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A meditation: On Joan Didion, the magnificent Caitlin Flanagan, the stifling, spectacularly scenic West Coast - and the reprieve that reading used to be
I have been thinking about Joan Didion a lot lately. Perhaps because I always think of her during transitions. During those times when the world accelerates out of control, spinning faster than my own mental and spiritual faculties can comprehend, and I have to walk and walk and walk in order to catch up.
I first started thinking about Joan Didion while attending university in my stifling, spectacularly scenic hometown, the westernmost outpost of a dull and quiet country, the edge of which I could not seem to push past.
I was impatient, back then. Every morning, I’d roam the windy shoreline of a nearby beach, gazing out at the ocean and mountains, sick with restlessness and longing. I wanted the skyscrapers of New York City. I wanted packed auditoriums and crowded bars and jammed subway cars. I wanted the world of ideas. I wanted to go out every night and talk, loudly and expansively, with others who wanted the same.
I wanted away from the hushed tones of yoga classes. From the aggressively judgemental crystal healers, for whom every question was already answered. From the draft dodger islands out in the Pacific, the aging Boomers, the families falling apart. The destructive endpoint of the self-indulgent 60s, a fact that almost no one was interested in contemplating.
I thought of Joan Didion at every point in the elaborate escape I staged, which took far more time and effort than it should have. In Bangkok, wandering through packed markets, the air thick with chili smoke, jasmine blooms, incense, rotting durian. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a room I rented from a retired professor, holed up writing, slipping on sandals at midnight to venture out into the humid streets. In Toronto, at the women’s magazine where I worked, drinking coffee and churning out copy, forever on deadline. In cabs late at night, the darkened city speeding past.
And here, now: I have been returning again and again to Joan Didion, as I attempt to understand the new progressivism, and the strange, surreal moment it has birthed. The writer Meghan Daum, my guest on the podcast next week, asks in her book The Problem With Everything what Joan Didion would have made of it. It’s a question that every essay I write, in some small but unshakable way, attempts to answer.
This is all a very long way of saying that Caitlin Flanagan published an essay about Joan Didion this week in The Atlantic, “Joan Didion’s Magic Trick.”
It’s an astonishingly good piece, this “road trip of magical thinking,” with its stops at Didion’s old sorority house, her homes, her treasured orchid nursery. And it strikes me as an essay from a different time.
Flanagan is writing to us from a few decades ago — from a time when reading was an entirely different exercise.
The essay is slowed down, stretched out, as Flanagan painstakingly, and painfully, turns over Didion’s legacy, examining it from odd angles, pulling apart the fantasy of her public persona, and revealing truths that cause the breath to catch.
The essay sidesteps the language of our time. It mostly surrenders contemporary political considerations. It erases all trace of Twitter. It is expansive rather than restrictive. It is reminiscent of the days in which you could write about food if you wanted to, or travel, or whatever, without taking the fate of the world into your hands.
The essay’s magic trick is that it exists outside of the culture wars.
An essay like this reminds you of what it used to feel like to live. It instills in you an urgent desire to log off, to go outside, to walk; to allow certain hazy memories to come into focus, and the meaning behind them to be revealed.
If you are a reader, it makes you want to meet Joan Didion, one more time, on the page. To commune with that singular voice, and the world it encompassed. But if you are a writer? Well, it makes you want to write.