Sunday, August 24, 2014


Who is that lady? Aurora, that's who.

And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman

To quote another poet whose unapologetic sexuality is part of his palette, Leonard Cohen says, “My body aches in places where it used to play.” I wonder if his soul aches as well?

Without enumerating the tedious specifics, my body has—since my HIV diagnosis more than a quarter of a century ago—been ravaged by various insidious offshoots of the virus and the sneaky side effects of the life-saving drugs. In some instances—like the vicious peripheral neuropathy in my feet that is incrementally sneaking up my legs—the verdict is out on whether the condition is a symptom of HIV or a byproduct of the multitudinous drugs I’ve been ingesting for these many years.

And now, even though I’m in my sixty-fourth year (“Will you still love me” the Beatles asked, “when I’m sixty-four?”), I tend to blame everything on HIV —from an ingrown toenail to cataracts—when the real culprit is age.

So I arrived in Santa Fe with a case of sciatica that has been lingering for nearly two months (officially not HIV-related, by the way). I’d gone to my regular doctor, to the chiropractor, to an acupuncturist—all providing temporary relief from either drugs and/or the human touch.

But in Santa Fe? Where are as many “healers” as there are turquoise bracelets? I set out to find one of the town’s preeminent in the field. Her name is Aurora which immediately conjures the glamorous but decidedly witchy character that Agnes Moorehead embodied in the popular Sixties television series, Bewitched.

Mitch agreed to drive me since it’s about a twenty minute ride from campus and a bit off the beaten track. But even his GPS was able to identify the “dirt road” that Aurora instructed would precede our entrance through the turquoise gates.

Mitch and I howled in laughter all the way there. What was I doing? What did I expect? Would it be all airy-fairy or would Aurora actually perform a magical massage and rid me of my sciatica? By the time we traversed to the dirt road, which contained a small, opaque lake, we had written several scenarios, most of them veering toward the lurid. We had arrived at the blue gates which were a bit rusted but nevertheless opened and beckoning.

Since we arrived early, I insisted that Mitch drop me off and not linger. “I’ll read a bit of Walt while I wait,” I said, pointing to a rickety chair situated in the blazing sun.

Mitch was no longer laughing. “Hey, man, just in case,” he said, “take my phone number and give me yours.” As we did the phone exchange, I glanced up at the huge curtain-less window on the second floor of Aurora’s isolated dwelling.

“Mitch! Look at the very center on the ledge of the window.”

As if determinedly placed by a propmaster, for optimum theatrical effect, was a bottle of lotion, glistening in the Santa Fe sunshine.

“Dude, you are in for it,” Mitch proposed. It did faintly resemble the cinematic opening shot of a Stephen King movie. I insisted my buddy leave; I was ready for my closeup.

Santa Fe Clouds

“What is the pain saying to you?” Aurora asked, looking at me with mystical intensity through oceanic azure eyes. And it went from there—for the next three hours, I was both psychologically (spiritually, if you will) examined and physically contorted.

But the most significant aspect of Aurora’s approach was her concentration on the coexistence of the soul and the body; this mergence is where, she feels, one needs to put their energies in order to heal. Yes, the synchronicity between Whitman’s mantra and the healer’s was stunning. The soul, she said, sometimes “wobbles” outside of the body and needs to be allowed inside if we desire wholeness. 

She astutely suggested that I have taken on the pain of others. “You might be carrying their pain in your hip and leg where the sciatica attacks,” she said. I could not disagree; my daughter, my brother, and even some of my students come immediately into focus.

“Give it back to them. They need to experience the pain, not you. You are getting in the way of their healing and learning movement forward.

I admitted that I compound the pain by blaming myself, ruminating that I've done something to deserve the sciatica. Interestingly enough, I never blamed myself for getting HIV—maybe, in part, because I likely seroconverted from negative to positive before there was much information as to how one becomes infected. There remains, more than twenty-five years later, contradictory opinions on that subject.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Aurora said, in a soothing but emphatic voice. “Be curious.” Hmmm. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I feeling the pain? Is there something my body—or soul—is saying to me?’” I wonder—no, I am curious—if what I’m experiencing is a manifestation of soul-sickness.

Her massage technique is masterful, verbally defining the body-soul geography while elaborating in detail about each of the areas that she physically manipulated. In that regard, it was the most specific treatment I’ve ever received.

I realized, however, that it had grown much later than I had anticipated and asked if I could take a moment to call Mitch and assuage any anxiety that he might be feeling.

“Everything is cool, I’ll be in class on time,” I said. “Aurora is driving me back.”
(Only in Santa Fe would your healer also graciously act as chauffer.)

I made it back to the seminar, a bit discombobulated, feeling like I’d been lobotomized rather than healed. Little did I realize that I’d need my brain, my heart and my courage (all those goodies Dorothy got on her way to Oz)—not to mention my soul—for the next “chapter” of my Whitman saga.

This is part three of a five-part series. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014



I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body
mine only
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard,
          breast, hands, in return
“To A Stranger’ Walt Whitman

My soon-to-be twenty year old daughter dismisses the word “bromance” as the relationship between two straight guys who love each other but are afraid of being perceived as gay. I don’t entirely agree. I feel that sometimes we have to provide a phenomenon with a word in order to define something that makes people uneasy; by naming it, we often demystify it. (She’s way beyond the simplicity of semantics; “It just is, dad,” she says. “You don’t need to label it.”)

And she’s right. Perhaps what Walt was describing in all those fervid lines about his male-to-male encounters were, indeed, the first recorded bromances. The Urban Dictionary defines the word as “a relationship between two men that are unusually close” while several mainstream dictionaries suggest it’s a relationship specifically between two heterosexual dudes.

