When a mentor or role model dies, we may recognize for the first time that this is the role the person — friend or famous person — held for us. Baby boomers are losing more of them these days. Role models and mentors were often a decade or so ahead of us.
Joan Didion, who died December 23, was a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. Joan won an internship at Mademoiselle two years after Sylvia; Joan also won a job at Vogue magazine, which she described as her graduate school in writing.
Joan’s mother told her at a young age she could win the Vogue contest and work in either New York City or Paris. I envy her that maternal confidence and push from the kitchen table of a Sacramento house. I read Mademoiselle feverishly as a teen in my Midwest small town, longing for the day when I too might win a contest and head to Manhattan. I did leave for Manhattan, and loved my years there, though Mademoiselle had nothing to do with the leap from belled jeans to career suits. I fully immersed myself in work and night life in New York City, an apprenticeship with the world. I do regret opportunities I didn’t recognize or understand, but we were all too young once.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a good title for honoring Joan’s death and life and this time in our lives. Joan had a clear-eyed writer’s way of telling the story while puncturing the myth. Joan said she wrote to find out what she thinks, and that’s why I write, too, the discipline which applies meaning to random events.
Didion was pre-feminism’s second wave, in posture if not age. She was never an activist, but the detached observer who layers meaning by making connections not otherwise obvious. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the original title for an essay on the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury, when clueless, lost kids from across the country were streaming into San Francisco. That counter-cultural revolution was the changing of the old order, though, and a second coming as Yeats predicted in his poem from which “slouching toward Bethlehem” is borrowed. Other contemporaries — Ken Kesey, for example — shaped this counterculture, instead of coolly analyzing it.
I don’t know why I love what Joan Didion has written. She was a tiny person with a large viewpoint, a position as one of Hollywood’s great party hosts, and the bi-coastal life one can envy. She did not represent the social justice activism I admired. She was a strong woman’s voice as part of a surprisingly egalitarian personal and professional partnership with her husband, John Dunne. She was not a victim, like Sylvia Plath, who I read obsessively in late teen years and who made victimhood and suicide somehow attractive (as did the 27-year-old club of rock stars). Imagine, if instead of wrestling through depression, Sylvia had lived to be Joan’s octogenarian contemporary, with a long life of contributions, and staged growth.
We are at a point, again, when we are collectively slouching towards Bethlehem. The old order is giving way to something yet being created. We do not know how this ends, but I hope the center holds.