This is the day of the solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the whole planet on its wobbly axis pauses and then begins to tip towards summer. The weather out the window looks like a replay of yesterday, blowing hard. It wasn’t supposed to. The winds stopped in the night and it was supposed to quietly snow today, but one weatherman said frankly it was anyone’s guess. Too turbulent to tell. Just like politics.
Change is incessant. For the second time this month the Sunday Great Falls Tribune ran a local story on HIV-AIDS. There are about 500 people known to have HIV or AIDS in Montana with about 20 new diagnoses every year. The Metropolitan Community Church in Great Falls has NO members who are positive for HIV. The disease has drifted from gays to illegal injected drug users, who are not gay but must stay covert to evade the law.
For this story by Erin Madison only one man was willing to be identified and photographed as a person with HIV positive status. He’s Greg Smith, a mental health counselor who grew up in Montana but has spent a lot of time in Seattle where he has a practice. Sitting behind his array of daily pills, he’s a big handsome guy with glasses whose home is in Bozeman, one of the university towns where people are generally sophisticated and traveled enough to accept his status.
We’re on a cusp with HIV-AIDS -- it's tipping. For the first time there has been someone cured of AIDS, almost accidentally because of a bone marrow transplant. The meds are sophisticated enough to maintain a rich person or one in a country that subsidizes them. The sheets have been pulled away, revealing that people’s sex practices are more various than we thought. Many women now have HIV, possibly brought home by husbands or lovers, that they transmit to their babies unless there is treatment. Some African countries now have shockingly high fractions of their population infected with HIV. Orphans are becoming adults in institutions.
Those who have been paying attention know that I’ve been writing at the periphery of a group of “lost boys” who have now grown up. They were handsome, intelligent, seductive and wicked as well as gifted: survivors have turned out well. The time went quickly. That stage has been replaced by an AIDS activism-through-arts website and a Tribeca art gallery sponsored by an Englishwoman. I’m separated from that but continue to read TheBody.com. This year they lost “Dr. Bob,” one of the charismatic and endlessly energized leaders. He died of septic shock, which we used to call blood poisoning. He was gay and in a committed relationship with another male doctor but got the virus from a deep fingerstick when treating an AIDS patient.
When I first moved back to Valier over ten years ago, I worked as a ward clerk for a short time. A nurse there had sustained a similar fingerstick and was sweating out the six month’s wait before tests would show whether the virus had jumped to her. The first AIDS death of a friend was a Canadian ministerial colleague, a young handsome man in a relationship with a doctor who could not save him. At ministerial meetings where he was present, we grew used to the sound of his pill dispenser, which chimed to remind him. I cannot pretend that HIV only infects the “Other.”
This is not our first pandemic: plague in Europe wiped out one third of the people and left the land standing empty. Tuberculosis -- still not eradicated -- took a whole generation. The Spanish Flu, connected to WWI, nearly killed my mother as a child and did kill her doctor. One cannot live by a reservation without awareness of the Euro-introduced diseases, mostly smallpox, that killed far more people than any massacre. The United States kills more people by withholding subsidies for HIV drugs than it does by waging war. There are 26 people in Montana on the waiting list for med subsidies for their HIV.
The planet tips on its axis in the middle of winter. Need and chaos are everywhere. Another article in the paper suggested that times have rarely been so polarized, ignorant, punishing and vitriolic. The papers themselves are in deep trouble. Internet webs have revealed us to each other more deeply than any other media, from our naked silliness to our esoteric piercing sciences. The response of the government has been to try to block, to tax, to regulate -- while our political representatives still include many who refuse to touch a keyboard. Never learned to type anyway. (Only girls type.)
I have not continued to be active with AIDS groups, not because I’ve lost sympathy but because I’m not a one-issue person. I don’t see AIDS as a virus alone but as a complex of forces interacting to alienate people, stunt their growth, wall them off from each other. I don’t see HIV as a gay disease or even as a human disease. (Though Dr. Bob would reassure worrywarts that you can’t catch HIV from a bedbug and if you could, it would be BIV -- not Human Immunosuppressive Virus but Bedbug Immunosuppressive Virus.) I see it as a bit of planetary code -- a bit of the genetic life blueprint of every living being since the first eukaryote grabbed a mitochondria and started building a creature. Now that we begin to read the molecular blueprint, we can intervene more effectively.
If we WILL. We aren’t using the knowledge we already have to make life more human-friendly. We’re told what we need to do -- we just don’t want to do it, mostly because it means change, it means understanding “the Other,” it means giving up our grasping and commodifying that is both based on and built from maintaining a gulch between the haves and the have nots and dominating whatever bridges are thrown up. I’m only a cultural Christian -- my doctrine is everythingist, transcultural. Jesus’ claim that “what you do to the least of these you do also to me” is not that that different from the motto of the Bioneers: “It is all connected, it is all alive, it is all changing.”
Another story in the paper today is about avian flu and our ability to make it jump species. That’s where smallpox and HIV came from. It’s a very dangerous thing to tinker with -- but how else can we find out about it? We are still eukaryotes grabbing mitochondria before we know what to do with them. The planet has tipped many times since that started happening. It tips towards summer as well as winter. Now the light begins to grow in Montana. A hard wind is blowing.