The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning

The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning following the cruel reality of Joan Didion‘s loss of her husband and fellow author, John Gregory Dunne, just as the new year was due to turn from 2003 to 2004. This came on the heals of their daughter, Quintana, having taken seriously ill just before Christmas that same year. The Year of Magical Thinking represents Didion‘s taking this deeply personal series of events, and the year that followed, to mourn, then grieve, and really to reflect through the blows that these big real things in their full magnitude meant to her, her feelings of love for her husband and daughter, and mixtures of feeling responsible, abandoning, abandoned, and the many steps of reconciling to her new reality over the course of the year that followed.

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This personal telling of the shock of instant mourning and reluctant grieving begins with the awareness that Dunne and Didion had just come from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana had just been placed into a medically induced coma. This necessity had been the result of septic shock having resulted a runaway pneumonia infection. Didion and Dunne had been discussing whatever trifle had been between them over dinner. Per this recounting from The New York Times, “Dunne slumped in his chair with one hand raised, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.”

Despite the really heart wrenching subject matter of losing her husband like this, and subsequently coping with the coma and numerous complications of her daughter’s condition, could lead you to surmise that The Year of Magical Thinking was a downer of a tale. While dealing in heaviness, Didion uses much of her experience as an accomplished writer to bring forth a much more real, matter-of-fact, and understated yet expressive and personal accounting of the true feeling that underpins these experiences.

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As the October 2005 account from Robert Pinsky of The New York Times indicates, Didion‘s:

“manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic[.]”

The effect is to share a deeply personal story of trying to process her new, sudden, and real experience. Didion aims to process her reality, and shares examples of facts she must have come into contact with yet didn’t process until much later. The processing experience for Joan Didion was partly to write to really discover, through that process, what she thought, felt, indeed feels (in the first person of a person in 2005) about her new, raw, and unanticipated reality. The deeper qualities of those feelings are revealed with an intelligence that I truly appreciated.

Back to The New York Times:

“In relation to her daughter’s life-threatening illness, involving a second coma and crisis after one recovery, Didion reflects on the class of very successful people who believe “absolutely in their own management skills,” the power of telephone numbers: the right doctor or donor or politician. This language of privilege that knows its resources, too, becomes at a certain point an evasion: everyone alive, all of us, are at best temporary kings.”

It isn’t an obvious conclusion from The Year of Magical Thinking that, for the year following her husband’s death or her daughter’s ongoing illness, that the new reality of Joan’s singular existence without John, or in the effort to bring about Quintana’s restored health, that Joan has not really completed the grieving process. She certainly has started to come to grasp with her circumstances, and still feels some sense for impractical responsibility for things she clearly couldn’t have controlled. She has made headway in actually understanding components of her husband’s death that will have set her, Joan, onto the path of recovery.

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Not really having read other narratives of mourning and grief, it is a hard field to hoe for me to really say that I wanted more or less from this first person account. The spare writing style was personally gratifying, and I appreciate the feelings reflected in this forthright narrative. The material is emotionally hard, though not in the graphic sense. I appreciate the direct style of this more than some others might.

My rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, May 14, 2017

5,863-days to a new career

Today’s post has it’s beginning in early December last year when we had the Kleenex tissue meeting at my workplace. My colleagues and I were told over the course of the morning how my business unit had been sold in a fashion where the jobs would disappear in waves over the coming 18-months.

A small number of us with specific jobs other than my own would be given the opportunity to transfer over. Others would be asked to stay through the 18-months. Most of us would be provided with a 60-day notice and a severance package.

Unlike some of my colleagues, Lynn and I chose to keep this news pretty close to the vest. That is, I waited to see Lynn in person before sharing the news with her or the in-laws. Sharing Facebook friends with other less reticent people, Lynn captured knowledge of the news before my chance to look her in the eye and address concerns that you’d expect to appear in this case. Overall, Lynn understood my rationale and accepted the news pretty well. To this day, the means of sharing the news coupled with sharing my plans for working the problem pragmatically worked. Focusing on accepting the fact of the setback while acknowledging that it hurt seemed to have offered a sense of normalcy and optimism.

Through the time since, Lynn and I have updated our LinkedIn profile, become acquainted with Glass Door, Zip Recruiter, and Indeed as services. We worked with the displacement services to finesse a more professionally written resume; much has changed in the approach to resumes in the 16-years since landing the job I was losing. I reached out to people across my current industry, from school, in Toastmasters. The idea was to network with resilience and a positive demeanor with those in a position to help.

The decisive turn in finding our next opportunity came about three weeks ago when a former boss responded with his willingness to help. In less than a week, I had interviewed with five different people while passing a skills assessment with this company. Over the weekend that then appeared, the group that wanted to hire me extended an offer. Yesterday, news came back that my background check went well. My new role will start in 10-calendar days.

