Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tangled up

"The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming,” the glimmer, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.


Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?

During my commute, I'm listening to the audio version of Joan Didion's Blue Nights.

Dear lord, what was I thinking? Yes, it's beautifully written and Joan Didion is the quintessential dry-eyed sob sister, or as John Banville wrote in his review in the New York Times, a connoisseur of catastrophe. But holy gut punches. Between her daughter's death and Joan's aging, I may find the compulsion to drive the car over an embankment on Georgia Highway 61 too much to resist.

Highway 61 - See how easy it could be?
At first, the memoir irritated me with its name dropping and product placement. I almost gave up on it.

Related, but not entirely, it turns out...One of the reasons I don't read chick-lit is because I cannot stand all the references to designers. It's my own version of reverse snobbery because I don't know one designer for another. I mean, to even name a designer, except for the really ubiquitous ones, I 'd have to Google something like "Who are the hot fashion designers in 2012."

Which I fruitlessly did. So I gave up.

The point is what may impress some who enjoy hearing the details of what it's like to eat off the very special and expensive plates of some high society matron sounds like so much blah, brag, blah to me. Yes, it's cool that Joan and her husband John Gregory Dunne lived in the rarefied air they did, but if I'm trying to relate to the story of discovery and loss, etc. you're losing me, Joan. We're not connecting.

In fact, the Chanel suits, the two batiste Christening gowns (gifts both!) for the baby Quintana Roo, the bassinet from Saks, Quintana's introduction to caviar at age five, and the trips to movie sets are obstacles for me. I can't hear what you're trying to say because you keep placing all these status barriers between your story and me, the reader.

I slid the audio book under the car seat (DO NOT PUT IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT) and went back to chewing the inside of my cheek while listening to the radio and gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly.

I eventually reconsidered and extracted the audio book from beneath the seat. But note, I was doing this selfishly. The truth is, I couldn't listen to one more political story, my favorite music station was playing too much Sting and the old time radio classics station was airing westerns which I just couldn't appreciate as I creeped along in traffic that a horse-drawn wagon could lap. Plus I had a serious need to pee.


I'm glad I retrieved the book from car interior oblivion because whether it was my mood or a shift in the story arc, I was able to eventually find connection, to let myself be pulled into the words unraveling the very human endeavors of growing old and losing loved ones.

The dying part was particularly hard because I cannot, will not imagine that one of my children could die before I do.

Ah. The truth making itself known whether I want to acknowledge it or not.

Perhaps I was looking for an excuse to not listen to Blue Nights. Maybe I didn't want to be exposed to such heartbreak. I was afraid of experiencing secondhand Joan's pain, no matter how beautifully written.

My own weakness laid bare in a 1995 Toyota Celica. Not pretty.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Of all the things I fear - the death of my children is the thing I fear most. That's not a badge of honor, a sign of my devotion, a measure of my depth of love for those three human beings who are part me, part MathMan and mostly inconvenient and expensive. Rather, it's because I'm a big pussy who does not ever want to have confirmed just how weak she is when it comes to her children.

What other kinds of things do I shield my fragile bits, the raw nerves from? My disdain for status statements is easy to discern if I give it a moment's thought. I hate status issues because they force me to admit my failures. According to the Laws of Capitalism, I am a spectacular failure. This is something I'm keenly aware of, again in relation to my children and what I haven't been able to do for them.

My inability to achieve financial security and success is a noose with which I hang myself often. For all the things I could offer my children, financial security seems to be the most valued by our society. If you can't provide it, you are punished in oh so many ways. Which means your children are punished, as well. That knowledge tends to negate many of the good things that don't come with a price tag.

It's cold comfort, but what I'm finding in Joan's story is that even when you are in the position to give your children everything and more, you still will not be able to protect them from everything. Real security cannot be purchased, cannot be banished by privilege, connections or a healthy bank account. The best healthcare money can buy remains useless in the face of certain death.

Yesterday evening, MathMan and I drove home after having dinner out. A rare moment of quiet, contentment, no conversation needed. The light over the hills and across the open fields was blue. Blue night. Blue nights.

I noticed it, broke the comfortable silence to remark on it, realized I'd always noticed it.

25 comments:

  1. What lovely writing, Lisa! [subliminal message] write a memoir! [end subliminal message]

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    1. Thank you, Summer. Message received. Someday.

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  2. Very nice ... Poignant with truth laced within.

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    1. Thank you, Bill. Knowing that you share my conflicted feelings about raising children, I take this as high praise.

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  3. Seasons don't fear the reaper, but we pussies-with-kids do.

    When you write your memoir, don't forget the product placement (what's that cereal you name drop now and then, Quisps, Quints, Will-O-The-Wisps?)

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    1. Indeed, Randal. For the record, it's Quisp. And I thought for sure you were going to bust me for the "classic" car reference. A '95 Celica with just a bit of rust is a classic, right?

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  4. Beautifully written Lisa. I love Didion's writing but for me, she has no soul. She doesn't bleed on the page. A friend of mine who lost her husband read Magical Thinking and said not only did it not help her, it was like the husband never even existed except in Didion's writing. I tend to agree.

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    1. Suzy, thank you. I think that's it. A certain bloodnessness to Didion's writing. I'm listening to this waiting for the tears, the bleeding. I'm thinking what a heap of goo I'd be in similar circumstances and the moment never arrives.

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    2. I tried to read "Magical Thinking" and gave up for the same reason. I just couldn't link to whether or not she truly cared for her spouse. It's a terrible thing to think, as I'm sure she grieved deeply for him. I just couldn't connect to it myself.

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    3. I haven't read "Magical Thinking." It remains untouched on the shelf because I never could bring myself to read it when I was already feeling so blue.

