The Death of Didion

Joan Didion was my favorite writer. That “was” may go back to a time before her death. It may have ended when I read Blue Nights, but I have yet to choose a replacement. Her style was extraordinary in its simultaneous originality and simplicity, and I followed her with devotion, while knowing I could never write like her. Perhaps because I knew I could never write like her: terse, incisive, stark, and stripped of emotion, while effectively evoking it from the reader. She is one of only two big writers who I have gone out of my way to see speak, and meet.

I was introduced to Joan Didion’s work, as I was introduced to so many of my favorite artists, by my college professor/surrogate father/friend who died last year, also of Parkinson’s, though a decade younger than her. He gave me Play It As It Lays in the midst of the drama of my depressed, self-absorbed, self-destructive sophomore year in Los Angeles, where it largely takes place; studying acting, which is the career of the protagonist; chain smoking, like he;, obsessively driving the freeways when I couldn’t sleep, as she did; routinely tearing through specific intersections highlighted in the book. I gobbled it up like it was the one essential nutrient keeping me alive. To this day, it is one of my top 5 favorite novels. That was the beginning of my obsession, which stretched over 12 books. Her memoir Where I Was From is the rare holdout on the shelf, and will now be my holiday reading. Because that’s what we do when writers die. At least I bought it while she was still alive to reap whatever profits were to be had.

I didn’t love all of her books. The political ones, in particular, were too insider-y for me. I don’t know if I’d understand them better now than I did then, and I don’t feel any need to find out. But when she was on … fuck. She had a way of making the ethereal tenable, and making the mundane revelatory. The contents of a purse (The Book of Common Prayer) could say as much as a deep psychological delve into a character. This was a revelation to me.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

I don’t think of Didion as a spiritual person, and I don’t think she did, either. But anyone who deliberately digs deeply into their own mind is bound to run up against the boundaries of things, the immaterial. Her famous quote above is right out of Buddhism 101. But rather than trying to escape the narrative and simply be, as Buddhists do, she relentlessly shoveled the shit, which might be almost the same thing, in the end.

Depression, in Didion’s works, is depicted not by talking about it: characters don’t discuss their feelings. They may not say much at all. They exhibit certain behaviors which represent certain states or weaknesses or depressive or anxious characteristics. It is the behaviors that hold their attention, not the motivation underneath. They are trapped in the idea of their own identity, or what it should be, or what they think others perceive it to be. They follow the directions drawn for them instead of being present in their own lives. They are detached to an exceptional degree, so that the protagonists may seem to be narrating their own story as they’re living it, or rather instead of living it, believing that changing the narrative will change the person herself.

She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper…. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household…. She knew all the indices of the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.  

…she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable …

Play It As It Lays

A journalist and sometime screenwriter herself, her characters seem to also be watching the movie from the outside, narrating the story of their lives instead of living it, moving through a kind of fog or mild narcotic state. And not just in her novels. In her essays, the commentary on her life, her thoughts, seems to her far more real than her life itself.

Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind, she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.

Play It As It Lays

You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people…. Quite often during the last several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the Moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams.

In the Islands, essay (The White Album, 1979)

Joan Didion, as you probably know, wrote a gut-wrenching book on her reaction to the death of her husband, because she didn’t know what else to do, how to act, how to Be. (I read it in one sitting because it was beautiful and because it was too painful to carry over into a second day.) She grounded herself in curiosity about her own inner workings, and also recognized that she could not hide from grief behind words. That grief was present in a way that she often was not, shrouded in her protective magical thinking. And the uber-narrator is acutely aware of that.

Perhaps the writing brought her some peace. It definitely brought thousands of readers to some understanding – of her, of themselves, of grief. The best artists make the specific universal, and the universal personal. In her analytical way, she turned herself inside out – for us? For her? No matter. We could see ourselves reflected there, in all our gory vulnerability.

Life changes fast/ Life changes in and instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The Year of Magical Thinking walks us, and Joan herself, through the months after her partner’s death, but it’s not that different from the rest of her writing – writing as both interpreter of and substitute for living, “both a way of keeping a distance and a way of getting close. It’s both those things, simultaneously.” (interview ~2011). Writing is both a way to connect and a way to detach. Look at the lines above – the first words she wrote after her husband died weren’t explaining her own feelings, her own experience: they pulled the lens back on the moment – declarative, conclusive, not even in the first person. It isn’t about her, it’s about LIFE, in the abstract, writ large. She struggles both with the need to write to figure out the story, and with wanting to resist creating a narrative that may not be honest.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Why I Write, NY Times 12/5/76

There is something spiritual about Didion’s work, in its explicit omission. Her focus on behavior and thought and physicality recognizes its own exclusionary nature, thereby opening up the possibility for more. In Play It As It Lays, Maria’s fear of losing herself to inertia and pathos drive her to keep pursuing self-awareness.

