“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – JD

I don’t even know where to start.

My mother and I always had serious conversations in the car, usually conversations held during the whir of the car wash when it almost relaxed each of us that the hairs on twirling belts were massaging the windows.

Usually people have serious conversations in the car because it’s a place of transition.  It’s a place to mellow from the noise of the day.  After I get done reading a novel, or spending too much time on the internet alleyways, I always find the time in my car, mindlessly driving, a small chunk of aloneness (but not loneliness).

This weekend, I went on a road-trip with the boy I’m dating.

During the road-trip we had a discussion about the volcano at Yellowstone blowing.  He’s in a geology class and we were talking about how it was always California, and the West that we thought would go down in a heated fit of lava.  We were discussing how all of those cows, and dust motes, and rivers would be filled with ash and death.  However, his teacher and the majority of his classmates corrected him and told him it was the entire “Eastern Seaboard” that would be demolished if Yellow Stone “blew it’s top.”  Then, suddenly we’re transported to G.R.I.T.S, and trucks melting, flags burning, our own flesh, ash in a current.

Thinking about your own death changes things.

When the tar, smoke, ash, igneous rock and lava hits California, Washington, the biggest poetry bookstore in the United States in Seattle, coyotes in New Mexico it causes much less trauma than thinking about my father’s death in the house he’s lived in the longest out of the many others from his child hood as a moving-soldier, and then moving grocery-store manager.  It kills my mother with her red hair and sweet disposition.  My nephew is taken down off the wagon.  My brother won’t play anymore music, and it’s all devastating.

This is part of the way I felt reading Joan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking.

A grave gift in the cemetery my grandmother is buried. (Gainsville, Florida) Taken by: Sarah Dion Photography

I could understand her coldness, the way the medical records soothed her because they were words she didn’t necessarily understand yet, or big words that meant nothing to her next to the magnitude of the word death.  The empty space in the d, e, and a and the gaps left over in the corners and swoops of t and h.  I understand why the little things, that were so redundant, and felt unnecessary were everything; the hotels they stayed in, the egg every morning for breakfast, the roads she took to Quintana in the hospital.  These are the mundane things that we must think about after death.

After my grandmother passed away in 2007, I kept thinking about her small pouch of extra stitching string and the one knitting needle that she left in the jewelry box passed down to me.  I tried desperately to remember the smell of her trailer with the birds and the chihauhau’s, but all I had was the noise of the bird

My graveyard look. First time I had been back.

and my palms against the inner-city folds of my ears.

Even now, just thinking about it, I’d rather look at the list of rocks that come up when I googled how to spell, “igneous.”  They are: andesite, rock, stone, aplite, groundmass, adesite, batholite, diorite, sodalite, periodotite.  All of these words that have nothing to do with my grandmother, her trailer, her jewelry box, her yankee-dixie relationship with my grandfather.  But at the same time, the list is soothing.  The same way a car ride is soothing, or memorizing the names of the streets you pass on the way to the hospital is soothing.  The biggest thing that soothes me when I think of visiting my grandmother’s grave in 2009 is the clotheslines of the lower income housing that can be seen from the graveyard.  There was a pink shirt, a wife-beater, a pair of brown slacks and some wind.  That’s it, that’s the only thing I think of, driving in the car with my best friend Sarah.  I don’t think about what I wrote during the time that I sat by her grave shushing ants with my giant fingers (to them), or the weeds I picked, or the amount of times I pulled up my pants.  Now, I do, now I can remember those little things, but then, I thought of clotheslines, and of my mother’s holey shoes.  There was no money.

So, I understand Didon’s book.  I understand the story of grief; the cold and hard facts.  The way some people say she’s “emotionally unresponsive.”

I think the biggest argument I’ve read against the book is her insertion of information where she assumes everyone is wealthy, everyone has a pool they fill with gardenias and candles before parties.  The amount of times they flew across the United States from New York to San Francisco and sometimes over oceans to Hawaii and Paris isn’t essential.  I, too, found this unsettling that she’d assume this added to her recollection of grief.  I don’t think it takes away from the book though.  I think she writes through the details, and hides her grief between the lines, and the facts, and the useless information that is only important to her and her grief process.  I like this information because as much as this book might help someone get through grief, or piss them off because she’s rich and they’re not, it just shows how grief isn’t the same for all of us.