Today was the end of my 60-day notice period. The job I learned would disappear in December ended today, after 16-years and roughly 2.5-weeks. Next week, I get a “spring break” of sorts as I get to enjoy some relaxation before starting in full force in my new adventure. Today, as I joined many of my colleagues in saying goodbye on our respective last day, is emotionally sad, bittersweet, and a chance for saying farewell after 5,863 days.

Life happens. You feel sad, deal with the feelings, and then use the hurt to focus on moving forward. Lynn and I are happy that things are working out for us. Things are working better for us than for others; I am extending help and empathy where I can. Offer thanks for good fortune and support where possible; do the same with a helping hand where practical.

Matt – Friday, March 31, 2017

Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is psychologically graphic and necessary

Elie Wiesel’s Night was an emotionally difficult book to read. The psychological torture of Wiesel’s experience, and so many others like him that had it as bad or worse (not sure what might be worse … American slavery seems at least similar in context and cruelty). That this happened during the lifetime of people I grew up loving brings this particular account and atrocity closer to home; that is likely about anchoring.

The legitimate nightmare and anguish of Elie Wiesel’s experience is psychologically graphic and horrifying. Descriptions including psychologically graphic and horrifying make this book both a necessary and compelling reading. It’s a bit disappointing that my seventh-grade class had us read Seth McEvoy’s Batteries Not Included. This isn’t to diminish McEvoy’s effort; my point is that seventh grade seems like a reasonable time to expose children to questions involving historical and emotional literacy.

For illuminating something for scrutiny that needs to be seen, this book earns 4.5-stars. That the brutality indicated by Wiesel in Night occurred really spells out the crime of what Erik Larson wrote about in his book In the Garden of Beasts.

Matt – Monday, February 6, 2017

Looking Through The Bell Jar

This blog post may be a little bit dark. You may feel a little uncomfortable at the end of it, too.

Sylvia Plath lived from 1932 to 1963, writing poetry, fiction, and short stories. Plath was part of the confessional poetry movement, and received prestigious study opportunities aimed at advancing her career, her movement, and, ultimately, her art. Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and succeeded in ending her life at the age of 30.

Plath was born to a German immigrant father to the United States; Otto Plath taught at a small Georgia women’s college; he wrote a book about bumblebees. Otto died when Sylvia was eight years old; Sylvia’s mother raised two kids as the widow to a man 21 years her elder.

While a sophomore in college back in 1995, I first read Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical book The Ball Jar. The imagery of the title is telling of the journey to be taken, as it gives us a view into The Ball Jar’s protagonist as a sensitive soul that requires delicate treatment. Like the author, the protagonist is descending into the depths of mental illness.

Somewhat naive in my first reading back then, I was not particularly compassionate to the story that was being illuminated. I saw that the story humanized mental illness from a first hand perspective. I was not feeling the feelings that the author was showing; for those that do not know, depression isn’t only sadness. Depression is feeling nothing; and sad; self-loathing and anxiety; hopelessness; guilt; isolation.

I call what I felt in response to this biography, The Bell Jar naivete. I rated the book of neutral effectiveness, which is to say a 3-star rating on a 5-star scale. “The book didn’t offer any solutions,” I said. “The book illuminated an important subject, yet failed to evoke the desire to take corrective action.”

The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman that gains a summer internship at a prominent New York City magazine. The 20-something feels nothing of the stimulation or excitement she thinks that girls her age should feel at experiencing the big city or glamorous culture and lifestyle culture has helped her to expect.

I was a 20-year-old male at the time I read this book myself. I wasn’t all that sensitive to the book that I read then as not really targeted for me. I wasn’t looking to leave the Midwest for the prominent New York City magazine. I wasn’t feeling self-loathing, anxiety, guilt, sadness, or the rest of the depression feelings. I had no firsthand experience with the subject matter the characters in The Ball Jar book felt; that the book was semi-autobiographical failed to move me as well.

I gave you some biography of Sylvia Plath. Sylvia died too young, and she wrote a book that makes me not like the person I was when I was 20-years old. I’ve outlived Sylvia Plath by more than one-third of her life, and it was not until recently that I learned that I could be, and can be, a jerk. Why? If nothing else, it is that I asked a writer to give me a solution to a problem that she clearly did not have on her own.

Perhaps it is harsh to give myself too much grief over this book report that doubles as a speech; perhaps I should not feel a little bit dark or awkward at the end of this speech for not liking the characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This book does get into clinical depression, and largely does try to bring out subject matter that seems like it could be good subject matter for high school kids going through high school angst.

I also think about how seeing the movie The Breakfast Club might not be a bad thing for those same high school students. Today, I still am not really moved passed that neutral, 3-stars out of 5-stars rating. Maybe I still am a jerk. The good news is that I am not a high school teacher confronting this idea for your teenagers today.

One last thing, Sylvia Plath died a month after The Bell Jar was first published. Please do not let this final outcome hurt you.

Matt – Sunday, December 18, 2016