Thankfulness 2021

Three years ago, I started a tradition for myself. I no longer celebrate Thanksgiving in a traditional way; I don’t feel thankful that my ancestors participated in a genocide, colonizing the continent in the process. Rather than Thanksgiving, I celebrate Thankfulness.

What am I thankful for in 2021? An easy answer comes to mind immediately – Covid vaccines. March 6, 2021: my first. April 3, 2021: my second. October 28, 2021: first booster. No birthdays, but Lifedays I will always celebrate.

I am thankful PGMC survived Covid, live rehearsals resuming October 3, 2021. We had not shared the air in song since March of 2020; though masked, not having any social interactions over snacks as we used to do, nevertheless we are back. As we sang, windows open to the fall air, I envisioned the folks in the apartments across the street back on their balconies to listen, crying at this hallmark of resilience. PGMC has gained a number of season ticketholders among neighbors grateful to have moved by happenstance into an apartment across the street from our rehearsal space.

I am thankful for closer friendships with John and Mark, quarantine allowing us more time to become friends without the busy structure of rehearsals and concert prep.

Once again, I’m thankful for Zoom, making possible the continued work of so many organizations and businesses. PFLAG Portland is forever changed, having discovered a new depth of sharing and intimacy conducting chapter meetings via Zoom – the virtual meeting is here to stay, with a few social gatherings in the offing each year in order to connect in person. My church will continue to offer services via Zoom as well as in person, to the relief of older members who have difficulty with the in-person trip during the winter months. Every organization I’m involved with has embraced Zoom as a permanent fixture, virtual meetings now the norm.

I am thankful for Facebook. As an extrovert, connection via Zoom and Facebook has proven to be a lifeline to sanity. I have more presence on Facebook than ever in the past; my depression would have been fairly complete were it not for the connection afforded me by virtual contact.

And most of all – I am thankful everyone in my life survived Covid, and with admirable resilience. At the beginning of Covid, none of us knowing where to acquire a mask and now all of us with multiples in various locations – glove compartment, backpack or purse, by the front door. John will now work from home permanently, though his dog has mixed feelings about not having the house peacefully to herself all day. Sue realized through quarantining at the coast that the rhythm of the ocean called to her; she is now living there more permanently than she ever anticipated. Cristina has come into her own as an introvert, able to own not wanting to attend many live events, hoping for a Zoom component of some sort so she can participate. Brenda is part of a Long Covid study, living with long-term effects and coming over for lunch most Fridays.

Life is moving on, not post-Covid but incorporating Covid as part of our lives moving forward. We have re-ordered our lives to accommodate safety as much as possible while still having a life. Covid is such a part of our lives now, it has formed the backdrop for everything I’m thankful for this past year.

Excerpt from my forthcoming memoir

I’m not precisely sure when I’ll be publishing my memoir Work in Progress, but expect to see it emerge sometime in the next few months. Setting the stage… when I was in graduate school, about twenty years ago now, I broke my leg and was home in a non-walking cast for three months. I finished my master’s thesis six months early. Casting about for something to do, I decided, “I’m going to write my autobiography.” I did, and then it sat on my hard drive all these years. At the beginning of quarantine, now stuck at home with a panedemic, I decided to write Volume II of my story. The voice of then contrasts strikingly with the voice of early transition, twenty years ago. To tease you a bit, here’s an excerpt:

Thank God – I survived

A bit at a time, a shelf here, a drawer there, I organized my office during Covid quarantine. At one point, I decided to order my old journals chronologically. I opened one only to see the date October 11, 1986.

It’s always easy for me to get distracted when doing some tedious project like organizing, but in this case I might be forgiven. October 1986 – right around the time of the formation of the Portland Lesbian Choir. I hadn’t read these journals since their writing, so was quite interested to ‘hear’ what I had to say about the choir at its inception.

