In Respect and Remembrance for World AIDS Day.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Kevin YAWPDear HIV,

I hope you’re well. It’s been awhile since I’ve written, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge you as we approach World AIDS Day together.

You’ll recall the contract I required you to sign seven years ago when you took up residence in my body. In this contract, I conceded that your continued tenancy comes with these parameters:

  1. You will be quiet
  2. You will not procreate
  3. You will not aggravate, vex, poison, or in any other way influence the cells and functions of the other organs and processes in my body.
  4. You will occupy a small, windowless, doorless space approximately the size of the tip of a stick-pin in a deep reservoir inside my body, from which you will have no nourishment, no visitors, and no hope of escape.

Thank you, HIV, for respecting the simple parameters of this contract. It has been a healthy and productive seven years, and I look forward to your continued cooperation. I’m aware you don’t get out much, if at all, and I thought it might be sweet of me to provide an update. Here’s what you’ve done for me–without even knowing–in the past few years.

You’ve given me a keen sense of intuition about my body. Now more than ever, I can monitor how I am feeling. I’m aware of every sniffle, ache, pain, head cold and swollen gland much faster than in the past, and I stay connected to my healthcare provider more than the average person might. As a result, my doctor has informed me that I have the lab results of a perfectly healthy 30 year old man, (except of course for HIV). Did I mention I’ll be 44 in January? Makes every birthday pretty sweet. Thank you for that.

You’ve given me a sense of compassion for others I had previously lacked. I’ve been able to speak to others who are newly diagnosed, or who have been living with HIV, or other chronic medical conditions, and understand what it means to “walk a mile in their moccasins”. I am a better listener, and a better counselor. I am grateful for this gift.

Because of you, I live in the moment. When I was faced with my mortality, I began to see how important it is to be grateful for each brand new, baby day. I see now–all that matters is this moment, and the next, and the one after that. I’ve slowed down, I’ve stopped stressing about what I now call, “First World Problems”. I breathe in, I breathe out, I discover, I discern, and I direct.

I speak compassionately. I don’t engage in hateful speech, gossip, or drama. I am impeccable with my word. I don’t take things personally anymore. In fact, I don’t even take you personally, HIV. You’re here, and for the foreseeable future, “here” you shall stay. There’s nothing I can do to get rid of you, at least not presently.

But, I can suppress you.

Thank you for your cooperation with suppression. Suppression has found its way into many areas of “my one wild and precious life”.  I have suppressed “negativity” in favor of a positive and affirming life. I have suppressed fear and embraced curiosity and love. I have ended destructive habits in favor of creative endeavors. I have sought to connect rather than isolate. I have stepped way beyond my comfort zone, because I have realized that my comfort zone–isn’t comfortable at all. It’s safe and contained, but like the place where you live inside my body, HIV, it’s a small, dark windowless room. I prefer the uncertainty and adventure of wide open spaces. I prefer to visit the edges and the fringes, the outskirts of town where God lives.

I’ll keep you there so I can venture out and live life, in spite of you, and yet–because of you. My life as an HIV positive man is a positive life indeed. I have no need of negativity, no need for self-loathing, no place in my life for the stigma so often placed on me by the larger community because of my status and my homosexuality. I have embraced love in your wake. I am positive. I am a beautiful and divine child of God. It may have taken your residency inside my body to get me to realize this, and for that I am grateful.

I forgive you, and I also thank you. You sought to destroy me from the inside out, and instead, you have made me stronger than I ever thought possible.

Kevin Varner


Like Moths to the Flame.

I had a dream. I was walking across the lawn of a deserted campground toward a big, handsome, bearded man sitting at a wooden picnic table, beneath an enormous pin-oak tree. I was aware that I was dreaming, and that I had “appeared” in this place. The campground seemed real, but it also seemed like a composite of a lot of other campgrounds I’d visited. It was a pleasant place, and I felt drawn toward the man at the picnic table. The tree was large enough to block the sky and cast a long shadow over the lawn. The man at the table was a guy I know named Jeff. We’ve never met, but have spoken on matters of the spirit via online chat. I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in this dream-space. He stood, smiled at me warmly and hugged me across the table. We exchanged small talk, and then he said, “You know, you can stop taking those antibiotics.” He smiled.

