The Shimmer Of Didion's Light
“Writing is the attempt to understand what’s going on in the shimmer.” -Joan Didion
If reading is in my inhale and writing is my exhale, I think I have been holding my breath for the past month. I need to be in the flow of energy and information. Words, phrases, descriptions, human stories - these are my lifeline and food for my soul. Yet, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak I have been cut off. Lack of attention and brain fog have left the pile of books on my bedside table uncracked, my rainbow tabs undisturbed in their packaging as a true sign of a dormant reading mind.
I feign pride when I walk by my son’s room and see him pouring through his second series of six or more books in the past month. He is averaging one book every two days. I am thankful he can still manage to get lost in a story, but why not me?
If I were to be injured physically and unable to exercise or practice yoga, I would be devastated. It is a part of my active lifestyle that I need for a sound body and mind. But here I am experiencing a mental block robbing me of another great joy in my life. Within the pages of books I find company, inspiration, comfort and hope. How do I weave tapestries with no yarn? The loom of my mind sits frozen.
Thankfully, like most of America, I have Netflix and a whole list of award-winning films I never got around to watching. If you have not seen “Unorthodox,” please stop reading and go watch it immediately. My husband and I have been traveling with Rick Steves through the best of Europe, anything to dodge the nightly news.
My Sunday morning routine normally involves coffee in my “I love Seattle” mug, a cozy seat between the ferns on my porch and The New York Times, but that routine has also fallen short. Between political pandemic dumpster fires, the Quarantine Travel-less section and Coronavirus Lifestyle Op-Eds, the paper has not offered an escape, that is, until last week.
Tucked in a slim column down the inner crease of the Arts and Leisure section, a tiny thumbnail caught my attention. It looked like the cover of a Joan Didion book. My heart skipped a beat. Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light is a compilation of essays edited by Steffie Nelson. It is not a book written by Didion but rather inspired by her. A quick visit to Goodreads showed four-star reviews. Two or three more clicks and my copy was set to arrive in a week.
Why not buy more books to sit atop the heap I am not reading at the moment? I didn’t care; I felt the tug. This was going to be the one.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Didion wrote these words three years before I was born. I grew into them. “Writing is thinking” is written on my whiteboard at the start of every semester. I write for clarity and understanding. It cracks the static in my head.
I have heard Didion referred to as many things, but my favorites are alchemist and magician. “Writing is the attempt to understand what’s going on in the shimmer,” she said. Yes, the shimmer. And what better place to take in some shimmer than California.
Didion writes about place like no one else. She knows that it is about feeling much more than geography. Her infamous words in the The White Album capture this belief. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers most obsessively...shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
This obsessive remembering is what drew me into the pages of Slouching Towards Los Angeles. In this book, we experience Didion’s influence and explore the landscape and lifestyle through fresh eyes and new perspectives.
Suddenly, I was strolling in Golden Gate Park watching the sunset paint the bay. I was ordering five pound breakfast burritos from a taco truck in San Clemente. I was feeling the wind in my face as I counted the mounds of seals at Children’s Pool in La Jolla. For years I have felt like a west coast girl stuck in an east coast zip code. The shimmer felt nostalgic.
This book took me there. It reminded me of my earlier years spent in the rigid, sharp edges of New York City. My twenties spent in Manhattan brought great life experience, joy and heartaches, but as they always say, I got out before it made me crack. Our brief stint out west, Colorado to be exact, awakened the softer, more earthy side of me. Mountains and open natural spaces replaced concrete human constructs. And with each new experience, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara— the west beckoned and lured me back.
Twenty-four hours later, the book is finished. I hope, like my love affair with Didion’s work and California, my ability to read will remain and not fade into the Pacific. While we desperately need medical staff and essential workers keeping us afloat right now, we also need the artists. In “On Tour with a Reluctant Oracle,” Sarah Tomlinson writes, “They [writers] remain our oracles, our traveling companions during our own dark nights of the soul.” In this way, Didion and all of the contributors to this collection traveled with me and helped me find the shimmer that I can now attempt to understand. It felt so wonderful to breathe again.
What have you been reading or watching?