Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My AIDS Journey: Discovering The Last Light

The photograph featured an old man sitting in a chair, with his back at a tall glass door. The weak daylight poured inside the room to mingle with the pale artificial light of a night lamp. Wide and white, glowing within the shadows, the man’s eyes became yet another source of light in the photograph. With his face drawn and his eyes haunted, he seemed unaware of the mist of shadow and light surrounding him. Rather he gazed beyond the visual sphere of the photograph, as if he found himself at the crossroads between two realms, about to follow a path unfolding in front of him, into some mysterious unknown.
The man in the photograph—his eyes, in particular—haunted me for weeks and months to follow. His story was a mystery to me. At the time there was no way for me to know that I was to embark on a journey of discovery, a journey that would help me unveil his mystery.    
    I browsed through the Unfinished Works website where the award winning photograph was posted. A few clicks brought me to the story of "The Last Light," an image that, as I found out, was the artwork of a visual artist called Kurt Weston.
It so happened that, at the time, I was looking for an artist to interview for an AIDS-related publication. I had found the Unfinished Works website several months earlier and bookmarked it specifically for its Last Light, which now seemed to light the path to the possible subject of my article. Therefore, I emailed Kurt Weston and, luckily for me, he agreed to give me the interview.
    Months later I had the opportunity to travel to the West Coast to take part in a celebration of life and triumph over AIDS, as a guest at Joel Rothschild’s party. Diagnosed with AIDS on April 22nd, 1986, Rothschild—an AIDS activist, long-term survivor and bestselling author—believes in the power of living in the moment.  He talks about that in his books, Signals—A Story of Life After Life and Hope—A Story of Triumph.
While on the West Coast, I also had the chance to meet Kurt Weston and his partner, Terry Roberts.  What followed was an immersion into the visual artist’s world, as I followed Kurt Weston’s journey into darkness and his struggle to rediscover the light.    

PS: You can read more about Kurt Weston, "The Last Light" and many other images and their stories in my book, Journeys Through Darkness.

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald

Chernobyl Disaster (Apr 26, 1986), World Pinhole Photography Day, and much more

April 26th: My Chernobyl Story

My Chernobyl Story: The Beginning of My Journey Through AIDS Journey

What do Chernobyl disaster, AIDS and World Pinhole Photography Day have in common? Find out in this excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS, an excerpt which talks about my Chernobyl story and the permanent imprint it left in my life.

I'll always remember Chernobyl, April 26th, 1986, the day of the disaster, for more and different reasons than the obvious. Here's my Chernobyl story... the beginning of my journey through AIDS... and, lately, the.

Pinhole Branches. Pinhole photography. Copyright 2007 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Through the Branches. Pinhole Photography.
I attended my first AIDS conference in Eastern Europe as my mother’s guest—she is a physician specializing in infectious diseases. It was April 1986 and I was on my spring break. At the time I felt pressured to decide what I wanted to do in life, but I wasn’t planning to follow in my parents’ footsteps and study medicine. By then all I knew about AIDS was the Rock Hudson story and his “before” and “after” AIDS diagnosis pictures splashed all over glossy magazines.
I remember sitting on the couch in my room, in my parents’ apartment, flipping through the glossy pages of Paris Match (a French publication), opening it right in the middle. On the left page, a young and handsome Rock Hudson displayed the star-like smile everybody knew. The right page displayed the portrait of a gnawed-faced, almost unrecognizable actor—with his eyes ghostly, his appearance somber, like a much older version of the handsome actor on the opposite page.
What kind of disease could do this to a person, seemingly in no time at all?
That particular April afternoon I entered the building of the university of medicine—an old building with prestige, in an architectural style of its time, with a personality of its own—and sat next to my mother in a tall, dim-lit spacious room with no idea of what I was getting myself into.
“What do you think?” Mom asked several hours later, when the conference was over.
I looked at her and all I could say was, “Interesting.”
I didn’t know, then, that at the time I was attending the AIDS conference, a Los Angeles man was being diagnosed with AIDS and given only months to live. His name is Joel Rothschild and I was to meet him almost two decades later.  
Several days after attending the AIDS conference, Chernobyl happened and plagued most of Europe, disturbing many people’s lives in the worst possible ways. We found out about the explosion while listening to a radio station from Western Europe—I believe it was one of the Scandinavian countries that was first to announce the disaster. It all happened in the week before Orthodox Easter, when most people clean, cook, bake and work from dawn to sometimes dusk to get ready for the holiday.
In the middle of it all, water was turned off for several days. Fresh market products became unusable; therefore freshly bought milk, vegetables and fruits found their way into the trash containers. Picnic plans were canceled, although some individuals still went through with their already scheduled outdoor activities and enjoyed stretching on the irradiated grass.
TV and radio did not offer much information about the explosion, about what had really happened to those working at the nuclear plant or how many of them were dead or how we could stay safe. While at school, teaches would tell students to “lie flat on the street, by a sidewalk, and the wave of radiation [would] pass right above [your] body”! With the media forced to present the effects of the catastrophe as “nothing to worry about,” many people had to learn more practical information through word of mouth and people who had some knowledge about the reality and implications of the disaster.
Shortly after the Chernobyl accident, oncology centers, especially those at the border with the (then) Soviet Union, filled with patients. Cancer survivors were getting sick again, especially children and the elderly.
Meanwhile scientists kept busy measuring the levels of radiation in the grass, in food, and people. Apparently in no time at all, every layperson became an “expert” in reading and interpreting the radiation tests. In addition, every individuals had their own version of the truth, insisting that theirs was the right one, the true story of whatever had happened at the Chernobyl plant.
Stories started to spread like a plague, while the few and selected individuals who knew the grim reality and its implications, and the toll we were to pay during the decades to come were forced to keep quiet, silenced by an administration of terror and oppression, by a government that would accept nothing else but pure perfection, utopia, even if it was all fake.
In the midst of these events, the AIDS conference became kind of a blur. Little did I know then that the impact of that conference was going to follow me across an ocean and two continents, and guide me along both my professional—and personal—life. 

"Bed of Tulips" Pinhole Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

"Manhattan Sunrise" Pinhole Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
PS: Many, many years after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion--April 26, 1986--I found out that Chernobyl Day falls close to World Pinhole Photography Day. This year's (2012) World Pinhole Photography Day is April 29th. Here's my very first pinhole photography, which I called "Bed of Tulips," and the second one, I called "Manhattan Sunrise," seen through a pinhole.

As always, thanks for reading.
Alina Oswald


Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding Visionaries, from Guest Blogger, activist and friend, Guido Sanchez

As I finished JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS,  a biography on the life and art of award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston, I was faced with a question: who was going to write a Foreword for my book? Among the people I knew, one came to mind. And so I asked Guido Sanchez if he could help me out. And he did. For those who do not know Guido, he's a terrific guy, wonderful friend and passionate about his work. I first met him when he was a CEO at Hudson Pride Connections Center and continued to stay in touch with him as he moved on to work for CenterLink, in NYC.

I'd like to share with you "Finding Visionaries," the Foreword he was so nice to write for my book. I hope the read will inspire you, as Guido has inspired me through the years, and continues to do so.

Thanks again, Guido.
Thank you all for reading.

Alina Oswald

“Finding Visionaries”

By Guido A. Sanchez, CenterLink Manager, New York City and Former CEO of Hudson Pride Connections, an LGBT and HIV/AIDS Support Organization

Cover image of Journeys Through Darkness, a Biography by Alina Oswald with photographs by Kurt Weston
Journeys Through Darkness, a biography by Alina Oswald with photographs by Kurt Weston

