What it Means

In her essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion says, in the first sentence, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I tell stories for a (partial) living, but for months now I have not. Instead, I’ve had this image of a woman, me, presumably, in a tiny room surrounded by concrete walls, a concrete floor. She claws at the walls with her hands. No windows. No door. She knows full well that nothing will come of this but can’t stop clawing. Her fingers bleed. She does not stop. When I try to write: I write that image in various incarnations. I stop writing. I go back to one of my other jobs. I watch C-span.

Didion says, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” No word pops up more often in my head these days than “phantasmagoria.” Fantastic. Unreal. As something in a dream. Reality, often offered with quotation marks around it, has come to feel almost wholly made up.

 

*****

Narratives are how we not only make sense of the world but make sense in a way that it’s more communicable, more felt. It’s how we pass our feelings on. I want to explain to myself, my husband wants me to explain, why I’ve been getting dizzy again lately, weak-headed and nauseas, unable sometimes to stand; I work back through time and try to lay out for him, for me, the events that led up to this moment that has become so untenable that stories are needed; I’m not sure right now that stories are enough.

 

*****

A few pages into her essay, Didion quotes from a medical report that ends thusly, “In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.” Didion doesn’t tell us (in one of her many moves of near perfect storytelling) that this medical report is hers until the end.

The night of November 8, my family and I went out to dinner and I had a gimlet. We read quickly to our children as we put them to bed half an hour early so that we could get back to refreshing the various news websites we had open on our computers, livestreaming the TV broadcasters’ excited, then anxious, then baffled reports on the returns. The next morning, our daughters came into our bed to kiss me and wish me a happy birthday. It was my birthday the day after November 8. We fed them and got them dressed. I went to work. Three of my students arrived to class at once, all female, one Muslim, one on a student visa, are we really doing this? One of them asked.

My parents called and my mother asked why I was crying. Your family will be fine, my father texted. Don’t let it ruin your birthday, he said. I threw my phone.

****

I refused to sleep train our older daughter for months when she was little, because I was certain she didn’t have the mechanism (language, stories) to explain our absence to herself. She couldn’t say to herself, maybe they are busy. She couldn’t say to herself, they will come soon. She couldn’t spin a narrative in which we loved her, I thought, if we weren’t consistently, immediately proving that we did.

This was also the greatest comfort, for me, of early parenthood. Language, which was the only thing I’d ever believed I could have power in, language, which had so often proved not-enough, was moot when it came to our newborn baby. Concrete, consistent action was what she needed. I had no choice but do.

 

 ****

Later in her essay, Didion talks about the “physical chill” she experienced each time she read the verse posted on her mother-in-law’s wall, during this period:

“God Bless the Corners of this House
and be the Lintel Blessed
And Bless the Hearth
And Bless the Board
And Bless Each Place of Rest
Bless Each Door That Opens Wide To Strangers and to Kin”

People were walking through doors and killing people, people were calling her and threatening her or suggesting she was being chased, watched. To see these words up on a wall and framed; the chill of wanting to believe in words, and often having to face up against how quickly they can be freed of their meaning, how insignificant, how useless they can be.

*****

I was given narratives my whole life about “Love”. This is why, they said, no matter what they did or failed to do, because we Love you so very much. The actions didn’t matter, the consequence. Every act was done in Love. Love had never left. I must be grateful. I must stop. I must shut up. Because of Love.

I had no concept of that word’s definition by the time I was a grownup. I understood it as a weapon, a tool through which to achieve any means or ends as long as it was cloaked or covered later in that single piece of language. I understood it as a Trojan horse.

****

In the weeks since the election when my husband has tried to spin the narratives of our future, once we’re out of debt, if he gets this job he’s hoping to get, if I could somehow manage to get a fulltime teaching job, we will do a or b or c. My running epitaph to each of these statements, is “if we don’t die” or “if we’re not already dead”.

I’m a thirty-three year old white woman. We’re healthy. We live in New York, surrounded by friends. I have no reason to think I’m dying or that someone will kill us as a result of this election. And yet, every time anyone suggests the possibility of a future, I feel desperate to immediately shut them up.

Unless we’re dead: this phrase, perhaps obviously, infuriates my husband. He flips it, of course, because all phrases have an inverse. Unless we’re dead can just as easily become: we’re not dead yet.

