Growing Pains

Dear Millicent,

I am supposed to be writing up some grand paperwork, which means that I am eating peanut brittle and reading Joan Didion.  Every summer I teach the youths, sleep on a dorm bed, and begin my annual affair with Dame Didion.  It usually starts by accident (a common excuse for an affair), and once it’s on, it’s very on.  Today I was looking for something that could work as an example of how to write about place.  I usually rely on Gay Talese’s “New York Is The City Of The Forgotten,” but shocker, I lost some of the pages.  In the twenty minutes left before class, I was flipping through my text, and refound “Goodbye to All That.”  I think it answers some of the questions that have bubbled up in our conversations.  And, it proves that being cranky is not a demerit of virtue, as much as one’s normal reaction when the gloss is off.

She writes of landing in New York and feeling her life change:

I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

Of course, the city is fabulous, she is fabulous, life is meant to be spent talking and drinking and marveling at fire escapes.

I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later– –because I did not belong there, did not come from there– –but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure out that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.  I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.

And then, Didion describes what I offer as her Saturn’s return showing up and kicking her in the ass,

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.

This sounds bleak, mostly I think because Didion leans toward the bleak out of habit.  Does she really regret afternoons of gazpacho and bloody mary’s (quite the tomato lunch, I must add)? But I think it does address that great reckoning that has been looming and is now currently stinging: oh shit, here we are and what have we done and the past is not abstract after all.

I have grown much crankier in the past seven years.  Where I used to consider exuberance my calling card, I now groan aloud more often and lean back in irritation at a variety of things (spandex dresses, neckerchiefs, people’s monologues about how they are going to personalize a wedding and make it different, movies with sloppy logic).  Didion finds that she eventually has no patience for New York. She has to avoid certain neighborhoods because its inhabitants fill her with rage.  I wonder if this is not as sad as it sounds.  Not a closing off and loss of joy, as much as a shedding of a puffier skin that, while protective, keeps one from the truth of the matter.  Perhaps crank and raised bile is actually a reaction to finally losing one’s baby fat.

She ends:

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not young any more.

She was 31 when she wrote the essay.

My assumption is that the thirteen-year-olds will not savor this piece, just like my freshman felt no blow from Gaudy Night.  But, I will let you know.