I was once asked why I, someone so young (only a few years past a quarter century), could care so deeply about HIV / AIDS that I would commit my life to it, as the Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center & AIDS Service Organization in Northern New Jersey. The question kind of stumped me, and all I could say was “why not?” How could I, an openly gay and proud man, deny that AIDS is one of the single most important parts of my history, my community's history? AIDS activism continues to suffer today from apathy and puritanism, all the meanwhile our communities are still being decimated, and people are still being infected.
Since AIDS activism rose up within the community-at-large in a very public and graphic way in the mid-1980s, the AIDS community and artists community have had inextricable ties. Artists have tried to represent their experiences with HIV / AIDS (such as the play Angels in America), voice their anger (such as any work by David Wojnarowicz), or force change (such as ACT UP's 'Silence=Death' posters). On a sadder note, there is the undeniable fact that AIDS has decimated our artists community – and anyone who has been a part of the movement has to ask themselves, how many future leaders, painters, writers, singers, dancers, creators, mentors, etc. have we lost to the virus over the last 25 plus years?   
Not all of these visionaries were lost, and photographer Kurt Weston has chosen to share his own journey through darkness in his life and work, with the help of biographer Alina Oswald.  I first met Alina when she came to our Community Center to write one of her many articles on HIV / AIDS activism and the social service landscape. Alina’s dedication to the grassroots work around HIV has brought her to offer her services as a photographer, and luckily even display some of her art photography in a show at our gallery. This book brings together so many pieces of her vision for a world without AIDS. I've never had the opportunity to meet Kurt, but now I feel like I understand artist’s vision much more. Kurt’s openness about his status and his experience, and the way he synergizes that into his art, is a moving inspiration. Kurt cites in the book that he is inspired by those who are inspired by reason, intellect, and compassion, and as Alina weaves his story for us, we see those three traits, and so much more, as Kurt navigates his life as an artist living with HIV. Alina takes us on a journey with Kurt, as we find his artistic vision grow stronger when his vision becomes impaired through AIDS medication, and as his life takes unexpected and surprising turns, all of which he navigates with grace, integrity, and above all, passion.
Now when I get asked how I can devote so much of my energy to AIDS activism, I know I can say that Kurt is the reason I do what I do. Kurt’s ability to inspire, and then to humbly cite his own source of inspiration as others who glean their own inspiration from reason and compassion. That someone’s ability to journey through darkness, and to maintain an immovable passion for helping others journey through that same darkness, to help people travel beyond their fears, hatred, prejudices, and find that light, could be woven into an inspiring tale, that is why we need people like Kurt and Alina. That is why we need stories like this. Now instead of saying, “why not fight with every breath I take” I know what I can say instead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Remembering Freddie Mercury: Sep 5, 1946 - Nov 24, 1991

I'll keep this short. I believe that there's only ONE Freddie Mercury. I sometimes wonder what he would think of this time of AIDS, if he were alive? Would he still keep his disease a secret? Would he take the medication that, in turn, would keep him create new music? As a fan and as one who's found a source of inspiration in Mercury's music, a vehicle through which I discover that pure moment of bliss, as a fan I often wonder what he would do, if he were alive today?.... One can only imagine.

I want to remember him today and every day. I don't think links are really necessary here. One has only to type in "Freddie Mercury" in any search engine and the results will pour. One site I found interesting, for those who want to learn more about Freddie the man (rather than the idolized star) is Freddie Mercury: biography. There's a movie, a documentary on Mercury's life (can be found in 10 min installments on YouTube,) and also I did enjoy reading Freddie Mercury, by Peter Freestone.  Of course, this is only one of the many books on his life.

RIP Freddie Mercury (September 5, 1946 - November 24, 1991)

I'd like to share a short excerpt from my book, Journeys Through Darkness. This excerpt is from a chapter I called "Dark Angel" and it makes some brief references to Freddie Mercury.

"Queen the Musical in Berlin" Copyright Alina Oswald, 2010.
Hope you enjoy the read. Hope you remember Freddie Mercury.
As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

Chapter Three: Dark Angel
The Messenger of Death Is Here: Light, Darkness… and an Accidental Cat

    “Maybe there’s strength in denial,” Kurt Weston says, explaining his mother’s inability to accept his “death sentence” diagnosis back in 1991. A Lithuanian immigrant, his mother experienced the Second World War, TB and hepatitis as she was trying to get out of a war-torn Europe and leave behind her homeland, which was to become forever associated with people being blown up, with hunger, disease and other war atrocities. She came to the States as a displaced person, forced to start her life over again in a safe, yet unfamiliar land of opportunities and promises. She had to learn a new language and ways of living in order to be able to integrate in the American society. And she succeeded, partly because of her survival abilities, which she believes are forever imprinted in her genes.
      So in late November 1991, when Kurt’s doctor told her that the oldest of her three children might not survive his fatal disease, she refused to accept the grim prognosis. She could not accept defeat and did not expect her son to just give up when faced with any of the obstacles fate threw at him, even when they were spelled H-I-V, and A-I-D-S, and D-e-a-t-h. She had survived them all—disease, pain, loss—and she knew that Kurt could do it, too.   
      Sitting by his hospital bed, she grabbed his hand and said, “You’re my son and you’re strong. You got this strength from my genes and you’re not going to die, because you, too, are a survivor.”
    At the time, though, the photographer didn’t feel anything like a survivor. He didn’t know what his future was going to bring him or if he had a future at all. And so, he told his mother that he didn’t think he was going to make it. He had serious reasons to believe that.
    During his first hospitalization with pneumonia, doctors placed Weston in an isolation ward, which was a common procedure of dealing with AIDS patients, in order to prevent the disease from being spread, because, at the time, experts were not sure of all the ways it could be transmitted. Therefore, when it came to HIV/AIDS, everybody--visitors and medical professionals alike--had to follow hospital rules and go through two separate doors and a ventilation system to enter the patient’s room.
      Kurt Weston woke up hooked to tubes and machines, not sure what was happening to him. He opened his eyes only to realize that people wearing masks, gloves and suits were staring down at him.
      During his hospitalization, doctors started him on intravenous Bactrim, which is a full-spectrum antibiotic used to treat PCP. The treatment started to work and a few days later Kurt began feeling better, in fact well enough to sit in his bed with the IV medication dripping in his arm and watch the news on TV. That’s how he learned that the disease had taken the life of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury.
      Unlike Mercury (who died of AIDS-related causes on November 24, 1991), Kurt Weston is still alive. The visual artist has survived his first bout of PCP and two others that followed. His doctor released him two weeks later with a list of medications he needed to take as maintenance treatment and with a six-months-to-live prognosis.
      Like Mercury, Kurt Weston was forced to keep his disease a secret, at the time. His physician advised that the best thing for him to do was to continue taking his medication as prescribed and go back to work. He also told the photographer not to mention to anybody at Pivot Point about his diagnosis, in order to avoid the stigma associated with the disease, because, the physician added, “people wouldn’t understand [the AIDS situation].”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Universe of Colors: An Interview with Artist Kelly B. Darr

I first met Kelly B. Darr gliding around her studio at 111 First St, on skates, showing some clients the different ways her painting could capture, and then return, the colors of the sun. Indeed, the artwork she held in her hands--a smaller version of what I know now as Diamonds in the Rough--had the magic of capturing the godsend sunlight and reflecting it as a multitude of colors--depending on the portion of reflective surface of the artwork--for the enjoyment of our human eyes.

I found Darr's artwork intriguing and thought-provoking, and also interactive because, as it reflects the light, it creates various forms and shapes, mysterious creatures and colors that capture and hold our attention. I returned home simply mesmerized, and decided to talk to the visual artist about her work and about all the fascinating colors she creates using her art. Here's the interview, originally published in Beyond Race Magazine.

Hope you'll enjoy the read, the colors, and Kelly B. Darr's terrific artwork.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

