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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 44 our messy, fascinating time. Yet nothing prepared readers for Didion’s most recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it she turned her lens around, to observe herself during the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. It was a time when she was, by her own account, “a little crazy.” Her mind was overwhelmed, all her usual refer- ence points destroyed. In a long conversation I had with Joan Didion, and a shorter meeting in New York, she was smart and gracious, dryly funny, and exactingly honest. She offered considered views of life and death, wisdom and love, some of them surprising even to those familiar with her work. Her year of magical thinking, she says, “didn’t really change my belief or non-belief. I still believe in geology.” Her grandfather, her mother’s father, was a geologist, and her view of the world, and her view of time, remain affected by what she learned from him as a child. She is comfortable explaining how rivers, hills, and coastlines came to be, and how they continue to change. “I accept the Episcopal litany,” she says, “because it seems to me to embody geological truths: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.’ ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ means ever-changing, in my interpretation.” She offers a self-deprecating chuckle. “Which may not be the orthodox interpretation.” Didion’s interpretation of Christianity might be considered unorthodox in other ways, too. She is not the kind of believer who holds firm to dogma when evidence and reason suggest a softer grip. “I don’t believe in a personal God,” she says, “a God that is personally interested in me.” She also can appre- ciate Buddhism’s central tenet, the three marks of existence: impermanence, nonself, and suffering. “Nothing can bring satisfaction because everything changes, right?” she says. “Yes. And as far as the soul not existing, the soul doesn’t exist. I know Christians talk about it, but they just talk about it symbolically, don’t they? I have understood the entire thing symbolically. I mean, it makes a lot of sense to me symboli- cally. But it doesn’t if it’s supposed to be real.” Needing comfort following her husband’s death, she reached for a favorite old book, a 1970 classic by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. “A lot of times in my adult life, when I needed to cool out or simply feel better, calm down or get things into order, I would read again Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I could do that and it would make me feel wonderful.” This time, in- stead of comfort, she discovered a hard truth about her own understanding: “I never got the lesson. I never acquired that emptiness. I would appear to be thinking along those lines, I would appear to be letting go. But I wasn’t at all.” Struggling to get through each day, Didion came to under- stand more clearly than ever before that she too would die. Until then, her life would continue to offer more suffering, and more opportunity. The question became: how would she live now? Would she need more or less control, and could she learn to let go? JOAN AND JOHN were sitting down to dinner. He was hav- ing a drink; she was mixing a salad. They were talking, until he wasn’t. So she looked up—and the most ordinary thing happened. He died. The room soon filled with paramedics, working furiously, talking in code. The hardwood floor was strewn with needles; there was a small pool of blood. They all rushed to the hos- pital, where the official pronouncement was made. The next morning she woke up, wondering why he wasn’t in bed. During her year of magical thinking, Didion could barely eat. She could not write. She had trouble sleeping. She was overcome by wave after wave of debilitating grief. Much of what she thought and said and did that year, even as she thought and said and did it, she knew was not rational. She was thinking like a child. What she wanted—and she believed, at some level, that it could happen—was to have her husband back. Most of us presume grief has a pattern, a steady progression toward healing. Starting with the funeral, we expect to recov- “What surprised me was the number of women who were reading the book as a love story,” says Didion. “They were reading about a marriage.” 1970, Hollywood GETTY/TIMELIFE/JULIANWASSER