Nov 17 2017
As I began the first draft of the first edition of Urban Tantra, I wrote, “I want a revolution!” Not only did I want a revolution in cultural attitudes about sexuality and spirituality, I wanted a revolution in Tantra: the only spiritual practice I’d ever found that welcomed sexuality as a path to spiritual freedom. I wanted that revolution. Then and there.
Now it’s eleven years later, and that revolution is well under way. I looked around the graduation circle at my most recent Urban Tantra Professional Training Program, and saw: a transgender professional dominatrix, a cisgender male medical doctor, a gay male sacred intimate, a nurse, an escort, a relationship coach, a social worker working with indigenous peoples, several sex educators, several more Tantra teachers, two yoga instructors, a performance artist, and an ordained minister. One-third of the group were people of color. We ranged in ages from early twenties to late sixties. We loved, cried, howled with laughter, felt deeply, experienced life-changing “ah-hah” moments, and supported and shared love with each other for an entire week. These were beautiful, brave, passionate explorers—and now they were my colleagues and friends. I initially wrote Urban Tantra because it was the book I had always wanted to read but could never find. I knew there were fierce, loving, spiritually minded, erotically focused people in the world who wanted that book, too. I wanted to meet them. To play with them. To work with them. To learn from them. And here they were. I wrote it, and they came. My dream come true.
So many of my Urban Tantric dreams have come true since 2007. The phrase conscious sexuality is now common. Sacred sex has expanded to embrace all sorts of different beliefs and practices. The field of sexuality education has exploded, providing resources to people of all races, religions, and cultural backgrounds. BDSM was taken off the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders list as of 2013, making it a consensual choice, not a mental illness. Non-monogamous relationships came out of the closet and invited us all to take a fresh look at how we create and maintain relationships. And then there was gender. Oh my! In recent years, the twin explosions of gender identities and trans rights initiatives have changed everything, opening a box of unlimited gender opportunities that can never be closed. Today, Urban Tantra is a global movement. The Urban Tantra Professional Training Program alone has graduated hundreds of practitioners from twenty-six countries, and they, in turn, are taking the practice into corners of the world I’d never dreamed it would go.
I got my revolution. Big time.
Now that we’re post-revolution, it’s time for Urban Tantra to grow into a new era. I’ve made revisions, updates, and additions to this edition, not only to bring Urban Tantra up to date, but also to cast my gaze toward the future. I have always regarded Urban Tantra as an ever-evolving practice. Where might we go next? What might Urban Tantra become next? This revised edition is a step into that future.
As often happens in revolutions, when someone raises a flag, everyone else who’s been longing for a revolution runs over to introduce themselves and ask how they can help. That’s just what happened in 2007, when the first edition of Urban Tantra was published. Everyone who had felt shut out of other schools of Tantra discovered a flag under which they could rally. We first gathered online and then in person—from all around the world.
In this revised edition, I’m extending an invitation to even more inclusivity. I offer practices and suggestions for people in multi-partner relationships. The number of people openly practicing consensual non-monogamy has grown enormously. Over the past decade, I’ve developed Tantra workshops for triads, quads, and more. In this edition, I suggest ways in which partner Tantra can include more than one partner.
Many schools of Tantra have become more inclusive, and so groups of people with common interests and identities have formed their own Tantric groups or incorporated Tantric principles and practices into existing organizations and schools of thought. Gay Tantra, Dark Tantra, Pagan Tantra, Queer Tantra, and Women’s Tantra are just a few of the new flavors of Tantra. I find inspiration in the many creative expressions of Tantra blooming around the planet and I hope this new edition of Urban Tantra can, in turn, inspire them.
I have also been inspired by the rise of the asexuality movement. An asexual is someone who either does not experience sexual attraction, or experiences attraction, but feels no need to act out that attraction sexually. Lack of sexual interest and/or desire is commonly pathologized in our culture. I applaud asexuals and aromantics (people who experience little or no romantic attraction to others) for refusing to be pathologized. And it turns out that an increasing number of asexuals and aromantics are becoming drawn to Tantra. In this edition, I point out practices that allow people with different sexual and romantic affinities to find ways of relating, running energy, and creating connection and intimacy that do not have to include sex and/or romance.
TANTRA AND BDSM
The relationship between Tantra and BDSM—considered radical and heretical when I first wrote about it—is now common practice. The explosion caused by the book Fifty Shades of Grey catapulted BDSM above ground and into the middle class. Those BDSM practitioners who had always played with a Tantric touch now had a name for the energy play they had long enjoyed. Tantrikas who liked things a little more physically or emotionally intense had permission to go there. Some Tantric practitioners are now combining elements of power and intense sensation with traditional Tantra in a variation sometimes referred to as Dark Tantra. Longtime BDSM players are coming out of the closet as spiritual seekers and creating scenes intentionally designed to welcome god/goddess/universe/all-that-is into their dungeons. Communities in which kinky people and Tantrikas meet, mingle, and play together are growing and can now be found all over the world.
