Tending Soul in the Age of AIDS

by Christine Downing
I don't know for how many others in a conscious everyday inescapable way this is the Age of AIDS, but for me it is, and has been for almost exactly fifteen years, since the day I returned from a five month trip around the world during which I unexpectedly went through menopause. Reflecting on what this big transition meant to me at a soul level, I discovered how grateful I was to be a woman, to have a woman's body which so insistently finds ways of reminding us of our participation in the natural rhythms of birth, death, and renewal. My body seemed to be telling me that I was entering the last third of life, entering a life-stage one of whose primary tasks would be coming to terms with endings, both welcomed and regretted, including the biggest ending of all, death. When I came home from that trip I found a letter waiting for me from a former graduate student telling me that his lover was dying of Kaposi's sarcoma and that he feared his own immune system was also irreparably compromised, that he , too, would soon be dying. Of course, then, in 1982, we didn't have the word AIDS--but we did have AIDS. Soon more and more of the men I loved were dying or dead or living with the knowledge of their own infection, and all were living with the loss of beloved others, not just individual others, but sometimes it seemed of our whole community. And every one of us could say just when we were first initiated into the Age of AIDS, first found ourselves on what Paul Monette called Planet AIDS. Once there, we live there. AIDS is part of our everyday consciousness--though, in another sense, we keep getting hit with its horror all over again. We go numb, think we re acclimated, and then....

So, yes. I inhabit this planet. The others who live here are my people, my community. Perhaps partly because I'm a lesbian. Perhaps partly because I spent most of a decade of my life, my 40's, being lovers first with one gay man and then with another--much to my surprise and certainly to theirs! and Philip, one of those men. is now dead. When the plague first appeared, I didn't know if I'd been infected or not and avoided taking the test. Of course, I didn't want to learn I was positive but I also didn't want to know I wasn't, because that would mean that those who were would be "they" and I would be their "other," not part of the community living on Planet AIDS after all. Eventually I realized that of course I live in that world no matter what. I took the test and learned that I was negative. By then I had come to believe that we all live in the Age of AIDS--regardless of whether or not we're sero-positive, and not only because AIDS isn't simply a gay disease even here in America but also attacks hemophiliacs, IV-drug users, African-Americans, women, children, infants--but because we all live in a world transformed by AIDS. Or, more accurately, we have been returned by AIDS to the world as most humans have always experienced it. Part of what underlies the terror and horror that AIDS evokes is that for the last fifty years or more most of us in the West--at least the white and privileged among us--have imagined ourselves immune to disfiguring illness or early death. AIDS has returned us to an age-old world where death is inescapable, fearful, omnipresent.

AIDS has returned us to the world where souls live. I almost hesitate to put it that way, because recently "soul" seems to have become such a popular word, a word to be found all over the best seller list, a word in danger of being leeched of its meaning. Yet the word's current popularity may also be a sign that we live in a time when we again need this word, need a word with different connotations from those evoked by the word "spirit." "Spirit" implies a viewpoint that sees meaning in transcendence, in moving beyond, above, earth and body; whereas a "soul" perspective finds meaning in our embodied earth-bound lives with all their messiness.

The Greeks regarded soul (their word was "psyche") as mostly asleep while we were awake but active in dream, trance, in moments of intoxication and sexual ecstasy, and especially in the after-world, the underworld. They recognized that we find ourselves in the underworld not only after death but while still alive, in those times when upper-world concerns are no longer paramount, in times of depression, times when we are "brought down" by grief or rage, fear or guilt, times when typically unconscious, imaginative, modes of thinking not conscious, rational, ones predominate.

I see AIDS as having the power to bring us back in touch with underworld realities and with soul. For AIDS moves us beyond the illusion of innocence, the illusion of being untouched, invulnerable, into a more mature kind of being-here. In Heaven's Coast, a book about his lover's death and his own grief, Mark Doty writes:

I used to think depression wrong--a failure to see, a rejection of the gifts of one's life, an injustice to the world's bright possibilities. But I understand better than I did before.... Could it be that the more I admit the anger and woundedness--the deep, sealed-off hurt long since turned in on itself--the more I'll be able to move freely and flexibly? (p. 219)

Once it was important to me not to become bitter, a kind of survival skill. I didn't want to be burdened, always, by the shadow of a difficult family; there was an energy in me that wanted to move forward, not be locked in contemplation of the past. But I'm forty, and my life's at midpoint (hard to think, now, living in a battlefield, my friends dying at my age or younger, my neighborhood full of men who maybe won't see forty) and I begin to think maybe there is a need for bitterness in adult life. Are we children without it, self-deluded? Is there something in disenchantment which strikes the balance, a darker chord in the self which lends us gravity, depth? A ballast against the spirit's will to rise? (p. 129)

Probably none of us ever journey into the underworld willingly. Going there usually feels like an abduction, as it did for Persephone, the much-loved daughter of the grain goddess Demeter, who one day while gathering flowers in a meadow in the company of a group of other young maidens was forcibly seized by Hades, god of the underworld. Persephone was filled with fear; her mother was consumed by rage and grief; though eventually Persephone came to feel at home in the underworld and her mother came to accept that though her daughter would still spend part of each year with her, her real life was now that of goddess of the realm of souls.