I think what really angered me about this book is that Didion knew me before I even opened a page.  On page 198, with eighty percent of the book complete, Didion says this:

“I remember despising the book Dylan Thomas’s widow Caitlin wrote after her husband’s death, Leftover Life to Kill.  I remember being dismissive of, even censorious about, her “self-pity,” her “whining,” her “dwelling on it.”  Leftover Life to Kill was published in 1957.  I was twenty-two years old.  Time is the school in which we learn” (Didion, 198).

I think what frustrates me about this passage is it gives Didion the right to whine, to dwell, to show self-pity where the rest of grieving America is holed up in the houses, crying in the bathtub with their father’s, brother’s, boyfriend’s favorite book leaving wet marks on the pages.  She has put her grief out there, where it’s a new subject that isn’t self-help, but nonfiction.  Where are the other grieving widows left?  The best thing, I always say, about books is the chance to see yourself in them, or change yourself because of them.  While Didion gives widows, mourners and grievers the right to read, and feel like someone can connect, can understand, she still doesn’t give them the right to grieve, openly.

For a twenty-three year old, not completely fascinated and enlightened by Didion’s book, this passage bothers me.  Is it because I find myself close to Didion in her response to this woman’s book?  Do I find myself asking if maybe later Didion’s book will mean something to me after the death of my husband?  I can’t say that it will.  I can’t say we share the same grieving.  I will be wearing black.  At twenty-three I can already see my Miss Havisham tendencies where I will completely and inappropriately yell at children from my porch, or where I will cry in the middle of the grocery store squeezing plums, or break down seeing someone mow their lawn.  Didion refuses women, and men this right in her book.  She reminds everyone to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  But why is that necessary?

I was upset in other ways as this book progressed.  The language isn’t beautiful the way you think someone will write after death; raw, human and wonderful.  The writing isn’t about John, or even really about Quintana (personally, I’d like to know how Quintana Roo’s new husband felt about the entire thing), it was more about Joan.  It was about Joan writing the path.  It wasn’t about Joan writing the feelings, it was about the path, the words, the amount of pages, the route to get to the end.

Joan Didion, like Dolly.

I’m disappointed after hearing so many triumphant reviews.  I’m disappointed with Didion because I think she’s selfish, but fragile and beautiful.  She looks entirely like my grandmother Dolly (Blondina Celestina Vanbritzen).  I want to know her, I really do.  Not because of this book but just because of my idea of her and my idea of John and to hear the life of a Hollywood woman.  I don’t know.

I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Reason why I read this book: I’m taking a nonfiction class in the fall and this is one of the premier books of nonfiction at the moment.  I’ve picked it up and handled it before but I needed a fresh call on it.  Also, Blue Nights is out about the death of Quintana, and so I needed to remember John before I remembered his daughter.

Here are links that I found interesting (most from 2004) about the subject, the woman, and the book:

I don’t know whether I can recommend, or not, this book of grief, of facts, of awards settling over coffins, but I think I’d like to hear what everyone else thought.  I’d like to just know what happens in other people’s brains.

7 thoughts on ““We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – JD

  1. grainsifter says:

    I really do love your writing. I liked the parts I read of Didion’s book. I guess I just like people who write courageously, and both of you do…

    (now if only I could convince you to change the title of your blog…)


    • Cassie says:

      Well thank you very much. I liked the book in parts and didn’t like the book in parts so I definitely get where you’re coming from. I need to read some of her fiction and news articles just to give her a fair shot.

      I’m kind of obsessed with the way she looks.

      And nevaaaaaaaaaa changing the title, suffer through :)

      PS. read any good books lately that you can recommend?

  2. ClaireMcA says:

    I read this not long after it came out and I loved it. Just because it was so different, so raw and obsessive and because it doesn’t conform. It’s the transparency and the minutae, the craziness of it. It’s one of those books you read not to relate to, almost the opposite, to go ‘WTF?”

    I’m not so sure if I could be so blasé about her next book though, marrying someone is a common event, adopting a child, raising a child, losing a child, reflecting on any of that, it’s murky and risky, but I will resist commenting further until I’ve read it myself.

    Didion is great because she’s not a follower.

    • Cassie says:

      Do you have a certain fiction book of hers you could recommend? People keep telling me she’s not a follower and I love that as well but I want to read some of her fiction before I make any decisions specifically about her writing.

      • ClaireMcA says:

        That’s my impression from reading interviews and a few essays, I haven’t read her earlier works, but ‘Slouching Towards Bethehem’ is one that comes to mind, I read ‘TYOMT’ because the name was so familiar, but regret to say I haven’t read her earlier fiction yet.


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