Didion: On Keeping a Notebook


After the death of a friend last year after a long illness, I was speaking with another friend about the duality of emotion around the loss. I was happy that this friend was no longer suffering, and also incredibly saddened by the loss; clinging, as we often do, to the ideal image of our lives, with our friends and loved ones and health and happiness.

“One can live too long,” my friend suggested. I disagreed with him, on the basis that the idea of “living too long” operates on the presumption that only the parts of our lives that are expansive, glorious, or peak, are of value, worthy of experiencing, and have things to show and teach us. We live because we're going to die, not in spite of the fact. Scandal, lulls, fading, warts, and all.

And yet I’ve known this friend since I was 17, an unruly teenager with questionable life (and hair) choices. There are plenty of old versions of me that I’d love to sweep under the rug, preferring to focus on the version of myself that I am now. Be here now, right?

“I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook

Yes and no. What are older versions of ourselves if not memories? And what are memories if not products of the mind? And so, like all thoughts, (and to lift a phrase from Joan Didion, whose essay “On Keeping a Notebook” inspires today’s practice)  we’re well advised to let them pass without trying to grasp onto them or without forcibly pushing them out. We’re the sky, as Pema Chödrön writes. Everything else is the weather. Of course, this is easier said and done. Allowing thoughts to run their natural course can very easily tip into mental hoarding. And mental hoarding can breed cognitive discord.

Which is why I so love the image of keeping “on nodding terms” with our thoughts, our former selves. We see them, we may even feel them coming on like a storm or a migraine. And so we can prepare ourselves, we can hold our seat. We don’t need to get up to accommodate them. We can simply tilt our chin forward, perhaps smile the half-smile of a Buddha, and continue with our practice. We have made amends.

Today’s Contemplation

As you sit, notice your thoughts — whether memories, projections, shadows of your former self, or echoes of whatever you’ve soaked in from your day. Can you be on nodding terms with all of them? Try to do so literally today. As the mind wanders, acknowledge what has captured your attention. Nod at it, perhaps with a smile. Thank it for whatever information it has shared. See if it leaves of its own volition. Wish it well.