Chris and I were at the bookstore nearest our gate at the Salt Lake City airport. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris was in my hands. If the plane was going to go down, I wanted to be amused as we fell from the sky.
I held onto the book as I scanned the magazine rack. The October issue of Vogue grabbed my attention. One of its features, Joan Didion Is Ready for Her Close-Up by Dana Spiotta caught my eye. Didion is one of my favorite essayists and an icon of style. In photographs and in her words, I feel her most glamorous aspect is her self-possession.
“When I contact her later by email, I ask if there was any tension between work and entertaining, the serious writer and the person who loves to cook and throw big Easter parties. Her reply: ‘There was never tension. Easter parties are important to me.'” wrote Spiotta about Didion.
As I read those words I felt my shoulders relax and my heart sing a Hallelujah. There are times that I feel that there are limitations to what I can find important to me. That if I am a serious person, I must consider only serious things to be of importance. But you know what? Great lip gloss matters to me. It’s important. So is baking and cooking to please my boyfriend, my daughter, his children, and our friends. Ballet Fit class is important to me too. I love exercise that makes me feel beautiful while I’m doing it and afterwards too. There doesn’t need to be any tension about it and I don’t have to choose one or the other.
Am I alone in feeling guilty and torn about how many things feel important to me?
Is it our education system that pushes us to think that dedicating our lives to pursuing one thing to be is what we’re supposed to do? Perhaps it’s the continued movement towards specialization? One must, after all, have a niche and be marketable. Somebody go back in time and please inform Da Vinci that he ought to specialize. Think of how much more he might have accomplished if only he had stayed focused!
Like Emilia in Shakespeare’s Othello, I wonder:
What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is ’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too.
My mind rushed back to Didion’s essay, “On Self-Respect.”
I first read it in Slouching Towards Bethlehem while riding in one big truck or another on the way out to Columbus, Ohio. Or was it Indianapolis, Indiana? I might have been alone in a hotel room in New Jersey or sitting by myself on a beach in San Diego. I can tell you it was the summer of 2014, my family was falling apart, and that I chose work that required travel.
In the essay, Didion writes of private reconciliation, of accepting responsibility for one’s own life, and understanding one’s worth. Without self-respect, “…we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us.” I realized I was tired of living the sort of life I had to pretzel myself into.
“Without it [self-respect], one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home,” is the final line of the essay.
At 36, I ran away from the life I’d been living to find myself. When I arrived at the home where my self-respect was to have been housed, it was vacant. After so many years of living in thrall of others (as Didion put it), I felt like a stranger to myself.
I’ve been like the coffee cup Chris tried putting in the square hole of the Hyundai we’d rented. I let others try fitting me into spaces I’m not going to fit into, despite my own efforts to acquiesce. How many of us try to be what we think our children, spouses, families, and friends need? I know I have too many times. Then, I fall short and feel like a failure.
I started fixing up the house my self-respect left behind. I’m dedicating time to those items I find important and I’m not giving up on or walking away from them anymore. An unfinished bed is not comfortable to sleep in.
Our lives are built one choice at a time.
When choices are made with respect for ourselves and our worth, we have no reason to be at odds with the results. Poor choices that diverge from our values will be made along the way and we will suffer for them. It’s up to me if I like what I’ve done and what I’m doing and pursuing. No one else can be the decider of my self-respect. The person in full possession of her self-respect cannot be changed at the whim of others.
Want to know more about Joan Didion?
The article in Vogue was about the Netflix original documentary that is launching on October 27th, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. I’ll be watching it just as soon as I can.
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