I’ve been mulling over how to write this post for a while now. Sometimes a writer strikes me so precisely and perfectly I get the shivers and I know I have to say something about it but I just don’t know what.
About a year ago I bought Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It’s a collection of essays she’s written spanning a variety of topics but mostly encompassing her native California land in the 1960s. It was mesmerizing to read something written so boldly about an era which has since become so romanticized beyond belief that the reality of what it really was has been lost. She threw herself into the fabled Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and vividly captured the reality of what the hippie lifestyle had succumbed to. I remember reading over the lines nearing the end of her essay where she’s invited to an apartment to look at something. On the floor is a 5-year-old girl licking her lips and wearing white lipstick. Didion is informed that this girl lives with her mom and some of her mother’s friends who give her acid and peyote. The little girl belongs to—what the mother’s call—“High Kindergarten.” I couldn’t get the image out of my mind; this was real. Didion presents the situation with just the facts letting the situation speak for itself and it is chilling.
I picked the book up again a couple of weeks ago to reread some essays. I couldn’t believe how striking they were the second time around. I kept having to remind myself that these were all published in the late 60s and that “No, Joan Didion did not read your mind. You didn’t even exist then.” Her “Personals” section I think hits home most for me. It’s beautiful and almost uncomfortable for me to read because I feel like she’s exposing the parts of me I try to hide so well.
I think what strikes me most about her writing is how pertinent it still is in today’s world. The poem “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, found at the preface of this collection of essays, strikes well to the heart of the emptiness and dread we sometimes feel in the fast-paced world today. I find myself looking at black and white photos of Native Americans—men like Sitting Bull and Geronimo—and see the intense burning in their eyes. A strong knowing of the self, their heritage, their land; a connection to the world they live in and fought for. I can’t help but wonder where that fire burned to; where that passion stolen from them went. Did it dissipate into the air lost amidst the toll booths and highways, along the barbed wire fences along the plains, and dead train tracks zigzagged across America? Is it cradled in us at birth and slowly stomped out by man?
I think there is still hope. In fact, I think it’s in a lot of us. There’s a longing to dig into the earth with the palms, feel the rain in the creases of the skin, drink deep the pines, taste the honey of life. I’m not trying to euphemize and turn my feelings into a cliché but I want to feel that hope can be nourished. I don’t want the passion for life to die. And I don’t think we should think we’re the first generation to feel this way.