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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 46 It was not until nine months after John’s death that Didion sat down to write out the experience, as a way to understand it. When her notes lengthened and gelled and began to form a book, she thought it might be popular with widows. The Year of Magical Thinking is not a self-help book. Nor is it a tome by an expert. In it we take a voyage to a fright- ening place, with a highly observant guide who is stumbling through. “I remember after I put my mother’s ashes in St. John the Divine,” she tells me, “for maybe a year I would have this recurring dream that I had an apartment in St. John the Divine. They would lock the front doors and the side doors at six o’clock, and so I had to be in the apartment by six o’clock. The dream didn’t go anywhere, but it was still affecting in some way. It was obviously about after death. And it had nothing to do with what I actually believe happens after death. I don’t believe that I will be conscious after death.” Didion had great confidence in the quality of her mind. In her schooling and chosen career, she trained and sharp- ened her mind to be strong and true. The training began as an English major at Berkeley in the 1950s, when the English department practiced New Criticism. It was a spartan per- spective of seeing exactly what was on the page, untainted by preconceptions or expectations. “You were practically forbidden to consider the author,” she says. “What you were supposed to do was close textual analysis, just look at the text—at exactly what’s there—and not bring anything to it.” In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi offers a similar view. “When you listen to someone,” he says, “you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions, just ob- serve what his way is... Just see things as they are with him, and accept these. This is how we communicate with one another... A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjects, intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are.” During her magical year, Didion stopped believing that her perceptions were true. Instead she watched, usu- ally calmly but occasionally panick- ing, as her mind produced one crazy thought after another. Knowing this was so didn’t mean she could stop it; she was both groundless and without power. “One thing I learned is how fragile sanity is,” she says now. “How shallow it is. You don’t have a long way to go before you suddenly find yourself thinking in crazy patterns.” Talking with Joan Didion you get a sense of the subtlety of her thought, of how sensitive she is. You can see her vulnerability acutely, the degree to which she is exposed. She has reported on death squads in El Salvador and the worst of Washing- ton politics; she is an observer fa- mous for strength and courage. Now, though, she is in a place that is soft and raw. On the night John died, they had just come back from visit- ing the hospital where their daughter Quintana, then thirty- seven, lay in a coma. Quintana remained seriously ill for much of the next twenty months. Then she, too, died. Didion lost her husband, followed by her only child. THE APARTMENT Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne shared on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is a short walk from Central Park, and just inside the park is an outdoor stage. Sched- uled to give a reading there from The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion expresses misgivings. She jokes that she might need a band to back her up. The star attraction is usually musical— Bonnie Raitt, Balkan Beat Box, or Ani DiFranco—not a seventy- one-year-old woman reading about the death of her husband. Married for forty years, she and John were rarely apart. They Didion, center, at her husband’s funeral at St. John the Divine in New York. At left is her brother-in-law, Dominik Dunne, and right, her daughter, Quintana. “You have to let go,” she says. “You have to because everything changes. It’s the hardest thing to learn. It’s the hardest thing to do.” DONHOGANCHARLES/NEWYORKTIMES