this’ll be about jackie having died on this day twenty-eight years ago today.
wait for it.
we’re at a rooftop bar in athens, a former student and i, as the sun sets. we’re talking about writing and i say something like: we have to stay open, because the feeling is what makes the writing. or something less eloquent, along those lines.
i don’t want to misquote myself here, make myself sound more articulate than i am in the lived experience of me. (the lived experience of me is something altogether else.)
and then i say something about time and writing, some incredibly obvious point about how one of the most extraordinary things about writing is that you never know where it will go, who will find it, where they will take it from there.
because writing is lonely. and yet also something that can be done in community and something that, with reading, becomes a conversation.
this feels so stupid to even attempt to put into words then and here because it feels quite obvious. and yet also mad important.
i’m in paris, now, as i write this. sitting in front of a picture window looking out on a courtyard and the famous rooftops and a blue, blue sky dashed with clouds like tattered kleenex.
it’s about feeling, is the thing. feeling and beauty and life and time.
i don’t know what the “it” is there.
when revising my own writing, one of my tricks is to always attempt to bring clarity to the pronouns, but i’mma let that one slide. because it’s summer. and summer seems to me, more than the others, a season of ambiguity.
this really is my introduction to writing about the 28th anniversary of the death of my fairy godmother jackie onassis. lol.
which, well, how has it already been eight years since i sat in the back of a megabus on my way to NYC writing this??!
time, ya’ll. time.
i read as younger than i am. maybe solely because i dress fun and, at the age of 25, my mother told me to start using eye cream. and perhaps also because i have spent the entire last year reading a series of books intended for 12 year olds.
i read as younger than i am whilst also having always been about 55.
like, the person who wrote these words:
that person was 12. TWELVE!!!
what twelve-year-old wears this sweatsuit and can’t stop thinking about richard nixon?!?! jackie, maybe, yes. but dick nixon? no.
i’ve spent nearly thirty years thinking about this woman’s life and twenty years writing about it. and i’ve written before (on this very day!) about how the thing about writing about someone else’s life, especially over such an extended period, is that the writing of that life becomes the living of yours.
i do not expect that this will ever be quite the same in whatever i write moving forward. but then, i could be wrong.
what have the last six years of writing about kim kardashian/lost time been if not, in some ways, an attempt to survive in my own brain?
on that athenian rooftop, i described writing as my safe place. which cannot be true, because writing is the most dangerous place i routinely go.
writing is a dark alley paved in broken glass, walked in bare feet.
but as a girl in school, i was told i shouldn’t ask so many questions. i was told it was more important that the boys should learn.
a dark alley paved in broken glass, walked in bare feet’s better than total silence, no?
i’ve thought and written plenty about why it may be that the story of jackie onassis, upon her death, slid into my brain and life and heart. but i’d not really thought much about why i write.
(lol. lies! young oline, age 10: “I’ve never been able to understand why I write but I have always been able to guide myself into the mysterious depths of my stories and I can usually write when handed a pen.”)
i knew that, in her story, there was an emphasis on silence and my interest in her had to do with a woman being so very loved. the lesson being: shut your mouth and you’ll be loved.
a message that aligned neatly with my experience in church and at school.
a friend asks how i started writing and i tell him that, as a kid, it was the place i could be loud. i could be free. (i’ve said this before.)
not coincidentally, i have written a whole book about a traumatized, depressive white woman from a restrictive society– a society where there were limited options for what and who and how you could be– trying to live a full life, trying to free herself from what she called “your miserable self that you were trying to escape all your life.”
i do not write fiction. that is not my gift.
i take real stuff, true stuff, i borrow, thieve. i am a prize of unoriginality.
there’s maybe a safety that comes from that. and also a terror.
i assure you, you have not felt what it is to be alive until you have received a pile of photocopies from the LBJ library with an identical page paper-clipped to each archival piece informing you that CAROLINE KENNEDY WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND SHE WILL SUE. (<- paraphrasing, but truly, that is the vibe.)
i was 12. like that is hilariously tiny, age-wise. and yet all of the feelings were punching through me with nowhere to go, and she helped. her story helped and i seized it. to no evident end.
certainly, where we have ended– well, not so much as ended, as arrived– this was never imagined. this was wholly inconceivable.
though, looking back, there were maybe always little glimpses of the freedom available through her….
looking back, maybe we always see glimpses that were only feelings at the time…………
in that taco bell, my parents did not laugh when i informed them i wanted to start collecting jackie magazines.
in grad school, when somehow it came up that i did so, croftie said, breathily, excitedly, ooooooh, that’s so cool.
i like to think these moments prepared me for the era of the rolled eyes.
look for the gaps! they told us (i think) in grad school.
but what is the future if not a big old gaping hole? we do not know where we’re going, we pretend we know how we’ll get there, we think we know what we want.
if writing about lives and living mine has taught me anything, pretty much the only thing i have been correct about in my own life is that i could not stop thinking about jackie onassis.
everything else, yeah, no.
never in a million years would i imagine i would wind up where i am, and yet also it kind of is the outcome that makes the most sense.
this is what i love about writing lives– how, in the looking back, they appear so logical, the pattern so evident, like we only missed it because we were young and stupid and couldn’t clearly see.
