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Joan Didion’s most recent book is a meditation on the death of her only child — a death which followed shortly after the death of Didion’s husband, which she had recorded in her previous book. Such events stagger the imagination and most of us avoid thinking of them. Jo Page, the essayist and fiction writer, is also a Lutheran pastor and has thought about these things longer than many of us. We’re happy to present her reflections in the essay below.
I started reading Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, out of a blend of fear, horror and a voyeurism I didn’t like in myself. In it she details the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, which occurred while she was also dealing with a succession of illnesses that afflicted her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo. Quintana died after the book was completed.
The Danish proverb, “shared sorrow is halved sorrow,” may be true, but in my reading the book I was not doing anything to reduce Didion’s sorrow. I was just looking in at it.
Didion now has a new book out, Blue Nights, which is another foray into the landscape of loss, in this case, the life and death of her daughter. Writing in New York magazine, Boris Kachka says “The book is about many things: mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother.”
Though I was drawn to read A Year of Magical Thinking, I will not be reading Blue Nights for more reasons than the obvious one: that the subject matter is brutally sad. It’s more complicated than that and more personal. I’m a mother watching the slow ascent into adulthood of my two daughters and I find it a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching job.
In parenting—or at least in mothering—there are always two constants: fear for your child’s welfare and doubt about whether or not you are doing a good job in loving them and raising them. These twinned constants—fear and doubt—are absolute states. Why I ever thought this would lessen as they grew up I have no idea.
But as I watch my daughters outgrow their childish need of me, I feel a fear of becoming useless and a sense of my own mortality. That all sounds grim, I know, but I’m not alone in this. Kyra Sedgwick of all people, with brilliant insight, described mothering grown children in terms of employment: “You’ve had this job forever, it’s the job you always wanted to do, and you were pretty good at it. Then you get fired for no reason!”
Once they’re past a certain age you recognize there are no do-overs. You recognize that what you’ve done as a mother, you’ve done. You can’t shelter them as you once could from all the perils we move among in our lives. You can’t shield them from the slings and arrows of adulthood.
Didion, however, wades deeply into the fear and doubt terrain.
When we talk about mortality, she writes, we are talking about our children: “Once she [Quintana Roo] was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet. . . . I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”
She fears she is neglecting her daughter. She feels she bears some responsibility for Quintana’s mental health issues, her overuse of alcohol. She finds Quintana’s journal and castigates herself for reading from the perspective of a writer rather than a mother.
Enough. In fact, too much.
When my children were younger I used to write about them fairly frequently. As they have gone from childhood into early adulthood I write about them less and less. I think it’s partly out of a sense of respect for their lives. Their stories were once mine to tell as I wished. Now they belong, fully, to them.
It isn’t that Didion discusses her daughter’s life story that bothers me about Blue Nights. It’s that she’s calling awareness to the irreversible and the irretrievable. Unlike her long partnership with her late husband, the relationship between parent and child is unstable and mutable; its hallmark is that children grow up, move on, and claim the rights to their own stories.
Parents lose the rights to those stories, however close the bond between parent and child remains. And I do hope the bond between my daughters and me remains strong; I’d love to be one of those mothers whose daughter lives close enough to see each other frequently, without involving long car drives, plane tickets or hours of separation.
But that’s not my decision anymore.
They will make their own choices. They will tell their own stories. And I will remember, not without bittersweetness, the stories of theirs that I have been able to tell.
We can love a story without treating it as sacred text. One of Marilyn Robertson‘s favorites is Pride and Prejudice and, in fact, she was reminded of that novel while at the produce counter. (It can happen anytime and anyplace.) And so we have the poem “Pride and Bananas.”
Yesterday in the market, a man stood in front
of the bananas for the longest time,
brooding over one greenish bunch after another.
