Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS: Derek Frost on Love, Joy and Spiritual Transformation
Author and designer Derek Frost shares extracts from his memoir Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS, discussing love, triumph and joy, the spiritual transformation that occurs when facing universal challenges, and the rewards of giving back
Yesterday is not where I normally am, but writing what I have written, what you have read, has taken me back to my yesterdays, back to what occurred, what I felt, what I learnt about myself and others, how I reacted to all those things then. To have done this, to have gone back, has been enriching for me. It has reminded me again and again of my great good fortune. By thinking back and by writing about my life to date I have relearnt much of what I first learnt then. I am grateful to have made time to do this and to have found, by writing Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS, a reason and an opportunity to reflect. Please know that I am no guru – nor do I wish to be considered one. Personal experience and love has shaped my views about life. My memoir is my testament to what I have learnt. If others can derive benefit from what I have written then this will be a joyful reward for my endeavours.
On pandemics, universal challenges, survival and transformation
“As I sit to finish writing this memoir, to end a long period reflecting on my life as a gay man and the pandemic called AIDS, another invisible killer called Covid-19 has crept unwelcome into our lives. Yet again, the health of our human population is threatened. Let’s hope that the legacy of AIDS, and the lessons our ongoing battle to vanquish it have taught us, will help us in our response to Covid-19 and the other “pandemics” that will, no doubt, follow it; guiding us in how best to save lives, honour human dignity and restore our confidence in the promise of a secure, healthy and joyful future.”
On love, joy and triumph, and facing personal tragedy and crisis with courage
“Be mindful of this truth.
Side by side with happiness, health and life, every sentient being will also know sadness, sickness and death.”
Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama
“Can it be that a healthy lifestyle, positivity, engagement, shared love and support can be tools of sufficient power to stave off disease? J absolutely believes that HIV infection will not kill him. Such self-belief seems key.”
“I feel my energy, my health, my youth, my love, my life – the electricity that is me. I feel it like raw power and I will it through my hands into him. If love can heal he will be healed.”
“Reading about surviving teaches us that you can fight back, that a positive outlook and a healthy holistic lifestyle can become powerful weapons: “Develop a positive attitude, keep control of the process,” advises one book. “Ask questions, reduce stress, sleep long, eat well, take regular exercise, investigate the healing arts of yoga and meditation, stay close to love and laugh as often as possible.”
“Lifestyle makes a fantastic difference to this fight. Take charge of making your own choices.”
“Keep filled with enthusiasm and new challenges.”
Let the soul banish all that disturbs,
Let the body that envelops it be still,
And all the frettings of the body,
And all that surrounds it.
Let earth and sea and air be still
And heaven itself.
And then let the body think
Of the Spirit as streaming, pouring,
Rushing and shining into it from
All sides while it stands quiet.
Plotinus (AD 205)
“Meditation is stopping and receiving in silence. I reflect on looking deep through still water, each thought an obscuring ripple. No thought, no ripple. Clarity returns and there is depth.”
On creativity and art
Put your heart, mind, intellect and soul into your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.
“I don’t need a job or a client to be creative. For me, just about every act is an act of creation: arranging flowers, working in the garden, setting a table, making a bed. The most ordinary acts are all creative acts if carried out as beautifully as possible. To do this comes entirely naturally to me. It’s what I do. Who I am.”
“Making representational art requires that you really look, and this looking introduces me to an unexpected love. It’s hard not to fall in love with a person or an object when you look closely and deeply. An aged wrinkled face, a distorted stained rock, a twisted rusted tin can, when studied carefully, assumes an unexpected beauty. Beauty and love can be found in the most unlikely surroundings. Youth and newness are, of course, immediately beautiful and under close inspection display this to a miraculous degree; similar inspection displays the same in a face of any age. Almost without exception, objects that come from nature are by default beautiful.”
“To plant something small, to nurture it, to watch it grow, to see it flower and then seed, is the greatest pleasure. Gardening attaches me to Planet Earth and my love for both grows.”
“A bench from my childhood sits in our garden overlooking the sea. It belonged to my parents and my grandparents before that. Three generations of my family have sat on this bench and considered the Dorothy Frances Gurney inscription, carved into its back: The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth, one is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.”
“On hot, still summer days, I delight in throwing off my shoes and planting my bare feet in the warm soil; bending down with my face amongst the green of the plants, smelling them and the cool that remains on them; stretching down with my eyes and hands searching for ways to nurture and husband what lies below. Then autumn, a time of exceptional colour, when welly boots replace bare feet. A time when the wind is high, the soil is damp and the smell in the air is earthier. It’s becoming chilly and I’m pruning hard, tying down, feeding and preparing for the cold, dark winter that lies ahead. Then, there’s spring, the glorious time of rebirth.”
“Life will move on whether we are here or not. Why be scared by that? I feel a great peace descending on me.”
“Yoga is a teaching which develops self-discipline and self-knowledge. It strengthens both awareness and sensitivity. From Iyengar: Listen carefully and constantly within. Listen to one of the best teachers you will ever find … yourself.” Yoga teaches positive thinking, proper diet, exercise and relaxation. It’s not just about physical postures. It’s also about how you think, how you treat the world and what contribution you make to it.”
“I find that the regular practice of pranayama leading to silence is becoming essential during these challenging times; that it leads me toward greater calm and strengthens me mentally; awakens feelings of love, compassion and connectedness; builds a desire, a need, to initiate something worthwhile.”
“I start to read the teachings of the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti, who believes that life, energy, light and matter are all one, a single pulse to which we all belong. Through his writing and lecturing he works to strengthen awareness and to build peace. He encourages the release of ego and teaches beautifully: Be silent and study the mind and the heart. Learn about the inner self, the whole. Allow no crutches, no illusions.” Through Krishnamurti, I start to know an inner energy which is neither body nor mind; an energy connected with all else.”
On Aids Ark, the charity Derek co-founded with his husband which has currently saved over 1,000 lives
“Yoga and the Buddha have instilled in me the certain knowledge that living well demands giving back; that giving back is the greatest source of joy and purpose; that giving back makes sense of life. The prospect of doing this, of embarking on this new adventure, is exciting. We are blessed that, for us, the way to action this is clear. All else that we have achieved in our lives to date seems of small significance compared with this great challenge.”
“It’s a deep satisfaction mixed with heartfelt gratitude that life has presented us with the opportunity to contribute something so worthwhile. Again and again I am reminded that giving grants in return still greater gifts.”
“I spend World Aids Day, December 2010, celebrating with FXB in Burma. It’s a joyful event, well attended by young and old alike. There is singing and dancing. My short address to the crowd is received with clapping and cheering. During the party I meet with 19 of our 20 former Aids Ark beneficiaries.The one missing member of the group has died but the rest are enjoying good health and living normal working lives. Each brings with them their golden elephant, our gift. “Thanks to FXB and Aids Ark we are reborn,” they tell me. What better gift could I hope for on such an important day?”
On life mottos and words of wisdom
How dare you not make the best of life? There’s only one blasphemy – the refusal of joy.
Jeffrey, Paul Rudnick
“Life is short – every life. Not a moment must be wasted. If there is no growth, prune it, cut it off. In its place new growth will come.”
Find out more:
Living and Loving in the Age of AIDS: A Memoir by Derek Frost is available now (£7.99-£12.99, Watkins).
Derek has chosen to commit 100% of the royalties from his book to AIDS-related charities.