“I’m not taking any antibiotics, Jeff.”

“Yes you are!” He began laughing–not at me–but from a place of warmth. I wanted to laugh with him, but I was confused. “You don’t need them anymore. You can stop now,” Jeff said.

He held out his right hand. In his palm was a small, gray capsule. He popped it open, blew on it and scattered gray dust in my face, which morphed into several small, beautiful gray moths. They fluttered around my head, landing on me, taking off again, and I batted them away as they all flew up, up, into the branches and leaves of the enormous pin-oak tree behind Jeff. He started laughing again, the joyful laugh of a prankster, and I felt a lightness growing within me. It was as if I could spread my own wings again; as if I had let go, finally, of several things to which I’d been clinging.


According to Carl Jung’s dream imagery, the symbol of a moth in a dream evokes something that is annoying, or eats away at fabric, something that is harmful to us. The moth is also a symbol of transformation.

Releasing those moths into the branches of an enormous pin-oak tree signaled the release of some things in my life that have been tearing holes and eating away at my fabric. My fabric is my “isness”–creativity, presence, focus, the ability to exist in the now, unencumbered. The moth symbol calls to the importance of “listening to the inner voice” and battling the “mental noise” that keeps so many of us from achieving our true goals. There’s so much noise these days…so many moths.

I began to list as many moths as I could name. It’s interesting that Dream Jeff called the moths “antibiotics”–medicine we take to cure bacterial infection. I’d been ingesting something that, at one time, had a benefit but had now outgrown its usefulness. I wrote on a page,”Things that I no longer need to swallow. Things that no longer help me. Things that get in my way. Moths.” Here’s the list so far:

Gay social apps and the attention I’ve sought there
Accolades and validation
The ego gets in the way
Fitting in, being popular, being liked
Being accepted for who I am
Fear of commitment
Self doubt fueled by negative thoughts
Fear of the power I possess 
Casual, empty sport sex
Not committing to the gym and physical self-improvement
Helping others grow and not helping myself

These elude me, just like moths will do, bouncing off walls and lampshades, fluttering near my palm and escaping before my fingers can make a fist to trap them. And so, they’re not easy to list because they’re in sight, within reach, but never still for very long. The moths must be captured and released instead of being attracted to my light–my flame.

The “flame” nurtures my creativity, the is-ness and the spirituality that grows within me like a tree. The gigantic oak tree behind Jeff represents the boundless, enormous creativity I possess. It shelters and spreads toward the sky. Moths will feed on the precious, tiny new growth, block the warmth of the flame, distract the spirit. Also, the moths call out to me to pay attention to my inner voice.

I wonder what I’m capable of. What would we all be capable of if we limited or eliminated the distractions–the moths–in our lives that flutter around our flames? Why is it so difficult to do? Is it more difficult today than ever before because of all the options, all the choices, the distractions, the obligations, the urgent, the important, the news-feed, the status updates, the photos, the narcissistic dance steps, the ego-based chatter, the addiction of self-importance and the fear of obscurity we associate with leaving the Social Network, the tribe? Is it time once again to leave the comfort zone and strike out to the wide expanse of the unknown, uncertain country beyond The Shire?

When I think of giving up the cigarettes, distancing my time from contemptuous Facebook and other social apps, and the myriad other distractions that make me “feel good” or “connected, somehow”, I become uneasy. And yet, I know what I would do instead–I’d write more, workout more, pick up the violin and play, read more, study Spanish, and become a better cook, better lover, brother, and friend. I’d become a Shaman. I’d practice mindfulness, meditate, apply Toltec Wisdom to my life and my counseling practice more than I currently do. I’d stop half-assing things. I’d commit fully. I’d stand independent, connected to those around me. I’d love more. I’d spend less energy on certain people who just don’t matter all that much. I’d have more real friends and fewer “Facebook Friends”. I’d spend much less time in my head. I’d learn to separate the urgent from the important, and become very clear about all the shits I give. I’d howl again and run at night beneath the full moon. I’d remember what I’d forgotten. I’d unlearn much of what I’d been taught by well-meaning charlatans.

