June 10, 2009

The Year of Horizontal Thinking

2009 1516 page17 capIFE CHANGES FAST.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Thus began Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2005), a memoir about the death by heart attack of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, and the sickness of her only child, Quintana.
Having just returned to their Manhattan apartment after visiting their newly married daughter on the sixth floor of the ICU at Beth Israel North, they sat down to eat. John was talking about a book he had been reading, or was it about the drink she had made him (Joan didn’t remember), when he stopped talking because he just died.
Her memoir recounted the year that followed, the year of grieving, the year of her daughter’s dangerous sicknesses, the year of dealing with the fact that you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
2009 1516 page17After her husband’s death, friends offered to spend the night with Didion, but she refused. “I needed to be alone,” she wrote, “so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
Magical thinking because he was, she thought, somehow coming back; magical thinking because when asked if she would donate his organs, she thought: “How could he come back, if they took his organs . . . ?” And though she said, flat out, that she â?¨did not believe in the resurrection of the body, she thought (again, magically) that “given the right circumstances, he would come back.”
Along with John’s death was her daughter’s serious illness when the book started â?¨(pneumonia, sepsis); after surviving that, the young woman later collapsed on the tarmac at LAX, and a brain hematoma left her hospitalized for months.
What struck me so hard about this book, apart from the spasms of magical thinking, was the sheer hopelessness of it all. “I look for resolution,” she wrote near the end, “and find none.” I’m not judging Joan Didion’s heart, or her spirituality, but it seems she had nothing to grasp onto but the world itself, the very thing that was doing her so dirty to begin with.
Which explains, of course, her fanciful transition into “magical thinking.” What else did she have? Words such as “God,” “Christ,” “transcendence,” “eternal life” never entered the diction; they found no place, even as subtext. The Year of Magical Thinking pulled back the veil on a tragedy that unfurled along the horizontal alone; it was the tale told amid the confines of a Euclidean worldview in what’s, really, a non-Euclidean universe.
Didion’s magical year ended, finally, when she realized that nothing was going to bring her husband back. “[W]e must relinquish the dead,” she concluded, “let them go, keep them dead . . . let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts.”
As I read this sad book, I was reminded again of how thankful I should be for the hopeÅ?based not on magicÅ?but on the power of the Creator God who raised Jesus from the grave (1 Peter 1:21), that death does not have the final say. Jesus defeated death, and we have a share in that victory. Without that hope we have only the horizontal, which Didion’s memoir showed leaves us only wobbles of “magical thinking,” nothing more because there’s nothing else.
Worse, still, after Joan Didion finished The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter died of pancreatic cancer, a death that never made it into the already-so-hopeless pages.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
“I look for resolution, and find none.”
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.