Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a masterpiece in the canon of grief literature. It details the death of her husband and the grieving process. Her husband, John Dunne, died unexpectedly of a heart attack a day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.
Didion mentions an experience in the grieving process that many can identify with. As a memory tickled her sadness, she recalls how it would lead to a spiral and getting stuck on the memory which led to a rabbit hole of tremendous depression. She calls it the “vortex effect.”
Didion says she was afraid to visit places that triggered the vortex effect. She would avoid them at all costs so she didn’t have to face the pain that invariably followed.
A movement. A place. A station. Food. Movies. Art. Books. Theater. A turn of phrase or an utterance of an odd gesture. No one knows when the recall can take place. This vortex effect is a trigger in traumatic experiences as well. Those who have suffered trauma know it soulfully.
The book itself is a vortex as she details moments that crystalized her thinking. There are flashbacks to her husband’s death and the time that shaped her grief. It was a year where she was simultaneously dealing with her daughter’s grave illness which would take her a year or two later – an equally traumatic experience. Didion would follow “Magical Thinking” with a book titled “Blue Nights,” a book about grieving Quintana’s death, a book she calls “a memoir about aging.”
The year 2003 was one of those years where everything bad happens at once and it cannot be stopped. We’re moving along, enjoying life, and it all comes to a halt. We all have those times where life collapses on that sense of reality you think you know and turns everything every which way but loose.
Her love for her husband was so rich and rewarding that the absence of it left her stifled and dizzy with disillusion.
What is this vortex? What incites the passions of memory to impose itself on the soul?
What is it teaching us? Is it a cue to a quest delivering us to what should be realized?
It seems that the things that give us joy in life and endear us to the act of living can be the thing that causes so much pain. This is the paradox of life. When we’re engaged in the act of loving, we lose ourselves. It is the expression of love itself that kindles our thoughts to identify that which is precious and fleeting.
These thoughts entreat us to recognize the temporal nature of life in our daily lives. They are a call to live; a “momenta mori” to remember to live in the moment and suck it up as if it were your last meal, a sugary puddle of chocolate sauce waiting to be sopped up on a dessert plate.
Grief takes the mind to places we don’t want to go. We face the facts of life in unusual ways. How a loved one cared for our business. How that person knew how to get something out of us that no one else could get. A realization. A poof of imagination that inspired more creativity. A taste of reality that was sweet and savory or bittersweet and mischievously cringeworthy. A time that will be no more and can never be recreated. A time that never-the-less points to an oasis of peace on earth. Real and genuine bliss.
Grief causes the wounds of temporality to bleed. For some, these wounds don’t heal and fester with memories that stifle our purpose and understanding. They are pesky slivers of hurt under the skin we keep trying to get to but burrow deeper into the skein of our subconscious.
When you’re in the middle of such a whirlwind of chaos, it is hard to direct yourself out of it.
A wise friend told me “when everything is happening around you and you don’t know what to do, rest in it. Stop and let it move beyond you.” Great advice. In other words, as the great psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
If we have the fortitude to face solitude and our thoughts, the peace of truth will bless us. Stopping in the middle of the vortex helps us brace for the last bout of the tornado of doubt. It’s like driving under a bridge in a downpour of rain. The clap of rain against the windshield as a respite of clarity comes before it faces the torrent (or rage) of weather once again.
Like all blustery storms and bouts of rain, the sun shines again. Something new is born and peace will reside once again. Summoning a power within is nourishment in life. It’s placing your hand on the plow and looking forward, mulching the soil for a new crop of understanding to grow. The water from the rain can bring a great crop that provides.
Magical thinking is turning to a source of creation that has inspired us with the power of and vitality of life. Every storm has its day, but we tend to come out on the other side having braved it and there is currency in that.
Facing the moments that made us smile and knowing that the experience was in and of itself an entertaining escapade gives pause and can eventually provoke a smile. It’s tough when one is in the middle of it, but there is solace born in every one of us and waiting to live. Maybe that is the manna that sustains us.
Like every chaos that blurs order, we find a way through it with the help of others. Stability, order and clarity will arrive again and bloom for us.
It’s tough to see how the trick works, but it is inspired magic and invites us to see more of the show and taste its wonder.