Up and Back to the Lake

The drive north to Lutsen and back is relatively easy in early May. Road construction already begun, but hardly any traffic on the road. Still I had plenty of time to listen to two short books on disk. Driving up to Lutsen to visit my friend with a deck on the Big Lake, I listened to Joan Didion’s account of her Year of Magical Thinking which followed her husband’s sudden death in 2003. Since I taught Didion’s account of the civil war and U.S. incursion in “Salvador,” I’ve admired her quicksilver way with affairs of the world.

This recent book is no different. During the winter season of 2003-4, the two people closest to Didion were on the split with death–her daughter Quintana struck with sepsis following influenza and in the hospital for weeks hanging over the abyss. Then her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table after he and Didion had returned from a visit to the hospital–if it counts as a visit when the patient is unresponsive, “dead to the world.” Quintana recovered enough to speak at her father’s memorial, then within a week, having flown to California with her new husband, was back in a hospital undergoing brain surgery. The blood thinners she was taking, plus the pressure of air travel, sent a bleed into her brain. Once again, she hung over the abyss.

Didion’s crisp account–I know it’s an odd word to describe a narrative so logged with grief, but it fits–calls up two strategies to shape the enormity of her loss. First, she dips into science. Not only medicine as she quotes many authorities on secondary infection, sepsis, brain surgery and recovery from same, but also geology. Didion likens the enormous shifts in her emotional/human world to shifts in tectonic plates, the rising and submersion of islands, the wear and tear of weather on the earth.

The second strategy is choral or poetic: she repeats certain lines, reminding us that in obsessive emotional states, when we shift off normal functioning to ride over and over on the spurs of grief, we don’t think forwardly, but in circles, going back over and over again to relive what we have not been able to control. “You sit down to dinner and your life changes in an instant.” Or something like that: after all, I don’t have the text in front of me. I heard it.

The other book I heard is Grayson by Lynne Cox, an account of her youthful (she was seventeen) encounter with a baby grey whale as she swam in training off the California coast. This is another book about loss (and recovery), but it’s also a glorious song of praise to the ocean, its creatures, and its beauty. Huge flat yellow sunfish that float on the surface soaking up the sun’s rays–the fish weigh around 200 lbs. Or common dolphins (nothing common about them) who play in balletic spins, leaps, double flips around Cox and the baby grey. The many colors of the ocean from pale greens and yellows to deep indigos as she dives deeper. Her determination to stay with the baby until (with help from life-saver crews and fishermen) its mother finds it, her musing on the way very unlikely projects spin their own methods, rationales, and conclusions–all this supports us in our own unlikely attempts. This is a very loving, beautiful and lyrical book.

Thus I wiled away the pleasant hours on the up and back to the lake. Waste not, want not, was a mantra of my mother’s house-keeping. Yes, she saved string and rubber bands. I do too! But I also like to apply this attitude to my mental and creative life. Listening to books on disk turns a rather boring, onerous occupation (I hate long drives) into something memorable and rewarding. Plus it’s free. I borrow books on disk from the library. After all, my mother was a librarian; I’m now married to one. We like Benjamin Franklin believe in the power of the word. We believe books should be available to us all, no matter what our station in life.

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