Monday, November 07, 2005


Have you read this book yet? Well...have you ever read a book by Joan Didion? No? Not, Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Last Thing He Wanted? I will not judge you if you haven't, (though the high-school English Teacher in me does have a moment of pause...) just please read one Joan Didion book in your lifetime. If you don't know which one to try, you may as well pick up The Year of Magical Thinking, and prepare to have an experience. This book was written in 2004 by Didion as she grieved the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Their 37 year old daughter, Quintana Roo, was hospitalized with a "flu" that became a coma...Didion and Dunne came home from a hospital visit, made dinner, poured scotch, and he died of a massive heart attack at their kitchen table.

He wasn't a young man...seventy-one when he died. He'd had heart problems in the past, so I suppose one could say that "he'd lived a full life". In the book, Quintana recovers...falls critically ill again in the year following her father's death, and then recovers once more. By telling you this, I in no way "spoil" any surprises. The book opens with the information I've related. Before I even picked it up, I knew Dunne died and that this was a story of her first year as a widow. What I didn't know was how moving it would be to read. I didn't know Didion's typical spare prose would become so densely layered with meaning. The book was a 227 page meditation on living and dying...on the distillation of life to its golden luminescence. Rather than depress you, this book makes you want to be alive. Or, that's what it did for it yourself to find out.

When I am faced with writers like Joan Didion, I am simultaneously inspired to get out there and write my own story, and convinced that anything I have to say is absolutely insignificant and humble. The trick is to walk that fine line between inspiration and desperation...awe and self-doubt. Or, as Natalie Goldberg must have said a thousand times in my weeks of study with her, "You just show up."

Joan Didion would say the same thing of life...I want to say the same thing to my children, especially my eldest who is facing down her own mortality and mine at the tender age of nine. "You just show up." There are no promises or guarantees...but, that reality can color life with vibrant, obscene swaths of light. Can't it? I have to tell her that it can...I have to believe that it can. I have to recommend that you read the Didion book, even knowing that he dies and the ending cannot be revised for her. Maybe even worse, I ask you to read the book and believe--even after I tell you that as the book went to press this year, Quintana Roo Dunne died at the age of 39. Didion wrote, "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." The invitation of The Year of Magical Thinking isn't to death...but, to living fully and knowing why.


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