The desktop image on my computer is that of the final minutes of a sunset on the southern California coast. It was taken a mile or so from where I grew up. Although I have not been back to that place for at least a decade the image still holds me eye every time I see it.
I have always been fascinated by nostalgia. How and why is it that certain times and places always seem to stay with us, seem to come back to us at the strangest times? I may be intrigued by nostalgia, it also makes me nervous. It makes me question where I am in the present. Should I be here? Should I try and recapture something from the past? These are thoughts that come to mind as I get older.
I have recently been reading essays by Joan Didion. Although she covers a slew of topics, it is often those that relate to her experiences in California that most resonate with me. It was her book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem which broke down my decades-long personal taboo against underlining/writing in books. The regularity of amazing prose was just too much for me. Normally I will fold up the bottom corner of a page if I want to remind myself that there is a particularly good passage there, but with this book I was folding way too corners to make it practical. So I found a pencil and started underlining.
I think what I connect with most about Didion’s writing about California is its strangely dark nostalgia for the place. The ideal of the place mixed with the disintegration that inevitably occurs.
The essays are mostly from the sixties, as she watched the possibilities raised by the counter culture slowly decay and fall apart – “the center cannot hold.” I think though, as someone reading forty-plus years later it also feels like a wise commentary on nostalgia as a whole. The parallel of what could have been (the community spirit of the sixties, etc.) with nostalgia for a believed-to-be better past matched against the parallel of the eventual breakdown of the ideal in action with the reality of that place and time in our past.
…California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
It is when Didion focuses on the Santa Ana winds that plague Los Angeles that I feel the most nostalgic. In the fall and winter these winds come from the east and bring with them fire, violence, and dread.
It’s not that I have particularly fond memories of Santa Ana seasons growing up in Los Angeles, if anything it’s just the opposite. I recall days you wished you were outside playing basketball but instead you had to stew inside. Santa Ana season was when the scabbed over wounds in friendships would dry out and crack with the heat, arguments from long ago recurring, long walks home alone though you had made the trek earlier with a friend.
And yet, here I am thinking about them. Maybe it’s because of the weather here: it’s been a very cold winter and long. Maybe my mind is thinking back to the weather it knows best, the weather of my childhood. Winter has never been my strong suit.
My life has been going through a great number of stresses as of late and another of Didion’s passages struck a chord with me:
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.
I am someone who tends to be able to deal with the unpredictable, maybe due to my childhood growing up in a land of Santa Anas and earthquakes, things you had no control over and as such could only prepare for and ride out when they came. Maybe it’s just a temperament, but as I have grown older I have come to see I can only roll with so many punches before they start being too much for me to handle. When that happens, I return to the things I know. I watch movies I have seen many times already, reread books I have read in the past, listen to the same albums over and over again. The certainty of things I know helps me to weather the stresses of uncertainty.
Maybe this is at the heart of what draws me to Didion’s discussion of Santa Anas: these are the uncertainties I know. These are the seemingly random life-stressing events I have experience with and so I become nostalgic for them. I know what to expect during the Santa Anas, but here on a different coast in a different season with parts of my life in constant flux, I am unable to cope. So I look back fondly on things most people would rather avoid.