Someone who knows me very well knocked me sideways with a comment the other day. Remarking on this blog, they described what I write as ‘fearless’. This was followed, crucially, with ‘(?)’, that self-interrupting tick we use to show the reader we are not showing off, fearful of coming across as too definitive. As hedged bets go, I chose to find it encouraging, this glimpse into the mirror of what others supposedly see.
But still, I thought: hardly.
Nothing I have ever done has been fearless. From learning understudy lines at school, to memorising large chunks of Othello. To feeling a failure for most of my time at university. To busking it, literally, around Europe with my brother. To sending off poems to magazines without knowing the rules. To finding myself in large rooms of people, listening to myself saying things and wondering where that came from…
One of my uncles once told me there is a phrase in French which means ‘to conquer yourself’. I have no idea if this is true. We were in my mother’s home town in Switzerland, where he still lived, the night before my grandmother’s funeral. In between ordering the pizza and the second bottle of wine he took me to one side, this man who I saw once every two or three years or so, and said: ‘Tonight you have conquered yourself.’
I think about that often, especially as he, too, is no longer here. I want to know if I have remembered it right (and if he was), but am afraid I misheard him. Perhaps it was my tiredness, or the drink.
I am not fearless, you see. But I do know about its absence. And failure, its taste, habits and disciplines.
The lights are about to go up and I have forgotten my lines. Again.
From somewhere I remember the imperative to be clear (and hard) about what hurts. Well, I know about that. Armfuls of it, like ice, no, actual ice, in my veins, every two weeks, for six months. I know about that. And I can reveal that I am literally not about to run off with a poetry prize, not having been shortlisted for one (not having entered). It is not going to happen.
I feel the fear. I really do (all the while smiling and being charming). I feel it, and fear it. But I do it anyway.