Today is a day is a day is a re(memory) of AIDS

Two Mays ago, I dressed my body in heavy backpack full of fabrics to wear and an empty notebook to fill and I flapped my wings toward Amsterdam. I was looking to write poems with strangers; I was looking to get over a lost love; I was looking to drench myself in a place I spent years dreaming about and needed to explore alone.

On my last day there, I volunteered at Dominiscuskirk, a nearby church on Spuistraat. Stained glass replaced wallpaper or paint and angels flew all around in corners and around pillars. I was there to help set up the giant quilt panels honoring those who died of AIDS. I took in all the photographs sewed onto various colors and textured patterns. When all the quilts had been hung, I sat watching candles grow illuminated.

A thin man, curved into a wheelchair, moved beside me. He introduced himself as Steven. When I told him that I was visiting from New York, he announced he had been there twice before 2001. “I listened to jazz music then,” he said. “And I went to Central Park.” I told him that I came to Amsterdam to write poems. Will you write a poem with me? I asked him.

Steven smiled. I wanted to cry out medicinal band-aids and heal him. We write:

poetry is religion
there are lots of angels here
a lean into bowl creates a hum:
the sounds of bells

So many red ribbons twisted against shoulders, around candles, against hips. I was asked to light a candle for all those who died in North America from AIDS. Several others joined me, representing other continents. During the ceremony, I went up to the microphone and said, This candle is for the memory of all the people who have died because of AIDS in North America.

When all the candles had been lit, attendees were encouraged to call out the names of loved ones who had also died. We stood there, facing a sea of names, called out into the air, illuminated by the shadows of light. I cried, fearing my wild salt would blow out the light of my candle, but instead it just tumbled down my face.

Steven, I wanted to tell you that you’re a poem.
Your skin, plowed away from this disease, is a poem.
Your breath, pushed out by melted musculature, is a poem.
Your smile lit the church organ on fire, pushing pipes into sheets of enflamed music.

You said, “Goodbye“, after we each grabbed a white balloon and walked our way through the church, outside past several canals. And when we were given the signal, we all let go of our balloons. Many had names attached. These hand-written names floated toward the moon. Bag pipers played and I should have told you how beautiful you were are.

I left the next day, still lovelorn. Before I arrived in this magical land, I thought maybe Amsterdam would help me “find myself”. Humans do this; we go places to find the selves we think we’ve lost. I’ve been searching for my lost self for decades. I do not need a passport to find it. And I certainly don’t need love to validate it. Poems, maybe. Light, yes. Music, definitely. Breath, always.