By Meghan Marohn / Original to ScheerPost
Editor’s note: This piece was first published on ScheerPost on August 3, 2020. We’re reprinting it now on the occasion of Joan Didion’s passing at the age of 87 on Thursday.
I’ve known that I should like Joan Didion. Friends would share their perspectives on her work, so at some point I decided to dive into Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But I remember the feeling, after reading her famous essay “Goodbye to All That” about leaving New York City, that I had been left with a rendering of transience more than any specific comment on life in New York. Perhaps that’s because in the details, she lost me. Her movements through parties and social scenes and upper West Side apartments and the big move to L.A. all seemed so gloriously smooth, with none of the weighty concerns of survival. Her descriptions of conversations with people here and there evince her ever-increasing boredom with superficiality and artifice — point well-taken, but there are wide swaths of humans who would not be able to get close to her worlds anyway. And so now I consider the value of the essay to be in abstraction, in that it is about saying goodbye to a place, the promises of that place, people, and a phase of your life.
I guess it’s also about love. At one point, she writes about being in love with New York, and she says: “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” And she states that “nothing was irrevocable — everything was within reach,” a feeling of the promises of love and life that captivated her twenty-something self as she taxied here and there in mid-century Manhattan.
In 2019, some pretty intense events were set into motion in New York. On the morning of April 17th, 2019 a group of friends and activists and I marched to the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge in lower Manhattan, dropped to the ground, and blocked traffic. We had traveled from upstate New York and taken personal days to support Extinction Rebellion after many of us read a dire report on our ecological future by Rupert Read entitled “This Civilisation is Finished.” My friend Hana and I held hands while on the pavement, whispering to each other about the news that our friend Tess’s grandmother had died that morning. We were arrested and moved to a police wagon, where we sat for a couple of hours, then processed at a place called 1 Police Plaza. To pass the hours, the length of which caused anxiety, Hana and I encouraged different cells of women to sing. We sang an echoing version of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “By the Waters of Babylon” in a round, a song my mother had sung with me while cooking and having PBS on in the background when I was little.
Later I would learn that at the same moment, my mother, a nursery and pre-K teacher in upstate New York, had pressed play on a CD of harp music and lowered the lights for her class to have a nap. They all went to sleep except for one little girl who said that she saw her teacher fall and then fall asleep. My mother had had an aneurysm, and by a miracle I was released in enough time to hear this news, fly north with friends to Albany Medical Center, and usher her to the other side, which she passed into at midnight. It was a day of strange synchronicity.
But back to this rumination on a Joan Didion essay, and the question of love. The essay does a beautiful job of communicating the desirous potential of people, places, and promises, and, as told in the retrospective view, leaves you with a feeling like all of the island of Manhattan, sections once called Sapokanikan by the Lenape tobacco growers, has just been blown off in the wind. And so even with my frustration over Didion’s blind spots, I find myself thinking about the essay and the windiness of places, and how the winds of time can bring towers and sphinxes tumbling down into dust.
2019 was a year in which I said goodbye to a lot. The grief of one person has conjured up grief for the others, losses I thought I had processed. But there are some big, fundamental spiritual shifts happening in which I am saying goodbye to a lot of notions about myself, how to live life, what to expect, and letting go of what “should” come next, too. Of course, there were changes in the course of this past year that make the process seem deeply personal, but I actually believe that there is a deep collective awareness and rage over the state of the world and the thoroughness of the corruption of our institutions. It’s pretty thorough. Big pharma’s profiteering in the domain of “first do no harm,” the tech sector’s co-opting of schools, housing scarcity, corporate food, all of it — yet 2019 was the mallet over my skull crashing down the message of duh! It never worked. It was never going to work. And friends doing their homework and me doing my homework to be like, right. Did you think things got better as history unfolded with these systems? Overt war, covert war? Do you think colonizer culture reckoned with … anything? Meaningfully? That mentality was always going to lead to a destruction so rapacious and thorough that the logical speciescidal and genocidal conclusions are unfolding. And now we have the threat of destruction, possibly nuclear war, hanging in our daily consciousness.