Even when we think we go to the underworld willingly, we seem mostly to imagine we can control, can shape, our journey. We fail to realize that what being in the underworld means is not being in control. I think of the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, Inanna, who sets out for the Land of No Return adorned with all her seven emblems of power, her golden girdle and her lapis beads, and finds as she approaches each of the underworld's seven gates, that one by one she has to give up these protective tokens, so that by the time she arrives she is naked and bowed low.

For many of us it has been AIDS that has forced this soul journey on us. In saying this I do not mean that AIDS necessarily deepens, nor do I mean that AIDS is some kind of blessing in disguise, a wonderfully transformative gift. It isn't--it's shit. And, of course, many different experiences not only confrontation with AIDS can bring us to the underworld. As Shug says in Alice Walker's Color Purple, "trouble do it for most folks," and there are lots of other big troubles. Yet I believe that AIDS because of how it brings together sexuality and death may bring us to soul in an especially powerful way. AIDS reconnects us to the age-old recognition of the interrelation between love and death. As Freud found, in the light of death, sex becomes Eros, becomes not just pleasure but connection. The challenge is somehow to accept death and still love life, for to live is to love. Because to affirm sex is to affirm the body and bodies die, sex makes us aware of our finitude and mortality. I remember the last time close to the end of his life I made love with Philip (long after our relationship had ceased to be sexual in any conventional sense), a love-making as tender and ecstatic and bittersweet as any I have known. As we held each other, as I touched ever so gently what remained of his long-loved body, as he ever so frailly touched me, we remembered all the many other times we'd touched each other in love and knew that we would never do so again.

Sexuality in some sense always has this connection to death, but even more inescapably so in the face of AIDS, for although AIDS is not literally a sexual but rather a blood-borne disease, and is not only transmitted through love-making--nevertheless for those I have known well who have had AIDS, it has been transmitted sexually. Which means these men have had to live with the knowledge that their love-making has also been a deathmaking, have had to live with the knowledge that the body, the penis, the semen, which were once a source of life-affirming pride may now be fatal to others, have had to live with the knowledge that an act of love may have brought death into their body or that through an act of love they may have brought death to another. How does one live with such knowledge?

AIDS forces us to go into these hard places, forces us to go into all kinds of feelings, including many we may be ashamed of: rage, grief, fear of abandonment and rejection, self-pity, self-hatred, guilt, panic, despair. I've come to believe that tending soul means really being open to these feelings, going into the hard places, the underworld. Attending to soul means trying to learn what these unwelcome feelings are saying to us, means learning they are integral parts of a whole life and that they can cohabit us along with hope, peace, love.

The Greeks understood that real healing can only happen through confrontation with underworld realities. Their myths relate that upon reaching maturity, Asklepios, their god of healing, was entrusted with the vials of blood collected from the wound made when Medusa's head was severed from her body. The blood which dripped from the left vein was a magically potent poison; the blood from the right was reputed to have the power to restore the dead to life. On several occasions, so it is told, (perhaps in sympathetic remembrance of his mother's unjust death at the hands of her spurned lover Apollo) Asklepios used the healing potion to bring back to life heroes he saw as having been unjustly punished by the gods, heroes prematurely sent to the underworld. The stories vary as to who benefited from this gift; there is no dispute, however, about Zeus' anger at Asklepios' presumption in transgressing the boundary between humanity and the gods: men are mortal; only the gods are free from death. In punishment for his unforgivable crime, Zeus struck Asklepios with his thunderbolts and sent him to the underworld, so that he, though a god, might himself experience the fate of mortals. Thus Asklepios becomes the only god in Greek mythology to experience death. The god of healing is the only god who knows what it is to die. Though as a god his stay in the underworld is only temporary, though as a god he can experience mortality without forfeiting his immortality, it is his own experience of vulnerability to death that makes him seem to the Greeks a god more kindly and more benevolent than any other. Asklepios had learned that though his gifts might serve to postpone a premature death, they could not avert death. Those who came to his shrine at Epidauros learned that what he could give was simply the time needed to prepare for a death that would inevitably come. With AIDS, where at least at present we live knowing there is no cure, the hope for such a respite might lead us to a new honoring of this ancient god.

