When I first started telling my friends that I had decided to run off to France to learn how to jazz, most would remark about how much “courage” I have. I’ll be honest: I didn’t listen to much of anything anyone had to say to me on the subject of my decision, good or bad. A series of events had led me here, all stepping-stones. It’s hard to think of any choice as a decision when you just let the qi flow and the universe guide you. I was going to France, and it didn’t matter to me what anyone thought of it.
But, as the date of departure approached, and after a few horrifyingly embarrassing experiences with le jazz, I started thinking. And I realized that I was really, really scared. Scared to practically start from zero in a new style, scared to do it in French, scared to leave my friends, my income, my students, my life that I had made over the past nine years in Boston. And only then did I start considering this word that kept being thrown around: courage.
During an intense conversation with my friend Adam on the final night of the Mike Block String Camp, I told him, “Everyone keeps telling me I have so much courage. Everyone keeps saying how brave I am. But I don’t feel brave. I feel scared to death.” And Adam said, “But isn’t that the very definition of courage? Feeling scared and doing it anyway?”
I had honestly never thought about this. To me, courage and fearlessness had always been the same thing. But they’re not. They are actually very different. For example:
I took myself on a little vacation to Hawaii about two months before the move. I decided to splurge and vacate my life for a while, just before turning it upside down. My first day in Hawaii, I practiced what I would call “controlled fearlessness”. I ate alone at the hotel bar. I walked to the farmer’s market and made a new friend while hitchhiking back to my hotel. I tore my feet up on the rocks while swimming in the ocean. I sat on the edge of a dormant volcano. Fearlessness, but within reason.
My second night in Hawaii, I met this guy. I was out at an overpriced patio bar when this guy approached me. I am not going to disclose his opening line here, because whenever I tell people, it sounds cheesy and like it should definitely never work on any woman, ever. But, confidence goes a very long way. I mean, I’m not going to lie. This guy looked worse for wear. He was sunburnt, had … dreadlocks (?) that looked like one giant dreadlock had been cut into several dreadlocks (perhaps with a machete), his bottom lip was split open, the skin was peeling from his nose, he looked tired. Bref, he looked rough. Maybe it was because I was on vacation, maybe because I was in paradise, maybe because the band at the bar was playing Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” and that is an amazing song. I don’t know, ok? He was fearless in his approach. His line worked, and we had a drink together.
Come to find out he was a professional boat builder and a crew member of an Australian yacht racing team. They had just finished a six-day race from Los Angeles to Honolulu that morning (hence the ragged appearance, I guess, or maybe that’s how he always looks). I don’t really know anything about boats or sailing, so I’m not sure exactly what to call his position on the team. But, he did tell me that his job is to lift things up and then put them down. I also gathered that he is routinely hoisted 100 feet in the air, gets his head split open from time to time, and generally laughs in the face of death every day.
Was he courageous? He wasn't scared. So, by Adam's definition of courage, no: He wasn't brave. He just had no fear. "Doesn't your mother worry about you?" My question was answered with a smile and a shrug.
The next day, he took me to see the boat. It was enormous. I sat on the edge of the dock as I watched him climb aboard, swinging one leg over, and then the other. Simple. Just like that, and he was on the boat. He held out his hands to help me follow suit. Standing on the edge of the dock, I looked down at the gap between the boat and myself: A 16 foot drop, or so, and at best two feet across. I took his hands, but my feet wouldn’t move. The water was rough, and the boat was drifting back and forth. Bending forward to hold onto his hands as the gap widened, I readied myself to do it just like he had, just as soon as the boat came close enough. But even when the boat drifted back towards me, even with him assuring me I wouldn’t fall in, even after having practiced my fearlessness the previous day, I couldn’t get on the effing boat.
I’m still not sure exactly what I was afraid of. Falling in would have been scary, but maybe it was the very real possibility of looking stupid while attempting to not fall in that scared me more. I was wearing a long skirt, which is not the ideal getup for yachting. Maybe I was imagining myself straddling the gap, one foot on the boat, one on the dock, with my skirt hiking up as the boat drifted further away. Not classy, not elegant, definitely not smart. I remember so many times in my life when I’ve been 99% sure that I know the right answer, but I'd hold my tongue because I fear the 1% chance that I’m wrong. I’m afraid of looking stupid. Which is ridiculous, because I’m sure that I look stupid all the time without even realizing it, just like everyone else in the world.
It took courage to move to France, to enroll in a jazz program, to abandon my life in Boston. Even my roommate told me he didn’t know if he’d have the cuilles to do what I did. But I’m still not on the boat in so many ways. Courage is not enough, because it means that fear is still present. The next step is to cast away the fear, to laugh at it, to get out of my own way. It was courage that got me to start, but it’s fearlessness that will get me through. It’s time to get on the boat.
"The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore." - Dale Carnegie
Emileigh Vandiver (right), cellist, and myself. On the boat in
Wakefield, Rhode Island. August, 2015.
Photo by Nina Bishop Nunn