Tantric sex and BDSM have much more in common than may seem apparent at first glance. Both are erotic arts of consciousness. Both arts add intensity to life and sex. Both embrace a wide variety of powerful consensual practices. Both Tantric and BDSM rituals are about raising erotic energy. Both practices involve conscious giving and receiving. Both encourage risks—either physical or emotional. Both erotic arts encourage personal freedom, individuality, and imagination. And both produce trance states, and transcendental, transformational experiences. In this edition, I provide a larger toolkit for those who wish to explore this intersection.
Everything about how we look and talk about gender has changed. When I wrote the first edition of Urban Tantra, I wanted to use they instead of he as the gender-neutral pronoun, but my editors (justifiably) felt the general public would find that confusing or grammatically incorrect, so I wrote around the problem by using gender-neutral names instead of pronouns, switching between he and she, and using s/he. During the editing of this revised book, the subject was not even raised. Now most English dictionaries include they as a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun.
The language of gender is changing so rapidly that by the time you read this I’m quite sure it will have evolved to name new aspects, or new understandings, of gender. This necessitates a new mindfulness in using this evolving language of both sex and gender. As I remind people in both my workshops and my books, defining our terms before we speak or write is critical to accurately communicating our feelings, identities, and desires. In that spirit, here are my definitions for the gender-related terms I’ll be using:
• Cisgender (or cis) is a person whose gender identity matches up with the sex they were assigned at birth.
• Transgender, at this writing, refers to a man, a woman, a boy, or a girl who has transitioned from another gender. As recently as a few years ago, transgender was a term inclusive of anyone who was messing around with gender. That inclusive term is now trans.
• Trans, at this writing, is an inclusive term for anyone whose gender is in any way at odds with cultural norms for gender. This includes nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming people.
• Nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming refer to people whose gender identities and expressions are neither, both, or other than male or female.
In this edition, I am offering more Tantric erotic possibilities for both transpeople and the people who love them. When I wrote the first edition of Urban Tantra, I titled my Erotic Awakening Massages as being for “People with Pussies” and “People with Penises,” instead of for women and men. I wanted people to understand that not all people who identified as women had pussies and not all people who identified as men had penises. Now, as more and more people understand that genitals do not equal gender, it’s the perfect time to be more explicitly trans-inclusive by introducing my new chapter, Erotic Awakening Massage for Trans and Gender-Nonconforming People—an erotic/spiritual adventure based on the knowledge that all erotic tissue is simply the same Jell-O poured into different molds.
The word Tantra is, alas, now virtually synonymous with sex in mainstream Western culture. Although I have tried to keep focus on the larger spiritual practice, I want to honor and support people’s profound need for a spiritual practice that embraces sexuality. In chapter 1, I take a more nuanced view of the nature and history of Tantra and its evolution into a modern Western sacred sexuality practice.
When Urban Tantra was first published, my primary intention was to create a Tantric practice that welcomed people of all genders, races, abilities, sexual preferences, and spiritual beliefs. I wanted a school of Tantra that was down-to-earth, fun, accessible, and transformative. I also wanted to expand the boundaries of what Tantra was and could be. In the ensuing years, I’ve watched people experience countless emotional and physical healing miracles through their personal Tantric practices. Today, I’m asking, how can the practice of Urban Tantra heal not only ourselves, but also our world? How can we be of service? What else is possible at the intersection of spirit and sex? How can Tantra—and specifically Urban Tantra—not only inspire people to become their best selves but also to create change in the world for the benefit of others? Part 5 of this new edition, Tantra: The Next Dimension, points us toward that future. I invite us all to use the Tantra-related art of sex magic to create our own personal brand of sexually and spiritually fueled social activism.
Whether you have been on the Urban Tantric path since the first edition of the book was published or you are just beginning your journey with us, welcome. It is my fondest hope that this new edition of Urban Tantra inspires you to create your own flavor of spiritually infused sexuality, and/or erotically infused spirituality. You could call that practice Tantra, sacred sex, conscious sexuality, erotic spirituality, or sacred kink. I call it simply, How I Love.
Buy the New Edition of Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century at:
Are you somewhere else in the world?
Book Depository will give you a discount AND ship anywhere in the world!