Excitedly, I sat down and began reading. Good thing I was sitting down, for in no way was I prepared for November 11, 1986:

“I’ve felt alone since I was born, and the feeling has only grown stronger as time passes. More and more I am estranged from those of my age as they grow and develop and become more whole people. I withdraw more and more, feel more isolated as each year passes. I don’t know how long I can go on like this. I am perpetually miserable.

I don’t think I used to be like this. That’s one purpose of old journals. Sure I used to get upset and depressed over various women, but I don’t read any thread of suicide in my past writings. It’s sure there now, make no mistake. Something is quite wrong with me and I have managed to convince myself it’s the way I am and nothing I can change. Which of course makes the suicidal thoughts all the stronger: if I can’t change this, that means I will be this miserable all my life. And I simply can’t want that for another 50 or 60 years. I can’t do it.”

With shocked sympathy for my younger self, I read on, to November 23, 1986:

“Well, kid, you have to hang tough and keep open, because every now and then something actually will fall into place. I went, against my feelings and with nervous trepidation, to the Lesbian Community Project meeting. And afterward came the best thing of all – Sally announced the formation of a lesbian chorus and gave the address. The next meeting was that evening, and I went with a couple of friends. We went to sing for the evening, and I am now part of the Portland Lesbian Choir. This day I did something extremely important and good for myself.”

In fact – I had joined the group that gave me a reason to live, a purpose in life, for the next nine years until I finally realized why I’d felt so increasingly isolated and depressed and miserable. Oh my God indeed… I have often looked back to that winter night in 1995, reaching out, saying miserably, “Help me, I can’t do this anymore.” Re-reading my 1986 self, I see now that 1995 wasn’t the first time the hand of God saved me.

Yet another profound difference between the voice of then and the voice of now. How did I describe the formation of the Choir when I wrote Volume I, twenty years ago?

“In October of 1986, a fledgling organization, the Lesbian Community Project, produced the first lesbian conference Portland had ever known. Over 400 women attended workshops on a variety of topics. I went, though I had no intention of joining any political group. Politics (and particularly processing) bored me. However, something happened at that conference that changed my life once again.

A few women had been trying for a month or so to form a women’s chorus in Portland but had had little success; only four women had shown up at the first few meetings. Their advertising had been a little too minimalist. One member offered to announce the formation of this group at the Lesbian Community Project conference.

With two friends, I heard the announcement, and all three of us decided to go to the next rehearsal to check it out. We did, and I stayed. For the next eleven years, the soon-to-be-named Portland Lesbian Choir was my spiritual center and the only place I ever felt truly at home in the lesbian community.”

Well… yes… a good description of events, but not showing my heart. Ironically – the Choir saved me until 1995, when I was ready to face the knowledge that I needed to transition. Then I had to let the Choir go in order to do so.

I recently came across a meme on Facebook that perfectly captures the depth of change necessary to transition.

Grief Isn’t Just For Death

  • Relationships that have ended
  • Losing your community
  • Missing the certainty you once had
  • Questioning your judgment
  • Releasing who you once were
  • Feeling lost and unanchored
  • Losing traditions you loved

Yes. To every one of these, yes. I gave up the Choir, I gave up everything I thought was true about myself in order to pursue the unknown. Paradoxically, the life lesson I gleaned from this was: I don’t pursue the unknown, I live it. I have always resonated with this particular bit of Rilke’s writing, which came my way in graduate school. I included this once before in this book, and it bears repeating:

Have patience with everything

unresolved in your heart

and try to love the questions themselves.

Do not search for the answers,

which could not be given to you now anyway,

as you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything.

Live the questions now.

Perhaps then, someday far in the future,

you will gradually,

without even knowing it,

live your way into the answer.

                                            – Rainier Maria Rilke

Building Bridges

June, 1992. Sunday afternoon rehearsal, a tense moment of challenge. Ali scolded us, “If you don’t concentrate with every fiber of your being, concentrate on blend, on singing precisely in the center of the pitch, we are going to divide the performance. Half of you will perform in one hall and half in the other.” That did it.

A few weeks later… Denver, July, 1992. GALA IV. (GALA: Gay and Lesbian Choral Association) A week jam-packed with choral performances and the high energy of focusing for four years on performing for each other for half an hour. In that era of GALA choral festival, every chorus performed twice – we did our set in Buell Theater, then made our way underground through a maze of corridors to perform again in Boettcher Concert Hall. This was Bridges Vocal Ensemble’s debut as a GALA chorus.

Ali’s challenge: meld our 28-voice chorus to perform a close-harmony, fast-paced arrangement of Cris Williamson’s folk ballad Shooting Star, an arrangement originally performed by a professional quintet, one voice per part. This song, eventually our signature song, was the culmination of our GALA set, performed for several thousand of our peers.

There is no audience more exhilarating or terrifying than GALA – singing for thousands of choral singers who all know what you’re trying to do and if you succeeded. Cheering for you, knowing you worked as hard and traveled as far as we all did to get there. Assessing (sometimes judging) you —  how might you have done that better or differently? And occasionally awestruck – O.M.G. to be able to sing like that…

Boettcher Concert Hall was packed to the rafters. In the crowd, roaring above the rest, was the Portland Lesbian Choir and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. Bridges was comprised of members of both (hence our name). We had originally been an auditioned subgroup – members had to already be singers in either PLC or PGMC to join. We had since become an independent chorus, but our members still sang in one or the other of our parent choruses. We were determined to do our parents proud.

Boettcher is one of the finest chorally-acoustic halls I’ve ever sung in. Several times during our set, we spread out across the stage, in our usual mixed formation, clearly able to hear each other. But for our final number, our Shooting Star finale, we bunched close together on the risers, leaning in toward the audience. A starting note. And then…

Shooting Star

Thankfulness 2020

As a kid, Thanksgiving was an all-family gathering at my house, and meant no more to me than that. My current-day perspective: Thanksgiving is a misplaced celebration of the conquest of a continent, taking joy in having usurped home from millions of people whose ancestors had been here for millennia. I can’t celebrate Thanksgiving any longer. Two years ago, I invented my own holiday to celebrate – Thankfulness.

2020 – a quarantine of a pandemic, and the most divisive election season I’ve ever experienced. How can I write about thankfulness this year? What can there possibly be to write about?

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first… people have died of Covid. I know some of them… Children aren’t receiving proper socialization. How can you learn social behavior from six feet away and behind a mask, unable to go to physical school?… I have never seen so many houseless people in Portland, tent townships springing up in all manner of urban open areas, many streets with tents lining the grass verge… Every time there is a new outbreak, or announcement of further quarantine, toilet paper disappears from the store shelves (it’s not hard to imagine what Freud would make of that)… Chorus can’t meet, a lifeline of my existence… Friends can’t hug, or share a meal, another lifeline of my existence.

I may have left out a few negatives; I got too weighted down to keep going on that thread.

I wouldn’t say the flip side is positives – how can there be anything positive about Covid? I’m known as the Punster and Uplifter of Spirits to quite a few folks on Facebook, and this punster isn’t going to make the obvious one – positives and Covid. It’s too serious a subject for jokes.

While there aren’t positives, there are most definitely silver linings to celebrate. Here are a few, my list of Thankfulness for 2020:

  • I used my stimulus check to buy a badly-needed new computer. From March 17, I was working from home, using an eleven-year-old computer that took half an hour to boot up in the morning, and could only run Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or Firefox – pick one at a time. I graduated to a Ferrari. This may seem like a small silver lining, yet this change meant:
  • I learned how to meld PowerPoint with Zoom, and discovered I excel at creating and delivering this kind of presentation. I don’t know exactly where this will lead in the future, but it can only be somewhere good;
  • If we had to have a pandemic, thank God it has taken place at a time of connectivity; Zoom and FaceTime are lifesavers to this extrovert. I can’t hug friends, but I can at least talk to them while seeing their smiling faces on my screen. I’ve become closer friends with a number of folks after Zoom heart-to-hearts.
  • Though I couldn’t experience it as I would have wanted, I did experience the most beautiful clean summer air since my 1976 move to Portland.
  • Absences makes the heart grow fonder indeed. I will never take chorus for granted again, sharing the air in song. Choruses will be the last to reconvene as the pandemic recedes into history. Back in the mid-1990s, my chorus began offering free flu shots every winter; a week before a December holiday concert, a third of the chorus had come down with the flu and couldn’t perform. There’s nothing like chorus to spread viruses. All that deep breathing in close quarters.
  • Cooking for people is part of my Nia, my purpose in life, as is singing together. I am blessed with many friends to cook with and for, and with the ability to sing for people in chorus. While I will eventually be able to do both again, I will never again take either for granted.

