Flying Solo: Confinements of the Cage

When I was in elementary school, I left most sleepovers in the middle of the night in a teary panic, waking my friends’ parents, who called my parents, who drove over and picked me up and brought me home to sleep in my own bed. Sleepaway camp in the summer was the same deal. I was sure, at the time, I couldn’t ever go away to college.

It wasn’t homesickness; it was a fear of being trapped in an environment that was not my choice, restricted by a situation that I could not control.

The weird thing about being a control freak, though, is that what you really want is freedom. Which can seem antithetical to the whole pursuit of control.

But I know this is the culprit, because for a while I also thought– despite having plenty of evidence in my own family to the contrary–that any kind of serious romantic relationship would require a concession to one’s independence and dreams. You’d have to make room for someone else’s needs and wants, on a daily basis, and neglect your own! You’d get caught up in the comfort of companionship, and lose your spirit and your edge! How could it ever work? The mere thought of chaining my life to someone else’s induced an anxious bubble in my throat. (I have since changed my tune on this).

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Amelia Earhart, the renowned pilot responsible for major cracks in the glass ceiling and major advancements in aviation, was no stranger to this fear of entrapment. Think about it: what kind of woman takes to the skies in extremely questionable technology, preferring the thrill and danger of solo exploration over two feet on solid ground? A woman scared to death of finding herself at the mercy of anyone else’s priorities. A bird that would rather fly away from the flock, in the danger of the open air, than embrace the comfort of the cage.

Or, say, a husband. On the day of her wedding to George Putnam, the 33-year-old Earhart handed him this letter:

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“You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me…I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.”

Earhart had already rejected Putnam’s marriage proposal six times, and before that she had broken off a previous engagement to Sam Chapman. So she had no qualms about telling Putnam straight-up that if it became a choice, she would always choose her work. On one hand, this role as the independent, ambitious feminist was part of her highly-marketed image; Earhart had become an popular cultural icon, doing a stint as associate editor at Cosmopolitan, lecturing to college students and publicly refusing to engage with organizations that did not value equal opportunity for women. But on the other hand, she was acting out of necessity: Earhart could not afford to yield an inch, or she would risk giving up her career.

She wasn’t being paranoid or overdramatic when she laid down the law with her new husband. Long before the feminist revolution, before Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and working mothers and Destiny’s Child gave us a more equitable culture, Earhart had to prioritize her career in a drastic way – or she wouldn’t be able to have one at all. To fly, she had to give up all that could possibly weigh her down.

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This is a mindset found in many explorers: surely Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Samuel de Champlain were running away from the constraints of traditional, stable life just as much as they were sailing towards new lands and riches. Columbus hardly ever mentioned his wife, Felipe, to anyone, and historians argue that she was merely a tool for him to enter parts of Portugal. At age 36, Champlain married a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a French Lord, for access to the powerful members of the court. And shortly after Magellan got married he took off on a three-year jaunt around the world and was likely somewhere around the equator when his wife died, alone, in Seville.

The difference is that no one asked whether Columbus was lonely, or expected Magellan to become a family man, or expressed concern when Champlain stayed up all night drawing his maps. I know; these were different times. But this is why the myth of Earhart persists, why her independence is so intoxicating. She was one of the first female public figures to admit to being more afraid of living a life unexplored than she was of finding herself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation.

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Before her final flight, she wrote again to her husband:

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she said. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Earhart was an avid reader and writer, and benefited from contemporary female writers facing similar explorations, like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. In 1928, she sketched this little ditty called “Courage,” a poem that Eleanor Roosevelt kept tucked away in a drawer for handy consultation. It gives a rare glimpse into the explorer’s mind, untainted by fear, clear-eyed and focused:

Courage is the price which life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy you can hear the sound of wings.

It’s not a stretch to think Earhart would have read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published in 1899, in which the protagonist Edna Pontellier becomes painfully and suddenly aware of society’s limits for women and wives, and swims out to sea as far as she can go, disappearing from her now untenable life.

Earhart wrote her cold but clear letter to Putnam and married him in 1931. Six years later, she went missing somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on her final flight, never to be seen again. Her crash site remains undiscovered to this day.

ameliaearhartAnd yet her courage is contagious, even if it is mythologized. Patti Smith has published two poems dedicated to her. Joni Mitchell says her song “Amelia” reflects “on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.” And I can’t help but think of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” unquestionably an explorer’s poem:

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

Amelia had a rare gift beyond her boldness and flight skills: she knew what she wanted to do and she held tight to it. So, if you’re wondering if Amelia Earhart was lonely, as I have wondered, OK, then yes, she was lonely: lonely, because she had to be in order to pursue the open skies; lonely, knowing she left the comfort of the nest for the sheer thrill of living a life true to her calling; and lonely, as a plane rides, knowing deeply who she was — neither ice nor mud nor winter light but a bird, with a gift for flying.

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