"Lace," by Alina Oswald
Visual Artist Kelly B. Darr, by Alina Oswald

A Universe of Colors: An Interview with Artist Kelly B. Darr
By Alina Oswald

"If God was a color, what color would He be?" Kelly B. Darr says, reflecting on the spirituality and evolution of colors. 
The Jersey City artist's interest in colors and in art has started early in her childhood, when she was trying to put things together to create new objects.  It didn't matter if her creation had a function as long as it looked interesting.
While in first grade, math didn't make any sense to Kelly, but art did.  Drawing pictures gave the future artist an identity and a way to communicate with others.
At the beginning of sixth grade, a boy and a piece of coiled wire changed Darr's life forever.  The boy was trying to straighten the wire and while doing so, he accidentally sent it right in her face, blinding her in her left eye.  When rushed to the hospital, doctors told her that they would be able to fix her eye when she grew up and advised her to be "a good sport" and to keep a strong attitude in the meantime. 
She did and she discovered how terrifying her new world could be, because she didn't have any depth perception anymore.  She would run into walls or pour juice on the table instead of in the glass.  She would try so hard to figure out how far things were that she'd miss out on the conversations taking place around her. Many people, even those who knew about her accident, interpreted her behavior as carelessness. 
Darr struggled "to be normal" and, while doing so, she was studying hard and learning to survive with what life had offered her.  And again, art became her means of communication and expression.  
Darr attended high school at Connecticut's Norwich Academy, a funded private school that allowed lower income families to offer their children a very good education.  Norwich is still a multi-disciplinary art school offering courses in subjects like ceramics, painting, photography, jewelry and metal work. 
Living on the school campus offered Darr a safe haven to create art, to focus on her studies and on her life.  When she graduated, she won a scholarship that allowed her to continue her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Darr chose painting because of its practicality.  "I like the fact that [paintings] tuck nicely against the wall that's gonna be there anyway," Darr explains, "and they don't get in anybody's way.  [They] don't bother anybody.  I hate bothering somebody."
Her work is all about reflection, inspired by her belief that people who have imagination have an inner compass guiding them in the right direction.  Art has helped her discover her own inner compass.
Darr's first line of work displays the artist's visual interpretation of the duality of our universe: its spirituality and its science.  The paintings pertaining to this debut series show identical replicas of an image caught in time and space as they appear as a spiritual entity and also as an object of science.  For the artist, the spiritual represents the unknown we're yet to discover about our world, while the scientific spectrum offers us the tools necessary to discover these unknowns and therefore the opportunity to evolve as the spiritual beings.   
As an artist, Darr has always followed the path of discovering new colors, trying to figure out just how many of them are possible in our universe.  She started out using oil paint, which is a very romantic, very seductive and history-rich medium.  However, Darr realized that oil paint has its limitations.  No matter what technique she'd use with oil paint, Darr could not create the multitude of colors offered by the modern paint, like the car body laquer and the various reflections it offered.   
To obtain such reflections, Darr had to try alternative types of colors.  She started to experiment with the various techniques by using nail polish colors to create new ones.  She went Dollar Store hunting and bought one bottle of nail polish every time she'd have a dollar in her pocket, thus creating quite a collection: a bucket full of nail polish bottles. 
Kelly B. Darr's adventurous pursuit in inventing new colors started in 1991, after she graduated from college and moved to 111 First Street in Jersey City.  In 2004 artists were kicked out of their studios at 111, and, with them, a central piece of Jersey City's powerhouse district was forever gone.
At the time, there was hardly anything built on the Jersey shore and she felt she was in a place where she could move freely, physically and spiritually. Together with the other artists who'd made 111 their home, Kelly B. Darr would watch the Twin Towers and think of their image as being "a beautiful moment in time," one that would disappear on September 11, 2001 together with the lives of three thousand people.  This is what she calls "evanescence." 
"I never thought of myself as a patriotic person," Darr comments.  "But I was here with these people who wanted to be artists and dancers and inventors and teachers and doctors, people of all kind who wanted to do something nice and useful in this world.  I had the ability to stay here and make artwork that took me completely by surprise, because I've never [before] been able to look at a body of my artwork and ask myself 'Where has this come from?' or 'How did it come out of me?'"
When 9/11 happened, the artist was just converting from her nail polish process to experiment with a new technique-a hybrid between using technology and traditional free-style painting. She used this new technique to create works like Diamonds in the Rough, Penny Power, Infinite Light, all part of Spirit and Science series.
On the wake of September 11th, Darr carried her six-foot canvas, Diamonds in the Rough, a few blocks from her studio to Newport Centre Mall's Cosi in Jersey City, and she showed the artwork there.  To this day, she still remembers a Native American man stopping by and looking at the painting... and saying to himself "thousands of souls."  His words still give her chills and bring the artist to the same interpretation: her artwork represented thousands of souls lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Darr believes that people can use their own imagination to realize the importance of the 9/11 moment. 
A teacher working with the Educational Arts Team since 1993, she encourages her students to use their imagination to empower their lives. She works with kindergarten, third and fifth grade students.  She favors her fifth grade ghetto students because, "No matter how tough they want to look, if you look at them honestly, they get even with you.  "You show that you're human and that they are human, and they let [their] fears come out." 
Recently, she completed a project for Liberty State Park.  As a model, she used her favorite sculpture in the world: Lady Liberty. She spent close to one year researching the project and learning all the details about the Statue of Liberty, to capture its exact replica. Today, she wears her art project, which is a t-shirt displaying Lady Liberty and Liberty State Park stretching behind it. 
"I wanted the shirt to have a pride to it," she explains, "a pride that would last and [would] be connected to Liberty State Park in the tradition of [its] relation to the Statue."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dark Angel: An Excerpt from My Book, JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS

Here is another post on dark angels, this time through the interpretations of other artists, namely, the award-winning, legally blind visual artist, Kurt Weston. Here's a short excerpt from the book I wrote, a story following his life and art.  The excerpt below is from Chapter Three: Dark Angel. (Dark Angel is one of my favorite images by Kurt Weston. I'm honored and humbled in the same time, to say that it hangs on one of my walls.)

Chapter Three: Dark Angel

Through the years, AIDS has remained a strange disease, touching people’s lives in the strangest of ways. As an artist, Kurt Weston has used art as a means of expressing his own vision of the disease.
      In that sense, Dark Angel may best capture Weston’s first intimate experience with AIDS. The photograph is one of his first to be inspired by Angels in America, the play he went to see when it came to Chicago.
      In Western monotheistic religions, angels are pictured as God’s messengers, living among humans and in the transitional space between Heaven and Earth. They can be guardian angels helping humans throughout their physical life, or they can be angels of death, delivering the coming of Death. The concept of angels and the symbolism of funeral rituals concur in the artist’s work, revisiting old concepts about life, death and the vast beyond that follows. 
      Kurt Weston’s Dark Angel is an angel of Death. He is also an angel of AIDS, which, at the time, was a Death sentence. Weston’s angel appears out of the shadows with his wings spread wide. The image shows actually an implied representation of the angel’s wings, which are basically the shadows from where he’s peering out. 
      Although the photograph is a mixture of poor light and shadows, the angel’s face is clearly illuminated because, even if AIDS symbolized the beginning of a terrifying death process, to the artist there’s also something trans-formative about the disease. Throughout the years AIDS has changed many people’s concepts about death and dying, and about how individuals celebrate their lives and how they honor their dead. [Hence, the funeral scene in the 2003 movie, Angels in America.]
      Before the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, many envisioned funerals as horrifying events where they would mourn and sob over an open casket. As the epidemic started to decimate the gay community and people started losing so many friends to the disease, funerals became more celebrations of life. And this transformation started to spread throughout the culture.
      Weston’s Dark Angel symbolizes an angelic figure composed of a play of the elements often used in the artist’s work—darkness and light—to manifest the subtle interaction between what’s real and what is not. This interaction further transposes between the dark angel and the white cat that doesn’t seem afraid of the angel, but rather interested in his stake. The cat was actually “a happy mistake,” the artist explains, talking about the technical part involved in creating the image. 
      The photographer used a view camera, which is a large camera that requires a piece of film, called sheet film, inserted in a film holder. He put this sheet film in the back of the camera and had the subject stand as he appears in the photograph, holding on to his stake.
      The room was completely dark, as the artist started walking around with a hand-held flash, popping the flash off in different angles to create different shadows as he walked around, thus creating the shadowy wings of the Dark Angel.
      Unbeknownst to Weston, while he was moving around, working on his photograph, his cat, Che (from Che Guevara), walked inside the room and was accidentally illuminated when the flash came off. It wasn’t until during the developing process that the photographer discovered the cat, which wasn’t supposed to be in the picture, staring straight at the angel’s stake.
      Although Kurt Weston created Dark Angel in total darkness, he also interjected the only light into the image to illuminate the angel’s face. The light is a symbol of hope and of life’s triumph coming through the immense blackness of the (then) terrifying AIDS epidemic.

Posing with Kurt Weston's Dark Angel

Photo Caption: Dark Angel
      Inspired by Broadway’s Angels in America, Kurt Weston’s Dark Angel is an angel of AIDS and of Death. While created in total darkness, the image symbolizes the darkness of the early epidemic. Only the angel’s face is illuminated because AIDS, as horrifying as it was, has transformed people’s concepts about living and dying, and has turned funerals into celebrations of life.

Follow Kurt Weston on Instagram @kurttweston

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Here is an article I wrote for NY Blade (now defunct), on 2007 Transgender Day of Remembrance. The event was called A Celebration of Life and took place at New York City's LGBT Center.  Hope you'll enjoy the read. Also, I hope you do remember to celebrate the Transdenger Day of Remembrance  through the related events taking place on and around this day.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness
(a biography of an award-winning, legally blind photographer)