Which leads to my most counterintuitive thankfulness: all the loving interconnection that keeps my heart going every day. Not being able to hug, to share the air in song, we’ve had to find other ways to keep the connection going. Zoom socials. Long phone conversations. The longing expressed in various ways is a constant reminder of connections we often took for granted while conducting our busy lives. The isolation does take its toll at times. And, slowing our lives down to the rhythm of interconnection is also an opportunity to be reminded of what’s most important in life: each other.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over…. and Transition is NEVER Over!

I recently applied for Medicare. A few weeks after submitting my application on line, I received a letter in the mail from Social Security, telling me to call not a phone number but a specific person, named in the letter. I couldn’t imagine what would warrant a letter telling me to call an actual person.

I called Usha, and a real person answered the phone. O.M.G. really??? She looked up my name and asked me security questions to verify it was really me. Then she said the absolute last thing I would ever have expected: “The gender you checked on your form doesn’t match what’s in our system.”

As a therapist, I advised hundreds of people: “Before you ever start telling people you’re going to transition, before you ever start taking hormones – right now, start making a list of all the places your name and gender appear. Include phone numbers, email addresses – whatever information will help you make the change once you reach that point. Add to the list as you think of new things. Library card. Your bank. School. Believe me, you will be so grateful to not have to create this list once people are reacting to your transition, especially if you’re also going to be dealing with a shifting hormone balance.”

No one ever gave me that advice 25 years ago. At the time, I was too young to have much interaction with Social Security. I got a new Social Security card with my name change – but I changed my name long before I started taking hormones and could change my gender. There is no gender indicated on my Social Security card. I forgot I’d never made that change to the Social Security system.

Usha: “Do you have paperwork that will verify your gender change?”

Me, nearly falling over laughing, “I might have a file… somewhere… maybe.”

Usha, beginning to laugh herself as the ludicrousness of the situation was clear: “Ordinarily, you’d have to take paper documentation to your local Social Security office along with your ID, to prove it’s you. Because of Covid, the offices aren’t open, so I’m going to waive this requirement and process your application.” Yesterday I received my Medicare card in the mail.

So, trans folks reading this – make sure you’ve changed your name and gender everywhere you need to! And if, like me, you have transitioned long before you’re dealing with Medicare or Social Security benefits – double check that you’ve changed your gender in their system!

God’s Bedroom

Trail Ridge Road. 12,183 feet. The highest continuously-paved road in the continental United States. The summit of this road is higher by 1,000 feet than the tip-top of Mt. Hood, that glorious mountain just east of Portland. Featured in an article in Bicycling magazine in the early 1980s, I knew this road was destined for a future bicycle tour. How could I possibly resist such a challenge! In 1987, planning my cross-country route around the Contact Dyke list of Lesbian Connection, the centerpiece of the trip would be Trail Ridge Road.

Riding east from Portland felt like one mountain range after another. Right off the bat, the Cascades. On through eastern Oregon, over the Blue Mountains, cutting a corner of Idaho, over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, a rare east-west mountain range. Turning left to head east into Colorado, the Rocky Mountains gradually dominated the skyline. Turns out all previous mountains were practice runs.

The Rockies don’t appear as high in western Colorado as they would from western Oregon. Portland has an average elevation of about 60 feet above sea level. From this perspective, the mountains I was approaching would have seemed high indeed, with peaks 14,000+ feet above sea level. 3,000 feet higher than Mt. Hood.

