Still Slouching Toward(s) Bethlehem

Joan Didion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Whenever I take a class with Teri Stubits, trainer extraordinaire, I walk away resolved to be a better BA. Whenever I read Joan Didion’s writing, I resolve to be a better writer. Didion has been an important companion to me for most of my reading life, and while Blue Nights has been on my shelf for years, it is perhaps no coincidence that I chose this particular August, the month before lens surgery and the month of RA treatment, to read this beautiful and thoughtful commentary on the process of aging. And perhaps no coincidence that in this honest yet somehow disbelieving commentary on loss, my page marker has been the funeral card of one of my closest friends, lost suddenly and against my will.

Like Didion, I have “lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age.” Yet shockingly, I am. Other people notice it before I do. Twenty-somethings call me “Ma’am.” My two-drink minimum has become a two-drink maximum. In the last 24 months, I have attended more funerals than in the previous 24 years. I dread reaching the age of invisibility. Maybe I have, and other people notice it before I do.

Yet I really didn’t want this book to end, not because of Didion’s foreshadowing of what awaits me, but because Joan Didion still writes like Joan Didion. The absolute mastery of language, of pauses, of punctuation — all still the same Joan Didion who played it as it lay. There is also that element of voyeurism. The Dunne family is to letters what the Barrymores were to theatre, and the candid glimpses into the author’s private sphere (more guarded, even clinical, in The Year of Magical Thinking) create a moving intimacy with the writer that is made all the more poignant knowing that this is, at its core, a memoir written to come to grips with the loss that sparks dread in the heart of parents. This is the loss of a parent who outlived her child. Such a loss is against nature.

My only child, like Quintana Dunne, is a child of choice and not of biology. My perfect child is safe and healthy. Didion’s daughter was safe and healthy too, until one day, she wasn’t. Surprising that a book that chronicles my own base fears could be as pleasurable as it was gripping. Perhaps a testament to the power of Didion’s craft. Most certainly a shaft of hope comes from knowing that having faced my greatest fears, Joan Didion still can wield words that take my breath away.


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