Magical Thinking

If I’m mired in grief, it’s not for Mum’s death alone. Since March there have been so many losses:  four mothers dead, and only one of them mine, and another just 42, just last week.

This will surprise no one, but it’s not my grief that’s the most difficult, but the anguish of these bereft others. Because I know that anguish, down to each exquisite, excruciating detail, but I’m as helpless as anyone else to carry it for them, or even to get them to the other side. How can I? I’m not there yet myself.

And anyway, I don’t believe there is another side, just a coming-to-terms with the gaping lack that will forever lie at the center of your life. Learning to run like a three-legged dog — from certain angles others could forget what’s missing. The miracle that maybe a few times a day you will, too.

I delayed reading The Year of Magical Thinking a long time, thinking I might not be able to bear it.  But I found Joan Didion a kindred companion. It’s not so much that she’s unflinching — she flinches plenty, with plenty reason — but there’s an austerity to her tone, a matter-of-factness that refuses to apologize for itself:

‘I had done it. I had acknowledged that he was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive.

Yet my thinking on this point remained suspiciously fluid. At dinner in the late spring or early summer I happened to meet a prominent academic theologian. Someone at the table raised a question about faith. The theologian spoke of ritual itself being a form of faith. My reaction was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even to me. Later I realized that my immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine. I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” and I did “In paradisum deducant angel.

And it still didn’t bring him back.

“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. “Seeing it clearly” did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need.’

— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

From the descriptions of her husband and their marriage that she laces throughout the narrative, you see that their lives were deeply intertwined, that they loved each other’s very thoughts. Didion relates the wild weavings, the unspoken beliefs we harbor in the backs of our minds, with an understatement that only serves to underscore the depth of her loss.

Grief comes to us all, but every grief is as unique as the one grieved. There’s no way around, only through. Didion’s book is more than a chronicle of a year’s grief, but a critical delving of that journey in 226 taut pages.

I borrowed this book from the library, and renewed it once already, though I’ve finished reading it, because I find so much in Didion’s emotional experience and her delineation of that experience that resonates for me, so many passages I want to return to.

Knowing it ends before the death of her daughter, I found myself wanting a second book, wanting the tribute to her husband that this book truly is be given to her daughter as well.

And so she has: Blue Nights is being published this fall.


CREDO / Ariana Kelly

When I say loss, I mean loss.
Blue is elaborated by the blue jay,
black by the black fly,

but loss only licks the wounds
of more loss. Likewise,
the sea does not equivocate,

nor do the trees hesitate
in their implications.
Wind moves through the leaves,

italicizing them.

(from Poetry Northwest, Vol.VI, Issue I, Spring & Summer 2011)

10 responses to “Magical Thinking”

  1. Marie, if you ever come to write a book of grief, please title it Learning to Run Like a Three-Legged Dog, which I think is a perfect metaphor for the situation.

    Hugs and love to you and yours.

  2. You are far braver than I am. Didion’s book has been sitting, unread, on my shelf for over a year.

  3. That’s a strong poem — I’m glad you included it. Thank you for this review, Marie. I have only read the beginning of the book. Knowing already that her daughter died after she finished the book was almost unbearable. I hope your writing’s going well. Much love to you.

  4. I feel bad that I haven’t commented much on your entries as of late but what you say here covers it. Every entry has been wrenching, the kind of wrenching that can only come with such an open expression of what it really is to go through grief, unencumbered by the awful platitudes of pop culture and the like. Brava to you for your bravery, and love for you as you learn to run around the center.

  5. Hey, Marie, I was happy to read your post. Just diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, I have been in the hospital growing an extra head (tumor) along my SCM. I’ve had a spinal tap, bone marrow biopsy, heart scan, and port placed in my chest. I began chemo yesterday. After this first round of chemo, I get to go home on July 4th, with daily visits to the clinic here in Tacoma for chemo injections into my spine. Not fun stuff, but transformational as I am surrounded by amazing nurses whose own lives have been touched by cancer. I’ve been frightened not only for the loss of my life, but for my partner of twelve years. Thank you for sharing and the book suggestion. A friend sent me this poem by Ruth Stone:

    The Wound

    The shock comes slowly
    as an afterthought.

    First you hear the words
    and they are like all other words,

    ordinary, breathing out of lips,
    moving toward you in a straight line.

    Later they shatter
    and rearrange themselves. They spell

    something else hidden in the muscles
    of the face, something the throat wanted to say.

    Decoded, the message etches itself in acid
    so every syllable becomes a sore.

    The shock blooms into a carbuncle.
    The body bends to accommodate it.

    A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.
    It is now the size of a head.

    The next time you look,
    it has grown two eyes and a mouth.

    It is difficult to know which to use.
    Now you are seeing everything twice.

    After a while it becomes an old friend.
    It reminds you every day of how it came to be.

    Ruth Stone, “The Wound” from Simplicity. Copyright © 1995 by Ruth Stone. Reprinted with the permission of Paris Press, Inc.

    Living, Disappointment & Failure, Sorrow & Grieving

  6. Thanks much, Sandy, and Karen, it’s actually an unputdownable book once you begin. Lily, it’s heartbreaking, but so amazingly well done. You can bear it, trust me. xo

    Emma! No apologies necessary! Never. But I thank you for this comment from the bottom of my heart.

    Oh no, Jeff, no no no, I’m so sorry to hear this — I’ll write to you directly after the wee beasties go to bed. In the meantime, thank you for the Ruth Stone poem, it’s one I’ve never read. I hope this means you’re able to check email from the hospital? Love to you!

  7. getting back to reading blogs (hopefully) and this is one of my first stops. you’re so right that it’s a helpless place to not be able to carry the grief for others. even when we’re not mired in our own it’s really impossible. i’m 2 years into this journey and i still don’t have anything helpful to contribute. except that what i did figure out is how many people love me. i imagine you’ve been feeling that, too. opening up to that (and continuing to notice it even outside the reason for the grief) has been amazing. xo

  8. […] * On grief: Learning to run like a three-legged dog […]

  9. The colloquial expression for three legged dogs now is ‘tripod’, so maybe your book of poems should be called ‘Learning to Run Like a Tripod’.

    That book was painful to get through, and I was so grateful to read it.

  10. Y’know, Carolee, it was my husband who pointed that out to me, all the love, and yes, it’s continually amazing. Hugs to you.

    HH, thanks for reading — I didn’t know that! Something new every day.

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