Western Colorado, however, is already more than a mile above sea level. Climbing to leave Portland, and never quite getting the full descent on the other side to the high desert of central Oregon. Climbing some more, and never fully coming down the other side before hitting a plateau before climbing some more. From western Colorado, the Rockies appear shorter than the Cascades are from Portland.

From a bicyclist’s perspective, my body was already acclimated to over a mile high. Good thing, since I was about to add nearly a mile to my altitude and back down again in one day’s ride.

The Rocky Mountains extend nearly 2,000 miles, from northern British Columbia down through Colorado, fading into the deserts of New Mexico. Grand Lake, Colorado marks the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, home to the highest peaks in the entire mountain range. Grand Lake is a small touristy town nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, over 8,300 feet in elevation, with a disproportionate number of restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Whether about to embark upward or just returning from the heights, whether biking, backpacking, or car driving, calories would be in high demand.

Shortly after noon, I leaned my bike against the outer wall of a café, and went inside for yet another meal. The attraction of this particular café was the ‘all you can eat’ sign out front. For a fixed price, I could go back to the buffet for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. ‘All you can eat’ made no money off me that summer! I couldn’t keep up with the calories I was expending.

As I ate and got more food and ate again, I chatted with Rhonda behind the cash register. Upon learning I was heading east on a bicycle, she said, with great concern, “You’re not going over Trail Ridge today are you?” I said no, early next morning, and she said, with even greater relief, “Oh, good, cuz you’re gonna be in God’s bedroom up there.”

Finally, The Day. I fortified myself with the largest breakfast or two I could find, knowing I’d have no way to eat more than granola bars on the way up and over. By all accounts there was no place to stop beyond a very occasional porta-potty. No infrastructure on this road beyond the road itself.

When approaching a mountain range, there is a period of foothills that is seductive: “I’m climbing the mountains now.” Then you reach the mountains and realize, “Oh. NOW I’m climbing the mountains.” The road out of Grand Lake is mountains. Immediately. And for a Long Time. Next stop: Estes Park, over 40 miles ahead to the beginning of the other side of the country, across the Continental Divide.

The trees grew shorter and more scraggly with each twist up of the road. Further apart as the air thinned. Patches of snow in the shade became walls of ice narrowing the road. The peaks of Trail Ridge are aptly-named: the Never Summer Mountains. The trees straggled, and then were gone. Above the treeline, even near summer solstice, the ice never melts. Roadside was tundra. No shoulder going either direction, the walls of ice encroaching on the pavement, obliterating the white line indicating road’s edge. This road was only open about two months out of each year; May 31 was the earliest it had been open in over twenty years.

And the wind. Always the wind. Nothing to break it any longer. It shifted, never consistently from one direction. I was nearly blown across the road numerous times. On a rare stretch of road that was downhill, I had to pedal downhill through a headwind. Some four miles from the top, the headwind was so strong I had to push my bike for a mile or so uphill.

The sky was thin, and I felt I was living above the atmosphere, as if I could take off for outer space with very little effort because I was already halfway there. The sun looked so close. I couldn’t catch my breath, and felt quite out of shape. My admiration for those who climb Mt. Everest soared to hero worship. Over twice as high as I was now…

As I approached the top, I looked with great anticipation for a summit sign. Every bicycle tourist learns to recognize The Top. A crest of a hill, then a gradual flatness, a shifting of gears, and then no need to pedal any longer. And  – a sign we live for, a photo op for the bicycle leaning against a sign that says – there was no summit sign. I felt cheated; of all the summits I’d achieved, this was the hardest-won. I was to learn later, on the other side, that there is no summit sign for Trail Ridge Road to prevent cars from stopping mid-road for the photo op.