NYC Transgender Day of Remembrance—A Celebration of Life
By Alina Oswald

“Remembering our dead, celebrating our lives” were the main topics of this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event taking place at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City. Now in its ninth year, the Trans Day of Remembrance memorializes the many members of the trans community killed because of their gender identity. The event began in San Francisco, November 20th, 1999, as a response to the deadly stabbing of a Massachusetts trans woman called Rita Hester, on November 28th, 1998.
Rita was not the first victim of hate crime in her community. Nor was she the last. Among hate crimes committed against members of the LGBT community, the most cruel and atrocious ones are those against members of the trans community. Victims are often shot, stabbed or beaten to death, run over several times or denied emergency medical care or HIV medication.
This year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event, Celebration of Life, brought together members of the LGBT community and also individuals from all paths of life. “We hope to bring awareness [and] educate more people about the trans community,” Cristina Herrera, the Gender Identity Project Counselor at LGBT Community Center, explains the purpose of the event. “I think it’s important to get to know the [trans] community because we’ve been around for many years. Many of us have come out regarding their identity. We want people to be more aware of what we are about and how to address that.”
There were an unprecedented impressing number of organizations supporting the community and sponsoring the event. Among those present at the Celebration of Life were Housing Works, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, TransMasculine Community Network, Silvia Rivera Law Project and Audre Lorde Project/Transjustice.   
Today there are also many programs available for members of the trans community. For example, Herrera provides counseling through support groups meeting at the LGBT Center. Still, it’s not enough to spread the message that trans community members are indeed part of the society. They can be someone’s neighbors and co-workers.
To help spread this message, community educator Kyle Applegate goes out to colleges to talk about trans issues. He hopes that such information can help get rid of the fear and prejudice against differences. For Applegate, the Day of Remembrance “is about remembering people who have lost their lives so we can be here today.” That’s also another reason for his outreach work. 
Causes and their related events are easier to recognize when identified by color—for example red for AIDS, pink for breast cancer, etc. The color of the 2007 Trans Day of Remembrance was green. The color stands for the green tree of life, a symbol of memorializing the trans community roots. Green paper leaves were available for individuals to write down thoughts or the names of those lost to hate crimes. The leaves were then to be placed on the tree, thus filling it with life. 
With candles or flashlights in hand, individuals united in a short march to Jackson Square Park. There, they came together once again in a vigil, holding hands to form a circle around the park. They listened to prayers and shared their thoughts. Once back at the LGBT Center, the event continued with speeches, poetry recitals and songs. There was no moment of silence. There were moments of remembering the dead by standing up and saying their names out loud.
Those who survived still believe in a day when they’ll be able to walk on the street without being hurt or harassed. The lack of education about the trans community may fuel the related misconceptions and stigmatization. Education about the community may lead to less fear or stigma. At least that’s what Ron B. believes. That’s why the actor and celebrity impersonator encourages LGBT friends and supporters to become ambassadors within their respective communities and educate about trans issues. 
Commenting on the importance of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, Ron B. points out that “the most important thing of being part of this peaceful march is to have people recognize that we are human beings. And as human beings and as productive people in the community, we need to be recognized as well.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Samadhi - The Key to a Windless Mind

We all, at times, need to find that blissful moment of absolute peace of mind. We can do that by using meditation and, taking it to a higher level, we can even reach samadhi.

But what exactly is samadhi and how can we reach it?

Here's my interview with Kaia Nightingale, a BSc, MA in Phsychology and honorary Doctor in Meditation, on samadhi and how to reach this state of purified bliss. The article was originally published in a Florida holistic publication.

Hope you enjoy the read.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

"Above the Clouds" B&W photography Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
"Above the Clouds" B&W photography Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Samadhi-The Key to a Windless Mind
by Alina Oswald

In the true sense of the word, samadhi is a state of consciousness, a loving, peaceful openness that arises from merging with the essence of life. In samadhi, we experience a sense of inner fulfillment and the feeling that everything is perfect just as it is. Therefore, we don't feel alone or insecure. "There is no fear in samadhi," Kaia Nightingale explains. She is a BSc, MA in Psychology, and honorary Doctor in Meditation, as well as a speaker, artist, and writer who offers a variety of yoga, meditation and counseling classes in Centretown, Ottawa, Canada.
    The more popular use of the word samadhi refers to any time our awareness expands beyond our thinking and we experience a peaceful state of consciousness. We reach samadhi when we become free of our sense of individuality and efforts to control our minds. Samadhi is the only pure state of constant peace of mind.
    We can get away from our busy lives and allow ourselves to relax and become more receptive and open, perhaps during summer break, on the beach by the sea, or in the mountains. The result is a temporary sense of well-being. Embraced by nature, we are not prisoners of our own thoughts anymore. Consequently, our bodies and minds get their much-needed rest.
    Because we can't always be on vacation, we can access this relaxed, open state inside us through meditation. We can meditate anywhere, and there is no need for special clothes or a special place.
    "Meditation is a state of consciousness that exists within [us] at all times," Kaia Nightingale comments. There is a part of us that is always in meditation, although we are often unaware of it, because our minds being constantly preoccupied with daily worries and thoughts.
    Through meditation, we clear our minds and become more aware of the love and peace inside us. We allow our thinking to slow down and relax. We can't tell the mind to be still, but, since the mind takes the shape of whatever it attends, if we attend something peaceful, the mind will follow.
    We all can benefit from meditation and become calmer, less dissatisfied, and generally happier. Health conditions scientifically proven to respond well to meditation include tension headaches; addictions to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs; asthma; chronic fatigue syndrome; stress and anxiety; epilepsy; insomnia; irritability; pain; and psychosomatic disorders. Many other medical conditions spontaneously improve with meditation. For example, meditation may help some patients decrease their medication.  Patients suffering from diabetes; thyroid problems; and depressive, anxiety, and heart disorders should consult and have their doctors monitor them in case their medication needs decrease.
    Meditation can also help in cases of some mental illnesses. Exceptions are people "with not enough grounding or internal structure to stabilize expansive openness," as Kaia Nightingale explains, or people who have suffered a great deal in the past and find it difficult to open their minds and clear the past pain.  Although, if they want to deal with their past trauma and move on, meditation is excellent.
    Samadhi also gives us a steady inner core, helping us through the ups and downs of everyday existence, thoughts, or emotions. As a result, we experience a constant love-light essence of life, always blissful and at peace, independent of the changes in the world around us. Our health improves naturally because our physical body benefits when freed from tension and stress.
    Some people reach a very deep state of openness in their first meditation session. Others take longer, especially those more intellectually focused, partly because they are used to focusing their attention on their thinking rather than the space between their thoughts.
    Meditating on a regular basis can change our lives for the better and help us align our outer lives with our inner spiritual aspirations and cultivate inner listening. It helps us connect with an internal wellspring of energy, fulfillment and peace-of value for everyone. A 20-minute daily meditation session can clear the day's stresses and return us to a harmonious way of being. Also, we don't have to touch samadhi to benefit from meditation.
    "One way to meditate is to sit comfortably with your attention lightly resting on the rise and fall of each breath," Kaia Nightingale says. "Soon your attention will come to rest in the present." There is no need to agonize about tomorrow's problems or about pains from the past. Here in the present moment, everything is just fine. There is not much, if any, pain that can fit in the moment. We begin to live in the moment . . . and life becomes clear.
    Living in the moment is especially essential for patients suffering from terminal illnesses. For instance, in his book, Hope - A Story of Triumph, best-selling author Joel Rothschild talks about his surviving AIDS for almost two decades while living a positive life, a moment at a time.
    For some people, samadhi is the key to the liberating oneness. Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations with God, talks about this "oneness" in his forward to Joel Rothschild's book, Signals - An Inspiring Story of Life After Life, a bridge of true love between two friends caught in two different worlds-the life and the afterlife.
    Through samadhi, we find a body-mind-soul unity, or "oneness," which, in turn, helps us make peace with our own passing and understand the afterlife. The moment we learn who we are as spirit-essence, as one indivisible consciousness, we become love and light. And love dissolves our fear.
    "When [we] know oneness, [we] know [ourselves] in truth," Kaia Nightingale says. We come to know "the inner essence of all beings" that liberates us from fear, the creator of most of the pain in our lives.
    People of different religions and beliefs-Jesus Christ included-have reached, at one point, a state of samadhi. We can all reach this state during a spontaneous moment in our lives-such as a mesmerizing sunset-or for an extended time, when we remain connected to our higher selves.
    "The experience of deep samadhi is a powerful experience that one never forgets," Kaia Nightingale explains. Those that manage to remain in this openness are called enlightened. Samadhi unfolds during deep meditation. Its experience makes us much more alive and sensitive, more attuned to the environment surrounding us, and more in touch with the spirit that shines in everyone's eyes. We become love.
    We can prepare to arrive at samadhi through love and surrender to life in a deep and profound way, and through preparing our bodies and minds for the immense light, love and energy we open to in samadhi. Meditation and yoga, along with many other practices, prepare the body and mind for samadhi, as does being less engaged in our self-preoccupations.
    There are physical signs that are visible in people who've reached samadhi, such as tremendous love, an inner joy, a love of life, and a connection to one's soul purpose. When not in the deep state of samadhi, most people tend to revert to their old patterns.
    Our individual consciousness creates the wind of the mind. Samadhi, the state of windless, clear mind, is always within us. All we have to do is try to find our way to it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Little Futures" and Our Spirituality: Thoughts on "the closet," "stigma," "terminal illness" and "Spirituality"

I wrote this article for a holistic publication (now defunct) called Enlightened Practice. The article is a continuation, if you want, of a previous blog I posted on Dying in Vein, a book by Kathy Seward MacKay, covering the tainted blood crisis, its warriors and heroes, touching so very candidly on sometimes taboo subjects like: the closet, stigma, terminal illness and many more.

