Second Jewish confession regarding Artist Dates.
I have never read Fear of Flying.
Some might fret about skipping the classics — Crime and Punishment. Sons and Lovers. A Tale of Two Cities. But this is my own personal blasphemy. Isadora Wing. The Zipless Fuck.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Ever since my friend Paul asked me which living writer I admired most. I didn’t hesitate. Erica Jong.
“Good,” he said. “I want you to write Ms. Fear of Flying. I want you to introduce her to your work.”
I remember being introduced to her work, more than 25 years ago. I was a freshman in college. That year, Ms. magazine published a conversation between Jong and radical feminist, Andrea Dworkin.
The spread included several photographs of them sitting on stools, talking. Dworkin wearing a pair of large overalls, her hair — signature frizzy; Jong in a smart, form-fitting suit and heels. She is laughing. They both are. Dichotomies collide.
I do not remember a single word of the interview. Only these images, and that this was my first introduction to Jong, to her brand of sexual empowerment and liberal use of fuck and cunt — which, at the time, seemed shockingly like my own.
So today, when Jessica at Ravenswood Used Books asks if she can help me find anything, I do not hesitate.
Fear of Flying. Artist Date 100.
It is bright inside, which I don’t quite expect.
Jessica leads me past shelves slightly groaning under the weight and familiar musty smell of aging paper. Past the required bookshop pet, a greyhound in a zip-up vest turned animal parka, lying on a large, plaid dog bed.
All the way to the “Jong section” at the back of the store.
She climbs a ladder and pulls down a stack from the very top shelf — Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones. Parachutes and Kisses. Half-Lives — an early book of poetry. Hard and soft copies of Fear of Flying.
I gather them into my arms and settle into a chair.
I remember reading How To Save Your Own Life, the follow-up to Fear of Flying, in my 20s while living in San Francisco. Picking it up at Manzanita Used Books in the Mission, where I loaded up on yellowed copies of Philip Roth novels after my once-upon-a-time boyfriend Jason turned me on to Portnoy’s Complaint.
I remember reading Seducing the Demon: Writing For My Life — which I had picked up at another used bookstore, Powell’s in Portland — more than 20 years later. Cracking its spine I felt eager to tuck into bed each night, alone, to savor a few juicy pages before passing out.
I had let go of this ritual more than 15 years ago, when my boyfriend, now ex-husband, moved into my apartment. But unlike writing — which, following a similar hiatus, returned to me a few months after our decision to part ways — reading had eluded me. Until Jong.
Her words pulled me into the bedroom in the wee hours when I otherwise did not want to be there, did not want to be poignantly reminded of the empty space on my mattress. Her words allowed me to sleep again.
I decide on Half-Lives, as it is about the point I am at — 45, middle-aged, half-a-life — along with a hard copy of Fear of Flying. I smirk.
On my way to the register, I pick up Women Who Run With the Wolves, a suggestion from my friend Pam. She said it changed her life.
I want to change my life.
I am changing it. I have been for nearly three years.
Returning to Chicago — neatly packing my messy life into cardboard boxes, living alone for the first time ever. Returning to writing. To reading. To traveling alone — to Rwanda. To Ireland, Italy, Belgium and France.
I pull Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull down from the stacks and add them to my pile — talismen. Protectors of my very recent decision to not renew my lease, but instead move overseas to teach English.
Anecdotal instructions by those who went before me of how to change my own life. Reminders, like Jong’s second novel, of how to save it.