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The Zen of Joan Didion

Her masterpiece The Year of Magical Thinking is a meditation on the human mind both pointed and profound. In that year following her husband’s death she learned in her bones the basic truths we so often deny—death, impermanence, and aloneness. David Swick profiles Joan Didion, a great American journalist observing her own mind and experience.

The largest church in the United States is a place of subtle power, and some surprises. Nestled among the stone and polished wood of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the Upper West Side of New York City, are statues of Gandhi, Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a triptych honoring the public artist Keith Haring and a poet's corner celebrating Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe. The altar offers tributes not just to Christianity, but also to Islam, Judaism, and “Eastern wisdom traditions.”

Off the main altar is a locked sanctuary, a dignified space, quiet and subtly lit. It's a columbarium, a room of small vaults containing urns. Each of the vaults is covered with a door of marble. Many are ochre, with touches of black and cream; graceful swirls reveal that the rock was once fluid and moving. One vault contains the ashes of members of Joan Didion’s family. Their names are engraved on the door, and there is space for one more. The space is for Joan Didion.

Didion was raised Episcopalian and remains a member of the church. A star of contemporary letters, she is deeply respected by writers, journalists, political thinkers, and cultural observers. Her thirteen books, including The White Album, The Last Thing He Wanted, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, form a brilliant portrait of 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 reference 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 appreciate 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 symbolically. 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, instead 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 understand 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 having 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 hospital, 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 towards healing. Starting with the funeral, we expect to recover and adjust. John’s funeral service featured Gregorian chant, readings by friends and family, and a lone trumpet. Rituals were performed, his life celebrated, his death publicly acknowledged. But rather than a steady, upward progression, Didion found no pattern at all. “You’ve kind of been led to believe that there is a form to this,” she says, "but it turned out not to have any form. It didn’t resolve in any way.” Rather than move through it, “I think what happens is you incorporate it. You don’t get over it; it becomes part of who you are. What I mean is that you are a different person after that. I don’t know why this surprises me, since you’re a different person every day you live, but it does.”

A longtime fan of her work, I knew Didion could offer top-quality insights into contemporary politics and culture. Her eight non-fiction books and five novels consider big issues—power, corruption, the way we live now. She has stood up to political, military, and financial might to put facts in context and toss out myths. Now, considering her husband’s death, she has again found the words to make the complicated clear. Before the moment a loved one dies, she says in Magical Thinking, we cannot know “the unending absence that follows, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” She goes on to say:

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