Hope the read will inspire you as much as interviewing the authors and reading the book inspired me.

As always, thanks for visiting,

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

"Little Futures" and Our Spirituality
By Alina Oswald

Although we are not always aware of it, mundane events, natural calamities, or the illness of a loved one are constant reminders of our mortality. Some of us need this reminder in order to re-establish a connection with our spiritual side. In the process, many of us revisit our beliefs about life and afterlife, and discover the path to enlightenment.
    Many people living with terminal illnesses embrace their spiritual existence and its healing effects on their selves and bodies. This enlightening process doesn't happen overnight, especially when people are forced to live isolated, closeted lives when a wrong was done to them for the simple reason that they are sick.

But what is really "the closet," we may ask?
    Many of us may live in the closet without even realizing it. Take, for example, people who live with depression. They may seem like the happiest people on earth on the outside-to their co-workers, sometimes even to their closest friends and family members. Yet, when nobody is around, their smiles vanish, and, too many times, they are replaced by tears and feelings of fear and hopelessness, which is destructive for the soul and body.
    As varied as they come, all closets have the same purpose: to keep us isolated, hidden in the darkness of guilt and fear. But to come out of the closet is not as easy as it may seem. The closet can be a refuge for many of us, for example, patients who'd rather keep their illness a secret than to be harassed and persecuted because they are sick. Not fair, indeed, but cases are as numerous as they are varied.
    An example would be the AIDS closet. Too many patients are still afraid to come out, even to their closest friends, because of the ongoing AIDS stigma. Coming out can lead to loss-one's job, sometimes even one's family-to name just a few, and to finding out who the real friends are that stick around in times of need.
    The hemophiliac closet is another example. Even today, in the United States, hemophiliacs are persecuted, harassed, and run out of their homes and towns for the simple reason that they were born with a blood disorder-hemophilia. And many of them were infected with HIV from the very blood products that were supposed to save their lives.
    Especially when wrong is done to us, we need time to make peace with what has happened. During the healing process, we go through several stages-from anger and denial to acceptance and, finally, reaching out and reconciling with God. As a result, we become more aware of our spiritual existence and learn to integrate it into our everyday lives. In time, we start living fuller, more meaningful lives.
    But we don't have to live in pain or to experience loss or a devastating life-threatening disease to connect with our spirituality. Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn by example, from real-life stories and experiences.

How can we do that?

    For starters, we can offer ourselves the beautiful and inspiring gift of Dying In Vein, a collection of real-life stories of "the blood-supply crisis within the hemophilia community," as photographer Kathy Seward MacKay says in her artist's statement. Together with designer Kathy Bouchard, MacKay and writer, Stacy Milbouer, give a fresh voice to a community shaped by loss and pain, but also by hope that gives them strength.
    Dying In Vein is a product of love, of personal grieving and mourning. As MacKay shares her thoughts in her artist's statement, she uses her skills as a photographer "to show the pain and suffering of the victims and the families [and] to tell the story with candid, real-life moments, [. . .] to capture the fervent activism in this community, [and] to show the everyday life of infected hemophiliacs and their loved ones." As a writer, Milbouer's goal was to "give a voice to people whose faces reach out from the book-people who were affected by the crisis of tainted blood products-and capture the heart."
    Indeed, the characters of Dying In Vein and their stories do capture our hearts and teach us a lesson in surviving the pain and loss and in living a positive life. We learn about "the closet" and its effects on our lives through people like Robbie Johnson. Born and raised as a Christian, he felt more "akin to Jews who were persecuted and destroyed simply for being born Jews." Born a hemophiliac, Robbie Johnson was persecuted and run out of town not once, but twice, for being HIV-positive. He created a world of his own, surrounded by his music but, unfortunately, the harassment he was forced to live in eventually cost him his life.
    We also learn how to enjoy every moment of our "gift of time" from people like Jim Kerber. He is a software engineer who, despite his hemophilia, AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and an amputated leg, believes he is "the luckiest man alive." Despite the constant pain he lives in, Jim Kerber lives life to the fullest, surrounded by his family and making short-term plans, or "little futures," as he calls them. One of his "little futures" was to be present at his son's wedding . . . and his dream came true.
    Examples of warriors are various and numerous . . . of people who refused to let the constant pain of their illness prevent them from living. We'll find them all in the pages of Dying In Vein. People like Jim Kerber are great teachers. If we become aware of the invaluable lessons in life that they offer, we'll learn from their example. In the process, we can make our own "little futures" and see them come true . . . and become aware of our own spirituality.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Books--The Tragedy of Today's Gays, by Larry Kramer

Have we lost the war against AIDS? I find the answer to this question yet another timely and timeless topic. I wonder how much has changed, the war against AIDS, since 2004, when Larry Kramer asked this exact question in his book, The Tragedy of Today's Gays

I found the read electrifying, calling all of us to action, to do something about the pandemic. After all, AIDS is still a pandemic; HIV, still a killer, no matter how many medications are available, no matter how much closer we've gotten to a cure or a vaccine.

The review was originally published in A&U--America's AIDS Magazine. I posted it below.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

The Tragedy of Today's Gays
By Larry Kramer
Foreword by Naomi Wolf
Afterword by Rodger McFarlane
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

"WE HAVE LOST THE WAR AGAINST AIDS," Larry Kramer announces in his new book, The Tragedy of Today's Gays.  Based on Kramer's Cooper Union speech just five days after the 2004 election, The Tragedy of Today's Gays offers an encore, a second chance to learn from the 69-year old activist, the one who's always been the first to voice issues threatening the LGBT community. 
Today, Larry Kramer still opines his views on the "plague of AIDS" and the "cabal" (the right wing conspiracy), while challenging and encouraging his community to revisit and redefine its goals.  Although in his book he addresses gay men in particular, his message offers all his readers a soul-searching opportunity and a chance to rethink their lives and their future.  The Tragedy of Today's Gays is a wake-up call for all of us, but especially for today's young generation-those growing up in a time of life-prolonging AIDS medications and AIDS complacency.
Looking back at more than two decades of AIDS, readers can only ask themselves the same question Kramer asks his audience: "Does it occur to you that we brought this plague of AIDS upon ourselves?"  His answer to this question attempts to explain what Kramer considers the tragedy of today's gays.
Throughout the read three topics interweave and stand out, in particular.  One is the meaning of a history of AIDS, which, for some readers, may bring to life candid memories from the early years of the pandemic.  Another is a brief lesson in gay history-one that should be taught in schools, but, unfortunately, is not.  The third one has to do with the survival and the future of Larry Kramer's community-the gay community-and the dreams and ideals ignited by the gay revolution some three decades ago.     
Larry Kramer's message is of vital and timeless significance, traversing this short but poignant read: in order to better appreciate our present and make a better future for ourselves and for the next generations, we need to learn from the past.  In this sense, The Tragedy of Today's Gays serves as a survival guide in our fight against the AIDS pandemic, securing our future achievements and dreams.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Books - Grant Me Justice! (AIDS and the Bible)

While counting down to this year's World AIDS Day, I was thinking that another timeless subject, when it comes to the pandemic, is the way some people still perceive the connection between AIDS and the Bible. Indeed, even in this day and age, some individuals still believe that AIDS is a curse sent by God to sinners who deserve nothing more, nothing better. This very idea begs for many of us to read or re-read the Bible and interpret it ourselves. There is no surprise--we will end up with various interpretations. But are we going to be brave enough to share our thoughts with the others? Even more, are we willing to defend and explain our understanding of the Bible, no matter how different from the rest it may be?

Doctor Musa W. Dube, Associate Professor of the New Testament at the University of Botswana had the courage to actually look at what the Bible says in regards to AIDS and filter its message through today's time--the time of AIDS in which we all live. The result was a book, Grant Me Justice! -- HIV/AIDS & Gender Readings of the Bible.

I had the honor to interview Doctor Dube for A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. The article, "Bible Aides," is posted below, as timely a topic today, as it was a few years ago. Hope you'll enjoy the read.

Thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald

Bible Aides
by Alina Oswald

There’s no secret that many Bible readers interpret the existence of HIV/AIDS as being a curse sent by God to those who have sinned.  But the Bible should not be blamed for how some interpret it.

A book title that may suggest positive references to HIV/AIDS in readings of the Bible may sparkle arguments and controversies, because too often church-related terms and HIV/AIDS mentioned in close vicinity may spell disaster and controversy…  But not after reading the work of Dr. Musa W. Dube, Associate Professor of the New Testament at the University of Botswana, Grant Me Justice! HIV/AIDS & Gender Readings of the Bible.