So what’s stopping me? Honestly–what if I do all these things and no one is there to give me a gold star for doing it? What if I become all this and more, and no one notices? What if I do this and nothing amazing happens? What if it’s hard to commit fully? What if I get bored? What if I lose the spontaneity? What if commitment is just too difficult? What if none of this matters anyway?

Commitment to personal growth is a continual struggle–and I know I’m not alone. The struggle to win acceptance, and succeed has fueled me for as long as I can remember. My fear is this: If I really commit, and I start to see progress, and I get better, what will I have to struggle against? Then again–what would my life be like if I did one thing, each day, that scared me? How many moths would I burn up as the flame of creativity grows in intensity?

Like Jeff said in the dream, with a deep belly laugh: “You don’t need these antibiotics anymore. You can stop taking them now.”

My subconscious knows I’m healthier than I “think” I am. I need to stop thinking my way into living differently and live my way into a different way of thinking. Well, shit. I just put it down in print so I guess I’d better commit to it.

*And, a special thanks to Jeff for showing up unannounced in my dream. I appreciate it, buddy.

Kevin Redwoods


No More Bullies.

There is a three-word bumper sticker on my car: “Don’t Raise Bullies”. I got it from the Stand Up Foundation, I rarely talk openly about the bullying I endured. When I do, it’s from a great emotional distance, and with a twinge of self-deprecating humor. It’s time I come out and write about it publicly. It’s time to name names. It’s time for me to stand up and forgive.

Here are a few choice memories pulled from my childhood Rolodex:

