You’ve Changed. Again.

This July 4th weekend, I was both t-boned and rear-ended by, well, me. In a valiant struggle to transform from who I was/am into who I am becoming/will be, the Universe tends to notice this and becomes a kind of life coach who is into water-boarding and electroshock as a training method. It’s like He/She wants to see just how serious I am about shedding those unwanted pounds and firming up my core.

Kind of like the fucked up love child of Jillian Michaels and Samuel L. Jackson. Not a pretty baby.

I’ll go into depth about what happened this weekend, and what lead up to the ten car pile-up on my personal, spiritual interstate in subsequent blogs, I promise. (Pinky swear). Right now, it’s still too close to write about with clarity, and without bursting into gut-wrenching sobs punctuated by moments of “they’re coming to take me away, ha-ha, ho-ho, he-he” laughter.

For now, let’s play in a safe sandbox that we’re pretty sure hasn’t been peed in, shall we?

iyanla vanzant quoteIn recent talks with friends, change has been a theme. When I spoke with “My Two Todds”–yes, I have TWO, and you don’t–Todd H. mentioned how we often project onto other people what we ought to see in ourselves, or what we don’t want to admit about who we are, in an effort to safely look at our shit with some distance. The problem with this is that we’re flinging our ancient poo onto someone else and blaming them for being covered with it. Because we detest and judge in others what we don’t want to accept about ourselves, we turn away from the mirror the other person is holding up to us, and we miss an opportunity to transform. Instead of turning toward the mirror, our knee-jerk reaction is one of (for example) “This guy has shared with me that he has cheated and been unfaithful in the past. I cannot trust him because I am not around him 24/7 to see what he’s doing when I’m not around. I’ve been cheated on before, and I’ve learned not to trust anyone. Therefore, I shall not trust him, even though he has told me he has a desire to be faithful to me, and is willing to show by his actions–not just his words–that he is a man of integrity. Trust is too big a risk for me to take because it requires transformation and letting go of a limiting belief.”

Instead, we could look at ourselves. “I know that trusting other people is hard. I was taught that others cannot be trusted, will disappoint me and lie to me. I have no control over the actions of others. I can, however, learn how to trust myself, and have personal integrity. I can be open to meeting others who are on the same path, and give a guy a chance when he tells me he’s made mistakes in the past, and has learned from those, and is willing to continue the work of trusting himself, just as I am doing. It’s a risk, but it helps me to grow and transform, and may help this wonderful, new guy to grow and transform as well.”

In other words–every relationship we enter based on mistrust will end in more mistrust. The Universe will continue to give us what we want, and affirm what we believe, until we interrupt the pattern and choose a fresh alternative. It’s having the awareness of, “Oh wow. I have trust issues because I don’t trust myself, not because I don’t trust anyone else. I’ve been taught not to trust others, and learned as a child that I cannot be trusted, and that’s a limiting belief. The person I need to learn to trust–in fact, the only person whose trust I can foster, is me.”

I view change and transformation like a hipster dad with a flat for the first time on the side of the highway with two screaming kids in the backseat. The journey has been interrupted and the kids are hungry and cranky and Dad is still a good thirty miles from home. Dad hasn’t got AAA, Dad’s run out of Goldfish and water for the kids, and Dad’s never changed a tire before. He saw his Dad do it once, but he never really paid attention because he was hungry and cranky and five years old at the time. What should hipster Dad do? No snacks, no roadside assistance, and no instructions on how to change the tire…and too scared and proud to pick up the cell phone and call his Dad to ask for help because looking like a suck-ass father who’s doing it wrong is getting in the way of risking failure and doing it at all. Meanwhile the kids are screaming louder, it’s rush hour, it’s getting dark…

You have a cell phone. You have a Dad who’s done it before. You have a spare tire and a tire iron. Suck it up, buttercup. Make the call.

My second friend Todd sees change as nonlinear. Todd K. says the Taoist perspective on transformation is more about orbits, seasons, and slight shifts in our orbits while we continue to circle around the Sun. Sometimes a life event–addiction, terminal illness, loss of any sort, trauma–smacks us like a meteor and sails us out of our comfy orbit, knocking us sideways into a new one. *Those are best avoided when possible. It’s not doctor recommended to hit rock bottom AND THEN begin transformation, although, that’s what some of us…like myself…do.

IMG_3171Or another portion of us stay stuck in the same boring, limiting, painful orbit going around the Sun our whole lives, bemoaning the fact that nothing changes, same shit different year, wouldn’t it be great to change my job, go back to school, make more money, leave my deadbeat boyfriend, quit smoking, lose 30 pounds…and do jack shit about it other than seek distractions in a series of shiny objects and halfhearted attempts at commitment.