The book came to life as a result of Dr. Dube’s “personal crisis about [her] teaching vocation and its meaning in the light of HIV infection,” the author explains during our phone interview.  As she mentions, the HIV/AIDS infection rate in Botswana in the late nineties was high [see numbers].  At the time, Dr. Dube—who’s a scholar but also a committed AIDS activist—was teaching her New Testament course to about two hundred students, as usual. 

“With the infection so high, especially among the young, forty percent of my students were gonna be positive and may not be alive in ten years.  And I thought, what was the meaning of my teaching, especially when I cannot save the lives of these undergraduate students?”

And so, Dube personally started to research how she could become part of the answer, of the solution to the AIDS crisis.  That’s how the book project started. 

But there were a few problems: the Biblical interpretation of the pandemic—that AIDS is a curse—that induces stigma and punishment of those infected; the second question Dube had to face was how to reread the Bible so that it positively contributed to the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.  She was in particular interested in issue of gender, because by that time, the epidemic already had a very gendered face.

But, handpicked from both the Old and New Testament, the stories of Grant Me Justice! do not stop at only one aspect of pandemic related injustices.  The book creates a multi-faceted image of AIDS, emphasizing the associated suffering, poverty, stigma and discrimination, and hopelessness. 

“HIV/AIDS is utter hopelessness,” Dr. Dube comments.  “And hopelessness becomes an epidemic on its own.  It is an issue of losing hope in the future.  It is not a physical death, but a death of hope.  And the book shows how to regain hope for life.”

Why would one be interested in such a read? 

First, because AIDS is not an African crisis, but a global one.  “[AIDS] penetrated everywhere and it’s technically a global crisis, and we need to capture that,” Musa Dube comments.  “Because just about every country everywhere has a problem with HIV/AIDS.”  She hopes that the book will stimulate and keep the AIDS communication going.  “I think that none of us think are through [fighting the pandemic].”

Second, the read enlightens and teaches and broadens our intellectual horizons.  It offers the possibility to talk about issues otherwise considered “taboo” for some.  It makes a resourceful supplementary reading material for a variety of courses related to feminine studies, Bible studies, and also HIV/AIDS issues.  The book intersects several topics of discussion and fields, from people living with HIV/AIDS to various biblical perspectives.

For example, Grant Me Justice!—the name of the collection and also of the opening story—portraits women not as helpless creatures, but persistent enough to make their cry for justice heard.  “John 9: Deconstructing the HIV/AIDS Stigma” offers an answer to the question: “how should we respond to suffering?” while “Talitha Cum!” (“Little girl, get up!”) tries to capture the economy of hope.

A common element that traverses the entire read is the image of God as a justice seeker that comes to life through each and every story.  “A just God.”  That’s how Dr. Dube sees God, too. 

And if, say, we could contribute to the writing of the Bible in today’s HIV light, Dr. Dube would see a Bible including a lot of controversial voices.  As for herself, she would imagine “a God who didn’t send a deadly virus upon the Earth to anyone, who wouldn’t kill or punish a person with HIV, who wouldn’t encourage any of us to stigmatize or reject or isolate those who are infected but rather to be one with [us], to suffer with [us], to seek answers with [us].  I would imagine a God who would give justice to all of us.  That’s what I would want to write if I ever have the wonderful privilege of writing the Bible.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Film--The Age of AIDS

How old is AIDS?

Although I reviewed the related FRONTLINE documentary a few years ago [and then I referred to it while writing my book, Journeys Through Darkness, a story of the life and art of a long-term survivor left legally blind by AIDS-related complications] the question remains timeless, maybe even surpassing a future and hopeful discovery of an AIDS cure.

With World AIDS Day only a few weeks away... we can only ask, yet again:
What is the age of AIDS?
How old is this pandemic?
and also
How old are we willing to allow it to get? When is enough going to be enough when it comes to AIDS? When are we going to put an end to it, for good and forever?

In that sense--of seeking answers to the questions above--The Age of AIDS was an eye-opening, thought-provoking documentary. The subject remains timely and timeless. The review was originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. I posted it below. Hope you'll enjoy the read.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

The Age of AIDS
FRONTLINE Documentary
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

How old is AIDS?  Twenty? Twenty-five? Older?  Does it matter?   
It took four years for AIDS to make the headlines.  It took another decade for HAART to come along and turn patients’ lives around.  How long will it take to completely defeat AIDS? 
That’s only one of the questions FRONTLINE’s The Age of AIDS attempts to answer, while documenting the evolution of the pandemic from the first SIV-HIV mutation sometime in 1930s, from the first HIV infection in 1959 in Africa, to the spread of the epidemic to Europe and the U.S. in 1981 and to present day tens of millions of infected people worldwide. 
As we immerse completely in the history of AIDS as it unfolds in front of our eyes, in retrospective we get a new appreciation and understanding of the virus that’s infected seventy million people in the last two decades and a half.  And in the process new questions arise, those regarding our role in determining and designing the future of the pandemic.    
The four-hour documentary compiles expert opinions and interviews with scientists, activists, outreach workers, world leaders and patients, thus piecing together the mosaic of images, components of today’s face of AIDS capturing its continuous transformation, traversing physical and social borders across communities, countries and continents, while becoming a global—as much as a country specific—pandemic.   
For example, Zackie Achmat of Treatment Action Campaign and Justice Edwin Cameron (who’s also the author of Witness to AIDS) of South Africa explain the course of the epidemic in their country, while President Museveni talks about Uganda’s AIDS prevention and education campaign, and Doctor Rozenbaum of France draws parallels between his first AIDS patients and those found in the States, in 1981.
On the home front people like former President Clinton, Doctor Ho, AIDS Quilt Founder Cleve Jones add their stories and opinions to the puzzle that makes today’s face of AIDS, offering a retrospective view of the pandemic while reflecting on its future.
Are we ready for a future free of AIDS and HIV and stigma and prejudice?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blood Relations: My Interview with Photographer Kathy Seward MacKay for A&U Magazine

While covering the AIDS community, I was introduced to the hemophiliac community, through Dying in Vein, a book by Stacy Milbouer and Kathy Seward MacKay. I had the chance to learn more about hemophilia through my interview with writer Milbouer and photographer MacKay for A&U Magazine. I called the Q&A article "Blood Relations" and posted it below.

As always, thanks for reading,

Blood Relations
by Alina Oswald
Originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine

An interview with photographer Kathy Seward MacKay and writer Stacy Milbouer about hemophilia, HIV/AIDS, and their new book, Dying In Vein.

Of all the HIV “high-risk” groups, hemophiliacs arguably received—and continue to receive—the least amount of media attention. Despite that, the hemophilia community and its experiences with surviving loss and grief, and finding hope, has inspired many artists. Photographer Kathy Seward MacKay, writer Stacy Milbouer, and art designer Kathy Bouchard are three of these artists. Their book, Dying In Vein, is a collection of candid moments, captured in pictures and words, of only a few of the thousands of hemophiliacs infected with HIV and hepatitis C virus through tainted blood products.

As Stacy Milbouer explains, choosing the most representative subjects for the book was a difficult task because they all had interesting stories. It was important to show the reality of the situation, “not sugar coat [it], while showing that it’s not all bleak,” she explains.

The tainted blood crisis left an un-erasable imprint on MacKay’s life, taking away her husband—David MacKay—who died of hepatitis C at the age of thirty-three. Early in her career as a photographer, MacKay started to work on several health projects with writer Stacy Milbouer. They’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.

While the two artists talk about their experience of making Dying In Vein happen and share their thoughts on tainted blood crisis and HIV/AIDS, MacKay also comments on the effect the two crises—tainted blood and AIDS—had on her personal life.

Alina Oswald: What is the idea behind Dying In Vein?
Kathy Seward MacKay: My husband died in June ’97. The idea for the book came late Fall ’98. I started to work on it in January ’99. It was an overwhelming task, especially as a single parent. Stacy joined the project two years ago and conceptualized the way the book will look like.

How did you find and choose your subjects?
Right after my husband died I was not connected to the hemophilia community at all. Ten thousand other hemophiliacs in the U.S. infected with HIV and I’d never met a single one of them.

Then there was some legislation that was introduced to compensate the families of the victims….I just started networking and meeting a lot of people by lobbying, visits to Washington, D.C., the organization called the Committee of Ten Thousand (COTT) [www.cott1.org]. When I went on my first trip, there were hundreds of people out there who were just like me. Through them, I made some really good friendships and got to know people. I would just meet people and then someone would say, ‘Oh, have you photographed Ken Baxter? He protests in front of Bayer Pharmaceutical every month.’ So I called Ken out of the blue.

