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 95: Temptation and Commitment. The Tapeworm is my Divorce.

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James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up.  It happens every time.  Every time I sit in a darkened theater.  It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture.  If it is engaging or tedious.  The darkness lulls me into slumber.  I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.

I know better.  I know I need to go to sleep earlier.  But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying.  And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.

The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce.  The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.

I began to consciously work on the habit.  Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer.  Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week.  I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.

And then I started backsliding.  Call it a sleep relapse.  A divorce-habit relapse.  It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake.  Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise.  And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.

My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date.  I know nothing about Ensor.  In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture.  But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.

This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.

Belgium.  Seaside resort town.  Alcoholic father.

Tapeworm.

Yes, tapeworm.  I am suddenly awake.  Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.

It dominates his art.  Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death.  I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body.  It changed him.  His story.  His work.

His worm is my divorce.  His drawings and paintings are my words.  I feel somehow comforted by this.  That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.”  That this is what we do — at least some of us.  Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen.  We allow it to change us.  For ourselves to be changed.

I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake.  The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in.  There is no beginning or end.  Just middle.  The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine.  I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers.  I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.

On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony.  I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.

I don’t need to.  I have my own, permanent ones.  “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font.  The tapeworm is my divorce.  A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed.  Of my work and how I work it out.  And my commitment to it.

write

Artist Date 78: Both, And.

mcbeardo boodI just wrapped up a contract work gig – my first “straight job” in 12 years.

By straight I mean sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, and working 9 to 5.  (Cue Dolly Parton.)

At first I wasn’t certain how I felt about the opportunity.  I wasn’t clear on my role.  My body hurt from sitting.  My creativity suffered.

And then I hit my stride.

I appreciated having a place to come to – a single place, as opposed to the many I traverse to and from as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.  I appreciated earning a consistent paycheck.  I loved working in a team toward a common good – and that I got to spend five days a week with one of my best girlfriends while doing it.

I even enjoyed the sometimes hour-long commute down Lakeshore Drive, listening to NPR.

And before I knew it, it was over.

I was recently telling my friend Gene about this while catching him up on my days.

I mentioned that had I missed several weeks of Artist Dates.  And that when I went on one last Saturday – number 78 – I still hadn’t blogged about it a week later.

“Sounds like you are living life rather than writing about it,” he said.

Ideally, I would do both.

However, his comment reminded me of a conversation I had a few months earlier with my friend Nithin. He had gone to a concert the night before and noticed the number of people watching the performance through camera phones – recording, photographing and uploading to Facebook.  Documenting rather than experiencing.  At least to his eyes.

I wondered if I had been doing the same.  Living with an eye on writing.

——————–

The Saturday before last, two days after my contract job ended, I said no to a sweat lodge in Michigan and to a birthday party across town, and called it self-care.

Instead, I rode my bike, ate ice cream from Jenni’s on Southport (Bangkok Peanut with coconut and dark chocolate) and napped naked under a ceiling fan, wrapped in crisp gray sheets.

And when I woke, I headed across town for a long-overdue Artist Date, the first in weeks – a reading at Quimby’s books, celebrating and promoting the publication on my friend Mike’s book Heavy Metal Movies.

He’d been working on it for years.  And I could not be more delighted for him.

Mike took the stage in a blue, fuzzy hat with horns – think Fred Flintstone and the Royal Order of Water Buffalos – and then shared it with his wife and a host of friends who gave voice to their own stories on what Mike referred to as “heavy metal, hard movies, and the torrid, torpid twain where both doth meet from a pantheon of ferociously funny, horrifically hilarious headbanging crackpots, visionaries, and mirth.”

I’m not a heavy-metal girl.  And at least one of the readings more than verged on the grotesque.  And yet, none of that mattered.

