My blog posts are sometimes started days before they are scheduled for online publication. This week as I am writing in concert with my friend Tom whose posts appear at One Whole Life, my writing is particularly organized. We have quite consciously outlined what we will include in each day’s posts, not so much to apply a rigid structure, but to find some ways to think together about this complex topic of the impact of HIV disease in the Midwest over a couple of decades.
I often think about my topics on the train as I head to or from Chicago a couple of times a week. It is generally a quiet ride with lots of commuters and a sprinkling of seasonal travelers, people going to conferences, the Merchandize Mart, American Girl, or Federal Court. Each day I pass many interesting spots along the way. One favorite is the horse barn near downtown Milwaukee on the east side of the tracks. Police and carriage horses stand around outside in all weather, sidling up to each other, drinking water, or feeding. Their private society seems to be all but unknown to area residents. I often feel delight in seeing them in their private world. I also feel melancholy about their attenuated lives.
Another site that attracts me is nearer the airport on the west side of the tracks. Just north of Howard, riders can see an interesting juxtaposition between the southwest corner of a cemetery and the northeast corner of Wilson Park — more than a hundred acres of death and life visually touching each other. I sometimes think about my childhood experiences in each of these places. In one my parents and aunts and uncles are buried. In the other, I played, ice skated, ran, and celebrated.
On the train I also catch up on the news. This week everything is Iowa, Zika, Donald, Bernie, snow, Davey Wavey, and New Hampshire. I have feelings about each of these as well.
And I allow myself to think and to daydream on the train, too.
Recently as I took the trip to Chicago, I was reminded in my reverie of James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 as set to music by Samuel Barber and recorded by Leontyne Price. I first heard the recording in 1970 and played it months later to my students at Lincoln High School. They were pretty sure that I had completely lost it. I was pretty sure that I was letting them know that there are African American opera singers who could communicate in ways that challenge our sense of reality, normalcy. I also played Cleopatra for them, where her voice clarified that the Queen was African. Ms. Price sang:
All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
James Agee, Knoxville: Summer 1915 (c) 1938
I played this music again and again to the teens who were sure this white guy with the Jew-fro was crazy. I was trying to get them to see me and to let them know that I saw them. We were witness to one another. The mental and emotional snapshots we were taking of each other’s lives were limited by our roles, ages, races, sexual orientations, and more. The snapshots were also constrained by each us being in the process of becoming. Can we actually see each other when we are each at once stable and unstable, still and in motion?
In writing about AIDS this week, I have struggled with my inability to let you know how it affected me personally. How do I share its impact when none of us knows who I would be without HIV, who any of us would be? That 22 year old teacher who played Knoxville: Summer 1915 knew nothing of Agee or Barber or Price, but longing for human connection was already written large on my life. I was close to clueless about the impact of racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia on my life or anyone else’s, but I was deciding that I would be their student.
By the time I was 35, fucking everything was different because of a virus and my country’s inability and unwillingness to address it as the medical challenge it is. While the nucleus of the man I was prior to AIDS is still intact, the struggle to keep it alive has been incredibly difficult. I appreciate my colleagues, friends, students, Effy/Buster/Dexter, my dear sister, counselors, for their persistent belief in me. Still, would I ever know what the horses, the park, the cemetery, or music might have represented to me now had I not experienced AIDS?
- How would I understand Donald Trump’s announcement that he would work to overturn marriage equality?
- Could I stop telling stories about our consciousness-raising group that worked on eliminating sexism for years?
- Would I still have this ongoing sense that I am waiting for an apology if my men had not died?
- When I hear LGBT people being blamed for earthquakes, hurricanes, shark attacks, could I not feel defensive?
- Could I see Bill Clinton somewhat favorably if his support of DOMA and DADT didn’t seem like one more government betrayal?
- Would I despise Nancy Reagan and think of the song “Ding-dong, the witch is dead” when I think of her?
- How would I evaluate my own life?
- Would the private lives of horses in a downtown barn spark sadness?
- Could I see the park and cemetery side by side and not wonder about the latter more than the former?
- Would I have such antipathy for Dan Savage’s privileged views on LGBT teens and young adults?
- What topic would I have selected for my dissertation if the lives of my family of choice didn’t depend on it?
- Would I see Manhattan for what it is now instead of how it was before it was robbed of its creative class by AIDS?
- When I am asked about being direct in my assessments of situations, would I still wonder about why others are not?
- Would I be free from wondering — even once — if Paul settled on me because we could then avoid an HIV transmission?
- Would I look around my table of a weekend and see my men?
- When I listen to Brittany Howard admonishing us with Alabama Shakes to hold on, could I just let go instead of agreeing with her?
Truth be told, I do not believe I can find reconciliation to the untimely and preventable deaths of one-half million gay and bisexual men in the US in the past 30 years in large part because the truth is not actually told. Gay men are still not trusted, still viewed as decorative and irrelevant, still mocked, still publicly targeted with hate speech, still invisible in our contributions and our humanity, and still blamed for a virus.