I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She writes:
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio. (You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.) The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.
This quote is one of the many reasons Didion is, in my opinion, the greatest essayist I’ve ever read. Feel free to think I’m nuts, or that I’m discounting James Baldwin, Christopher Hitchens, DFW, Maxine Hong Kingston, or some other writer you favor; they’re all great. But Didion’s my kind of Californian, and I spent a lot time reading her when I was living alone in Santa Cruz, a year that it dumped down rain and was gray from about October to March. It was awesome, and that person I used to be is actually someone I sometimes wish I was in touch with more than I am. I’ll spare you a nauseating explanation of why I miss him and why we don’t talk much, but I can say that he would have loved this Songs: Ohia tune, had it been imagined and released when he was me and I was him. It wasn’t, and sadly the guy who wrote the song won’t write any more. But maybe next time that person I used to be comes round again, I’ll play this one for him.