First, I want to stress that I use the term “meeting” extremely loosely. My three-second encounter with Joan Didion consisted of my uttering “thank you so much” as she signed my copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Of course by “thank you so much,” what I really meant was “It is such an honor to (be standing in front of you/let you touch my reprinted-in-2008-edition-of-your-published-in-1961 book/breathe the same air as you).” But then, she looked at me. And a strange sensation came over me; the only word I can conjure to describe the feeling is that I felt … shattered.
I don’t think you could call Ms. Didion a travel writer, but she is a master evocator of place. In her essays, places like Las Vegas, Hawaii, New York, and especially California are as much characters as the people she writes about. In reading Joan Didion, I was first awakened to the idea that you could have a relationship with a city. In The White Album, she writes:
“…quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.”
By “West” she means California, a state and state of mind she spends a considerable portion of her nonfiction career navigating. What does it mean to be from California? Does it mean that you come from nowhere or everywhere, or that you’re there because the people before you simply ran out of room to keep going? The mythic California of Joan Didion’s writing is one that I carry with me as a reader, writer, and traveler.
“California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky,is where we run out of continent.”
These words, written by a woman who won her job at Vogue by winning an essay contest her senior year of college (working her way from copy-editor to associate feature editor in two years), by a woman who had published dozens of pieces exploring the American cultural attitude of the 1960s, by a woman who, in a span of about two years from 2003 to 2005 suffered the loss of both her husband and her daughter. And that’s where my path crossed with hers: at a book reading for Blue Nights, a follow-up memoir to The Year of Magical Thinking.
Where The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the death of her husband, Blue Nights follows the death of her daughter. And because I am naive, or perhaps because I can’t truly appreciate loss, I watched with part sadness and part confusion a woman who has been left completely alone. In the forward of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she acknowledges that her “only advantage as a reporter is that [she] is so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that [her] presence runs counter to their best interests;” she could inoffensively slip her physical frame into the action of a situation and come away with the story. But now, her smallness seems less like a tool than the finished product, that personal hardship has whittled her down. As she brushed away a tear during the interview, which took place Thursday evening at the Free Library of Philadelphia, my heart felt tugged to many places at once.
Nearly all of the questions posed to Ms. Didion pertained to her grief. “What was harder for you? The sudden death of your husband (who died of a heart attack) or the prolonged illness of your daughter (who was in and out of hospitals for two years before succumbing to acute pancreatitis)?” This question, followed by “Do you feel that you’ve recovered now, and if so how?” Ms. Didion’s answers were short. “Both deaths were hard.” and “I haven’t recovered. My life was better before.” Perhaps my favorite question/answer: “Why did you decide to write about this experience?” “Because I’m a writer.”
But what of her illustrious career? What about California? It was clear from Joan Didion’s deep, clear, blue-eyed, gaze at me after signing my book that none of that matters. The question I most wanted to ask her, after I realized we wouldn’t be talking to Joan Didion The Author but Joan Didion The Wife and Mother, was “Was it worth it?” Can all that pain worth it?
I think I’ll always be influenced by Joan Didion’s early work: the theme of where you come from and where you go and what kind of person that makes you will always fascinate me. But I’m now aware that it’s not everything and that nothing really matters except the people you love. And this is something that I struggle with every day. Why do I wake up every morning with the strongest desires to hit the road…is it because I’m trying to run away? Is my engine fueled by the fear of feeling settled, only to lose everything?
I don’t know. And in this I share something with the great Joan Didion:
“Nothing makes sense until I write it down.”