Because I Rarely Post About Death AND Poetry

I’m reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I bought it at the airport. I was flippant. I joked about writing my own personal memoir called The Year of Magical Drinking, a humorous account of twelve months bartending in Brooklyn. (I start at Pacific Standard in late April Wednesday nights.)

But Didion’s book is a heart-rending and obsessive fingering of grief. It’s a poor choice for a plane ride. Maybe not as poor a choice as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is about the deadliest Mt Everest Expedition in history. Last March I happened to be circling Queens in a storm while reading the chapter about the frozen climber who radioed his seven month’s pregnant wife from sub-zero temperatures before ice buffeted him to death. Why, oh why, couldn’t I have bought Jennifer Weiner?

On the evening of December 30, 2003, Didion’s husband of 40 years collapsed at the dinner table from cardiac arrest. They had just come from visiting their only child, Quintana, in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center. Only a few days earlier, Quintana–who had checked into the hospital with a fever–entered septic shock. Imagine: your husband dies while your daughter is in a coma. Both are unexpected. Both happen at Christmas.

Quintana had married the previous summer. She died when the book was released.

joan.jpg

I love this picture of Joan Didion. It’s how I’ve come to envision my future self with a family. Slightly distanced, still the observer. Happy but awed. Occasionally catching myself ashing off the back deck and asking: Really? Are these people mine?

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s chronicle of guilt, anger, and descent into madness. I appreciate it as insight into sudden loss but also as a 70-year old woman’s accumulated life. I look at pictures of myself taken five years ago and realize how knowledge comes with age, not knowledge in the sense of “Hey, I now know Excel,” but emotional resonance. I’ve honed empathy. I can relate to twenty-five because I’ve lived twenty-five. What must it be like to know fifty? Sixty? Joan Didion spent forty years alongside the same man. They worked from home together.

I’m not even thirty.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreaded and dramatized milestones. When I was little I used to sit on the kitchen linoleum and watch my mom fix dinner and think: I bet I’ll never figure out how to use an oven. Then before I turned fifteen, I thought I’d never drive. At eighteen it was first kiss. At twenty-one it was sex. Now that I know I can bake and steer and kiss and fuck there are others. Will I get married? Will I write a book? What about children? There are darker markers, too. How will I cope with my parents’ death? How will I cope with my own?

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

This is Didion’s haunting refrain throughout the book. When I read it, I realized I have my own. I wrote a poem called “Greener” when I was twenty-three. Sometimes it just pops in my head, especially these lines:

Still, I paint my Sunday Park all picnic,

all foreground, with no respect to the displaced

lake. I ignore the dark. I dot my far off trees

haphazard and stark.

At the time, I was picturing the Seurat painting.

seurat.jpg

By now, the lines have reduced to rhythm, their meaning enigmatic or forgotten or superfluous. And look at the painting. The foreground , not the background, is dark. What did I ever mean? None the less, it’s comforting to say the words outloud. Maybe one day they’ll be a rosary for my seventy year old self.

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6 responses to “Because I Rarely Post About Death AND Poetry

  1. I really, really love your writing. Very compelling.

    I’m going through something that I’ve been thinking was rather Didion-esque. Life is capricious…not unlike Joan’s “dinner and death” reality. It often leaves you asking yourself, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

    Great stuff. I’ll be back.
    lauriekendrick.wordpress.com

  2. you’re fucking incredible. i can’t believe i know you.

  3. Clicked on you over at Anna’s. This post caught my eye because I just recently read this book, too. I’ve always done the same thing you have with milestones. I think because I’m unable to imagine myself in a particular life stage, I think I’ll never get there. When I was little, I couldn’t picture myself as married – I wanted to be, but couldn’t imagine my life that way. And because I couldn’t envision it, I assumed I’d never get there.

    Today I’m married. Now what I can’t picture is growing old. I want to grow old, but I can’t imagine my life as an old woman. And because I can’t envision it, I assume I’ll never get there…

  4. I just randomly clicked over to your site from gawker.com and was looking through your past posts and this one was very nice. As a 21-year-old this rings particularly true and I’m glad someone on a blog put it into words, hopefully when I’m 30 it will be even better and I can look back on the day I discovered blog links

  5. Lovely writing. As someone who has lost both parents and a number of friends, and who at 51 still contemplates questions like: Will I write a book? What comes next? How will I deal with my own death? I can say that very little of Dideon’s memoir resonates with my own experience. But it is a fascinating insight into the emotional life of a writer I’ve admired so much it hurts. She has led (is leading) an extraordinary life that sometimes leaves me green with envy to contemplate: her prowess as a writer, her milieu, her partnership with Dunne all those years. I don’t know that this is her best writing, but it is very compelling. For me her best work is (no particular order) Play It As It Lays, Where I Was From and most of the essays from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I just started bloging myself, at wonderella.wordpress.com – but once a week seems my capacity at the moment!

  6. Death by any other name, is thou still not death
    When the name of a rose changes, is thou still not a rose
    Death comes to fast like a gust of wind whispering through the open window
    Coming down across your neck, taking your breath in your very own sleep
    Ending life can be sweet and quick
    Or slow and painful to anyone
    The death doesn’t care who you are or what you have done
    It’s your time to go now to the fire pits of hell to burn
    The scorching pain of the eternal flames crimsoning your skin
    Is God loved all of children then why would he cast their souls to hell
    The devil in my eye is still loved by God
    Neither of them has to do with death its self
    You see death will slit a person’s throat in a second
    Does death watch you die
    Or does death watch you die
    Remember death will come for you
    So live life to fullest
    Why listen to rules
    They hold you down to follow the pattern of life
    Live life how you want and love it

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