Congratulations to Vanessa Baehr-Jones, first place winner in the Memoir/Personal Essay category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's the winning essay, "The Chasm Opens."
The Chasm Opens
Joan Didion died this week. I often think when I hear about another death these days: too bad they died in this midst of this. Too bad they didn’t live to see the other side of the pandemic, of the rise of fascism, of the crumbling of our center, of bla bla bla.
Joan Didion once stopped writing. She wrote that she could only begin again when she accepted that she would have to write amidst disorder. But disorder, disarray does not hold either, for who wants to die in that? Better to see our years through in other seasons, non- pandemic seasons, with festive lights, holiday greetings, church doors open, masks long forgotten, the malls bustling.
She wrote about disorder from the quiet of her own room in a fancy apartment in Manhattan, fancy enough that her husband’s office sat across the hall, fancy enough that he had his own desk. And so, she died wealthy, amidst much order, amidst many things, the child of a generation who saw their wealth multiply more than any other generation in American history, a generation that rung the benefits from institutional structure even as they decried it.
I went to see a musical with my mom this week featuring the folksy music of a ‘60s icon who strummed her guitar on the streets of Berkeley and sang about the seeds and the desert and “who needs men” and the bottom beneath the bottom. I don’t remember her name. At the end of the show, the main character, an older woman about my mom’s age, who has sung these folksongs alone in a recording booth, sings away while the booth is deconstructed around her by the young recording studio technician.
It struck me as tragedy, but not in the way the playwright intended. I saw the tragedy not as the corporatization of America, the marginalizing of the truth, beauty, and simplicity of these old folk songs of the ‘60s. No, for me, the tragedy was the playwright’s own blindness. She did not know she’d unwittingly written a horrifying critique of this folk singer, that her show had revealed the inanity of the Baby Boomers singing songs about the earth and the seeds and love. Meanwhile, their homes had appreciated enough to make them all millionaires capable of purchasing time in a recording studio to twiddle away at old folksongs, the younger generation stuck listening to their waspy voices singing over tired melodies, paid to listen, probably at a misery hourly wage. Meanwhile, their consumption bequeathed us a dying natural world.
Of course the young guy came to take apart her booth; he probably had an Uber gig to get to.
After the musical, as we pulled away in the car that night, my mom remarked, “It’s hard to write a show about the end of the world.”
She said this in a slightly detached voice, off-handed almost, like her Broadway-critic tone could somehow shield her from the horror of a human Holocaust. It sounded almost like an excuse—for the show, for her generation. Did they see this coming? The bottom beneath the bottom. If so, why didn’t they do more than write songs and essays?
Real disorder is coming. But disorder may be too mild a word. Collapse, chaos, civilization-ending apocalypse—how do you describe the precipice on which we live, the great chasm that is opening in front of us if we are willing to look down into it?
I try to write about it, but perhaps Joan Didion was right the first time: it’s better not to write. The people dying are not across the hall, nor old, nor have they experienced a life disordered just so much as to allow for genius to pick it apart further. Those luxuries can wait for another time.
The other day, my 5-year-old son asked me to explain why I don’t eat meat. I tried to tell him about big agriculture, how they industrialize animals, keep them in cages too small to move inside, pump them full of antibiotics and hormones. But I knew I was leaving out the bigger truth, so I broached the topic I dread.
“Also, if I don’t eat meat, I can help the environment because cows make a gas that’s very bad for the earth. It’s heating up the planet and that’s making things like the droughts and fires happen.”
He’d lived through the day the sun never dawned in the Bay Area, the collected smoke from fire thunderstorms across the state enveloping us in a daytime of darkness, so no further explanation about droughts and fires was necessary.
He turned to me and said the thing I always knew he would say to me one day. I just didn’t think he would say it so soon. At 5.
“You could do more.” His eyes stared at me, glassy orbs of accusation and despair.
Oh, how my heart aches for what comes next. My son, who cries when I crush a fruit fly on the wall, who rejects my explanation that the fly would only live a few days anyway.
“So, you would take away his short chance to be happy? He wasn’t doing anything! He wouldn’t be here that long!”
My son, who names the bugs that land on the window of the car and speaks to them in soft whispers. “Hello, Juice,” I can hear his small voice behind me. How can I possibly explain the end of human civilization to him?
Now, on this precipice, I wonder at the value of writing. Why write about disorder when you have no time left for disorder? No money for disorder. No hope to waste on disorder. When disorder has become a luxury good.
