Artist Date 100: No More Fear of Flying

View from the "Jong Section" of Ravenswood Used Books.
View from the “Jong Section” of Ravenswood Used Books.

Second Jewish confession regarding Artist Dates.

I have never read Fear of Flying.

Some might fret about skipping the classics — Crime and PunishmentSons and LoversA 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.”

Gulp.

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 KissesHalf-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.

Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.

A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

I’m a big celebrator in general.  Ask any of my Weight Watchers members.  I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes.  Those subtle little miracles.

“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.

Well, 12-Step meetings.  But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.

Birthdays are like that.  It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day.  Mostly.

This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y.  A little less celebratory.

I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days.  Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.

We found one another in October of my 40th year.

Ours was not always an easy relationship.  Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship.  Timing.  Expectations.  Boundaries.  Those were our lessons.  And we were one another’s teachers.

She sent me flowers when I turned 40.  A card the following year.  And then phone calls the next two.  She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally.  This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call.  I felt sad.

Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur.  Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t.  I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why.  It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.

So there was that.

And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.

My ex was a great gift giver.

Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower.  A gift would come later.  Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier.  Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.

2013-10-20 20.19.35
Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him.  I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty.  She had lost hers.  Found it.  And gave the original to me.

I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years.  Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.

I didn’t like the watch he bought me.  I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time.  He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there.  The truth about our relationship.  It was over.  We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.

He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway.  I couldn’t do it.  I kept the watch.  I am still wearing it.

When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card.  Of a body in my bed.  Specifically, my ex’s.  I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it.  To him, for so long.

I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer.   “modeh ani lefanecha.  Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.”  I asked for several obsessions to be removed.  And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone.  The messages had already begun to pour in.  Old neighbors.  Acquaintances from grade school.  Family – by origin and by choice.  From Africa.  And from just down the street.

I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work.  Weight Watchers.  It felt life affirming.  As did dance class.  I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop.  I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist.  It fits as if it were made for me.

I talked to a few friends on the phone.  Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.

I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday.  Or at least try to.  Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated.  I was unclear why.  But today was delightfully ordinary.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue.  The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen.  Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray.  Where you eat with plastic utensils.

Where I feel conspicuously white.

There were eight of us.  Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages.  And then watched my friendship with him dissolve.  I hadn’t invited him.  But there he was.  I was delighted.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.