It's Sunday afternoon as I type this, and I'm on a 4 hour layover in Denver on my way back to Texas. I have spent the past 3 days in Portland for a conference on death and dying – where I stood up for the first time and did a presentation about my story with death and how creativity has helped me. What an experience it has been. Almost a year ago now, I was invited to speak at this conference by a woman who I'd shared my photography with. Small world, she turned out to be in charge of the arts & culture section of this brand new conference called DeathOK... she wrote to me and said I was the first person she thought of inviting to speak. I decided it was meant to be, and despite me total fear of public speaking, I agreed to come out.
This was a first. A big and scary one. I've never presented anything outside of a few less-than-mediocre speeches in college. That was over ten years ago. And I totally bombed my presentations most of the time because I was so nervous. Let's just say, public speaking is NOT one of my strengths and is something I have completely avoided for the entirely of my adult life.
Until one day last year, this woman emails me, asking me to present... and I realize that I might just have something really important that I want to say for the first time. And that something... is my story. About losing both of my parents before the age of 26. About losing the man I was going to spend my life with, and this whole bullshit ride death has taken me on. Also about how creativity helped me time and time again through each of these losses. Suddenly, when presented with her request, I realized my desire to share this journey with others was finally greater than my fear of public speaking...
So after a crazy few weeks of writing and rewriting, rehearsing and editing, freaking out and crying and avoiding and trying again and basically a generalized feeling of not knowing what the fuck I was doing... I stood up yesterday afternoon in front of 30 or so people and I told my story. For forty minutes, I shared about my mom, my dad, my fiance, and all the ways that art and creativity has helped me to cope with all of it. I didn't fall apart. I wasn't overly nervous. I finished exactly on time. My ending was only slightly awkward and nothing was a disaster. Once done, I opened up for questions... really hoping I'd just at least get ONE. The very first comment was from a man who thanked me for sharing such a personal and inspiring story, and how much he loved my photos on grief. And then came questions about my creative process with some of my photos, and questions about different artforms, and insights on how some of my work speaks to many other painful traumas like the PTSD of veterans and the struggles of homeless children. We had such a beautiful and intimate exchange. At least half of the people there came up privately once we concluded to thank me and share something. We left with hugs and business cards exchanged. For all of myself that I have poured into this for the past few weeks – and for the lifelong journey that has been required to get me here – I was given so much back. It was overwhemingly beautiful.
I remembered something when I stood up there yesterday too. I forget this so often, but it was reiterated in the keynote address that morning and I thought about it all day. The ones going through the darkness now have a responsibility to put some lanterns out there in the wilderness to light the way for those who follow. And when it comes to death and dying... everyone, eventually, will follow. I have known death nearly all my life... but I often am selfish and feel everyone should have to learn for themselves. It's an old bad habit of mine. Yesterday pulled me out of that in a major way.
We all have that obligation, whether or not we act on it or not. Each person who came to my presentation reminded me of that yesterday... and it is something that I hope I will not soon forget. It isn't about whether I like doing presentations or not. It's not about whether I'm an amazing speaker. It was never about that. It isn't about having all the answers or being the most knowledgable person. It is about sharing whatever I have. Sharing what I've learned from the pain of loss with the hope that there will be at least one nugget in there that will be picked up and carried in the heart of someone else. After all, countless others have done the same for me. I have been following the faint light of their lanterns all along my own journey for years.
As I sit here halfway between Portland and home now, I feel so proud. I wanted to quit. I wanted to run away from it, to cancel my spot in the event. I seriously contemplated chickening out. And I didn't. Instead I cried and cursed a lot and eventually got to work. And now I have followed through with confronting a huge fear of mine. Instead of giving up, I decided to try. I decided to believe that, even if I'm not the best public speaker, I can still do this and I still have something valuable to say. As much as I write and share, you'd be amazes at how easy it is to believe that what I have to share isn't valuable. It happens to all of us... we get in our heads. This time, I didn't let my head get to me.
I found myself in tears after I wrapped up and had some time by myself last night for a moment. It was an all-too familiar layer of grief... the one that wishes so badly for my parents to be alive for this moment. To imagine the pride in their voices as I called them to tell them. And at the same time, knowing that they brought me here. I would not have been standing in front of anyone yesterday if it wasn't for my parents, for their death, and for Drew and his. And so they all three come with me, on this part of my new life and every other part ahead.