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.
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.
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.