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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

I was listening to Radiolab on the drive home from New Jersey, the episode, "23 weeks 6 days," in fact, one that has received much attention and praise but after a long day on the road and seeing extended family, it just exhausted me. I knew where it was going and as much as I wanted to be glad things ended well for the people themselves I could not bear the form any more.


Here is the dirty little secret, for all the crime and horror that comes through in the news, features like "23 weeks 6 days" and specifically podcasts, seem to be almost exclusively positive. In the particular, of course you hope for the best, but at the same time the shows are addressing issues of major consequence nationally and situations that frequently turn for the worse but do we really understand the weight of a situation when we only get one side of the story?


Of course, Joan Didion did not have a story scouted for her, she was writing from her own life and she did not get to choose the ending. Her husband John Gregory Dunne died December 30, 2003. This simple fact dominates The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion writes about grief in a way that is heartbreaking, but also familiar and, somehow, refreshing.



The book is a frank and uneasy look at grief as we experience it. She makes efforts to put her grief in a larger context, to understand her husband's death and her daughter's near-death in medical terms, but she connects most strongly in the details. Little, inconsequential thoughts, fantasy, magical thinking, that we all do. Something we don't throw away, or move or erase. We don't tell ourselves the story, if I take down that note it means she is really dead, but we can't quite give away the last of his clothes even though John Gregory Dunne is dead and will not be needing his shoes. 


If podcasts choose to feature hopeful stories, it is only in the grief of established authors like Didion that we learn what the other half experience, what we all experience eventually. The life expectancy of all lifeforms hits zero at some point. John Gregory Dunne died on December 30, 2003. Joan Didion will die too, and so will my parents and siblings, friends, lovers, and myself. Didion's account of grief, is as cutting as any of her essays. Writers like to intellectualize, but Didion's strength lies in how she resists that temptation. The way she finds the universal in the specific. Grief arrives in memories, not of the great moments but of misadventures, funny anecdotes, actions that reveal something of a larger character. Moments that have ended.


So I do find relief in The Year of Magical Thinking, not in Didion's grief, but in the connection, however one-sided, that I can find in her account of it. Good teachers and apologists for youth sports will emphasize the importance of learning how to lose. The Year of Magical Thinking asks us to consider what it is to really lose and what comes next. Didion offers no answers, doesn't suggest she even has any to offer, except that we are not alone in our loneliness. Not those who lost parents, nor those who have lost children, not those we've seen claimed by cancer, nor those whose babies were not viable at 23 weeks. Sometimes the worst happens.