BootsnAll Travel Network

Magical thinking

It is always helpful to listen to someone a little older than you are, someone who has just crossed through the terrain you’re about to travel. Someone whose vision is not too different from yours, who can see further because she’s ahead of you in time. Joan Didion is one such person for me. She published Slouching Toward Bethlehem when I was an undergraduate creative writing major, and “Writers are always selling somebody out” became my motto. I even quoted it in my first little photocopied book, a collection of dramatic monologs based on women whose stories I had listened to. I used these monologs in my one-woman show, and although I made no money on that show–I made, in my best year, only $70 over expenses–still I felt conflicted about the stories: by performing them, was I celebrating the women, or exploiting them? It worried me. Didion wrote, back then, about hippies and drugs and Communism and other things that attracted and frightened me. Now she’s writing about grief.

This afternoon I walked down the road to the mailboxes, still dressed in my first-day-of-class clothes, after the storm had passed, so I thought. The storm had not passed. Great claps of thunder shook the ground and set off car alarms just before I reached the shelter, and the rain came sluicing down like it does in a monsoon movie. I hid out under the roof that shields the mailboxes and opened my mail, the electric bill (less than I had expected) and a thin box from It was not the Pema Chodron book; that one has been delayed. It was The Year of Magical Thinking, the play version that just closed its run on Broadway this past Saturday. (Do go to the link. There are two terrific pictures there, and it loads quickly.) The book has an arresting picture of Vanessa Redgrave, bravely looking her age, on the cover. While I waited for the rain to pass, I began reading it and became so engrossed that I was halfway through it by the time there was another break in the storm.

It begins:

This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.

And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

That’s what I’m here to tell you(1).

Her husband died suddenly while their daughter was in ICU, battling with septic shock. Didion describes a moment in ICU:

You’re safe, I say. I’m here.

I say it every time I walk into the ICU.

I have been saying it to her all her life (17).

That’s a good one. You’re safe. I’m here. As if being present could save our children from what’s coming to them. The lie in that pair of phrases breaks the heart of every parent I know, as soon as they’re old enough to know it. I like the simplicity with which Didion tells the story. She explains the title:

“Magical thinking” is a phrase I learned when I was reading anthropology.

Primitive cultures operate on magical thinking. “If” thinking.

If we sacrifice the virgin–the rain will come back.

If I keep his shoes– (23).

Soon she pauses to ask these startling questions about her husband’s death:

Am I failing to understand this as something that happened to him?

Am I still understanding it as something that happened to me? (29).

The suspense Didion builds in the play-version (because a play must have suspense, everybody knows that) hangs on the question, will the daughter live? and then, how will Didion cope if the daughter doesn’t live? and finally, how can any of us cope when the people we love die?

I would have loved seeing how Vanessa Redgrave performed this play. It is a really difficult play for an actor. Incredibly difficult. As I hear it on the page, the voice is flat. It’s the voice of someone who has coped with grief and has been able to reflect on it, write about it, and then re-write it as a play. (Selling her own self out, at last?) That’s the hardest thing in the world to perform: that flat, composed, wry, intelligent voice that comes–to educated, wry, intelligent white upper-middle-class Americans–after great pain. It’s a voice with great stillness in it. Not much variety. The whole book–the whole play–is one woman in her seventies, speaking directly to the audience. That’s all. No guns, no chains, no sex, no sandwiches, no bullshit. Just that honest, flat gaze. God, I wish I could have seen how Redgrave built that performance, found the variety and the magic in it, found the music in it. On one level I think that. I marvel at Didion’s writing and wonder how Redgrave did this.

On another level I think of the people I love–their fragile bodies. Didion and her husband were together for four decades. I can’t imagine it. I don’t even have someone I’ve known for four decades, I’ve moved so often. There’s Leif. She and I have been friends since we were six and seven, but we lost track of each other between 1952 and 1973, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say we’ve known each other for all these decades. There’s Christine; I’ve known her since 1970, but I’ve only seen her–how many times? Five, I think. For a day or so each time. There’s my firstborn son. He’s been in the world four decades and one year next week, but I lost him between 1969 and 1973, and then again between 1979 and 1992. My life is full of fragmented relationships, kaleidoscopes of affection.

