San Francisco as the epicenter of loss: Part II

Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.  deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.
Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.
deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.

For those of us who weren’t ill, AIDS gave us a new and better reason to live.

The 80’s were a time of death and resurrection in San Francisco. Those of us who had survived the nihilism of the late 70’s felt lucky to be alive. We had to either get wise quickly or be carried away with the rising tide of illness. The recovery movement in San Francisco was born.

It’s easy to forget but half the city seemed to get clean and sober in the 80’s. It became clear to many of us that using drugs and alcohol clouded our judgement and facilitated our indulgence in activities that could compromise our health and our lives. We had to wake up quickly.

And we did.

Alcoholics Anonymous was never so popular, particularly in the LGBT community. During most of the 80’s the clean and sober contingent of the Gay Day Parade was overwhelmingly the largest. It was usually placed at the end of the parade so that onlookers became participants, marching into the end-of-the-parade festivities at the Civic Center as part of the fold. Just as, in the 70’s, you were a nobody if you didn’t indulge in substances, in the 80’s you were on the fringes if you did.

Most of our friends who found out they were HIV positive, if they wanted to preserve what was left of their health, stopped or severely limited their use. And, for the rest of us, getting high was incompatible with helping our friends who were ill. Narcissism had given way to altruism.

We also learned to appreciate life. We were still young and, as we saw many of our friends dying, we experienced what older people do when their age cohort begins to succumb. This has a profound effect on you. You really understand that life is finite. You get on with things. Your mundane concerns seem, well…..mundane. It occurs to you that you might want to do something meaningful with your life.

This period of time truly shaped our lives. Several of us became therapists and social workers, other friends became nurses. All of us, no matter what profession, volunteered and fund-raised.

My best friend, Dannie, was still alive and well. We continued to plan trips and travel together. And then one day on a trip to Vancouver Island by ferry he turned and said to me, “Kathleen, I’m HIV positive”.

This was 1989 and became the closing salvo of the decade for Dannie and me. It had taken awhile but now he was in the bullseye of the epidemic. The skeletal figures, oxygen tanks, experimental treatments and hospices would no longer be one circle removed.

Dannie’s health would deteriorate in slow motion in a few short years….

Thank you, Cedarville, for the welcome

Cedarville, Ca.
Surprise Valley near Cedarville, Ca. Photo: Jim Catlin, 2015

I recently took a trip up to Cedarville from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cedarville is in the far northeastern part of the state at the edge of the surreal Surprise Valley. The drive from route 5 over 299 takes you along the southern boundary of the Cascades. From the road you can intermittently see the large hulks of Mount Shasta to the north and Mount Lassen to the South. You emerge from the forest into the high desert. Cedarville sits at the entrance to the wilderness where 299 goes over the mountains to meet the most remote area in the lower 48 states. This is one of the approaches to Black Rock City where Burning Man takes place each year.

As a stranger, I never felt so welcome in a place. Why would this be?

I have written about the lack of friendliness that I have encountered in the small city I live in just north of San Francisco. Many of the people I know resonate with the sentiment that people in the Bay Area are hard to get to know. Everyone is busy making a living and keeping up with the rapid changes that the tech industry has thrust upon us. The cost of living is skyrocketing, whole industries are being “disrupted” as employees reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs and social mores are increasingly fluid as civil society is redefined. Competition has been promoted rather than community.

Many people no longer have a firm foundation of who they are, how they fit in and how they should act. This is, I think, why so many of us here feel a sense of dislocation.

Not so in Cedarville.

In this town of 400, if you go into a restaurant or store people want to know about you. They ask for your name, where you are from and how long you are staying. They tell you about their lives in the town and why they have come there.

They are a diverse group for such a small town. They include old ranchers, young cowboys, organic farmers, Burners and hippies. They have found a way of life that is remote and demands cooperation. There is no time or use for divisiveness. Professional boundaries are blurred as the chef at the newest hip restaurant is also a real estate agent. People do 2 or 3 jobs to keep the town running. This is how it used to be in the frontier days. This is how it is for them now.

I felt really good about myself and the world after this visit. It dawned on me that we all could definitely use a little more welcome in our lives.

The middle of nowhere is definitely somewhere. I most assuredly will be back.