As I considered the descent, I was a bit desperate. It had taken me  til midafternoon to get to the top, over 20 miles up from Grand Lake. As I continued east, down the back side of the Rockies, I was leaving the sun on the west side of the mountains. Dark would come fast. I still had nearly 20 miles to Estes Park. I hitch-hiked down. As I stood with my thumb out, I looked out east, and in the distance, a bit south and a long way down, I saw the smog of Denver, the mile-high city, a mile below me.

Jane and Roger stopped to pick me up. They helped me load all my gear and bike into the back of their station wagon, and drove me into Estes Park. As we talked, I was astonished to learn that they’d already passed me going the other way. They were heading over Trail Ridge Road to go home to Grand Lake. They saw me hitch-hiking and turned around to do a good deed. As Roger described it, they were moved by the desperation in my face.

This was an even bigger good deed than they initially realized; Trail Ridge Road closes at 8:00 each day. The Forest Service patrols the road to rescue those left behind when the gates are locked. Jane and Roger drove me to Estes Park, and then had to drive around the Never Summer Mountains via the interstate, not over the top; their day was extended by over 150 miles beyond what they anticipated.

I spent the next couple of days recuperating in Estes Park, gazing from the porch of my motel at what I’d accomplished. I was so depleted on arrival I couldn’t even go to dinner; I ate three bananas and collapsed in bed. The next day, I went no further than the café a couple of doors down, tired out by that small level of activity. I’d fully drained my considerable strength and stamina on that trek into the heights of the earth, fueled only by breakfast and some granola bars, gaining and losing nearly a mile in elevation in one day. God’s bedroom indeed.

The Rhythm of Life

During the current pandemic and quarantine, I work from home. I only leave the house a couple of times a week to grocery shop, spending the bare minimum amount of time out of the house. Over the past few months, I’ve heard various people mention in puzzlement that they are losing track of days of the week, sort of. Losing track of what day it is, sort of. They’re having a hard time articulating the experience. I have put some thought into this time warp, trying to pinpoint the effect on me. There is an unease, a feeling of not being grounded. I‘ve now realized the pandemic is the backdrop of this experience, but not the reason for it.

In the 1980s, I took myself off on several long-distance bicycle trips. One trip was from Portland to San Francisco. I was on the road ten days in mid-August, sleeping outdoors each night, seldom inside. By the end of that trip, I knew precisely when the moon was going to rise, and where, and how big it would be. That trip was north-south, and only ten days, so I didn’t notice much difference in the sun’s position in the sky. As I went south, it was a little further overhead was all the difference to me.

A few years later, I pointed my bicycle east in early May, landing in Boston in early July. This was a two-way trip – I rode back to Portland, arriving home late September. On that trip I became attuned not only to the moon, but also to the sun. I understood for the first time why time zones. I could tell by the time of sunset when I was approaching the next opportunity to change my watch. I knew when and where the sun would rise next morning, where and when the moon was in its cycle. I was seldom indoors for nearly five months, and felt the changing of the seasons.

It’s June 21 as I write this, summer solstice. I only know that by calendar observation. Because I work a Monday-to-Friday job, I haven’t lost track of days of the week, as some of my friends have. What I have lost track of is the time of month, the season of year. June 21? It might as well be May 15. Or July 30. My bicycle trips put me in touch with the rhythm of the earth, the cycles of time we call seasons. I’ve lost that rhythm, and no longer have any sense of what time of earth it is. Spending our time indoors, that sense of rhythm is disrupted for me and most of my friends, subconscious though it used to be.

My friend who is quarantined in a beach house at the coast is having the opposite experience. Spending time on the beach morning and afternoon, she has a newfound sense of the rhythm of life, never having lived with the ocean before. Tides. Moon. Sun. The rhythmic harmony of nature. Those of us quarantined in the city have a harder time focusing our daily lens on ourselves as part of nature. And yet we have had a subconscious attunement to seasons, an attunement disrupted by quarantine.

Even those who go for urban walks fairly regularly have felt the disruption, focused as they are on the potential proximity of other people and not able to attune to the earth surrounding, supporting, sustaining us. It would benefit all of us to get out of the city on occasion if we’re able, to be alone in nature with automatic social distancing, regaining that rhythm of life.

