“Nom de Dieu! Stop looking at other people and appreciate the small things in life, you don’t know how lucky you are!” My Tante Geneviève, a wise Parisian beauty with fierce blue eyes and perfect makeup, would admonish me as only French women can, limning the boundary between good counsel and remonstrance. Her advice never quite sunk in. I grew up in New York City and attended Ivy League institutions. Everything was calibrated by how smart, rich, and good-looking one was. I constantly ruminated: Was my Fulbright more or less prestigious than so-and-so’s Rhodes? Was my friend’s boyfriend a bigger catch? When Tante Geneviève would express concern, I would sheepishly say: “I’m a failure. I wasn’t Phi Beta Kappa. I haven’t won an Oscar.” My subsequent experience with severe illness taught me just how right Tante Geneviève really was.
Before disappearing and probably dying in a hospice alone, my boyfriend Javier left me two gifts: AIDS and Hepatitis C. A crystal meth addict and inveterate liar, Javier swore that he was HIV negative. Some eight weeks after last seeing him, I found myself in a hospital bed with 4 T-cells and weighed 130 pounds, down from 200. As I lay dying, I remembered Addie, the character in the Faulkner novel who, critically ill, wants only to pass in her hometown, Jefferson, MississippiThe title of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying derives from Book X of Homer’s Odyssey wherein Agamemnon tells Odysseus: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as … Continue reading. Addie is the perfect embodiment of Perec’s endotic, his admonishment to embrace the ordinary. I closed my eyes and prayed to God, no small accomplishment for an avowed atheist. It was both a beautiful moment and one of my most pathetic—invoking a deity I didn’t believe in to save my life.
It’s hard to change a lifetime of learned behavior, but I do my best. Every morning since recovering from AIDS I wake up and smell the coffee, metaphoric and real, savoring the grains and their texture. I enjoy each sip as the caffeine courses through my body. I wonder at the beauty of my Italian tile kitchen; the perfect roundness of an everyday bagel. Can cream cheese really taste so good? On daily walks to Blink Gym in Washington Heights, I delight in the morning’s first sun rays as they alight on my face. With each step, I repeat, “You are alive. You are healthy. How wonderful to walk upon the Earth. Even the gas station across the street is beautiful. Take pleasure in it.” Each moment I find another reason to dwell in Perec’s endotic, to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and eschew headline-making fakery that passes for truth in today’s world.
Recovering from AIDS took not just cutting edge medication and a team of fantastic doctors. It required will power: I changed the way I ate and exercised religiously. I left a corporate environment for a freelance atmosphere that I could better control, and cut out much of the stress from my life. And I began to think positively, even leaving silly notes for myself by my bedside and affixed to my fridge: “Feel good about yourself,” “You are lucky,” and the real kicker: “The universe loves you.” So when I speak to friends who are ill, or last year when I tried to comfort others who survived the 44-Day War in Armenia, I emphasize that I understand the difficulty of attending to everyday pleasures in the face of extreme hardship. But paradoxically that is the best way to overcome trauma. I try to open them to the idea that, come what may, they must take comfort in the everyday, step-by-step, until they heal. I would only add that the ordinary, in its ability to bring us true happiness—if we embrace it—is truly extraordinary.
|↑1||The title of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying derives from Book X of Homer’s Odyssey wherein Agamemnon tells Odysseus: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”|