Lake Champlain and the Erotic Life

According to Audre Lorde, we’ve been mistaking the erotic for the pornographic, which is a plasticized, trivial, psychotic sensation. This is a rather deliberate confusion she tells us, created by men to be used against women, so that we wimmin become afraid of the power of the erotic in ourselves, and in so doing, learn to suppress our true feelings.

Yet, she reminds us- to ignore our own erotic power leads us to dismiss the “internal sense of satisfaction” which acknowledging, recognizing and embracing the erotic can bring us in our lives. As she puts it so powerfully:

“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” By giving in to a fear of feeling fully and passionately (because we’ve been taught to shun the erotic)–we become “unintentional” and in so doing we become the “Other” of Man- the “feminine” creatures lacking ontological existence as Simone de Beauvoir had philosophized in her 1949 tome, “The Second Sex.” Or as Lorde tells us, we become those “who do not wish to guide their own destinies.” Easier perhaps, to let another bear the burden of our being, to not have to make decisions about what to do and how to live– but in relinquishing such a burden of making our own choices, however tough the path may turn out to be, we also give up the “internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic” that sense of “satisfaction” and “completion” which only an embrace of the erotic can bring us, an embrace that “will bring us closest” to a fullness of being and living.

My friend Zeba who I’ve known for the past four decades- a bit longer if you count the year I joined Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore and she was a senior and part of a group of wimmin I found dashingly daring because even back then in that conventional space where they were so different from the norm–well, to me she epitomizes the power of the erotic that Lorde talks about.

She came to N America when very few single women from Pakistan went abroad to study, earning spending money by babysitting and later making her way to the top of her profession by working hard, staying curious and always alert and full of fun. In short: passionate about her work, her passion has been for life itself, bursting with interest in the world and in the people and in books and animals and objets d’art around her. She has been one of my favorite travel companions, through whom I have learnt to enjoy, appreciate and appropriate the funkiest of musical tastes from Spinal Tap to David Byrne, in whose company I allow the wind to mess up my hair, wake up to sunrise kissing my face in a lakeside cottage, drive madcap from Barcelona to Pamplona to indulge my fascination with Hemingway and bulls in Pamplona, walk through purple-covered moors in search of Heathcliff and Cathy, all the while marching up and down the dales of a female friendship punctuated by similarities that have helped us overcome our differences through respect, not by sm/othering or collapsing into a forced sameness.

And so, celebrating many decades of embracing the power of the erotic, as we enter the senior stage of our lives, marking my entry into grandparenthood and her own remarkable ongoing struggle with a chronic illness that she has pushed back most definitely through her passionate joie de vivre –a few days ago we got in to her black turbo-charged Beetle and drove several hundred miles to a charming sun-filled cottage on lake Champlain just south of Montreal. The hours of our journey flew by. Our personal and political selves entwined as we sang along to or danced in the car with the music of Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil, Junoon and Noor Jehan, and the “Bismillah, I will not let you go” of Queen.

At our lakeside retreat we have read and chatted, cooked together and soaked in the susurrus of the water amidst the silence, gazed admiringly at the majestic green mountains across from us on the other side of the lake’s lapping waves, gone for a hike on the paths around a chasm created 13,000 years ago, enjoyed an ice cream cone at a roadside creamery and chatted some more about our families, friends, the state of the world we live in and our deep engagement with it.

Through the process of this “becoming,” this life-long journey into each others intimate worlds where the personal and the political become one, I feel I have entered what Jane Lazarre calls “a heightened awareness which always seems to involve the entwining of my own life with something outside of myself.” The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called this state of feeling “imaginative identification,” an ever-strengthening link between “self-discovery and humane conscience.”

To me, this is the gift of feminist friendship: where we celebrate the erotic in the endeavor, the hard work that sustained and meaningful friendship requires of us. This “work” that is the hallmark of a life well-lived, is indeed a conscious decision; one that unleashes the power of the erotic, understood as commitment, to something bigger than some narrowly-defined self-interest. In Audre’ s hallowed words, when we celebrate the erotic in any endeavor, that means we are making a conscious decision to commit to it, because we want to, because we believe in it.

And so this long-term friendship–like my other life endeavors –has been a conscious decision, akin, in Audre’s words, again, to “a longed-for bed” which one “enters gratefully” and from which one rises up “empowered.”

It is empowering indeed, to live and bask in the light of the erotic in yourself: a feminist flowering into the world, where you become a better you in the company of a few good wimmin, with whose help the I becomes a you becomes an us.

Thank you Audre, thank you Jane, thank you Zeba.

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