Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Celebrate With Caution


Celebration Theatre, during its halcyon days, was located on Hoover Street in Silver Lake, not in the land of hipsters that you are likely familiar with today but the seedier terrain of Silver Lake, home to Latinos, immigrants, and queers—oh, my—and oh, my, some Latino immigrant queers.

The theatre, about the size a small studio apartment, was actually an extension of the bus stop where passengers embarked on a trip to more glamorous Westside hotspots. We, its denizens, knew this because several times during critical board meetings, intense rehearsals, and performances that captured the collective grief of the AIDS cataclysm of the Eighties, bus riders would unwittingly arrive through a door—which the Fire Department prohibited us from locking—that stood between the bus stop bench and stage right.

“Where’s the john?” someone might ask as just an onstage character drew his final breath. “Does anybody have any change?” “When the fuck is the motherfucking bus supposed to get here, anyway?” Based on an 8 PM curtain, directors were warned in advance to create a bit of silent business as the bus screeched to a stop in front of the Celebration Theatre.

But believe me when I say that there is much to celebrate about that tiny sacred space on Hoover. Celebration Theatre had overflowing capacity to speak to a tribe of GLBT and, yes, questioning people who were finding their identity, inventing themselves and reinventing themselves during a period of mourning that we thought would never end. For many of us, it hasn’t.
 "...captured the sacred and profane marriage of sex and death, not uncommon in a plague state."
Chuck Rowland was the founder and first Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre; to preserve his name on this award is not only symbolic, it is historically correct. As Chuck grew older and frailer, he knew he’d have to let go of the baby he delivered on Hoover Street. Being chosen as his successor was one of those moments in my life that pointed to a new artistic frontier; Chuck unwittingly provided me with the physical space to introduce a form of explicit visceral expressiveness—an entwined emotional/sexual space, if you will—that was heretofore foreign to his generation.

While HIV/AIDS was tiptoeing into the consciousness of gay theatre artists, it was—as oxymoronic as it may sound—PC HIV. Chuck had undoubtedly never read a play with stage directions indicating that “the two onstage actors cum simultaneously.”).

“Pornography,” Chuck grumbled, describing Jerker, Robert Chesley’s 1986 so-called “AIDS play” that trenchantly captured the sacred and profane marriage of sex and death, not uncommon in a plague sate.

As theatrically savvy as anyone, Chuck eventually embraced the play in all its juiciness: multiple orgasms, blood pumping fantasies, and finally, the tears shed as audience members remained in their seats for some time after the final curtain fell.

The opportunity to direct Chesley’s play was the ideal artistic follow up for me after I acted in James Carroll Pickett’s Dream Man. Pickett, like Chesley, was unapologetic about profound explorations of sexuality in his work. For him, the sexual gay male body was a conduit to deep truths. Chesley and Pickett entrusted me with the daunting task of telling their stories. Stories with words that zing, words that linger, words that hurt, words that scream, words that shock, words that defined—with equal amounts of rawness and elegance—what we (gay men) were experiencing.

Kearns & Pickett, producers of STAGE,
the first and longest-running AIDS 
benefit in the country. 

I became a playwright because of Robert Chesley and James Carroll Pickett; this is their award as much as it is mine. My angel brother mentors both died of the plague but both remain seated on each side of me as I delve into the next play, the next monologue. Along with the innumerable other illegal things I did, I married each of those two men, my artist-husbands—no greater loves, no greater intimacies.

Chesley died in 1990. We held a memorial at the Hoover Street Theatre. Pickett and only one of the two surviving actors—revealingly emaciated—were among the atendees. Pickett died on July 4, 1994.
 "...I married each of these two men, my artist-husbands..."
I may have been rendered husbandless but I would not be childless. Katherine Kearns was born on August 26, 1994. My decision to adopt as a single gay man who was HIV-positive—prior to the release of the miracle protease inhibitors—resulted in reviews crueler than any given to my stage work. Many of my erstwhile supporters felt that if I survived, being a dad would certainly soften me, desexualize and depoliticize me. Ha!

Katherine, especially during the past decade—and most pointedly in the last year—has only served to expand my consciousness far beyond the concerns of being a gay man who lived through the prism of white privilege. My daughter has, in many respects, radicalized me.

