actionable advice from the inlaws

The end of last year was not as I had planned. I think living across two different cultures and cities has taught me not to sweat the small stuff as much, but the year-end was tectonic shift level re-thinking. It threw me out of kilter for weeks. I was also moving rather intensively between climates — Brasil’s summer and European/North American winter — as well as friend groups in NYC and Berlin. Back in São Paulo, Carnival found me needing the escape it is said to offer.

I often eavesdrop when George talks to Ismael and Lia, his parents and my inlaws. I really like them but have yet to decide what I should call them. In Portuguese I can simply start my sentence with ‘O Senhor’ or ‘Dona Lia’ and follow with a remark or question. Maybe ‘Mister’ and ‘Lady Lia’ is just right … who knows?

It is not necessarily eavesdropping since we often use Facetime and the calls are broadcast throughout our small apartment. Ismael has the phone close to his face. He lost an eye in a ‘metallurgical’ accident. With further prying George says a flying metal shaving put out his left eye. I must have heard a thousand times in my youth to be careful around the mills and lathes of my own father’s machine shop (commonly called ‘tool and die’). I am most endeared to Ishmael because he stuck with me for the 8-minute duration of American Pie on guitar — quite a departure from his preferred Música sertaneja — for my 44th birthday party in Cuiabá. This after Giovan, George’s younger brother and his husband arranged a marathon adventure with 10,000 fellow ravers the night before, forty minutes outside of Cuiabá beside a lake. Cuiabá is George’s hometown. Claude Lévi-Strauss took off from Cuiabá for his explorations in the Amazon that culminated in Tristes Tropiques.

Ismael and Lia stayed at our apartment in São Paulo with George while I traveled in January and February in Europe and the US up until Carnival. Ishmael sharpened the knives, I learned by nicking my fingers a couple times in new ways during food preparation. He laughed his warm laugh, proud of his work, when George told him. He is a happy man. ‘Cuidado’ he urged through the phone.

Lia left behind a pack of blue, green and red candles that she had had blessed at the spiritual center in Cuiabá. Lia goes to Candomblé meetings with George’s sister, Giovanna. Knowing about my rocky year-end, she also left me a gold star and a Malachite figa, both of which had been blessed with the candles. I am to burn a candle each night (no more than one a night) until they are finished. Despite the predictable camouflage of Carnival, my energy level still felt too erratic for its noise and exuberance. George confirmed with his mom that I should only burn one candle each night, and asked me if I was carrying both the star and figa, playing operator between his mom and I. I had only been wearing the figa on a chain the last few days, but hadn’t carried the star. I needed to have it in my wallet, she said. Would keychain be ok, I asked? Yes, just keep them both together.

This erratic energy level resulted in a large body of ideas it seems. Some can be summed up as curatorial and constructive institutional critique going into the last year of a big project called Lanchonete.org in São Paulo. Practical. Brainstorming. Observing the urban arts landscape of São Paulo broadly while planning a final statement from Lanchonete.org for its closure.

Other ideas were more personal and perhaps stem from anxiety about the end of a long-term project, and what’s next? I found myself sharing my HIV+ status with a group of peers and signaling a new art project related to public health and stigma. I even found myself asking colleagues in philanthropy to pay for this new idea with good results, and incorporating its narrative into a keynote talk at York University. During Carnival I began to second guess and was pretty hard on myself specifically for what seemed like a crass personal admission, and a vague professional urge broadcast haphazardly in a group email. In the week after Carnival I plied myself with positive, uplifting Netflix fare, including the Chris Rock special, Tamborine. He seems to be hurting a bit from his divorce. It made me envious of his position, that of comedian. The opportunity for catharsis invited by Netflix.

Last week after Carnival, I decided against a project using my reflections on stigma in relation to being HIV+. Why would I do that? I don’t enjoy that type attention so much.

I needed to buy some time, so I looked for someone to rent my Brooklyn apartment flexibly for a short-term in case I needed to go back to NYC to pursue the new project. A Brazilian friend put me in touch with a medical doctor and professor coming from the University of São Paulo to research at the New York State AIDS Institute. This week when we met, she told me about her work looking at relations between the two cities. I told her about the Queer City project we made to consider the Ballroom dance culture and public health concerns among vulnerable communities, etc. And, how I had come up with the project after contracting HIV in São Paulo. Would I make some introductions in NYC for her? In São Paulo?

I told her some of what I learned at the HouseLivesMatter Conference at Union Seminary in August 2017 during NYC’s Black Pride. That with the availability of PREP, the new danger age is 14–18, a period when urban, gay youth are sexually active and yet would need access to a health card from their parents before being able to apply for PREP. Perhaps they would have sex without the precaution. Something like that. The São Paulo doctor told me that this is also the risk age for young Afro-brasilieros.

Would I find such a project fulfilling? Inconvenient? Would I enjoy the first time a speaking invitation came from it? Would I make money off it? Enough to live on for the period of the project? Would it matter? What difference would it make?

Did I even share the idea with peers or was that something yet to do after Carnival? Who did I tell, and what does it matter? What are the ramifications of saying more (or less)?

Stigma seems to be a vague state of exchange that I know affects me. Its invisibility is menacing. I can’t find it today. It is diluted by other sensations and rationales — or vice versa — busyness and convenience. It does not come from one place, therefore it can’t be about HIV or any one particular topic. It easily shapeshifts to convince of its utility under the pseudonym of decorum.

I needed actionable advice from someone who cares for me:

Be careful with the knives. Always keep the star with the figa. Burn just one candle a night.


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