Silver Linings

I am quite active on Facebook. My mission is to uplift people and make them laugh. I haven’t posted much about the Covid-19 pandemic as there hasn’t been much I can say that is uplifting. Silver linings are another matter.

In May of 2020, the New York Times published an article listing 1,000 names of those who have died from Covid-19, with short phrases taken from their eulogies. These 1,000 represent 1% of the number who have died thusfar in the United States.

If I were to write my own eulogy, this could be a start, each phrase leading to a short paragraph:

Retired therapist and mentor. Loved reading, especially mystery novels. Never at a loss for words. Loving, generous, and adventurous spirit. Loved taking care of people. Made time to create and listen to music. Part of a tight-knit family. Had a passion for social justice. Always wanted to be near the ocean. Loyal and generous friend to many.

But these phrases were not written with me in mind. Rather, RIP:

Charles
Ronnie
Youngerman
Lula
Peggy
Christine
Alice
Sandra
Alberto
Susan

The only way to find the silver linings in this era is to look to the personal, to the stories that can uplift us. The New York Times piece contained snippets of stories, enough to remind us that we are losing sight of the heart of this pandemic: people are dying.

And people are living. I have become much closer friends with some of my chorus mates because chorus members host several Zoom socials a week. Two chorus mates have explored dating each other, having gotten to know each other during a weekly social. (So curious how one would date during this particular pandemic?) This is the silver lining to the large cloud over chorus as we are denied singing together or uplifting our audience in song.

Silver linings abound. I pray those mentioned in the New York Times article found theirs before they died. These folks who died – “maestro of a steel-pan band,” “architect behind Boston’s City Hall,” “liked his bacon and hash browns crispy” – notice that lack of political affiliation mentioned? What does that even matter once they’ve died?

Take care of each other. Take care of yourselves. Find your silver linings.

Seeing Each Other Home

In December of 1993, we got the news at a Bridges Vocal Ensemble rehearsal: come soon. We had known that call would come eventually, since June of 1992, when Trent had told us between sets at the GALA choral festival that he had AIDS. No matter how much time we’d had to prepare emotionally, no matter how many friends we had lost in the meantime, Trent was the first of our tight-knit chorus.

That evening after rehearsal, we all went over to Trent’s house. All 20-something of us packed into his living room, standing around the chair he never left at this point, singing every song he knew. He mouthed all the words with a half-smile on his face, too weak at that point to vocalize. After an hour or so, we filed past him one by one, shaking his hands, kissing his forehead, saying each in our own way, “Goodbye for now.” Trent died the next day.

The current Covid pandemic is triggering to many who survived the AIDS era. Some younger people have asked those of us who were there, “How did you get through it? What tips do you have for us?” I’ve been asked myself, and have found myself at sea, unable to answer.

Today it came to me why I’ve been unable to answer: because nothing that helped me then applies today. If Trent were dying of Covid-19 today – we would not be surrounding his chair, singing along with him, kissing him goodbye, later all grieving together at his memorial service. Singing. Together. At his memorial service. And, we would not have had a year and a half of watching him slowly decline, wasting away toward an inevitable death. AIDS never took us by surprise, unless a miraculous person survived. The death rate was nearly unanimous.

I accidentally discovered the power choral singing holds for me in 1986, and have never been without a chorus since. One reason GALA choruses are so powerful today, such a presence in their communities, dates back to the AIDS era. Sharing the air through choral singing is one of the most powerful ways in which humans can bond with each other. Sharing the air helped us survive the loss of so many back in the day; today, sharing the air is part of what causes Covid losses.

