I’m leaving Seattle for New York City this fall, Joan Didion died two days before Christmas, and local curator Deborah Woodard invited me to contribute to a celebratory remote reading (that starts at 7 pm tonight) in honor of the late literary giant. When you really think about it, did I have any choice but to read “Goodbye to All That” obsessively for the last three weeks?
I do not believe I exaggerate when I say that essay added five years to my life. As we all did, I first read “Goodbye” moments after declaring poetry as my major in college. At that point, I’d also recently discovered the word “denouement” was not pronounced “dee-now-mint.” I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. Then I read the essay and my life began to expand — once I actually started to understand it.
“Goodbye to All That” chronicles Didion’s twenties in 1960s New York City, where she wrote copy and did layout for a magazine, embarked on her first romances, and attended an endless series of parties with an endless series of friends who read as both crucial and oddly interchangeable. She falls madly in love with the city the moment she steps off the train, and, though she meets a man who would later become her husband, Didion’s romance with New York overshadows or undergirds every human love story in the essay. She falls in love with NYC as a symbol of infinite possibilities, a city she compares to Xanadu, whose mythical nature contributes exponentially to the feeling one has at 20 of being immune to the passage of time.
In my reading, Didion’s relationship with that city of cities declines because time catches up with her. But I didn’t really understand that at the time. At the time, I was still glancing back and forth between my ass and a hole in the ground with furrowed brows. But I knew I felt deeply bad for the author of that essay. I even stood up in my college literature class when we discussed it and said, “How the hell did she feel any moment of her life was a waste? How could she be sad at all? She’s JOAN DIDION!”
It took two years of regularly trying to write poetry for the essay’s message to really sink in. What I eventually came to understand was this: Everything counts. People often frame youth (or your twenties) as bridge to some final destination of adulthood, but that framing can rob you of everything lovely about your youth. As soon as I understood that, I knew I could never think of a moment of my youth as a square on a board game. I had to savor my life, such as it was.
That’s when the years really started adding up.
This phenomenon began with giant, unprecedented feelings of gratitude for satisfying moments in my writing life. For instance, I vividly remember a crippling depression I fell into for about six months when I was 24. I had taken a second job writing copy for Amazon to help my mom pay for an expensive dental procedure. I felt like tying my lanyard into a noose after one damn week of imagining scenarios where people would actually use the stuff I was writing about: A pewter charm shaped like a woman bathing a baby, or a pair of “NO SMOKING” sign earrings. Seriously, who the fuck are these people?
One morning, after barely eating or sleeping for months, I forced myself to go up on the roof of my apartment and write a poem. I levitated out of that depression the moment that poem came together. Even though no one but me had seen the poem, I thought of “Goodbye to All That” and clung to the discovery that writing can save you as tidal waves of gratitude blasted over me.
Whenever a small journal published one of my poems, or whenever I published a food review for half a month’s rent at best, I’d think of the essay and feel secure in being exactly where I was supposed to be in life. I’d think: On a bridge from one shore to another, does a person stop existing? Hell, some of the most beautiful views I’ve seen have been from bridges!
Some months sucked, of course. I would run out of money when I didn’t write enough freelance, or a romance wouldn’t work out as I’d hoped. And yet still I’d view a month writing freelance at 25-years-old as a blessing, not to mention any time at all spent falling in love. Whenever I felt a little lost, I’d just think of Didion and remember: Everything counts.
Frequently I’d be coming home at dawn from a party, and I’d just stand motionless as the sun rose, remembering Didion’s words and steeping in my own life until I was real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.
The essay lived inside of me all that time, but when I actually reread it the day after Didion passed, I noticed something I’d never noticed before, something that deepened my understanding of the work: She begins and ends the essay with the same concept.
She introduces the essay by describing New York as Xanadu, and she concludes it by saying, “There were years when I called Los Angeles ‘the Coast,’ but they seem a long time ago.” In those two moments, Didion is admitting her tendency to mistake a place as a symbol as a way to making herself forget that she's living in time. With this rhetorical device, Didion is trying to remind herself and her reader that we’re susceptible to the dangers of the false escape at any age, that the act of savoring life is a process, not a goal to be reached and moved on from.
I feel, I don’t know, superstitious admitting it, but I have this sense that I noticed this echo when I did for the same reason the essay’s central message hit me like a pile-driver at just the right moment when I was young.
Seattle was youth to me as much as NY was youth to Didion, but the reasons I’m now preparing to move to NY have far more to do with external forces, such as the destructive behavior of real estate investors, than the spiritual exhaustion that motivated Didion’s move to LA. I’m leaving the city of my youth because of what I believe I can gain rather than some need to escape or a feeling of failure. But that’s all because of Didion’s essay. Didion is more responsible for the obscene level of lust for life I feel packing my bags than she could have ever known in life. As I shower and fix my tie in preparation to embrace my own New York — as I say goodbye to the Seattle of my own lucky, joyful, awful, wonderful youth — my new reading of that old essay sets my course and keeps me grounded. For now, at least, I hope.
I’ll have more to say at “A Night of Magical Thinking: Celebrating Joan Didion,” a virtual reading that starts streaming tonight at 7 pm on Margin Shift’s Facebook page. I’ll be joined by my betters: Thomas Ahneesan, Gina Tron, Jill Bergantz, Cara Diaconoff, and Robert Lashley.