Shored Against My Ruin.

By Alison August 31, 2005 2 Comments 3 Min Read


Something I read in American Vogue this morning has bothered me all day.

Joan Didion’s newest book tells the story of her heartbreak after the shock of her husbands sudden death. Reviewed by Dana Goodyear in Vogue, the words that brought a lump to my throat are below…

" Born fearful and born in California, Joan Didion had long prepared herself for death by cataclysm: landslide, earthquake, an event impersonal, tectonic, and complete.  To ward off this imagined doom, she says in her new memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking", she performed for many years a set of protective domestic rites: ‘Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those souffles, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruin were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.’ But Didion’s was the kind of wishful pact with fate that seems, in retrospect, designed to be betrayed, and her life as she had grown used to living it ended at home, unaccompanied by highway fires or floods, or houses collapsed like decks of cards. It ended just after she had laid a fire and poured a scotch for her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, while she was mixing the salad and he was talking about world war one. ‘The entire point slipping into the sea around us was the kind of conclusion I anticiapted,’ she writes, referring to  a place where she and her husband used to swim near their house on Palos Verdes Penninsula. ‘I did not anticipate cardiac arrest at the dinner table…’ 

You see I have never thought of housework like that. Yes I have dwelled on housework as a gift, debated endlessly the notion of housework  as womans idea of contributing to family life in the absence of being able to line the family coffers. But never have I put into words the idea of housework as a talisman against evil, and yet daily, subconsciously, I live it, in a way I am finding impossible to put into words, particuarly on a day like this when an entire city is drowning, and home has ceased to mean what it always did to so many.

Joan Didion, just like me, feared all that she could not control, but she failed to consider the fragility of the human body.  Losing somebody we love is a truth we all choose to ignore on a daily basis, because if we let it, fear of it would destroy us. But I will say this: those fragments, Didion talks of shoring against her ruin, matter, perhaps more than anything else. To know that her husband died safe in the comfort of her absolute dedication to the domestic, in the trust she had in the security of home, must surely bring some relief .

But while  intellectually I sense this blessed relief, and I understand that fear is pointless: that lighting my candles each night won’t prevent either natural disasters, terrible accidents or the slow, or sudden death of those I live for, it seems to me that lighting that flame and moving slowly around my house, bringing life to each wick, is the closest thing I have to an act of faith:  the nearest I get to gratitude in it’s purest form. I can’t keep anyone, not even myself wrapped in cotton wool. But I can say thank you for every day I have with them, and in my own, very personal way, pray that we will always have tomorrow.


  1. Savannah says:

    It was just this spirit that infused my grandmother to come home from the hospital after losing her beloved husband, my grandfather, after 53 years of marriage… she immediately grabbed the vacuum sweeper and set about shining and waxing the furniture, dusting his leather chair, and scrubbing the kitchen floor. I at sixteen was angry with her, thinking she was trying to show off her home… but she was trying to maintain…. how sad it took me 35 years to figure that one out. Talk about thick skulled! Thanks for a sober but beautiful and deep post.

  2. So well put! I know that do this very thing myself, usually subconsciously. I had a very unstable home growing up. The daily rites of cleaning, cooking, and being prepared to care for my family and defend them from the elements, bring a calm to my soul. It is almost like working some secret spell or magic, and although I logicaly realize that I can't stop death or disaster, I feel as if this daily expression of faith is my duty and my priviledge.

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