Last summer, I was asked to be on the planning committee for a new project just starting up in the HIV/AIDS community. It was described to me as a "spiritual retreat" for folks with HIV called "Heartsong," and it had already been successful in Alabama and several other states. Eight AIDS service organizations, including AIDS Survival Project, were banding together to hold one of these retreats in the Atlanta area for the very first time, and since the committee included some good friends of mine -- Brandon Abernathy of ASP, Sherry Meltz of Absolutely Positive, Guy Pujol and Judi Wagner of ATI, among others -- I decided to find out what it was all about.
At the first meeting, I discovered that everyone there was very excited about this retreat, considering there were very few venues available for PWAs to explore spiritual issues in a non-threatening, non-denominational atmosphere. On top of that, each participant would get to attend the retreat free of charge, thanks to donations from the ASOs and some wonderful sponsors. Since I have had a lot of experience as a facilitator and presenter for ASP's Operation: Survive! workshops, I was able to make a lot of useful suggestions, and was even asked if I would be a group leader at Heartsong. As I began to understand what kind of activities and presentations they were going to have at the retreat, however, I started to find myself wanting to be a participant rather than a facilitator. As it turns out, I got to do just that -- when the retreat finally became a reality in late October, I had a wonderful time as a participant (for once, I didn't have to be the daddy!), and it was one of the best experiences I've had in a long, long while.
Now I'll admit that I had my fears about going to a "spiritual retreat." I could picture it turning into something along the lines of vacation bible camp, or possibly even one of those cheesy, new age seminars where everyone has to explore their "inner child." And I was also a bit frightened of what emotions I might get in touch with; after all -- as most of you regular readers know -- this has not exactly been the best year of my life. Still, I figured it would probably be good for me to get some of that stuff off my chest, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by other people with HIV that were there for the same reason.
When I showed up at the Simpsonwood Conference Center in Norcross that first day, I was truly impressed by our beautiful surroundings. I was pleased as well that the majority of the facilitators in charge of the small groups for the retreat were also ASP facilitators for Operation: Survive! That, combined with the leadership of the friends I named above (who were each in charge of a different aspect of the retreat), made for a very friendly, caring and fun atmosphere where all of us really opened up. We indulged in activities that I hadn't tried in years; for example, to get us acquainted with each other, we played games like Twister and Simon Sez, and the words "inner child" were never uttered once. (You should have seen Guy Pujol teaching us all how to play Duck, Duck, Goose!). There were yoga sessions, massages, long walks among the trees and autumn leaves that surrounded us, and lots of free time to make new friends as well as catch up with my old buddies.
As the week progressed, though, our activities became more adult, with such things as a Garden of Hope and Remembrance, where we honored loved ones we had lost by planting new life. Another night we had a bonfire, where one by one, each of us tossed in the flames a slip of paper with something written on it symbolizing an obstacle that was holding us back in our lives. There was even a talent show, where everyone shared a song, joke or dance that they would normally be too afraid to perform. I read a poem I had written that day sitting in the woods -- the first I had written in a long time. I can't even begin to describe the feeling of exhilaration I had when I finished reading it and was rewarded by everyone's enthusiastic applause and support. In the space of a few days, my heart was healing some of the wounds that had been festering for many years.
For me, the defining moment of the retreat came on the final day, when we each presented a gift to our "prayer buddies." On the first day, we had all drawn the name of one of the others that we were to create a gift for during our stay (kind of a "Secret Santa" thing). The day after I read my poem, one of my new friends came to me and asked if I would help him write a letter to his prayer buddy. At first I was flattered that he chose me, but I quickly became humbled when he told me that his prayer buddy was my friend Brandon, who he had originally met at the last Operation: Survive! workshop and who had become an inspiration for him to turn his life around. Then -- get this -- he told me that even though he was in his forties, he couldn't read or write, and he wanted my help so he could put together the very first letter he had ever written in his life to express his gratitude to Brandon. I was totally blown away, to say the least.
I helped him write his letter, using every ounce of willpower I had as a writer to keep from telling him what to say. As he carefully chose each word, I suddenly found myself grateful for my writing skills, something that I usually take for granted -- even bitch about. It occurred to me that day how powerful even the simplest words could be when they were written for the right reason. When we finished, I printed out the letter in my best handwriting so he could copy it in his own script, and then proofread his final result. I have to say I couldn't possibly have been more impressed by this guy. I had to laugh when he asked me if I thought Brandon would like the letter; I knew perfectly well he couldn't have chosen a better gift.
By the time that final day came around, I had been touched many times by many people, and I full of warm fuzzies, but I hadn't really shed any tears. That changed when my friend called Brandon up front to read him the letter. The bravery he displayed when he told everyone he was illiterate, the determination he showed as painfully labored over the words he was reading, and the beautiful sentiments he expressed were just too much for me. As we listened out in the audience, Judi put her arm around me as I finally let loose the tears that I couldn't contain any longer.
When he was finished, I realized I wasn't alone -- there wasn't a dry eye in the house. The applause was thunderous, and we were all on our feet. It was the only time I have ever seen Brandon, who is one of the strongest men I know, literally fall to his knees, overcome with emotion. It was a volunteer's dream -- to know that something you have done has truly helped change another person's life. I doubt if anyone in that room that day will ever forget that moment.
Now that I'm back out in the real world again, I often find myself thinking fondly of Heartsong '98. (My little eyes are moist right now as I write this.) My feeble words here can't truly describe the feeling of hope I got from that experience. I'm no longer afraid to explore my spirituality any more, and I'm determined not to let the poetry that's inside me fade away ever again. I will be eternally grateful to all of the folks at that retreat who helped to bring me this once-in-a-lifetime gift. This year, as I start another holiday season, it will be with a new song in my heart. I wish the same for all of you.