“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In New York, you walk across the same avenues as always. How many times have you walked this same street, 53rd, across 6th and 7th avenues? How many times have you passed by countless multitudes, tourists, workers, between the rising buildings and souvenir shops? In the dead of winter clutching your coat against you, hurrying towards the nearest subway, or in the glory of spring, with chin up and chest high, taking in every ray of light that shined on the city?
The city you so loved, still love, but from a distance. You’re not able anymore to drag your feet slowly down Broadway watching the old men play chess on Sundays on the sidewalk, or linger at the booksellers’ tables, or duck into Housing Works Cafe during an afternoon of rain. I’ve missed the city in the rain, all that muck, all those crazy umbrellas, and the people coming in from it. That’s almost when I loved it most, when everyone, wanderers and purposeful walkers, would get soaked, and we went into cafes for coffee, sat and watched the window, loved strangers from afar and imagined their next destination.
Photo by I..C..U..
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
This book had been collecting dust at the bottom of my bookshelf for some years now, left by a friend who used to live in Madrid, until I decided to pick it up a couple weeks ago in my attempt to read all the books I own. The older I get, the more I savor prose, essays, and journalistic reporting — non-fiction in general. I think it’s because the mature reader, having come a long way from the “what happened next” of childhood fairytales, searches relentlessly for form, holding up a magnifying glass to how something is being told.
Anyone can tell a story or report an incident. But what I love about a good essay or magazine article is how intimate it can be, how much you can gather about the author and his tastes and ideology and expertise, as opposed to a novel or a short story. I could never write straight fiction because I feel as if that kind of writing, when I try my hand at it, is so distant from me, so alien and rootless, and therefore extremely difficult. I think part of it is because when I write I can’t get out of my own head. It takes a whole other kind of talent, a different kind of writer, to imagine the world from another person’s eyes.
Proving a point, explaining a theory, or describing a trip or experience, with personality, flow, and concision, is also difficult. But the starting point is you — what you think, how you feel, what your impressions were. I remember when we were in grade school how we were told to cut out “I think” from our expository writing, as it proved to be obvious and redundant. Now I realize how necessary it is sometimes, to remind the reader that the writer isn’t this all-knowing, invisible narrative power, but a person just the same, of flesh and bone and a singular perspective.
Joan Didion, in the essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” says it elegantly: “But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’…We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” And that is what I love about her prose, the transparency and earnestness of finely chosen words that are not simply strung together, but which seem to be rather the clear manifestation of a writer’s observational brain, of that side which is in the dark, from where that extra string dangles.
I think what Joan Didion does so well in this collection of essays is slip the reader doses of universal truths, packaged in this amazing lyricism, and bound in intimate experiences of place, in particular, California. She transmits so well the feeling that a place creates, not upon first sight or on a physical level, but the spirit that it fosters after having nourished generations of sedentary families, fortune seekers, and restless youths. The title essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which comes from W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming,” is the centerpiece of the collection and focuses on the counterculture of the 1960’s in San Francisco, where her encounter with the lost generation of revolutionaries and drug addicts gives evidence to the slipping center of American society.
I especially liked “The Los Angeles Notebook,” in which she talks about the Santa Ana, a mythical wind that blows 20 days out of the year in Los Angeles, causing forest fires, headaches, and murders, and creating the chaotic, rootless sense of place which defines life in that city:
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliability of the long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.
The restlessness of life in California, the sense of “running out of continent,” is also reflected in the lives of the people, famous or infamous, that Didion writes about. Her portraits of the different “dreamers of the golden dream” in the first part of the book, “Lifestyles in the Golden Land,” capture her talent for sketching out the bare essentials of what a character was like, Joan Baez or John Wayne, in a few terse pages. She describes Comrade Laski’s political compulsion in a way that is intelligent, relatable, and true:
As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.
