In considering Beth's life and death and my grief, a surprising amount of it all is memories of her bad qualities - things I could never consciously admit to myself before. I saw each and every one of them, and it made no difference. Her childishness, her carelessness, her inability to recognize or curb her appetites so that when she crashed they always became new appetites and new addictions. Her selfishness, and her overcompensation for it. All that.
How much must I have loved her to blind myself to it all? But she loved me almost as much. I say 'almost' because near the end. when I mentioned that I would give my life for her, she was speechless for several days. Perhaps because she couldn’t respond as we did when we said “I love you.” and we always responded, “I love you too.” She loved me for the last five years of her life, as I did her. That is an incomparable gift, and it made up for everything.
As it happened, no one was able to take that offer of my life for hers, so she died and here I am, and it's hard not to blame myself, because here I am. In a way it's very much like the lasting trauma of child abuse survivors. "It must be my fault I was beaten, because I'm bad and the proof is that I was beaten."
My greatest regret is that I could not get Beth to confront her mother with how she had beaten her, every day after school, for eight years. After an eight-year amphetamine addiction, Elaine simply didn't remember, and Beth couldn't tell her. And then Beth died. And Elaine didn’t.
While Beth was alive it was not my place to tell Elaine. And now I can’t because I’ve been barred from visiting her. And she wouldn’t understand or remember anyway because of her Alzheimer’s. It could be a small measure of justice for Beth, at least in my mind. But it wouldn’t bring Beth back. So I’ll just write this note.
For various reasons I expected my life to be over at 60. But I was alive and healthy, had done wonderful things and was about to do more, so it was all a great adventure to me to be alive. I'd put up tents and awnings in the back yard, arranged for food and drinks and about 50 friends and their kids to help celebrate. They were jugglers and fire eaters and breathers and poi and hoop and flag and meteor and staff spinners, even clowns and mimes. I'd invited everyone to stay up with me to witness the new dawn, to celebrate our mutual survival, and to mourn the loss of friends and lovers. A few actually did.
That decade was filled with more joys and tragedies, many planned and many more unexpected. And at 75 I'm quite happy to be here though I miss my wives terribly. My work and play is much constrained, as is my body and sometimes my mind. Yet things go on, regardless, and so far so do I. Once again I've reached bottom and bounced up. More slowly each time, and with no more grace than usual, but (cue Elaine Stritch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--u0kxITaBU ) Me and you too, kid.
Despite the disappointments and losses, it's good to be here, still able to care for myself with only minimal help from my friends. Not afraid of death, my own or others, though I want no more pain - but that's often the cost of living. And it really, really does get better, even with tears.
What more could anyone ask for? Thank you flying spaghetti monster, and my blind, stupid luck.
One of my dearest friends, Robert Nelson, the Butterfly Man, passed away a few years ago.
In speaking of his life as a street performer, he said that people who had heard of his well-earned reputation as an aggressive and abrasively funny man were always surprised to meet him and find he was actually a very nice person. Similarly, people who only knew his stage name were sometimes frightened and confused by this person they'd hired because his name sounded so sweet. But he loved rolling with it, walking into a room with those two butterflies tattooed on his bald scalp, and seeing half the crowd edging away and the other half curious about who this interesting madman could be. (Look him up on YouTube.)
He got the name by accident - the tattoos came later. He found that until he walked on stage, or claimed the pitch or the front of the room, he had no idea what he was going to say or do. He just had faith that, regardless, they probably weren't going to stone him. At least not immediately.
And then this glorious, angry, smart-mouthed curmudgeon who was instantly able to connect everything he'd ever seen or heard or read about, came rushing out to play with the crowd. With the children as well as the adults, and the old people too. He really liked people, and they could tell. So they liked him back. (Few things are funnier than an outrageously angry man, spewing his spleen, and then cracking up at his own outrage - and then going right back into it.)
I met him when he was down and thinking seriously about quitting the business. I was the director of the Portland Juggling Festival that year, asked him to come. He did, and seemed to find himself again, and was given the Ben Linder award for inspiration.