The rage she experiences is fresh rage; the pain I see in her eyes is not eradicated like a “boo boo” that goes away with a smooch and a band aid. From the Ferguson furor to the gross negligence inflicted upon Sandra Bland, I am immersed in a day-to-day crash course in Black Studies. “Have you heard about the Stonewall film?” she asks, referring to the whitewashing of a queer civil rights milestone.
"...a gay man who lived through the prism of white privilege." 
The fact that we don’t share the same blood is a non-issue; the difference of our skin color is the more pervasive challenge that stirs the fresh cement of our evolving father-daughter bond. In spite of the daily turbulence that we confront in the world, a fundamental stability defines the core of our family.

Her black life matters to me more than my own white life. And I trust that her influence on me will continue to present itself in real life as well as on the page and on the stage.

Yes, we—the queers—have made inconceivable strides. But as we plan our nuptials, let us remember that there are queers of color who are routinely targeted and often murdered in cold blood; there are queers who must fight with all their muscle for Planned Parenthood, there are queer women of color who are more likely to be raped than their white counterparts; there are queers—disproportionately queers of color—who are immorally and inhumanely incarcerated; there are queers who deserve gender reassignment surgery under any circumstances—whether in the military or behind bars; there are queers—disproportionately queers of color—on Skid Row, on Death Row and at the border; there are queer men, disproportionately queers of color, who do not have access to Truvada; there are queers who are victims of this country’s lurid obsession with war. We are everywhere; not just at the wedding planners’.

Pickett (headband and whistle) with Tim Miller acting up.

And this is merely a smattering of issues that are largely American in scope; if we go global in our artistic expansiveness, there are more injustices to examine, and for playwrights—like myself (and many of you)—to explore and illuminate.

Thanks to Celebration Theatre Artistic Directors Michael Shepperd and Michael Matthews for this honor. Thanks to Mark Bringelson and his team of fearless actors who gave us so much.

And, finally, I thank each and every one of you for attending tonight and listening to my words as I endeavor to speak your particular language.

T
his speech was in acceptance of the Chuck Rowland Pioneer Award "for groundbreaking and distinguished achievement in the LGBTQ playwrighting and arts advocacy." Presented to Michael Kearns by Celebration Theatre on August 11, 2015 at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers. 


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I Love You, Malcolm

I LOVE YOU, MALCOLM

The situation was redolent of déjà vu: bidding adieu to a dying comrade whose life of heralded human accomplishments had been reduced to the figure of a body prone under off-white hospital sheets with his labored breathing accompanied by the sibilant symphony of wheezing machines, determinedly keeping him alive.

“He can hear you,” the nurse assured me, echoing the words of Mark, his lover of more than thirty years. That imposed a certain responsibility on my part; what I said would potentially be ingested, possibly traveling from his ear to some region of his body that could be soothed by mere words. Not texts, mind you, or a gushy Facebook entry, but real words that would land in his physical orbit.

“I love you,” I said. There must be something else to say, something less predictable, a less hackneyed choice of words to impart to a man who wrote dozens of luminous books, delivered thousands of profound sermons, told a million or so juicy Hollywood stories.

“I love you,” I repeated. “I love you. I love you.”

His eyelids fluttered, like a silent movie star’s, like those of Mary Pickford, the astronomical silent screen great, with whom he shared an intense business and personal relationship more than a half a century ago.

“I love you. I love you,” I repeated. There were simply no other words that came forth. And yet, in uttering those three words, over and over and over, Malcolm seemed to be the one who was giving as much as he was receiving.

"..shared an aura of indomitability that radiated from their essence; their shared larger-than-life personas made us believe that they were too big to die, too luminous, too outrageous, too present."

Sitting with him, I tried to enumerate the deaths that piled up this year alone: Tommy, a part of my life for more than twenty years, including a make out session that lingers on my lips; Audrey, the grande dame mother of one of my closest friends; Michael, a costume designer who I once witnessed creating a dress on a male performer who stood patiently in a black sea of tulle; Taylor, the actor-writer-painter who combined artistry and humanity with every breath he took.

All of these people, including my darling friend-comrade Malcolm Boyd, shared an aura of indomitability that radiated from their essence; their shared larger-than-life personas made us believe that they were too big to die, too luminous, too outrageous, too present.

“I love you, Malcolm.” I held his hand even though it was snugly situated under the hospital blanket with its embossed pattern of…what is it, flowers? His hand seemed large and strong, contrasting with the frail diminutiveness of his body.