if it seems like an accident, a collage of senselessness, you weren’t looking hard enough goes a lyric from one of my favorite songs.
but also, i reject that.
it’s not that we all have cloudy eyes. life isn’t lived like that.
life is improv.
yeah, we can look back and discern the patterns, but we move forward only with faith, not accuracy, and certainly not surety.
we none of us actually know what will happen next.
biography with feeling. that is how i describe this book.
because my critique of biography is that the genre so often drains out all of the emotion and feeling that drive us in living.
but also because i don’t know where you’re going to go when you read it, i don’t know what you’re bringing to it or what you’ll find here, but you are gonna feel some things, of that i am certain.
and that isn’t stupid; it is not a waste of time. it’s power.
you’ve basically written 94,000 words on the value of frivolous things, my editor tells me.
and i thank god for the privilege of having the time and space to do that.
and for being positioned strongly enough to have worked my way through the thicket of arguments against ever doing such a thing.
using one’s only life to do such a thing.
when you write about lives, you think a lot about how writing about lives is what you’re using your one life to do. at least i do.
really, there was nothing else i could have done though. this was never a choice.
this is not a scenario in which i am aware of having agency.
she was there. her story was there. it was right there, in front of me, for the taking.
i took. but the sensation is more one of having been pulled.
how much choice is there in that equation?
or is this just one of those things that was meant to be?
is this how fate works? or god?
i don’t know. this does not make sense to me. it is what it is. it is what it’s always been. c’est la vie.
the memory i’ve kept coming back to over the last few months is when i left the yacht in chatham.
i’d walked there, up a ridiculous vertical incline in driving rain, peed at the m&s next to dickens world, and then wandered the boat under cloud cover for three hours.
but when i walked back to the train, the sun had come out and the skies were blue, the air brisk.
and i felt cleaved open with joy.
i prayed as i walked, i was so grateful to be where i was. i was so grateful for the story i knew i was in the middle of.
when i try to remember the last time i felt joy, that is the moment that pops to mind.
undoubtedly, it was not the last. it was so terribly long ago. surely, there must’ve been others. but look at all the convoluted verbs there. there must have been. nothing is immediately at hand, at the moment. everything arrives at a remove.
i hunger for closeness. i long for immediacy. and yet all of my sentences mediate themselves. the distance is there, in the expression of the feeling, in all of the words I supply to separate the subject from the object, all of the space i impose.
but that’s the one that sticks out, that moment post-yacht and intra-blue sky, entangled as it was in jackie and writing and hope and living and adventure.
i need to make clear that this entire post has been informed by and infused with tremendous grief amid the ongoing american disaster.
on the athenian rooftop, just a few days after the leak of the SCOTUS draft and a week before we reached a milestone of 1 million people in america having died from covid, the dear former student asked questions about america, and i, more than once, told her: it is a death cult.
that sounds glib. i mean it entirely.
it is the only framework i have for understanding the white nationalist theocracy that was on the move, mobilizing, long before i was that little girl in church, watching men telling me what i could and could not do with my body and my life as they organized pre-teens making signs for the march for life.
i remember holding the marker in my hand and the fear that someone around me would notice that i was not actually writing on the poster.
i may have, ultimately, written on the poster.
i don’t know. what i remember is holding the marker and not wanting to do what was being asked of me. what i remember is the wrongness of what was being asked of me.
what i remember is, years later, the terror of being twenty, of being in college, of being in the middle of three years of what i did not then have the language to identify as sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, and of not bleeding for four months.
i wasn’t pregnant, just starving. but the extraordinary desperation i felt as a person who lived in mississippi and had been denied knowledge of their body has never left me. the memory of sitting at the desktop computer i was assigned to for my internship at the university news bureau, yahoo-ing how to attain abortifacient teas in the mail.
how to sit with the knowledge that– without baby formula, without accessible, legal, safe healthcare in the past– approximately 75% of the people i love might now be dead?
she was intensely interesting, she carried a lot of weather. i saw this quote about carolyn bessette a few months ago and i thought, good for her.
and i think maybe also this was part of jackie’s appeal. her biographers frequently accused her of being moody, mercurial.
how wretched! to be judged by history for having emotions, for having felt.
how cruel and dismissive we are towards feeling.
i was often called volatile. not exactly what i want to be remembered for but, i remember thinking, perhaps better than being forgotten?
in living, we do not know what will happen next. everything we ever do is informed by our ignorance and the decisions we make based upon it.
and this sounds so stupid and i’ve said it at least nine times on this blog at least, but seriously, i think we should marvel: how bold, the effort in going on. how wild, the ways in which we plunge forward, into all manner of things, hearts in various states of damage and disrepair, as the world crumbles and burns and melts around us.
in paris, i received multiple texts from friends asking if i was having the time of my life.
and it was just like, no. i’m living. and that’s enough.
this is about jackie, so let me bring it back.
obviously, i’m still thinking about her. obviously, i have not stopped.
i lean a lot on that john berger quote about the quaking mouse, so let’s change it up. let’s pretend this was a version of church– church being a site of love and grief and lies and hurt and glory– and let jackie’s cousin little edie bless us all on our way out:
but you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character. and i tell you, if there’s anything worse than a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. there’s nothing worse, i’m telling you… they don’t weaken. no matter what… but they didn’t know that. well, how were they to know?(STAUNCH)