We both live with HIV, but HIV only lives with one of us; we both had a near-death experience recently, but only one of us nearly left the other behind.
It might be easy to perceive darkness in these realities. For us, though, these and all of the situations and circumstances we’ve shared over two-and-a-half decades together represent opportunity, humility, and gratitude; they represent light.
We have wanted to collaborate on a piece of written-work for a long, long time. This is it… our first piece.
“Every day is a good day. Some are better than others.” (author unknown) For us, it’s not about what happens in this life, it’s about how we respond. It’s often about recognizing that life just isn’t like that (whatever that is) because it isn’t predictable and we don’t ever want it to be; everyday life is about experiencing the good and the bad, the praises and the blame; the sweet with the sour. We keep our heads down, always peddling because we are mindful of the dangers of being blinded by perceived darkness and deafened by white noise.
Long ago, we agreed that simply living is, for us, living simply in this moment (not some other moment). But… realizing what is more than just a mantra for us is not easy and has challenged us to embrace what is, worry less about what might be, and never find ourselves lost in the darkness that was or could be … whatever the source of the (so-called) darkness.
Over our many years together, we’ve taught each other a thing or two, and we learn from each other continually. That’s a lot of learning! When we met, we learned two things about each other almost immediately: one of us was only recently out of the proverbial closet and not necessarily comforted by a new identity as a gay man; one of us was only recently diagnosed with HIV, death was supposedly imminent. To best-handle all of this meant throwing every caution to the wind.
We learned that our coping mechanisms were different and rarely useful (in hindsight) … hopeless abandon either to fit a stereotype or to bring death to the door sooner-rather-than-later. These many years later, we realize that we got through it and thrive today, not just survive, despite perceived odds stacked against us. Paul is his own gay man – stereotypes be damned. Jeff didn’t die when the docs told him he would (he made it to see his 30th birthday… and then some).
We found each other at CATIE, in its very early days; we found each other in service to a community that dealt with the very same darkness we did, in one way or another. Thanks to the folks who were also in service to the community, and thanks to folks for whom the services were provided with hope of bringing light to dark situations, we found our way and we never let that truth escape us.
Sadly, though, these many years later, we find that too many of the most difficult issues from the earliest days of HIV either persist or are now renewed: enduring stigma and discrimination; systemic isolation and what too often feels like abandon; victimization and/or claims thereof; entitlement issues which are ignored, but which are also claimed due and owing when they shouldn’t be; about our place of privilege, real or forgotten; and the list could go on.
This is not a finger-pointing rant… these are or may be dark realities that exist for many of us when they don’t need to be. But, for us, fixating on the darkness of these realities is counter-intuitive… we have lived together under too many of these dark skies It is easier for us to live with and through the lessons we learned the hard way so that we can try to do our part to be mindful of the darkness; not distracted by it. It is absolutely liberating.
Coming to terms with difficulties, challenges, and frailties of life, for us, means that we embrace what is without getting caught up in wishing things to be different. That’s not to say that we don’t work hard to change things or to fix what might be broken. But, we try to be balanced in our approach and we are not hung up on what we perceive is the perfect outcome, but focused, instead, on realizing that the journey is more important.
Not so metaphorically, we believe that we can all learn to listen to a new piece of music without judging its individual notes or predicting how each will sound on its own as the melody plays out. We can listen to a piece of music for what it is… to the end; to hear it for its beauty, and to appreciate its harmonic complexity. We may never hear the piece again, but we never judge its composer, and we never look back on the experience for what it might have been.
In life, for us anyway, painful experiences are inevitable; suffering, on the other hand, is always optional. We’ve learned to respond in ways that ultimately determine the quality of each and every one of our life’s circumstances.
We are learning, too, from Jack Kornfield (and others) that it’s all-too-easy to get wrapped up in or overtaken by the need to “grasp, avert, or be deluded” by situations that we’re conditioned to believe we must always be in control of. Our, sometimes shitty, circumstances in life have taught us to focus instead on heart-centred living: a completely different perspective. We openly embrace “wisdom, love, and generosity” even during our darkest days. This is more than esoteric philosophy… this is our light and its shine is absolutely brilliant. It does and will illuminate our mindful way forward even in the most-dire situations.
We don’t discount our lived experiences – the good, the bad, and the indifferent – we don’t need to understand everything, but we do need to strive for balance. We aim for equanimity in our relationship with each other, in our relationships with our natural families, in our circles of friends, and in how we find our place in and build relationships with the communities we choose to serve. Hell no… it’s not always easy – far from it sometimes! But… it’s definitely worth the effort, and the investment pays quality of life dividends that are inestimable.
To complicate our conscious choice to live in light and love, we both woke up recently on life’s side of a serious stroke… and we do, intentionally draw attention to life’s side since it so easily could have been the end.
One of us lived through the physical trauma; the other of us lived through the emotional trauma exacerbated by not knowing from one day to the next if making funeral arrangements would take its place at the top of his honey-do-list. One of us, now, lives every day in recovery knowing that some of the resultant deficits are ever-lasting; the other of us still wakes from dreams for which the predominant scene is a long, often lonely, and sometimes very dark hallway. But, mindful always that we’re on life’s side of the darkness, we celebrate this road to recovery we’re on together… a road that takes us on a journey we didn’t expect; that takes us on an adventure of a lifetime.
We don’t claim to have all of the answers. We realize that this bit of prose may not be popular with everyone who reads it (or reads it to the end). We know full-well that the resiliency we find in ourselves, in our relationship with each other, and with those we share space and time with no matter why or how, is about finding ways to live with and navigate the potential darkness of discord every single day. But… and this is not as corny or as steeped in dogmatic undertones as it may seem on the surface… we live in love and try mightily to shine light through our darkest days and nights regardless of what might be lurking in their shadows.
We embrace living with HIV, not in spite of living discordantly with it in our relationship; we embrace it because we live with it together in a time when collective efforts around the world are waging and winning responsible wars against it. We, in our sero-discordant relationship, for example, will realize the awesomeness that is easier-to-take ARVs and the unequivocal science behind U=U. This is not whimsical for us… it is real, and it is made possible because we live mindfully with the awesomeness of it, and because we don’t get bogged down by the dark discord that seems, too often, to dominate over the positives that naturally come with progress.
Embracing lessons shared by Buddha Groove, we have… “No regrets, just lessons; no worries, just acceptance; no expectations, just gratitude.” For us, these words are not always easy to live by, but from which the benefits are definitely worth the work. These words, upon reflection, guide us always on our path to realize that the darkness we perceive is actually light.
About Paul …
Paul Kenney’s experience in public health and social justice is far-reaching through time. His livelihood, now, comes from federal civil service and it is paired by a true passion to share the benefits of meditation and mindful living. Paul is a certified mindfulness and meditation instructor, and a devoted meditator himself. His movement through space and time is guided by his belief in the integration of mind, body and spirit as a way to be; for healing and raising conscious awareness of bringing about physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Through mindful living and meditation, Paul believes that anyone can develop the ability to be heart-centred and to live in gratitude, joy and peace, despite past or current trauma or any of life’s perceived struggles.
About Jeff and Paul together…
Jeff and Paul are soul-mates. Together, they are: devoted sons to living mothers; brothers to seven siblings; fathers to five grown children; grandfathers to three (soon-to-be-four) incredible grandbabies; and uncles to eight nieces and nephews. They see through one another’s eyes, they feel through one another’s hearts, and, together, they share a passionate love-for-life that is unyielding… no matter what.