“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
When I read that first sentence, I knew I was reading what, for me, was a perfect essay for the time.
I was especially struck by it because I’ve been wrestling with turning my thesis, which I finished this summer, into a relatively workable manuscript — with very little luck, I might add. The first part of the problem is “missing” stuff — the things that are necessary to form what will eventually be a book, but that aren’t written yet. But the other part, and mostly why that initial sentence knocked me beautifully breathless, is the fact that I don’t know how to end it. More specifically, I don’t know what the end is.
But neither does Didion, really. Or at least, that’s what she tells us. Endings are difficult things, often unclear, hiding themselves in the rather fuzzy haze of experience. And so instead of providing a clear one in her essay, she explores the meaning of an ending, and more importantly, the elusive nature of them.
That’s not to say that the essay is merely extrapolation on an abstract topic. It’s easy to assume, though, if you’ve only read that first sentence. For most writers, beginning an essay with a weighty generalization on something of an interior, philosophical idea is dicey territory — but Didion sets it up so that the narrator’s experience of coming of age in New York City illustrates the concept in a way that’s accessible.
And a coming of age essay is essentially what it is. The narrator recalls the moment she stepped off the train in NYC, telling us what immediately hit her, what still stuck with her, the scents and smells of the city, describing what would be “home” for the next eight years. There is no moment of textbook climax, wherein the narrator is faced with a horrible trial or devastating experience. Instead, the change that occurs is internal, making it all the more difficult to classify. There wasn’t some crucial, cliffhanging moment, she says. It was much different than that. One day, she thought one way; the next, she thought differently. It was all about the shift in thinking, really, or the evolution of beliefs — or, if you listen to how Didion tells it, the replacing of one with another.
Can she pinpoint the moment when everything internally changed? No. But the ambiguity makes the essay all the more poignant — and it is poignant — because for many of us, these shifts of belief happen almost unknowingly. We wake up one morning, and the suddenness lies only in the realization that something inside of us changed.
One might argue (and Didion doesn’t really get into this, but for the moment, I will) that this type of subtle suddenness of the mind is more jarring — and more frightening, if you will — than a devastating outside experience. I say this because when some “external” crisis happens to you, part of its impact is partially absorbed by those around you. You have support system of people who, in some way or another, are there for you, who make life easier. When the change is internal, the resulting crisis of realization is all the more terrifying when you have to face it yourself.
With that, I leave you with the essay’s ending paragraph, which just pierces my heart with its gorgeous melancholy:
“All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles ‘the Coast,’ but they seem a long time ago.”
Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written in 1967, was published in her essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”