Thursday night on the beach in Ventura, the cold night air subtly slipped into a warm stillness under the half moon peeking out under wisps of clouds. A giant tent covered the weary but exhilarated riders of the AIDS LifeCycle 10 enjoying their final fine dinner before completing the 545-mile journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles. An emotional duality hung in the air, dominated by an anticipation of completing the hard personal challenge by riding safely up the US 101 past Malibu and into Santa Monica to the Closing Ceremonies at the Veteran Administration complex in West LA.
The other emotion was deeper, nudging the surface and threatening to burst free like the thunder clouds and record downpour that graced the opening of the ride in San Francisco. Now was the time to confront the loss of a loved one and - harder still, let go.
LA Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean was washed over with love and appreciation as she gave her final remarks to her rider family. You have built a community of spirit here, she said. Take it home with you. It felt as if Lorri Jean was channeling Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
As a special surprise, rider Mark Goodman and his mother Shelli Goodman read a letter Mark had written to his late brother Jeffrey, for whom the Center's Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic is named and where much of the Center's share of the more than $13 million raised will go. They spoke of the last years of Jeffrey's "blessed existence." Mark wife was there, and his daughter Candice had served as a roadie. Their sorrow over Jeffrey was greater for the loss of Ron Goodman, who every year since the start of the AIDS rides in 1995 had walked with his wife Shelli ahead of the riderless bike in the Closing Ceremonies. Ron died of a massive brain hemorrhage on April 16.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation president Neil Giuliano talked about being a first-time rider and compared it to an experience he once had as a local mayor when he participated in a drill as a firefighter, shouldering a heavy fire hose and trying to save someone as flames leapt around him. He got lost but was lead to safety. He realized, citing a poem, that he was participating in something greater than himself and that "someone somewhere is depending on me," and he said: "I am in love with humanity."
Even before Giuliano finished speaking, riders started gathering outside the tent, lighting each other's candles for the measured walk through the sand dunes to the beach. For the older among us, it was a stark reminder of the many, many candlelight vigils during the 1980s marking the deaths of loved ones lost too soon. The younger among us, some of whom may not have lost someone, were respectful and silent and sensing their part in the larger whole, the long winding human ribbon of mourners and lovers on the front lines of the movement for compassion. It was that impulse for a shared sacred moment that spontaneously prompted the candlelight vigil on that first California AIDS Ride in 1995.
Some of us stumbled a bit as we hit the sand. So used to terra firma, our feet were no longer steady but shifting on the sand. A small inconvenience, a surprise that shouldn't have been a surprise, the stumble served as a quiet, personal metaphor of the shifts and turns in health endured by the remembered one before death. But the unsure were helped by the more steady and encouraged by roadies and children and their mothers holding candles and green sticks to help illuminate the path.
Silently the mourners wrapped around in a loop on a half-mile stretch of the beach. No one spoke. No one took center stage and gave directions. All were equal, all respectful of each other. One by one and in couples they came, wave after wave, part of a larger community. After a while, during which time stood still, a handful of riders lifted their candles high. Across the expanse of sand, another small group did the same. Organically, without warning, a "wave" of candles was raised high, as if love itself was contagious.
Then, again without warning, one by one, mourners broke from the ring of fire and walked to the Pacific Ocean to extinguish the light. Except some lights would not go out. One by one, they tried to complete their mission, rushing back from a wave after catching some salt water - and still the candlelight refused to die. It was like watching the Dylan Thomas poem come to life: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
When the lights were put out, the mourners turned back toward their beloved community. Their bodies became silhouettes, film negatives backlit against a large floodlight generated to guide their way back, eerily like a science fiction scene. And yet, walking toward the light, there was a stark reminder that tomorrow would be another day, another opportunity to embrace life.
And at dawn, as if a sacred nod at the AIDS Life Cycle was almost completed, a drizzle fell lightly on the beach camp. From record rain to a drizzle in Malibu, perhaps a baptism for a renewal of the blessing of a life lived fully and triumphantly.
Photos by Stephen Buskin
(Crossposted at LGBTPOV)