I have been a member of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008. A few years ago, a member died of Alzheimer’s. It hit me then that in the years I’d been in the chorus, no one had died of an AIDS-related cause. Time was, the chorus sang at one or two chorus member memorial services a month. When I joined, the chorus had a tradition: the first rehearsal of each month, those who were celebrating a birthday that month would get up on the stage of our rehearsal space and we would sing, “Happy birthday.” A nice warm tradition. And back during the days of AIDS, a way of saying, “We’re still here…”

Sharing the air is precisely what we CAN’T do these days. We can Skype. Zoom. Talk on the phone. And we can’t rehearse.  On occasion someone will post a humorous little questionnaire on Facebook: favorite ice cream? ocean or mountains? morning person or night person? favorite day of the week… Monday. Because chorus rehearses Monday nights. Or used to. In my 34 years singing in GALA choruses, I have never had a concert cancelled. A GALA chorus festival postponed. Sharing the air, music to my soul, isn’t going to be what gets me through this time. So, what will?

I do have a useful take-away from the AIDS era: we are resilient, life will go on, nothing will be the same, but that doesn’t mean there will be nothing. My chorus is going to experiment with remote rehearsals, using available technology, adapting it as we can, doing what we can to stay connected. To see each other through. This, too, shall pass.

The PTSD of the AIDS era is kicking in for many, triggered into reliving the pain of loss. And realizing the old ways of coping aren’t there – hugging, singing together, being together, embracing loss together. All the more bereft. Triggered into the past in a way that might be making it hard to embrace what connection there is available today. And really – if Zoom and Skype had been available to us during the heaviest days of AIDS, we would most certainly have taken advantage of this technology as well. We needed then, we need now, whatever will work.

So – isolated as we may be in our individual spaces, keeping ourselves physically safe – let us keep ourselves emotionally and spiritually safe as well. Reach out with whatever form of technology you have, and connect. Have a virtual party. Cook together each in your own kitchens. Raise a toast to each other from your various dining room tables. Put on a mask and take a meal in a bag, handing it to a homeless person. Feed the crows in downtown Portland, now bereft of much of their usual source of food. One of my favorite spiritual images is that we are all just seeing each other home. That remains the goal, though the means of doing so has changed so much, so fast.

Thankfulness 2019

Last year I invented a new holiday to celebrate, replacing the colonial concept of giving thanks for my family’s presence on this continent. (https://reidvanderburgh.com/2018/11/22/reclaiming-thankfulness/)

As the relationship saying goes, “It’s complicated.” The United States is my home. My family’s roots go back to the Netherlands and Britain. Family roots were abroad — nearly 400 years ago. Neither the Netherlands or Britain could ever feel like Home to me as the US does.

At the same time, I feel grief for the millions who were displaced and killed as my country was developed through colonization. I can no longer celebrate Thanksgiving in the uncomplicated literally thoughtless way I did as a child. I know too much.

Thankfully — I am able to feel thankfulness, and so I now celebrate my second Thankfulness holiday.

I have had more difficulty this year articulating my thankfulness. Now the day itself has arrived, and I find my amorphous difficulty crystallizing into something I can express in words.  Last year, I formulated fairly easily a list of what I was thankful for — specific people, specific events; this year I find my thankfulness rooted not in a specific anything that I can list, but in a profound shift in how I view the world.

My prayers these days are simple: “Thank you for all the connection and loving interconnection in my life. Thank you for giving me a loving heart and allowing me to feel the love and connection to friends and family.” I finish with a bit from the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Wanting Memories: “I know that I am you and you are me and we are one. I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand. I know that I’ve been blessed again and over again.”

I am thankful for music in my life. In joining my church choir recently I have come to understand music has always been an unrecognized ministry in my life. For decades I have had the experience in one chorus or another of becoming one with the audience and feeling how profoundly the musical experience brings us together. Sharing the air thins the boundaries between us, and our interconnection is brought to the forefront for a time. I have had the experience of being picketed by the religious right in a concert setting and seeing the picket signs gradually lowered to the floor, not to be raised again. Our interconnection has another name we use more often — love, stronger than any picket sign.

In my church choir I have recently had the same experience of helping bring people together in interconnection. Love your neighbor as yourself comes from my spiritual tradition. Love. That’s the message of every spiritual tradition. And that’s what I’m thankful for this year — feeling the love. And being in two choirs, with twice the opportunity to share the love.