I was never anywhere close to being as good as Robert, but I knew where that freedom came from. So be free. Have no expectations. Open all your senses.
And be here, now.
And that's the feeling and the memory I woke up with this morning.
This was difficult for me, not simply because I identified with Campbell, but because I believe most of us would. Because in him they see themselves, their own equivalent box of photos and negatives. Will anyone see them? And if anyone does, will they understand?
If you are part of a close-knit family, if you were recognized in your work, if for a period of time you had caught the attention of the media, then perhaps.
When I was a teacher my job was to make a difference in the minds and lives of my pupils. But unless I had a charismatic presence or tried to keep in touch with some of them, I would probably never know. It happens that indeed, fifty years later I don't know, and never will.
We know our lives are ephemeral and that our effect on the lives of others may be ephemeral as well. It is difficult for us to deal with this knowledge. We all want to know that our life had an effect, an impact. That the small movement of air from our passage was somehow noticed. That at least to that extent we "made a difference."
Jessica Ferber looked in the box and saw the photos, and understood. And thus was the life of James Robert Campbell, and her own, kept alive for another brief moment.
It all came to you so easily. First your talent.
Then your fame. Then your fans and lovers. Then me.
Nothing was hard except the indifference of your blind father and homicidal mother.
And when they all began to go - talent, fame, fans, lovers, work -
You grasped at everything that was still easy: radio show, celebrity, me.
But when another crazy lady attacked you and no friends would defend you,
You began to die. Physically. Mentally. Visibly.
You had never learned to stand alone. Your parents never showed you how.
When I demanded that you try, you sat in the dirty bathtub and cried -
I should have let you. But we all still loved and supported you, so it was all right.
Until one by one we fell away. Until all that was left were the crutches
You refused and I kept offering instead of myself, a well-stocked house
With a ramp and wheelchair and power chair and library
And good lighting and fifteen large baskets of clippings and 900 videotapes,
And one hundred skin care products, each with backup duplicates.
And then you were gone, and we were still here, wondering how
You could go despite all our support and care and substitutes for love.
I have difficulty standing, now, too, and I sullenly growl at those who offer help.
It’s hard to stand alone. Perhaps it’s better to fall, and learn to roll.
Sometimes you need to jump off the cliff.
To reach out to nothingness, blindly,
Knowing that nothing, nothing will save you.
That you will leave everything, everything behind.
It requires a leap of faith -- not something an atheist easily does.
And it has to be worth it. The leap. The fall. The landing.
I knew they were there, each of them, both of them. Waiting.
Wanting what I wanted, to make themselves, ourselves, complete.
And now they are gone. Both of them. Damn them and damn me!
Damn Hope, and damn all ye who fling themselves there.
The first took forty years of the separate lives I’d built for us together.
The second took only five and everything else (and was worth it all!)
Now I’ve rested and it’s almost time to build and leap again. If I can.
Thank you both for not letting me to bleed to death, here at the bottom.
Thank you for offering a room and not a life -- very wise, that.
I tried doing that, for them and me and failed. Twice. Don’t.
Unless you have no choice. Then firmly grasp your terror, and leap.
Sometimes it kills you. Sometimes it doesn’t. You never know.
I must simply leap for myself now, and hang on. We’ll see.
Yeah. It's what the Doc ordered.
I'm exhausted from the revelations already.
First, it's not my fault, and there's nothing I could have done to prevent her death. She killed herself, guided with help from her abusive mother and alky-invisible father, each of whom were considered paragons of parenthood by everyone else. (I had the good fortune to lose faith in my parents at an early age, so I never confused the real with the Jungian ideal.)
Stubborn as all hell, she would not get help or take advice, so she finally did what her parents always wanted her to do. She died.
Second, I'm re-reading my favorite author, Laurie King, her Martinelli series, "To play the fool," about a true religious Fool, Christian and Buddhist, when I read "The Fool is the other aspect of the Shaman." (Straight out of the Mircea Iliad that I'd forgotten.)
