all there is, RIP james salter

Children are our crop, our fields, our earth. They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed.

~ James Salter

I returned home late yesterday evening after an entire day spent in a community theater whilst my biggest love ran through two different dress rehearsals for the dance recitals she will be in this coming weekend.  Well, if I’m honest, I didn’t actually spend the entire day inside the theater.  When I wasn’t there singing along in my seat or trying to push the kids off the stage so I could take my turn, I was making three trips up and down the freeway fetching and carrying and loving.  Loving it all, for sure, but by 9 PM I was feeling a little foggy.  Sometimes a few minutes in a whirling spa can clear the mind, but for people like us, though, it’s mostly storytelling and books that seem to cure any kind of weariness.  And so it was that I found myself sitting at my desk downstairs in my study, wandering into the online bookshop for succor.  [Read more…]

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joan didion: one bookish babe


Today is Joan Didion’s 80th birthday.  And while I can’t say I fancy myself a huge fan of her writing — I haven’t read enough of it to wager an opinion — I will admit to having a ginormous girl crush on her anyway.  Take one look at her in these photographs and you, too, will aspire to making her your literary doppelgänger.  Who cares what she’s written!


JOAN DIDIONWhat has Joan Didion written that I’ve actually read?  There are some recently published sad memoirs, the critically acclaimed Year of Magical Thinking (2005), for exampleA captivating title I know I’ve seen in the bookstore but never so much as read the back cover.  I must’ve read something. Wasn’t there that essay about frogs I used to teach way back when?  What was it called, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”?  That was her, right?


Annie Dillard.

didion5Well then, just who is this Joan Didion, really?  She’s got this iconic literary name and thanks to Google, a gallery of gorgeous vintage noir photos, but what has she actually written and furthermore, how come I can’t remember ever reading her or teaching her?

[S]elf-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

didioncoverDidion graduated from UC Berkeley in 1956, and her first major essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power,” was published in Vogue in 1961.  This seminal piece (which I just read about five minutes ago thank you very much) was later anthologized in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which I gather from the title is a bit of a downer.  Didion continued to publish several magazine pieces, novels and essay collections throughout the 1970s (Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Book of Common Prayer), but of course I never read any of these works, either, because I was too busy cruising around the block on my Huffy girls motocross bike with two packs of watermelon Bubblicious in my mouth.  Reading?  Didion?  More like sprawled out on the shag carpet in front of the Trinitron, watching Love Boat or Charlie’s Angels or better still, playing Atari with my brothers and sipping Pepsi from a Super Friends glass we got at the walk-up Taco Bell, the kind of Taco Bell built like a California Mission where you could only order from the window and then sit around red plastic picnic tables outside.  That explains it.  I never read Joan Didion because I was too busy eating tacos.

Even after all these years of academic study, professional writing and teaching and pleasure reading, there’s still a gaping Didion gap in my repertoire.  I should know her.  Such a glamorous bookish babe demands to be read.

15 Great Essays by Joan Didion over at The Electric Typewriter.

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what’s your happy place?

Many years ago I found myself anticipating my first hospital stay.  By the grace of God I’ve never broken any bones or been seriously ill so as to require even a finger splint let alone an Emergency Room visit, so when I experienced my first pregnancy there were ample opportunities for anxiety.  One hears stories of women suffering through thirty-six hour labors that in the end resulted in emergency C-sections.  They tell you how they walked the halls with their backsides exposed, pulling IVs with labor-inducing drips.  How they had endured so many humiliating cervical checks they could pass around champagne to post-delivery visitors while the nurses came in to poke around their junk.  Labor seemed like it took a long time, a long utterly terrifying and helpless time in the hospital!  I imagined it not unlike waiting in the basement for a category 5 hurricane to make land.  And of course, at the time I happened to be pregnant there just had to be a popular show on daytime television, A Baby Story, to fill me with horrific images of these sweaty, screaming women in their open-to-the back hospital gowns surrounded by all sorts of Frankensteinian machinery.  Maybe worse than this was all the birth-planning these women did the months before — the interviewing of doulas, the selection of aromatherapy candles and soothing music, the written manifestos detailing how the delivery was to go down once the woman becomes temporarily insane and at the mercy of her man and the medical staff.  What a freaking nightmare!

I immediately signed up for yoga.  And on the morning my first labor pain nudged me awake at about 5:30, I got up and went for a hike along the coast several miles north of town.  If this hurricane was headed my way, I thought, I sure wasn’t going to sit around and wait for it.

It was a June morning, and I recall warm gorgeous weather — the kind that brings out the scent of sagebrush.  The cloudless sky overhead was a cerulean blue and after the man I keep and I parked our Honda Accord along HWY 1 we scrambled over a low wooden fence to access the trail.  We made our way down a small hill and passed through a historical farm site where I stopped to watch the chickens in the hen house scratch at the dirt.  Once we got on the trail and began to walk out toward the sea, the first intense labor pain doubled me over for a few seconds, but we continued on through the tangled passageway until we reached the edge of the cliff that overlooked the water.  I recall thinking to myself later as I walked alone along the paved road, the man I keep having gone back to the highway for the car, that this was the most beautiful day to be born.  A day for bicycle rides.  A day for walking along the sea.

