The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A Most Eloquent Take on Grief

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.  

Photo of The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinking

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

These were the first words Joan Didion wrote after it happened,  as she tells us in the first line after these words in her amazing book,  The Year of Magical Thinking.

The “it” in the follow-up words to the first words refers to her husband, John Dunne’s, death.

That these words appear at the very start of this remarkable homage to grief is important, as they are repeated in various renditions throughout the book.

Joan Didion’s husband, with whom she had shared most moments of most of her adult life, had died of a massive heart attack, just as they had sat down to dinner, and hence, the reference to life changing in an instant.

Owning My Own Grief

My own mother’s death, though extraordinarily premature, did not happen in an instant.  We had not just sat down to dinner when life as I knew it ended.

In fact, my mother was sick for much of my teenage years, and lost her valiant fight against breast cancer a mere two weeks after I turned 18.

Joan Didion struggled to come to terms with getting through the remainder of her years without the man with whom she had spent most of her life.

I, on the other hand, have spent most of my life without my mother–sometimes coming to terms with that fact better than at other times.

Joan Didion’s Way With Words

Joan Didion is the author of five novels, and one of America’s most celebrated authors.   She is so skilled a writer that she makes it safe for us to look up close and personal at a subject as potentially overwhelming as grief.

It’s almost if we’re all taking this journey through the first year after Joan Didion’s husband died–together.

The Power of Day

Days play a vital role in the story of the year following the death of Joan Didion’s husband.

We learn, for instance, of the importance of the day an editor came to dinner in so far as her husband was alive on that day.  Holidays are merely a few of the other powerful ways in which Ms. Didion used the concept of days to help her make sense of the reality of her life partner leaving her just as they were sitting down to dinner.

With eloquence and grace, defiance and acceptance, Ms. Didion deftly tells us–and surely herself– how she ultimately came to terms with her husband’s death.

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Ode to a Building

20140423_074852Such a History

Back in the 1960s, when Montrose in Houston was still “The Montrose,” there arose from the heart of it, a ten-story office building.

Atop those ten floors sat a sky-bar.  The lounge offered breathtaking views, I’ve been told, of the iconic Houston skyline.

From what I’ve also heard, it was a special place to relax and listen to great jazz or salsa.

And then, one day, the music stopped.

Continue reading Ode to a Building

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The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft

A Sense of Space

In the author’s notes at the rear of Kathryn Craft’s poignant and elegantly written, The Art of Falling, Ms. Craft explains that one of the reasons it might have taken her eight years to write her novel is that “Penelope and I were sharing our journey of healing.”

The Art of Falling

And indeed, it is a journey that we can all now share.

Continue reading The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft

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Our heritage, our hair

VanBurenVanDeusen

A rich heritage

I like to think that if I had really, truly appreciated my rich heritage when I was younger, I might have saved myself countless hours of envy. Instead of bemoaning my curly hair, or my prominent nose, I might have instead seen in them traces of my resilient Dutch roots, roots strengthened by long winters first in Amsterdam, and then, in New Amsterdam.

Instead of wishing I had a more exotic complexion, I might have relished the common thread I shared with those first Dutch settlers who braved the endless days at sea crossing the Atlantic–without the benefit of sunscreen.

Before New York was New York

For, long before vertical showcases poked at the Manhattan sky, long before private jets brought captains of international businesses gliding into the gleaming metropolis, and long before the streets of lower Manhattan were paved with proverbial gold, a ship arrived, and with it, a man who was one of the founders of New Amsterdam, today’s New York. This man was also my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandfather.

His name was Abraham Pietersen

Abraham Pietersen arrived in the New World in 1631. A miller by trade, he was one of the first 300 Dutchmen to settle New Amsterdam.

