I started reading Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’ last week. It’s lain in my bookshelf for a decade now, purchased when I was zealously trying to teach myself to write without shame or fear. I did an erotica adventure in those years, forcing myself to plunge into reading and writing what felt scary and shameful. I even conducted a workshop on erotica writing (since we teach best what we most need to learn). I do not regret it. It was personally liberating and not because (as some men joked) I had more sex. Giving sex an easy place in my mind, the same way as my emotions or my city required that I move around the furniture inside my head – old traumas, inherited shame, cultural taboos. And tossing them out made me lighter. It was definitely one of the building blocks to my braver performances, my bolder poetry in the later years.
I’ve posted a Goodreads review of the book here. As a matter of fact, I didn’t finish the book. I didn’t feel I needed to. Like sex that was fun but is now starting to chafe. One of the liberations of my 30s has been being able to say NO, being able to say ENOUGH and being able to say it without apology or even explanation. I’m talking about in life in general. And that is intrinsically tied up to my gender and hence my sex. They cannot be distinguished from each other.
I’ve said this in the review and I must say this here. The book surprised me by having very little sex, let alone graphic descriptions. One of the narrator’s obsessions is with a man who is far less attractive and worse in bed than her partner. And it isn’t played as a kink or her damage. It’s wholehearted gusto, a ravening curiosity, an unquenchable desire to understand what’s going on. That’s not sexy but it is vibrantly sexual, the way living is. I also instantly thought of the film ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Not going to apologise for the cheesy reference; instead, here’s a pizza slice of kindness.
I saw the same overwhelming craving in the main character there – a completely crazy breaking of everything that she has been told is a good life and jumping off into the wild unknown. This involves sensual experiences (food), spiritual (meditation & empathy) and emotional (resolution). I liked that the ‘Love’ in that story was less about getting a man to complete her life and more about being a person who could love with peace, joy and calm awareness instead of panicky desperation. ‘Fear of Flying’ takes the same bold leap into the unknown.
In parallel, I’ve also been watching ‘From Scratch’ on Netflix, a show about an American in Italy (perhaps that’s why I made the Eat, Pray, Love connection). It struck me that I’ve treated love & romance as a burdensome chore. It has elaborate rituals that have filled me with impatience and its utter unpredictability has felt unnecessarily chaotic. I have sought a peaceful life and this is too much drama. But the depiction of Italian culture in these films (and I say that because I have not been to Italy and know no Italians so I must assume) presents an alternate idea – what if love & romance were just a way of life? All the woes of poverty, all the pressures of family, all the systemic issues, all the social hurdles. But if religion, that utterly doomed love affair with an intangible, fickle idea can endure in my world, why not romantic love? To any outsider who asks, I tell them religion, faith, belief, that’s just a way of life here. It’s not because we have more time or money to spend on these things, it’s not because we lack objective reason. It’s just encoded into how we live and who we are. Why not romantic love too? It’s a charmed idea.
I saw plenty of myself in ‘Fear of Flying’. I also saw a lot of the men I’ve encountered. Now years later, I’m able to look back and realise that my agonising, my confusion was neither wrong nor foolish. I’m able to do so without too much bitterness at the world around me that treated it that way. The world (especially men) are not geared for a woman thinking and feeling, much less talking about it. I guess that is why it did not surprise me, the narrator’s stoic description of her unsatisfying relationships and marriages. It actually gave me hope, felt validating. Perhaps that is a state that intelligent, brave women reach at some point. Our traumas do not get resolved. The world (including the mental health treatment industrial complex) does not make room to understand our individuality, much less our lived experiences. But some of us manage to fight our way through, in the vein of struggling to breath when held under water. At some point, peace will come even if it is not in the form of joyful companionship. Maybe peace is no more than freedom from shame and guilt.
For the first time in my life, I find I’m neither traumatised by someone from my past, nor agonising over an imagined future. I know it’s odd to consider romantic love as a way of life at the same time cherishing being single as chosen state. But they sit right in my being right now. It’s nice to feel romantic and right now, that’s possible without the weight of another person or memory.
Here’s a card from the Osho-Zen Tarot deck (and its meaning, if you’re interested). It always captures exactly this mood for me. I’ve been straining against bonds all this year. In the last couple of months, I’ve been hit by COVID twice. Each time, it has felt like falling into a fevered slumber, spiritually/emotionally speaking. And I wake up feeling clearer, lighter and quite unable to cling to the shackles of ‘must do’ that guilt & shame usually wear. It’s making me feel too tired to carry anger, too slippery to hold on to hopes of redemption with those who hurt me. I don’t know what will happen of those things. I don’t even know if this mood will last. But for now, it is peaceful to float downward, anchored by nothing, held only by pure air.