One of the first books I read this year was a collection of essays called Slouching Towards Los Angeles. The essays are all reflections, observations, etc, on different works by Joan Didion (the title itself a spoof of Didion’s own Slouching Towards Bethlehem, further derived from a poem by WB Yeats called “The Second Coming”).
Like many female writers, I love Didion. Cliche-be-damned.
Specifically during pandemic year, I’ve enjoyed the way she writes about location. As the title suggests, she’s famous for capturing a certain essence of Los Angeles through a unique lens of grit/nostalgia/romance/surrealism that I can only relate to the way Lana del Rey sings about Los Angeles.
I’ve never been to California, and while I’d like to go one day, I feel like I’m in no rush, because I’m more than happy living in the Los Angeles that Didion and del Rey have created for me in my head.
It was in those first months of the pandemic that I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and in it, saw myself quite clearly in an essay she wrote called “Goodbye to All That”—essentially, Didion’s goodbye letter to New York City.
Despite Didion and me being vastly different in our New York careers and social circles, she summed up what I’d been feeling about New York City so perfectly that I wished I could have it tattooed up and down my arms:
“…it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.”
“All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem
I felt the beginning of a peace with leaving that I had been desperate for for a while.
But then it occurred to me—rather, it was pointed out by the inner saboteur we all have and struggle to muzzle—that Joan left New York to live in LOS ANGELES where she became an icon OF LOS ANGELES, (and is, of course, a literary Icon in her own right).
I was in…Syracuse… The thought made me wince. Of course, my family was here, and my boyfriend…coming back here was an inevitability I had felt coming for a while.
And I thought…Syracuse…maybe not as exotic a location as Los Angeles. But still a place with history and proud community and burgeoning artistry. Maybe I could write about my life in Syracuse with the same vitality that Didion wrote about Los Angeles (no simple feat, I admit, since Didion is a master).
Only thing is, along with the history and community and burgeoning artistry…came, for me, a lot of ghosts.
Talk about the power a particular location can have on a person—I just stepped into any SUNY Upstate medical building and felt immediately possessed by a nasty, defensive, up-tight demon, ready to lash out at well-meaning nurses.
And so over the course of the past year, I’ve written quite a bit in this blog about my confrontations with the “locations” of my past—and reading Joan Didion helped me begin doing that. Walking through my old neighborhood, driving to houses where pivotal “growing up” moments took place…
…Hell, I even parked and sat in front of my late grandmother’s house at 2 o’clock in the morning, feeling what it felt like to be so near to another time. Willing myself to be 12 again, about to go inside for Sunday supper.
I may not yet be able to write about place with the power of Didion and her Los Angeles prowess, but I’ve certainly been able to feel that power.
It’s an intense power, because you feel so connected, you feel such strong, visceral feelings for these places on a spiritual level, but on the real plane of existence, it doesn’t matter a bit. Someone else is living, loving, grieving, eating, shitting, sleeping in that house now, and they don’t give a f*** about your “visceral feelings.”
Yes, “visceral feelings,” are what I’ve always felt whenever I’m home in Syracuse and drive by my old high school. It’s on the main road, and nearly impossible to avoid.
In 2015–before I’d found Didion, I might point out—I underwent EMDR therapy for PTSD that was manifesting in disturbing nightly dreams in which I’d always be told I had to go back to high school because “you didn’t finish right.” “It doesn’t count.” “You were too sick to do it right.” “There’s a cancer in locker B1385.”
If you asked me to explain EMDR therapy, I don’t think I could. But for a while, it worked. No more nightmares.
Gone. Done. Finis!
But then, after a few years, they’d start creeping in again. Not every night, but often enough.
And then move me back to Syracuse? Where I’m driving by that school nearly every day?
Now they were happening every other night.
As I read Slouching Towards Los Angeles, I began thinking about all my little drive-by trips down memory lane, leading me all over Syracuse. It was her writing that had inspired them after all.
And it occurred to me that maybe there was a place I still had to face down.
I’d been inside the school a few times since graduating—visited a teacher, judged a talent show. But only in one particular section of the school, and for a very limited time.
After my cancer diagnosis, the adults really made it so that I never had to set foot in the school again if I didn’t want to.
And I didn’t want to. I’d attend a chorus rehearsal once in a while if I was feeling up to it. But the reality is, one day I was a regular student roaming the halls, and the next day I had cancer and basically never returned. I couldn’t even tell you (nor can anyone in my family) who emptied my school locker, my gym locker, my band locker…
So this week, with the approval of administration and the accompaniment of a school social worker plus Matt, I roamed the halls of my high school, 12 years later.
I went back to the place with the most ghosts. And the night before, I could feel them swirling around me. My friends and me—the ghosts of our former selves—traipsing to lunch, loitering in a practice room, crying in a bathroom, gathered on the bleachers…
…My ex boyfriend, strolling to my locker, smiling at me and my full head of long brown hair.
All of these memories of the “before.” They were the ones that caused the bad dreams and the sadness and the pity I have for my own former self.
I knew she might be there. That she was the one I was afraid of most of all. The one I could sense was trapped inside each time I drove by the school, and the one I wanted to hug and shield, and somehow protect…
It felt epic. As epic as Joan Didion’s Los Angeles, me walking into that school, to confront this demon that perhaps lived in locker B1385 and snuck out at night to badger me in my dreams.
And then truly inside the school…
It was a building. There were classrooms. There were hallways.
The hallways were somewhat familiar. I remembered my way. I remembered staircases and where they led. I remembered certain days, certain specific memories with a friend or a boy or a teacher.
In the auditorium I stood center-stage, where I’d taken my bow as Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie junior year. I exited the stage via the chorus risers in the pit, and the path of my trajectory felt familiar. Not sad. Just very familiar, like my brain could place it as a “former thing we did all the time.”
At my locker I stared for a minute—wanted to reach out and touch, but didn’t know if I was allowed during pandemic-times.
I wasn’t moved to tears as I expected I might be.
In fact, I couldn’t even sense a demon. The only sense I had was the sense that Alissa might run up any second to open the locker beside me. We’d been locker neighbors every year since middle school.
Remembering her helium-balloon energy made me smile.
In retrospect, I wish I had just asked for a moment or two longer, to just stand there at that locker. To momentarily align myself with whatever alternate universe was still locked on September 2008, after home room, retrieving my books. To fill that space one more time as ‘pre-everything’ Jesse.
But who knows? Maybe if I had, it would’ve become too much. Maybe there would’ve been a demon in there after all.
As we crawled into the car after the walk-through, Matt asked how I felt.
I took a deep breath, and looked over at the school again, at the doors we’d just crept out of…and then at a bench, erected in honor of a boy who’d been diagnosed with cancer a few years after I graduated. He had passed away in a matter of days.
”Honestly?” I asked.
Another breath, as I let the significance of what I was about to say wash over me…
“It’s just a school…”
Those visceral feelings…
Those “Joan Didion-visceral-location-memory-based feelings” didn’t feel so powerful anymore.
…because in the actual plane of existence, it didn’t matter a bit. Someone else was living, learning, grieving, eating and shitting in that school now, and they didn’t give a f*** about my “visceral feelings.”
I haven’t dreamed about the school in the nights since.