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.

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Artist Date 87: This Is Not

This is not us wearing bowler hats.
This is not us wearing bowler hats.

This is not an Artist Date.

I have written these words here before.  More than once.  Every time I act contrary to Julia Cameron’s prescription of the Artist Date in The Artist’s Way.

“An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.  In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers.  You do not take anyone on this artist date but you and your inner artist, a.k.a. you creative child.  That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children – no taggers-on of any stripe.”

I have written these words when choosing to spend a precious few hours with Clover before she gives birth to baby Juniper.  When going to Story Club, with hopes of getting to read my work on stage, with Debbie.  When reading an Anne Sexton biography on the airplane.  When staying in and cooked.

And today, when I invite Julie to the Rene Magritte exhibit and lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago – Artist Date 87.

The words are both literal and playful.  Like the way we don bowler hats in the gift shop, take a selfie and post it to Facebook with the words, “This is not us in bowler hats.”  Paying homage to the iconographic The Treachery of Images – a painting of a pipe, (but clearly not a pipe) with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe.
This is not a pipe.

Since beginning my commitment to the weekly Artist Date, I can count on one hand the number of times I have asked someone to join me at the Art Institute.  There have been two.  Both of them impromptu.

Rescuing Alex from the long line for admission on free Thursday nights.  I whisk him through the member entrance and into a seat for a lecture on “The Return of the Modern Masters.”

Eating free appetizers in the courtyard with Matt before heading off on a shopping pilgrimage to Costco.  I show him Marc Chagall’s America Windows.  I visit the blue glass where Ferris kissed Sloane in the John Hughes classic every time I am here.  But Matt has never seen it.

My date with Julie is by design.  We planned it weeks ago, when we ran into one another at a party.  That night, we talked about our writing.  Our work.  Choosing to be alone rather than settling.  About my Artist Dates…and I invited her to join me on one.

Flanked by her, I walk through the exhibit differently.  I am not taking photographs.  (None are allowed anyway.)  I am not taking notes.  I am not blogging in my head.  I am much more present.  In the moment.  In thought.  Not about my words but about the work.  In relation.

The Eternally Obvious.  Five pieces of a woman – face, breasts, cunt, knees, feet – each individually framed and strung together vertically.

For years, this is how I offered myself.  Pieces of myself.  Body parts.  I say this to myself.  And to Julie.  She nods, understanding completely.

Attempting the Impossible.  A woman “becoming,” as a man paints her into existence.  Does she exist only as he creates her, or is he painting what is already there – like the painter in La Clairvoyance, who stares at an egg while his brush forms a bird?

Le Viol (Rape).  Eyes replaced by breasts, mouth by vulva.  Julie calls it violent.  Is this how we are really seen?

Conversations I might not have alone.  Intimate.  Heady.  Vulnerable.  Hats I might not otherwise try on.

Artist Date.  “A block of time…especially set aside and committed to nurturing…creative consciousness…an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers…”

Il s’agit d’une date de l’artiste.   This is an Artist Date.

Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.