Perhaps, there is a barrier level of disorder within which the writer can write. This disorder flourishes like the lively shallow reefs near shore which teem with silver backed fish, so close beneath the surface you can reach your fingers out and touch their slippery backs. Here, you can swim among the dolphins and find that for a moment you understand their mystical language. Perhaps, our disorder flourished in the order of the shallows. But beyond this realm of activity, the wildness of time and human history plunges us into an abyss that permits no intellectual explorations. A darkness of mere survival awaits.
There are some tragedies that get written blindly, and only after the final curtain does the playwright realize the ending indicted the main character. We were the main characters.
Yet, if a time of darkness is coming, we will still need our storytellers.
I was home with both my boys, five and three, during the last rolling PG&E blackout. Anyone living in California now knows the drill: the lights flicker off, then on, then off again. Then an indefinite darkness descends. The neighbors briefly emerge onto the street to check out which parts of the block still have light. This time, the whole neighborhood looked like a wild blanket of forest, the houses dark mounds between the trees. Only the Mormon temple, in all its fairytale fluorescence, shone like a beacon to wayward souls.
The blackout caught us in the middle of dinner, so after finding the flashlight and camping lamp, we sat back down around the table, and I tried to persuade the boys to eat their vegetables. As the night crept in through the windows and gathered around us in the corners, I told them stories.
I told them about the great blackout of New York City in 2003, how I had ridden into the city on a bus at the end of a summer internship in D.C. just as twilight came to the unlit city. The bus stopped in midtown, and I found myself alone in Manhattan in the dark with a terrifically large suitcase.
“So, what do you think I did then?” I ask the boys, the light shining upwards, lengthening my features, my voice raised in dramatic, campfire fashion.
They sit in captivated silence.
“I found a hotel and asked the receptionist if I could leave my suitcase there overnight, tipped her $20, and then I hopped onto a city bus heading downtown.”
I tell them how I began walking when the bus ended its route in Chinatown, how I walked with a crowd of people over the Brooklyn Bridge. I tell them how somewhere before Brooklyn, I found my people: two other young women who were going to Park Slope, my destination too, where my parents’ brownstone lay in darkness, my parents gone on vacation.
These two women and I walked into downtown Brooklyn in the pitch black of night, unable to see the police cars whose sirens blared around us, unable to see the mayhem until the bodies of officers and running youths crossed our paths. We hurried on, pressed in a line, our bodies hot from exertion, the humid August night enveloping us like a thick blanket. One of the women shed her sandals before we hit Atlantic Avenue, her feet blistered and bloody. But still, we kept going together.
I dropped the women off at the Flatbush end of the Slope and continued down Sixth Avenue on my own. The neighborhood was transformed into a still blackness. I could see only one or two slates of grey sidewalk in front of me, enough to make out the next garbage can. But the noises of the night suddenly felt piercing in their intensity. How quickly my senses adjusted to key into every rustle of newspaper, every bang of a wrought iron gate, every solo footstep. I could even hear my breath. It sounded as noisy as the morning garbage trucks, an exact giveaway of my location.
Still, I found my way through those streets because I knew them, their routes mapped out in my mind with a kind of animal instinct. These were my streets. My home. I knew how to find my way even in the darkness.
“Do you know the first thing I did when I got home at one in the morning?” The boys shake their heads, their food long forgotten on their plates.
“I ate the entire container of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream which I found in the freezer!” The boys grin. I turn serious again. “Do you know what the lesson of the story is?”
I pause, then answer myself. “In an emergency, always find your people, your friends, and then stick together. Find your way together.”
I play music for them then, my iPhone still full of charge. We sing along to an a capella group, waving our arms to the opening notes of Leaving on a Jet Plane. Then the lights flicker back on.
The next morning, my 3-year-old asks when we can do the flashlights and story night again.
If a time of darkness is coming, we will still need our storytellers.
Joan Didion’s last books addressed grief, grief at the loss of her husband, and grief at the loss of her daughter who died at 39. I cannot bring myself to read the latter of these, Blue Nights. Some stories may be bearable only when we need them ourselves, to illuminate the darkness we find before us, so impenetrable, so unknown. I pray I never need this story.
The Ancient Egyptians built a grand civilization on the riches of a fertile Nile. Then, some 3,000 years later, the center could hold no longer. A new era dawned, a Messiah was born in Bethlehem, new stories carried humanity through empires expanding and collapsing.
The terrible courage it takes to navigate those depths, this is nothing new. The bards have been here before and sung through the darkness. We will find our way together.