To shift our orbit slightly means that while we are cycling through seasons, we begin to expand or contract our orbit just a couple of degrees per month, per year…and make our way into a new orbit in a mindful, and certainly less shocking way. Let me end this post about how change and transformation work with a bullet point summary for those of you who are more linear, and less orbital. To conclude (clearing throat, grabbing the pointer):

  • Change is the only constant. This is not meant by the Universe to be ironic. And yet, isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? Black fly in your Chardonnay? Anyone? Bueller…Bueller?
  • The Human is the only species on the planet who rails against change, avoids it, fears it and also reeeeeeelly wants it at the same time, then tries to deflect it or flee from it, denies it, causes wars to bring it on or end it, and suffers as a result of having difficulty  in general…with change. Go ahead, try to refute that.
  • Failure to accept change always leads to suffering. Always.
  • Change is different from transformation, insofar as how we define each. To change something may be temporary, like our hair color, our underwear, or our boyfriend. To transform involves alchemy–once something is transformed, there’s no going back to what once was.
  • Once you accept change as a Universal constant, and also accept the alchemy of transformation, with this awakening, a host of other possibilities and moments of “oh shit!” are delivered to you on a semi-regular basis. This often sucks, and is occasionally fabulous.
  • The moments of “oh shit” and hosts of other possibilities were always there, but you weren’t tuned into them because you were sleepwalking through life and checking Facebook instead of being fully present in the moment.
  • Now that you’re awake, you’re more aware. It’s like tuning in to the constancy of the waves hitting the beach instead of thinking of them as background noise.
  • Sometimes, it takes a profound event–a tragedy, an illness, a death, a loss, or something perceived as truly awful (i.e. suffering is most often brought about by not accepting change and not paying attention)–to cause us to wake up, tune in to the present moment, and accept what we cannot change, gain courage to change the things we can, and cultivate the wisdom to know the difference.
  • That being said, it’s ALWAYS better to recognize you’re sitting in poo and have been sleepwalking through life wearing a dirty diaper BEFORE the shit you’ve been sitting in magically escapes your diaper and hits the fan. *Avoiding rock bottom is preferred.
  • Lastly, change doesn’t care how you feel about it, is neither good nor bad, and is not subject to the ego. Change just is.

I’ve heard it said we truly let go of something when we no longer think about it. Perhaps that’s related to the whole “forgive and forget” idea and the huge expanse between those two words.

Accepting change and fostering transformation come at the cost of letting go of things that no longer serve us in favor of new things that serve us better, and that means letting go, receiving, forgiving, and unlearning some pesky, bad behaviors.

If we accept that change is the only constant, would it not be better to accept each relationship with our bodies, our health, and with those we love as an opportunity to also evolve, cultivate, and transform on a daily basis? It seems selfish and narcissistic to want to keep our bodies and our lovers in stasis, just as we were when we were young and healthy, just as our lover was when we first loved them.

The phrase is “This too shall pass” not “This too shall stay.”

When we begin to accept change, each day brings with it a sense of curiosity. Each day becomes an opportunity to check in with our bodies, with our lover and our friends and family, and see how the terrain has changed for them in a twenty-four hour period. Acceptance of change means acceptance of what is, and a commitment to pay attention to changes as they come. It means our relationship with ourselves, with our partner, our friends, and with everyone crossing our path is in motion, intentional, fully present, and never taken for granted.

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There’s Something You Should Know.

Kevin mugshotBefore you have sex, let the person you want to have sex with know you’re HIV positive.

Use a condom when you have sex.

Don’t share needles if you shoot up. Always use a clean needle, regardless of your HIV status, or clean your needle before you share it with someone else.

Should be pretty easy, right? Wrong. It’s still difficult. In fact, for some people, it’s kind of like coming out of the closet every time you want to have sex, and it often ruins the moment, to say the least.

At least, that’s what some of my HIV positive friends and clients have shared with me. And yet, it’s the law.

I thought I’d share my strategy, and why it has worked for me as not only a way to do the right thing and share my status, but also as a means of reducing stigma and empowering me as a person living with HIV.

The-Art-of-Self-Disclosure-Summary

First, know yourself. Not easy. But, what I’m proposing is to gauge your comfort level of sharing your status in the first place. Trust your gut. Assuming you haven’t yet had sex yet–Have you been having a conversation with this person for awhile? Has the flow of chat been easy?  Have you been able to ask him or her a few other questions, maybe share some other intimate details of your life? If the answer is “yes”, then you may have more surety that when you share your status, it will be well received…maybe.

