16 August 2013

life changes fast: thoughts on Joan Didion

It was the moment when I realized that I'd had my workout pants on backwards the entire time I'd been at the Y that I thought: Well, that's about enough for today.

I'd spent 31 minutes biking furiously on a stationary bicycle, although "furiously" is the wrong word for it. While I biked, I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about her grief in the year after she lost her husband very suddenly to a heart attack, so I suppose you could say I was biking "grievously," a misused word here, but one that makes me smile with the word play of it.

And now inevitably, I'm thinking and writing in the voice of Joan Didion, one of those writers I admire so much that I've written about her before. She has this chopped but lyrical style, a way of conveying so much emotion in these scattered phrases {and really, isn't that what all writers are going for?}.

She writes:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. There was the journal of CS Lewis kept after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed. There was the occasional passage in one or another novel [...]. There were, in classical ballets, the moments when one or another abandoned lover tries to find and resurrect one or another loved one, the blued light, the white tutus, the pas de deux with the loved one that foreshadows the final return to the dead: la danse des ombres, the dance of the shades. There were certain poems, in fact many poems. [...] The poems and the dances of the sades seemed the most exact to me.
It's in Joan Didion's repetition of phrases that I could get lost—that I did get lost, pedaling as if her grief depended on it, as if my grief depended on it. By the time I finished those minutes on the stationary bicycle, I had gone 8.21 miles, and my legs ached.

Read this book, and you will hear echoes throughout of that "Life changes fast" idea.

Read this book, and you will want to absorb grief literature right along with Joan Didion, sinking into poems by Auden and ee cummings, wrapping yourself in words by others who have found a way to write about something we all feel but can so rarely describe.

Read this book, and you will start to think in Joan Didion's voice {if you are lucky}, and so even when you have a realization about how your workout pants are on backwards, it will be in her clipped but soaring take on life.

You'll hear it in your head, and you'll laugh at how you summed up that moment. You'll think then: Thank the Lord for this ordinary moment, this ordinary reason to smile because life changes fast, life changes in the instant.


  1. Nice work on the bike! Just think how much faster you could have gone if your pants were on correctly!

    Does Didion write about topics other than depressing ones? Sorry, but those aren't the kind of things I want to be dwelling on right now.

    1. Joan Didion does write about non-depressing things. She has a collection of essays called "We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live" that's spot-on and beautiful and not overly depressing (if I'm remembering correctly).

      But should you ever read "The Year of Magical Thinking" or "Blue Nights," you'll see why they should be added to typical grief reading. So evocative of what we all feel -- but don't always have words for.

    2. Since you insist, I'll look for those three the next time I am in the library.



Related Posts with Thumbnails