I have spent considerable energy crowbarring apart my sense of time and personhood so that I can understand there to have been a past and a present, and that those are different things. One is happening and the other is not happening anymore. Three years of my life, doing this activity, teaching my brain, rewiring myself. It brings calm, it brings safety, it brings a sense of adulthood and control -- I am grown now. I have power and am no longer a scared little girl. It’s not happening anymore.
And yet I look at @everyquiltblock by Kelsey Gilmore-Innis and I want you all to be the elementary school kid I was when part of the AIDS Memorial Quilt came to my school, was laid out and filled the entire cafeteria while I walked carefully around each square. There’s something especially mournful, wounding, and unfair about the AIDS Quilt that I love about it, still, after all this time. It communicates very well even just looking at one square on a screen. But seeing it fill the room that held my entire school normally, and knowing this was just one tiny part of it, was daunting in the way that death is when your mind is forced to grasp large-scale murder before it slips and becomes a number once more.
4-H is big in Indiana, and my mother won Dressmaking when she was growing up, so I knew a *little* bit about sewing and quilting. Enough to know that it was hard, to respect the work and listen when they said not to mess with or run on any of the squares. Enough to understand that you can’t really sew a person’s entire life into a rectangle of cloth, no matter how hard you try. I hadn’t seen a person die of AIDS yet (that wouldn’t happen for another 10 years or so) but I’d already started losing people.
I’ve always been queer, even when I didn’t understand that that’s what I was -- trying to hide it would have been like hiding that I’m tall. And yet to a great extent I *did* try to hide it, or adapt around it, to survive. I’m left now at 35 with a set of aesthetic...habits...that I cannot tell how I feel about since it’s been so many decades of ground-in conditioning. Like a plant that grew horizontally for a long while to reach sunlight. I consider something and reflexively I can hear my mother saying “but that’s so *masculine*” and I feel a deep somatic flinch. I pushed back enough to cut the bows and shoulder pads off every dress she ever put me in, she always described me as “active”, but I truly don’t know how much I love and how much I’ve learned to enthuse about as a defense.
And yet even with all of this, my favorite people, the friends of my mother’s that I liked best, the people who entered my life who seemed to be operating on the same frequency as me, who I was happiest with -- well, in the 1980s, straight people just made odd comments about them around me occasionally and I didn’t understand it. But then also, some of the men among them started to get sick. And then they started to die. And then they all died. And those folks left that weren’t dead were incredibly sad, all of the time, perpetually going to someone’s funeral or one hospital or another. This sounds like an exaggeration but that’s how I remember it, happening so fast and then it just wouldn’t stop happening. People suddenly wearing all-black all the time. Then the red ribbons. And this was my *fairly conservative* family, in the *middle* of the Midwest.
And then Ryan White got diagnosed and FINALLY straight people (my mom) would say “AIDS”. My hairdresser who I loved had died of AIDS. Our favorite waiter at our favorite restaurant had died of AIDS. Etc. I stopped being incredibly nervous about catching fatal pneumonia and instead felt the overwhelming retroactive hopelessness of being in the middle of a preventable crisis. But nobody was preventing it.
(Eventually the AIDS-torture-porn movie Philadelphia would come out, prompting my homophobic father to completely 180 re: gay people and also amnesia himself about ever having been homophobic. That doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of this, I just invite you all to join me in slow-blinking at his lack of accountability.)
I am glad to remember that time. I am glad it is not happening anymore. I am glad to still feel the “fuck you, FUCK YOU” unfairness of entire lives lost, which I couldn’t fully understand as a fifth-grader staring down at the squares, all the lovingly hand-stitched blocks, each letter of each name cut out and sewn down so carefully. The cathartic healing craft that must, must be part of this project. Such a beautiful thing that should not exist. What an incredible memorial, demanding expansion in step with Reagan’s shameful legacy. Every time I despair about where my mentor is, I need to remind myself to look for their name on the quilt; that’s where they probably are because we lost a generation.
And we are about to lose another one.
I feel like time is collapsing again. I don’t know if it’s only me, but it seems to be happening to the rest of the world too. Things are going wrong and they keep going wrong, and the people who can stop it keep not stopping it. For an abuse survivor, it’s the worst kind of feeling, over and over again.
Although for some, I suppose this is a new feeling for you.
I leave you with this, which is better than I have in me, as always:
A Litany For Survival
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children's mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive