It was a bitterly cold December night in 1994, and the world was coming together to mark World AIDS Awareness Day. The theme was "AIDS and the Family," and I had originally planned to attend a community church event where a dear mentor-friend was scheduled to speak. Little did I know that destiny had other plans, and this night would forever change my life.
As is often the case with plans, they have a knack for shifting unexpectedly. Just a day before the event, my friend's sister called me in a panic, her voice trembling with worry. My mentor-friend had fallen ill with a severe case of strep throat, rendering her unable to speak. In that moment, her sister turned to me with an urgent plea to fill her spot.
For some, public speaking might be just another task, but for me, it was a terrifying prospect. You see, I wasn't - and still am not - a public speaker by nature. What's more, I had a deeply personal connection to the issue at hand. A dear friend of mine was living with HIV, and the emotional weight of the subject was almost overwhelming. On top of that, this event would force me to reveal a part of my spiritual life that I had kept hidden from the community until that point. As an empath, I also worried about how the intense emotions of the families in attendance might affect me. And of course, there was the dilemma of what to wear, a trivial concern but one that added to my anxiety.
I had every excuse in the book to decline, to shy away from the spotlight, but when I opened my mouth, the word that emerged was a resounding "yes."
Except for my mother, I chose not to tell anyone about my newfound role as a speaker for the event. Without hesitation, my mom offered her unwavering support, declaring, "I'll drive you there!" (I love you, Mom!) The night of December 1st arrived, shrouded in darkness and biting cold. In an effort to maintain a sense of dignity and professionalism, I had chosen to wear a simple yet elegant long black sleeveless dress, covered with a beautiful black burnout blouse. It was an attempt to conceal my insecurities, although I knew that my physical appearance was of little consequence.
As Mom and I stepped into the church, we encountered a young couple shivering in the vestibule. They were desperately seeking gas money to fuel their journey from Arizona to Long Beach, California. Their lives were in the throes of a challenging transition, and they were living out of their car. Without hesitation, my mother reached into her purse and handed them a couple of twenties, asking, "This should cover the gas, but do you need money for food?" My heart swelled with love for Mom and her boundless generosity and open spirit.
As we made our way into the nave, I was immediately struck by the palpable emotions and love that enveloped the sacred space. The church was adorned with beautiful AIDS Memorial Quilts, each one a testament to a life lost and hearts forever touched by the AIDS epidemic.
The evening's speakers were an eclectic mix, representing various faiths and beliefs. There was a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Priest, a Hindu Pujari, a Christian Clergy, and then there was me - a Druidic Priestess in training. The format for the event was simple yet profoundly moving. The speakers would stand in a row across the stage, and as the lights slowly dimmed, a serene female voice would pose a question. A spotlight would then shine upon one of the spiritual leaders, and they would respond to the question with grace and wisdom. The lights would dim once more, and in the ensuing darkness, a new question would be asked, and the next speaker would share their insights.
The scene was elegant, respectful, and deeply touching, a testament to the power of shared wisdom and collective compassion. But despite the beauty of the setting, I couldn't shake my overwhelming fear. My nervousness, inexperience, and insecurities manifested visibly through sweaty hands, shaky legs, and flushed skin. I felt utterly inadequate to represent the spiritual views of my nature-based belief system in the presence of these well-respected spiritual leaders from diverse cultural backgrounds.
To find some semblance of comfort, I clung to the notes in my hand as if they could hold me upright on that daunting stage. Yet, these same notes, which were meant to offer solace, made me feel like an impostor. Not a single one of the other speakers had notes; they spoke from their hearts, their words flowing with vibrancy and confidence. As each one took the stage, I could feel the depth of their connection to the words they shared, their passion, their conviction, their love. And in the embrace of their stories, the families in the audience found solace and strength.
The moment arrived when the church darkened once more, and the voice asked a question that sent a jolt of panic through me: "What does a pagan experience when they die?" The spotlight descended upon me, and I glanced at my notes, hoping for guidance. But in that instant, something extraordinary happened. The notes blurred into insignificance, rendered indistinct by the piercing spotlight. I couldn't see a thing, and the words I had meticulously prepared had abandoned me.
In that moment of vulnerability, I took a deep breath, and with my heart pounding, I looked into the darkness, searching for where my mother was sitting. Then, I spoke from the depths of my soul, a voice emerging from a place I hadn't known existed. I was both the person on the stage and an observer, as if I were witnessing this moment happening to someone else. The words that flowed from my mouth were calm, almost lyrical, carrying a sense of authenticity and vulnerability.
Afterward, many came up to express their gratitude for my words, offering hugs, asking questions, and sharing memories of loved ones lost to AIDS. Each of the spiritual leaders held my hand, thanking me for being there. My mother, in her infinite wisdom and boundless love, called me a goddess and expressed her pride in me. I have no recollection of the specifics of what I said that night, but it wasn't about the exact words. It was about being present. It was about supporting and loving others. It was about my friend living with HIV. It was about setting aside ego, fear, and trivial concerns like what to wear, so that we could all be present in that profound moment of connection.
And in the end, what I learned was that sometimes, the most profound moments occur when we step into the unknown, guided by love and driven by a desire to make a difference, no matter how unprepared we may feel. It's when we find the courage to speak from the heart, even when the words themselves seem to vanish into the darkness.