Dancing with Fear
October - 2015
In one week I’ll be somewhere in America, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers telling them the kinds of secrets I’m supposed to keep close to my chest, held within tight fists or locked behind a cage of rib bones.
I remember delivering talks to my class in school. I’d be talking about the diet of humpback whales or the population of Africa and I would be shaking like a leaf. Talking so quickly it all would become just one nervous, incomprehensible sound. I’m not a natural. Each day I question if I’m insane for saying yes to this job - but of course I said yes. I said yes because life is richer when I face my fears.
I Skype my father in London, who has built his career on being a storyteller. He tells me the story of the time he was pulled onto the stage at the Opera House and gave a spontaneous speech to a quarter of a million people. “Were you nervous?” I ask. He just laughs. I was not born with his unshakable confidence.
One week and all I have is a knot in my stomach and a mess of notes. A great big block of stone that I’m supposed to carve something inspiring from. Not only that, I also have hundreds of images to finish from the tour I just returned from. Bee promises he’ll help and he does. He takes the whole week off work to help me.
Each long night of working becomes morning before my eyes. A few hours after I’ve curled up in bed Bee wakes with Alba. He makes her breakfast, gets her ready for the day and plays with her until I’m awake. Each day he cleans, cooks and listens to my talk over and over. He is my hero and I love him, I love him, I love him.
I pause often to join them. To play monsters or read stories or paint. Before Bee came along I didn’t play imaginary so much, now I play every day. One day I’m a lost princess, the next I’m a hungry lion. Alba is usually some variation of a magic rainbow glitter unicorn with superpowers. Bee is everything and anything and I suspect he enjoys playtime the most of all.
After fifty hours of travel I am finally in North Carolina. I’m supposed to be taken to the convention where I’ll speak and teach, but there is a hurricane travelling this way and no one can get me. Weather warnings play over the radio on the shuttle ride to the airport hotel.
A clean empty hotel room. It always thrills me. My little yellow suitcase parked by the door. Long showers with soft towels. Clean, crisp white linen. How luxurious a bed feels after sleeping like a pretzel in an airplane seat or on the cold floors of foreign airports. With such stillness I’d never guess there was a hurricane at all.
There is a twelve hour time difference but I don’t have time to adjust. In a few days I will be travelling all the way home again.
The drive is spectacular. Hours pass through lush forests, vines that swallow entire trees, wooden cabins set into mountains. Landscapes lifted out of fairytales. As an Australian child I romanticised American culture. I devoured it in films and in books and now I find myself swallowed up by it.
The creative convention is hosted at a retreat on a mountain. The air is cold and wet, like I could drink it. I wear the coat I bought in NYC as a sixteen year old who’d never known winter. I also wear a sign around my neck. It reads speaker. People stare at me. They are probably thinking I’m a lot more impressive than I really am.
When I’m alone I listen to the recording I made of my talk. It’s an hour long. I watch the other speakers and they are all so confident and effortless, like they’ve been doing this all their lives. But not me, I feel like I’m just pretending and someone is going to catch me out soon. Maybe when I get up there I’ll be so terrible that people will leave. Maybe my throat will seize up and I won’t be able to speak.
Beneath all my worries and nerves there is an underlying sense of peace. I know that whatever happens on that stage I will come out of it alive, having not let my fears dictate my life. That is my kind of success.
Something profound happens to me here. As I listen to the other speakers share their passions, I feeling like I’m reconnecting with the parts of me who began creating in the first place. I came here expected to inspire and I am surprised at how inspired I feel. I’m asking myself again and again, what sets me on fire? What will I do with the time that is mine? From age thirteen it was photography, now that is just one of the many ways I tell stories.
I spend a lot of time daydreaming. One of my dreams is myself on a stage (just a little one, perhaps at a bookstore or a market) wearing a white dress and velvet flares, cradling an old guitar and singing songs I have written. Maybe people stop to listen, maybe they don’t. But I am there, bare and unafraid. Another dream is passing a bookstore and seeing a book I have written in the window.
I teach a workshop on shooting portraits and there is some confusion over how little equipment I use and how the sun is my only lighting. As a teenager I started shooting with so little, simplicity has become my way. It’s less about what you use and more about how you see.
Then it’s time to speak and there is no way to stop time, no way to back out; this is it now Nirrimi. As an introvert, I feel really heavy. Like I’m carrying the weight of a million eyes on me as I walk onto the stage. Every hour of sleep I’ve missed seems to be rushing up to catch me.
I clutch my notebook, notes scribbled like a map so I won’t lose my way. My life as a story. The abuse, the loss, the passion, the growth. The lessons I have learned about being an artist. Everyone promised me once I was up there it would be easy. It is never easy. I struggle and want to stop many times but I keep on going.
Even though I stumble, the stories and honesty are enough. Countless people thank me. They wrap their arms around me. They whisper into my ear that my stories changed them. They cry. They look at me like they love me. Like in an hour of vulnerability I’ve become someone dear to them. As the convention ends, Brooke Shaden, goddess and founder of Promoting Passion, cuts her long hair off on stage in an act of letting go.
Then, a glow. Within it I call Bee and talk to him for the first time since I left. I call Alba. Tears tumble down my cheeks. Everything feels big and bright and beautiful. I’ve done it. I can breathe out. I can go home to my family now.
Our friends Nicole and Jack come to live with us a while. We all get on like mad. We take turns cooking dinner each night, share riddles, watch documentaries and go on roadtrips. One afternoon I get up so quickly that my head spins. I fall back against our big, soft bed in a rush of bliss and when my reality settles I am still grinning. That night Bee bakes Jack a birthday cake and we all sing happy birthday out of key. Alba shouts “Hip hip!” and we shout, “Hooray!”
One night we go the beach. It’s only a five minute drive from our house and the waves are wild, crashing loud onto the moonlit sand. It’s too loud to think out here, that’s one of the reasons I like the sea so much. Nicole sits in Jack’s lap and kisses him like they’re teenagers. They’ve been dating eight years now but you’d never know. “Let’s always be crazy in love.” Bee says. “Let’s make out even when we’re really old.” I say.
Bee & I start hosting creative adventures on Sundays. We spend the first at the top of a waterfall. Fifteen of us sinking into the cool little pools formed by rock; sharing picnic food, taking photos and playing music. We watch the sun melt into the distant sea as the world beneath lights up with streetlights. We talk and talk until we can no longer ignore the cold wind or the mosquitos biting our toes. How sweet it feels to be able to do this, to create a community.
The house is quiet when Jack & Nicole leave. It’s just our little family again. Before I know it, it is time to board another plane to another country to give another talk. Only this time I’m not so afraid.