Here’s how I feel, and I stand by this. If I’ve invested fully in another person, have had a few conversations with the hot guy I’m interested in knocking boots with, and if he’s shared some personal stuff with me about his life–in other words, we’ve both been vulnerable to a degree–then my ability to share my HIV status becomes a bit easier. It’s less of a bomb drop, and more of a gentle offering.

“Hey, so since we’re sharing some personal stuff here, I figure we might both be interested in each other. I don’t want to make an assumption that we’re going to end up with clothes on the floor of my bedroom, and be en flagrante delectus, but just in case, I’d like you to know–need you to know–that I’m living with the HIV virus. I’m also undetectable and healthy, and 100% compliant with my meds, which means the chances of passing my virus to you through unprotected sex are less than 3%.”

That’s more or less my spiel. If it sounds both compassionate and confident, it is.

Because I started first by being compassionate and confident to myself about being HIV positive. I thought how I’d want to hear the information from someone else–and I thought I’d like to hear it in a way that made me think, “wow, this guy’s got his shit sorted out”.

To quote my favorite band, Duran Duran, “I’ve got my own way”…and it works for me.

So here’s a little approach for how to get comfortable with disclosure in your own way. First, ask yourself three questions: 1. Do I need to disclose? 2. Do I need to disclose right now? 3. If I answer yes to the first two questions, how can I disclose in a way that feels like I’m honoring myself and being impeccable with my word to the other person?

Our biggest fear is rejection, followed by the fear that person to whom we’ve disclosed will go spilling our business to the neighborhood, to Facebook, whatever. That’s a concern, sure. Here’s how I got around that, and I invite you to see the logic in this: I don’t take it personally. If someone rejects me after I tell them I’m positive, then it’s not that there’s something wrong with me, or that I’m not good enough for them.

Through deep self acceptance and a journey toward wholeness I have come to believe that there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m living with a virus, and I have it under control. I’ve got this locked down, and there’s no shade on me. So, I say to the person who rejects me, “I appreciate your honesty. If you want some education, I am happy to provide it for you, so you might understand just how “not risky” it is to date an HIV positive person. If not, hey–no harm no foul, because I actually wouldn’t feel comfortable having sex, or dating, someone who wasn’t comfortable with ALL of me.”

As for someone running off and telling everyone else about my business, I had to realize that ultimately, I have no control over that. Instead, I have my impeccability and integrity in tact, where they have lost both.

My status is mine to disclose, and it neither defines nor limits me.

A Rhapsody In Blue.

Rhapsody_in_Blue_cover

“Okay, I’ve got one…Tyler? Tyler!” He was busy flirting with Bruce the Bartender. Bruce, it should be known, is female, gorgeous pixie cut, curvy blue eyes that compliment the curved, clover leaf intersections of her body, mapped by a topography of tattoos. It’s also important to know that Tyler’s straight, and I’m not.

Tyler finished laughing at some bon mot of Bruce’s and raised his eyebrows with”Yes?” He’d humored me like a patient parent all evening; he’d even given me five bucks and said, “Make a playlist.” I touched “Play Next” on the MP3 screen. He cocked his head over the talking others in Westerwood Tavern, and squinted his eyes as if that would make him hear better. I planted my butt on the stool next to him just as Simon LeBon started singing, “You saw me standing by the old corner of the main street.”

“Ah, yes. Save a Prayer. Nice one, buddy.” He looked at me, then beyond me, into some memory I’d just gotten in the way of him retrieving, and said, “Damn good tune. Love me some Duran Duran.”  I looked at Tyler, then beyond him, silently shouting the question “Why can’t you be gay?” and prompted myself back to the present.

I had it bad, when I chose to have it. Months of meditation taught me to accept what is, rather than attach to what I wish for, or what could be. It sucks sometimes, but it’s better than longing for an outcome that just ain’t ever gonna happen. It was easy to get lost there with Tyler. He had as much charisma as he had chest hair, and he didn’t seem to mind when I rubbed his shaved head like a Buddha statue, just for luck. His smile was a sturdy boat, and his laugh was a sea shanty…and his eyes were blue and warm like the Caribbean. Tyler liked everyone, including me, but Tyler loved the ladies.

“What was the first CD you bought?” He asked me.

“CD-not-album, or 45?” I asked.

“Yep. CD.”

“Gordon Lightfoot’s Greatest Hits.”

“Fuck yeah, man! Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald! Put it on. Add it to the playlist.” I was obedient. Hell, I’d pretty much do anything Tyler asked me to do…he had that Tom Sawyer way about him. That way of making you feel like everything is radically okay, smiling as the ship goes down.

