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Tag Archives: loss

30 Before 30: Read “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

23 Dec

yearmagicalthinknig

In my 30th year of life, I’m attempting to do 29 new things. Full List Here. All Bucket List Adventures Here.

I read this book in the span of a day. It’s not a long book, and the prose is quick and simple. It’s also a story that pulls the reader in. It documents the year of her life after her husband John died. He had a heart attack in front of her, and, as she puts it, in an ordinary moment her life changed.

I’m still processing how I feel about the book. It’s different from most anything I’ve ever read. Death and loss are not new topics. I think the difference with Didion is that she doesn’t try to pull at your heartstrings. She doesn’t conjure up lost memories of her husband and her at their happiest. Their first kiss. Sweet things he did for her. None of that is there. It is simply the story of her mind coping with the grief.

Reading her analyze her mind and notice her thought patterns in the year after she lost her husband pulls the reader closer to understanding how it feels to lose a life partner. At one point, I took a break from reading it and looked at the simple layout of the cover. Only four letters in a different color than the rest. My eyes scanned from the J to the O to the H to the N. John. Her ex-husband. I give that cover designer enormous credit for putting together such an understated cover that describes the essence of the book. The shadow Didion’s husband cast over her life, especially in the year after he died, was unavoidable and seeped into her mind in curious ways.

Her writing is so straight-forward and without embellishment that I was surprised by how much her love for him resonated. In interviews, she has said that she thought the book turned into a love story instead of a story about grief. And I agree. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Your heart will break alongside hers. But it is beautiful, and it is important, and I learned so much from it.

“We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. And as we will one day not be at all.”

 

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Life Indestructible

15 Oct
Balm Beach, Canada

Balm Beach, Canada

Back in June, I boarded a plane with a group of my friends to spend a couple of days at my friends’ (Grant and Patty) house on Georgian Bay in Canada, a place they all refer to as The Cottage. I had been looking forward to this trip for weeks, a true vacation by the lake, relaxing, eating, and drinking. But I brought with me on that plane a little dark cloud that I couldn’t ignore.

The day before I had received news that my friend Sheila from Seattle had taken her own life. I had met her on my study abroad program to Prague. The 22 of us that were in the Prague program bonded to each other and became close. I had lost touch with Sheila and had last seen her a couple of years ago when her and some other Prague friends visited New York. But hearing of her passing left me heartbroken. I thought about her family and those that were close to her, and I can’t imagine how much they hurt, dealing with this great loss.

So, I found myself in a foreign country, next to a beautiful lake, with friends who were eating, drinking, playing in the water, and laughing. But all I could think about was the funeral taking place in Seattle. I thought of my memories of her and tried to make sense of tragedy.

There were a lot of people I had never met at The Cottage, friends of Grant from Quebec. And as always happens with new people, they asked me about the tattoo on my foot. It’s a factor in my life, explaining to people what it says, what it means. My answers are so rehearsed, they flow from me without thinking.

My foot tattoo.

My foot tattoo.

“It means ‘life indestructible, always triumphant.'” “It’s in Czech.” “It’s from a book I read while I was there.” “Yes, I’m sure I know what it says.”

At one point in the afternoon, while I was standing around the grill, lost in thoughts about Sheila, about life, about loss, yet another Quebecois sidled up to me and asked me the same old, “So what’s your foot say?”

I looked down at my tattoo and felt the same words tumble from my mouth, “life indestructible, always triumphant.” But something struck me, and I remembered why I got the tattoo.

I went to Prague as one person and came back a different one, completely renewed. It was in Prague that I learned to love life, to be joyful and happy. The full quote that didn’t fit on my size 8 feet is

“for that short moment, I would know for certain that love and hope are infinitely more powerful than hate and fury, and that somewhere beyond the line of my horizon there was life indestructible, always triumphant.”

It was the magic of the city of Prague, it was the book I read “Under a Cruel Star” with the above quote, it was the people I met there that changed me. Sheila was a huge part of that. She was kind, welcoming, adventurous, and fun. And I wanted to be like her. One night in Prague, a small group of us were at an underground, Jazz bar in Prague when I recognized a group of Irish poets across the way. I mentioned it, and Sheila grabbed her camera and insisted we go talk to them, invite them to share our booth. I refused. I wouldn’t do it. “I’m shy. I’m not like you guys. I can’t do it.” I explained. She replied, “Life doesn’t happen just sitting here, but I’m not going to force you.” After a minute of thinking that over, I swigged my Pilsner and told her I’d do it. What resulted was one of the greatest nights of my life. The poets came over to our table and drank with us, entertained us with singing and Irish jokes. They walked with us along the river and took us to weird little comedy shows they knew of.

My life from then on was different. I realized I didn’t have to be shy. I could be like the people I admired, like Sheila. I could chase after the things I wanted and be outgoing and love life. Prague became filled with so many amazing moments, so many involving Sheila. We danced on stage with a Reggae band to “No Woman, No Cry.” We stayed out all night drinking and dancing, and watched the sun rise over the Vltava. We bungee jumped off a bridge in Sokolov. We rode bikes for 70 miles through the Czech countryside. I learned so much from her about loving life, and I’m honored to have known her.

And that was why I tattooed that quote to my foot. I always wanted to remember that in the face of tragedy and sad times, life was always there. I can’t make sense of her death, and my heart continues to ache for her family, but the only way to heal and to honor her memory is to live with the joyful spirit she taught me to have. So I continued to think of her as I swam in the lake, rode the jet skis, kayaked, sang songs around a campfire, laughed with my friends, played my first ever golf game, read a guilty pleasure book while digging my feet in the sand. The world lost an amazing person, and I hope that she has found peace and that somehow she knows what a positive impact she had on the people who were lucky to know her.