It has taken me some time to get around to this, but with Valentine’s Day having recently passed and the world evolving the way it is, I’ve been thinking a lot about love, affection and their opposites. It’s high time I wrote you this letter.
The world is full of teachings that would have me confront you, tame you, control you, overcome you, silence you and be free of you.
Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.
– Mark Twain
The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.
Where fear is, happiness is not.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.
– Mahatma Gandhi
It’s tough to argue with sage souls.
Even Marilyn has no love for you.
We should all start to live before we get too old.
Fear is stupid. So are regrets.
– Marilyn Monroe
Life has taught me something else. It has taught me that if I make an enemy of you, Fear, I make an enemy of me. If I disown you, I disown what it means to be a human woman and breathing, living artist. What has it ever cost me to acknowledge you and own you? Have I been irreparably defeated or have I only ever gained from your lead? You who has the uncanniest way of showing me the path not by leading me along it, but by pointing me to it. You, who are not my leaping and my flying, but the miles of ground leading to the edge of everything that has ever been extraordinary and, in retrospect, essential.
I used to believe it was you who kept me from crossing the street, but really it was you who kept me from staying where I was. The tight feeling in my mother’s hand as she stepped off of the curb with my tiny hand in hers, that was her fear. I learned that fear feeling from her. I learned it so I could recognize it. I’ve heard it in the faint-hearted gasp of someone not coming along with me, or someone looking back over their shoulder. I’ve seen it again and again in the eyes of people, in animals, in the movement of crowds, in the gestures of evangelizing egoists. But I’ve never seen it in babies. Fear, you are not our first response, you are our learned response.
People talk about being free of feeling afraid. The enlightened teachers of our time encourage fearlessness. Is that even possible? Can I be free of the feeling of my heart racing, my stomach turning, the top of my spine tingling, my blood boiling, my mind playing tricks? How would I know these things, these life-defining things, if I were free of you? You are Life to me, Fear. Without you I am dead. Dead to myself. And fear of death? What is that, really? Is it fear or is it the absence of that other F-word….faith?
The people in my life who know me longest and best know that resistance is my gut response to any new and really worthwhile thing. I come in with a shrug, I furrow my brow, I speak with time-buying words, I step back, step around, hold my breath. It’s true that I never leap into the really good stuff, the stuff most destined to be me and mine, right out of the gate. My resistance is you, Fear, and how I’ve learned to trust it! That wall of No is how you get yourself across to me – for an hour, a day, a year if the stakes are high. It all depends on what’s on the other side waiting for my Yes.
You’re my safety, but not in the conventional sense. I’m not safely stuck to you. I know you don’t want me for yourself. You’ve gone five decades without so much as a blown kiss from me let alone a missive of love like this and look how you’ve thrived. You’re my safety because you want the utmost for me. There just near the heart of me, the core of me, the best of me, is where you are. As artist I’ve been saying it for years…fear is fuel. You are the way in to the center, not the center itself. The stronger I feel you, Fear, the closer I know I am to my jewel.
That band of prickly heat I feel on my neck on a dark street at night is you. That cosmic, no gravity, freewheeling feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look down from a very high place is you. That flutter in my heart at the sight of someone electrifyingly resonant with my being is you. In my every step up the aisle into long partnership, or downstage to the footlights, in those fleeting moments of sublime connection, in every exit visa, in every whimper of my heart beginning to break open, there you’ve been. Like a chaperone, you old chap. Because at the moment of arrival you are gone. You have no desire to own me and rule me. This is the great misunderstanding. You don’t want me to cleave to you like anxiety, hallucination, terror and madness would have me do. What are those but fear fearing fear. You want me to breathe through you, shake you off, move on from you. Your purpose in life is to see to it that I arrive inside the wondrous, elusive, and transcendent moments of being, alone.
I know you had a name once, long long ago and all but forgotten. Ireul. I know you came with wings and fire for anything seeking birth. You’ve been here always. In that fateful spark that became me, you were summoned for my journey. At long last I have the words to tell you what I know you’ve always known: that without you I don’t exist, without you I don’t create, without you I don’t breathe, bleed, feed, live and love.
The day you die, my Fear, I will die with you.
Until then, you are my compass guiding me toward all that I am meant to be and not to be.
The bird of courage flies with wings of fear.
* To hear my recorded version of this poem, click here.