At the gate a woman collapses in her seat. At the gate there are flight attendants on the phone and a crowd forming around the woman lying still on the vinyl bench. The boarding pass falls from my hand but I don’t notice. The woman stops breathing. On the tarmac there is the ambulance and a few seconds later, there is a stretcher wheeled through the door.
Order returns the moment after. The paramedics tow the stretcher away and people form a line. I’m waved forward and my passport is scanned. The sun is set and we are on the plane, in the air, over Nova Scotia then Iceland.
There are moments when things could change. You could be in the plane over the water. You could be in the ambulance on the tarmac.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”
The opening lines of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” are repeated throughout the memoir. Didion’s husband, John Dunne, died of a heart attack in 2004. She collected her thoughts over the next year, the often magical rationalizations of grief. She couldn’t donate John’s shoes to Goodwill because “he would need his shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.”
I begin here, at what seems to be an end, because I happened to be reading the passage about John’s shoes while waiting for my flight. I would fly to Amsterdam and then Florence, to spend a semester reading in a language I don’t speak. The flight would be mostly empty, and they would serve dinner when we reached altitude. Things went ahead as planned, but the normal procession felt different. There were one too many empty seats. I had an aisle to myself, but I couldn’t be sure if I was meant to have an aisle to myself.
These moments come, and you think you should have something to say. You should say, “this is strange, this is different, why aren’t you seeing this?”
There is the woman that runs from her station at the hairdressers to jump into a man’s arms on the sidewalk. There is the man in the intersection yelling for help while a boy your own age gropes for the man’s wallet. There is the woman towing a bike down the street, the bent and broken front wheel held a little off the ground, a crooked metal smile to the people in the cafes.
“I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges,” Didion wrote in her 1976 essay “Why I Write.” She offers the scene of a woman walking through the Riviera casino at one in the morning to answer a call at the concierge.
She continues, “Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet.”
You’ll laugh when I add here a quote from the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand that it’s not quite in line with Joan Didion, and you’ll think it cheapens the point. But there is a scene — a line, really — that fits well with the question of shimmering images.
Ben Stiller sits with Sean Penn on a peak in the Himalayas. Sean Penn is there to photograph snow leopards. They are rare and hard to shoot. He spots one across the pass and trains the camera. He watches through the viewfinder. He does not click the shutter.
“Are you gonna take it?” Ben Stiller asks.
“Sometimes I don’t.” Sean Penn says.
“You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet.” Didion wrote.
Joan Didion died in December of 2021, “at her home in Manhattan,” the New York Times obituary explained. I read the obituary, and thought I should write about her. I thought I should write a retrospective, an overview of the works and highlights. It would be brief and sentimental.
It occurred to me then that I was not yet alive when most of her work was published. I was three when she wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking.” It wouldn’t make any sense to write about the career of a person when I was not alive for the events of the career.
I’ve been trying to write about Joan Didion, but the attempts haven’t led anywhere. They haven’t led anywhere because they were attempts in the wrong direction. Didion was an observer and a participant. There was always a self in her work. Rarely in her books and essays can you forget that there is a person writing, constructing the words.
I’ve been trying to write about Joan Didion when I should have been writing about myself.
“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily,” Didion wrote in her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook.”
“There was a fire that turned the candies to glass,” I wrote in the margin of my copy of Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
I don’t remember the thought that preceded the note. I remember that it felt very important. There is a memory of a bowl filled with candies, the kind a grandmother would keep for infrequent visits from now-grown children, but the candies are made of glass. I asked why they were made of glass. Someone told me there had been a fire and the candies survived but they were different after.
I don’t think I believed this explanation. I don’t think there has ever been a moment in my life when I didn’t raise my hand and argue with a teacher over such an explanation, or ruin a family dinner because I couldn’t let the argument rest. I can’t say if these are good aspects of character. I can say that these aspects lead me often to write, to see the woman walking with her broken bike and think, “this is strange, this is different, why aren’t you seeing this?”