Nov 07 2017
Look what just arrived! My advance copy of the revised, expanded, 10th anniversary edition of Urban Tantra! It’s available for preorder now and will ship on 21 November—just in time for a sexy long Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S. Check it out: http://amzn.to/2lJWtd8
Aug 02 2017
Today, I want to share with you a 5-minute tool that has the power to totally transform your day. You can use it anytime, anywhere, and as much as you want. It’s my favorite way to recharge, gain perspective, and build erotic energy. It’s Breath!
Breath is powerful. It can produce so much extraordinary pleasure it will amaze you. Once you become familiar with moving erotic energy around on your breath, you’ll find all your erotic encounters to be much more fulfilling. Your orgasms will be longer and deeper. Eventually you’ll find yourself using breath techniques in non-erotic situations to bring erotic energy to more and more areas of your life.
Let me give you an example of how changing the way you breathe can change the way you feel.
(1) Sit comfortably.
(2) You’re going to yawn. A yawn is your body’s way of asking for more air. More air means more aliveness. The next time someone yawns while you’re talking, don’t be offended; thank them. It means that they’re trying to be more present and alive for what you are saying.
(3) Yawn. Try it. Let a really big yawn happen to you.
Fake it until you feel it, but do not force it. Come as close as you can to a really big yawn.
(4) Feel how the yawn opens the back of your throat and stretches out your whole mouth and face? That’s the feeling of openness you want.
(5) Now, breathe. Let your mouth fall open slightly. Relax your jaw and face, open the back of your throat and breathe in through your mouth, gently but fully.
(6) Exhale. Don’t push the breath out; just let it fall out with a gentle little sigh, ahhh.
(7) Take in a much air as you can, as effortlessly as you can, then let it go.
(8) Keep breathing. Continue for three minutes.
(9) Notice how you are feeling.
Do you feel any different from when you started?
Are you a little dizzy now? Lightheaded? Spacey? Relaxed? Weird?
Do you feel good? Or not?
If the breath made you a little lightheaded, did that worry you? There’s no need for concern. Couldn’t you benefit from being a little lighter in the head? I know I could.
Changing the way you breathe produces a perceptible change in consciousness. It’s a physical reality. So, changing the way you breathe changes the way you feel. Sometimes it makes you feel out of control. Most of us walk around in this world trying to maintain total control over our bodies, to the extent that we have reduced our breathing to a level just deep enough to keep us going. It’s not just an individual choice—it’s cultural. Imagine this: You’re going to work one morning and just like always, you step into the crowded elevator. The door closes. But this morning someone in the rear of the car takes a huge deep breath and exhales with a loud AHHH! What do you think? What might everyone else think? Would that breath seem strange and out of place? Why? In response to a sex-negative, body-shy culture, we have reduced our breathing to a survival level. We take in just enough air to stay alive.
We unconsciously hold our breath many times each day. In fact, holding our breath is usually the first thing we do when we don’t want to lose control of some situation. It’s part of a reflex we all seem to have that causes us to tense up and “get through this.” Unfortunately, it’s also the technique most of us use when we “try” to have an orgasm. We bear down, hold our breath, and try to “make” ourselves come. Sure, you can have an orgasm that way. Most of us have. But deep, full, extended orgasms happen more easily and naturally as a result of the dance between tension and release, contraction and expansion.
When used consciously, both tensing up and holding your breath can lead to a mind-blowing orgasm after the body has been charged up with lots of breath. Energy pathways will open up, and the orgasmic energy can travel where we direct it. There’s a difference between the kind of orgasm you have after a five-minute masturbation quickie under the covers when you’re trying not to make any noise and after a loud, passionate, energetic romp with a hot lover. In the former instance, the orgasm is primarily happening in and around your genitals. That’s as far as the orgasmic energy can travel in a short time with minimal breath. In the latter instance, the orgasm may feel like it is happening all over your body and shooting out the top of your head. That’s what happens when your energy pathways have been opened up and you have expanded to allow more energy.
The amount of breath involved is not the only reason for the difference between these two orgasms. In the second example we also added the energy-building elements of movement, sound, and a partner. However, when we move, make sounds, and relate with another person, we also breathe more, exponentially increasing the energizing effects.
Changing the way you breathe will sometimes produce an extreme change of consciousness, so it pays to discover which kinds of breathing will produce which kinds of changes of consciousness.
Do you want to explore the potential of breath more deeply?
Join me in New York City for my most popular one day workshop:
Saturday, September 10th
10am – 5:30pm
Urban Tantra® is a radically updated Tantra practice for modern sexual/spiritual explorers that can be used by everyone. Tantra is not only a sexual practice; it is a way of life and a path to spiritual growth. On the Tantric path, pleasure, vision and ecstasy are celebrated and can be found in both everyday life and in peak sexual experiences. Develop deep, heart-centered connections (with a partner or within ourselves), and explore the bliss that comes when our spiritual and sexual paths are one.
