Note: The following is an excerpt from David Mixner's new memoir, At Home with Myself: Stories from the Hills of Turkey Hollow.
I had not expected my 60s to be a time when I would come to terms with the impact of HIV/AIDS in my life. While I knew I'd never completely reconciled the enormous pain I'd suffered from the more than 300 deaths of friends and loved ones, I thought that after 20 years I had at least come to terms with it. But then the epidemic almost mandated some form of denial, if only to keep moving forward through those dark times. Otherwise, how many funerals of gay men under 40 years old could one person attend before losing his mind? Over time I'd attempted to make peace with the sudden loss of so many people -- to the extent that peace under such horrific circumstances is really possible. But looking around my big Manhattan apartment all those years later, I found my home empty of peers. These were supposed to be my "sunset years," the time when aged friends gather in summer rentals or travel abroad together. However, for most gay men and women my age, this was not the reality. True, many younger friends filled my life with love and friendship, but I had no real history with them. So my stories became not the familiar recollections I would have shared with peers but generational stories that a father would tell a son.
Of course, I was relieved to live into old age when so many others hadn't. How could I complain about getting old when I still had the gift of life and so many young friends to share it with? To me, any hint of self-pity was to dishonor the life I had been given as well as the countless lives taken in the night. To not forge ahead joyfully would have been ungrateful in the most profound way, so I lived life to its fullest. I threw myself full force into presidential politics and social justice causes, I was invited to many glamorous parties, I befriended celebrities, I traveled the world, I met and fell in love with men. I couldn't have been happier, and I thought life would go on like this forever.
Around 2007 all this changed. While still socially active -- more so even than many of my young friends -- the desire to dance the night away or to spend weekends carousing on Fire Island was over. Truthfully, those activities had never been a driving force for me, although I enjoyed the storytelling among friends for weeks afterwards. But this transformation was as much physical as it was emotional. At 60, the mind was sharp but the body complained. The legs were willing to make all the right moves but the muscles gave out too early. The all-nighters weren't an option anymore, so I was forced to leave this world behind -- and in so doing, this world left me behind.
But with my social life now curtailed and few of my gay peers alive to keep me company, what remained, then, for someone my age?
I took stock of my situation and saw that change was in order. No longer able to rely on fun and games to engage me or to turn to my young friends for entertainment, I began to look inward. I wasn't interested in "acting my age," but I understood that the next phase of my life would need to be dramatically different from any I'd lived before if I was going to find peace of mind.
As a spiritual person, nature for me has always been a healing place. Going back all the way to my childhood on the farm, the fields and forests were places of adventure and self-discovery. Animals were companions and friends, and the world moved at a slower, more rational pace than the bustling cities where I'd resided my adult life. Yet so much of my identity was wrapped up in those cities; who and what I had become was made possible by my work in those places. Was it time at age 60 to walk away from all that? Was that option even possible? Could I return to nature, as so many others had done and written about? Embracing the idea of a Henry David Thoreau lifestyle -- mixed with a little Dr. Doolittle for good measure -- I made one of the boldest decisions of my life.
Turkey Hollow is a small country town in Sullivan County, a remote region of the Catskill Mountains. Surrounded by forests, it counts 10 full-time residents, has no mail service, and no cell phone reception. However, what it lacks in amenities, it compensates for in sheer natural wonder. The woods-scented air was fresh, there was a remarkable silence both day and night, and the night sky so clear that I felt I could reach out and touch the stars. I fell in love with the place instantly. Far from the distractions and demands of the city, I had found my Walden Pond.
At the same time, by moving to Turkey Hollow, I wouldn't be exactly leaving the world behind. Only two and a half hours northwest of New York City, Sullivan County was full of second homes of city folks whose presence would help alleviate any sense of complete isolation. Although most part-time residents avoided the harsh winter months -- which happen to be my favorite season -- they return off-and-on the rest of the year for visits. Also, my friends in Manhattan who were willing to make the trek up into the mountains could see me anytime.
But before I settled in, I first needed a place to live. A found a house that was being built on a mountaintop between two peaks. It was a simple two-bedroom structure that was wired with all the modern conveniences; in short, it had my name written all over it, and I snapped it up. Once the house was completed, I painted it a cheerful bright yellow, installed a big, screened porch with a fireplace out back, and completely remodeled the basement and garage to my liking. I'd come to the country to do my Thoreau bit, so I needed an office that looked out onto the woods for inspiration. I converted one of the bedrooms into my workspace and through its windows watched the wildlife appear each morning with the sunrise. Many were the days I would sit in wonder, coffee in hand, for hours.
If fellow human beings were sometimes scarce, there were always herds of deer for companions, especially an eight-point buck I fondly named Attila. Sharing the refuge of my backyard was also a couple of bears, Benny and Betty, a Bald Eagle I called Franklin, and dozens of wild turkeys -- after all, this was Turkey Hollow. Hawks circled the skies and would swoop down to grab the mice that my three lazy cats had failed to notice indoors. The occasional fox, porcupine, and raccoon would also pay their respects. Evenings brought spectacular sunsets along with large owls, lightning bugs, and millions of stars. Often the quiet of darkness would be pierced with the cries of coyotes.
For three years this was my home. Gone overnight was the frenzied calendar of engagements, business meetings, lunch dates, and deadlines. In one swift stroke I'd put an end to that way of life and not once did I regret that decision. After a lifetime I was at home with myself.
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