Monday, April 6, 2015

Hallie Owen: Goodbye to All That, again and again

When did we stop being so young, Joan and I?

Drawing parallels is a familiar pastime of mine and I’m pleased to find one where I can stand momentarily alongside Joan Didion. On one side: me, reading any essay from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, especially “Goodbye To All That”—to be more specific, if I can: this is the experience of reading an essay for the first time, wandering into it and feeling an emotion never felt before wash over me, something that I know is actually created, not from what I bring to the words as a reader, but by what they pass on to me. On the other side: the relationship with New York City that Didion describes herself as embracing, then enduring, then finally letting go.

Anyone who has read “Goodbye to All That” understands Didion’s side of the parallel. My side is less renowned. I was living in Iowa City when I first read the essay and I imagine it was late Spring, that I was sitting outside the English-Philosophy Building on a low brick wall facing the Iowa River, that I was finishing my sophomore year in college and starting to feel like I might belong anywhere outside Washington, Iowa, the tiny town I grew up in, just 30 miles away from Iowa City. It might as well have been 3,000: the town square, the two mile stretch of four lane highway bisecting the town that we drove up and down, the geometry so very unforgiving. Few words really mattered there. Iowa City seemed to be made of circles that stretched further and further, circles that I began to fill with words, my own words, other people’s words.

I read so many of the lines in this essay over and over again and shook my head in wonder. What I felt wasn’t a reinforcement or corroboration of something already experienced, a form of empathy or identification with a story or an emotion; instead it seemed a harbinger of something to come, something I knew that I would feel someday. How I knew this at that time, I’m not sure. I was absolutely certain back then that I could never create anything so lovely and also that I would never read anything in the same way again. It was heady, dizzying and slightly overwhelming. It was a place that I went to and became lost in for a while.

As I re-read the essay today, now a few years past the age of fifty, back in school and studying Didion once again, I conclude that there is not a lackluster, filler line in the entire essay. It all counts: every evocative image, every probing and retreating sentence, every sculpted phrase and precise word.

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” 

When I first fell under the spell of this line, which arrives about halfway through “Goodbye To All That,” I am certain I was only nineteen. I assume that our Expository Writing professor assigned us an essay by Didion that I liked, probably something like “On Keeping a Notebook” and then when browsing at the bookstore I ran across Slouching Towards Bethlehem and bought it. But I was nineteen, I’m sure, and because of that, as I’m thinking back now, my reaction to this line seems curious, because at nineteen, nothing, or very little at least, is irrevocable.

I would return to this line over and over again through the years, as if testing it, dipping my toes in the cool running stream to judge the depth and the current. At 25, unpacking books in a mobile home just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, watching my two toddlers building shaky block towers and bridges on the floor around me, my writing time dwindling into occasional poems and short journal entries, I searched through the worn pinkish-orange paperback with the title and author lettered in gold (no graphics, none needed) for the line that had been such a beacon. I wasn’t sure at first which essay it was even in or exactly what it said, but I knew when I found it. I knew it was a test, something to weigh. Did things count yet? Yes, there were some things that were irrevocable at that point in my life, mostly those two little children building a city at my feet. But still, so much was ahead and unwritten.

Unpacking the books again, this time in Texas, suddenly I was midway through my 30’s, with three children, first house, first managerial job. The cover bore smudges and stains, almost totally obliterating the “Sl” and the “g” in “Slouching” and the pages became more brown and brittle each year. Why didn’t I buy a new copy? I began to count those things that seemed irrevocable and the list became longer and heavier. When did that happen? So many decisions made that could not be unmade. I wrote beautiful grant proposals and memos. Over the next twenty years, I would pull out “Goodbye to All That” again and again, search for the line, and remember when I first read it, of the feeling of being nineteen and of knowing that nothing that I’d done yet really counted. Now it counted. Perhaps it had always counted, every moment, from the very first “That was the year...” But like Didion, I failed to note that instant when looking back began to get in the way of moving forward. We wanted to know: when did we stop being so young, both Joan and I?

Throughout the essay, and as she accomplishes through so much of her work, Didion alternates between sketching in light pencil a haunting sense of regret, of longing and desire, then painting lush, vivid images that engage and stretch and excite the senses: the taste of a peach, the lustre of yards and yards of yellow theatrical silk drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm, the smell of a particular perfume or jasmine soap or spicy crabs boiling. I would venture that it was her ability to create those images, to evoke that emotion, that led me to understand (no, to feel) the power a writer wields to connect the minds and emotions of readers. I had little knowledge of the mechanics of that art at nineteen, what it would cost me to begin to understand, how little I was able to pay at the time and what the interest payments would eventually add up to. Still, reading that line again makes me shake my head in amazement, but the feeling springs from a different place now, perhaps from the acute perception that I’ll never be able to read it the same way again. At nineteen, how could I ever have known I would feel this?

Joan left New York for Los Angeles and my parallel seems to falter here so I will leave it behind and stand by myself. Somewhere along the way I stopped my measuring and testing of all that was behind me, though that same line from “Goodbye to All That” that almost quite literally stopped me in my tracks long ago still lifts off the page as I read it. Today I see the beauty in what was lost, the joy in the regret. I see the new beginning at the end, but I would still trade it all, the layered, textured wisdom, the governed passion, for that wonder I felt at nineteen, for a clean pinkish-orange cover and fresh golden letters.

Hallie Owen is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas, focusing on creative nonfiction and poetry. The first half of her life (as a librarian and public administrator) has been devoted to ensuring that people have equal access to information and literature that supports and enriches their lives. She hopes for the second half to be spent creating (and helping others create) new works of literature that readers will want to have access to.

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