The Necessity Of Flying Solo

The Necessity Of Flying Solo


Leonard Zwelling

There may be no more haunting popular music song ever than Joni Mitchell’s Amelia from her 1976 album Hejira. As usual Joni uses an unusual tuning of her guitar strings and the added playing of Larry Carlton to create a masterpiece of love lost and loneliness. To me Amelia was always about flying solo and the need sometimes to be on your own. The singer identifies with Amelia Earhart, but the singer is not the noted aviator, whose mysterious disappearance has never been resolved. It is loneliness and the need to find yourself anew.

The detailed analysis of the song by guitar expert Rick Beato is included above.

I did not understand the need to fly solo as a healing process for many years. I was too caught up in the pursuit of academic accolades and the social networking that entails to ever consider actually being alone. I was happily married with two kids and never considered any other life. I needed to get significantly wounded with my firing in 2007 and my need to find something to do to feel the resonance of “driving across a burning desert” as Joni Mitchell describes in her song. On the July day of my firing, I was nowhere. I could no longer care for patients as those skills had long eroded and modern oncology had passed me by. I had closed my lab as I got busier and busier with administrative tasks. I had seven years left on my tenure. What was I to do?

It turns out I had to fly solo for a while to return to myself. I did too, on sabbatical, in Washington, DC. At the age of 60 I rented my own apartment, leased furniture, stocked the kitchen with pots and pans, and the living room/office with supplies, and began my year on Capitol Hill. As I look back now, it all had nothing to do with my professional future even as it gave birth to my first book and became the subject of many public talks about ObamaCare. What it was really about was losing who I had become and becoming someone new.

I am writing this for a very specific date—August 27, 2022. It is my fiftieth wedding anniversary. Without the year of flying solo and without the love and support of my wife and youngest son who was at Johns Hopkins at the time, I would never have been able to move forward back in Houston a year later. After the demoralizing embarrassment of having been fired, I gained new expertise in how government works (or doesn’t) and developed a whole new set of skills including book writing. I could not have done any of it without the patience of my wife back in Houston to allow me the time to fly solo.

The peculiarity is that Joni Michell’s song resonated with me the very first time I heard it and I never needed to know what it was about in her mind. I knew what it was about in mine. Love lost (in my case for a job I loved), disappearing into the desert (in my case on 5th Street Northwest), and “showering off the dust” (on Capitol Hill) so I could dream again.

Sometimes, people need to fly solo for a bit in order to get their bearings. It worked for me. And even though I was flying solo, I was backed by people who cared about me—Margaret Kripke, Dave Hohn, and most of all my family and the great and patient Dr. Kleinerman. Unlike Amelia Earhart, I returned.

Happy anniversary, Genie.

2 thoughts on “The Necessity Of Flying Solo”

  1. What a beautiful reflection on rejuvenation and love!
    Linda and I have known you two for those 50 years, so admire you both, and wish you MANY more healthy and joyful times together.
    Most of us have had the experience of being “relieved of duty,” having to be self reflective, and regaining our true soul and self worth. Twenty years ago, it was a difficult journey for me, too. But, your reflections is such a genuine description of the process of redemption with yourself and should encourage others to embrace a similar transformation.

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