Do I tell him how monumentally he has affected my life? Do I announce how he has consistently inspired me for decades? Do I remind him of all the giggles amidst the shifting phases of our friendship?

“I love you. I love you. I love you.”

He appeared to be in a state of contentment; no raging at the night or waging a war against time. At ninety-one, with a beloved husband (Mark Thompson), a rolodex of friends who are true-blue and more than a little bit lavender, and a literary legacy unparalleled, activist/man-of-the-cloth Malcolm Boyd seems to be welcoming whatever is next. That seems to be his nature.

“Goodbye, my dear friend.

“I love you.” 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Guess Who's Coming...

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO THANKSGIVING DINNER?



I am not black.

I was a seventeen-year old, attending Normandy High School in St. Louis, Missouri, when I saw Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. A groundbreaking film—yet still with its roots firmly planted in Hollywood—the Oscar winning movie dared to examine race relations as America at large was barely finding its footing.

I remember seeing the film with my Grandma Katie, the one relative I could trust throughout otherwise duplicitous familial machinations. During the late Sixties, she rented a room from a woman who lived in Ferguson, Missouri. I have no recollection of discussing the film although my grandmother took me to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with specific intent.

I am not black.

I had met very few black people when I went to a virtually all-white high school; it was only when I ventured into gay bars in East St. Louis that I was exposed to gay black men. They were—to throw out the first of many politically incorrect words I will inevitably employ—exotic.

I knew I was gay in high school and so did almost everyone else including a gang of bullies who—in a militaristic maneuver between classes—captured me, threw me into one of the gymnasium showers and kicked me as I was drenched with cold water. The event would eventually fuel the fires of my activism.

The year I graduated from high school, poised to escape the fear and homophobia I experienced, was a year of mythic political activity: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots at the National Democratic Convention, and the student protests over the war in Vietnam

I began to grasp the concept of Us Versus Them.


Ferguson, Missouri

On Thanksgiving, still reeling from the Ferguson debacle, my adopted black daughter and I go to dinner with a few of our “family” members (Carol and Art, who play the “grandparent” roles and “Uncle” Bill). Of the five of us, my daughter is the only one who is black.

I am not black.

About a year ago, Katherine called me from England, where she was at college, studying filmmaking. “You know something, Dad?” she asked rhetorically and straightforwardly. Then answered herself, “I’m black.”

It was a moment I’d been waiting for; in spite of all the Martin Luther King parades and politically correct children’s books; in spite of trips to Leimert Park and God-only-knows how many African-American-centric beauty salons; after how many movie showings (including Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner) and how many friends I attempted to cultivate, one truth remains: Katherine was brought up by a bunch of crackers.

And even though she’s only twenty years old, the color of her skin is saturated with the hues of more than two-hundred years of anti-black sentiment.

I am not black.

“But I know what discrimination is like. I’ve lost work—I’ve virtually been blacklisted in Hollywood [is "blacklisted" a politically incorrect word?]. I’ve been made fun of. I’ve been afraid for my life,” I insist, trying to suggest that my degree of empathy is pristine.

Katherine insists back, “Dad, it is not the same. It’s just not.” I take a lame stab at the marriage issues (even I know that’s not comparable—I don’t know of any gay lynching in West Hollywood).

I am not black.

Katherine gives me a few articles to read which happens concurrently with a Poly Sci class I’m taking that explores race in America, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the murder in Ferguson. While race is an issue that has been in the foreground of my work as a writer and an actor for decades, I suddenly felt like A Big Ignorant Honkie.


Katherine and her friend (to this day) Cassady 

Before we sit down to eat on Thanksgiving, Katherine flippantly says, “Well, I guess I should be thankful I wasn't shot by Darren Wilson.” Action; the camera is rolling—metaphorically. Wilson is the cop who shot Michael Brown—the teen who recently graduated from Normandy High School (which had become primarily a black school since my days as a student there)—not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times.

Carol suggests that she knows what discrimination is like because she was taunted as a child for being unusually tall, having a childhood illness, and not fitting into normative boxes.

“Carol,” Katherine says, trying to reason. “You have to stop saying that. It’s not the same. It’s not the same as living in black skin. You cannot make those comparisons. I could get killed for being black—do you get that?”

I am not black.

The discussion escalated. I tried to keep my big mouth shut but did offer that I, too, felt like the perils of my marginalization as a gay person are comparable to those of a black person—until I really, really listened to Katherine.

