"To face unafraid / the plans that we've made." I've written of this line from the ever-popular tune, "Winter Wonderland" before. The lyricist, Richard B. Smith, wrote them while under treatment for what was then known as consumption. He succumbed to tuberculosis not long after. These two lines stick in my brain; I can't shake them. Late at night, now, they float through my mind and I ponder them.
While driving my grandmother back from my cousins' "Nutcracker" performance yesterday, we talked a little bit about my grandfather's slow onset of Alzheimer's. For her, I think my grandfather's mental state is not at all a medical disease, but simply the inevitable progression of life. "When we get old, we all start to lose our heads a little bit. The doctor's call it Alzheimer's, but it just seems like old age to me." she says, her voice is mostly certain, "I don't think there's a difference. I have to take care of him all the time, and he can't do what he used to, but that's just how it is when you get old."
This is the first time in my life that I've asked my grandmother about her emotions. My family has never been much for asking questions about each others - we don't really talk about our feelings with one another, especially not between generations. I don't think this means we love each other any less or are any less loyal, or family-motivated. I feel that we understand each other deeply - and maybe this is the danger, that because we accept so fully, we never find out one another's real thoughts.
When my grandmother comes home, she knocks softly, expecting that only my mom and dad will still be up. But my mom answers the door, and my dad is watching the television with my grandfather. When my grandfather hears that my grandmother is back, he jumps up out of his chair, smiling hugely. "I've been waiting for you to come back!" he says to her, as she tells him, "I thought you would have been in bed hours ago." They don't touch, just stand and repeat their words.
Over the last two days I thought a lot about what I wanted to get out of this break. My thoughts have been all over. Part of me wants to "take advantage" of this time in San Francisco by meeting as many people at conservation organizations as I can, spending time with friends, dancing a lot. And yet, another part of me wants to just be at home. So I've been delaying my social engagements, studying Chinese at the kitchen table, preferring to bum rides from my parents rather than drive around by myself.
In "The White Album," Joan Didion's excruciatingly personal essays display a depth of isolation and restlessness that give her a nuance of perception and a sharpness of prose that lingers long after the book is closed. This isolation is what often makes good writers great. Didion's voice rings in your ears precisely because it calls out certainties of the kind that can only be identified from long, careful observation. And yet, she cannot cease her perspective, as much as she might long to do so..
For writers, Didion embodies the apex of a writer's love and hatred. That to go deeper in oneself to find the words, to find the voice and the distinction of thought, is also to separate oneself from the world. Loneliness is in that place, but so is the self-respect that comes from creation, and knowing the creation is wholly yours. I can't help but wonder if the pursuit of an individual dream is wrapped up in that same chase for self-respect, what Didion calls, "the ability to love, to discriminate and to remain indifferent." By focusing on the world, rather than ourselves, can I finally fall into the lives of others? Didion would say no, she wrote, "To free ourselves from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great, singular power of self-respect."
Clay reminded me today of a line I wrote once that explicated my guilt over being away from my family for so many years. A self-imposed, self-important perspective. Somewhere in the grainy darkness of 880 South, my grandmother says to me that all she's wanted in her life was to do everything she could to have her children and her grandchildren be happy. Maybe she can't travel anymore, but she's content in what she does have, and proud of what I have done in my life. I am apart. We are connected.
Tonight my parents and I hung all our ornaments, cheesy Kenny G Christmas music lending that buoyant Christmas spirit, and the smell of baking cookies wafting from the kitchen. My mom loves this year's tree - it is short, but very full. We put too many things on it.. the poor pine looks burdened, like a child wearing too much makeup for a school play. But we leave it. Afterward, the three of us sit side-by-side for a long time in the half-lit living room, just looking at the tree, until I fall asleep on the sofa.