Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California


I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.


Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”


But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.


If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.


What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

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.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…


As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Joan Didion and Me…

Joan Didion and Me...


I faithfully read Time Magazine and the last page interview. This week Lucy Feldman interviewed writer & journalist Joan Didion. I became a fan when Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband died. I then read essay collections and other works—she a word crafter, convinced of her own ideas. Ms. Didion is now in her 90s. Maybe that’s why her answers were, well, terse. Could I do any better? Here are a few attempts.

How are you feeling in these trying times?

Joan: I feel fine. Slightly bored, but fine.

Beth: I’m eager to get my hair cut, see my grandchildren. But I’ll follow the rules no matter what.

You once said that an experience with vertigo and nausea you had in 1968 was an appropriate response to what was happening in that period. What’s an appropriate response for 2020?

Joan: Vertigo and nausea sound right.

Beth: Quiet rage, but a gradual feeling of relief when the year finally ended ie on Jan. 20th.

You wrote two defining books on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. What would you say to the millions who have lost loved ones this year?

Joan: I don’t know. I don’t know that there is anything to say.

Beth: These are difficult times and loss cuts deeply. Mourning loved ones is necessary and you have a right to go through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But I would hope that those who have lost someone have a partner to talk to—either in person or regularly through the phone or video chat. We need each other.

Do you have hope?

Joan: Hope for what? Not particularly, no.

Beth: Of course. I don’t think you can get out of bed missing someone or mourning someone or looking at a time when you can’t do the things you love and not have a glimmer of hope—we all have to have hope.

Which feels more like home: New York or California?

Joan: Both.

Beth: I would have to alter the question to Chicago or California. After recently living in the latter for seven years, yet having been born and raised in Chicago, I would have to say I have come HOME. But there is always adjustment. Today, we have over ten inches of snow. So you could say that does require an adjustment, but I made my first snowball in seven years! This snow is “GREAT FOR PACKING!”

What do you make of the old adage, write what you know?

Joan: I don’t make anything of it.

Beth: It’s a great stepping off place, especially writing fiction. You have to KNOW something about the PLACE in the story. People mirror where they live: neighbors, public places like schools, churches. I don’t think I could write about NYC, but I can write about Chicago.

Do you ever reread your past writing? If so, what do you think?

Joan: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think something is well done, sometimes I think, Woops.

Beth: Ditto.

Is there anything you wish to achieve that you have not?

Joan: Figuring out how to work my television.

Beth: Ditto.

What are you looking most forward to in 2021?

Joan: An Easter party, if it can be given.

Beth: Everything—getting the vaccine, shopping, trips to be with my family. Blessings.

PS These are not all the questions Joan was asked, but the ones I felt pertinent to my post. Thanks for reading.