AIDS, Writing, Loss, and Geography of The Heart

I know nothing about AIDS.

I grew up in a time when AIDS, or SIDA as it’s known outside of North America, was just discovered, and since not much was known about it, a lot was speculated, and feared. A quick Wikipedia scan and I learned that “AIDS was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1981.” The recognition of this disease is exactly as old as I am.

I don’t remember think I learned anything about AIDS in school, other than that you can’t get it if you don’t have sex with someone who’s HIV-positive. So I went on living in ignorance of how this virus affects my fellow human beings.

A few days ago, this segment on NPR caught my attention: Love Isn’t All You Need: 3 Relationship Building Reads (they might as well have called it, Nikki Chau Sucker Alert).

Of the three books recommended, Fenton Johnson’s book, Geography Of The Heart, a Memoir, seemed most like a weekend read. Plus, the author practices at the San Francisco Zen Center, and his lover (Larry) is a Francophile? Count me in.

As luck (or some version thereof) would have it, I’ve been sick all day today, shriveling with a bone-chilling cold and a burning sore throat, so it was good timing to be lying around with this book and finishing it.

Here are a few quotes from the book that spoke to me, emphasis is mine.

When Fenton told Larry that his greatest fear is that he will die and leave him infected and alone:

“One measure of love is the ability to speak aloud the unspeakable, secure in the knowledge of the bedrock on which you rest.

To speak with such frankness of the terrors of the heart–to talk so openly of the demons within, with no fear on either side of rejection–honesty of this completeness is the privilege of true lovers.” – Page 92

A student talking about learning to write at Larry’s funeral:

“He took us out to Telegraph Avenue and made us write about what we saw until we thought it was good enough to convince somebody who’d never been there what it looked like and what we thought of it.

It was the first time in my life I really understood what writing was about–trying to get something real across to another faraway person through this incredibly abstract medium.” – Page 209

When Fenton finally confronted the silence in his family about AIDS at 3AM in their Kentucky home before his morning flight back to San Francisco:

“I’m filled with bitterness and rage that no one will acknowledge that Larry was my lover and that he died of AIDS, and I’m here to give the first annual AIDS prevention speech.” – Page 216

Fenton contemplating on our own insulated myth that we might live forever (if we are HIV-negative):

“It’s just that HIV, with its extended incubation period, its prolonged illnesses, its often horrifying complications, its impact on close-knit neighborhoods and communities, is forcing gay men of my generation to acknowledge what our life– and youth-obssessed society prefers to deny.” Page 232

Fenton’s mom, telling him she understands that love is not gender-dependent:

“And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy.

I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself.

I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.” – Page 234.

Fenton, on love and death

“I love better now, more wholly and completely, not because I have learned some exotic technique but because I know death.” Page 235.

Today, I gained a new perspective. A friend told me I should join her in the AIDS walk in San Francisco this summer. I’m in Seattle now, but one day I’ll make it to San Francisco.

Also, if you live in Seattle, here is a list of restaurants who will be donating to Dine out for Life on April 26.

Here’s to the Crazy One screen shot. Wednesday October 5, 2011. 5pm. Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.


Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

It’s raining in Seattle. I am sitting in my car crying.