Precious Things Come from Staying

notebookJoan Didion’s family, she says, are a tribe of leavers. In her 2004 book Where I Was From, she begins with her great-great-great-great-grandmother and traces a family history lined with people who, she says, are always leaving, always pushing west.

“They tended to accommodate any means in pursuit of an uncertain end,” she says, unsparingly. “They tended to avoid dwelling on just what that end might imply. When they could not think what else to do they moved another thousand miles, set out another garden: beans and squash and sweet peas from seeds carried from the last place. The past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind, but seeds got carried.” [Read more…]

Apocatastasis at the Essex

bostonessex-400x600“You have to choose the places you don’t walk away from.” —Joan Didion

This one’s for Sarinah Viya Kalb, who was there. With love.

And so the season of death returns: the leaves now in their last burst of red and gold before starting their descent, and at night, sometimes, a stiff wind scuttling down my hilltop street. From now until Easter—Pascha, as we Orthodox have it, signifying both Passover and passage—is the evocative time of the year for me, and I’ve written about it on “Good Letters” so many times before that I’m afraid I’ve become an annual broken record. (But Mommy, Anna Maria asks, What is a record?)

I want to tell you about a religious experience I had, in this season, about thirty years ago.

I say “religious” in contradistinction to the more acceptable, these days, designation of “spiritual.” (More than one friend of mine and I have joked about our desire to print Café Press T-shirts that avow that we are “Religious But Not Spiritual.”)

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The Lost Girl Lets Go

There’s something about the midday nature of the appointment that gives it a furtive cast: The putting on of mom-like clothes, stockings and “better” shoes, garnet lip gloss and a comb pulled through my hair, to give the appearance that I am a more organized person than I actually am.

The keys clatter in the quiet as I lock the door, get in the car, and drive out of the neighborhood, careful to make sure I have the directions and the insurance card.

All the empty houses appear deserted and drowsy: everyone’s at work or school, and even the homeschoolers are hard at work by the kitchen table, their younger siblings laid down for early afternoon naps.

Then I’m on the ribbon of highway that carves through the as-yet-ungentrified decay of Washington, D.C.’s East Side—blessedly empty, with neither traffic nor construction, the now-obsolete RFK Stadium spun out on the right like a spectacular piece of road kill.

I love the steadying narcotic of driving like this: “[T]he freeways become a special way of being alive…the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical” reads a quote from Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which I found in an essay on Joan Didion, whose novel Play It As It Lays is what I am trying to remember as I plow through the Nation’s Capital.

Then, before I know it—because there is no traffic—I’ve spun off myself—off a cloverleaf and onto a surface road that is clustered with mid-century, mid-rise apartment towers. Collectively, there are perhaps hundreds of these, off every exit of the Beltway, and aside from the barest variations—Virginia looks marginally newer and more big-boxy, Maryland grittier and more industrial—you could be in Chevy Chase or Springfield and not know the difference.

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