  • Third grade. School bus ride. I’d taken two of my father’s art instruction books to school to show the art teacher. I was interested in human anatomy and learning to draw figures. I’d begun work on a male nude—DaVinci’s “Vetruvian Man”, and wanted to show my progress. I was proud of it. I’d worked on the symmetry using my father’s drafting tools. I took it out to scan it one last time, making sure my drawing looked like the one in the book. Reid Butler, a fifth grader, lunged over the seat behind me, snatched my drawing and the book out of my hand and waved it over his head, proclaiming me a “faggot” for drawing pictures of naked men. That was my first introduction to the word. He crumbled up the drawing and bounced it off my forehead. The bus driver stopped the bus, confiscated my art book and proclaimed it was “Not something I should even have, much less bring to school”. I was reported to the principal’s office where I was paddled for bringing “pornography” to school. The fact I was bullied, shamed and called a “faggot” at the age of nine was never addressed. My mother, though humiliated, stood up for me nonetheless. She left work early the next day, and stood in our driveway as the bus pulled up to let me off. I was surprised to see her there. She boarded the bus and shouted, “I want to see Reid Butler!” With some reluctance, Reid stood up after a few other kids snickered and pointed him out. She pointed the long, elegantly polished nail of her index finger at him and proclaimed, “I know your mother, and I know your father. I know where you live. I know they didn’t raise you to be a bully or use words like “faggot”. If you ever insult, bully, or touch my son again, the next time you see me will be when I am on your doorstep.” I wish I could say I was proud of my mom at the time, but I was embarrassed and horrified that she had to defend me, and that I wasn’t brave enough to defend myself. Today, I am grateful.
  • Fourth grade. Bathroom stall. I walked in to use the toilet. Reaching for the toilet paper, above the dispenser was my name spelled incorrectly—“Keven Varner”—with a cartoon face sucking on a cock next to it. In another, different scribble next to it, the word “FAG” in all caps. I was upset my name had been spelled incorrectly. I was more upset that soap and water and vigorous scrubbing with my tee shirt couldn’t erase it. Even if it had, the memory remains indelible.
  • Seventh grade. School commons, 8:15 am, before homeroom. Students gathered in the commons before first bell to mingle. I was bending over to get something out of my book bag when I heard a hiss and then felt a push on my back which sent me sprawling to my hands and knees…and then smelled something awful on my jacket, my clothes, all over me. When I got up, I was surrounded by a full circle of other kids. I was in the center. Some of them were holding their noses, some of them were pointing at me. All of them were laughing. Eric Preston had doused me with “fart spray”. Eric and his friends were slapping themselves on the back, cackling at what they’d just done. When I removed my blue Members Only jacket, there was a yellow sticky note affixed to the back with the word “FAGGOT” written in black felt marker. I stuffed my jacket in my locker. The locker smelled like fart spray for a week. I never wore that jacket to school again. For years, I had a recurring nightmare that I was surrounded by a crowd of hecklers, pointing at me and laughing, as I stooped on the 50 yard line of a gigantic football stadium. Until I went to college, I kept the sticky note in my nightstand, hidden in a little wooden box as a reminder.
  • Seventh grade. Last day of school before summer break. School stairwell landing between the second floor and the first floor. I passed Craig Ferree and Michael Hemric leaning against the second floor lockers on my way to the bus. Craig made a loud kissing noise at me as I walked past. I remember being too happy about it being the last day of school to let anyone get to me—all the other kids had left and were milling about in front of the flag pole, hugging their goodbyes, waving to their teachers and friends. I paused on the landing between the 2nd and 1st floor and looked out the big picture window for a moment, enjoying the quiet before joining the other kids and heading home to six weeks of freedom. Craig Ferree leaned over the railing above me, hocked up a mouthful of mucous and spit, and shot it down on top of my head. “Faggot” he said. Then Mike Hemric echoed, “Cocksucker”. I ran down the hall to the first floor bathroom, washed the spit from my hair, face and neck and wiped off with a handful of brown paper towels. I missed my bus and called my sister to come get me. When she asked me why I missed my bus I lied and told her I stayed after school to say goodbye to all my teachers. She believed me.
  • Tenth grade. My 16th birthday, January 13, 1987, approximately 8:15am. High school commons, before homeroom. My favorite band was The Cure.  I’d gotten two of their cassettes, “Head on the Door” and “Standing on a Beach, the singles”, and my first pair of black Converse Chuck Taylors. I took Mom’s fabric scissors and ripped strategic holes in the sides, I took her fabric markers and drew the British flag across the back of the left shoe, and bought red glitter paint and drew the anarchy symbol across the back of the left one. The morning of my birthday, I put on my father’s baggiest cardigan, buttoned his white oxford cloth shirt, two sizes too large all the way up to the neck, put on a bolo string tie with a the bullet hole-smiley face pendant from the Watchmen comics holding it together, teased up my hair and gelled it, set a pork-pie hat on top of my head just like “Ducky” from “Pretty In Pink” (one of my favorite movies), tucked my black cargo pants into slouchy red socks and pulled my birthday present–the black Chuck Taylors– onto my over-sized and flat size 12 feet. I was happy. I was sixteen. I had my license. I had a car of my own, and I was going to drive it to school for the first time.