As I mentioned, what I love is how personal her writing is, and how she manages to say so much, so eloquently, with so few words. Even when she is talking about a wholly different time, a public figure, or a universal tendency, she also seems to be reflecting on herself as a writer: as someone who has lived a history converging with that of the topic at hand, and who is putting up a powerful magnifying glass to it. On the nature of humanity, she is compelling and wise; that is why her biographical sketches read more like philosophical character studies.
In her essay, “On Self-Respect,” she reflects on the definition of that word and probes into what it is we lose when we lose respect for ourselves, how our understanding of it develops parallel to our misguided judgment of ourselves as we grow:
To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
Like in other essays, “On Morality” and “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion’s power of reflection on the life of things and human behavior comes from an intense inward gaze. She writes about the slipping of memory, the revisiting of a younger, different self, the deceptiveness of personal conscience, the head-on collision with one’s past on returning home.
Finally, in the essay which ends the collection, “Goodbye to All That,” Didion nostalgically remembers her years spent in New York City as a naive twenty-some year-old, and how her relationship with the city ran its course after the mirage faded, after she realized it was a city full of unkept promises only for the young. Her descriptions of a moment she remembers while standing on Lexington Avenue eating a peach, experiencing the smells of the city and the hot air blowing from the subway grate, really resonated with me because, as she says, everyone can remember being young and in New York. As a 25-year-old I still have that undying ambition to return and to relive such cinematic moments, to “stay up all night, and make mistakes” that still won’t count. I’d like to re-read this essay years down the line, when I can look back at those times with a different lens made more precise, and at the same time more out of focus, by an aging memory.
All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.
– Helen Hunt Jackson, “New Year’s Morning”
This is the first time in the last 3 years that I’ve come home to Philly for the Christmas holidays. Strange to see my parents in winter clothing, but great to snuggle up in my warm bed with the heavy blankets just as I remember them from when I was young. Everything was as I left it at the end of summer – my room, my books, the invasion of cats.
I bought my dad a cardboard airplane construction set for kicks and he set right to work, exactly the way I imagined he would — peering over his glasses with a disgruntled look of complete concentration, the same way he reads the newspaper, pores over maps, the way he used to help build my science projects:
The finished product. Look at that happy face; I should get him a whole set of cardboard cut-out vehicles.
Being home is also the time of cat abuse. Preferably, George.
Seeing people I hadn’t seen in a looong time. Mook 🙂
Some food I hadn’t seen in a long time:
A visit to one of my favorite neighborhoods, Olde City:
And my favorite bookstore:
A family trip to New York City to check out the 9/11 memorial:
The subtext to this photo: “Yeaaaaaaaaayy!”
A rollerblader in Battery Park.
Inside the memorial, which consists of two huge steel pools where the blueprint of the two WTC buildings used to be. Water falls continuously from all four sides of the pool in thin sheets onto a shallow pool floor, only to fall into an abyss-like hole in the very middle of the structure, whose depths are impossible to gauge. Inscribed in steel all along the sides of each pool are the names of those who died that day.
We walked on over to Chinatown for some dimsum, and then went to check out the High Line on the west side:
We rang in the New Year the traditional way: at a house party taking shots and singing karaoke:
This video is pretty typical of drunken encounters, but there’s something great about it since Tori Amos’s “Pretty Good Year” was coincidentally playing in the background: photo.php?v=10150450887136814
I think I’ve had some good closure to 2011. Some much-needed conversations, some stirring up and settling down, seeing faces that have always been familiar and close to me while growing up. I haven’t made too many resolutions, but I guess I should. I’ve promised to be better at keeping in touch and at writing letters – things that when we were younger, unattached, and unburdened by adult life, seemed so easy to accomplish. New year, new decisions. Or at least feeling again that my life is imbued with choice.
Some things, like hardy bargling with my tumor twin, will never change:
(Subtext to this photo: “Men, men, men, menmen, menmen, men, men…”)
Tomorrow I fly back to Madrid! Hopefully I’ll get over this miserable cold…