Dependent Origination

The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted on: September 29, 2008


First things first, this is a great book. Joan Didion describes the year after her husband died suddenly at their dinner table on December 30th, 2003, while their only daughter was in coma for five days in a nearby hospital. Didion distanced herself from the usual sentimental part of grief and morning by revisiting the incident and exploring different levels of it. By analyzing her state of mind, sometimes devlving into psychological literature, she presented an vivid account of her efforts on helping her daughter to improve and builidng a life on one’s own after forty years of marriage.
I really like the parts that she started from one sentence of her own and tried to analyze the underlying meaning and the implication of her mentality. In contrast, there is this short story about a woman going through grief by turning into stones in A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Book, which approaches the same situation with all figurative means in first person. I find Didion’s approach easier to grasp.
It is truly remarkable that Didion survived such emotional struggles with a lucid book. It won her critical acclaim and the national book award for 2005, the year her daughter eventually succumbed to illness after a seemingly hopeful restart in the book. I would choose a peaceful domestic life over such ordeals any day. I cannot imagine how one can cope with such losses in a lifetime. It seems forever and unbearable even to an outside observer, such as me.
I guess what life gives we take. Often times without a book.
The intensity of Didion’s emotion comes out, especially when she launches into memories of the life John, her husband, and her had shared for forty years.  Virtually anything can trigger a train of thoughts which ends up with either John or Quintana, her daughter or both. It was a continuous test of her emotions and will for the year, and probably for the rest of her life. The rawness could fade, but never the feeling of emptiness.
Some people fear death. Some think dying is the worst. They don’t know a single thing about living. I would never want to be the one that is left behind. For the departed, there is the sense of premonition and therefore the eternal question of meaning. The nature of our precarious life, “life as we know it is gone”, requires better time management skills and deeper and more explicit understanding of own desires.  However, if death can come any day, without us knowing it, what we can do is very limited. It almost feels like this life is a mere preparation for the next one.
For the stay-behind, even breathing can be very hard. Days are gone by without leaving a faint trace of anything. All that matters are memories. Didion revisited the incident from different angles, then reexamined the time period leading up to her husband’s death repeatedly. The living has so many possibilities to explore. The guilt follows the what-if’s. The feeling of absolute helplessness, the feeling of losing control can eat flesh alive. What really happened hardly has chance to sink in. Reality is so far away. Reason can never help any more. Deeply in heart, Didion believed that if she did not give away John’s shoes he could come back. By magic.
We are born into this world alone. However, most people spent entire life searching for company, because loneliness, the drifting through the world as separate particles and disappearing into the void, frightens them. Of those who discover and hold onto something, what awaits them? When they die, they cant take anything or anybody. When they live, they have to suffer more now that loneliness becomes increasingly unbearable because of the previous company.
What is the point of this life? What is the point of being born, growing up, getting married and dying alone in the end? What makes people going after the endless, futile, spell-out cycle of life? Don’t they know, as Bernard Shaw pointed out, there are two tradgedies: one is not getting one’s heart desire and the other is getting it?
To live is to embrace. Or else I cant do it.


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