Note: This workshop does not include nudity or explicit sexual touch. All genders, sexual preferences, and relationship structures welcome.
Apr 01 2017
5 Reasons Why the Urban Tantra Professional Training Program is the Professional Retreat We All Need Right Now
Let me guess…you’re a giver.
You’re the practitioner who gives every single client 100%…
You’re the therapist who schedules one more session so you can help one more person…
You’re the involved parent, or the nurturing caregiver that keeps your family going strong…
You’re the compassionate healer who holds space for everyone’s growth…
You’re the driven entrepreneur who’s innovations shift perspectives…
You’re the engaged activist who fights for the whole community…
…and you’re exhausted, depleted, and perhaps even completely overwhelmed.
I know you, because I am you. I’ve held every one of these roles at some point in my life, and I know the pitfalls and challenges that arise when you give all of yourself to your work.
During my more than 25 years in the field, I’ve seen powerhouse practitioners, compassionate councilors, and excited educators burn themselves out trying to make it all work.
That’s why I created the Urban Tantra Professional Training Program—to share valuable tools that make this work more worth doing, for everyone!
Here are 5 Reasons Why the Urban Tantra Professional Training Program is the Professional Retreat We All Need Right Now:
1.) Mind/Body/Spirit Healing
I’ve created a nourishing immersive experience that will gently carry your whole person through a 6-day transformative journey. Breathwork sessions to invigorate your soul, massage to ease your body, expertly facilitated intellectual discussions to tease your mind, and plenty of time for integration, journaling, and making new friends. Also worth mentioning, we have a great deal of fun, frolic, and play during this training.
This is an experiential process, I vary learning styles and subjects daily. We’ll have dance breaks, moments of meditation, deep discussions, sacred experiences, peaceful moments, and more than a few good belly laughs.
2.) Professional-to-Professional Love…there’s nothing quite like it.
An amazing thing happens when you get a room full of practitioners together. There is a mutual respect, a deep witnessing, and expert skill sharing that never ceases to amaze me.
I created this program out of the need for this type of connection. There isn’t another pace quite like it out there. When you step into the program, you’re met with a community of practitioners, teachers and healers. You’re encouraged to bring your uniqueness to the circle, and we’re all better off because you did.
It may sound like a short amount of time, but we pack a lot of connectedness into these 6-days. You’ll walk away with lifelong relationships.
3.) Sweden at Midsummer
The Urban Tantra Professional Training Program is taking place at my absolute favorite Swedish retreat center, Skeppsudden, during the Midsummer Holiday!
We’ll be utilizing the fertile energy of the longest days of the year to bring even more life, creativity, and depth to this generation of the program.
In addition to the usual 6 days of advanced, experiential Urban Tantra technique and training, there will be at least one brand new ritual experience to capitalize on the supple joy and exuberance of the Midsummer Festival.
You’ll enjoy looooong warm days and bright sunny evenings in the quintessentially Swedish woods and on the water. It is the perfect place, at the perfect time to dig into your desire for more, to deepen your connection to your purpose and vision, to learn how to create delicious experiences for yourself and/or your clients.
Did I mention that Skeppsudden has one of Sweden’s most luscious saunas?
4.) Business Skills, Boundaries, and Best Practices
You’re committed to your practice, your vision, your business, and I’m committed to teaching you the practical skills that will keep you loving your work.
You may come in feeling overwhelmed, but you’ll leave with:
◦ clarity around your target market, marketing language, and your mission, so you’ll attract more of the people that you want to be working with and less of the ones you don’t;
◦ marketing knowhow to further your reach, increase your prospects, and create a whole new set of potential income streams;
◦ a new skill-set and practice around setting healthy boundaries that will keep you grounded in yourself, weed out energy vampires, and help you maintain a healthy work/life balance;
◦ easily integrated embodied practices that leave you feeling nourished, connected and energized so that you can show up more powerfully in your work and in your life.
The individuals that show up for this work are incredibly unique folks from all over the world. We will sit in circle for 6 magical days, sharing experiences and wisdom with hearts open. During this time, new Ideas take shape and perspectives begin to shift.
You’ll get to explore your edges. I’ll encourage you to try something new, to take that risk, to ask that question, to peruse that taboo. My hope and deepest desire is that this exploration ignites your passion and creativity.
There is no “right way” to use this work. Yes of course there are standards and ethics, but I encourage you to season what you learn at the Urban Tantra Professional Training Program with your own flavor. Evolve it, explore it’s power, and use it to create more ecstasy!
I am a giver, I’m enthusiastically engaged with my community, and I care about every single person who finds their way to my work.
