Daytalking, Nightwalking, Stargazing: A Ridiculously Literary Essay
“‘When I was little, I used to think — ’ She stopped.”
— J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
[Note: The following is first of a series I’m launching on Medium that I hope to develop into a book-length manuscript, covering in detail “Daytalking, Nightwalking, and Stargazing.” Thanks for reading.]
You can’t revisit teenage diaries and decades-long journal entries, or read old letters, or view photos from the far corners of your life — and then write about all those things for nearly 10 years — without formulating some sort of “General Theory” about yourself.
In my case, it’s a theory I’d considered even before I pulled the Salinger book down from the bookshelf.
When I cracked open the first part, “Franny,” I had no idea it would serve as the perfect metaphor for what I’d been thinking.
So, what is this “General Theory”?
I touched on its three component features in a couple posts already: “Daytalking” was first mentioned in “Up on the Roof,” “Nightwalking” first (somewhat obliquely) in this, and then this. Lastly, “Stargazing” had a similarly wobbly beginning here, and then of course here.
These features aren’t separate, permanent states of being, but rather facets of my personality since birth. So why use these particular terms? (Day, Night, Star…?) Because nowadays I think it’s too easy for “common words” to — well, lose their original robustness. So let’s get creative. Let’s talk about things differently.
And let’s jump into that Salinger story.
If you can get near a copy, it comes highly recommended. It might not seem like much at first (and it’s been years since I first read it, probably back in 1979), but it really repays re-reading.
Briefly, it’s about one day in the 1950s when Franny Glass, youngest member of Salinger’s precocious Glass family, meets up with her boyfriend Lane Coutell for a weekend together, having dinner and taking in a college football game. They haven’t seen each other in a while. Lane waits for Franny (the photo at left of a 1950s New York Greenwich Village couple, totally encapsulates them for me), on a train platform, furtively re-reading a letter from her.
That letter is where Daytalking begins.
Daytalking is a necessary step toward relationship. It’s optimism, joy, charity, openness — evidenced by Franny’s “I love you I love you I love you” in her letter to Lane. At its core is anticipation, connectedness, community … all with an abiding sense of love and exuberance.
For me it’s one of the greatest joys of being alive.
Then I noticed the inter-connectedness of my theory throughout Salinger’s story. You see, after Franny arrives by train, she’s clutching a green book. Lane asks her about it.
“This? Oh, just something,” she says.
I can’t begin to tell you how overjoyed I was to read that. It’s important because it plays out later in the third component of the General Theory — Stargazing.
Meanwhile, Lane and Franny grab cocktails and nosh at a joint called Sickler’s. When I read that I thought about my late father remembering all the “around-the-world pizzas” he enjoyed with my late mother (pictured at left in the late 1950s, probably in Indianapolis).
Mom and Dad had their own Daytalking, a way of relating that I’m sure at their beginning was similar to Franny’s joyful letter and Lane patiently expecting her at the station.
…but then comes Nightwalking.
In Salinger’s story, it’s when Franny stands up from the table at Sickler’s, feeling ill, and goes to the ladies’ room. There she takes a sharp detour into a darker, more isolating space. Salinger writes about it with an eloquence that still astounds me:
“She brought her knees together very firmly, as if to make herself a smaller, more compact unit. Then she placed her hands, vertically, over her eyes and pressed the heels hard, as though to paralyze the optic nerve and drown all images into a voidlike black.”
What does Franny do in the ladies room?
“She cried for fully five minutes.”
“When she stopped,” Salinger writes, “it was as though some momentous change of polarity had taken place inside her mind, one that had an immediate, pacifying effect on her body.”
Call it “depression” or “fear” or “anxiety” or “sadness,” Nightwalking happens when you’re feeling disconnected, insecure — or find yourself in a loathsome, small-minded state of mind.
As horrible as Nightwalking seems, Franny is, ironically, getting a psychological jag from it, so I guess it’s not without merit. But it’s merely a pass-through state. Sometimes we forget that. We believe we’re stuck in Nightwalking. It’s a lie Nightwalking wants us to believe. Many of us keep walking in that fog when we can just. Stop.
While Franny’s still in the ladies’ room, the third stage of my General Theory of Being springs to life — almost as a miracle: “…on her lap — on her knees, rather — she looked down at it, gazed down at it, as if that were the best of all places for a small pea-green clothbound book to be.” She raises it to her chest and presses it close.
It’s the book Lane asked her about back on the platform.
And it’s the final stage of my theory. We begin Daytalking, then we pass through Nightwalking.
But what saves us is Stargazing.
This is the part of the story where Salinger (through Franny) “spills the beans.” Her book is a memoir by a nineteenth-century Russian peasant titled, The Way of a Pilgrim.
Now, I have to take a breath here because this concept is so enormous I’m afraid I won’t do it justice.
What, exactly, is Stargazing?
Curiosity, wonderment, imagination, awe.
It’s a yearning toward understanding, another form of belief, like Daytalking. But Stargazing takes stamina. It is unflagging, relentless, and maybe a bit obsessive. It may come naturally to some people, but it’s been undervalued, dismissed, disregarded — and, it seems, getting moreso these days.
Franny lays out her plan for Stargazing:
“…the marvelous thing is,” [she tells Lane,] “when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you’re doing. I mean even if you’re terribly embarrassed about the whole thing, it’s perfectly all right. I mean you’re not insulting anybody or anything. In other words, nobody asks you to believe a single thing when you first start out. …All you have to have in the beginning is quantity. Then, later on, it becomes quality by itself.”
Stargazing is a chosen way of life. It’s not a job or career (although it could be). It’s built on years of attentiveness and curiosity. It’s an accumulation of more than knowledge, perhaps a soulful kind of wisdom, such as Franny’s “praying without ceasing” — which, when Lane questions her about it, he’s like, “Well, what’s the point of that?!”
She tells him flatly, “You get to see God.”
Oh, yeah. Riiiiiiiiight.
Hold on, not going batshit. Stay with me here.
Franny tries to explain: “…don’t ask me who or what God is. I mean I don’t even know if he exists. When I was little, I used to think — ”
And then she stops.
As I’m stopping now.
We “see God,” I believe, when we strive to see ourselves for who we are and others for who they could be — even when those kaleidoscopic images keep changing, as they always will.
When we’re fully aware of living through Daytalking, Nightwalking, and Stargazing.