You Just Live It
Musings on Joan Didion
I first saw Los Angeles when I was 21. I flew in on a direct JetBlue flight from JFK and the “Manhattan Serenade” from the Godfather played in my head as we hit the runway. This was a time when I matched my headbands to my jackets was under the naive impression that I could swim in January Malibu. It was a time before I had read Joan Didion.
I left Los Angeles with a copy of The White Album and returned to an impending polar vortex. Trapped in a windowless illegal Chinatown loft inhabited by seven roommates, I began to read. Joan put into words the emotions I felt as a young person trying to figure out her place in the world. How did she know? How was she able to speak so honestly, so frankly about life, even at its most intimate moments?
In this light all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful and equally senseless.
Full of emotions during my last semester of college, this was the first passage I annotated. Attending college in New York had instilled me with not only an inflated sense of importance (we were city kids) but made our every movement, even the frivolous ones seem meaningful. We spun tales of righteousness and attributed originality to our every action. We wanted to desperately to hold onto the university fantasy and resist a future of minimum wage jobs juxtaposed against student debt.
A few months later, I graduated NYU and like so many of my fellow liberal arts classmates, had little idea of how to apply my degree in “French Studies”. I worked at small art bookstore, BookMarc, in the West Village, while I figured out how the rest of my life should play out. I spent my days reading old Joan like Miami or El Salvador and convincing customers to buy the Olympia Le-Tan clutch designed in the shape of The White Album.
The day I successfully sold this piece of paraphernalia was the day I met Joan’s niece, Annabelle Dunne. Equipped with a beaming smile and too nice to be from New York vibe, she wanted to gift the clutch to her aunt. A documentary filmmaker, she shared the Kickstarter page her team launched to raise funds for what would become The Center Will Not Hold. She also invited me to Vanessa Redgrave’s reading of Blue Nights taking place at St. John’s Cathedral.
I took the 1 train up to Morningside Heights and entered the candlelit cathedral. The pews were a third full and I was by far the youngest audience member. Vanessa’s voice billowed through the buttresses as tears flowed. We all knew the ending to this story.
After the reading, I approached the alter for a chance to speak to Vanessa when all of a sudden, there she was before me — Joan Didion, in her tiny frame. We made eye contact.
What is someone so young doing here? She flatly asked in her Sacramentan twang.
I excused myself for my fandom and explained that I was learning about life from her essays.
Nothing can prepare you for life; you just live it. She gestured me to meet Vanessa and disappeared into the abyss of the cathedral.
The next morning, dazed from the surreal evening, I donated to the campaign and received a copy of a recipe for Joan’s infamous 40-person parsley salad.
The years following college were emotionally exhausting. I tried finding my place in a city that I loved so much, but it just seemed perpetually disappointed at my presence. What was I doing here? Was it time to leave? I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
The day before I left New York, I stood in line at the Frick Museum for their Free Friday’s exhibit and dramatically read Goodbye to All That out loud to a friend. Joan was 28, I, 25, when we left New York.
You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.
I arrived in Los Angeles looking for answers. There are a vast number of reasons why New York and Los Angeles differ, but the extraordinary lack of literature on the latter location is surprising. New York bursts at its seams with art; taunting its coolness. Los Angeles on the other hand is subtle; you have to dig. Sure, there are old Hollywood films and a handful of artists (Hockney, Aarons) but the literature documenting the normal lives of non-Hollywood folk is dismal. How was I supposed to understand this city?
My view of California was and always will be shaped by Joan’s California. She brought a city so foreign to life. Her influence manifested into subconscious choices. My apartment was only a few blocks from Joan’s first Hollywood home. Her Ralph’s was my Ralph’s too — Rockin Ralph’s. Would I have ever stopped to notice the distinctiveness of the Santa Ana’s without her personification? But it wasn’t just about her world; it was the way she looked at the world. The importance placed on the small, inserted details that tell us everything we need to know about any given situation.
As time passed, prospects seemed increasingly positive in my life. I returned to the city that had caused so much anguish in my early 20s. New York was different this time; I was on a path and was pursing my dreams. All was well…until the COVID-19 lockdown hit the world.
Nothing can prepare you for life; You have to live it.
I spent the first three months of lockdown crippled with a chronic migraine. While I had thankfully not experienced the loss of any loved ones, I too felt grief in other ways. Grief of lost time. Grief of the darkness of New York. Grief of the unknown. And who better to shed light on grief than Joan?
I slowly reread A Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. One unfamiliar with Joan’s writing might deem these odd choices to read during a global pandemic; but these novels aren’t just sad novels. Rather they are about the intimacies that we share with the loved ones around us. The trinket sized memories that we take for granted and come to mourn when they are no more. Rereading these novels reminded me of those trinkets. Of the joy that still existed in the world around me.
Her choices, all Sentimental choices, things she remembered. I remembered them too.
At the beginning of 2021, in an effort to make sense of the past year, I began seriously to write. As the year comes to a close, I can say that I have written something every day. As fellow writers often acknowledge Joan’s influence on their writing; I must admit the same. Reading Joan’s essays and instilling my own daily practice have unleashed a slew of forgotten memories of my own past. How have these subtle details crocheted themselves together to create the person I am today? How do these details impact the characters I craft in my writing?
Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even a limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
Joan was right in her advice. Nothing can prepare you for life; you just live it. But sometimes, we do need a little guidance along the way.
Eternally grateful for you, Joan ❤