The Greeks had such myths to help them access this connection between death and healing. I believe we, too, need images, poems, myths, to help us mourn, help us remember, help us praise. We need such images because they help us access the archetypal dimensions of this plague, help us express how AIDS touches our souls as well as our bodies, how it affects the ways we see and touch and love one another, how it affects our intimacy and our sexuality. Poems and myths help us express our bafflement and our hope, our anger and our love. They give us words which return us from the world of "them" to the world of "us."

I speak as a lover, as someone who has deeply loved men who have died or are dying, or who are living with AIDS. I speak as someone who deeply loves words, language, metaphors, myths, stories, poetry. And who believes that images can heal. Not cure. Heal. To name, to image, the horror may help us come to terms with it -- not erase it, but give it its place. I believe that words can help us become intimates of our experience, get close to its actual, particular details. I believe that words can help us share our experience and share in another's.

I see poets and storytellers as our healers, as shamans who move into the world of images on our behalf, for they are more gifted than most of us at finding the right words, at escaping the cliches and the sentimental, at keeping their words loud and rude and strong and queer. Their fierceness of perception, their urgent, angry, tender acts of witnessing, their passionate optimism, help us see, and unless we really see, we cannot accept, cannot love.

They remind us to continue to celebrate our sexuality, to continue to rejoice in our bodies, in our capacity for ecstasy and for communion, capacities still mediated through bodily touch. They call upon us not to let AIDS rob us of our delight in being desiring, pleasure-seeking and pleasure-giving beings. There is a wonderful passage in Heaven's Coast where Mark Doty writes of how his lover, lying on a hospital bed in their living room, watching P-town's beautiful young men parade back and forth past their front window, fantasizes having sex with them. Mark at first finds this strange, almost threatening, but comes to bless this sign that a man who always loved the world continued right to the end to do so.

It is so important to continue to celebrate the affirmation of gay sexuality that blossomed in the later 1960's and 1970's, in those all too short years between Stonewall and our becoming aware of the threats posed by AIDS. But it is important also to find ways of honoring some of the changes that have occurred in the gay world since 1981. The heroism that many have shown. The compassionate care for others that many have exercised. The wisdom of a grateful appreciation of the gift of the most ordinary life-filled moment that many have come to. The deeper sense of truly constituting a community that many have experienced. The discovery of more permanent and more soul-oriented bonds that many have made. All these may be recognized as blessings, without our applauding the cause or denying the cost. "Does anybody ever get taught these things by anything other than tragedy?" asks Paul Monette in Borrowed Time (p. 43)

A mythic figure newly important to me since the advent of AIDS is the wounded healer, who becomes ill and learns that his wound is a calling, a calling to share what he has learned from his suffering for the benefit of others. I have quite a file of obituaries clipped from the NY Times of men whom I see as contemporary wounded healers--dancers, choreographers, artists, journalists, playwrights, actors, novelists, poets, including, of course, Mark Doty and Paul Monette.

But I see this archetype as also embodied in less well-known men I've loved. One was a 38 year old physician who even just before his death was the most zestful life-loving person I have known. Andy had become so sensitive to the beauty of this world that he was about to leave that an apricot sunset or a Botticelli madonna would bring him to tears, tears of joy and appreciation. A physician all his adult life, he resigned from his position as an emergency room physician when he first fell ill four years ago and soon became nationally prominent as a doctor with AIDS actively involved with Act-Up the gay rights protest group. In this unique role he worked to encourage other doctors to support its campaigns for accelerated AIDS research and for making the fruits of that research available and affordable. He put all his energy into serving as an intermediary between the physicians and researchers on the one hand and persons with AIDS on the other. He often told me that he believed that only in these last years was he doing what he felt he was born to do--fully using all his gifts, as a charismatic speaker and a compassionate physician. His wound and his healing were deeply intertwined.

After his diagnosis, my other friend, an actor, a playwright, and a director put his energies ever more effectively than before into outrageous, in-your-face queer theater. A year or so after his death I dreamt of visiting Martin in New York. He was pleased to see me but said he had little time to talk, he was on his way to a dress rehearsal of a new performance piece. He invited me to come along, which I did, and gave me tickets for the next evening's opening night performance. When I arrived for the opening, I made my way to my second row seat and saw that the first row was filled by all the men I've loved who've died of AIDS -- Philip and Andy and the too many others whose names you wouldn't recognize. I knew then that Martin is there (wherever "there" is) still helping others laugh at what is beyond tears.

Christine Downing is author of Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love.