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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

book by Joan Didion

annotation by Jacqueline Heinze

A month shy of my graduating from college and moving to New York, a dear friend handed me her stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s essay “Good-bye to All That.” In Claudia’s version, four actors would represent Didion at the different ages the author refers to in her essay. There was Didion at twenty, and twenty-two, and twenty-eight. I played the oldest version of Didion, the writer living in Los Angeles reflecting back upon her time in New York. (At the time, I had a sophisticated short haircut that I think could make me look older than my peers.) We, this handful of actors portraying Didion, stood stationary in our spots on a proscenium stage and delivered lines from the essay directly to the audience. Two decades later, I still have nearly three-quarters of this essay committed to memory. (We did not perform every word; Claudia had edited it.) I also remember vividly what this piece meant to me. “Good-bye to All That” affected me in a way I had no words for at the time; “it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story” (228). I knew only that the piece plucked some fiber, some thread, inside of me that had grown taut since I had begun to become a woman and now I was vibrating with a life experience I hadn’t even yet had. Of course, when I did move to New York, my experiences would be different than Didion’s, but I would get caught in the rain in front of the Plaza and so duck into The Paris and catch whatever movie was showing, and I would cry walking crosstown late one morning in the same stiletto heels and tight jeans from the night before. There would be both romance and wretchedness in spades. And, ultimately, I would leave New York and make Los Angeles my home, but I knew nothing of these things when I first read this essay that somehow captured both who I felt I was (of course I wasn’t; I was nearly completely unformed) and who I wanted to be. I write all this because I feel compelled to admit, not without shame, that it took me twenty years to read the rest of Didion’s collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is with nearly equal shame that I confess I struggled with the book.

There is no doubt Didion is brilliant. Consider this sentence:

“Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in it venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniforms” (80).

It is one of many sentences that demands a second reading; one of many that bursts open the page with its insight, imagery, and language. Didion constructs entire complex worlds between a capital letter and a period. Yet the writing is clear. The second read is not necessary to decrypt the meaning, but to linger over its assembly and marvel at the richness of the language.

But the greater theme strung among these essays is unsettling. The collection examines the decay of the moral fabric of the United States during the mid- to late-sixties, but the focus is on the West, and more specifically, on California, Didion’s home state. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion captures a national desire to chase mirages. Through piercing observations, and yet in her quietly nonjudgmental tone, she suggests we are driven by a vague sense that dreams will come true, and although the dreams themselves are nebulous, the belief in them survives long after the harsh light of reality has eclipsed the golden glow. An underage, pregnant bride cries tears of joy because a cheap, gaudy, shotgun wedding in Vegas was everything she dreamed it would be. In Haight-Ashbury, a child is given hallucinatory drugs. Regardless, the dream hangs on. About California, Didion writes that it is “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (172). That sense of suspension is inescapable from the first page to the last. And so is Didion’s cool tone. She holds readers beyond arm’s length. No matter I portrayed her on stage, after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I felt that Didion was an intentionally elusive artist, a mirage in and of herself. So, despite her perfected artistry and her penetrating wisdom, and just as much because of them, I was often restless and on edge as I grappled with this book.

There were passages that returned me to the Didion I discovered at a 20. Her serial construction—the repetition of subjects or verbs or simply the word “and”—were welcomingly familiar to me. I scribbled, “Classic Didion!” in the margins next to phrases such as, “I am going to find it difficult to tell you why…” (188) and “…which I’m talking about here” (205). At these moments, I no longer hung above the work. Instead, I was back on stage, standing in my own blinding stage light and vibrating as I delivered her words into the darkness.

Zen and the Art of Knitting

book by Bernadette Murphy

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

Bernadette Murphy in her first book Zen and the Art of Knitting uses clear and simple language that is simultaneously vivid, evocative, colorful, and, here’s the author in her— reflective—to make apt and often metaphorical connections between life and knitting without overreaching.