Forty years ago I'd considered that I might be a Fool - a very poor one, perhaps, devoting myself to anti-war work - speaking truth to power. Truly a fool's errand, though a necessary one. So I did it anyway.
Fifty years ago I'd had all the dreams and signs of the shaman: magical flight, opening my abdomen to spill out jewels, returning them and sewing myself back up so no one else would know, transvestism, being visited by a spirit animal and shown a path, etc. Presumptuous, of course, but there’s no point in arguing with your dreams, or your compulsions.
I'd thought I could help Beth, just as I thought I could help Judy. I dedicated my life to each wife. There was progress, but of course I failed as all fools fail. The first precept of shamanistic healing is: sometimes they die.
But I'd never made the connection between Fool and Shaman - it's enough to question my Jungian credentials! I'm struck by my own blindness. But not struck dumb, hence this.
So all this is running around my head and I haven't even found a grief group yet. Psychotherapy sucks -- can I just get on with my life now?
from my mother:
the ability to tell a story and a tendency to lie, especially to myself.
from my father:
a love of women, and a horror of abusing them as he did.
from my stepfather:
a moral conscience, a drive for independence, and a fear of closeness.
When there is enough discontent, there will be a revolution and blood will flow and people will die, and quite likely the revolution will be subverted or stolen by others who will establish another system, perhaps no better, perhaps even worse. Until then and between those times I will work for incremental change. I will keep my goals in mind but work for the possible rather than the ideal. Yes, I am outraged and terrified and saddened by what I see, and I have been so all my life. In the face of this it's very hard, but I will try not to change my goals or the means I advocate for achieving them, knowing that I will not always be successful. And yet there is joy and love, and always the possibility of more, another day.
As the sun makes it new,
Each day make it new.
Once again, make it new!
Our perception of our lives and lifetime is peculiar. For example, the death of Abraham Lincoln is closer to my birth date than I now am. That's a mind bender.
The loss of any part of yourself, your family, chosen family, friends, pets, etc. - the loss of anyone you have incorporated in this way, puts you into the process of grief. You mourn not only for them, but for that part of yourself.
I am now the oldest living member of my family. This is no small thing for, by the deaths of those before me I have become the principal carrier of their and their ancestors memories and continued effect on the world. What I absorbed from them is as much a part of who I am as are my own memories and any effect I have on others. That's an immense burden, lightened because I share it with everyone else alive today.
Having lost two wives and three cats to death, four of them while in my arms, I've come to believe that grief is the process of emotionally saying goodbye, while incorporating my experience of them into a memory of not just who they were, but who I've become because of them. My shadow, our shadows, stretch back to the beginning of life.
I wonder at the loss of all. Especially of those I've loved, I mourn the loss of their presence. I celebrate what they have added to my own life, and what of them I now carry with me.
Where will I take them?
My first introduction to others with dysphoria, or an urge to appear or be perceived as something other than themselves, was in the Internet Carny and Circus groups. David the Lizard Boy, The Enigma, several male RB3 clowns who were either gay or had a female character as their clown persona -- some were the most recent of several generations of cross-dressed clown characters in their family. And then there were the furries, and the xenos, and the cos-players, and suddenly it was a world of friends and relatives and I was not alone.
Cross dressing - the common name for my own brand of oddness, is both more and less and totally other than a simple fetish. It’s certainly not a choice. Especially for young cross dressers it can be extremely disturbing. No less so because, until recently, parents and friends rarely understood or accepted; and as children, we didn’t understand or accept ourselves, either. So we hid.
Like all cross dressers, I’ve gathered and purged entire wardrobes of female clothing. I’ve done so for decades. Only now, in my seventies, have I come to terms with myself and simply go with it when I feel like it, or need to - but still only in private. (Electro-convulsive treatment, like other forms of so-called reparative therapy, doesn’t work except as simple, severe punishment.) I so envy current and future generations who from an early age find their gender identity to be a basic human right.
