Talking last week at the Fitzgerald Theater about her new memoir, The Year of a Magical Thinking, Joan Didion said that the reason she started writing in the first place was that she needed to figure out what she was thinking.
It was one of the many times during her book reading/interview that her words spoke volumes to me. Didion's book, which is getting rave reviews and major coverage in the press, chronicles a year in which her daughter became gravely ill, and her husband died from a massive heart attack. Didion admitted that in trying to deal with her grief that her thought process was more than slightly crazy. She said that the title of the book came from the childlike belief that one controls actions beyond their control- that children for example, think that if they just hadn't spilt the milk at dinner that their parents wouldn't be getting a divorce.
Thus the book earns its metaphysical title as Didion describes how months after her husband's death, she couldn't part with his shoes because she felt that he would need them when he returned home. In many of the book's most devastating passages, Didion details how in the days and weeks following her husband's death she was obsessed in gathering all the details- attending the autopsy, trying to discover the exact time of death- as if she had done something differently she could have saved his life.
What added weight to Didion's appearance at the Fitzgerald as part of MPR's "Talking Volumes" series was that her daughter just recently died from her illness. Looking thin and frail Didion spoke in a quiet but sure voice, as if talking about her work was another necessary step in her grief process.
Reading The Year of Magical Thinking I couldn't help but think about how little of the art I know deals with such a basic human emotion as grief. Love, anger, depression, and confusion all have been examined from every which direction. Musically John Lennon's "Mother" is about the only song I can think of that directly deals with grief. Some of Brian Wilson's sadder songs like "God Only Knows" certainly hit some of the same psychological places as grief.
Reading Didion's memoir I was also struck that the words she shares seem universal and unique at the same time simply because we're all likely at some point going to have to deal with the death of a loved one. She said she wrote the book quickly (she started writing the day after her husband died and finished a few months later) because she wanted to capture the rawness of her emotions. The book does exactly that- sparing the reader none of the overwhelming emotional territory that comes with grief. Didion said that in the months following her husband's death she would walk the streets and could see others who were grieving. Asked what she saw, Didion said that looking in people's eyes she could tell if someone was grieving by the size of their pupils. That was exactly the insight I noticed when a lost love lost her brother shortly after my Mom died.
Hearing the author read clipped passages from her book was not an easy and certainly not a comfortable experience. The reading was broken up by cello music provided by two local musicians. As they played my mind drifted to the best piece of art I know about grief- the still amazes me every time I watch it- episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy's mom dies.
The stark and quiet episode captures both the overwhelming confusion, sadness, anger and shock and loss of what it feels like to have someone vital to your life die. If you're lucky, friends reach out to you as if to cushion the fall but you realize that there isn't anything they can really do to help you deal with that which can't be dealt with.
In the Buffy episode a lesser character (Tara) finds herself alone with Buffy and she tells Buffy if there is anything she can do- just ask. Then she tells Buffy that she knows it's an empty offer- she knows because her own Mom died. And for a moment Buffy snaps out of her stupor and feels a brief connection with the world again.
Reading The Year of Magical Thinking was exactly like that moment for me. Gratefully delving into such a great piece of writing makes one want to reach out to the author and share what one thinks is an instance of a similar feeling. Yet having gone through the experience of grief a time or two myself I learned if there is but one lesson to be learned it is none of us grieves in the exact same way. It's a hard lesson to learn but in grief one learns that much as we try to make every little thing mean something, in the end it all can be simultaneously meaningful and meaningless as one comes to realize how senseless a death can be. At the same time if you stop and think about it the very next breath is something to behold and not to be taken for granted ever again.