June 4, 2012
By Nina Sankovitch
Author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a memoir of a year of reading a book a day and rediscovering joy, after experiencing terrible grief.I remember reading The Year of Magical Thinking out in my backyard, sitting in a low beach chair with my legs sprawled in the grass, my bottom just hovering above. The lawn was still wet from a heavy rain the day before and before I was twenty pages in, my shorts were soaked and my legs itchy from blades of clammy grass sticking along my calves and thighs. By page fifty, the spread of damp across the front of my shirt matched the damp of my shorts: I was crying, and I did not stop until the last page.
Didion doesn’t write with pathos or sentiment, and she wasn’t actively seeking my tears or the tears of her other readers, in writing her blunt appraisal of life in the months after her husband died. But having just lost my sister to cancer, the feelings Didion described in her book, the attitudes she experienced, the memories she shared, and the reality of death – she would never see her husband again, as I would never see my sister again – could only be met by my own weeping.
Scared of what seeing a live performance of the book would cause in me, a veritable tsunami of emotion, I stayed away from the New York City production. But then I came to realize that I was isolating myself from one of the healing aspects of Art: the communal experience.
Art offers opportunity for resilience by illuminating individual experiences and making them communally shared events. Art does not offer solutions, it offers evidence: evidence of the commonality of suffering, and of survival. I turned to books when I was overwhelmed by grief, and books helped me to loosen the circle of anguish circling my heart. But the solitary experience of sitting in my purple chair for one year and reading book after book was only one part of the healing process of my year of magical reading. Talking about those books, with just about anyone who asked me, what did you read today (or even if they didn’t ask me – I still plunged in) was a huge part – the communal part -- of reaching past the “I” of my despair to the “we” of renewal, and even joy.
I now look forward to seeing The Year of Magical Thinking. The book of one woman brought to testify to all of us; the company of many in the experience of one. I may cry, but I will not be alone. I will be in the company of others, and in that companionship I will experience the beneficial and wondrous power of Art.