In the early 1990s, I read the following commentary on the Opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
TONICS FOR THE SOUL WHEN YOU’RE LIVING WITH AIDS
by James Batson
When I was 12 years old, sitting in Mrs. Larson’s math class one afternoon, a thought came to me about the purpose of life: that we live life for the experience it gives us. Maybe that should be Experience with a capital E. My next thoughts probably returned to finding the square root of x. So much for the purpose of life.
At any rate, that thought, insipid as it may be, has stood me well for a few years now. Not without a little elaboration, mind you. Just the same, that thought, along with courage, steadfastness and a good recipe for chocolate cake, has helped me slog through a few messes.
Si what have I experienced? I’m 33 now, having spent a half-dozen of the ensuing years smoking dope and another dozen years recovering from my misspent youth.
And now I’m experiencing AIDS. I have lost weight, am often quite fatigued and have picked up a few crummy infections, some minor, some not. My hair is also thinning at an amazing rate, but I like to blame that on my grandfather.
To be more specific, I’ve incorporated a few ideas about reincarnation. What interests me about reincarnation is that it is not a haphazard process. Some amount of planning, some amount of choice is involved in shaping the experiences we will have. Our souls more or less map out their own paths of progress, and, in doing so, select some of the basic circumstances of our lives.
Such as, in my case, being gay. and coming of age in the era of AIDS.
So why would my soul do such a thing to me? Is it stupid? Masochistic? Sadistic? Maybe. The theory, though, would have it that this hodgepodge of sickness and silliness exists for the Experience my soul needs. Could this theory hold water? I think so. After all, the more I live it, the richer, more magical my life becomes.
Consider this: In order to live happily and successfully, I have had to learn to hold my head high in a world where some people would just as soon lop it off. Not that being gay is by any means the only way we can experience this. Woman, blacks, Native Americans all know something of hatred, violence and oppression. Maybe even white heterosexual men do, too. But being gay can be an effective way of forcing a soul to develop self-esteem and to learn something of the strength and beauty of the spirit.
Developing self-esteem has been critical to the development of my soul, my psyche. Without it I cannot possibly view things as God might: without judgment, without condemnation. If I view myself in a harsh light, I will certainly view others harshly.
Instead, I have found that the more I accept myself and enjoy my life, the more I admire others. I admire the courage and color of my gay comrades. And my path, my Experience, has led me to a greater respect for the sensibilities of others, and a curiosity and concern for their paths, for their progress. FOr it follows that, if my soul has to a greater or lesser degree given me this good, sweet, hard life that surely every other soul on Earth is also attempting to produce the kind of learning and Experience it needs.
Such, it seems to me, are the simple ramifications of reincarnation.
And what about AIDS? Well, this is what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced the last few years. I’ve seen people, to put it gently, realign their priorities in life. The process is far from gentle. AIDS picks you up and shakes and shakes and shakes you. It does not relent; it does not compromise. As health and prosperity falter, you have to make decisions about what is important in life, Then you have to direct all of your energies to securing and nurturing those things. and you have to learn to bend, to take the days as they come. You have to, or you die before your body expires.
Family, friendship, stillness, balance—these may sound sappy, but they are sometimes the only tonic for this disease. They do not necessarily cure the body, but they can heal the soul. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. Thus AIDS can mold the soul, even as it twists the body.
I realize that I am one of the “lucky” ones. My family has loved me and supported me unflinchingly throughout these last few years—indeed, throughout my life. My employer and co-workers have been kind, accommodating and genuinely concerned for my well-being. I have access to the best medical care there is. Perhaps abundance is also something my soul has sought to Experience. And didn’t Someone from Galilee say something about abundant life? I have Experienced it, and AIDS has been part of my path leading to it.
So what advice do I have for others dealing with AIDS? I have found my answers to life so thus far. And while I’m certain the questions will change, I’m just as certain that I will find more answers as I go along.
Aside from the purely physical—eat right, get plenty of rest, exercise—the things I would say have to do with “attitude.” Believe that you have been dealt dirty by life and you are likely to come to bitterness and frustration. Believe that things happen for a purpose—and that that purpose is ultimately good—and you are likely to find meaning and peace.
It may be tempting to ask the gods, “Why me?” That’s a valid question, but one that is best directed to oneself. There are answers, and they are to be found within. Start looking. If reading is your way of delving into something, then there are plenty of books about attitude and health. Pick a couple and read them. If prayer appeals to you, then pray. If meditation suits you, then meditate. Call it your “soul,” call it “God,” call it your “better judgment,” call it “intuition,” call it Heather, the Anointed.” Whatever, you do have something within you that will guide you. Listen for it. Honor it. See where it gets you.
