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Eugene Paslov: ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

Dr. Eugene T. Paslov
For the Nevada Appeal

As we enter the new year, we are often reminded of those family members, friends and celebrities who have died during the previous year.

I lost two friends during 2009; and I am constantly reminded, by TV end-of-year retrospectives, of the loss of all those who have been so much a part of our lives – Walter Cronkite, Les Paul, Ted Kennedy and many others.

I also miss my friends. As we enter a new decade, it may be healing to think about these losses and the impact those closest to us have had on our lives.

A friend recently lent me a book, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.” I had not read Didion before. As I worked my way through this exceptional piece of literature, I couldn’t help but think of all those who touch our lives in powerful and profound ways. This particular work is a recounting of Didion’s loss of her husband of almost 40 years. John Gregory Dunne died of a massive coronary just before Christmas 2003. At the same time their daughter, Quintana, nearly died of what started out as a case of the flu and ended up as complete septic shock. Quintana recovered. Didion touches the reader deeply with a remarkable story of how she dealt with grief, potential and actual loss.

“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare,” Didion said.

The author goes to C.S. Lewis, “Grief Observed” and many other works of literature but it’s in W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” she finds comfort:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Lest we think that Didion approaches her loss with self-pity, she, in fact, describes her year of magical thinking in elegant detail – everything from the technical details of her husband’s autopsy report to the neurological technicalities of her daughter’s brain trauma. The language is beautiful, full of grace and love, trying desperately to hold on to the memories of her 40-year marriage and not let them escape into the abyss of loss.

She stays connected to her friends and colleagues and the geographic places that gave her and her husband joy in the past. She reads to her comatose daughter. Her love of words and thoughts breathe new life into Quintana.

Such is the power of literature.

• Dr. Eugene T. Paslov, former Nevada superintendent of schools, is a board member for Silver State Charter High School in Carson City.