In a wonderful New York Times article, entitled “The Van Dusens of New Amsterdam,” the author elevates Abraham Pietersen, saying that “it all began with Abraham,” alluding to the Old Testament Abraham. The Dutch Abraham was born in the town of Duersen, in Brabant, Holland, and hence, the name in its many variations all trace back to the village of Duersen.

My cousin Martin Van Buren

I have Presidential royalty in my Dutch blood. It turns out that the great aunt of Martin Van Buren, the 8th U.S. President, was my great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother, Cornelia. That makes Martin Van Buren my distant cousin.

A curly hairitage

When I look at the image of Martin Van Buren, I see traces of my father. The nose, the curly hair, the intelligent eyes. And I see traces of myself. I can continue to wish I didn’t have curly hair, or that I had a more refined nose. Or, I can celebrate these attributes as reminders of my connection backward through time. I am so much more than what I see in the mirror. Among many other things, I am the best—and the worst—of every one who has come before me.

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Quotes Live Forever

Today’s New York Post reported that a new postal forever stamp, dedicated to Maya Angelou, carries a quote that is not actually hers.

The article caught  my eye because I have gained so much strength from Ms. Angelou’s writing.  In fact, most mornings I include one of her inspirational quotes in my Twitter feed.

Her quotes inspire me every bit as much as I hope they inspire others.

The author to whom the quote actually belongs, Joan Walsh Anglund, told the Washington Post that the quote originated with her in a 1967 children’s book of poems, entitled “A Cup of Sun.”

Judging by the news reports, the 89-year-old Ms. Anglund harbors no resentment toward either Ms. Angelou or the creators of the stamp.

Referring to Maya Angelou, Ms. Anglund said, “I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking . . .”

On the one hand, then, it’s a compliment to have a thought so profound that others consciously or unconsciously claim it over time as their own.

On the other, a pattern of words, a choreography of phrases in a poem, are a poet’s legacy, and it is important that Ms. Anglund be given the credit that is rightly hers.

In this instance, the quote should forever be attributed to the one who originally made music out of a magical arrangement of words.

 

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Reflecting on Reflections

As another winter has softened into another spring, perhaps you too have found yourself reflecting on your own upcoming spring.

Which areas of your life call for pruning, and which for nurturing and cultivating to engender even stronger growth?

As the days grow brighter here in Houston, I’ve found myself drawn lately to beautiful plays of light and sky and endless windows.

Photo of Houston's dazzling downtown Allen Center and a reflection
Houston’s dazzling downtown Allen Center and a reflection

Houston seems literally to be blooming with exquisite tableaus created by our big blue sky, clouds, and acres of gleaming glass.

Photo of Houston's dazzling Discovery Green and a reflection
Houston’s dazzling Discovery Green and a reflection

Here, I’ve included a few recent photos to give you a feel.  Perhaps they will inspire you to gently dig deeper into your own reflections?

Photo of Houston's Allen Center reflected on my car roof
Houston’s Allen Center reflected on my car roof

 

Photo of Houston's Westin Galleria and a reflection
Houston’s Westin Galleria and a reflection
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Capturing Change at 3400 Montrose Boulevard, Houston, TX

The more things change . . .

Houston.  The place I wasn’t sure I wanted to move to with my family a mere eight years ago.  Yes, Houston.  The place that is now the top– or one of the top–destinations in the country for visitors.

Barely had I fallen in love with Houston, before the world caught on. Now, so much is changing about this city so quickly that it’s often hard to keep up.

The more they stay the same?

I’m grateful that I was able to capture on camera one brief episode of that change as it happened in 2014.

I’ve written about it here; I wanted in this post to share a few more of the ways in which my camera was able to preserve the beauty of change in the making.

Even as I write this, a crane of a different sort is hoisting steel into the sky, creating a new edifice to fill the space that the building in these photos surrendered.

Beauty, Even in Destruction

I’d like to think that the photos above acknowledge that even in desolation–yes, even in demolition and deconstruction–beauty can abound.

I hope you enjoy viewing these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.  (For an up-close view, just click on each one individually.)

