Impermanence And Improvement
Four thousand weeks by Oliver Burkeman is a book about admitting and embracing the finitude of the human experience. It is a reminder that your life will end and that you can’t do everything you want. It is a self-help book that tries to take a realistic look at the obstacles that productivity tries to overcome and admit: It’s impossible.
If this sounds negative, it only is negative, if you believe that life is somehow infinite. That with enough productivity tricks you will find a way to overcome the fact that there isn’t enough time, energy or opportunity to do it all. If you truly embrace this hard limit - that you can’t do it all and that you too will die and rather soon as well - it frees you to do the best you can in each moment and you won’t perpetually live in a way that tries to make a fantastical future a reality that will never come.
I thought it expressed succinctly one of my core beliefs: I have to play the hand that I was dealt and resources (and everything is a resource) are not available in endless supply. If you take these two things together, it makes sense to go for a satisficist way of life.
The book also uncovered a very important puzzle piece for me, which is that my here and now is not merely a transitory state in between the lacking status quo and an amazing future. Instead of improving things in the present moment, I would endure certain things simply because I defined my present situation as something that didn’t matter in the future.
It’s an interesting fallacy to fall into, because if you are interested in meditation (like I am), you probably have heard of the idea of impermanence, that everything is constantly changing and getting attached to impermanent things will create suffering. But living fully in the limited moments our lives have to offer also means to not simply ignore the potential the present moment holds. As long as we are open to things changing and we are not clinging to a state of affairs as if it would be permanent, then improving stuff, for now, for the joy of it, for as long as it lasts, is a good thing. In other words: There is no need to let it be.
The Melancholic Richness Of Frailty
This book is as much about aging than it is about her adopted daughter Quintana. It is a sad book. It is a book of acceptance, I think.
I read this in one siting on the porch of my Girlfriends mom, living in Finnland, it was already a little too cold to sit there for the four hours or so it took me. But the book didn’t let me go.
In my last review of two of Didion’s books I wrote that the author’s smarts won’t save her from the inevitability of life. In the end her body, her mind, will fail. In the end, what could she even have done to save her child? So she mourns, or tries to mourn, like a person not acquainted with these traditions. This outsider’s view to a very human problem was very relatable: I find myself often fascinated but not affected personally by the emotional weather of day to day life. It’s more the second order emotions - emotions about other people’s reactions to things I believe to have already understood, filed away, moved on from - that get me. This is probably more common than I know I presume at times.
It is very powerful to read about a person so gifted that she can’t help it to struggle with the voice in which she writes. Was how she wrote before her memoirist turn ever anything more than something she used instead of her own voice? In short: a voice instead of her voice? That is probably not fair. Authenticity is not a boolean. It is a construct. A repeated question from the book: How can one be direct in one’s writing? Although I listened to “The Year Of Magical Thinking” I think Blue Nights might be her most reflective book I have consumed, yet.
Didion is not shy to discuss the many mental health issues, that her Daughter had to face. How the names for the diagnosis changed over time, but the problems essentially stayed the same. One such name: borderline personality disorder. Mental health is not what took her life, not directly at least, but a lost battle against infection. That Quintana was adopted plays a big part in the book and is one of the most powerful themes: Didion’s reflection about the ‘recommended choice narrative’ and Quintanas question “What if you didn’t choose me?” is as relatable as it is gut-wrenching.
It’s hard to imagine what my impression of “Blue Nights” would have been without knowing “The Year Of Magical Thinking”. It is often the case with memoirist writing that its power stems from the layers - in volume as in sophistication and arrangement. And I feel like Didion’s two memoirs, as sad as they might be, are amazingly rich and deep.
In my last review I mentioned the problem of privilege in Didion’s writing and this makes it harder at times to relate to her. In Blue Nights she makes an attempt to address this topic, when she asks whether Quintana had a privileged childhood or not. The answer comes down to “I mean, we weren’t that rich…”. Maybe this would have needed a more elaborate treatment.
I really liked this book and I am surprised how much I managed to write about it, or rather my thoughts about it, here. I like Didion as a memoirist, too. I am not so sure that I will ever check out her more literary works. I actually rarely do that after having consumed memoirs of writers or artists. No, it’s the mundane and not so mundane everyday stuff - or rather its heightened, polished reflective version - that interests me.