We sang along as best we could, Tyler, my friend Julie, occasionally Bruce, and me. No one knew all the lyrics, and it didn’t matter because it was perfect at the time. I added some more songs to the playlist–“Heart and Soul” by T’Pau, “No One Is To Blame” by Howard Jones, and “Raspberry Beret” by Prince, to bring the mood up a bit for balance.

Eventually, Tyler joined me outside for a smoke. “When did you become interested in music?” He asked.

“From an early age,” I replied. “There were three generations of music lovers in my family. My father was twenty-one years older than my mom, and my sister is ten years older than me. Dad liked Big Band, singers like Ella, Nina Simone, and his favorite was Sarah Vaughan. I knew who Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were before I was in second grade. I learned about Bluegrass and Gospel from my mom, and I remember listening to Rumors by Fleetwood Mac while driving around with my sister, Kim,when I was just a little boy. Of course, I discovered Duran Duran and Depeche Mode all by myself,” I laughed.

“Of course you did! Didn’t need any help there, did you?” Tyler laughed back. We both took a drag, and I continued.

“I have this one memory of my father and music. I was, oh I don’t know, maybe eight. I was listening to something at the time on the stereo in our living room from my stack of 45s, doesn’t matter what…but I remember my dad stopping me, cigarette hanging on his lip, and saying,”Son, come here, I want you to listen to something.” I’m sure at the time I did it to be one part obedient and two parts glad Dad was giving me attention. He crushed out his cigarette, went to the record cabinet and knelt before it, like it was an altar, as I stood a few feet away, watching him thumb through his stock of albums. “There it is,” he said. He pulled out an album, pristine and shiny, and held it before me. “You need to hear this, son.”

“He held the left side of the album cover, gently slid the record from the paper sleeve, put his middle finger on the little hole in the center, and balanced it like a newborn baby against his shirt. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket with a magician’s flourish, gently wiped the perfect, glossy black surface and held it up to me so I could see my reflection in it and waited until I nodded, “yes.”

“Dad placed the album on the stereo with both hands on either side, careful not to touch the vinyl. He turned the player on, set the speed for LP, and turned the volume up two clicks. It was like watching a Japanese tea ceremony; a ritual that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Dad didn’t have to tell me to sit on the sofa. I knew my part. He put the needle to the vinyl and sat back in his easy chair beneath the glow of the reading lamp. Seconds later, I heard the notes of “Rhapsody In Blue” for the first time. That famous wail from the clarinet. My father’s eyes, closed in fervent prayer, his hands placed on the arms of the chair in meditation. We took a sixteen minute trip together in the living room, courtesy of George Gershwin. That was my first introduction to the pure power of–the ritual of–music. I think it may have been my first meditation, too.  Afterward, my father turned to me and said three words. “That’s music, son.”

“Wow,” was all Tyler said. I could tell he was deep in thought. He was looking beyond me again. We went back inside, joining Julie and a few others in the present ritual of drinking craft beer, shooting the shit, and riding the conversation train to its various stops along the way.

Two beers later and it was time to go. I’d had enough booze and banter, said my goodbyes to Julie and Bruce, and figured I’d catch Tyler on my way out to the car. He was smoking and flirting with some redheaded regular on the patio. I waved, shook his hand, and said, “Okay, buddy! I’m out.”

Tyler pulled me in close for a hug–a big bear one. “You taking off?”

“Yeah, I need to go home and feed the cat,” I said. He broke the hug, but kept his big hands on my shoulders, looked me square in the eyes and said,”That story you told me about your dad, and Gershwin, and comparing him playing a record to a Japanese Tea Ceremony…”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve got to write that shit down. You’re a writer, man. A damn good story-teller. Someone’s going to hear that story about music and it’s going to touch them.”

“Aw, thanks, man,” I demurred. Tyler didn’t let me go.

“No. I’m serious. I’m drunk, but I’m serious. It’s a gift, buddy. Promise me you’ll write that story. It touched the hell out of me, and it’s going to touch someone else.”

I laughed. “Okay! I promise I will write that story.” He let me go, and I started walking to the car.

“Do it!” Tyler shouted. “And have a Merry Christmas, too!”

“You too, handsome!” I called over my shoulder.

I drove home, thinking I could write that story. That there was something to it…something about a ritual, a bonding between father and son, the power of music as universal language, the ritual of friendship and its cultivation, the acceptance of what is over what you wish could be.