“What was the name of the poem you mentioned in class today?” Mitch asks. Not only are we in the Whitman class together, his room is directly across from mine in the dorm. Mitch possesses that television star virility with an accessible sexiness rather than movie star hauteur. In addition to his physical prowess (athletic, confident stature), he is intellectually muscular as well.

How can I not hope for a bromance? Yet, that part of me that is often distrustful of being drawn to a straight man was on alert when I reminded him of the name of the poem. A lot of my hetero buds would not be able to wrap their pretty heads around the complex nature of Whitman’s “To A Stranger”.

But Mitch got it, responding with a certain masculine ease that assured me were destined to the George Clooney-Brad Pitt stratosphere of bromancehood.

This was confirmed by our enlivened chats about what went on in the day-to-day seminars and our burgeoning reflections on Whitman. In addition, we intimately bonded by sharing details on the roller coaster ride each of us values and struggles with on a daily basis: fatherhood.
Katherine with her dad Michael

As the father of a nine-year old, it was clear that Mitch (mid-forties) was a spectacular father and part of that praise I heap on him is derived from his anxiety about being a good dad. He’s listening to his boy; he and his wife are paying attention to the world that his son is growing up in. These details all swirl in the orbit of Whitman’s passages.

And Whitman does stress the gloriousness of conception—above all else, in fact. And please, my fascistic gay friends, don’t tell me that’s homophobic. Whitman is celebrating the miracle that is each new life. I feel certain that he would applaud the soulfulness of “conception” in all configurations of the Twenty First Century.

When you rivet on the same subject for several days, you inevitably come up with alternative words to describe them or their trademark beliefs and behavior: “Whitmanesque,” “a Whitman moment ” or, perhaps, “ Walt would like that.”

Mitch’s relationship to his son is Whitmanesque and, according to Mitch, they share what I would identify as “Whitman moments”: every morning when Mitch drops his kid off at the school bus (“Be kind and smile,” he encourages him) and every night when he tucks him in (“Dream big,” he says).

In getting to know each other, I told Mitch—keep in mind, this is a man who teaches at a private school in Connecticut and wears black turtle necks five days a week—I was going to go to see a healer because I have been suffering from sciatica.

“A healer?” he asks, intrigued but without a whiff of judgment.

I admit that I don't really know what a healer does exactly but I feel Santa Fe is where they would likely do it best. He agrees and offers to drive me to Aurora’s.

This is part two of a five-part series.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Part One

As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth firm the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach, Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.
“As Adam Early in the Morning” Walt Whitman

At our first seminar (St. John’s College, Summer Classics), we were asked why we chose to spend a week deepening our understanding of Walt Whitman.
The answers ranged from “I know very little about poetry in general” to “I know virtually nothing about Whitman.”

“I read ‘To a Stranger’ when I was in my late teens or early twenties,” I said, “and it remains my favorite poem of all time.”

For a young man on the cusp of embracing his sexuality, it was as if Whitman was whispering into my ear while strands of his white-white beard tickled my neck. His poetry allowed me to embrace my queerness. It often made me hard. Walt was not only a poet; he was one of my first sex partners.

As a high school kid, I had been bullied. I was ostensibly popular, starred in all the school plays, even had girlfriends. But none of that mattered to a group of homophobic hooligans who had labeled me (rightly so) a “queer,” a queer to be thrown into the locker room shower in the middle of the day and mercilessly  kicked.

Is it any wonder than Whitman soothed my battered body/soul?

As life unfolded, I would learn that Whitman was gay, wasn’t gay, had to be gay, couldn’t have been gay, was out and proud, was in the closet. I also learned that Whitman indeed celebrated male physicality but that this recurring theme was only a fraction of his expansive palette. And Whitman’s celebration of the body was inextricably bound to his celebration of the soul; in fact, the two are, in Whitmanese, inseparable.

And as our initial seminar revealed, the manifold parts of Whitman poetic palette extended far beyond those of his (or anyone else’s) body.

Democracy, for instance is paramount to Whitman’s voice. In fact, he considered the words “America” and “democracy” interchangeable. And it is, Whitman felt, the duty of the poet to identify our democratic impulses and nourish them. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” he said in Preface 1855 –Leaves of Grass, First Edition.

We are not better than or greater than anyone—whether you’re eating at the Russian Tea Room or shopping at the 99 Cents Store. You deserve equal treatment, respect and—yes—love. That expression of intimate identification, in my opinion, can be as simple as a smile or as charged as offering someone a few bucks with no strings attached. Do these random acts of kindness feed the soul? You betcha.

And where is the soul? Is it floating outside of our body, encircling the crown of our head, like a halo? Or is it inside our body, snuggling up against our heart? Maybe it is in closer proximity to our brain? Our sexual organs? Maybe it has the ability to traverse at will.

My classmates were a fascinating assemblage of personalities. There were two undergraduates who were attending St. John’s, both with a sense of the world—and their place in it—that extended far beyond their years. There was one grand woman, likely in her eighties, who spoke with such dignified and good-natured gravitas that everyone in the room become instantly entranced by her every utterance. Then there was the lawyer in all his quiet yet brilliant thoughtfulness and the judge who spoke through the prism of fairness.

Wendy, one of my favorite classmates, was as open and as curious as a newborn; that is not to imply a lack of insight or intellect. Rather, it is to her credit to be able to process chunks of information that may have not previously been part of her lexicon, approaching them with a willingness to alter her perception.

Among my peers, I was the least educated, likely the poorest, and probably the loudest.

And I love Walt with all my heart.

I also love Mitch—there, I said it—a fellow student.

This is part one of a five-part series.