One last time back to the book: “Blue Nights” is a great book about mourning, about aging, about being a parent and a writer. Didion is steeped in a way of life that I would guess only exists in its fossilized forms, in memories. The relatable topics and the now lost to us extravagance of old Hollywood produce a rich, deep and at times paradoxical memoir that I would especially recommend if you can spare the time to consume “The Year Of Magical Thinking” beforehand.
Acceptance As A Worthwhile Struggle
As I said in my last review: I love autobiographical writing. To continue the theme, I recently listened to Joan Didion’s Books: The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of an especially tumultuous year in her life. After the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of her daughter, Didion finds herself detached from reality and has to claw herself back to reason. There is a certain sharpness in the way she puts things, a certain breathlessness in the intelligence with which she follows the paths of her own thoughts while mourning the loss of a writing partner and spouse (a parallel to Hampl’s book).
We see here a woman who is smart, quick and in control of her faculties wanting to fight and having to accept, that there is no real shortcut, no swift way to skip the all too human need to just feel shitty for a while, to be scared, to be upset, to not know, to maybe not even understand why your own seemingly better argument, the pointed question or educated guess doesn’t cut it. To be clear, what Didion focusses on is not this desire to skip the lowly emotions and loss of control that are part of the human condition. But, to me, she exemplifies how hard it is to accept the necessity of being a passenger, not the driver, for a while after an event like this.
One strength of Didion’s writing is that she can put a finger on the power of slightly changed emphases. Like in her text “Everywoman.com” about Martha Stewart and her empire from the second book of her’s I have listened to: Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays from 1968 to 2000.
In Everywoman.com she turns the critique on Martha Stewart, a home maker turned CEO of a billion dollar company, inside out. The critique goes something like this: Martha Stewart is a fraud, because she pretends to be a simple homemaker, like her fans, even though in reality she is a driven business woman who created merely an artifice of being a homemaker. Didion is directing her more empathetic read of Stewart mainly against Jerry Oppenheimer’s unauthorized investigative Book on her: Just Desserts. Opposed to Oppenheimer, Didion concludes that Stewart’s success, Artifice and all, are inspirational to US-American women because Stewart managed to create her own rags to riches story: from homemaker to CEO.
One thing I picked up and that is eerily related to her empathy for Stewart is her own success. I stumbled upon the following review of The Year of Magical Thinking on Amazon that is an example of what I mean:
She certainly went through losses that would make anyone stagger. I just found that I couldn’t identify with her experiences. She describes months of folks making sure she was taken care of. Can’t relate. She recounts good times in a long marriage that involves luxurious travels and freedom gained through wealth. Can’t relate. Am I jealous? Probably.
Didion is well off, that much is clear. She has been a successful writer for a long time and coming up in a much more socially mobile era, she ended up being wealthy. The question is: Does this take away from her writing? And the answer is: Yes, a little bit. I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that I can’t relate or that what she has to say is not interesting, quiet the opposite, but because Didion’s voice is one of careful reexamination (it reminds of the idiom “show me, I’m from Missouri”) and her reputation is one of popularizing counter culture, of problematizing the American Dream I can’t deny that the success, although earned, subverts a little bit her persona, her self-conception or the frame from which I read her (so maybe, probably, this is on me). It complicates the relationship between me, the reader (or listener in my case), and her, the counter culture writer. Now, I am not owed an uncomplicated relationship. But I do have to admit that the contrast of a now wealthy writer that came from a place of socially conscious reporting - and still has those instincts but lives a totally different life - lead to some cognitive dissonance. It totally makes sense that lives like this exist. She is not the first, nor the last that will have had also monetary success from writing empathetically about various social issues. I still enjoyed the books, I just wish there was a way to ask the question: How do you integrate your being well off with writing so empathetically? How do you try to juggle not being perceived as patronizing?
- You can find her Essay on Martha Stewart on the New Yorker’s website: Everywoman.com.
The Art Of Writing About Yourself
A favorite book of mine is one that looks back. One that is thickly layered in the complications of the author’s view. I don’t think I knew this or could state this as plainly before this book. For a while I assumed it was weakness to be interested in this somewhat incomplete form - is that even the right word? - that is, autobiographical writing. But I love writing that leaves room for one’s own thoughts. And I therefore loved this book which is a prime example of doing the form justice: The Art Of The Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl.
