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As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did... I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.
Later, after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way.
That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology; the two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes. In my unexamined mind there was always a point, John’s and my death, at which the tracks would converge for a final time.
She had some idea of how this might come about. One possibility was a favorite swimming hole. “We could have been swimming into the cave with the swell of clear water and the entire point could have slumped, slipped into the sea around us. The entire point slipping into the sea around us was the kind of conclusion I anticipated. I did not anticipate cardiac arrest at the dinner table.”
She was astounded by how ordinary John’s death had been. How life can change just like that: in an ordinary instant. She became fixated on this point. For months she could not get the word “ordinary” out of her mind. Observing her thinking during a painful year, Didion wrestled with her habitual need to be in control. She has described herself as being “born fearful,” and throughout her life has sought relief for nervous tension. Finally she came to a difficult realization: “I couldn’t control everything; I did not have that power. In fact, I could control nothing at all.”
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 frightening 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 sharpened 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 perspective 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 observe 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, usually calmly but occasionally panicking, 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 Washington politics; she is an observer famous 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 visiting 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. Scheduled 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 started every day with a walk in the park, worked in offices in the apartment through the day, and often emerged at night to dine out with friends. Once, when they were living in L.A. and she had to overnight in San Francisco, John flew up for dinner.
“They often finished each other’s sentences,” fellow writer Calvin Trillin told me. He is the unnamed friend in Magical Thinking whom Didion thanks for riding his bicycle up from Chinatown every day for weeks with the only food she could stomach, ginger congee. “John was enormously proud of her. If Joan won a prize she wouldn’t say anything, but John would call. He wasn’t just her editor, but her booster.”
Walking out on stage, Didion looks tiny and frail. (Trillin has famously said, “She is tougher than she looks, but then anyone is tougher than she looks.”) She is barely tall enough to reach the top of the podium; just her head pokes above it. She begins to read in a soft, precise voice. More than seven hundred people—two-thirds are women; most are under thirty-five—pay close attention.