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  5. I can see how you choked on the name dropping upscale overload. As Jefferson Airplane put it in a song *Doesn't mean shit to a tree". Nothing matters but the heart & soul & how we care & the effort we make.
    Having lost all the older generation to death on both side of the families in the course of a year's time, you realize life is short, and for me, I realized, we ARE now the elders of the family. Just like that, it happened.
    I like how you pointed out money can't buy you health, and it can't prevent pain & loss.
    I can't imagine what losing a child must feel like. The whole world falling apart under you?


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7epbdQ4YYI

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    1. Thanks, Fran. What a perfect song. We're not there yet with the death of the elders on my side of the family, but on Doug's side, his siblings are all who are left. It makes me feel anxious to move back to Chicago so we can get old together. There's something really lonely about getting old down here where we don't really know anyone.

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  6. Where do I start....

    I had the same reaction when I read The Year of Magical Thinking, the initial push-back-response to all the name dropping. I remember sitting in my kitchen with a few people on New Years Eve and arguing my point so strongly I thought I'd pass out. I was so distracted by the "shrimp quesadilla at Morton's" and all the movie sets, etc... the entire time I was reading that book.

    But then I read it again, because I was looking for patterns in the writing. And then I listened to it on audio for the same reason. And by then I was no longer bothered by that stuff ---- so much for my big soap-box-hissy-fit on New Years Eve! ---- because I saw too many other great things about that book. I've since listened to it on audio about 10 times and I feel like I get it. Joan is telling her version, what it looked like from where she was, "the cool customer" she kept calling herself. And you know what? I appreciated her calling herself "the cool customer" because it was honest. Joan knows that Joan is not the warm and fuzzy and bawling in public type. I accept this. And I appreciate that she didn't try to portray herself as such. It's not who she is. She's always been "the cool customer" in her essays, and she remains so now, even in her deepest grief.

    So yes, Joan does have a soul. It may not be the soul of the wife or mother we wish she had, the broken and bleeding in public kind, but it is there. It is.

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    1. I think that's why I kept listening to Blue Nights, Teri. I had to finish to understand that this is who Joan is. This isn't a brave face or pseudo-anything. It's who she is. Her writing represents the real person.

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    2. Okay, I'll admit that I've tried a few times to get into Joan Didion and I haven't quite made the leap over the name-dropping, cool customer business. I'm going to try again, because god knows the writing is gorgeous and she certainly has a story to tell.

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  7. I recommend that you follow that up with Isabelle Allende's "My Forgotten Country" in Audio Book. If I can remember who borrowed mine, I'll get it back and send it to you. It's 6 CD hours.

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    1. Excellent, Renn. I'd love that. I just picked up "A Grown Up Kind of Pretty" to listen to next. Then there's Farther Away, a set of essays by Jonathan Franzen. Keep the ideas coming, please!

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    1. Thank you, Thunder. Yes. I was patiently waiting.

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  9. It's true what you say. I haven't read Joan Didion's 'Blue Nights', and I'm sure I'd be equally irritated by all the wealth and status references, but the urge to protect our children from harm is a primal one. What we've been hung up on the past few weeks is a tv show now on dvd that I'm sure you must have seen - 'The Wire'. The worst part for both of us is the ongoing tragedy of the young people stuck in the projects of Baltimore simply because their lives aren't valued by the society they were born into. I'll always remember seeing the little ones crossing the street under the watchful eye of a crossing guard while their not much older siblings are fighting a drug turf war. It may be a tv show but that stuff brings tears to my eyes because it's as real as anything gets.

    So I think again about rich people, gated communities, and the fact that all children eventually leave home. As the class divide grows wider everyone is less safe.
    Apologies if I've gone off topic but cultural diseases are just as deadly as anything the world can throw at us.

    btw: You reminded me of Edward Gorey's picture: They searched the cellar, fruitlessly.

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    1. We haven't watched The Wire yet. It's on my list of shows to watch. What you wrote is so true. We like to think we're a classless society. Not true. We have less class mobility than we imagine and it's only getting worse.

      susan, any day I can remind you of Edward Gorey is the perfect day in my book. Thank you.

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  10. oh no. i love joan. she seems pure writer to me. i don't know what it is, but something about her being able to write, not like a man, but with the same...drive as a man. as if the writing is first, over everything else. that i love. and respect. and magical thinking floored me. to write about death in that way. detached and yet deeply. i feel like i'm rambling, but i love joan even with the name dropping (maybe even because of??)

    (there's a sign on a corner near my house for a yard sale that reads, "Big Yard Sale this Saturday -- Lots of Junk" I keep wanting to take a picture when in my car. Your gorgeous hwy shot has inspired me to do it next time I see it.)

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  11. I know many people love Joan. Pure writer. Yes, Josephine. That's very much it. An ability to write beautifully, but with a detachment. It's sentimental without being emotional. It's fucking hard to describe.

    Please do take a photo of that sign. I would love to see it.

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  12. I haven't read Joan so I can't comment on her writing. I do know that there is some chick lit that seems so focused upon name brand high heeled shoes that I just can't get around it enough to read whatever else the author is saying.

    There is a class system in this country and in a way it's worse because it is unacknowledged. And should one bring it up the wealthy begin to rant "class warfare". Fuck an A!

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  13. well, i will try again...i swear that blogger aka google tries to punish those of us who flew the coop! wow, you and me both...i cannot even bear to write it...

    i did think about reading her book after seeing something somewhere about her... she did seem an interesting woman but i am like you with the name/status dropping stuff...still it sounds good. and your writing is also very good, my dear. how is that book coming? did i miss that somewhere? xoxox

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And then you say....

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