I would look for people who might have interesting stories to tell and would want to open and share their stories. I probably did solid shooting for two to three years. About that time I was constantly meeting more people; it was kind of a snowball effect.

What was your experience working with your subjects?
[Hemophilia] is one of the stories of the AIDS epidemic stories that hasn’t really been told. People felt betrayed. Ninety percent of the people agreed to let me into their lives, eager to tell their stories. Some of them were in their closet. Lots of the interviews turned into friendships and allowed me to know the people and get certain candid moments that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten from people who lost a loved one.

The one shot that was particularly hard to take…a shot of Steve Savoy, near the end of the “Afflicted,” [taken] six days before he died. Stacy had written a paragraph on him, we had four pages on him. I didn’t know if [his wife] Kathy, who is one of my closest friends right now, was going to let me photograph him or not, but she thought it was important. It was the most difficult picture I took in my life.

One beautiful thing that I saw in the subjects: They saw AIDS as a whole picture and it shaped their lives. Others are doing a lot of outreach work with AIDS foundations.

Persecution, harassment, stigma, phobia—they all affect your subjects’ existence, sometimes even costing them their lives….
My husband was in the closet. He was a schoolteacher. He feared that people would find out and he would lose his job. The closet may have helped in a way, but it was a tough thing and he couldn’t be who he really was; he tried to live in denial.

I met a few people who asked if we [MacKay and her two sons] are okay. We are. I have a moral obligation to try to do something about it, not that that would change the world. I thought best thing to contribute was a book—it has been a positive experience.

Why mostly black-and-white photos?
Black-and-white conveys the mood of the story. When I met Ken [Baxter], I decided to use that photo in color for dramatic effect. Originally, I wanted Ken in color on the cover. It was a surprising effect, mimicking his techniques; red is significant. He’s been on a mission for a long time, inspired by the death of friends around him. The last pictures are in color because color gives a positive, uplifting attitude.

What about the tainted blood crisis?
The blood supply is fairly safe right now. Still, infections with HIV/hepatitis through tainted blood are still happening. It is important for people to have their personal responsibility. Stay vigilant.

The politics of health do concern us—mad cow disease, Vioxx. It should be a wake-up call. The problem is: What’s the next blood-borne disease?

For more information about Dying In Vein, visit the website

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Film--Walking on Sunshine

It's not often when we hear about HIV/AIDS on TV. That's why I was surprised when, a few years ago, BET launched an AIDS Short Subject Film Competition. Walking on Sunshine was one of the winning scripts. Here's the review, originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine.

Hope you enjoy the read and the film.
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Walking on Sunshine
Film Review
By Alina Oswald

AIDS awareness; this is what first comes to mind after watching Tracy Taylor's Walking on Sunshine, one of the two winning scripts in this year's Rap-It-Up/Black AIDS Short Subject Film Competition launched by BET, the Black AIDS Institute, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. 
Premiering on BET, on Wednesday, December 1st, as part of World AIDS Day special program together with Tangy's Song, the second winning short film, Walking on Sunshine explores the issue of HIV/AIDS and its impact on African American women and communities through the lives of two sisters each living different lifestyles.     
The film raises AIDS awareness through its simple, yet touching story mirroring our present, everyday reality. The actors entertain and educate, while interacting with the audience in two ways: indirectly, through the story they tell, and directly, through eye-opening and vital information, statistics and warnings regarding HIV/AIDS.  They portray characters whose HIV/AIDS stories "[are] happening now in America" and not even "as far away from us as good old Hollywood."  Actors excel in bringing to life the it-could-happen-to-you type of situations addressed by the film's storyline, and in sending a clear and powerful message: "if you think [AIDS] won't affect you, you'd better think again."  
Walking on Sunshine also addresses other topics, like honesty and trust; practicing safe sex; the fear factor, denial and resistance associated with getting tested and facing the HIV test result; various concepts about love, friendship, and relationships.  The film revisits misconceptions and beliefs regarding contracting the virus and presents a twenty-year old image of AIDS through the eyes of different generations.   
As audience of this interactive, educative and informative twenty-minute film we identify with the characters and reflect on our own lives' experiences; we learn from their stories and witness first hand the ample effect an HIV-positive test result can have on one's life. 
In the process, we learn how to prevent ourselves from HIV/AIDS or how to deal with the disease; we become more informed, more aware and in touch with today's AIDS reality.  Twenty minutes of Walking on Sunshine may just be the most important ones in our lives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here's another impressive, memorable read, one that has a life-changing effect on its readers. It did have on me. The review was originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine.

Hope you'll enjoy the book, too.
Thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

We Are All the Same: A Story of a Boy's Courage and a Mother's Love
By Jim Wooten
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

He is the Zulu boy who carries his mother's virus and who, because of his mother's last brave and selfless act before her death, ends up in the care of Gail Johnson, a white South African woman in charge of an AIDS hospice for white patients.  Soon, Gail becomes Nkosi's foster mother and, together, they make history: they succeed in pursuing the authorities to allow HIV positive children to go to school with healthy children.  In time, Gail and Nkosi Johnson receive national and international recognition and some South Africa people consider Nkosi one of their heroes and the only one to challenge President Thabo Mbeki-"the country's chief undertaker," how some columnists call him-at the 13th International AIDS Conference, in Durban, South Africa.  
"We are all the same.
We are not different from one another.
We all belong to the same family,"
Eleven year-old Nkosi Johnson addresses his president and the crowds, as one of the keynote speakers at the July 2000 conference.  He speaks on behave of all those living (and dying) with HIV/AIDS and shows the entire world that AIDS has a human face. 
Nkosi Johnson's words impress senior ABC News correspondent Jim Wooten so that the seasoned reporter uses them for the title of his book, the story about "a relationship between a black child who never grew up and a white woman who never gave up," how he explains in its "Introduction." 
To help his readers better understand the amplitude and the complexity of South African AIDS in connection with the global pandemic, the author tackles its various, sometimes antagonistic, aspects and presents them all-medical opinions and dissident ideas about the cause of AIDS, religious beliefs and old Zulu rituals, race and class barriers in South Africa-in a professional, journalistic manner.  Using facts, statistics and true stories, Jim Wooten portrays a stunning, yet real image of the AIDS pandemic.  He presents the African and South African AIDS problem in context with the country's culture, history, economy, and politics and gives it life and human meaning through the story of Nkosi Johnson and the lessons learnt from young boy.  
We Are All The Same doesn't offer a solution for the world's AIDS tragedy.  It doesn't even offer a happy ending.   We Are All The Same teaches about dedication, courage, unconditional love, and unconditional acceptance through its characters and our real life heroes-Nkosi, his mother, and his foster mother Gail Johnson.  They have the strength to make the world better despite life's saddening unfairness and obstacles.  As readers, we only have to follow their example... we'll learn how to reevaluate our own life and make each of its moments matter.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Books--Women in the Grove, by Paula W. Peterson

 I find it fascinating how books leave a remarkable imprint in our lives. They do change our lives, or, better said, our perspective in life. They teach us new ways to look at our existence. Women in the Grove is such a read. I truly enjoyed this remarkable collection of nine AIDS-related stories. The review originally appeared in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. Hope you'll enjoy it, too, and hope you'll get to read this fascinating book.

As always, thanks for visiting.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Women in the Grove
By Paula W. Peterson
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Although their stories are set in San Francisco area, the protagonists of Women in the Grove portray nine modern-day HIV-positive mothers coming from different corners of life, giving the collection a multi-cultural, multi-ethnical and multi-social element... same multi- characteristic of today's global AIDS pandemic. 
Because most of their characters come from backgrounds of desperate poverty, fear of disclosure and stigma, the nine stories are in danger to be left untold; yet, Peterson cannot let that to happen.  The author effortlessly identifies with each one of her protagonists, giving them a voice and delivering their stories to us, their audience. 
Disclosure, stigma and loneliness associated with HIV/AIDS are only a few of the topics expressed and explained throughout the collection.  Although each of the protagonists struggle with accepting their HIV/AIDS in their lives and in their children's lives, AIDS is not a main character in their stories, but rather a common background for all characters and for the author, herself.  After all, Peterson and her fictional identities from Women in the Grove have something in common: they are, all, loving, devoted, HIV-positive mothers.  Together, they create a spiritual bond, a safety net of guardian angels that, either in spirit or in flesh, watch over their loved ones.  This spiritual element marks the collection and gives the portrayed image of AIDS a truly universal dimension.  The spiritual element suggests the complexity and continuity of our existence-physical and spiritual-and shows itself throughout the collection, through visitations from ghosts or from God Himself, or as the spirit of a mother, guarding her child from the Beyond.
This particular image comes to life "In the Grove," the story that sums up the sentiment of a mother's love and life's triumph presented throughout the collection.  "In the Grove" revolves around the "heart" of San Francisco AIDS Memorial Grove-the Circle of Friends-a sacred ground carrying the names of AIDS victims, where the narrator's now teenage son comes to lay flowers over his mother's name. 
What is unique about this particular story is its multi-dimensionality:  a mother's love bridges not only generations, but also physical and spiritual worlds.  What makes the story different from the others in the collection is that "In the Grove" the spiritual is waiting for a sign from the physical existence, not the other way around; also, in contrast with the other stories, the connection is never completed. 
Women in the Grove stories overwhelm us or help us explore the shaky grounds of our own lives.  As a result, we learn about love and honesty, we regain our faith in life, our beliefs in a higher power, and in ourselves.        

