The view from Glen House Resort, Gananoque
We pulled up to the main entrance of the Glen House Resort, near Gananoque, Ontario on a wonderful Wednesday afternoon, under sunny Springtime skies, and we were warmly greeted by a small group of early arrivers – most of whom I know; none of whom Paul had opportunity to meet before that moment.
We registered for the 25th Eastern Ontario Opening Doors conference ready to participate together at an HIV-inspired event… simply as our sero-discordant selves, with no ‘hats’ on; with no expectations beyond our own in terms of the sessions we would take in (or why) or the thoughts or opinions we shared (or opted not to),
We realized that Opening Doors was the first HIV-related event we attended together since Durban, way-way-back in 2000 where the ‘hats’ we wore were heavy indeed! This, I realized even before our room-keys were in-hand, was already magical. Then, we dropped our bags on our bed and reclined on well-worn Muskoka chairs, nearly at the water’s edge, to take in the magic of our surroundings.
The vista was breathtaking; a near-cloudless blue sky was brilliantly reflected in still water from which the loons called their welcome to us, and to the others who we could hear coming out onto their own patios to savour the same (early) magical moments.
In the background which Paul and I both were acutely conscious of was recognition that our time at Opening Doors was as much about respite as it was about readiness to actively engage in the conference program and with its 150+ participants – our peers. It is no secret that we’ve been staring down some mighty-troublesome challenges in life this last number of months, including a worrying cardiac diagnosis for me just the day before.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some suggested (we wondered ourselves) that attending a conference would be ridiculously far-from-respite; we needed to get away from it all; we needed a retreat. We returned the loons’ greetings, read the conference program, and knew that we were where we needed to be: we were in retreat with each other for respite; we were in a magical retreat-setting with our peers… for enrichment and for perspective.
While not superfluous at all, enough with the sublime…
Enter Bruce Richman and Bob Leahy (right) – two exceptional people and peers for whom I didn’t think greater respect or admiration was possible… until that Wednesday afternoon in Eastern Ontario’s Gananoqué.
I don’t deny that the biggest draw to this year’s Opening Doors was, for me, the Undetectable=Untransmittable (U=U) pre-conference plenary with Bob and Bruce – a veritable dynamic duo with super-powers I knew about, but hadn’t witnessed for myself in live-action or in this context. And, I think it fair to note that while I was never a nay-sayer with respect to the science behind U=U, I was, perhaps, one of the outliers in the early days who wondered if it was ‘safer’ to stand behind “negligible risk” language in the messaging. My hesitation (if that’s what it was) was short-lived.
If I questioned anything at all (and, really, I didn’t), I wondered what a room full of like-minded poz folks and people who support us would take away from the afternoon; I found myself musing whether a more appropriate ‘target’ audience for this presentation is or should be a group of non-poz people and/or self-disclosed skeptics of the science and/or of the message. I was never skeptical of Bob or of Bruce, but I wondered… what would “preaching to the converted” yield – for me, or for my peers. I wondered if the session’s motivation was to recruit U=U’s Paul Revere-types, which I was A-Okay with but worried would affect the room’s dynamic.
Paul Kenney, Bruce Richman and Jeff Potts
BAM! WHAM! POW! These two super-men efficiently dispensed with the niceties and the formalities of setting the stage, ignored technical foibles, captivated us – their poz audience, and proceeded decisively, with a fierce confidence I’ve rarely (if ever) witnessed, to blow my freakin’ mind!
The U=U message (and everything it represents) is rightly characterized as ‘transformative’. To suggest that this presentation ‘transformed’ an audience wins me an understatement-of-the-year award. This wasn’t a presentation… it was an unparalleled awakening; an awe-inspiring and emotional moment in time that moved the entire room and left an indelible mark on people for whom an unequivocal message of hope and personal validation was too-long overdue. Super-Bob already wrote about the real-life impact this Wednesday afternoon had on people… he doesn’t overstate a single thing.
Now… my focus on the U=U pre-conference plenary is not meant to negate the fullness or importance of the entire Opening Doors program, or of the truly magical richness of hallway conversations, chats next to ashtrays, or social time spent during (amazing) meals or downtime in the lounge over ice-cold beer. I took it all in, at times ignoring sage advice from Paul to rest and refresh. It seems to me that everyone took it all in. Breakfast started at 7:00 with few chairs unattended; plenary and concurrent sessions were full, without exception; and time for fun and frolic filled the lounge with folks who talked shop or didn’t, but talked and laughed and (sometimes) cried with friends old and new.
Breakfast with Paul and Jeff
What stood out for me from the sessions I attended?
Remember, I went to Opening Doors without wearing an affiliate’s hat, so I went to presentations with a perspective I had to get used to: I was there for me… just a guy; just a guy who started his personal journey with HIV in 1990; just a guy who isn’t connected to nearly as many of his peers as he’d like to be; and, just a guy who has so much to learn and who is really excited to realize how many wonderful people he can (and will) learn from going forward.
I sat in a sharing circle where we were gathered to remember our losses. Emotions in that room were real and raw, moving me in a way I don’t think I expected. I asked the group to acknowledge and forgive my own complacency and (sometimes) complicity in yielding too much to celebrating success in the HIV response that means we will live long and healthy lives. I’ve intentionally italicized “we” because the experience of this sharing circle made starkly clear for me that the success is NOT celebrated by ALL of us and, every single day in fact, the success is already lost for too many of us, as are its possibilities and so many of its champions.
Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps it was the universe working some of its magic for me during some trying times. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. What is relevant is this… at Paul’s urging because times are trying lately, I was reading a wonderful book in the days leading up to Opening Doors, “The Way of Rest”, written by Jeff Foster. (If you haven’t read it, I recommend it big-time!)
So many of the book’s pages hold relevance for me right now, but one page in particular struck me in retrospect of this year’s Opening Doors experience… and I’m guessing, with some confidence, that Mr. Foster’s perspective reflected in these words will resonate for others: for others who attended Opening Doors; for you too. So, in closing, I share this excerpt from “The Way of Rest” with hope that it resonates even half-as-much for you as it does for me (especially now)…
“I am gay. I am straight. I am lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender. I am a man. I am a woman, and everything in between. I am a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sikh, a humanist, a pagan, a Satanist. I am an agnostic, an atheist, a nihilist, a dualist and a non-dualist, a believer and a non-believer, a somebody and a nobody.
I am the space for laughter, tears, agony and ecstasy, the most ecstatic bliss and the most profound heartbreak, despair and disillusionment. I am the space for the wonderful dreams, the terrible nightmares, memories, visions, and the most creative manifestations of light. All thoughts, all stories, all concepts, all sensations, all possible feelings, human and animal, vegetable and mineral, pass through me, arise out of me, and fall back into me. I am Consciousness itself. I am what you are. I am coming out as Love.”