    I was talking to my friends Emily and Cookie in the commons before homeroom. Cookie was handing me a homemade birthday card when I heard, “Hey FAGGOT. Where the FUCK did you get those ugly-ass shoes?” It was Michael Hemric. He’d passed me in the hall for weeks, lunging at me, knocking my books out of my hand, sneaking up behind me and slamming me into the lockers, each time with the word “faggot” added to it like another hole-punch in my low self esteem card. I’d change my traffic pattern to avoid him. Sometimes I’d excuse myself from class, go to my locker before the bell rang, and wait outside the door to my next class just to avoid him. Sometimes I’d hide in the auditorium backstage, in the costume and prop room before school started. That morning he was standing with three or four of his cronies, redneck assholes, bigger than me, in the doorway between the commons and the hallway toward my locker. Michael Hemric knew where my locker was. He’d pushed me into it enough times to remember it’s location. “Flat-footed, cock-sucking faggot. Why the fuck are you wearing those dumb-ass shoes and that hat?” He called at me from across the commons. I looked at the floor and stared at my shoes. Suddenly I hated them. I wanted them to save me but they just stared back. I can still recall the cold panic that shot down my neck to my groin as Michael stalked forward and knocked my hat off my head. “I’m talking to you, faggot,” he spat, inches from my face. I was in the middle of the circle of shame again, just like seventh grade. How do they form so quickly? One moment you’re standing against a wall reading a homemade birthday card, the next moment you’re surrounded by the collective masses itching to watch a beating before lunch. I bent down to retrieve my hat and he kicked me in the shoulder. I was alone. My friends had deserted me. As I stood up, shaking, too frightened of what would happen next if I defended myself, he stomped on my right foot with his boot, and walked off. Theresa Neese, who I had known since second grade, and who was dating Michael at the time, walked over to him and told him to “leave Kevin alone. It’s his birthday”. I picked up my backpack and limped past and through the circle of shame, through the redneck pack of wolves flanking Michael Hemric, past Theresa Neese who was all of 5’2 and who stood taller than I did at my defense that day, walked through the shame and the label of faggot invisibly tattooed across my forehead. Hands shaking, I turned the dial of my locker, opened it on the third try. I wiped my nose and my eyes with the sleeve of my father’s cardigan. Inside the locker I placed my pork-pie hat. I bent down, unlaced the birthday present from my feet, took them off, and placed them in the locker as well, and spent the rest of my 16th birthday in my socks. When I drove home that afternoon, I rolled down my window and threw the shoes into the woods on the side of the road. It would be 20 years before I bought another pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. Today, I own four pair. Today, no one makes fun of me and gets away with it.

    Glasses KEV

Today, no one abuses, makes fun of, or shames anyone in my presence and gets away with it. I am outwardly chill and laid back, intelligent, witty, funny, and grounded. Yet, lurking just beneath that placid body of water is a rage that churns from the heart of a deep, underground fissure. It’s a gaping wound that won’t heal. Just writing about it threatens to bring it spewing to the surface. One reason I am so outwardly calm is that I am afraid of my anger. I am afraid that I could see red and completely forget myself–even for just a moment, because that’s all it would take–and utterly destroy another abuser, first with words, then with my fist and feet. The same feet that were made fun of, the same fists that felt powerless, would take over all these years later, leaving destroyed cities in their wake.

I am here and now forgiving every “faggot” ever hurled at me. I am forgiving every push, every trip, every slam against a wall, and every name ever called. It’s not right, but it’s okay. Michael Hemric, Craig Ferree, Reid Butler, Eric Preston and countless other bullies, you abused me, but you did not beat me. You made me stronger. You turned me into a warrior. You honed me into the man I am today–compassionate, fierce, intelligent, empathetic, and above all, kind. Kinder than you were, and braver than you’ll ever be. Without you ever knowing it, I kicked all your collective asses over the years by learning to accept and love myself.

Yet, I’ve carried you with me all these years as well. You have, no doubt forgotten me. I cannot forget you and what you did to me. But I can lay down your weight. I can release the pressure valve on that deep fissure of anger in my heart, and forgive you. I can witness, and make sure the abuse stops with me.

To my gay brothers and sisters I charge you: Stop doing what the bullies did to you. Stop abusing each other. Stop gossiping, stop throwing shade and sarcasm. Stop causing emotional drama. Stop the petty, judgmental comments online and in public forums like Facebook where we hurl catty barbs, slice tiny cuts and chip away at the hard-won self esteem of our collective community from the safety of a keyboard or a smart phone.

If you don’t have something compassionate and useful to say, keep your mouth shut. Keep it cute or keep it mute.

Untold storyWe have been abused, and abusers long enough. It’s time we started lifting each other up instead of tearing each other apart one catty, toxic comment at a time. Let’s show the bullies we are better than they are and not allow self-loathing to destroy the best of us. Instead, let’s love with just one condition–that we are impeccable with our words and vow not to use them to spread emotional poison. If you’re carrying the weight of abuse and bullying, please talk with a trusted friend. Share your story. Release some of that pressure before it consumes you, and find someone who with whom to share your compassion and your love. Look in the mirror…that’s a good place to start.

Against Same Sex Marriage? Don’t Have One.