A train ticket to Lucca costs €8. Some friends mentioned at dinner that they were buying tickets to Lucca on Sunday and said I could join them. I wasn’t sure then if the invitation was genuine, but I decided to go.
There was the walk from my apartment to the train station, the hour and a half ride out of Florence. There were mists and the hills hid far away behind some skeleton trees and vineyards. We left in the dark of the morning, and the sun was up when we arrived in town. No one saw it rise through the fog.
Lucca is encircled by walls. The gates are large and steel and left always open nowadays. Most everything was closed on Sunday morning and the streets were empty. You’d think a wave had crashed and just rolled back into the sea. You’d think people were waiting for a shootout to start, the windows shuttered and the church bells ringing alone.
The Italian word for earthquake is “terremoto.”
I heard two professors talking in the hall Monday about a “terremoto” in Lucca. I asked if they meant the town nearby. They said yes. They said there had been an earthquake early Sunday morning, a 3.8 on the Richter scale. The professor’s friend had called because her walls were creaking, and she didn’t know what to do. The friend asked what sort of clothes she should put on.
In the middle of the night the ground shook below the town. I saw the place after, not knowing what had happened. I saw the place and thought it seemed quiet. I thought the shops were closed because it was Sunday. The shops were closed because things had fallen from the shelves, and they had to be put back in place.
I thought on Sunday that I should write about Lucca. I tried but failed. There was a character to the town that I couldn’t place, a timidness that followed you as you walked alone along the high walls, the narrow streets. It wouldn’t make any sense to write about the aftershock when I hadn’t witnessed the breaking of the earth.
I realize now that I had seen only the tail end of the shimmer, the ripple of the depth charge but not the explosion.
“You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer,” Didion wrote.
But I do think about them too much. I try to make sense of them and find that they defy sense. I step off the train and find the shops closed and wonder why I can’t put words to the odd tone of the city.
“I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder,” Didion writes in the preface to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
I say “writes” instead of “wrote” because the preface exists in the present. Each one of the essays in the collection is dated on the last page. The preface is not. It is more a gathering of thoughts than a story, and as a thought it doesn’t exist as a point in time. It is recreated with each reading. It is as true in my own voice as it was in Didion’s.
I’ve been trying to write about Didion when I should have been writing about myself. But there’s the point — that to read is to adopt another’s words, to form them yourself and make them new. I didn’t see the Haight-Ashbury in 1967, but I read the meaning in Didion’s account. I didn’t feel the earthquake, but I saw the shimmer.
Some time ago I wrote a short story about a deathbed confession. I was in a workshop, and people seemed to like death in stories. A woman tells her son that his father, who was thought dead for many years, is still alive.
“Viva ancora, sull’Isola Piccola – he lives still, on Isola Piccola.”
The name “Isola Piccola” means “The Little Island.” I chose it because it sounded like the setting for a fairytale. The man would go to Italy and find his father. He would fly to Rome and then take a boat to the island. The flight would be mostly empty and they would serve dinner when they reached altitude.
I wrote the story quickly, and it didn’t work. There was a deadline and I couldn’t finish the scene where the man meets his father. I thought later that I should go back and write it out, but I wondered who I’d be writing for. The workshop had ended. No one would read the edited version.
I never wrote the last scene. We think of living things as unfinished, as existing in some part in the future. The future seems to be a requirement for living. I’ll steal here a line from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Altre Parole.”
“Ritengo che un libro sia viva solo mentre viene scritto — I believe a book lives only so long as it is being written.”
I disagree with the phrasing, but I’ll borrow the sentiment — it follows that a writer lives so long as they are being read. Those moments which shimmered in the mind of the author live still on the page. They shimmer for me. I’m talking here about Didion but also about myself, the things I wrote and forgot about, the stories I never finished.
“There was a fire that turned the candies to glass,” I wrote in the margins, a note for a forgotten thought.
“He would need his shoes if he was to return,” Didion wrote, knowing still that the ground trembles long after the quake.
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached at email@example.com.