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If We Are to Live Ourselves: Thoughts on Didion

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I feel the truth in Didion’s observation, seeping into to me like caffeine hitting the bloodstream. For who doesn’t look back on who they used be and shake their head? That’s no longer us, and in many ways, we might wish it never was. But that person helped carry us here.

Joan Didion passed away yesterday. There are people far more familiar with her work—far more qualified—to write her obituary than me (See Parul Sehgal’s Joan Didion Chronicled American Disorder With Her Own Unmistakable Style”). If you want to glimpse the soul of a writer of consequence, read the words that they themselves offer to the world in their most personal moments. The words that bring you into their world in common bond. Such as this quote Sehgal highlighted:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” she once wrote. “I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”

Can’t you see it? Didion placing her hands on your shoulders, looking you square in the eye and imploring you to listen. Get to it straightaway! Live a bit more recklessly. Sing and dance and live outside your comfort zone. Take more chances. Decide who to be, and go be it.

Didion knew urgency and pain. She lost both her husband and adult daughter within a couple of devastating years of each other. She herself suffered from Parkinson’s Disease in her final years. She might have lived a glamorous life bouncing between Malibu and Manhattan early on, but she suffered losses that would floor any of us. And she shared her journey out of the abyss with her readers:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. — from The Year of Magical Thinking

Ultimately we either shatter into pieces and fade away ourselves or climb back out to make something of our remaining time on this earth. Didion was a fighter. And her words that remain even as she passes betray her spirit and prompt those who remain to carry on the work:

Do not whine… Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.” — from Blue Nights

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