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QUINTESSENCE

Poised In An Awareness of Mortality


The problem is that we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That's not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the "I" person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.
- excerpted from "Writing Down the Bone," Natalie Goldberg

Tragedy, from my own experience, does seem to strike in pairs. I recently finished reading Joan Didion's sequel memoir, "Blue Nights," reflections on herself as a mother and the complex relationship she shared with her daughter, Quintana Roo. In 2003, Quintana fell ill with pneumonia shortly before the tragic, sudden death from cardiac arrest of Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. Quintana passed away of septic shock complicated by bleeding in the brain days after Dunne. Didion's first memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," was published in late 2005: a bare bones coming to terms with loss of so much at one time, but especially her life partner, her defining other. Didion has now turned to the painful emotions of her daughter's loss, writing a memoir imbued, for the reader, with the sense Didion is for the first time deciphering the intimacies of her daughter and their relationship even as she writes. To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg's words, this is writing that unfreezes the soul, freeing the author to define what very personal truths mean.

The title, "Blue Nights," comes from the twilight hours of long evening light that signal the summer solstice: "the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning." Which is to say, this is writing poised in an awareness of mortality. Echoed within each memory even as she shares with us, "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it. "Blue Nights," is a spare read. Poetic, unintentionally raw. Didion's observations jab, pull back, wipe away what is sentimental. Yet, there is a yearning in her thinking. An exposed awareness of age and frailty and loss; a sense of the shortness of time that drives the writing. In sometimes painful reflection, Didion parses away the mystery of her daughter. As if she seeks a concrete understanding of the true shape of their connection, a sense of what balance holds together the intimacy/dissonance of a difficult relationship. Didion needs to perceive her daughter clearly in order to hold on to her; combing through the turning points of their connection to find an anchor, a sense of their relationship pulled from a well of murky, half-dismantled memories even as her own life enters a blue period of increased clarity and diminishing opportunity to make more (or less) of what is left, of what is.

Didion writes with great lucidity, poised on the tipping edge of her own mortality. A sole survivor, striving to understand the relationships that she now understands have defined her. A quest to find something in those relationships to accompany her as she travels alone through her own blue nights of uncertain faith. She leaves us with the question, Is there is anything more than memory itself at the end of life? And is that not an answer in and of itself?


Reader Blog Note: Blog comments gone missing? A reader fortunately has recently let me know the "post a comment" function on my blog was not forwarding your comments through to me. (And here I thought you were all just exceptionally quiet!) Thankfully, everything is back in order - so write in and find your comments here.
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