Reads & Listens

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

October 14, 2019

“Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant.”

A spent the morning lost in a book…lost in emotion.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion has been on my list of Must Read Before I Die books for a few years now. I can actually remember the moment I decided I needed to read it. I knew the impact it would have on me. I was sitting on my couch, watching a documentary about Joan Didion; one directed and created by her nephew; one with an acutely personal touch; one that touched my heart (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold).

I have never forgotten her or this book.

For the same reason, I knew I had to read it, I delayed doing so. I wasn’t ready to receive all that Joan Didion put into its creation. The vulnerability, the fragility, the truth. Although it is, for the most part, a book about grief and mourning, it also speaks a lot for marriage, love, partnership, self-pity, regret, and life in a way I have never read before.

I have to be honest, I just set the book down, moments ago, and am struggling to process the many ways I have felt touched by it. I know it can sound dramatic to some when I speak about how a book has changed my life, how a book has changed the way I am going to live. I don’t care. For those that are open to the intentions of a writer through their words, especially one as talented as Joan Didion, how could you feel any other way?

“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”


The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir. It is written as a stream of consciousness, Joan Didion’s stream of consciousness. It puts you in the headspace of a widow, the author, who has spent the last year grieving the sudden loss of her husband; he died over dinner, “John was talking and then he wasn’t.”

Through that lens, you see how life changes and how it doesn’t; how the ordinary moments will never be what they once were but happen all the same.

You see how she changes, how she grasps to figure out who she is alone.

“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very 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. As we will one day not be at all.”


How she avoids the many “vortexes”, the reminders, in order to make it through the day.

How she strives to steer clear of certain restaurants, blocks, homes, cities, hotels…memories. Out of fear of falling apart, out of fear of being lost.

I was overcome with how she tries to remember, while simultaneously trying to avoid. Every holiday, every home, every memory, every word spoken, every word misunderstood, every missed opportunity. It’s all treasured, but also, too painful to be felt.

How she attempts to immortalize every last of his moments. Books kept on the same page, in the same spot. The office kept in its same disarray. Clothes left so that he would have them for his walks, “when he gets back”.

How she tries to make sense of it. How she denies it altogether.

How do you ever make sense of losing someone who has been by your side for 40 years? What I learned from Joan’s story is that you don’t. You take it moment by moment, and you stop trying to make sense of it at all.

Let me be clear, this is in no way a how-to guide to overcoming grief or an action plan to proceed through mourning. It is a very personal memoir about a very difficult time. Whether you have lost someone or not, I guarantee you will be touched by the honesty in it, by the way the writing seems unedited, transparent, vulnerable.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a book on perspective. On her perspective her first year without her husband by her side. On your perspective of grief, of mourning, moving forward. It is not something that you can really explain until you’ve felt it. I have never lost someone close to me, but anyone who I has ever loved another can relate to the idea of having to be without them, the instinctive fear that is felt at the inevitability.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”


After setting this book down (about 3 minutes ago), I find myself being almost overwhelmed by the raw vulnerability found on every page. I am overcome with gratitude for the very moment I am in. For all of the moments I spend in my life. And, for all the people I am lucky enough to share it with. It would be just as easy to get swept up in emotions of fear and anticipation of the losses I am destined to grieve. But that is going to happen either way. So, better to be fully present in the moments I will miss now. No?

I am grateful for this very instant, this “ordinary instant”. Everything could change in the next.

I cannot speak from firsthand experience on the many layers of grief, but Joan Didion communicates in a very powerful way the many ways grief changes you. You are no longer who you were or who you thought you’d become. Your beliefs are challenged, and maybe, changed. You no longer see yourself through the eyes of those you’ve lost. You are left to also grieve yourself. You are left to rediscover life from this new lens, a moment at a time.

I can certainly relate to that.

I think we all can.

Life is yours to create, so write the story of your damn dreams.