Fencing came to me, like most things, as the product of stories. My parents never taught me that stories weren't real, and one of the lingering and embarrassing moments of my childhood is of my mother, suddenly weepy and terrified, that because I like Superman, I will jump off the terrace to my death in an attempt to fly. She has always been too literal minded to understand the way in which I feel all things are true.
One of my favorite films is Gattaca because it is, in many ways, the story of me. I was never supposed to be healthy; I was never supposed to be strong; and my heart does not work like other people's. When I saw it in the late night dark alone on the evening it was released, I walked out declaring I would run a marathon. But I will never run a marathon.
That, though, is less about ability (I don't know; I will never know) than common sense. Running is bad on your knees. It is a terrible thing for dancers. It is a terrible thing for fencers.
I fell in love with fencing, fast. But it was difficult. I felt isolated in my pursuit, embarrassed in my ardor, and abashed by my awkwardness. I struggled, not just with the inadvertent sexism that was certainly present in my salle, but with my own sexism, my own contempt for my spindly curves, when all I have ever wanted is a straight back and good shoulders.
Everything became about strength. The strength to hold, to endure, to fight, to wait. The strength to believe I would one day be spectacular at this, to talk about it, to prove I was all right, in a time when I was not all right at all. I can't believe I was fooling anyone, except, perhaps, I suspect I was.
Fencing was my hope. And sometimes, it was also my despair. I tried a hundred things to get through it, wrote of apprenticeship and bit my lip silently at the narrative grace of helping my fencing master with the German buttons on his fencing jacket. In my mind, I played attendant on a world that would never be formal or cruel enough to suit me -- not as a storyteller, not as someone with a broken heart, and not as someone who knew she would always be physically inadequate for the rest of her life from the simple act of doing what people do together: breaking bread.
At the end of Gattaca we discover how a man who should not have been capable of anything becomes capable of everything. It is not just through an elaborate, expensive and painful fraud, and it is not just through good luck or even will. We find out, you see, that he has never saved anything for the way back, that every time he swims out to sea, he worries neither about his heart, nor the shore. It was so good to know that I finally had a way of telling people what it is like to have a life, where no one can see what's wrong, but you feel like you can't do anything.
In a few weeks I will compete in my first fencing tournament. I will not win; I'm not that good and haven't been doing this that long, and if I cry, no one will know thanks to the mask. If I am lucky, I will surprise people a little. If I am the person I have always dreamt of being (and I am not) I will be cold and instinctive and precise.
My biggest worry, though, is merely getting through it. It is so much more likely that I will not have the endurance, that I will faint, that I will get ill, that my muscles will give out -- this is what the form of my flesh dictates.
More than anything when I fence the truth, perhaps sad, is that I want to make people proud: my fencing masters because they endure so much from us; the instructor whose left-handedness and grace was enough to make me not feel lonely; my partner, because we are together thanks to the story that made me want to fence in the first place; and my writing partner because even when I was nonsensical about it, she quietly let the sword be the thing that allowed me to endure.
But most of the people I want to make proud are fictional. Because my parents never taught me that stories aren't real. Because I do my best disarms when I borrow a humor about fighting I do not personally possess and a graveness I only pretend to.
Fencing is my hope, even when I hate it, even when it bores me, even when it breaks me and is a map of the indignities of my flesh, my nature, and my easy heart. Fencing is my thread back, the buoy to cling to between loss and love and a future I never, ever expected, but for which I am so goddamn grateful.
Fighting is, I know in truth, an ugly thing, and my romance over it is surely both barbaric and ignorant. But I have always been fighting. Myself and my sorrows, my flesh and its lies.
Sometimes heroes fight because they have to. Sometimes heroes fight because they want to. Sometimes heroes fight because they are too goddamn stupid to do anything else.
And I'll never be a hero, not really (that word is so shamefully overused). And I am fine with that, because being a hero means having to do terrible things. Fencing means not only do I not need to be a hero, I don't need a hero either to get me through my sometimes quite difficult life. That's more than enough. Because it's hope, sometimes for something as simple and mythical to me as a straighter spine and a broader back.
Hope, I know, is courage and grace and is often clumsy, small and flickering in the dark. Hope comes too from sorrow, and that is often what makes it fine.
for those lacking context about my health and my frustrations about it: I have, among other things, celiac disease, with which I was only recently diagnosed, and mitral valve prolapse syndrome. With common sense and attentiveness neither is life threatening, but both have had a profound impact on my physical and mental health. Both illnesses have limited my abilities in some ways at some times; both illnesses have also been used as excuses by both others and myself to encourage me to be less. I take their existence in my life extremely seriously in that I rage against them, these days, quite effectively.