I thank my wife for helping me to finally see that I am part of something larger and more than myself. Yes, some of it is sexual. Some of it is exhibitionistic. It is just a part of who I am, like being a publisher, librarian, juggler, teacher, or anti-war organizer, all of which I’ve also been. Are those genetic or social predilections, too? Fetishes standing in for more primal urges? Probably no more or less so. And does it really matter?
We, the gender-variant, gender-blessed, are like Jungian archetypes: we're found all over the world and regardless of what we are called, we are too similar across wildly different cultures for coincidence. We are not typical, not average, but as members of the mammalian species of this planet, we are certainly normal.
And it’s more than being just a cross dresser. Cross dressing and cross living is an essential part of say, being a Bear Clan shaman, and of many other social niches in many, many cultures. Sometimes we are a basic and honored part of the society we are born into. At other times we are outcasts or social pariahs. Yet we survive and continue to appear in every land, in every generation. Androgynous, gender-fluid, gender-queer, transgender, gay, lesbian, asexual, and more: clowns, actors, your mother, your husband, your child.
Like werewolves and vampires, we look like ordinary people, except when we can’t or don’t want to. So we change our appearance - sometimes right before your eyes. You have seen us everywhere, and you don’t recognize us. But though we are often feared and reviled, there is nothing inherently evil or dangerous about us. We are just people. Different of course, but people all the same. And yet we are, indeed, legend.
Lots of things killed my wife. Here are some of them:
Her mother, who beat her almost every day throughout elementary school and junior high school.
Her father, who would not defend her or support her, or stop his wife from beating her.
Yes, he was an alcoholic and she was a methamphetamine addict, but even after their sobriety they never apologized or would admit to their own past behavior for longer than it took to excuse or forget it. Everything was always Beth’s own fault, so she deserved it. So she never learned how to sustain her successes, but instead ignored or crushed them because, obviously, that’s what you were supposed to do.
Well, Daddy’s dead now. And Mommy has severe Alzheimer’s and no memory for much other than the songs of her youth. And that is going, too. They tried, and failed.
And me. I didn’t constantly tell her I loved her and that she was indeed worthwhile and absolutely deserved love and respect (and she did). She needed that, and I wasn’t always on top of it. Sometimes but not always. I had my own issues. But still, I didn’t measure up to her needs. I was never able to make my suggestions or criticisms positive enough. And (it’s a guy thing, but still) I always tried to fix things rather than just let her vent.
And that is some of my own guilt. I can only partially expiate this by sharing it and apologizing, which I do, and by sharing the failings of the most responsible others (there are more - her many lovers and all the friends who abandoned her when she would not defend herself - but these, we, are the principals), not out of spite but so that someone among all the bored and annoyed people reading this might change their own behavior just enough to save the life of someone they love.
And Beth, my love, is still gone and nothing, nothing, will bring her back. So, this.
Inspired by http://themighty.com/2015/07/wife-with-depression-writes-love-letter-to-her-husband/
My legs used to carry me wherever I wished to go. But now I find that if I don't walk at least a mile each day, I rapidly and progressively lose my ability to walk at all without falling. I expect that the walking distance needed to maintain my mobility will increase until I can no longer meet the minimum needed to continue to walk. Balance exercises help. And yes, on bad days I do use a cane. I see a power chair in my future, but not soon, I hope.
This is not welcome news because, in my approaching decrepitude, I find that dislike physical exercise. It was not always so. Now, I like to be places, but I rarely enjoy getting there, even by car. I'd much prefer to read, and to write memoirs and essays, talk to friends, and eat or sleep.
So, with ill grace and occasional cursing, I will endeavor to walk more, even though I don't enjoy it much. Your good wishes are appreciated, but your advice will probably contradict other advice I have received. So unless you offer evidence- rather than authority-based expertise, or simply anecdote, please don't. (And if I hear that anyone is actually praying for me, I will unfriend them.)