Once home, distracted as I so often am by dinner, the cat, Netflix, my phone, Facebook, and other bullshit, I didn’t write. Days went by. I put up the tree, decorated the tree, took the tree down, wrote other shit, spent money on gifts, wished I had a river to skate away on through Christmas, and blogged a little.

I thought about Tyler twice. The first time was just before New Years Eve. We’d talked about early resolutions that evening at Westerwood, and Tyler vowed to get back to the gym. I’d offered to join him, early before work a couple of times a week. I’d vowed, silently, to spend more time with him, thinking that his friendship might just be even better than any prurient fantasies I could conjure…plus, seeing him shirtless in the locker room wouldn’t suck.

The second time I thought about Tyler was New Years Day. I sometimes follow Brucie’s posts on Westerwood Tavern’s Facebook page when she puts up information about events, and wanted to see some photos from their New Years Eve party. Halfway down, the post from December 28th showed his photo, taken on a boat, and read:

Westerwood Tavern will be holding a memorial celebration for our friend Tyler who died unexpectedly Dec. 20th. The event will begin at 6 pm and will be a potluck. Feel free to bring a dish to share, a memory to share, a playlist to crank in Tyler’s honor. We would like to celebrate the incredible man Tyler was – kind, generous, boisterous, thoughtful, and a genuinely great guy – in a manner he would approve.
We invite you to spend the evening with us laughing, crying, dancing, and celebrating a man who was beloved. RIP Tyler, you will be missed but not forgotten.

“Fuck,” I said out loud. In rapid succession, like a skipping record, I thought of every thought that had Tyler in it. Every missed moment, every moment I’d had with him in the short amount of moments I’d been granted. I beat myself up for thinking he was hot, for wishing him gay, for being so fucking shallow. I did all the things one does when grieving, only I did them in the space of an hour, including going out and buying a pack of cigarettes and drinking way too much coffee.

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And then, I tried ritual. I sat with Tyler, and my grief, on the couch and meditated, allowing thoughts and feelings to pass by like clouds, piercing the sadness, making space for what is, though it was not what I wanted…not at all.

In the ritual of silence, I remembered the promise I’d made.  I sat at the kitchen table, opened the laptop, produced a clean dish towel and shook it with a magician’s flourish. I wiped the screen until I could see my reflection in the blackness, hit the power button, and pulled up a blank, white screen with its patient, blinking cursor. But, before I started writing this story…the one you’ve just finished reading, I created a new playlist on Spotify. The first three songs were “Rhapsody in Blue”, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, and “Save a Prayer”.

“This one’s for you, Tyler. Namaste.”

 

 

 

 

Let’s start at the very beginning…

…a very good place to start. Welcome to “Life With a Plus Sign“–Positive Living for HIV Positive People.

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I am Kevin Varner, and I’m a writer, blogger, health educator and licensed professional counselor associate in North Carolina. I’m also HIV positive since October of 2006.

Glad you’re here! Now, you may want to know why I am here, too.  So, I decided to answer some FAQs so you’ll know more about me and my purpose for “Life With a Plus Sign”.

  • Why are you blogging, rather than keeping a personal journal? I’ve kept a personal journal since being diagnosed with HIV in 2006, as a way of healing, dealing with anger, fear, and stuck-ness. I shared a few entries with friends when I disclosed my HIV status, and was surprised by their empathy and support. These friends encouraged me to share my posts with others who are either infected with or affected by HIV as a means of connecting and offering hope and support…until there’s a cure.
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about? Posts about my journey with HIV from before Day One to Day 2,555 (that’s today) and beyond. Articles on Prevention Education–the latest on HIV and STD infection rates, specifically in the Southern US. Articles on Medicines and their side effects, success rates, and indications. Posts on Living Positively with HIV–diet, vitamins, exercise, emotional and mental health, meditation, mindfulness practice and spirituality. I will also take suggestions.
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog? I want to connect with other HIV positive folks from all over. Share your stories, your hope, your frustrations, your goals and your passions. I want to connect with newly diagnosed HIV patients. Share your questions, fears, anger, hopes and concerns. I want to connect with anyone who knows someone, knew someone, loves or loved someone with HIV/AIDS. Tell me your stories, share your support with others, lets spread support, education and compassion and stop spreading HIV and HIV related stigma.
  • If you blog successfully throughout 2014, what would you hope to have accomplished? Two things: More successful blogging in 2015, and a community of followers and fellow bloggers who are supportive, compassionate, and educated in the fight against the HIV epidemic.

Thanks for stopping by. There’s much more to come, and I hope you’ll join me on this Positive Journey.

With gratitude,

Kevin