I think of the four people whose mother I am, the fear I have for them. I never said to any one of them, “You’re safe. I’m here.” Never. When Seth and I were stranded on Montsegur in the middle of a ferocious snowstorm and I was stumbling down the mountain carrying him on my back, he screamed in my ear, “We’re going to die!” I answered him,

“Yes we are, Seth. But not today. Hold on.”

We didn’t die that day. I never promised him more than one day at a time. And now I don’t know where he is. He hasn’t phoned since Christmas. I call his cell phone now and then to hear his voice on the answering machine. I think he’s on the Beyonce tour. I don’t know for sure. I told his machine my new phone number when I moved to Houston in July. Did he get that message? If something happened to him–if a speaker fell on him, or if there were an electrical jolt from the sound board, or a wreck on the bus, would I know? Don’t know.

And Palesa, in Johannesburg. Will I know? Is she still alive in this moment? Don’t know.

I love these four people more than I love my bones. Didion says her husband always whispered to their daughter, when she was in ICU, “I love you more than even one more day.” Yes. It’s like that. I love them each more than even one more day. Much more.

I’m grateful to Joan Didion for this book. This play. I like to see old women gazing directly at me, as Redgrave does on the cover. As Didion does on the title page. I like old women who are fearless about looking like old women, who show me what’s coming next.

Tags: , , ,

6 responses to “Magical thinking”

  1. alberto says:

    hi Kendall! thanks for your comment. are you better from your migraine? I hope so.
    here I’m feeling a bit hopeless about jobs. because I don’t want to get a job in carpentry again, its too dangerous and also it’s a target for the immigration police, because they are looking for those guys that owe a court. so I still look for something in the housecleaning, but didn’t find anything yet. take care

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Alberto. Yes, the headache has eased off, though it’s not entirely gone. I’m OK. Good luck to you!

  3. Steve Raymond says:

    hi, Kendall – I read your post (“Magical Thinking”) yesterday morning, and then noticed how I continued to re-remember it and reflect on the topics touched-upon therein, for the rest of the day; and then now.
    Thanks for continuing [to put good stuff up].
    After having read the fate of the author, I feel lucky to be alive ‘in my own shoes’; despite my troubles, I have Time and Health and a ‘handle-able-sized Burden’ in my present moment. My new day starting today is made more precious by having compared it to ‘what-could-have-been’, as expressed so competently by you.
    I had to laugh; here, you put up this SUPER-heavy topic — the immeasurably-depressing fact of the certainty of our physical vessel’s decline — like a minstrel in a tavern, who finally sings her best song PERFECTLY; then
    comes out of her “performance trance” to find that the other bar-attendees pretty much missed the point of the whole thing . . .
    Best regards to you, Minstrel[ess?] — yes, I looked Vanessa straight-in-the-eye . . . only briefly, though . . . there’s still fire in my loins; that wants to deny Winter’s coming.
    Lastly: I hope that you will restore the function of the Recent Entries category, on your Home Page. Thanks – Steve
    Your ‘posts’

  4. admin says:

    Time, Health, and a handle-able-sized Burden. That about wraps it up, since if there weren’t people, places, and things you love, imagination, and intelligence, the burden wouldn’t be handle-able, would it? Well-said. The Recent Entries turned into Pages for some reason. I had nothing to do with it. I’ll contact my blog host and see what’s going on. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Hi, Kendall!
    how are you_ thanks for your comment on my blog…
    did your blog change? I see it different now…

  6. Kathryn says:

    Hi Alberto! I’m in Portland, Oregon now, and I’m no longer using the blog. I sent you an email last night. Maybe your address changed. Email me. K

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *