In an essay I regularly come back to, Joan Didion writes about her definition of home, the family that you fall back on, the family you can’t stand, the hot California air that crusts your lips, and the neglected wooden shelves that collect dust in the kitchen. I read this essay when I forget why I want to be a writer, lying in my bed and homesick for a different ocean, for those extra three hours I would get back on the West Coast. Home is not always where you live, and I was constantly reminded of this as my first-semester finals season lagged on and my family felt farther and farther away.
After a long four months across the country, I ached for my living room. I wanted a rug and a lamp with an orange glow that would light up the room just enough to see the paint peeling off the walls. I wanted the hand-painted prints my mom collected after years of moving and drawing and meeting eccentric artists, living a life only reserved for the young. I wanted to drink tea made with turmeric and listen to a warbly John Denver record that came out the same year my mom was born.
This is my second year of college but my first being happy. I just transferred to a small college hidden in the New York suburbs and I haven’t yet been published by The New York Times, which is less of a surprise and more of an inconvenience. Nothing tells you that you’re where you need to be, doing what you need to be doing, like financial affirmation. But no one makes money as a writer unless they’re rich and famous, and you’re only rich and famous if you’re good, so I have much more work to do.
Before transferring to this small college, I went to a large state school in southern Oregon, where the student population is mostly comprised of Portlanders and Californians. I had never before been removed from the West Coast or its pretensions; I was used to seeing REI-wearing mountaineers framed by the lights of a skyline, tromping around town in their chunky boots. But since becoming an East Coast student, I have grown more cognizant of my own Pacific Northwest-ness. Now, when I say I’m from Portland, I’m typically met with knowing looks, an “oh that makes sense” or “of course.” I do not know what my classmates mean by this, but I take it as a compliment.
During my first day of school, I met a girl—a girl who is now a close friend I can’t imagine living without, one who makes me laugh so hard it comes out in dry heaves—who said, “Portland? That’s the coolest place to be from.” But I think people reminisce about what was once the alternative, broody Elliott Smith Portland, and turn a blind eye to the families getting priced out, to rents spiking, to the tented corridors lining boulevards and parkways. Portland has become glamorized for the quirks embedded in its ghostly, vegan white liberalism. If my friend were to learn about the vast sweeps of local homeless camps and the anti-protest mayor who cares more about city aesthetics than humanitarian crises, she’d probably think differently. But it is silly to expect this of her, so I say nothing.
I reflect on this while I sit in my Portland living room on a brown couch that hides the dog hair, my long-distance partner finally at my side as he learns to play Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” on his guitar. It’s raining the way it does in January, and my feet are resting on his knees. My blanket sheds, leaving a coat of sticky fuzz on my pajama bottoms. I think I can smell snow, but really I know this is just a girlish optimism because I’m no stranger to Portland’s mild winters.
On this gray January morning, I feel so close to the familiar, swampy feeling in my stomach—the kind of anxious churning that comes from a sense of waiting (for what, I have no idea)—as I gaze at an unlit Christmas tree. Two weeks after Christmas, the decorations are only a ghost of what they once had been, the stockings that dangle on the mantle now empty. And yet I feel so full, being in a place called home, that the hollow remnants of the holidays don’t bother me at all. So I sink into the uneasiness that makes up the weeks between New Years and the spring semester, a stagnation that makes me feel like my brain is rotting. And I wait for time to pass.
At the beginning of fall semester, I tended to hide from the mandatory orientation events that were supposed to help me make new, lifelong friends. Instead, I huddled in my dorm room and decided to reread Slouching Toward Bethlehem (sometimes you don’t have the capacity to start anything new). I come back to this book because it taught me what it means to be smart; its author commands her readership with such knowing authority that she leaves them in disillusion, lengthy sentences only given breath by an overuse of commas and stylistic em dashes. While describing her own relationship to home, Didion writes of the “nameless anxiety” that “colored the emotional charges between [her] and the place that [she] came from.” Born just five years before the beginning of World War II, she saw how impermanent––almost ephemeral––home could be. And yet going home, now as a woman in her 30s in the 1960s, was not seen as a small victory, as a sign that she survived with her family intact, but as a ceaseless reminder that the past had happened and that she was still living with it. Through this essay alone, Didion demonstrates the author’s ability to know everything and to know nothing at all, to hunger for more, to ask questions, and to confess disheartenment while trying to explore why things are the way they are.
During my first meeting with my writing professor last semester, I told her that I want to do everything Joan Didion did: I want to go on assignment and cover the DNC, write essays and novels, turn those novels into screenplays. I told her I fantasized about strutting to my New York magazine job in bell bottoms; she told me it was brave to admit that I wear bell bottoms in my fantasy. I asked if there was still room in the modern media industry to write about nothing (in a way that secretly highlights something) the way Joan Didion did. But my professor reminded me that Joan Didion didn’t care if there was room for her writing—she made room.
I turned in my last paper, marking the completion of my first semester at this small college hidden in the New York suburbs, and came home to a pile of clothes huddled timidly behind my dresser, just like I’d left it. It’s comfortable to imagine my space frozen in time while I’m away.
I am where I want to be, lying lazily in my living room and taking up space in a place I can call mine and mine alone. Now, my partner is getting more confident in his Elliott Smith cover, which means he’s started singing louder, blurring the world in which he’s sitting (the one where my legs rest on his legs and the rain stains our windows) with the one that’s in his head (something to do with a crowded stadium, a white spotlight, a speaker twice his size looming behind him, one he can jump off if he really wants to). An econ book is sprawled open on the couch to his right, tented in the way that eventually kills the spine. The book looks menacing, like work. He welcomes it because he’s a bit of a wonk. I’ve fallen in love with his enthusiasm for learning, and yet I feel a creeping urge in my stomach to keep up, to have my own niche interests. I don’t want to, so I settle in and listen to his monologues contentedly, writing down responses in a notebook, ones that I think are smart but that I’d never say out loud.
Sometimes I think I create the world in which I live, that I write its details into existence rather than observe them. Perhaps I’m just too wrapped up in the “what could have been” and “what could be.” I am a silly romantic, and I make up silly scenes in my head that only affirm my suspicions that the life of a writer is glamorous. Didion led this life, or at least I imagine her to have. Together, she and her husband turned her novel, Play It as It Lays, into a screenplay, working with culturally acclaimed actors like Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. While on assignment for the title essay in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she smoked with the hippies-cum-cultural-revolutionaries of the psychedelic movement. She profiled Joan Baez and John Wayne, speaking seemingly effortlessly to cultural staples of her time. And in these profiles she found the confidence to center her own perspectives. Because she knew the readers were there to see Joan Baez and John Wayne through her eyes, not those of some omniscient, god-like narrator hiding behind a false sense of objectivity. She had something to say, and so we listened. A writer’s dream.
But I willfully erase the years of sadness that come with such an observant eye, a need to understand and critique a counter-cultural world that is slowly picking up the pieces and dropping them all over again.
In a writing workshop I took last semester, we read an essay about a young woman who hoped for a perfect summer of independence and cried when things went hopelessly wrong. A classmate spoke about how funny this had been to her—the idea of romanticizing something so wholeheartedly and being devastated when it inevitably doesn’t live up to your expectations. The class laughed because it was true: we all romanticize things until they become completely unattainable. Such is the life of a writer, troubled by a hopeless imagination.
I did not set out to write this to immortalize Joan Didion, because at the time I began, I thought she would live forever. But Joan Didion died a few weeks ago. At 86. So many aspiring writers and fashionable liberal arts students have been posting sexy photos of her smoking a cigarette, Coke bottle in hand, staring longingly at the camera and crossing her arms in a plain, knowing way. Something about how she’s being memorialized makes me feel sad. She had a stylish sadness to her that kids in turtlenecks idolize today, but a sadness nonetheless. Perhaps that’s why those kids in turtlenecks connect so deeply to her work. They want to make their own sadness just as stylish. And perhaps, that feels ever so slightly unattainable, so they just resort to the Coke and the cigarettes.
By Ruby Haack