I didn’t have a birth plan in my hospital bag back at home.  And for some reason I was not anxious about that at all.  As I reflect back now, it seems to me this was the first time in my life when I let go and did not try to plan for or control the outcome.  How could I? I thought.  The baby is going to come in her own way.  It seemed silly to me to try and plan for a mystery of this proportion.  I had no idea what my labor and delivery would actually be like, and if I should require medical intervention or if it was going to take a long time, there was nothing I could do to prevent that.  If the pain proved to be intolerable, of course I would take the drugs!  Whatever.  I’m open.  Come what may.

Of course, I was in total denial.  I mean, who goes into labor and decides that’s the perfect day to go for a hike?  Certainly I was attempting to run from the hurricane or at least distract myself until the roof blew off my house.  Na Na Na.  Fingers in ears.  This isn’t happening . . . .

One other form of distraction we learned at the birth classes was this idea about the happy place.  The happy place!  Oh I was all about that, and it began with that hike out to the sea first thing in the morning — I wanted to be any place but in those stirrups screaming in that hospital!

“The Happy Place” is a meditation technique that involves a form of visualization designed to relax you in times of stress and this particular version goes something like this:  you and your partner agree on a happy place — a place you associate with peace, comfort, a place of utter tranquility and joy that ideally you both have visited — and then during the intense throes of labor, your partner gently walks you through your memories of this heavenly oasis, as if imagining yourself there is in some way supposed to take your mind off the actual brutality and physical agony of childbirth.  It couldn’t hurt to give it a try, we thought.   Do you have a happy place?  Everyone does!  My happy place was and still is the most glorious vista on the planet: the Hotel Katikies’ infinity pool overlooking the caldera in Santorini, Greece!  I bet you can just imagine it, can’t you?  (click here for a nearly pornographic photo collection of this absolute paradise.)

Well, we had discussed our happy place, we had our overnight bags packed, and after we arrived home from our hike within the hour my contractions grew close enough together that I thought, maybe we should just go check them out.  However, by the time we pulled into the maternity and surgery center parking lot, I could barely see.  My eyes, my feet, my hands, everything felt so blinding hot.  I tucked my pillow under my arm and staggered across the parking lot, into the elevator, and up to the triage room, where I immediately asked them to take my shoes off they felt so tight.  I gripped the man I keep’s arm pulled him closer and slowly growled through clenched teeth, remember to tell them to CALL the anesthesiologist.  “Oh, it’s too late for that, honey,” the nurse who was in the middle of examining me said.  You’ll be holding your baby in an hour.”  WHAT???!!!  I screamed.  But I don’t want to feel it!

They immediately moved me into a delivery room, hooked me up to a fetal monitor so they could measure the intensity of the contractions and I recall few details between that time and the time our daughter was born, except for these.  The man I keep held my hand and talked to me in between waves of unimaginable unmedicated pain, but he was mesmerized by that monitor.  It measured the contractions before I could actually feel them, almost like a richtor scale that could predict an earthquake, and at one point he burst out, Oh my GOD!  Brace yourself: this one’s going to be HUGE!!  A few minutes into this unraveling and I was ready for him to take me to my happy place.  So here’s what he does next.  He’s holding my hand and stroking my arm, and my eyes are squeezed shut and I can’t talk at all, and he starts in with the visualization . . . Remember that time when we were camping in Baja?

Huh???  I could not speak but only grip his arm.  I think I may have even drawn blood as if to implore with him, This is NOT my happy place!!  But he continued on in the sweetest, most soothing voice . . . so we were there . . . in Mexico . . . camping . . . and my brother and I were out surfing in those perfect waves in that little fishing village and you were sitting up on the cliff watching us . . . wasn’t that great?  Um excuse me?  A desolate dusty windswept cliff in Mexico?!  That place you said your truck once broke down and you were scared the drug cartel bandidos would rob and kill you?  Yeah, I do remember being there . . . huddled up in a beach chair and trying not to get abducted by the shifty fishermen stalking me from their tumbling-down plywood shack!  Thank God for another category 5 contraction and the doctor, who came in to say it was time to push, because I wasn’t ready to go back there for margaritas.

Some experiences in life are unforgettable.  We anticipate them with anxiety and fear for in the face of their mystery we are utterly helpless.  Each of us hunkers down in our own way but with a measure of faith in the inevitable and loads of laughter, we get through.  I will never forget the day my biggest love was born–the sheer joy of welcoming her into the world on such a beautiful summer day, of holding her in my arms and looking into her face for the first time.  I remember how even in the midst of unimaginable pain, I managed to find the humor in my helplessness.  Those moments of folly that make for a fun story to tell all these years later.  But of course, I learned my lesson.  The second time around we were better prepared and drove straight to the hospital at the first sign things were underway — I was not going to miss my date with the anesthesiologist!  He could have poked needles in both eyes and I would not have cared I was so happy to see him.  And as I leaned over so he could insert the epidural into my spine, the man I keep returned to that soothing, sweet voice to comfort me.  He stood in front of me so I had somewhere to rest my head and he rubbed my shoulders, saying gently  You’re going to be okay.  Everything’s going to be just fine.  Just relax.  You’re going to be oooookay.  Ohhhh.  “He looks pale,” said one of the nurses.  I don’t think I’m going to be okay, he said just before teetering over backwards like a falling tree.  “Man down!  Someone get the smelling salts!”



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