Each had moved beyond ego, to share their words and their work.  Work that came from their own passions, their own living.  Their presence onstage served as a reminder of possibilities — that there is, in fact, room for each of our voices at the table, and on stage — and also an invitation to do my own work, from my own living.  In sweat lodges and in bookstores.  On my bike and in my bed.  Fully awake and sometimes napping.

Writing AND Living.  Both, And.

Artist Date 58: What It’s Not About

llewyn davisI keep waiting for it to happen.  This movie.  Inside Llewyn Davis.  Artist Date 58.

I am sitting in the Davis Theatre in Lincoln Square.  There are about six other people here besides me.  It’s a Thursday night and the temperature is hovering around 5 degrees.  The streets are noticeably, eerily quiet.

There is a single, double seat tucked into the aisles.  Like a love seat.  I am tempted to sit in it and sprawl out, but I don’t.

There is a preview for a movie about Jesus, one about an escaped convict – wrongly accused, of course – falling in love.  And one for Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw a few months ago.  Artist Date 47. I well up all over again.

And I am waiting.   Not for the feature to actually begin, because it already has.  But the story.  I’m waiting for “it” to happen.

I think maybe “it” is about the cat who runs out of Llewyn’s friend’s apartment.  The one Llewyn carries with him, a guitar in his other hand, until he can return him.  The one he feeds cream to out of a saucer at a café.

I am reminded of silly, sassy cat asses.  And that I miss having a cat.  That maybe I should get one.

“It” is not about cats.  Or just that cat.  Or about carrying around shit that doesn’t belong to you.

I think maybe “it” is about taking a journey.  In this instance, with John Goodman – who looks suspiciously like one of my clients – and his driver.  Like the one in Deconstructing Harry, where Woody Allen takes a road trip with a black prostitute, up to his kid’s college graduation.  Like my many road trips from east to west and back again.  The one where I took photographs of myself at the Mitchell Corn Palace and ate butter pecan ice cream at Wall Drug.  And the one where I learned to shoot a gun in rural Montana.

corn palace

“It” is not about journeys and road trips.

I think maybe “it” is about Llewyn getting Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, pregnant.   About responsibility and taking what isn’t yours.  That “it” is about Llewyn finally arriving in Chicago and meeting the man who might change this musical trajectory.  About dreams and taking chances and storybook endings.

But “it” isn’t.

I keep waiting for “it” to happen.  And “it” never does.

Because waiting for a movie to happen is like waiting for life to happen.  I can spend so much time and energy sitting on expectations – how I think it should look – that I miss all the gorgeous, perfect moments along the way.  The movie moments.  The “it’s.”

Like playing your guitar for your father in an old folk’s home and for a brief moment seeing his eyes register recognition.  That he knows you.   Knows this song.  And then shits himself.

Like when the woman who calls you an asshole like it’s your given name, discloses a single act of kindness and you reject it.  You tell her you love her.  And she doesn’t call you an asshole.

Like when you finally make it to Chicago to see “the man” and he says to show him what you’ve got.  His eyes are soft and the lighting is perfect, streaming through dusty windows on to a dusty floor.  And your pitch is right and you are singing from inside, just like he asked you to.

And he tells you that you’re not front-man material. That he might be able to make it work if you shave your beard into a goatee and stay out of the sun.  But that your best shot is to get back together with your partner.  Because he doesn’t know your partner is dead.  That he jumped off the George Washington Bridge.  And that someone, anyone, singing his harmony sends you into a PTSD-like rage.

Llewyn’s “it’s”

Like picking up the phone and your meditation teacher asking you to sing “Easy to Be Hard” while he rides his bike in Golden Gate Park.

Like connecting with an old acquaintance who has been living your marriage and is now living your divorce – except you didn’t know it, until now.  Who speaks your heart and your story.  Talking to one another and saying over and again, “me too.”

Like sitting in a movie theatre alone.  Because you have chosen to be alone in this moment.  Because you enjoy your own company.

My “it’s.”