And yet, though I understand I might seem hysterical, though I see how exhausting I must be, it does not seem pathological right now to fear almost every action. It does not seem pathological to fear for the people that we love who are not as safe as we are, to fear for other humans, all over this country, all over the world. Even before the results of this election, as trucks were driven through crowds in Nice, swathes of people shot in Orlando. Police shooting, suffocating unarmed men and women, murders in Chicago, Turkey, Paris, planes disappearing. Suicide bomber. Zika. Ebola. What felt most pathological was to try to live.

****

I called my father a week or so after the election and begged him to convince me I was being hysterical, that the world wasn’t ending, that millions of lives weren’t about to fall apart. My father is the master of naming my hysteria. He is also the main reason I thought Trump would win. My parents think my book-reading, my Liberalism, is performance, they think I’m frustrating and hysterical and smug. They are perhaps the reason I spent so many years reading about how one might be allowed to feel.

Explain to me, I asked my father. Systems, he said. Institutions. Bannon, I said. Free press. Regulations, he said. Great recession, I said. Business, he said. Efficiencies, he said. Human beings, I said. My father is a reasonable and thoughtful man, but we disagree on many things and we could not agree on this. He has been a person of extreme privilege for most of his adult life. I remained Hysterical. We hung up.

 *****

Didion says we try to freeze the phantasmagoric. One thing that is true in language, that is true in fiction, that is never true in life, is that both books and words presume ideas can be held still and contained. To attempt to fit an experience or a feeling into a single word or story is by definition failing. The words fall short by virtue of existing. As do the narratives.

Once, living in Taiwan with a friend, during the Bush years, drinking and talking politics and torture policy with a group of ex-pats, me not saying a word the whole night, my friend, upon returning to our apartment, asked me why I never spoke. You read so much, she said, you must know so much. I knew about Lady Chatterly and The Brothers Karamazov, I knew about Mrs. Dalloway, and Septimus. I knew so much, in fact, about fictional characters and their wants and needs and feelings, I would often spend whole days convinced these people were in the world somewhere. I knew much less about Weapons of Mass Destruction. I knew less about Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda, North Korea, I thought I knew almost nothing of the real life horrors in the world.

Post-election: I read a book about fascism, a book about the Koch brothers, a book about eviction, a book about Syria, a book about Nazi Germany, a book about Russia, a book about economics and lobbyists.

****

 

When people talk about language, about pushing for specificity, about trying to get things right, we talk about language as signifier, life as signified. You want to get as close as possible to matching. You want to allude to an approximation of a “truth”.

Hack is not the correct word to use to talk about Russia. Hack is not strong enough. How many ways can we define “legitimate”. We must not normalize the white supremacist. Normalization is the only way to get him out. He’s Hitler, Berlusconi. Let’s please define the word fascist as opposed to populist. This is not a situation that calls for impeachment. #notmypresident. Mitch Mcconnell’s obstructionism is the reason that we’re here to begin with. Mitch Mcconnell calls the Democrats “obstructionist”. The office of government ethics is questioning our president’s ethics. The House Oversight Committee, tasked with overseeing ethics, is questioning the ethical choices of the office of government ethics’ choice to question the ethics of the president. Post-fact, post-truth. Facts are a matter of opinion.

Great. American. Ethics. Facts. Human dignity.

It’s Right, he’s Right, because he Won.

65,844,610 (Lost).

62,979,636 (Won).

****

I have two degrees, a published novel, and work four jobs and only barely pay the rent. My husband and I, a few days before the election, had a serious conversation about whether or not we could reasonably afford to continue to pay for our health insurance. I spend the next four months calling my congress people daily begging them to let me continue paying 800 dollars a month for a pretty okay plan.

 ****

In the morning, we wake up, our kids eat breakfast. They go to school. We work. We pick them up. I keep thinking this is their lives, their memories forming, things we can’t take back. We’re not dead yet. My husband lets me stay in bed ten minutes longer than the day before to read news on my phone. He listens to me when I read out loud from the book on fascism.

One of my jobs is to write quizzes for small children for a corporation. I write a quiz about bears, about climate change, about government. I watch c-span as I do this. I watch a woman who has never been to a public school be put in charge of our public school system. I watch a climate change denier get appointed to head the EPA.

I pick my daughter up at her pre-school where students speak thirteen different languages, where she explains to me there’s no such thing as girl toys and boy toys, where she tells me she wishes she had more than one mom.

