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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.
Of the many literary gatherings held this summer, our attention was caught by Readercon, a conference focusing on imaginative literature. It was held at the Boston-Burlington Marriott and drew people not only from all over the US but from other countries as well. Readercon has “con” baked into its name, which is unfortunate if it conjures up images of certain other “cons” which are primarily party occasions where participants dress up to resemble their favorite character from science fiction, fantasy, or vampire tales. Readercon has the reputation, deservedly, of being the most serious of the cons. For readers interested in imaginative literature in it’s many different forms, Readercon can be entertaining, sometimes scholarly, mostly engrossing and, in one way and another, simply enjoyable.
Though the program guide describes Readercon as “The Year’s Best Science Fiction Convention” the four-day event fortunately covers considerably more than science fiction. The recent 22nd annual Readercon offered a broad spectrum of discussions, stretching from an academic panel on the “Death of the Author” (a theory of French intellectual Roland Barthes), to the jovial “Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.” In between these extremes there were panels on such diverse subjects as young adult fiction, on myth, on the Midrash, on a literary agency, on book design and typography, the retelling of Russian folktales, the blurring of genras — plus book signings, readings by authors, and interviews. According to the volunteer organizers, a typical Readercon has about 150 writers, editors, publishers, and critics. But what struck us were the 400 or more people who attended the different events – it would be hard to find a more engaged and lively group of readers.