Once again, I thank you -- I did thank you, didn’t I? I certainly should have done! -- for putting up with my maundering.
That's what my wife, my partner, asks sometimes when we're in the midst of a quarrel. I always took this to be a back-handed way of telling me that she wanted me to leave, or that I should push her away.
She meant it literally. And it came from the midst of her depressive mania. She was not telling me to get out, she was telling me she wasn't worthy of my love, of anyone's love. That she was a failure, a mistake, an alien with green blood. A creature too horribly wrong to be allowed to live.
She was a battered child and has battled PTSD most of her life. Like the veteran who comes back convinced that the wrong person was killed and that they should have been the one sacrificed and not their comrade(s) -- my wife feels that she should be rejected as unworthy, at fault, too damaged to be near, unlovable, undesirable, and that was why the most important people in her life beat and rejected her for so long. Because she deserved it.
This is the cry of the battered child who cannot accept that her batterers -- mother and father, both -- were wrong to beat her. It must be her own fault - because it can't be theirs.
It took me a long time to recognize her cry for what it was, because I was battered child too. Not in the same way, but instead for being a sexual pervert, a disgrace to my family, a faggot in a dress. A cross dresser.
And yes, that was my fault. But it wasn't wrong to want to dress up and pretend I was a woman. It wasn't even wrong to achieve sexual gratification from doing so. And finally, that it wasn't my fault that I was this way and that I couldn't help being this way. That it was okay to be me! - it just wasn't easy to be me, especially in the 1950s.
So that's me, and that's her. Fully grown adults who so loved their parents and so idolized them that they could not be wrong - so it must have been us! And we have to prove this to ourselves and the world over and over again by being bad children who deserved bad treatment.
I had found this pattern when I was dealing with vets, found it among battered and abused children I worked with as a teacher, found it in myself, and now, finally, recognized it in my spouse.
I'll bet that no small number of people here recognize it in themselves or their partners, too. Or both.
So when my spouse tells me that she doesn't understand why I don't leave her, I tell her that I stay because I love her because she is worthy of my love, worthy of my respect, worthy of more than I can ever completely say. And I mean it. I tell her that the "wrong" she feels is not in herself, but in her understanding of who she is in relation to others - specifically in relation to her idealized parents. It's not her fault!
It's not her fault that her mother tried to kick an amphetamine addiction by herself and became violent at least once a day for eight years. It's not her fault that her father never rescued her and instead drank himself into a stupor. It's not her fault. Her parents just weren't able to live up to the people they should have been, and that's not her fault either, because they were simply human and the problems they faced, addiction and alcoholism, were simply too much for them at that time in their lives.
The weird thing is that Beth knows this. She's known it, discovered it time after time, over and over. in the shrink's office and out of it; when lying next to me in bed, when driving to a party, when we were broke and couldn't get work - whenever the pressure got too great. She'd slip back into the habit of self-blame, and have to re-learn that The weird thing is that Beth knows this. She's known it, discovered it time after time, over and over. in the shrink's office and out of it; when lying next to me in bed, when driving to a party, when we were broke and couldn't get work - whenever the pressure got too great. She'd slip back into the habit of self-blame, and have to re-learn that it wasn't her fault.
Some lessons, like the flu, need to be vaccinated for (or relearned) before the start of every flu season. It just something you gotta do to stay healthy.
Fortunately for us, I think we have that figured out. Now we just have to remember it, and make sure we get our flu shots of support and love, every time it's needed.
Hope this makes sense to those of you who need to hear it.
Hope this helps.
I wrote this three weeks before Beth died. I found it fourteen months later, in an archive of posts to my favorite forum. Too late for her and not enough, but it may be useful to others.
Unless you start as a child or are a brilliant actor, you are not going to pass. At least not without a lot of work with an experienced coach -- not just a friend or lover. We see what we wish to see in the mirror, or what we fear.
An artist trains to see what is actually there, and to reproduce it in two or three dimensions. A dancer or mime must learn to see themselves from a distance, as others see them, and to move precisely for those other eyes. Few succeed.
