Thursday, December 7, 2017

Joan Didion on The Rock

Imagining Alcatraz, 2017

I moved to San Francisco seventeen years ago, yet I've never visited Alcatraz. I haven't had the desire, with the exception of contemplating seeing Ai Weiwei's artwork there. Missing that exhibition was probably a mistake. Yes, it was a mistake. I meant to go, but then kept thinking later, later, then it was gone. But the idea of boarding a crowded ferry and being part of a large group of tourists shown around the island by a guide... Nope, not appealing.  Not at all.

I've been thinking about Joan Didion lately, she never leaves my mind for very long. I decided to dip back into Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The first thing I turned to was her 1967 essay, "Rock of Ages." The place she describes, and its three inhabitants, is enticing in a strange fairy tale sort of way.

In her first paragraph she begins to describe her attraction to this former prison:

"It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat."

And she continues in the next paragraph:

"I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here."

Later in the essay she explains how she "tried dutifully to summon up some distaste, some night terror of the doors locking and the boat pulling away."

And then she closes:

"But the fact of it was that I liked it out there, a ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather where a woman plays an organ to stop the wind's whining and an old man plays ball with a dog named Duke. I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay."

I finish reading and I'm left wishing someone actually did ask her to stay, and that I could somehow travel back to 1967 and find a way to become inhabitant number five, at least for a little while.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion


  1. Oh Joan Didion. I have two quotes in my quote book from Slouching Toward Bethlehem. One about language and 'broken homes' and one about being brought up to not talk about ourselves. She has such a soft turn of phrase that makes me quietly say "oh yes" in my mind as I read.

    1. I understand your “oh yes.” I return to her work again and again.

  2. I do secretly covet a moat... Kate

    1. Oh yes, I’d love a moat, with alligators, of course.