How HIV and Henry David Thoreau Taught Me to See

Ten years ago on October 27, my doctor in Washington called to give me the results of the blood work from my annual physical checkup the week before. "I have bad news on the HIV test," he began. I don't recall my cholesterol level and other results because my ears were ringing from those few little words that changed my life in an instant.

I had written about others' experiences in the two decades at that point that I'd been reporting as a journalist on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I had witnessed up close the brutality, shock and devastation of the epidemic in my circle of friends and community,

I told my doctor later that day that I hoped I would now have the courage of my convictions -- the courage to be open and unashamed about having the virus, the courage I'd seen in so many other gay men who faced this terrible moment in their own lives.

Ten years later, I am still able to say, as I did in 2005, "If I didn't know I have HIV, I wouldn't know." I have been exceedingly fortunate in that medication has kept the virus "undetectable," jacked my T-cell count to the upper end of the normal range and the minimal drug side-effects have been fairly easily managed with other medications.

Besides the drugs, I credit my good health to the choices I've made -- foremost the choice to live courageously. I have chosen to eat healthy food, stop drinking hard liquor (no more Bombay Sapphire martinis) and to exercise. You might say I chose to live like a man who respects and values himself.

Another important choice I made was to leave Washington, D.C., where I had lived since 1985, and return to my old hometown in eastern Connecticut. Washington had become a kind of ghost town for me, haunted by memories of the friends and boyfriends I lost there in the dark years of AIDS, and I was tired from two decades of always needing to be "on" in that city that values what you do far more than who you are.

A decade on, I'd say leaving the life I built -- my career, my friendships, my identity as a Washingtonian -- and reestablishing myself in the place I fled as a teenager has proved to be the greatest challenge I've ever faced, even greater than HIV.

Medication can make HIV a chronic, manageable condition. But how do you manage the pain of stirred-up, long-suppressed memories of being bullied in junior high school, growing up poor, hiking for hours in the woods to get away from the chaos that ensued when Dad's disappointment in his own life played out in drunken violence?

How do you stay true to yourself -- as an openly gay man, as an educated and accomplished man, as a person living with HIV who refuses to accept society's (and other gay men's) judgment and stigma -- when you are surrounded by people, including family, who still resort to bullying and put-downs to mask the embarrassment and envy your presence stirs in them for the choices they made, and didn't make, because of their fear?

For me, one of the answers has been to keep myself grounded -- literally -- by cultivating a big vegetable garden. I've always had a green thumb, and "Farmer John's Garden" has filled me with the joy and wonder of growing green things, starting indoors in April, tending them all summer, then working to jar and dry and freeze what I can't cook and eat and give away during the summer.

Staying connected to the land in other ways, too, has nurtured my soul and sustained my spirit. As I was hiking and snapping photos a few weeks ago at my favorite wooded spot in the nearby countryside, I realized once again that all these decades since I hiked to escape a volatile household, I still find enormous comfort in the wildness of the trees.

In October, my birth month and the anniversary of my HIV diagnosis, the trees' changing colors remind me that my life also has its seasons. This October, I am once again reading Henry David Thoreau's final essay, "October, or Autumnal Tints." His exuberance in the beauty and color of the trees, grasses and vines he observed around his hometown of Concord, Mass. offers a profound lesson for how to live -- whoever we are, whatever we may be dealing with.

Thoreau made clear that looking at the colors of the autumn forest is very different from actually seeing them. "Objects are concealed from our view," he wrote, "not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly."

First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862, Autumnal Tints is a naturalist's guide to truly seeing nature. "We have only to elevate our view a little," wrote Thoreau, "to see the whole forest as a garden." Those who merely look will observe a maple, while those who see will marvel at "a living liberty-pole on which a thousand bright flags are waving."

Ten years since my diagnosis, I have learned to be mindful -- to be a man who finds strength and sees splendor in what most others consider ordinary.

I can't un-do my HIV diagnosis. The best I can I do is what I am doing: Live courageously, mind my health and exult in the beauty and magnificence of nature and of life itself.

It seems to me that is really the best anyone can do.