Joan Didion's On Going Home, another essay in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a 1967 meditation on the meaning of 'home,' - whether it is a physical place in which we live or a way we have of living with each other. I mention the date because it is the last 4 characters I read in the essay and therefore the most recent, and because it somehow encapsulated what I had read. Not that the essay is dated in a way that makes it no longer comprehensible, but rather it is dated in the way an archaeologist can date the layers of a dig. In this essay one experiences the 40s, the 60s and the 00s by the way Didion writes of 'home.'
I go to visit my great-aunts. A few of them think now that I am my cousin, or their daughter who died young. We recall an anecdote about a relative last seen in 1948, and they ask if I still like living in New York city. I have lived in Los Angeles for three years, but I say that I do. The baby is offered a horehound drop, and I am slipped a dollar bill "to buy a treat."
Didion's visit home is made palpable by the way in which she experiences the present - that always seems the element around which she has the most clarity.
Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one's past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room. I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed. A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen. A letter of rejection from The Nation, an aerial photograph of the site for a shopping center my father did not build in 1954...
And it is made most poignant when she muses:
...That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am home.
There is nothing like seeing a thing you know was meaningful to you once and is now empty and wondering - what was that all for. I know how much I cared. And those things I care about now - should I really care about them? Are they anything at all or will I just pull them out of a drawer thirty years from now and wonder?
She takes the reflection one level further, imagining what sort of home she will give her own baby as she has her next birthday - fearing she is not giving her enough. I take that reflection still one level further, reflecting on whether that child, now no longer alive, had the home Didion wished for her, and whether she had a chance to return to that home and reflect as her mother had.
Her writing makes me want to cry.
And even more: it makes me want to be better, work harder, dig deeper.
She's the best there is.
I can't get over the way she refuses to look away, even when she'd rather not see what is there.
Thanks for recommending this great book!
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