“Carol, it hurts my feelings when you say things like that,” Katherine says, walking from the living room, out the front door.

Katherine begins to cry. Carol begins to understand. We can’t be the only family in America exploring Ferguson during a family gathering on Thanksgiving.


High School Graduation with Carol & Art

Carol loves no one on the face of the Earth more than she loves Katherine. She and Art have helped raise her—from changing diapers to navigating these changing times.

Uncle Bill, a therapist, has always watched with intimacy and objectivity.“It’s so good that you are able to say these things,” he assures Katherine on the evening of our family holiday dinner. 

Carol’s perception shifts.

As a new scene unfolds, I lie down in the adjacent bedroom within earshot of Katherine and Carol enjoying a conversation. Katherine explains how her racial identity is directly affecting her artistic life. She is determined to address what she correctly perceives to be a skewed vision of race in the television and film industry.

Now it’s my turn to cry, quietly, tears of thanksgiving for my daughter (who changed her name in honor of my grandmother) and our evolving mixed family.

I am not black.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

MIDWEST RACE MIX

Protesters peacefully march in Ferguson, honoring the murder of Michael Brown. 

“’Black lives matter!’ the crowd chanted. ‘All lives matter!”’ reported the New York Times, referencing the recent protests in my hometown of St. Louis, two months after Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot by a white cop.
The Chicago Tribune reports: “A white Ohio woman is suing a Downers Grove-based sperm bank, alleging that the company mistakenly gave her vials from an African-American donor, a fact that she said has made it difficult for her and her same-sex partner to raise their now 2-year-old daughter [Payton] in an all-white community.”
Michael Brown and Payton share something that is deemed by many to be “wrong” in many of America’s racially complex neighborhoods: the color of their skin.
The white lesbian couple, disgruntled because they accidentally received the “wrong” semen share something with cops who routinely murder black men in the Midwest (and elsewhere): Racism.
I wanted a child, not a color.
Would mommy be suing the sperm donor if her baby had autism and she lived in a “non-autistic” community? I think not. Yes, the Midwest Sperm Bank made a grave mistake but the bigger mistake is a mother who is suing for $50,000 because of the “mistaken” race of her child.
And another question: Do Jennifer Cramblett and her partner, Amanda Zinkon, live in an all-lesbian neighborhood? Presumably, their gayness has not prevented them from surviving Uniontown, Ohio.
Please hear me—no matter what color you are or what your sexual identity may encompass or what fucking neighborhood you live in—being a parent does not come with any guarantees. And often what you perceive to be the presumed “negatives” turn into the glorious gifts.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cramblett “did not know African-Americans until she attended college at the University of Akron.” Oh, my. And if that isn’t drastic enough, she has to take her daughter “to a black neighborhood” to get her hair cut. I have a picture of a distraught lesbian couple walking warily into a movie in which Eddie Murphy plays all the roles, including their 2-year old.
So Cramblett is forced, as most parents are, to make some big adjustments. Hire a moving van, honey. But please don’t say that you do “not want Payton to feel stigmatized” when you have engineered a public lawsuit that has placed your child’s picture all over the media, presumably to let us see how burdensome her skin color is.
If these two transparently disingenuous moms don’t know that they are the ones who have “stigmatized” their daughter, they are delusional.
Kearns with his daughter Katherine.
I can weigh in on this scenario because I—as a single gay man—raised a black daughter in a neighborhood that was not perfect in terms of its ethnic balance. I adopted Katherine twenty years ago—before the onslaught of gay marriage, before Ellen and before Modern Family.
It is, in fact, safe to say that there were no other families like ours, modern or otherwise, living in our neighborhood. And believe me when I say that we were subjected to impolite stares at the supermarket and asked some preposterous questions. Was I “the nanny?” some numbskull asked. However, by integrating into a mixed neighborhood, we found friends and allies of all stripes.
Get a van, honey. 
I acknowledge that the comparison is not entirely fair. I did not care what race my adopted child would be; I wanted a child, not a color. I was not confronted with a Big Surprise that shook my sensibilities. And I don’t suggest that every GLBT person (especially those who live in Ohio) has my stamina or particular purview.
What I do suggest, however, is that the child they brought into the world—however imperfect and unexpected the circumstances—is a magnificent human being just as she is. And to bring the color of her skin into a lawsuit that might benefit mommy’s bank account is a travesty.
I can’t imagine how much Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., the paralyzed parents of the college-bound 18 year old from Ferguson, wish that they could recapture the birth of their dead son; see the promise in their baby’s eyes, caress the texture of his silken skin, hear his first words, recall catching him when he fell, hugging him if he cried. Remember seeing him turn 3 or 13.
But they won’t see him turn 19. They just won’t. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC


WALT & ME (NOW)
Ryland

You know what I think is funny? That there was a point in my life I didn't know you. How weird. You are a permanent feature on my globe—like a continent. 
My friend Ryland

When I question my 31-year old buddy, Ryland, regarding any feelings he has about Walt Whitman, he asks, “Didn't the gay community claim him as their own, like their property?

“Make him a gay saint or something?”

“Okay,” I say to my artistic brother, “I’m going to suggest something that might be challenged—not by you, but if I publish these newfound discoveries. When I read Whitman in my teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with the notion of his homosexuality.”

It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress
 does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman

“The is-he-or-isn’t-he? question has become a non-issue for me,” I continue. “And that is partly because the word ‘gay’ is always thrillingly in flux and never more so than in your generation and the current crop, a decade younger—sorry, Ryland—than you.

“Was Walt gay?’’ I ask myself, and Ryland, as I attempt to tease it out.

“I believe that he loved men with erotically charged emotion, to a degree likely uncommon among his peers,” I say. “I believe there was likely some heartfelt and soulful canoodling and maybe some randy petting taking places with his buddies as the sun went down. But was there all-out fucking?”

I’m certainly not arguing that rambunctious man-to-man anal sex wasn’t transpiring in 1855 (or 1755, for that matter) but did Walt’s sexual repertoire and rapture involve insertion? Part of me thinks not.

I present Ryland with my heretofore cloistered conclusion: “I surmise that the way he navigated his sexuality was approached with more guileless sensually than rough-and-tumble sexually.”

Ryland speaks up, way up, “This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, as things keep evolving, minute to minute. Does it all come down to insertion?”

“No, it’s all up to insertion,” I say, as archly as possible. “I get it, Ryland,” I say, wondering if I really do.

“The gay community, per se, needed that identification to get where we are today,” Ryland posits.

What Ryland says is golden. No matter the specific acts Whitman performed sexually, he gave us voluptuous insight to the very renegade construct of men loving men.

Soulfillment

O the magnet! The flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to definiteness,
          elevatedness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
“To A Pupil” Walt Whitman

I had already begun publishing myself, as intimately as I possibly could, in hopes that my comrades did not die in vain. To have lived to be sixty-four years old, having adopted an African-American daughter, and continued to publish myself has to be credited, not only to the empathy-embracing acting teacher, but to Whitman.

Surely his message—as political as it was artistic—has guided me since my first reading (even though perhaps I infused it with more steamy sexuality than was intended). Whitman was also addressing—in all his poetry’s luxuriousness and sensuality—the art and diligence of achieving democracy in multi-layered specificity. My digestion of those tenets was more subliminal.

Was I aware of that when I was in my twenties, as a horny young gay men looking for someone to identify with? Doubtful. Nor did I likely see the full palette of Williams or Albee or Inge or Isherwood or Vidal; it was their sexuality that provided the portal to understanding something far greater. Call it spirit. Call it spiritual. Call it soul. Without those voices, on the printed page, staring at me with such empathy, I would not have survived to this ripe “old age.”

I believe it’s Whitman’s righteousness that I hold onto as a grown up man; his sense of being one of a crowd, and loving those members of the crowd—no matter what their status may be—is what makes me move forward with some sense of gracefulness and ease. Whitman’s empathy is his artistic achievement.

“The seminar,” I tell Ryland, “resulted in an overwhelming, almost otherworldly sense of soulfillment. Sorry, I mean ful-fillment.”

“No,” Ryland shoots back, without taking a beat, “You mean soul-fillment.”

“Did we just make up a word? I love it. I fucking love it: soulfillment.”

Whitman’s poetry often references “loafing on the grass” and our class found many meanings in this luxuriously enveloping image. Is he being thankful? Was he meditating? Was he finding comfort in nature? What he simply being present in his body/soul? Was he taking time to pay attention?  Perhaps all of the above, all lessons that I know I can learn from.

The nourishment I received from my week in Santa Fe is almost indescribable in its breadth. Not only did I leave singing a song of myself, I left with a sense of being reinforced in my mission as an artist and a human being.

