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Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday, 26 February: Joan Didion and my own year of magical thinking

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know ends."

These are the opening lines of Joan Didion's honest and lucid record of her experience of the first year following the loss of her beloved husband, John Gregory Dunne. A year complicated by the mysterious illness of her only daughter, Qintana. A year when her own mourning had to be partly shelved as she waited outside the ICU ward where her daughter lay desperately ill and Didion negotiated medical terminology with the usual hurried and harried medical staff. A year when she re-visited her marriage before finally letting it go.

This remarkable book has a special place with four other slim volumnes on my book shelf in a section I think of, without self-pity or regret, as my Grief Library. When I lost my husband of 31 years somewhat over five years ago, part of my healing lay in sharing, word for word, the experiences of others. At a time when I could not concentrate on a phone number, let alone a movie or a novel, authors in my Grief Library were my faithful companions through the valley.

Joan Didion describes that year of intense emotion as the year of magical thinking. She, like a select few other literary alchemists (Alan Paton, CS Lewis, Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy, to mention a few) has the artistry to transform her grief into beauty, into art, into a memorial of words. At first I could not grasp the significance of her title; then I agreed. "Oh, yes, Joan. A year of dreadfullly sharpened awareness! You are right! A cuppa un-shared, a book, a movie, a sermon un-discussed. A joke, a rose opened in Thatchwick's garden, a tumble with the dogs, a rainstorm takes on a bleakness as well as a luminosity, when suddenly you are alone."

Am I becoming maudlin?

So let me return to the inimitable journalist, essayist and novelist, Joan Didion. She was born in California in 1934 and she lives in New York. Her style is distinctive: cool, economical, not an adjective wasted. She seems detached and icy even but underneath her pain is naked. Winston Churchill described the "essential structure of the English sentence as a noble thing." He would have approved of Didion's writing.

A postscript on her book is that her daughter passed away in 2005 at age 29 although she appeared to be recovering during the period that the book covered. Vanessa Regrave, a friend of Didion, stars in the one woman Broadway play. I think I could fly to New York just to see that.


willow said...

Eleanor, I so admire you for gracefully and elegantly living though my greatest fear.

Didion is a master of prose, isn't she?

This is a fabulous photo of her!

Cass said...

Thank you for this most thoughtful and moving of posts.

Best ... Cass

Smilingsal said...

What a shame that you found need for a grief library; how wonderful that it exists.

Lavinia said...

How awful, to lose 2 members of your family in such untimely demise...THe name Joan Didion sounds famliar somehow, I wonder where I've heard/read it before...

Theresa @ Take A Sentimental Journey said...

I just can't imagine the pain of this.Sorry I haven't visited in so long dear.

Pam said...

Before this I had never heard of Joan Didion, so thanks to you I have done my homework.I think her words will be of great value to my mother, and with elderly relatives many of whom are struggling.As a support base, I feel I need to read her books also, and quietly absorb this. Please know I support you in your journey.

Tracy said...

A very enjoyable, thoughtful, post, Eleanor! How heartbreaking so much loss...Grief Library, that is a terrific thing. Grief is as part of life as anything else and needs support, encouragement and inspiration as anything else in life...great idea! So nice you stopped by my place--great to see you! :o) Happy weekend ((HUGS))

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Eleanor, I think in any good marriage, this is a woman's greatest fear. Even for those of us who know about eternal life and believe, it is something which is difficult to think about much less comprehend. I watched my mother and my mother in law go through it and handle their grief and adjustment with dignity and grace. They are my role models. But Mr. Magpie was the companion of my youth, and we have such a history together. Losing him would be like losing a big chunk of my own history.

I'm truly sorry for your loss, and I applaud you being open about it with us. It's a help to others.

Didion's book sounds like something I would like to read. Your future one (should you ever decide to write it) would be even more so.


Sheila :-)

Greyscale Territory said...

This post is an interesting diversion from your usual postings. But I feel it shows how we all have those moments where tears have a rightful place to be. Until now, I had not heard of Didion. I will remember this. I may need it.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a wise and touching post.
I would love to see Vanessa in the play. A true partnership of amazing talent between these two artists.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Thank you for this very moving and open post, Eleanor. I really admire you for writing this.

Sharon said...

This post is very touching. It's hard for me to imagine how one copes with the loss of a beloved spouse, Eleanor.

The Didion book was incredibly moving. You might also like the book, "A Three Dog Life". Have you read it?