So if you’re ready to join me for 6-days of sacred soul journeying, community connection, and nourishing inspiration, email email@example.com
20-25 Jun 2017
Yours in ecstasy,
Jan 06 2017
2017 is happening… like it or not. For the first time I can remember I have received more New Year’s messages expressing helplessness and hopelessness than hopefulness and anticipation. Wow.
Welcome to the land of Endarkenment. A couple of years ago I began exploring the nature of endarkenment. Embracing endarkenment means accepting that necessary transformation will happen through radical disruption if we haven’t been able to find it through the more peaceful process of Enlightenment. Remember, enlightenment and endarkenment are not goals—they are processes… paths. Transformation is the outcome of both. Sometimes it takes the collective head-bashing of a period of endarkenment to get us to the transformation our higher selves want and deserve.
The practice of Tantra has taught me that love is always a disturbing presence. Love and Endarkenment are perfectly compatible—they have a wonderful relationship. Now, in these times, it’s up to us to find that same relationship within ourselves. How much self-love and world-love can we bring to our periods of endarkenment?
How are you going to embrace, embody and express Love this year?
That’s a question I’ll be asking and answering—in my writing, my online events and my in-person workshops. The answer to this question will only come with the participation of all of us in the international Urban Tantra community. Please join us.
Below is my schedule for the next few months. I’ll be teaching on 3 continents, bringing collaboration, inclusion, accessibility, and gratitude to each of these events. Join me for magic, healing, connection, playfulness, and transformation.
10 – 12 February 2017
I’ll be offering two workshops (Breath and Energygasms and Tantric Power Exchange) at the Interfusion Festival—a 3 Day Celebration of the Human Spirit. Interfusion is largest Art Fusion Festival on the East Coast.
Find out more here.
18 February 2017
Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the 21st Century
New York Open Center, NYC
My most popular workshop is back! Join me for a full day of Urban Tantra practices, tips, and techniques during this one-day intensive. Perfect for Tantra newcomers, and a nourishing refresher for those with an established practice—this workshop has something for everyone!
Join me to develop deep, heart-centered connections (with a partner or within ourselves), and explore the bliss that comes when our spiritual and sexual paths are one.
Note: This workshop is for both couples, singles, and alternative relationship structures. It does not include nudity or explicit sexual touch. All genders and sexual preferences welcome.
Find out more here.
28 – 30 April 2017
Urban Tantra Experience: Breath, Sensation and Power
The Urban Tantra Experience is an intensive weekend for spiritual seekers and erotic explorers who know that there is “something more” to sex and spirit than they have experienced and who long for the space, time, and permission to find it. The Urban Tantra Experience will take you on a journey into your own unique sexual and spiritual fulfillment.
During this ecstatic weekend event you’ll learn:
- the orgasmic and metaphysical possibilities of your breath;
- the secrets for giving and receiving many different types of conscious touch—from the sensual to the erotic;
- how conscious breath and energy work can transform all types of touch into a deeply intimate ecstatic encounter;
- how adding intense sensation and power dynamics can produce altered states of consciousness and reveal new layers of passion and possibilities in all your erotic encounters.
This workshop is for couples, singles, and other relationship configurations. All genders and sexual preferences are welcome. For partner practices, singles will be partnered, with consent. To be assured of working with the partner of your choice, come with a friend.
Find out more and register here.
9 – 14 May 2017
Urban Tantra® Professional Training Program
Urban Tantra® is a radically updated conscious sexuality/sacred sex practice for modern sexual and spiritual explorers. This intensive workshop is designed especially for—but is not limited to—people who work with sex and sexuality. The Urban Tantra® Professional Training Program will give you the skills to take your practice to the next level—both personally and professionally. Whether you are a tantrika, a pro domme, a daka/dakini, a sex therapist, a sex educator, a companion, or anyone else who uses or wants to use a more conscious approach to sexuality in your practice, this program is for you. Urban Tantra modernizes, revels in, teases, and plays with traditional Tantra, all while honoring Tantra’s rich spiritual tradition of connection. As a professional, you want to teach what is closest to your heart, while also maintaining a successful business. You’ll learn how easily accessible language and simple techniques can help you share your powerful message in today’s, fast-paced, goal-oriented, pleasure-starved world. Barbara will help you create the ultimate path of pleasure for your clients/students, allowing them to access their most divine selves. You’ll be able to offer your clients/students immediate results and the promise of more bliss to come. With Urban Tantra, the world is your client.
Find out more here.