Yet I must share this information with my peers and my younger brethren, for it to resonate. I must publish myself—on the page and in person.

“Keep on loafing on the grass, bud.”
An email from Mitch


This is part five of a five-part series.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This piece is dedicated to Steve Schulte who made my second trip to Santa Fe a reality. And special thanks to Zo Harris for her editing skills.




Monday, September 1, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC

BROTHERHOOD


Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw
          me approaching or passing
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood or the negligent leaning of their flesh
          against me as I sat
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told
          them a word
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman

While one of my esteemed classmates challenged Whitman’s boundary-less largess, I wholeheartedly believe that one can love someone without ever having exchanged words.

This was not the first reference to Whitman’s hyper-connectivity with every human being he encountered, saluting “all the inhabitants of the earth,” as he said. And that included prostitutes, prisoners, pirates, thieves, murderers, and lunatics among others. These humans comprised his chosen democracy and connecting to its manifold members didn’t require verbiage. Each is a metaphoric “leaf of grass”—distinct, important, part of nature, to be celebrated.

I am annealed to the idea of the body as a home for the soul and the soul as a conduit to democracy. Throw in a bit of homoeroticism and I’m there, baby.

Yet I am willing to question myself. Am I my own worst stereotype, a gay man who grew up on anonymous encounters and convinced myself there was emotion attached? I think not. In some cases, of course the sexual gymnastics were void of emotion. But in others, a sense of brotherhood, joined with a profound feeling of love, prevailed. With my soul, I was expressing something beyond the sexual act.

I do not believe this phenomenon is the province of gay men (or of men presumed to be gay) since I have also felt deep love for women; a woman that I silently exchange glances with just might result in an ineffable, instantaneous but fleeting love affair. And I feel certain that many heterosexuals, male and female, have shared this sensation.

When I first made love to Philip, I did not even know that his name was Philip. I also did not know his age, his occupation, his educational background, or where he lived. In those days, prior to the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, gay men often met in the darkened hallways of bathhouses where a communal desire to “only connect” (thank you, E.M. Forster) drove us into each other’s arms. We communicated but an abundance of words was not required. The uniformity of a white towel wrapped around one’s waist was the ultimate costume of democracy.

In the Eighties, when I was in my thirties, I was confronted with death (after death after death after death after death), my commitment to the art of acting transitioned from the narcissistic dreams of onscreen stardom to the day-to-day realities of depicting something (HIV/AIDS) only my soul could express. My soul, my body, my voice, and empathy: all aligned with purpose, to write as well as act.

Through the prism of that wrenching reality, I found purpose. I was able to rivet. In fact, I’ve been unable to stop: riveting, riveting, riveting. With all of my being, I related to Whitman’s deepening expression of democracy as he sat by the beds of dying soldiers in the Civil War. Death is the great democratizer.

The seeds of my blossoming had been planted early on, as a child in St. Louis, Missouri, with a grande dame of an acting teacher, who insisted that her young wards learn, above all else, the art of empathy. It was not a word that she employed but it was a powerful tool that was implanted in my consciousness and would manifest in my work.

“Do not see yourself as different than,” she intoned in a distinctive diva baritone. “You are the same as everyone you see. Always, always, look for yourself in others.”

Embracing otherness is the wellspring of great art. To be given this gift as such an impressionable age was a gift that somehow overshadowed a childhood that was fraught with the perils of familial alcoholism and mental illness, passed from one generation to generation like a broken baton.

Philip—the man with whom I shared museum walks in Amsterdam, romantic dinners in Paris and even a trip down the Nile—died at age 42 after our brief four year marriage.



Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding
kisses (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-
          wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battlefield spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there I the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my
          hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not
          a tear, not a word
“Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” Walt Whitman

This part four of a five-part series.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

I SING MYSELF ELECTRIC

THE HEALER
Who is that lady? Aurora, that's who.

And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman

To quote another poet whose unapologetic sexuality is part of his palette, Leonard Cohen says, “My body aches in places where it used to play.” I wonder if his soul aches as well?

Without enumerating the tedious specifics, my body has—since my HIV diagnosis more than a quarter of a century ago—been ravaged by various insidious offshoots of the virus and the sneaky side effects of the life-saving drugs. In some instances—like the vicious peripheral neuropathy in my feet that is incrementally sneaking up my legs—the verdict is out on whether the condition is a symptom of HIV or a byproduct of the multitudinous drugs I’ve been ingesting for these many years.