And so the context has shifted for all of us, not because the context has truly shifted but because this particular administration means that we have no choice but to look at the monster behind the curtain. Quick note or reminder that apokaluptein means “uncovering” or “unveiling.” We’re all in the same game of what I’ll call, in reference to Didion, saying “Goodbye to All That and a Whole Lot More.”
If for Didion, the move to L.A. from New York was about saying goodbye to falling in love with potential, to falling in love with images, to falling in love with specious promises, to falling in love with the idea of a person or people, to falling in love with a view of life as opening to decadence in a wider and wider manner, and an ever-more upwardly mobile manner, then we are going to be continuously saying goodbye to the very same illusions AND simultaneously reckoning with what hasn’t been meaningfully dealt with and what has not been loved.
Those who have not been loved — people hanging tenuously in systems that have no safety net for basic bodily care; victims of wars and trade policies; people hurt or killed by white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and genocide, which started early in the American project: “By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people” (American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present; Erin McKenna, Scott L. Pratt).
And of course I have to consider moments in which I was duped or confused by a culture that promised all of us impossible things. The last election was a nightmare, with the main Democratic candidate speaking out of the one side of her mouth spouting Bernie-style rhetoric on how every now and then we need to “save capitalism from itself,” and on the other side completely placating the corporate and hawk-industry and taking money from entities like the Corrections Corporation of America (and countless others). But to a certain extent, for a lot of middle class/upper class people growing up in dominant culture, we’ve been living with these hypocrisies and contradictions and illusions for a long time, with our own self-made social contracts that if we just get our shit together with our career, our living situation, our relationship, our family, we could attain the holy grail of ultimate dominant culture safety, heteronormative bliss, comfort, and love — but not real love, which deeply and wildly loves at all costs and across all bounds. The superficiality of connections, status, feeling worth because others see us as worthy. The stuff Didion dabbled in and then abandoned, sort of.
So it’s an embarrassing and sad goodbye to all that and more—because we wasted time thinking that we could compromise with a bloody historical reckoning that was set into motion generations ago. That you could “kind of” navigate morally and ethically through patriarchy if you just got yourself right within that system. Just like creating mini-robot honey bees or geoengineering are “solutions” that can never remediate the ravages of capitalism, our socially-programmed notions of trying to get ourselves love-worthy were never going to work.
And it’s a terrifying goodbye to all that and a whole lot more in that the whole lot more is that which is of the Earth itself, the variance of life and species and the love of not only other humans but the essential connection with the nonhuman.
For people allowing these truths to permeate, we’re not crazy. The kids, who have overwhelming anxiety and depression issues, are not crazy.
It’s a lot to psychically digest, the Earth burning as we all drive to work and hang out, in the background feeling the empire spiral out. I’ve felt contradictory feelings of relief and terror reading the statistics on where we’re at as a species. For people allowing these truths to permeate, we’re not crazy. The kids, who have overwhelming anxiety and depression issues, are not crazy. We are in inverted totalitarianism, made to be prisoners of our little individual pleasure and personality pursuits in this game, unless we really work to unlearn our indoctrination. There is no wider ethos of community within these systems, though we may be lucky to find it on smaller scale. Our intuition about the bottom line of money has always been spot on. Turns out that drone bombing of the Yemeni family is more personally connected to me and us and the world than my evolutionarily-limited brain would allow me to consistently hold and imagine. And here we go. 130 foot sea level rise and millions of animals perishing by fire and election year wars. Not the easiest way to understand the unfolding of time.
An admittedly old coping mechanism for the incredibly stressful periods in life — a long time ago, way before my consciousness held where we’re at in the collective human game — has been to rotate tunes, sometimes love tunes. I’ll throw on Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” or Sinead or Mariah or Joanna or U2, and lately, because of a close friend getting me back into it, it’s been U2. There are also a lot of internal games I play about my love of U2 — whether I prefer the song “All I Want is You” or “With or Without You,” whether Bono is as much of an arrogant _____ as I fear he is, whether they are more political than they are (nope, but that was cool of you to write “Sunday Bloody Sunday”!). But since composing private funeral rites for my mother Ellen in Ireland this past summer, I keep thinking about their anthem love songs in this new, timeless context.
