In 1989 Irene Borger heard a voice in her head telling her to start a writing workshop for people living with AIDS. She was on retreat at the Lama Foundation. Seven years later, the week this collection of stories and poems was published, the Lama Foundation burned to the ground. This was a coincidence, but the metaphor, “from a burning house,” is not. We are all in a burning house. Everyone who pays attention knows this is true. Some of us get this insight through meditation, others from AIDS or some other life-threatening circumstance, and some from both.
To teach people to write about their agony and ecstasy as they’re running is exactly what Irene Borger has done so magnificently. With a bit of grant money and “a strong fools-rush-in intuition,” she began a nine-month-long writing group for people living with HIV, ARC and AIDS. Each week for three hours, they write, read aloud, laugh, cry and, above all, put words to their experiences as an offering of life. Although many members of the workshops have died, they all live through their writing.
As you would expect, From A Burning House includes a lot about pain, sickness, medication, dying, assisted suicides and funerals. In addition, as Borger says in her introduction, there’s “everything from arousal, lime green high heels, plutonium, and the theater to . . . warts, and hospices.”
The book is comprised of seven sections, beginning with stories about hometowns and childhood and ending with stories about death and dying. From A Burning House might have just as easily been divided into sections on impermanence, suffering and selflessness. What’s so special is how these fundamental characteristics of existence are revealed by those in the midst of a crash course.
There are other dharma lessons. “Dishes” by Doug Bender is a story about how, in the midst of great suffering, we may appreciate the ordinary rituals of everyday living. The writer observes that washing dishes takes so little time, but “it gives me great pleasure to see them clean once again, dripping on the white, waffled dishcloth that rests on the counter. . . . there is finally order and calm in a chaotic, frenetic world. . . . You find joy where you can. . . . This is my last year.”
In “A Letter” by Tony Gramaglia, we read about the wrenching journey from anger to forgiveness. The writer composes a letter to the man whose name he cannot remember. “It was four, maybe five letters long. Italian. I think.” He writes, “I think that our encounter is the source of my dying like this.” It was 1982, when no one really knew about AIDS. He continues, “I was just wondering if you were still alive? I hope you are. . . . if you want to be. Sometimes I’m not so sure about myself.” The writer directs neither anger nor blame toward this man/father-substitute who has captured his mind for so many years, but rather his rage is toward the Cincinnati prosecutor who shut down a radio broadcast as a gay man was talking about “some new disease” that safe sex with condoms could prevent. The program that could have saved his life and countless other lives was banned from the airwaves.
The AIDS quilt helps us remember the dead. This collection of writing (also available on audio cassette) preserves the words and wisdom of those living with and those who have died of a fatal illness. Like all meaningful memorials, these stories are a vivid reminder of the life that’s in death and the death that’s in life. These writers don’t have the luxury of denial or the illusion that “there’s time.”