20 – 25 June 2017
Urban Tantra® Professional Training Program – Special Midsummer’s Event
Join me, and my brilliant international team, for an Urban Tantra Professional Training Program like no other! I’ll be hosting my transformational training program at the Skeppsudden Retreat Center in Norrköping, Sweden on Summer Solstice. We’ll be utilizing in the fertile energy of midsummer to bring more life, creativity, and depth to this generation of the program.
In addition to the usual 6 days of advanced, experiential Urban Tantra technique and training, we’ll have a brand new ritual experience to capitalize on the supple joy and exuberance of Midsummer. The bounty of the Swedish landscape will be yours to play in for evening excursions and delectable downtime during this residential experience. This is my absolutely favorite venue in Sweden.
It is the perfect place, at the perfect time to dig into your desire for more, to deepen your connection to your purpose and vision, to learn how to create delicious experiences for yourself and/or your clients.
Are you intrigued?
This is my only European training program in 2017. So don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to journey with me in the land of the midnight sun on the longest day of the year!
Find out more about the program here.
I hope to see you in 2017.
Jan 06 2017
On 14 November I received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sexual Freedom Awards in London. Here’s my acceptance speech: https://youtu.be/9UNC-T-CAEM
Congratulations to all the nominees and winners, especially family members Joseph Kramer, Rowan Bombadil, Jason Tantra, Deej Juventin, and Laura-Doe Harris.
Dec 01 2016Today is World AIDS Day. Today we remember (as if we could forget) all those we lost in the worst epidemic of our lifetimes. But today is also a day to salute the survivors. People who held their lovers and brothers as they died, all the while living with the constant knowing that they would likely be next. People who miraculously survived the plague, only to live with the inexpressible guilt of having escaped alive.The AIDS epidemic forged all of us who survived it into better, stronger, more powerful people than we were before. We survived to remind the world of the lessons of love learned in midst of inescapable death and grief. We pay the love forward.Please take a few minutes today and read the most eloquent remembering of those brave dark days by one of our most beloved survivors, Patrick Mulcahey.
The Handsomest Man in New York
By Patrick Mulcahey
Richard was the handsomest man in New York. Anyone who knew him would tell you the same thing. The few snapshots I have of him aren’t compelling evidence. He had the kind of beauty an amateur’s camera can’t capture. And he was already sick when they were taken, although nobody knew, not even Richard.
We were both writers, had both gone to the same college, were both thirty and fearless and original and poised to do something great in the world, we thought. Like everyone else, I had a big crush on Richard. To know him was to want things with him: private jokes, correspondence, leather vests, lumberjack shirts that would never look as good on you. But Richard was impressively taken. He lived in a Soho loft with a tall millionaire, striking, older, masculine, distant — a figure of fantasy very much in keeping with Richard’s improbable personal gifts. I rarely saw the boyfriend. He didn’t have a job, he had investments and a place on Fire Island. Evenings he was always going somewhere in a tuxedo or leather while Richard and I went off to William Burroughs readings.
The summer before I moved to San Francisco, Richard became distant, edgy. Work wasn’t going well, he said. And some people can’t deal with separation, so they separate from it, I said. Asshole, said Richard, hugging me good-bye.
A letter came just after I’d found a job and a studio apartment in the Mission. He’d waited till I was gone to tell me he had — well, whatever he called it, it wasn’t “AIDS.” The acronym was so new it felt fake and forced and silly, like when the kid next-door says to call her Esmeralda. What he had was KS, the gay cancer. Half of the people diagnosed with it had already died.
I called right away, annoying Richard. Was I just going to panic like everyone else? He’d had a respiratory tract problem but antibiotics cleared it up. One little spot in his mouth wasn’t going to hurt him. He was fine, he repeated before we hung up. He didn’t sound any different. One little spot in his mouth. Maybe he would be one of the other half.
I called every week and started getting the answering machine and no call back. But then distance notoriously unravels the friendships of men, which so depend on hockey games or camping trips or sex parties, where you focus on something that is not each other. Women know how to have phone friendships. Men need a reason to call, a topic.
One day my phone rang, someone named Paul, a voice I didn’t know, formal and strained. He was returning my calls to Richard ______, did he have the right person? I ran a quick mental scan: Paul… tall, rich, Fire Island, ah yes, the lover/daddy. Was everything all right? No, Richard wasn’t well. It’s hard to get bad news from a stranger; you don’t know what you can ask. Was he in the hospital? Not anymore. Could he come to the phone? No. And if I wanted to see him, I’d better come now, Paul said.
Richard spoke his last sentence the first day I was there. I could see something had changed — I don’t mean what the disease had done to him. Yes, physically he was unrecognizable. But in his eyes, beneath all that, there he was: the old Richard, the loving, unguarded man he’d been a year ago. The worry and the tension, the hiding, were gone. He was enjoying his life again. Somehow his Paul had done that for him.