And now, even though I’m in my sixty-fourth year (“Will you still love me” the Beatles asked, “when I’m sixty-four?”), I tend to blame everything on HIV —from an ingrown toenail to cataracts—when the real culprit is age.

So I arrived in Santa Fe with a case of sciatica that has been lingering for nearly two months (officially not HIV-related, by the way). I’d gone to my regular doctor, to the chiropractor, to an acupuncturist—all providing temporary relief from either drugs and/or the human touch.

But in Santa Fe? Where are as many “healers” as there are turquoise bracelets? I set out to find one of the town’s preeminent in the field. Her name is Aurora which immediately conjures the glamorous but decidedly witchy character that Agnes Moorehead embodied in the popular Sixties television series, Bewitched.

Mitch agreed to drive me since it’s about a twenty minute ride from campus and a bit off the beaten track. But even his GPS was able to identify the “dirt road” that Aurora instructed would precede our entrance through the turquoise gates.

Mitch and I howled in laughter all the way there. What was I doing? What did I expect? Would it be all airy-fairy or would Aurora actually perform a magical massage and rid me of my sciatica? By the time we traversed to the dirt road, which contained a small, opaque lake, we had written several scenarios, most of them veering toward the lurid. We had arrived at the blue gates which were a bit rusted but nevertheless opened and beckoning.

Since we arrived early, I insisted that Mitch drop me off and not linger. “I’ll read a bit of Walt while I wait,” I said, pointing to a rickety chair situated in the blazing sun.

Mitch was no longer laughing. “Hey, man, just in case,” he said, “take my phone number and give me yours.” As we did the phone exchange, I glanced up at the huge curtain-less window on the second floor of Aurora’s isolated dwelling.

“Mitch! Look at the very center on the ledge of the window.”

As if determinedly placed by a propmaster, for optimum theatrical effect, was a bottle of lotion, glistening in the Santa Fe sunshine.

“Dude, you are in for it,” Mitch proposed. It did faintly resemble the cinematic opening shot of a Stephen King movie. I insisted my buddy leave; I was ready for my closeup.


Santa Fe Clouds

“What is the pain saying to you?” Aurora asked, looking at me with mystical intensity through oceanic azure eyes. And it went from there—for the next three hours, I was both psychologically (spiritually, if you will) examined and physically contorted.

But the most significant aspect of Aurora’s approach was her concentration on the coexistence of the soul and the body; this mergence is where, she feels, one needs to put their energies in order to heal. Yes, the synchronicity between Whitman’s mantra and the healer’s was stunning. The soul, she said, sometimes “wobbles” outside of the body and needs to be allowed inside if we desire wholeness. 

She astutely suggested that I have taken on the pain of others. “You might be carrying their pain in your hip and leg where the sciatica attacks,” she said. I could not disagree; my daughter, my brother, and even some of my students come immediately into focus.

“Give it back to them. They need to experience the pain, not you. You are getting in the way of their healing and learning movement forward.

I admitted that I compound the pain by blaming myself, ruminating that I've done something to deserve the sciatica. Interestingly enough, I never blamed myself for getting HIV—maybe, in part, because I likely seroconverted from negative to positive before there was much information as to how one becomes infected. There remains, more than twenty-five years later, contradictory opinions on that subject.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Aurora said, in a soothing but emphatic voice. “Be curious.” Hmmm. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I feeling the pain? Is there something my body—or soul—is saying to me?’” I wonder—no, I am curious—if what I’m experiencing is a manifestation of soul-sickness.

Her massage technique is masterful, verbally defining the body-soul geography while elaborating in detail about each of the areas that she physically manipulated. In that regard, it was the most specific treatment I’ve ever received.

I realized, however, that it had grown much later than I had anticipated and asked if I could take a moment to call Mitch and assuage any anxiety that he might be feeling.

“Everything is cool, I’ll be in class on time,” I said. “Aurora is driving me back.”
(Only in Santa Fe would your healer also graciously act as chauffer.)

I made it back to the seminar, a bit discombobulated, feeling like I’d been lobotomized rather than healed. Little did I realize that I’d need my brain, my heart and my courage (all those goodies Dorothy got on her way to Oz)—not to mention my soul—for the next “chapter” of my Whitman saga.


This is part three of a five-part series.