Monday, November 29, 2010

City of Angels

I finished reading Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" on Thanksgiving Day, as M drove us down the 5 to Los Angeles and the sun burned my western cheekbone. This is one of those books that I started and just had to finish, as quickly as possible, because Didion's shiny honest prose goes down so smooth and nourishes me full.

She wrote this book during the last two months of the year following the (sudden) death of her husband John Dunne. He died while their daughter was in a coma. Didion explores the buoyancy and the heavy weight of memory, the way grief pries open a vortex of memory. I loved following her sharp sequences, gardenias being sucked into a pool vacuum brings her back to him, her husband, who sat down to dinner one evening and stopped beating.

Joan and John lived a glamorous bohemian lifestyle in 1970s LA, co-writing screenplays together and hosting parties at their Malibu home; they were together constantly, for forty years. M and I were in LA to visit his sister and her three kids, my new nieces and nephew. Diana (who is 20) and Clara (12) called me Auntie Jess and kissed me on the cheek to say good-night. I watched Jason (a giant boy-man of 14) wrestle and pin his laughing mother to the carpet. For the first time, I was exposed to the video game sensation wii; I tried to keep up with the dance moves on screen, but was no match for Clara.

Our weekend was full of friendlies--the guy who sold us a set of 1950s drinking glasses and gold-plated ice bucket, the woman who liked M's piano playing in American Thrift, just about everyone hiking in Griffith Park, cheered by the opening of blossoms in November.

On Saturday evening, in line at a crowded cathedraled cafe, a woman with blond curls bounced up to me. "I'm not trying to weird you out or anything, but can I just tell you? I have those exact boots and that exact blazer and I was going to wear them out tonight!" "Frye and Gap?" I pointed down and up, feeling exposed. "Yep." Then she went in for a high-five---"Nice style, girl"---and I blushed as we smacked palms. LA seemed so effortless, like happening upon a pair of hardly-worn purple Kangaroo sneakers with zippers, in my size.

That night M and I went out to Spaceland, the venue that launched Beck. We played two games of pool and watched a few bands from the comfort of white leather seats. One guy sang biting lyrics about how annoying teenagers are, and I found myself laughing savagely (must be time for Christmas vacation). Just before we went inside, we sat trapped in the rain-battered car, sipping coke and whiskey. I was eating raspberry candy and listening to the sound of the water rushing down the slope of asphalt and thinking of how I was witnessing the making of a vortex of memory.

It took eleven hours to drive home on Sunday. Everyone crawled home on Sunday, over the 5 and the 101, stricken by their misfortune. We down-shifted into despair, the hours passing and getting nowhere. We stopped at Taco Bell and devoured bean burritos. I wanted to order more, but the line had swelled. It was 5:30, darkness hitting hard, we'd been driving about six hours, and we were only halfway home. Another vortex, this one glum. A rotten cap to our little getaway.

But there was one bright spot. We stopped in San Juan Batista to stretch the traffic out of our legs. The stars lit the field next to the mission church, where Joan Didion wept behind sunglasses all through her wedding ceremony to John Dunne in January of 1964. I, too, have cried in San Juan Bastista, for a different man heading too quickly to death. And I, too, felt the love of my husband inside that mission church.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Sisters Dur

I spent the weekend in Seattle with three of my four sisters.
Four sisters!

We share the same father, different mothers. I'm the oldest, older by six, seven, eleven, and thirteen years. Which means they worshiped me for a long time, until they each, in turn, learned better. Now they're all grown up, with lives and debts and struggles of their own.

Sometimes I pine for those days when I was living in Vermont, just a two hour drive from their home in New Hampshire. As soon as I'd park my Volvo in the driveway, they were there, whisking me down to the basement (oh, hi Dad) where we'd practice dance moves and fight over couch space. Once we even made a horror movie using Dad's old video camera that no longer rewound. We were happy with one take.

I moved to California and the distance between us grew. Goofy tracks don't play well over the phone. I stubbornly refuse to Facebook my relationships. Luckily, they all came to my wedding a few weeks ago, and we retransmitted our sister synapses.

Jilli, who lives in Maine, could not join our Seattle reunion. She is studying to be a doctor, which might come in handy for her uninsured older sister one day. While holding her as a baby, I took a nasty spill down a set of steps and did not let go.

Jo, who spent a few years wander-lusting around India and Nepal, is now rooming with her younger sister in a downtown apartment. She spends her days doing yoga and painting (gorgeous) mystical vistas of forest and ocean. She rarely gives up the ghost.

Jamie recently turned 21, though to me she will always be a baby who mispronounces big words. She waits tables at a bistro, loves playing hostess (she prepared smoked salmon and mushroom tapas for my arrival dinner), and demands immediate attention. She never answers her phone.

Jenna is in her first year of college at the University of British Columbia and has read an impressive number of books in her 19 years. She just celebrated her one-year anniversary with a devoted boyfriend (who, to my surprise, I really like).

Over the weekend we did what we sisters do best---laugh, tease, play, joke, eat, shop, frolic, and dance. (Oh did we dance. My hips are still sore.) We talked of our ever-shifting lives (and father, and brother). We drank at the fountain of unconditional sister love, nearly fell in, then said a quick and casual good-bye because I hate saying good-bye.

Yesterday I got a text from Jamie: We miss u already.


Saturday, November 6, 2010


I've been busy, too busy to blog, which is beautifully ironic since I've been busy writing. And it's just as it always is, a paradox, a labor of love and sweat, both fun and painful, fulfilling and yet never enough.

A couple of weeks ago, I published this article in the Bohemian, which also happened to be the very last issue with the fiesty Gretchen Giles as editor:

I had a great time crunching that deadline, re-reading paragraphs until I had them memorized, editing as tightly as I possibly could. On the opposite extreme, I had an absolute blast letting my uncensored voice romp the pages of my journal in a Day of the Dead-inspired workshop last weekend. Nestled in the back of an herb shop, with fresh-baked empanadas and pumpkin cookies for fuel, five of us found words for our uncoiling honesty. We laughed a ton and teared a little. I channeled something potent. I turned one ten minute writing exercise into a short story. All thanks to the fabulous Petals and Bones, which you should check out:

On Thursday I completed another Petals and Bones workshop, this one a four week series in which I got to workshop a few essays that are striving for completion. I came away inspired, ready to try writing fiction, ready to enter some contests, and unable to stop working on my Jesus essay. That's all I've been doing since I got out of bed this morning.