“Few things lend themselves so easily, so wisely to a metaphorical understanding of life as does knitting” Murphy says, adding that it “seems to be a metaphor for turning chaos into order” (31, 103). As she interviews knitters from all over the world, she finds some consistent patterns—namely, that knitters “associate their knitting experiences with the lessons they’ve learned about life” (152). Among those lessons: We construct the patterns of our lives as we would a sweater: “piece by piece, stitch by stitch” (31); we can “go back to the place before the mistake and correct it”, thereby “undo[ing] what we’ve done”, which is different, of course, from how things work in the real world (12, 31); “We are all made of the same materials, we are all joined in the knitted garment of life”—the old adage, cut from the same cloth comes to mind here (193); furthermore, “we are each stitches, necessary for a completed work” (193); we can “metaphorically weav[e] the disparate parts” of ourselves “back into a cohesive whole” (which certainly sounds cheaper than therapy) (15); we can, through our craft, build “elements of self-esteem that cannot easily be unraveled” (78); finally, we can reveal “a beautiful pattern” behind each of our distinct lives (154). These connections roll effortlessly off the author’s tongue (or more accurately, off her fingertips) and onto the page for our eyes and ears to soak up. And we know Murphy isn’t getting carried away with double meanings in verb choices like knit, weave, interweave, stitch, hook, and unravel because the folks she interviews make similar connections, too.

Knitting is “‘like praying with beads, stitch by stitch’” a Waldorf School handwork teacher and abbey oblate adds. She’s so quick to jump on the simile bandwagon, you’d think she weaves words—not blankets—for a living. (67)

A marriage counselor whom Murphy interviews is quick to use a simile to describe her knitting practice (not to be confused with her private practice): Knitting is “‘like eating a piece of pickled ginger after sushi to clear the palate’” she explains of knitting’s soul-cleansing effect (53). What an unlikely comparison, and yet—how apt!

Although I personally have the hand-eye coordination of a four-year-old and thus have never tried to knit anything in my life, I think the reason that Murphy and her interviewees manage these comparisons without coming across as overreaching is that they do so seemingly effortlessly—with the ease, one might argue, of knitting itself (once it becomes mindless, that is; once it takes on the Zen-like quality from which this book derives its very name). I don’t get the sense as a reader that Murphy kept a writer’s notepad by her nightstand and another miniature one in her purse in which to fastidiously record one-liners to sprinkle throughout her debut book. And I hardly think her interviewees had the time to rehearse answers over the course of their knitters’ tête-à-tête with the author. On the contrary, their answers flowed smoothly; they weren’t going for the next bud-um-BUM moment. For them, the comparisons were as natural as sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea, a “ball of wool and two pointy sticks” (30).

And that is exactly how I experienced the read: like I was catching up with a good friend I hadn’t seen in years (knitting herself), but it was as if no time had passed. I grew so comfortable around the knitter’s terminology, I almost felt like—to hell with my four-year-old hand-eye coordination! I can totally knit after reading this book. But then I remembered how riding a bike went after I hadn’t done that in fifteen years, and that’s something I actually once knew how to do. (Think: forgetting how to brake or turn and jumping off the thing in frustration, mid-peddle, faster than if I’d seen my own ghost.) So perhaps knitting isn’t in my immediate future. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a well-written, well-researched, well-thought out book on the matter. What makes Murphy so successful is her ability to use knitting as a vehicle to convey universal truths. Perhaps Tara Ison said it best on the back cover: “A wise, illuminating book for knitters and non-knitters alike.”

Just as I don’t have to be an alcoholic to appreciate a compelling memoir on addiction or a survivor of abuse to be drawn in by a powerful story on the subject matter, I also don’t need to be a knitter to know that I like to hear truisms about living and how to do it better. We all want to know how to correct a mis-stitch here, a fumble there. It’s as though Murphy is telling us, we can repair the world by repairing ourselves, and we can do that through the Zen-inducing effects of knitting. And even if we never take to knitting personally, we can bliss out while reading about how others are becoming less tightly-wound while unwinding a ball of yarn. We can read about how they are making connections from self-to-world: the friction of their metal sticks creating the inspirational charge—their knitters’ needles the conduit to universal truths.

As a writer, I am reminded that readers will care if you make them. And that is exactly what Murphy does in Zen: She sticks it to us. (I couldn’t resist.) It doesn’t matter that she writes about knitting. She could write about any topic that is dear to her be it cooking, motorcycling, mothering, or mentoring. That she chooses to write about knitting is irrelevant. What matters is how she’s able to use it as an entry ‘point’ if you will, to speak to the human condition—to weave her way into our collective hearts and minds.

 

The Chronology of Water

book by Lidia Yuknavitch

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

I could write about Lidia Yuknavitch’s use of fragments, offset by long paragraphs without any punctuation, in The Chronology of Water. Or, I could write about her often colloquial language or self-professed “wise-ass voice” (291). Or how she sometimes addresses the reader directly and other times switches into the second person or the present tense, seemingly without warning. I could also write about her lyrical passages, a contrast to those more informal shorter-than-sentences. Or about how she does sex writing better than anyone else (cue to me racing to include her work in my MFA graduating presentation on How to “Do” Good Sex Writing). But I won’t write about the author’s fragments or point of view choices or tone or tense-shifting or mind-blowing sex scenes because I can’t not write about her reflections—so self-aware, so deep—they moved me to write “YES” in my margins, over and over, often with three or four underlines for emphasis.

Yuknavitch begins the memoir by telling us about her stillborn daughter and then flashing back to her own girlhood, which is equally as horrific as the opening hospital scene. We learn that the narrator’s father molests both Yuknavitch girls and that Lidia turns to swimming for salvation: “Anything in the water felt like home … In water, like in books—you can leave your life”, she writes (148, 152). Her mantra becomes “Hold your breath until you can leave” (73). And leave she does. For Texas. On a college swim scholarship. Which she promptly loses because she’s busy losing herself :

  • in drugs

“I would have put anything in my mouth … breathing in the white, breathing out comprehension and emotion” (64-65).

  • & in sex

“I’d become the kind of woman whose mouth was stuck in a permanent ‘yes’ shape … I was using my body as a sexual battering ram … All that euphoria filling up the hole of me” (64, 143, 69).

  • & in death wishes

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life” (72).

  • & in marriages

like the one to “poor Phillip”, who was “never cut out for a woman like me with a rage in her bigger than Texas” and the second one to Devin—the “charismatic narcissistic tender hearted frighteningly attractive artistic drunk” whom “you divorced [eleven years later] because he slept with not one but about five gazillion different women” (59, 171, 207).

  • & in a flurry of self-destruction

like “a big blond DUI” (222). Like “count backwards from 100 with your eyes closed and with this stick up your ass and balancing an egg on your left tit …” (208). Like spinning out on the freeway and hitting a “5’ tall brown skinned pregnant woman who had no English” and then “blow[ing] a number out of orbit” because you drank that entire bottle of scotch, and now your car is totaled, like your life (212, 208).

But then Yuknavitch meets Andy Mingo. Her married student. I know. It sounds about as suspect as everything else she’s been up to. And she knows it too. “Yeah. Well. What did you expect? I’m still me, after all”, she muses (238). But as it turns out, Andy is the real deal. He becomes husband number three and number one dad to their live-born son, Miles. And while Yuknavitch jokes about her poor decision-making above in a self-deprecating manner, she speaks eloquently about her metaphorical rebirth. “[Even as we were] working out our childhood wounds at each other … He [Andy] treated th[ese] thing[s] I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish” (259, 239). That is a sentence I not only wish that I’d written, but also that I were living. For the narrator, finding the kind of love that heals instead of hurts is a shift that borders on revolutionary. Yuknavitch has been to some pretty dark places in her life, but she assures us that “… beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes” illuminate the darkness and that “the simplicity of loving” can teach a girl how “to live on land” (293, 272). This is quite a remarkable notion when coming from a swimmer, who’s only ever flourished in pools, rivers, and oceans.

“It is not easy to leave one self and embrace another”, but Yuknavitch has done as much in her new roles as together wife (as opposed to the angry, intoxicated version she brought to her first marriages) and doting mother (as opposed to the grieving kind she was after her first child’s birth and death or even the kind she grew up with—“a numb drunk folded into her own pain” (190, 163).) With those dark hours behind her and nothing but trees in front of her in her magical Oregon home with the family she’s created, the narrator has made it out of the “the cold wet of [her] life” (151). Here, she needn’t worry that her father’s anger built the house (a refrain she repeats throughout the book). Here, she can take solace. Here, she can feel nestled and supported. Planted and rooted. “I felt safety … Something up until that point in my life I’d only felt in water” (256).

In committing her story “about desire and language … About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning” to paper, Yuknavitch “rebuild[s] the wreckage of a life a word at a time”, and what a beautiful and reflective life her words make (141, 202).