I’m tired of being used. I’m tired of being an unwilling participant in a “moral issue” and a “point of debate”, and having invisible fingers pointed at my gay brothers and sisters from the safety and quasi-anonymity of a computer laptop, where it’s easy, and cowardly, to spew out vitriolic statements in grand, sweeping generalizations about the LGBT citizens of North Carolina instead of setting aside assumptive judgment and embracing curiosity and compassion. And then, calling yourself a Christian with the flourish of a poisoned pen.

To those still against same-sex marriage, I ask this question as a gay man in a committed and loving partnership: What did I do to you?  I’m being honest here. Really, what did I do to you? How does my request to have equal, legal protections under state and federal law impact your life as a heterosexual in any way at all? I just don’t get it and I need to understand. Give me concrete, irrefutable evidence to support your argument, other than “It’s the will of the people of North Carolina that we should ban same-sex marriage”. The will of the people may be a majority, but it’s still just an opinion. Opinions change over time, and often as a direct result of education and compassionate understanding.

Put these opinions aside. I’m looking for cold, hard irrefutable facts. Stats. Graphs and pie charts. I want to know, specifically, how my committed and loving relationship with my partner has alienated and threatened your heterosexual relationship or your ability to have one. I would honestly like to know how our life goals, our liberty and pursuit of happiness have negated or threatened yours. Because I’d like to apologize and make amends, if I need to. Otherwise, I’m sick and tired of being your punching bag and I’d like you to stop now.

I would like to know why, rather than seeking to engage in a dialogue and understand me, and other LGBT folks like me, you judge us, fear us, and vilify us, stating we have an agenda. Oh wait…We do! It’s the same agenda you take for granted—equal rights and legal protection under the law. The ability to have our unions recognized as valid under state and federal law. That’s it.

When my partner and I heard the news that same-sex marriage ban had been overturned in North Carolina, I was outwardly happy, yet inwardly introspective. I thought about our relationship, and I asked myself, “Are we ready? Now that it’s legal, do we want to show others, publicly, that we have a right to the same benefits and protections under state and federal law that heterosexual couples have? Just because we CAN get married now, SHOULD we?” We don’t want to get married “just for the benefits”, mind you. We want to get married because we are very much in love. My partner and I will not rush into marriage. In fact, before we decide to join together in matrimony, we will seek premarital counseling, and we will walk with confidence into spending the rest of our lives together, eyes wide open, with open hearts. Gosh—that sounds a lot like what a normal, healthy heterosexual couple would do. We will do this with or without your permission, North Carolina. There is nothing political about our love. I find nothing romantic about politics. We don’t need your permission. We couldn’t care less about whether or not our love, and our committed relationship is, or is not “The Will of the People”.

The mere fact that we are forced to think about it, are judged for it, and are aware that there are those in this state who are actively plotting to keep us from having a legally recognized relationship makes me so angry I could spit galvanized nails. Our marriage is not about you. The answer to the above questions is as follows: We have done nothing whatsoever to destroy the sanctity of your marriage. Our marriage will be ours alone. Our struggles, too, will be ours alone, and if our marriage shouldn’t last, then it will also be our divorce, not yours.

My advice to those who are against same-sex marriage in the state of North Carolina is simple: If you’re against gay marriage, don’t have one. Don’t want to perform a gay marriage? Well, if you’re a clergy person, fine–don’t. We will find someone who will. If you’re a magistrate, it’s your job. Do your job or resign. Someone else will be happy to take it for you and marry us.

But don’t you DARE tell me I can’t have mine. And please, in the name of the God I worship, just like you, stop lobbing scripture like so many cannonballs over the walls of your judgmental fort. Lower your drawbridge and invite us to the table. You’ll find that gay and lesbian couples have more in common with you than you ever imagined. Just give us the opportunity to “be”, and we will leave you alone. I promise.

There’s another document you may consider quoting instead of The Bible: The Declaration of Independence, which states that all of us are created equal, and deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It seems only fair and reasonable to me that the truths we held as self-evident in 1776 are the same truths we honor today. Rights like these can’t be taken away. That’s why they’re called rights.