Last Thursday, as a favor to a young acquaintance, I attended an AIDS Awareness Rally and Expo at Harry S Truman College in Chicago. She said it was important to her that I come if I could, and the pride she had of being a part of the group that had put the event together, made me determined not to let her down.
A friend here in the WordPress blogosphere helped me focus on that task in ways that seemed so simple at their core, that they made me wonder why they didn’t cross my mind without her help. As I got ready for the event, I worked hard to set that kind of thinking aside. I won’t be the one to definitively answer the question about seeing the forest despite the trees, so it’s best that I don’t hurt myself trying.
The neighborhood surrounding the el stop and neighborhood of the college, gives me the willies. Though I’ve only been there three times that I can remember, I’ve been propositioned there once and verbally accosted more than once. That may be about my unluckiness as a female human being more than the neighborhood, but these things did happen. There are a handful of other el stops in the city that I avoid, but on Thursday, in bright afternoon sun with so many people out and about, I wasn’t going to use that as an excuse.
I reached the college without incident, greeted my friend and found a seat in the section of chairs placed before a dais and a podium with a microphone set up for the event’s speakers. Behind those was a long bank of floor to ceiling windows that gave the audience a framed view of neighborhood folks going to and fro, some walking dogs, some trudging with difficulty perhaps to the neighborhood health clinic, others turning into the school’s main entrance on their way to class or the event I was attending.
The writer in me watched those windows until a speaker opened the proceedings and introduced a young man who lectures widely on having HIV, how he’s come to terms with it, and the path he’s chosen for his life in the years since his diagnosis. He’s a powerful speaker, focused but not on a rigid script, speaking from the point of view of an artist who’s life has been forever changed — but more by what he’s chosen to expose himself to than by what he had previously thought would limit his life. He spoke of having tried to kill himself and how he had failed. He spoke of feelings of despair that I understood so well. Then he spoke of waking up to the fact that life wasn’t all about him.
He challenged everyone in attendance to not only get an AIDS test, but to get a passport and travel past the confines of this country, a virtuous thought but one that made me wonder where he thought the money to do it would come from. (I think he was mainly referring to students who get financial aid and a big check at the end of the school year that I know next to nothing about.) But it was what he said about Haiti that pressed down hard on me.
Right before my finances went south, I sent what I could to the Red Cross after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Any time I mention people who are suffering so much — people who make me want to shut up about myself — the people of Haiti are a part of the world’s community that come to my mind. I tried not to cry as the speaker told us of volunteering at a Haitian clinic and teaching a young mother to wash the ringworm on her child’s head before applying the cream to clear it up, and watching her walk down to a nearby stream, dirty with all the things people without plumbing do with water, and wash her child’s head there with the corner of her skirt. I’m not proud to say that I began to surreptitiously text my daughter to see if she was busy. I wasn’t not listening, I just needed to find another part of my day, one that would keep me from embarrassing my friend or myself, something to look forward to and get me home. That felt selfish, but it’s what I did.
Last Thursday I wasn’t just lucky enough to live in the US, despite its faults, but I was lucky that my daughter was off from work and able to spend the rest of the afternoon with me after her class at another city college. I spent another couple of hours at the event listening to other speakers and visiting booths, and said a warm goodbye to my friend knowing I could spend the rest of a sunny, cool day with someone who for the most part, understands my life and my setbacks and dreams. My daughter and I had a good time, and for a while I wasn’t worried about who I was and who I “should” be. But I don’t always know to keep those guilty thoughts at bay. I just try to say kind things to myself as if I’m my own best friend. I know they’re the right things to say because I’ve heard that from so many people — from therapists to kind friends.
It’s the believing deep down in my senses that feels so hard. It feels like sewing important seams without thread, like I have to sew myself up now, no matter what, and just have faith that I will hold together. That kind of belief takes an enormous amount of distraction. I’m not distracted by religion, and the things I used to fall back on have been eroded by economic concerns and the increasing uncertainties of life. But having the presence of mind to text my daughter makes me think my imaginary seams can hold longer with just the minute displacement of the pinpricks to keep the skin together. I want to surprise myself. So far I am, little by little, moment to moment.