52 weeks – 9 December, 2012


Blue Nights coverRead Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Didion is a brillliant, though not an upbeat, writer and Blue Nights is a memoir about aging and about coping with the death of her adult daughter, Quintana Roo. Similarly, The Year of Magical Thinking was about the loss of her husband. These books are deeply personal and must be a form of catharsis, though they transcend individual experience. They become a universal quest to settle the unanswered questions and to find meaning in grief.

Didion is as mentally astute as ever at 78; however, she is physically frail.

I hear a new tone when acquaintances ask how I am, a tone I have not before noticed and find increasingly distressing, even humiliating: these acquaintances seem as they ask impatient, half concerned, half querulous, as if no longer interested in the answer.

As if all too aware that the answer will be a complaint …

What I believe to be the cheerful response as I frame it emerges, as I hear it, more in the nature of a whine.

Do not whine, I write on an index card. Do not complain. Word harder. Spend more time alone.

Although she has many friends and acquaintances, Didion does spend time alone and she seems to spend much of this time in examining the past. In Blue Nights, she replays conversations and incidents from Quintana’s life and there is a strong element of repetition as if asking a question often enough will result in a definitive answer. Didion obsessively questions her own fitness as a parent. Did she coddle Quintana too much or not enough? Did she listen enough? Did she think about what Quintana said and was she responsive enough?

When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them …

The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear.

The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.

As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children: their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death …

Once she was born I was never not afraid.

I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet, The Broken Man himself. I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her. A question: if we and our children could in fact see the other clear would the fear go away? Would the fear go away for both of us, or would the fear go away only for me?

The fears were well-grounded. Quintana was a bright, precocious child but appears to have been troubled by various fears from an early age. She had a mental condition eventually diagnosed as borderline personality disorder. She may have been an alcoholic; certainly she drank too much, though Didion describes this as “self-medicating” to deal with pain. But the cause of Quintana’s death is not made clear in the book; Didion does not give us a definitive diagnosis. There was a series of medical crises over a twenty month period, resulting in an induced coma and eventual death at the age of 39.

One of the most poignant elements of this memoir is Didion’s searching through drawers of memorabilia: the baby teeth, the schoolwork, the evidence of accomplishment — all the things we put away with the sentimental thought that one day we will smile over them again as memories are awakened. But Didion finds they don’t allow her to replay the moments as she had hoped; rather, they remind her that she did not live those moments fully enough at the time. She doesn’t offer this conclusion to her readers as a lesson, but it is hard not to take it that way.


Pistachio croissantThomas Haas’ pistachio croissants with cappuccino. At this time of year, the Thomas Haas café is even more of a wonderland than usual. Rows of jewel-bright pastries and macarons, chocolate fantasies, cakes and cookies — it is a beautiful place to go and recharge after a brisk, cold walk by the water.


Tallis-ScholarsHeard the glorious British vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars at the Chan Centre. What can you say about The Tallis Scholars that hasn’t been said? Their sound is mesmerizing, and the voices blend perfectly into a harmonious whole. The Times says they have “an uncanny ability to increase emotional intensity so subtly that you don’t realise it’s happening.” In a venue with superb acoustics like the Chan Centre, the sound is emotionally overwhelming.

The program included two versions of the Magnificat by Sebastian de Vivanco (1551-1622) and Hieronymus Praetorius (15601629), the motet Osculetur me and the extended Missa Osculetur me by Orlandus Lassus (1530-1594). The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the first short work by Arvo Pärt, which featured a bizarre musical arrangement that didn’t seem in any way connected to the words. But that aside the evening was heavenly.