We listen to NPR. One night, out of nowhere, our four-year-old says to me, though we’ve not spoken to them about this much directly, she says, I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump anymore. Our two-year-old says, maybe he’s mean because he’s sad.

 *****

A story, without much language, “facts”: a few weeks ago, in New Orleans, I was driving through a four way stop and a man in a wheelchair was hit and knocked onto the street by another man turning right on red. A woman went up to the man and I told my mother in law, who was in the seat next to me, to call 9-1-1. We kept driving. I do not know what happened to the man.

I’m going to give you some white space now, consider this. Form opinions about me. Form opinions about each of those men, about my mother in law. Feel.

Now the story again, more words.

The day after thanksgiving, I was driving just outside the ninth ward in New Orleans past a handful of blighted houses, with my mother and father-in-law and my two daughters, two and four, asleep in the back. It was a strange trip, shaded somehow by the fact of the election, tense with my father-in-law and I sneaking away to read the news and then huddle in the kitchen to lament the state of the world. We kept accidentally ending up in places we didn’t mean to end up in, Bourbon street with small children, one of the handful of restaurants in New Orleans with subpar food. Everyone was exhausted and freaked out and I was driving, which I hardly ever do. Our light had just turned green and I pulled slowly out into the cross-section. The space between the different sides of the street in New Orleans is called the Neutral Ground. We pulled forward, and I saw, only in the corner of my vision, a man begin to slowly wheel his wheel chair into the crosswalk. This man was black. Another man, who would later turn out to be Asian, was turning right on red, which is legal in New Orleans, incredibly slowly, inching out as we drove past. The driver of the car and of the wheelchair were moving at about the same speed as they made contact. The man in the wheelchair fell slowly, almost unbelievably, as the man in the car came to a full stop. The man who had previously been in the wheelchair lay on the floor in a helpless, awkward crumble as the driver of the car got out, horrified, running to the man’s side. A woman in the crosswalk ran over to both of them and began to yell at the driver of the car, not helping the man on the ground up off the floor. The driver of the car went to try to help the fallen man. The man on the ground pushed the man from the car away. I stopped our car in the middle of the street, almost getting hit by the car behind us. Our two-year-old woke up and began to cry. I tried to pull over as my mother-in-law got out her phone to call 911. Should we, what do we, I said to my mother-in-law. Another car pulled over. A man got out. We drove away.

Lately, when people ask me how I’m doing, I just offer up that story. I highlight different parts, the yelling woman, the impossibility of knowing who was at fault, how maybe, everyone was fucked long before that car ran into that wheel chair, long before that man fell out. There are thousands of other stories inside that one that, as a fiction writer, I also want to tell. I want to do the sort of circling in and down of the fiction writing that I most like reading. I want to give you history and wants and fears of each of the main actors. I want to show you how each of them is even more and less culpable than it seems they are based on that story by itself.

There is something, for me, in that story that feels True.

****

I wrote an essay a few months ago about a friend I lived with for a few months in Taipei. This friend is one of my oldest dearest friends. Our younger daughter is named after this friend. We speak once, sometimes more, a week. I wrote an essay about our experience together over a decade ago, an experience that was pivotal for both of us. I sent her this essay to make sure she didn’t mind my writing it. I sent it to her nervous only about how honest I had been.

In response, she sent me an excerpt from TS Eliot’s “Love Song for J. Alfred Pulfrock”. She said, through him:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor–
And this, and so much more?–
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

I’d gotten all of it wrong, my best, dearest friend said. What I wrote, what I had tried to say, what I’d meant about what we’d been through, it was not, she said, what she’d been through, not honest, not true, not what she’d meant at all.

 

****

In one of the anecdotes littered throughout Didion’s essay, she says, talking about a story in which John and Michelle Phillips take a detour on the way to the hospital in their limo to pick up a friend, “this incidence, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour to the luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.”(emphasis mine) it’s an anecdote that does it, that describes a time, an industry, but it’s an anecdote embroidered that does it perfectly.

****

Some more quotes from Elliot: (B. 26 September 1888 – D. 4 January 1965)

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

 *****

In the end of Didion’s essay, the last sentence, much less often quoted, Didion states, “Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Roman Navarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

And yet she wrote it. And yet those words still signify.

 

Lynn Steger Strong: apocalyptic tweeting.

Her novel, HOLD STILL, comes out in paperback March 21

 



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