Monday, November 8, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Film--The Event

"Honey, what you know about AIDS can fit in your purse," Olympia Dukakis' character says in The Event. The words still express the sad reality for many of us.   

The Event was one of the first AIDS-related movies I reviewed for A&U--America's AIDS Magazine.  I found out that the movie was playing only for one week and only in L.A. and NYC (exclusively at Clearview's Chelsea Theaters.)  Of course, I rushed to see it.

I've always wondered why movies like The Event do not get a chance, while others do. Have we become so terribly complacent when it comes to a (still) deadly pandemic like HIV/AIDS? Or are we afraid to talk about it because we fear we'd come across too preachy, especially at a time when other issues seem to have taken priority...

I posted the review below. I believe the movie is still very much worth seeing.
Hope you enjoy the read.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

The Event
A movie by Thom Fitzgerald
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

In The Event, Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald invites us to a lavish party celebrating life in the midst of death.  Through a series of flashbacks, the controversial movie tells the story of Chelsea's artist and AIDS patient, twenty-something Matt Shapiro (played by Don McKellar) while investigating the dark consequences of an assisted suicide.
The idea of passing away, from AIDS, with a bang is not new in movies, but what contrasts The Event from Philadelphia, for example, is that The Event's party is a suicide one.  It is a going away event where Matt Shapiro's family and friends find enough time for last embraces, dark humor jokes, and good-byes.
But Manhattan district attorney, Nick-Nicole-DeVivo (played by Parker Posey) sees this Event as the last in a string of suspicious deaths in New York gay community.  All victims are AIDS patients, found dead, with an overdose of drugs in their systems, all, patients of their AIDS councilor and Matt's lover (Brent Carver.) 
During Nick's investigation, family and friends reveal the surprising story of Matt's life, his struggle with the disease, and his death.   While trying to find out who's to blame for Matt's death, Nick struggles with her own past and personal beliefs regarding assisted suicide.
    The Event is a sad, touching, yet uplifting film, telling a present-day story about dignity in the face of loss and tragedy, about life's gift.  The superb performances of Don McKellar-the courageous, uncomplaining AIDS patient, Matt Shapiro-and Olympia Dukakis-his understanding, brave and loving mother, Lila-bring tears into viewers' eyes, especially those who've lost a loved one to a debilitating illness. 
The Event is also a brief lesson in AIDS and living with the disease.  Perhaps Lila Shapiro's words-"Honey, what you know about AIDS can fit in your purse"-express the sad reality for many of us. 
The Event is a memorable story, a reason to cherish and appreciate life.  The pace gives little time to breath.  No one leaves the theater room with dry eyes.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS in Books--Secret Society, by Miasha

This review was originally published in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. Hope you'll enjoy the read.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Secret Society
By Miasha
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Madonna, also Seal and Eminem... they are all artists known by one name only.  And this trend extends to authors, too. 
What makes using one's first or last name only so intriguingly attractive?
In Miasha's [pronounced Me-a-sha] case, the twenty-four-year-old author's first name can only add to what her debut novel has to offer wrapped nicely in the book's deliciously looking covers.  And, indeed, from its first page to the last, Secret Society doesn't let its readers down. Not a bit.  Not for a moment.  Although at times the context may become slightly confusing when referring to terms related to sexual identity versus sexual preference, the story of Secret Society infuses readers' minds with an endless, winding list of name brands like Chloe and D&H, nightclubs, parties, lies and heated sexual encounters, all mixed in with the innermost secrets an individual can shelter inside...
Despite the light exchange of words mostly taking place between the two main characters-sexy Celess and voluptuous Tina, two childhood girlfriends barely in their twenties-their story clears the murky waters of their underground world. By exposing carefully sheltered secrets, Secret Society becomes a warning sign for the real life individuals who may find themselves in similar situations-either being taken advantage of, often unknowingly, or taking advantage of their preys while living the highlife of the rich and famous.
And, as it always happens, everything (even the new glitzy life of Celess and Tina) comes with a price tag, which, in this case, spells violence, revenge, murder... and HIV.  While Tina is the one to train Celess in becoming the best at "runnin' game" on unaware men and in her new life of living off her preys, can she teach Celess a deeper, more meaningful lesson in life?
That's for the readers to find out in Miasha's true page-turner debut novel.  Because only by immersing themselves into the underground world of Secret Society they can truly understand and become aware of the dark side of its mysterious glamour.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Learning through Art: HIV/AIDS & The Baltimore Waltz, Written by Paula Vogel

A few years ago I had the wonderful opportunity to see The Baltimore Waltz (in its second incarnation, so to speak), written by Paula Vogel and directed by Mark Brokaw, at the Signature Theatre, in New York City. I remember I took notes throughout the performance, trying to make sense of its subtle message--what it wasn't not spoken, but rather implied. I remember I did a lot of research, trying to figure out, to understand, before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). The performance was mesmerizing and memorable. The experience was challenging and changing.

The review originally appeared in A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine. I re-posted it below. Hope you enjoy the read. Also, hope you'll get the chance to see The Baltimore Waltz.

As always, thanks for visiting.
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

The Baltimore Waltz
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Although much has been discovered about HIV/AIDS in the last twelve years since Paula Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz first premiered in 1992, produced by The Circle Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village, today maybe more than ever, is the right time for a revival of the Obie award winning play because of its multiple timeless issues in tackles: AIDS is still a real part of our lives and its cure is yet to be found while the number of HIV-infected people has increased since the play was first written in 1989, only one year after Paula Vogel's brother, Carl, died of AIDS-related causes; second, today's administration gives AIDS issues similar priority as the administration of the eighties; third, as the Paul Vogel tells Signature Theatre, The Baltimore Waltz is a play not so much about AIDS, but about coping with the grief caused by the death of a brother or sister or a loved one, about learning to live and laugh again... and heal through the grieving process. 
Paula Vogel believes she can best keep her brother, Carl Vogel, alive through a play-rather than through a novel, for example-because only in a play the story takes place in present time.  Even though in real life the playwright has learnt to use past tense when talking about her brother, Carl will forever come to life, in present time, with each performance of The Baltimore Waltz. 
The revival of the play premiers this year at the Signature Theatre in New York City, as part of Paula Vogel Playwright-in-Residence 2004-2005 Season (November 16, 2004 - January 9, 2005), marking the 17th anniversary of Carl Vogel's death (January 9, 2005).
Set in the eighties, the one-act, 85-minute play uses fantasy to give a real perspective to the European trip Paula Vogel never got to take with her brother.  The Baltimore Waltz is Vogel's way of grieving her brother's death, using the satirical and at times frenzy story of an imaginary European trip of Anna (Kristen Johnston; Sex and the City) and her brother, Carl (David Marshall Grant, The Stepford Wives, television's And The Band Played On, Broadway's Angels in America for which he was nominated a Tony Award). 
When their Baltimore doctor (Jeremy Webb, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU), tells them about Anna's fatal disease-ATD or Acquired Toilet Disease-and that his "hands are tied up by the FDA" Carl, a San Francisco public librarian decides to take his sister, an elementary school teacher, on the search for a miracle drug-giving patients to drink their own urine-of an Austrian urologist (Webb), Dr. Todesrocheln (German for "death rattle") had to offer. 
Along the trip, Anna doesn't give in to Carl's plea to spend more time with him.  Instead, she indulges in gourmet food and long-neglected sexual experiences with bell-boys (exceptionally and effortlessly played by Webb, in each case) from each country they visit (France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany), while Carl has cultural and sexual experiences of his own.  Their fantasy trip ends with Anna's coming face to dace with her alternative cure, a moment that also marks her realization of their unrealized trip and the real time truth of her brother's death.  What Carl leaves her is his childhood plushy bunny-his love-and a few brochures for the trip to Europe they never get to take-interpreted as hope in the possibility of a cure for AIDS, parallel with a possibility of Anna's future trip to Europe.  
As the play ends with Strauss' "Emperor's Waltz" uniting Carl and Anna across the life/death frontier, it leaves the audience with teary eyes and a new perception and appreciation of life and loved ones.