By the end of a week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.

There is some terror in losing that distinction, because the character has no resource for dealing with it. She’s surrounded by self-serving, profit and status-driven people in a dry, manufactured, materialistic world. But the pain in living that detached narrative is palpable.

I’ll close this attempt at analysis with as much reportage as I can muster. The scene: a woman, far nearer 40 than 20, waits in line to meet her literary heroine, cradling her favorite novel and the writer’s recent memoir under her arm. As she watches the other attendees step up to the table, she cycles through reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent praise, something that hints at her own mental acuity, and with respect for the subject: that she has read more of the author’s works than anyone alive; that of the thousand novels she’s read, this is among the very best. She looks up as the distance shrinks and decides she doesn’t need to say anything at all. She can just hand over the books for signing. Then she approaches the table, and the tiny, old woman looks up, with eyes that look beyond and through what is in front of her, but stare definitively at her own, and the fan blurts out, “I love your writing SO MUCH.” The author opens the books and signs, saying nothing, and hands them back. Was there a tired sigh? The woman walks out of the theatre and goes on with her life, a new narrative to tell, with a new character under her belt: the fawning fool.

Thank you, Ms. Didion, for all of it.

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).

I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.

Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.

I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days.  For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.

If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.

I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.

She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.

Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.

So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Buddhish Moments in Pop Culture, #1

perksI found The Perks of Being a Wallflower crammed into my friend’s bookshelf as I was waiting for the group to gather for hardcore boardgame play. I loved the movie, and it turns out I went to school with the writer (and director), and he’s apparently a good guy, so I borrowed the book and gobbled it down in less than 24 hours.

I don’t let myself indulge in fiction often anymore. And while I know that’s ridiculous, it still helps me to get off my own back if I can make a mini-blog out of it.

Or one moment of it, anyway.

Charlie is our limited narrator – a quiet, observant high school freshman who carries a semi-dormant, unspecified mental illness and few meaningful friendships until he meets Patrick and Emma – lively step-siblings in their final year of high school who take him under their wing. That’s all the background you need for the moment. You don’t really even need that, but why would you want to read about a moment in the life of an anonymous character?

… we all got quiet
Sam tapped her hand on the steering wheel. Patrick held his hand outside the car and made air waves. And I just sat between them. After the song finished, I said something.
“I feel infinite.”
And Sam and Patrick just looked at me like I said the greatest thing they ever heard. Because the song was so great and because we all really paid attention to it. Five minutes of a lifetime were truly spent, and we felt young in a good way.

I should just let that stand as is, but as J.D. Salinger once wrote, “Zoe’s voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth.” (shout out to my JD homies, whutwhut!)

I read a Paul Tillich book in a Christian Doctrine class in grad school, and it’s my earliest memory of thinking of the idea of “God” as synonymous with the infinite, as an existence distinct from the mortality of everything we can experience with our senses. This brought that back again, but couched in a simple, everyday example of how a moment “truly spent” is divine in every sense of the word. Because if the only reality that actually exists is the present moment – if the future and the past are illusory – then fully living that moment makes us immortal in that moment, which is literally everything.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Baby Got Back Pain

I suffered from back pain on and off for about 18 years. My severe sciatic pain was periodic for more than a decade. It made it hard to walk at times and caused a sensation that conjured the image of being stabbed in the ass with an ice pick. I saw chiropractors throughout that time period; I tried acupuncture, exercise, massage, yoga, private Pilates lessons.  Just about everything helped temporarily, but the pain always came back with undiminished and even increasing intensity.

But that’s only half the story. Continue reading “Baby Got Back Pain”

Book Review for a 46-Year-Old Book: Be Here Now by Ram Dass

be here nowIf I had not known of the joyous awesomeness that is Ram Dass, I never would have read this book.  I’ve had a lot of luck in my life judging books by their covers and this one would not have received a fair trial. It is a perfect square, with a cover that reads the same whether you’re holding it like a literate adult, or glancing at it sideways, semi-conscious, or doing a headstand in front of it, and that is only the beginning of its material weirdness. Continue reading “Book Review for a 46-Year-Old Book: Be Here Now by Ram Dass”