It sounds like a straight up self-help book than it is. It is much more a beautiful mix of memoir and essay that circles around the topic of leisure and how it relates to writing, describing and living in general. What is great about these kinds of books is their way of heightening and compressing reality in its descriptions without loosing the connection to it. And so nothing is ever just the cause of anything or arranges itself neatly into a narrative ark. We might construe easy cause-and-effect relationships between the defining moments of our lives but at the same time we know - if we take the time to notice - that it is much more complex than that. Nowadays there is nothing more boring than a too neatly arranged story.
While Hampl wrote this book, her husband died from a heart disease. Her longing to see him again, her struggles of not being able to believe - as a person being raised in the Catholic Faith no less - that there could actually be another side, where he would wait for her… I could feel that - as somebody raised devoid of any religion (Post-GDR east Berlin). I can imagine how this - having to realize that the partner you miss is gone for good, this person you spent most of your time with, the one which also happens to be your first reader - must have felt. This entanglement builds a lot of the emotional scaffolding in the book. I think it was pretty effective and lends the book a nice counterweight to Hampls beautifully written investigations of a leisurely life.
I liked how history and especially her engagement with history writing made it possible to look over the author’s shoulder while she discovers new wrinkles in the story of the Ladies of Llangollen - two Irish Women - who sought to live a “life of retirement” in the Welsh countryside in the 18th century - only to become famous for it. Montaigne is an important part of this book, too. He is her patron saint of description, observation and as the inventor of the essay an important corner stone of reflection. He is the poster child of the art of the wasted day. In another part of the book, she visits the almost forgotten but now famous proto-geneticist Gregor Mendel as well. He never managed to pass the exam to become a teacher. So he instead lived the life of a monk.
Monks and Nuns are a big topic of the book. If not literally then figuratively, most of the people that are practicing the art of the wasted day are living a fairly structured life - an interesting paradox. But monastery life is not only structured but also slow. A structure followed slowly lends itself to being contemplative, to taking the time to observe and also describe. This kind of life, behind real or metaphorical walls might be a life lived in solitude (or: alone, but not lonely), is a life in which you are not needed all the time, not interrupted constantly, a life where your input, your action is not demanded all the time, where you can come to rest on the passing within and around you, as Montaigne might have put it.
The descriptions of her historical case studies are interwoven with her own life accounts. It’s all the stuff I love about this form of writing: vignettes, reflections, beautiful descriptions. Like in the end, where she and her husband travel down the Mississippi river in an old wooden cabin boat, seeing her home state from a different angle and therefore very differently than ever before.
The book also includes some well-reasoned advice. I loved her description of an anecdote in which a student of hers - she teaches writing at the University of Minnesota - didn’t know what to write about himself, because he only came from Fridley (one of many the suburbs of Minneapolis):
I stared at him. I didn’t, for a moment, comprehend that this was the dark disclosure, this the occasion of his misery: being from Fridley meant, surely, that he had nothing to say. In effect, had no life.
There it was again—nothin’ had ever happened to him and I was asking him to write about it.
“I have good news for you, Tommy,” I said. “The field’s wide open—nobody has told what it’s like to grow up in Fridley yet. It’s all yours.” (p. 185)
This passage was really eye-opening for me and put a finger on an important insight: Autobiographical writing doesn’t need to be anchored by an exceptional life. Or rather: Any life can be made to be interesting.
While writing this review I was googling around trying to find information about the book and its contents - I had listened to it through my local library - and I am a forgetful person. The book seemed to have gotten middling reviews in the aggregate. So I guess it’s not a book for everyone and who knows if I would’ve liked it as much, if I would’ve read instead of listening to it. Parts of the magic of a book like this lie in the sound - and since Hampl reads this herself we really get an impression of the sound she was aiming for.
For me it was an inspiring listen that made me write a lot more over the last three weeks and rediscover my love for memoirists writing like this.
If you are interested to see if this is for you: There is an excerpt about the Ladies of Llangollen on Longreads. And here is a short clip of Hampl’s performance of the beginning of the book’s chapter entitled “To Go”.
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