Maybe that’s what “it’s” all about.  These moments.  That, and a couch you can sleep on no matter what you have said or done.  A place to call home for a minute or two while you wander around in your boxer shorts eating scrambled eggs.  Friends who love you.  And a cat –something soft to hold onto, something to care about besides yourself.

The rest just fills in the blanks.

Pajamas of One’s Own, With Apologies to Virginia Woolf

I threw away my ex-husband’s pajama bottoms.

I know…why did I have them in the first place?

The night before I left Seattle, I asked if I might take them with me.  The thin cotton ones, navy, with a drawstring.  Somewhere there is a matching top.  Somewhere.

I turned my ex on to men’s pajamas years ago, as I had been turned on by the man I dated before him.  Mornings I would pad around his house in Berkeley, wearing his pjs while he made us French-press coffee.  I liked to wear his overalls too.

a room of one's ownHe often remarked that I should get my own – of both.  That year for Hanukkah, I bought him a pair of silk pajamas.  Inside the card I wrote, “A room of one’s own.  Pajamas of one’s own.  I promise I won’t touch these.”  Then I opened his gift to me – my own pair of overalls.

We laughed. A sort-of modern twist on O. Henry’s Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi.  Except neither of us had to give something away something we loved, to give something to someone we loved.

I stopped wearing men’s pj bottoms some time ago and had taken to wearing short, boy-short underwear and a wife beater – which was fine when it was just the two of us.  But I was about to go on the road, traveling with my divorce buddy – a man – and staying with friends along the way.  And when I arrived in Chicago, I would be living with a male friend of mine, temporarily.

Modesty, not something I usually subscribe to, grabbed hold of me, and I asked my ex if I could take his bottoms.

He looked at me sorts of sideways and said yes.

gift of the magiI have slept in them every night since.  Loosely tied and rolled down twice at the waist so I don’t trip on them.  They remind me of the pants my friend Tim’s roommate wore when he returned from Thailand, when he cranked the heat to 80 degrees and blasted the soundtrack to The King and I nonstop.

My mom attempted to buy me a new pair when I visited her in Tennessee in the spring.  We picked some up at Target, just bottoms, but I didn’t like how they fit.  Too much bunchy elastic at the waist.  So she returned them for me.  But we agreed I had to stop sleeping in my ex’s.  My best girlfriend Julie and I had the same conversation when I stayed with her this summer.

I’m sure I would have had this conversation many times over if I had shared this with anyone else.  But I didn’t.  I was too ashamed.  I knew it was kind of odd.  Palpably and painfully so, pulling them on after sleeping with someone else.

Ten days ago, I threw them out.  Crumpled them into the kitchen garbage bin, covering them with food scraps so I couldn’t pull them back out – fearful of a George Castanza-éclair-at-the-top-of-the-trash lapse.

A few days later I began sleeping for the first time in more than a year and a half.  Really sleeping.  Through the night, uninterrupted, for more than six hours.  Waking up with the alarm, and longing for more.

Not long after I found myself crush-less, and for the first time in my life, not looking to conjure up a love interest.

I told a friend of mine I didn’t want to talk about the boy I slept with – the one with whom I pulled on the pajamas in question.  The one who isn’t the one, but still takes up some residency in my head and in my heart from time to time.  I told her that talking about him wasn’t helpful.  In fact, it was painful.   So I’d rather not do it.

And then I said no to being fixed up with a man who was recently divorced.  I believe my exact words were, “Are you out of your mind?”  I know the desperate crazy that is his life right now and I don’t want to be a part of it.

My words surprised me.  But they felt like ridiculously good, albeit not-so-sexy, self-care too.  Like sleeping.  Like throwing away pajamas that belonged to my ex-husband.

I’ve returned to sleeping in the short, boy-shorts, but am on the lookout for a new pair of loose, drawstring bottoms.  The kind that feel lived in, or have the potential to, and that are not flannel.  Pajamas devoid of history.  Pajamas of one’s own.