Hey guys! Today’s Book Journey comes in the best kind of flavor: bittersweet. This week has been moving week for me. My days have been filled with packing and unpacking boxes, shuttling myself and belongings from house to house and back again. I’ve ordered and reordered bed frames and blankets in the most cyclical transportation process I’ve undergone in years. I was texting my friend a never-ending slew of complaints, concerns, et cetera, when he responded, “Yeah, moving is a super emo thing to do,” which just about sums it up.
Mostly what I think about when I think about moving is having to find a new place to walk, to stroll around the neighborhood atmosphere. I can’t picture a day waking up and not ambling down Scenic, Bay View, Euclid, to the extent that I’m like, “Maybe I’ll just get a bike, walk there every day still; I’ll never say goodbye.” I think, surely, I’ll like my new street. The people are friendly and the trees are nice, but it rings with that dissonance you feel when you hear yourself say something that isn’t quite true. There’s so much to look forward to, but, really, the more I think about it, the more it stings.
Those North Berkeley hills have held me, heard me as I mumble solutions to troubles walking from shaded spot to shaded spot as I zig-zag erratically down the way. They have seen me cry and giggle to myself as I avoid eye contact with people staring down from windows. They have guided me with curbs and sidewalks, which I inevitably ignore for preference of walking in the middle of the street.
Those hills are mine. I am made up of them, like flesh and like blood.
I think about how I’ll feel, twenty, thirty years from now, when I walk down these roads. I think it’ll be that funny type of sense memory, where I’ll take my steps across Cedar, slanting down toward the lime green house and be struck by the change in color or the lack of God’s Eyes in the window. I think about passing the house where I walked that one dog, and when I waited on the steps to its house, locked out until my friend walked by and picked our way in. When we walked around the house for a little too long trying to figure out what kind of people these dog owners were.
I think about if anyone I know will still live in that mansion house, if they’ll wave down from the balcony and if I would even remember their faces. I’ll feel an echo of my twenty-two-year-old self. I’ll probably shed a tear.
There used to be a very old dog that sat on the porch of one house who would bark at me with startling force. The next year, he did not come to the porch anymore. Today I walked by that house and saw a dog, reminiscent of the old one in color and stature, but he was much younger, and stared at me with a wide-lipped grin and flopping tongue.
I can’t help but notice that things are already starting to change.
When I feel this type of melancholy, it becomes immediately imperative that I seek comfort in the pages of Joan Didion.
In her short story “Notes from a Native Daughter,” she describes Sacramento and California, two places quintessential to one another. Her family has been there as forever as is possible in such a newly settled state, and this memory resonates in her almost as some work of DNA.
“First I remember running a boxer dog of my brother’s over the same flat fields that our great-great-grandfather had found virgin and had planted; I remember swimming the same rivers we had swum for a century: the Sacramento, so rich with silt that we could barely see our hands a few inches beneath the surface; the American, running clean and fast with melted Sierra snow until July, when it would slow down, and rattlesnakes would sun themselves on its newly exposed rocks.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Didion’s work, other than her adept and ever-changing syntax, is her ability to convey a sense of place. She writes as though she’s watching a memory, seeing little moments float past her and zeroing in on background details. She knows what shapes a scene. She sees what most deem subconscious.
There is an immense understanding of time in her work, as though a single moment spans many. For Didion, it is impossible to exist independently from the land you stand on. And for Didion, the land you stand on holds with it every step that has pressed down on its surface, every breath to float over it, every sound to ripple through it with vibrating waves. It remembers what we cannot.
When you return to a place you have traveled before, it will whisper memories back into you. When you walk a path that has held you before, you will remember how its arms once felt.
This is the melancholy I felt today, walking up Scenic, Bay View, Euclid, passing the new dog I thought I might have known. A moment that spans time, dependent on the space it occupies in past, present, and future. A culmination of things, of feelings I cannot recount individually but that hit me all at once now. A sight that carries with it years of the type of memories that do not age no matter how far you might choose to move.
Didion’s short story “Notes from a Native Daughter” appears in her famed collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. This was my first encounter with Didion. The way she would paint the scene of each story, each different aspect of the American West became colored with history, character, and a deep nostalgia. She sections the book into three parts: Lifestyles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. She writes on each subject with a deft hand and both lightness and weight in her heart, and all I can say is read this. Read this. Read this.
In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s accounts of mourning become canon as she lives and relives her husband’s death. During the year succeeding it, her daughter became hospitalized time and time again, as Didion tells the tale with a sort of distant melancholy, a nostalgia for a time she processes not with raw emotion but with a calculated narrative. The poetry and prose of her work are what carries her, and us, through these trying times. Hers is a literary grief, an experimentation in mourning and blind hope.
Lastly, if you are looking for some more fictional work, definitely check out Play It As It Lays. Maria Wyeth, an actress recovering from a mental breakdown, has been recently released from a psychiatric ward. With her iconic understated emotion and striking visual detail, Didion walks us through a life which oscillates between two poles: glam and grim, diva and domestic. We are haunted as Maria is psychologically manipulated, by familial death, blackmail, and, of course, moving.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!