Further, don’t try to go it alone. This AIDS business can be devastating, an emotional and mental roller-coaster. It really does help to have people to talk to. If your family and friends can’t support you, search out those who can. If this sounds like work, it is. It is also the stuff of a good life, AIDS-ridden or not.
One more thing: Don’t try to “fight” AIDS. Fighting presumes that there will be a winner and a loser. I have never seen anyone “win” a fight with AIDS. I have seen people learn to live with AIDS, to find a balance between the very real impediments of the disease and the very real life force within them.
And if all of that doesn’t help cast a different light on your life, drop me a line. I’ve got this terrific recipe for chocolate cake.
Why did this essay speak to me so much? I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t sick, and I had my own terrific recipe for chocolate cake. It was Jim’s honesty, his authenticity, his courage. I was also just beginning to get interested in spirituality, and was impressed with his take on the meaning and purpose of life.
So I wrote Jim a letter and mailed it to him via the newspaper. A few days later, he called me and we met for lunch. Over the next year or so, we must have gotten together a half dozen times. One day, after not having talked to Jim for a few months, I called. And, well, that’s what the following piece is about. It was printed in the same newspaper that carried Jim’s essay. Rest in peace, my friend.
LESSONS ABOUT LIFE FROM A DYING FRIEND
My friend was going to die, so I drove over to the Mudpie for a veggie sandwich.
Jim and I first met at the Mudpie. I had contacted him after reading his Commentary piece in the Star Tribune entitled, “Tonics for the soul when you’re living with AIDS.”
Jim’s words moved me so deeply that I felt compelled to meet him so I could thank him for touching my life. As a freelance writer, I also wanted to write an article about Jim because I felt that his voice needed to be heard. Sadly, Jim died before I was able to sell the article. But I was able to share with him the content of two meaningful interviews I conducted on his behalf.
What impressed him about Jim, Siegel said, was that he wasn’t trying to “fight” AIDS. Jim beat AIDS “in the sense that he continued to live. When people see it as a battle, where there’s a winner and a loser, well, then we’re all going to be losers because we all have to die.
“If you see death as a failure or as losing,” added Siegel, “then I think you set yourself up for trouble. When you look at the things that Jim talks about—the loving, the humor, the relationships, the sharing, I’d say he’s a winner. He would rather not discuss ‘winner of loser’ and I think that’s appropriate, but you see, to me, when somebody lives that way, they are a winner.”
Siegel also identified, he said, with Jim’s positive approach towards life. “My mother always said, ‘It was meant to be, God is redirecting you, something good will come out of tis.’ If you’re brought up that way, it makes the rest of your life a lot easier because you realize that you cannot have anything go wrong in your life.”
I also sent Jim’s piece to Caroline Myss, an author and medical intuitive whom Jim greatly admired.
“I think his attitude is absolutely beautiful,” said Myss, when I called her. “And while my heart goes out to people who get this virus, my heart goes out to people who have any kind of challenge. The point is, Jim is illustrating a universal truth: We learn, and when we don’t learn, there’s pain. And that’s the only other option we have. Learning melts pain. Period.”
“Seeing the value in why you have to do something,” Myss reiterated, “melts pain. And I want to emphasize that it’s not the ‘victim’s’ value, not the ‘Why me?’ value but rather, ‘I don’t need to ask why me. Obviously, it is me. Now what? What am I supposed to get out of this? Give it to me and I’ll make you a bargain: I’ll stop praying like a victim, you talk to me with insight.”
I hadn’t talked to Jim in a few months, so when I called and asked for him that Thursday and was told, “Jim can’t come to the phone, he’s going to die today,” I was stunned.
It’s not every day a friend dies. So I went to the Mudpie and ordered what I always ordered when Jim and I had lunch there. and there I sat, sharing my lunch with an empty bench and reminiscing.
I will not forget you, Jim. I will not forget your courage and the way you lived your life. In the years to come, whenever you cross my mind, I will challenge myself to squeeze as much joy as I can out of that day. That’s the best way, I think, to celebrate your life.
LILA’S CHOCOLATE CAKE
As a bonus, here is my terrific recipe for chocolate cake. It was given to my mom by our neighbor in White Bear Lake, Lila Bakken. I have fond memories of gobbling up “hot chocolate cake right out of the oven,” usually accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Today, I continue to make “Lila’s Chocolate Cake” for special occasions. This cake is so darn tasty it doesn’t even need frosting! Enjoy!
1 pound box of brown sugar (less 1/3 cup)
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk (soured with vinegar)
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup hot water
Heat oven to 300°. Cream brown sugar and butter. Add eggs, vanilla and milk. Add flour, cocoa and baking soda mixture. Add cup of water last. Bake for 40-45 minutes.
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