• By bringing him home. Moonsuits, meals left outside the door, nurses refusing to touch much less bathe him — a hospital was the worst place to be in those days. What could they do for you anyway? So I stayed on, not really competent at anything that might help but unwilling to leave Paul alone with this catastrophe erupting in his life and living room.
• By being Richard’s family. When Richard told his parents what he had and that he was gay, a double coming-out common enough then, they moved to Miami. His sister came to visit twice, but would come no further than the door. We would rotate the sofa so Richard could see her and smile in her direction. She stood in tears by the door calling inanities like “How are you feeling?” across the room, which Richard couldn’t answer anyway. Her love for him was overmatched by her fear of him.
• By being unafraid — which may sound unremarkable now, but ran counter to every instinct, was almost insane. There was no HIV yet, no test, no idea how anyone got AIDS, only the horrific twin deductions any logical child could come to: that it was, A, contagious, and B, fatal. For the first two days I washed my hands whenever I touched Richard or anything he touched. Paul offered no judgment; he offered gloves. Meanwhile he held Richard, kissed Richard, slept in the same bed with him, and by the third day had shamed the fear out of me. Loved it out of me, really.
One night I talked Paul into getting out. He needed a break, and Richard would be fine with me. He wouldn’t go till he’d given Richard his bedtime pills. It was late by then, but this was the city that never sleeps. There’s always the Mineshaft, Paul said, as he left with his big black toybag. Richard nodded off, and so did I, over my book.
I woke up to a low ghastly rattle that rolled through the loft like fugitive hooves. Richard lay staring and rigid, shaking violently head to toe. The awful clacking and shuddering from the bed where he lay made the blood knot up in my veins. I saw something in him that hadn’t been there before — terror — and I realized all this had only seemed possible, his dying I mean, because he had made it so easy, by keeping his own dread at bay for our sakes. Death is fearsome; you can think yourself into a cold sweat contemplating your own; but no sight in this world is so terrifying as the face of a creature Death has in its jaws. Richard protected us from that for as long as he could, and now that he’d shown me that face I wanted to bail and run.
I dialed all the numbers Paul had left me. I don’t think I found him, he just came home, called maybe by something else. He stood and watched Richard a moment, taking off his coat. I saw Richard’s eyes turn on him, just his eyes; those were all that were still in his power to move. It was winter and a long wind screamed down Broome Street, licking the tall windows like there was something inside it wanted.
Paul said nothing to me but climbed up on top of the covers, straddling Richard with his knees till their faces were level and he could look into his eyes. “It’s my fault,” Paul said, in a clear strong voice. “You’re all right. I gave you two white pills instead of one because I was going out. This will go away. It’s my fault. Don’t be afraid.”
How did he know to say that? How did he know it was true? I could see Richard believed him. His jaw relaxed and his hands unclenched and that horrible look ebbed away. An hour or so and his quaking stopped. Paul said Richard was hungry and thirsty so we spooned some water and jello between his lips. If Paul had told me to eat glass or go join a monastery, I would have, that night. I had seen him come home from the Mineshaft and a god enter into him and speak with his voice.
February has the fewest days but is the longest month of a New York winter. The heat went out in the building one night and stuttered on and off unpredictably.
Richard’s last night came soon. People died quickly then. Horrifically, and you didn’t have time to catch your breath. But it might’ve been easier on them than what we did to keep them around five, ten, fifteen years later.
I was awakened in the dead of night, abruptly, by I didn’t know what. An awareness, not that something was wrong, but a sense something was fixed, corrected, was working again. Maybe the furnace had kicked back on.
Then I knew what had changed. Richard’s breathing, grown so labored that it clattered like hail on the roof, had stopped. The bedroom had no door. I went in. Paul sat in bed beside him, wakened like me not by a noise but an absence.
He called the doctor and got an answering service. He called Richard’s sister. We didn’t decide it, we just both had the instinct that Richard needed to be washed, so we bathed and dressed him. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that for thirty-year-old corpses. The coroner’s men who came in the morning said nothing about it, if that’s who they were. Later I learned Richard’s parents had the body transported for a funeral Paul wasn’t told about. But Richard’s teary sister told him and he was allowed to stand quietly in the back of the church.
We changed the sheets and remade the bed, but it was still the bed Richard died in. I went for a walk so I could cry, big heaving sobs I hadn’t dared to release before. Nobody minds if you sob on the street in New York. People look like they’re deciding whether to sob themselves or hold off till another day.