He looked like Mr. Darcy might have looked,
minus the ruffled shirt and top hat,
and I began to think about the real Darcy,
deftly slicing up a banana on his bowl
of cornflakes at Pemberley,
then gazing out one of its ninety-five windows
at the pleasantest prospect in England
and wondering what in the world
he was going to do all day —
while in the next county, Miss Elizabeth Bennet
strolled from one bright field to the next,
wondering what her chances were of running into someone
who had an extra banana
and happened to own a large estate as well.
Yes, you can do it. Writers starve not because people don’t read — you’re reading this note, right? — but because not enough readers buy their books. So as a Public Service we at Critical Pages urge you to visit your local, privately owned, independent bookstore and buy a book. They’ll love you, the publisher will love you and the author, getting his crummy 10 percent of the retail price, will love you, too.
As you probably know, Greece is close to defaulting on its debts, the Euro nations can’t agree on a coherent fiscal policy, the European banking system appears more fragile every morning, the Palestinians have reasons to ask the UN to recognize them as a nation, the Israelis have reasons to occupy ever more of the land the Palestinians regard as their nation, Egypt is having trouble being re-born as a democracy, the US stock market plunged 300 points the other day, unemployment remains high, the recession my repeat itself or, avoiding that calamity, this one may last for years, Congress remains deadlocked, and a recent study reveals that men who take care of their children suffer a decline in testosterone. But you know all that.
On the other hand, if you live in a city, you probably don’t know that this is the season when early morning mists blanket the landscape. You could say it’s the season of mists. In fact, John Keats wrote a poem about this season and it begins Season of mists… To put you in the mood, here’s a photo of a misty morning landscape provided by the writer Francesca Forrest.
Keats’s poem, “Ode to Autumn,” is a complex and linguistically rich poem. Today’s common reader may be put off by the dense, gorgeous language. But you’re not a common reader…
ow we must apologize for our mistake. One of our underpaid scribes, pictured at the left, copied the wrong version of a poem which we then posted a short while ago. We had asked the writer for permission, and we received permission. But our ink-stained wretch copied an early version instead of the final published text. The poem is “The Classics So Far” by Marilyn Robertson, and you can read the published version by clicking on the title.
We appreciate Great Novels, especially Great British Novels, but every now and then our attention flags. And this isn’t limited to Great British Novels; there are also Great Russian Novels in which we’ve found our attention wandering. There are even some Great American Novels — OK, let’s admit it, we’re thinking of Henry James — in which we’ve fallen asleep, even though we do admire Henry James. Mostly admire him, anyway. At least we feel obliged to say so whether we do or not. So we were delighted to come across the following poem by Marilyn Robertson.
The Classics So Far
The heroine is choosing the wrong man.
If she were not sitting next to him at the dinner party,
she could see him as we do —
a man in love with his own brains.
Yet the handsome baronet who has made her a gift
of a small yapping dog — is he any better?
Surely, somewhere in the next five hundred pages
there’s a third man: a maker of violins, say, or
the vicar’s second cousin once-removed, who, after
several misadventures of his own, is going to turn up
in that village and change everything.
But I may not last that long if these other two characters —
the fat one in the waistcoat and the churlish earl —
don’t stop debating the principles of land reform,
completely oblivious to how little patience
we have these days for eloquence.
You probably know about Sarah Palin’s novel misinterpretation of Paul Revere’s ride – the famous gallop he made through the countryside to warn the militias, the Minute Men, that the British were coming. According to Palen, Paul Revere rode through Boston warning the British that “they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.” In addition to giving comics another opportunity to skewer the irrepressible Sarah, her remarks have drawn attention to the ride and to Longfellow’s poem about it.
“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is a wonderful poem to memorize and to recite. It’s an exciting, colorful narrative and the lines go at a great gallop — yes, yes, we know it’s a romanticized rehearsal of the facts, but it’s still a great, rousing poem with many memorable passages. And what’s wrong with a burst of rousing rhymed patriotism? Let’s enjoy this.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. (more…)