Thursday, August 19, 2010

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

"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. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
-Joan Didion, Slouching towards Bethlehem

I reread Joan Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook" from her compilation, Slouching Towards Bethlehem again last night in search of some clarity. I've said it before, and I'll say it again-- I love Didion-- but I also fear her. I think she's good for me, to be honest. She toughens me up a bit.

What Didion is suggesting is a net. When I first came across this bit of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I read it in terms of past failures, past embarrassments. 'Do not forget to acknowledge the error of your ways' I could hear her preaching through those thick rimmed glasses and that strict black turtleneck. (I always picture her looking down at me, although I'm sure I stand two feet dominant.)

But it wasn't until reading this chapter for the gazillionth time last night that I realized that Didion is in fact commenting on our innocence. In addition to our embarrassments, or mistakes, and our demons, Didion is referring to our Best Selves. (I realize that this may sound a little GOOPy,--goopy! ha!-- but let's try to think of it as literary and maintain some dignity, shall we?)

You see, I can scroll through this blog-- my notebook of sorts-- and tell just by my confidence in prose who I was at the time. I can tell when I felt beat down and I can tell when I was being built up. I can tell when I was happy and excited and bursting at the seams to share and I can tell when I was dark and trying to shroud it in excuses. Yes, I can get dark. You've yet to see it here, on these pages, but I can get dark and it isn't fun for anyone.

I just entered my fourth year in this city and while I bask at the knowledge I've gained in the past three years, I cower at the harshness that all too quickly leaves my lips. I will call out that cab driver for taking the wrong exit and I'll aggressively lurch at the rudeness of waitstaff. My blood boils over slow walkers on Broadway and I despise loud teenagers on the train. I didn't used to be that way.

The point is this: New York can make you hard. And without acknowledging the people we used to be, we will not only forget who we were, but who we are.

If you're familiar with her more famous essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 'Goodbye To All That', you know to what I'm referring. It's a mean essay, a hard one, especially for young girls who are new to New York. It was a mean thing for me to read my first week here, sitting at the reception desk of my new job as an assistant at an important publishing house (or so I decided to believe.) I read the essay with a knot in my stomach, scared to death that one day I wouldn't be the girl in love anymore. That one day I would turn into a girl locked in my apartment with a paralyzing fear of the city. But even amidst her harshness, Didion gives us a nodding glance at her past self:

"I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs."

New York is constantly telling us to look ahead. It's a city of ambition and conquerors and dreams. But in order to maintain here, we must also look back. We must keep on nodding terms with our past innocence.

Happy weekend, New York. I'm off to eat a peach.


Ms. S said...

Thanks for sharing this - it was just what I needed to read today. I think I'll go find myself a copy of 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' - Joan Didion sounds wise.

Amanda said...

Auntie Sarah,

You always amaze me. You are such a beautiful artist and an inspiring friend... I just read through all your recent posts, thanks for your honesty!!!