I brought food back and we ate in silence. The dog wanted to know if we could spare some attention for him now. I made up my cot. I didn’t know where Paul would want to sleep. In that bed? “Can you sleep with me?” he said. I wondered if it was wrong. I agonized a long moment. But grief can be like an arranged marriage. We were rough with each other. Safety was our last consideration. Then we kissed and slept like dead men.
How could I go back to my silly soap-opera-writing life? I composed an understated little notice for Paul to send to Richard’s friends. He admired it and was thankful and we both got choked up. He gave me some names and phone numbers, good people he knew in San Francisco who would show me around the city. I called the first name on the list and he took me to Hamburger Mary’s, which I’d never heard of. It took a year, might’ve been two, before I moved in with him. We were together for twenty years.
In short, I came back to a much larger, clearer life than the one I had left. Leather had changed, along with its place in my life. For me, the bar vests, the chaps, the contests, the hanky codes and dress codes and time-honored prohibitions were like antique remnants of another life. There were only two sexual identities now: alive and not. My way of being a leatherman for almost the next ten years was to be an AIDS activist, and an intermittent five-hour demon with dick and rope.
Paul never went back to his dashing millionaire’s life either. Bad things happened; loss likes to follow loss. Bad investments, false friends. Cocaine. Bankruptcy. The beautiful loft was sold to pay off debts. I can’t remember where I was or whether it was a call or a letter that came telling me Paul was moving west. He’d decided to go back to school. He was going to be a nurse.
His friends were dumbfounded, incredulous. Rich, useless, tennis-playing Paul — a nurse? I might have been the only one who knew his calling had found him long before, and he was just deciding to answer it. Paul has had a distinguished career in nursing. He’s still at it today, just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
What changed Paul and me changed us all. AIDS is an immune disease: your body forgets to protect you from things it used to keep out. We were all a little bit that way, those of us not crippled by fear. The walls came down and anybody’s life was our business — man, woman, trans, black, brown, white. We marched with little old ladies, professors, sorrowing mothers from the projects. We smuggled drugs in from Mexico and Japan. None of them worked and we knew they might not, but we also knew that doing something was better than doing nothing. Everything that didn’t work brought us closer to the day when something would work for somebody, somewhere.
Daily you hear the bitter complaints of people terrified of sex because of AIDS, HIV, sundry other diseases. What I’m trying to tell you is that for some of us, it worked the other way. Because of AIDS we became unafraid of sex, of each other, of dying. There was no hiding and no defense from the things you thought you could never do: you had to do them anyway. It made a serious people of us.
Paul gave me one of Richard’s sweaters to keep. It never fit me the way it fit Richard. It was a magic thing when he wore it. I kept it many years, then finally donated it to a program for homeless youth in the Castro where I was volunteering. I saw it twice on the street after that — it had to be the same one, so unstylish and plain and old-fashioned — on a crazy young meth addict trying to get his act together.
Paying it forward can mean a sweater, a hand in need, an alliance, a story. We can take better care of each other than we do. We did it before. All it takes is believing your life is my business and mine is yours, and that we belong to each other beneath our names.
April 3, 2014
Nov 14 2016
Acknowledging Our Shadow
Okay, now that we have had a weekend to rest and regroup, it’s time to get to work. Both spiritually and psychologically, individually and nationally, we need to do some shadow work around this nightmare. I had prepared a post on this topic, but then David Harrison sent me this by spiritual teacher and author Patricia Pearce. I think it’s a great way to kick off this topic.
“So if this were my dream (and of course it is), rather than a villain, Donald Trump would be playing the role of a gifted spiritual teacher. I’ll explain what I mean by that. By depicting the ego in such an unbridled fashion, Donald Trump is giving me the tools I need to detect these same ego tendencies within myself, even when they show up in subtler forms.”
Please read this: Donald Trump: Spiritual Teacher in Disguise (It’s really fascinating and clever!) Let me know what you think.
Nov 13 2016
Really bad and unjust stuff has happened before. The Vietnam War. Assassinations of great people. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. Stock market crashes. Recessions. Segregation. Lynchings. Mass shootings. AIDS. Hurricanes. Floods. Fires. Earthquakes. And—Really Bad Presidents. You survived. Perhaps you can even say that out of some great tragedy came some gift or opportunity—either personally or socially. It’s Sunday (here in the U.S.) The perfect day to call a friend (I said call—not text tweet, email or Snapchat) and talk a bit about how you both got through some hideously awful time. What strength did you draw on? Where did you find support? Were there occasional “miracles” along the way? Several of them perhaps?
You’ve done it before. You can do it again. The only thing you have to do today is remember how strong and resilient you really are.
Nov 12 2016
12 November 2016
Turn off the news.
Put down your phone.
Get off social media.
(I think perhaps this should have been Coping Strategy #1)