One day I was hiking a mountain to do a ritual for her near 6000-year-old burial caves, where, on a plateaued top you can see the ocean, waterfalls, lakes, streams and meadows for miles. Ancient peoples sacrificed other humans for the gods there, burying them in stone mounds in the mountainside. I asked for a sign that she and others on the other side could hear me and that the point on the map was where I was supposed to be. After three miles I got to the top and a rainbow burst into the sky, arching over the mounds.
Later, I busted out my U2 greatest hits CD driving to work, and I heard the opening guitar strains to “With or Without You” like beautiful cosmic bells, and started to imagine Bono singing this anthem from the top of that sacrifice spot in Sligo, Carrowkeel.
See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side. I’ll wait for you.
And later, there’s Bono singing of nothing to win and nothing to lose. This utter negation in love. It kind of reminds me of our situation, the courage and the no bullshit forcefulness that is needed as these systems unravel.
And if we really think about the situation we’re in, there’s nothing left to win or lose, if we do not mind letting our bodies and ourselves– our sense of self– go.
Last year, to stave off depression in the winter as I really let the reality of Rupert Read’s writing on the crisis sink into my bones, I became, obsessed, fell in love, as it were, with rereading Angels in America. I was blown away at how relevant the writing still is in its depiction of a population vulnerable to catastrophe, and a catastrophe that a lot of people want to ignore — the main one in the story being, obviously, the AIDS crisis. But the other one is mentioned repeatedly throughout the play by a Mormon wife who deals with her deep despair over her husband abandoning her by listening to radio shows about gases ripping up the ozone layer.
A group of friends and family, which included my mother, had a little viewing party of the film version. Mom had a crush on the main character Prior, and we laughed at his hilarious dialogue when he is baffled by being visited by three ghosts like Scrooge. And together we sat stunned at the haunting scenes in which Prior eerily navigates through a black and white version of heaven. He journeys there as he lies in a hospital bed, his selfhood truly between the worlds as he edges out of his body. He has endured hell for the past six months, as he is ravaged by AIDS and his partner has left him for another man.
An angel named the Angel America gives him the choice of whether to go back to Earth or stay in heaven.
I still want my blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive.
The angel warns:
You only think you do.
Life is a habit with you. You have not seen what is to come. We have.
What will the grim unfolding of these latter days bring that you or any being should wish to endure them?
Death more plenteous than all heaven has tears to mourn it.
The slow dissolving of the great design.
The spiraling apart of the work of eternity.
The world and its beautiful particle logic all collapsed, all dead forever.
We are failing.
The earth and the angels.
Who asks of the Order’s blessing with Apocalypse descending?
Who demands more life when death like a protector blinds our eyes shielding from tender nerve more horror than can be borne?
Let any being on whom Fortune smiles creep away to death before that last, dreadful daybreak when all your ravaging returns to you.
And morning blisters crimson and bears all life away.
A tidal wave of protean fire that curls around the planet and bares the earth clean as bone.
Prior listens, and then responds.
But still bless me anyway.
l want more life.
l can’t help myself.
l’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse.
But you see them living anyway.
Death usually has to take life away.
l don’t know if that’s just the animal.
l don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but l recognize the habit.
The addiction to being alive.
lt’s so much not enough.
lt’s so inadequate.
But still bless me anyway.
l want more life.
I’ll let you feel out the connections to our times and offer up a prayer that we connect through spirit and imagination. As long as I can still access love, I will maintain the habit, or addiction, to being alive. Even as we say goodbye to all that and a whole lot more.
[A version of this essay was first given as a speech at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany on January 19, 2020.]
Copyright 2020 Meghan Marohn