SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM by Joan Didion

 

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM is the third Joan Didion book I’ve read in as many years. Her relatable voice holds its own unique place in journalism. I am awed at her use of language and her ability to beautifully sculpt a story out of seemingly ordinary beginnings.

The title, taken from a Yeats poem, represents a collection of essays written by Didion during the 1960’s. The essays are mostly about California (adding a personal benefit for me as a new Californian.) She talks about things like having dinner with John Wayne, growing up in the Sacramento Valley, and specifically about her journalism (…we would now say she was ‘embedded’…) during the Haight- Ashbury days in San Francisco. Among the many stoned-out hippies she encounters during her San Francisco travels she meets Susan, a five-year-old on acid. Susan tells Didion she’s in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bike for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, ice cream, and the beach. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote.⠀

The chapter I connected with the most was: On Keeping a Notebook. She describes the odd and random things she writes in her notebooks. Things that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to anyone but her. Quotes that aren’t necessarily about the words, but the feeling evoked when she heard them.⠀

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it… Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed.”⠀

Oh how I understand this sentiment. My children will someday find my notebooks of phrases and desultory thoughts and may very well give up looking through them and simply toss them away. My hope is that they don’t throw them away in youth, pre-50’s let’s say. They’ll find more use for them as they age. So much of what didn’t make sense before will eventually begin to weave together their history. Their shared story.⠀

SLOUCHING has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I am so grateful to have read it for #theunreadshelfproject2020. Grateful that the words have now soaked into my marrow, the way all Didion writings do. This also checks off the #mmdchallenge to read something from the decade you were born (I’ll save you from looking it up: it’s the 60s. -ha!)

The book ended up heavily underlined by the time I was finished; ideas and phrases I want to be able to look back and remember. I’m so sorry I haven’t read this collection sooner. I thoroughly enjoyed it…proving that you don’t have to read the ‘latest’ books. This 1968 publication was just as relevant today. (Hoping this 1965’er can be as well!)

THE YEAR of MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion⠀ ⠀

It would appear to be a morbid book to read, yet this memoir about the year following Joan Didion’s husband’s death, was a systematic, matter-of-fact approach to try to make sense of the common process of grief. I mostly found it fascinating that our mind tries to make sense of something our heart cannot easily process. ⠀

Didion’s husband (John) had a sudden heart attack and died at home one evening. Didion recalls simple things like going to the hospital with the paramedics and her husband’s body to take care of the paperwork…’the regularization of death’. At the NYC hospital she recalls looking at the time and realizing that John had not died yet on LA time. Didion wondered, for a brief moment, if she could somehow stop him from dying before that California time arrived.⠀

The Year of Magical Thinking would be particularly fascinating to anyone who has grieved the loss of a loved one as they would surely find similarities in the way Didion processed her husband’s death. ⠀

As is common, she spoke of wanting to tell John something important, only to realize she could not. “It was as if I put the arrow in the bow, pulled back and just before shooting it realized he was not here to listen to my story, and I would release the arrow and set the bow back down.”⠀

Didion recalled the many times in their marriage that after having a dream she would tell John about it in the morning when they woke up “…not to dwell on the dream but to let it go.” As a reader I wondered how therapeutic this memoir must have been. To write about her process of grief. Not to dwell on death, but to let it go.⠀

After a year of grieving and looking back on what was happening the previous year between she and John, she realized that while his death occurred on December 30, December 31 would be the first day in which John was not a part of the previous year. That is when she began to move forward and her way of thinking shifted. “I began to allow him to simply be the photograph on the piano.”⠀

This was a fascinating book about the process of grief – universally experienced but very uniquely felt.⠀

A highly recommended book.