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If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity by Neal Roese, Ph.D.

A Great Read

A short while ago, I shared the three great books that I was currently reading–and thoroughly enjoying, with a promise to post about each.

BedsideTableBooks1.21.15(r1)

I shared here a wonderful book that touches on shame and vulnerability, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, and here a fabulous book on getting to know and love fear, Nerve, by Taylor Clark.

In this post, I’ll share some of the wonderful take-aways from the third of the three, If Only:  How to Turn Regret into Opportunity by Neal Roese, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of regret.

Our Fascinating Brains

Although I can’t begin here to capture the breadth of research that the author covers in this excellent book, I can tell you that he sheds a fabulous light on the marvel and miracle that are our brains.

If Only by Taylor Clark

With wit and humor, and a fair share of wonder and awe, he talks about our “psychological immune system,” and other ways in which our brains and our minds work together to keep us in one  piece.

Counterfactuals

One of the ways our brain helps us attempt to make sense of an often senseless-seeming world is through what science calls, counterfactuals.

Simply put, counterfactuals are fictional narratives of what might have happened if things had gone differently than they actually had. There are two types of counterfactuals, and they make us either feel better, or worse.

Downward Counterfactuals

Downward counterfactuals lift our spirits because they tell us that it could have been much worse.  Say, for instance, we were almost in a major traffic accident, but narrowly avoided it, with only a small dent. There is a momentary sense of euphoria, when we realize how bad things might have been (the small dent notwithstanding), but weren’t.

Upward Counterfactuals

Upward counterfactuals on the other hand, are more difficult to handle emotionally, because they tell us how much better things might have been, if we had only taken a different course of action.  The value in these, Dr. Roese helps us to see, is that they serve as compasses, so to speak, giving us direction for future actions.

Regret is Good

A life lived without hope is a life almost unbearably difficult to live.  If we’ve made mistakes, hope tells us that tomorrow may very well be better.

It is in this setting that regret plays such a fundamental role.  As Dr. Roese says so eloquently on the closing page:  “Regret is good. Thinking about what might have been is a  normal component of the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world, and of the human quest for betterment.”

And the quest for betterment is a wellspring of hope.

 

 

 

 

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Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of fear and Cool by Taylor Clark

“You’re not alone.”

How many of us have heard those words and felt an instant wave of relief?  To know that others have shared our fear, our embarrassment, our quandary, is to know that we are okay.

And, to know that we are okay is to know that we belong.  To know that we belong is, of course, fundamental to our human experience.

Message of Assurance

Taylor Clark's excellent book addressing fear, "Nerve"
Taylor Clark’s book, “Nerve”

Taylor Clark’s excellent book, Nerve:  Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, was one big, “you’re not alone” message of assurance for me.

Through an engaging presentation of real-life examples of famous individuals who have felt and faced their fear, and interviews with noted fear authorities, Clark introduces the reader to the technical aspects of fear, shows us where fear lives in the brain (Hello, Amygdala!), and provides Calls to Action for surviving the often debilitating effects of fear.

Fear is Our Ally

For anyone who has ever struggled with fear–whether fear of heights or fear of an audience–and this includes all of us (to be human is to fear), it will come as a welcome relief to know that fear can not only be our friend, it can be our savior, warning us of dangers and directing us to alternative courses of action.

Doing What We’re Afraid to Do

Perhaps one of the most exciting take-aways from Nerve for me was to learn that one of the surest ways to calm our fears is to expose ourselves as much as possible to the very thing we fear.

By doing so, we are in a sense de-conditioning that part of our brain responsible for the fear reaction, letting it know that although we appreciate its valiant vigilance, it is no longer needed in that particular situation.

Once we let our fear rear-guard know that we’ve got a situation handled, the rational, thinking part of our brain can resume its starring role.

And the thinking part is where so much of the stuff that makes life worth living resides.

 

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