgia. I try to tell myself to never come in this room again, to throw away the key, and to burn that snow globe in effigy, for a life that I should surrender to misunderstanding and bigotry wrapped in Americana.

I don’t, however, and every year, the lock tumblers click into place as I engage in an act of reminiscing that serves no other purpose than to remind me of my otherness To glance upon my personal snow globe is an act of self-harm. I should know this, but yet I continue. I do not know why.

Do you have a personal snow globe? What does it look like? Who is inside? What music does it play? Where do you keep it? These are questions that many people do not have to ask themselves during this time year. To them, there is no snow globe. There is no room, and there is no house constructed of regrets, shame, and yearning for love. I wish to be free of the snow globe’s burden, but I can never experience that, because I am a transgender woman, and my memories are a part of who am today. Those memories make me sad, longing for that time before life became so complicated and cruel, before I came out to my parents, before the shell of that snow globe was sealed permanently.

So to those of you that cherish this time of year, I ask that you support those family members, friends, and loved ones, that struggle with their own snow globes. To those that are reading this right now, look down at your hands. Can you see your very own snow globe? Fortunately, you don’t have to carry its burden alone. There is help. You can find that help in your therapist, your church, your partner, or your friends. After searching for those people, if you still feel like it’s an unbearable weight to carry that snow globe forward into the new year, remember that people like me exist, and perhaps we can help each other. The gift of support is one gift that we can all share when we need it the most.

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