Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fear of Flying

I am in winding-down mode. In two weeks we leave for England.

I do not enjoy this travel. If I were given a choice I would take myself back to Varuna for a writers retreat, me and my computer, meals prepared by someone else, occasional conversations in the evening about the process of writing and none of the responsibilities of home and work. This is my ideal holiday.

As it is I am traveling to England for a conference. Conferences are fun, at least the conferences to which I take myself, the English literary conferences where the focus is on autobiography and biography, on story telling and memory. This will be my third such conference, run by the International Autobiography and Biography Association, the first in Germany, six years ago, the second in Hawaii two years ago and now in Sussex, England.

Already I anticipate meeting some of the people I have met before. There will be the usual array of 'footnotes' running around – Philippe Le Jeune, Paul John Eakin, Sidonie Smith, perhaps, Julia Watson, a definite. Michael Holroyd is one of the keynote speakers.

I enjoy the process whereby these literary dignitaries take on ordinary human form at conferences. They are approachable, accessible. When I first read their papers they seem aloof, ethereal. When I meet them face to face they present a mix of personalities. Leigh Gilmore, the godfather of non-fiction will be there. Blake Morrison, writer and memoirist, also. I met him at another conference. A lovely man, every bit as affable as his alter ego Colin Firth in the film of Morrison's memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?

I look forward to reconnection with some of these people. At the same time, I am aware of how brittle these connections are. During the conference itself we talk. We compare notes. We make good friends. We promise to email after we get home. We promise to keep in touch, but rarely do we do so. I am as bad as the next.

When we meet in the heat and excitement of new ideas – old ideas more likely but often dressed up as new, at least they might be new to my ears - we make good friends. It is like going on a cruise when people travel to distant places with a group of strangers; only at this conference we share a common task, exploring ideas on autobiography and biography. Once over, the camaraderie dies down quickly.

My first such conference was the best. I had no expectations then. I now have expectations and as Gillian Bouras writes: I can already hear the echo of goodbye in our first hellos. I do not like making connections that will end so quickly.

But worse than this, my journey will be sealed in a sandwich of airplane trips. Once we leave the tarmac and Melbourne airport and sit down on the plane, even before it takes off I will find myself settling into a sort of torpor, a surreal state where the only thing that matters to me is that I get to the end of the journey alive.

I have all manner of strategies to help. For long trips to Europe I plug into the movie channel and make a glutton of myself watching as many movies as possible. I try to lose my mind in celluloid.

I travel this time with my husband. I can see him in my mind’s eye. He too goes into a sort of torpor but his is different from mine. He covers his eyes with an eye patch, squeezes in earplugs, pulls up a blanket and goes off to sleep as often and whenever he can.

We have been married for over thirty years but when we travel on these long journeys we become almost strangers to one another. We sit side by side, but we rarely talk to one another during the journey, except towards the end when we are preparing to land. Then and only then do we start to make contact with one another. It is as if we have entered a timeless zone where our normal friendly connections are unwarranted. We enter the zone of survival.

I can and should only speak for myself. I have not discussed this strange state with my husband.

My friend and correspondent, Gerald Murnane refuses to travel in planes. I understand this. One day when I am older, when I do not feel the obligations I feel these days to make physical connections with countries, people and places further a field, then I too might dig in my heels and say, no.

I will not go back inside one of those silver steel monsters, the metal birds of the sky. I will not expose myself to the hours of anxiety, my breath held every time there is a bump, a jump or a skip mid flight. I will not subject myself to the strange airlessness I feel when entombed in the cabin of a plane surrounded by equally fearful people - though most manage in their own different ways to cope with that fear - the fear of dropping out from the sky and crashing down onto the earth, shattered and in fragments.

I have frequent falling dreams, dreams in which I travel on an elevator up to one of the topmost floors in a building only to recognise that the cables that hold the elevator in place, have come apart somehow and the elevator is plunging through the air. In seconds, and what in my dreams feels like minutes, it will crash into the basement.

The sensation of falling, readying myself for the end, stays with me long after the dream is over. Every time we hit an air pocket mid flight I expect the same. The cables that hold the plane firm in the sky have come adrift and we are about to plunge to our deaths.

I can remind myself that statistically we are safer in a plane than in a car on the road. I look around the airport and consider the number of flights scheduled throughout the world. They reach their destination. The ones we imagine are the ones that do not make it.

When I prepare to travel, I leap frog across time in my imagination and settle into thoughts about what it will be like once I am home and all of this is past me. Only then will I be content, when this latest trip is over and I can once again settle into the comfort of home.

Fear of flying, Erica Jong called it - notwithstanding her obvious reference here to sex. For me it is the fear of being off the ground, in the air pulled from my moorings, untethered, falling, falling, falling, with nothing to hold me together but my will to survive.
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