Similarly, for those of us who believe ourselves to be other than what the mirror shows, it's very difficult to let go of that image of ourselves as someone of another sex, the image we first saw so long ago and still see in our mind's eye. To see what is there instead. It’s so much easier to cultivate our obsession, our hopes, our imagination. To pretend, and to try to convince ourselves, and hope we convince others. If the image is not that different than the reality, and we practice doing it long enough, we sometimes succeed.
If the image is radically different than the reality, it takes total concentration and giving up all else, all illusion, hope and desire, including the desire to be something else and the hope that others will see what we wish them to see. So we immerse ourselves in a role and become an actor and learn to be another person. Dedicate yourself to that, and nothing else. Learn more than the cookbook rules of movement, speech and voice, attitude, action and reaction. And then, only then, believe absolutely. The lion can be no other than itself, nor can the rabbit. They do not, cannot, believe: they simply are. To pass, you must be that.
I long ago gave up the hope of becoming my obsession, of being and living it. I gave up that hope (but not the obsession) so that I could be my mundane self, and be it to the best of my ability. I stayed in the closet. For sixty years.
I was successful, I think. I achieved most of my life’s goals. Married, raised a family, created a profession -- all those things one is supposed and expected to do. My obsession stayed in my closet. I’d visit it occasionally, but I couldn’t stay there because it was only me in there, and that’s not enough for a life.
This is harsh, I know. But we’re talking about honesty here. Honesty hurts like a motherfucker. Truth is rarely our friend. But that’s what there is.
On the other hand, regardless of how we see or hope to see ourselves, there is survival value in seeing others and other things as they are; and if we’re not sure, assuming the worst, assuming danger. Thus the instinctive “uncanny valley,” that what we see when that person does not pass, is wrong and probably dangerous. This is the automatic mechanism by which others see us, and why we pass, or don’t in their eyes, and why not passing raises the hackles in others. They see the alien, the other, and prepare themselves to run, or fight, or kill.
Freud was wrong about many things, but he correctly believed that civilized behavior was achieved by overcoming our instinctive and un-thought responses -- not because they are bad or evil, but because they are insufficient and do not represent reality.
“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by. But the red shoes, dance on!” Yes, Lermontov; and I know why you cry.
So much of what we say and write is shorthand for what we see and feel. It has to be, because we cannot write our lived lives, for that would take the place of our lives, and take all of our lives, forever. Crafting that shorthand so it reflects more than the simple words, so that it is the more true, the more complex, is hard. At its best it's poetry, but usually it's more like "happily ever after" or Facebook, and simply tries to imply so very much more.
At times I've tried to sing my life, or play it, or dance it, and sometimes for a brief time, that works. Words are better for me, and always inadequate because they’re permanent and our lives and thoughts are always changing, editing, dancing. But I try. So do we all.
A nation is a collection of stories that people believe about themselves. Americans are only now beginning to realize how different groups, left and right, have different stories they believe and tell their children. Some of these stories are true, or less not true than others. All of them are myths.
Strong men conquered and tamed the West, turning the largely unoccupied but hostile land into an agricultural and cattle-raising paradise.
White leadership gave Blacks education, law, and civilization, only to be reviled, and have their genteel society of benevolent feudal plantations turned into a morass of resentment and greed.
Americans have always welcomed the poor, the weak, the powerless. Except Mexicans, Irish, Italian, Hindu, Pakistani, Ukranian, Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Somali, Nigerian, . . .
We are not the people we think we are, and from Columbus on we always have not been.
And now we will have a President who will exemplify this.
Perhaps we should think of this as a learning experience.
I hope we do.
Someday I will wake up
not trying to tell Judy or Beth
something wonderful or merely odd
that I just discovered. But not yet.
Are there fewer wonderful
and odd things than there were?
I think not. But neither Beth nor Judy
are here anymore, except in memory.
So I let them go as slowly as I can.
As slowly as I must.