20 September 2011

“Didion's writing has never felt effortless; you can see the sweat. And it has never grown easier . . . “ --Interview: Joan Didion, Emma Brockes, The Guardian, Thursday 15 December 2005.

I have not wanted to, been led to, or come close to being obsessed with a writer’s work in a long time. This morning, I’ve just spent two hours goggling Joan Didion and reading every article about her. Last night, I read that a new book about her daughter’s death, 18 months after her husband’s death which was the subject of her “A Year of Magical Thinking,” was due out in November. I did nothing about that last night but this morning in the midst of piles of books on the living room floor -- piles waiting to be shelves or discarded, I skip from article to article, and wonder if I should start ordering essays and novels. Will I be satisfied with library copies? And this is after talking to Mary yesterday about how, in our middle years, we are not as inclined to buy books because ‘everything is in the library or on line,’ and ‘we do not have to own.’ Suddenly, I want to own everything she has ever written and gorge on it. I want to understand it from the inside as if I had read it years ago, as it was being written, when it was first published. I want to have ‘lived’ along side of her. The irony here is not lost on me.

So I will leave a little space on my shelves for Didion’s books, get out my highlighter and sharpen my pencils for notes in the margins.

I pause to wonder if it is just death that attracts me to her right now. It is death -- her husband’s and her writing of it, and now her writing of her daughter’s death. Didion says in an interview: But on “ '. . . the other hand, it’s a whole different level of loss.' She stops and stares at the table again. ‘This is the part I don’t want to talk about.’ She takes off her glasses, sets them down, and her eyes are flooded with tears. When she finally looks up, she says, ‘What I want to do as soon as I get through this . . . all of this . . . is basically be too busy. Take too much work. I figure that will get me through.’”

My friend, Toby, sent me Didion’s book after David died. I had read it a few years ago, no, listened to it on tape, and was touched by it, but this reading, after David died was . . . personal is too easy a work. I could not read it from cover to cover, but remembering chunks of it, went searching for those parts first. It was after I was through with it that I found out that her daughter died just before the book came out. And I cried. I do not cry for authors but I was so touched by all she had been through, of all she was able to explain to her readers, that it seemed more than cruel to saddle her with more loss. And although, David and I were not literary giants, in a small and very private way, I recognize in our life together, the coupling that Didion had with her John.

This morning it is the two quotes above that spur me on. I have always liked to see dancers sweat. I like to see the work. It is like Bertolt Brecht’s theater and Bill T. Jones' dance. Salinger has done that for me again and again. Is this Didion as well?

And what she says, even briefly, about her daughter’s death. “A whole different level of loss” I understand that. No, I cannot really understand it. My daughters are alive and well, but it was David’s death that ultimately pushed his father towards his own demise. We cannot lose children without dying ourselves. At least, just a bit. The only children that I have lost was a miscarriage before Cheshire was born, and my niece who killed herself when she was 19. Both of these deaths left me with great remorse -- a feeling that to this day does not ease although in the case of my miscarriage, there was very little rational reason for me to feel such regret. With Jennifer, my niece, however, there was more that I could have done. And didn’t because I was living my own life. I did not value her life. She was taken care of, somewhat adequately, her basic needs were met. Food. Shelter. Clothing. Education. But in this last year, as I’ve read much more closely about attachment, bonding, trauma, and their effects on the developing brain, my thoughts would return over and over to Jennifer. Sometimes I would think of her rather than Julia, whose attachment and bonding issues are clouded with behavioral challenges. There could be multiple reasons attached to Julia’s challenges, but for Jennifer, it all seems much too clear to me now. She was profoundly unattached to her parents and her life and death reflected that. I could not have, would not have, ever been her mother, but I could have been a much better aunt. Maybe that partner that Julia feels me to be. And it is for that, that I can’t wait to read Didion’s book. For the girl partner that I did not cultivate.

Amazon or the book store?

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