Thursday, February 11, 2016

Books Next to My Bed

I’m reading a heavy book now, heavy in weight, not in content. But when I take it to bed and try to balance it on my quilt-covered torso, my skinny, already-chilly wrists poking up out of the covers, I find that it is just too heavy. 

So I shove it under the pillow on the unoccupied side of the bed and reach out to the bookcase on my left and pluck forth Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” Something I read before, but so what. It’s full of her essays, which means that I could get a couple in before the first doze.

Joan Didion. I whisper her name over and over under my breath. First, there’s the Joan. A sturdy, weighted, rectangle of a name. A brown brick on your porch, under which you could hide the key to your front door. 

And then, the Didion. 

A plump, darting bird of sound. A custard of a name, with a small sweet piece of chocolate in the center. Diddy-inn, Diddy-ahn, Diddy, diddy, diddy…a name belying her steadfast, intelligent, writerly seriousness. 

I do all this nonsense and think I should go see someone.But then I am into one of the essays, one that describes Berkeley in 1953 when she went to school there. I was still in high school in Connecticut then, a sophomore. 

I never gave a thought to Berkeley, California at that time. I didn’t know Joan Didion; she was a student and hadn’t begun her significant writing career. And I hadn’t begun my own life—I was still a kid, a daughter, not even knowing what I wanted to do, except that I hoped it might have some art in it. But it was still just grades and boyfriends and clothes and music and not having a clue.

But there was Joan Didion in Berkeley, walking those paths on the Cal campus. That these would later become paths that I walked on when I was a wife and a mother of three in 1964, is not an image I would have conjured. But then I left Connecticut in 1959 to go to California and we had gotten to Berkeley by 1964.

I still hadn’t read her.

But I’m in and out of her book this night, because I keep bringing up the two of us, utterly different in every way, remembering images of her from magazine photos, thin, tiny little her, with her straight hair and bangs, simple good clothes, a solemn look on her face. 

Her sentences stride along on the pages and I am constantly impressed with the way she sees things. She writes about both-sides-now, like the Joni Mitchell song.
From her group, “Sojourns,” this fragment, her own, non-Kerouac, “On the Road,” ---I agreed passionately.  I disagreed passionately. I called room service on one phone and listened attentively on the other to people who seemed convinced that the “texture” of their lives had been agreeably or adversely affected by conversion to the politics of joy, by regression to lapidary bleakness, by the Sixties, by the Fifties, by the recent change in administrations and by the sale of The Thorn Birds to paper for one-million-nine.

She sat there---so many theres---and took notes in her little notebook.  She was In Person to the events of the Day and she mused in print about Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, the strike at San Francisco State, the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders.  

There is something very compelling about the quiet way she assesses each subject. She has reminded me, (and why do I always forget this?) of the millions of different stories walking around, the ones that can eject a person from self-involvement for a moment. 

So nice to get Out of oneself! So nice to observe the rest of humanity!

This book is a beauty.  How lucky for me to have forgotten the contents over the years and be returned to it, almost as new, so much time later.

So then it became morning and I took the book out of the bed and brought it downstairs. In the afternoon, I brought it along to two doctors’ appointments and a couple of trips to Lunardi’s, just in case the lines were long. 

I was disappointed when they were not. 

I stopped saying the author’s name whimsically and instead nodded to her, wherever she is, in admiration. And by now I have made a list in my mind of the people I must buy copies for, so I can envision their lit-up faces when they open the first pages and read the title section of “The White Album.”