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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 45 er and adjust. John’s funeral service featured Gregorian chants, readings by friends and family, and a lone trumpet. Rituals were performed, his life celebrated, his death publicly acknowledged. But rather than a steady, upward progression, Didion found no pattern at all. “You’ve kind of been led to believe that there is a form to this,” she says, “but it turned out not to have any form. It didn’t resolve in any way.” Rather than move through it, “I think what hap- pens is you incorporate it. You don’t get over it; it becomes part of who you are. What I mean is that you are a different person after that. I don’t know why this surprises me, since you’re a different person every day you live, but it does.” A longtime fan of her work, I knew Didion could offer sharp insights into contemporary politics and culture. Her eight non-fiction books and five novels consider big issues—power, corruption, the way we live now. She has stood up to political, military, and financial might to put facts in context and toss out myths. Now, considering her husband’s death, she has again found the words to make the complicated clear. Before the moment a loved one dies, she says in Magical Thinking, we cannot know “the unending absence that follows, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” She goes on to say: As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did... I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action. Later, after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that creme caramel, all those daubes and albondigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem in- consistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology; the two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes. In my unexamined mind there was always a point, John’s and my death, at which the tracks would converge for a final time. She had some idea of how this might come about. One pos- sibility was a favorite swimming hole. “We could have been swimming into the cave with the swell of clear water and the entire point could have slumped, slipped into the sea around us. The entire point slipping into the sea around us was the kind of conclusion I anticipated. I did not anticipate cardiac arrest at the dinner table.” She was astounded by how ordinary John’s death had been. How life can change just like that: in an ordinary instant. She became fixated on this point. For months she could not get the word “ordinary” out of her mind. Observing her thinking dur- ing a painful year, Didion wrestled with her habitual need to be in control. She has described herself as being “born fearful,” and throughout her life has sought relief for nervous tension. Finally she came to a difficult realization: “I couldn’t control everything; I did not have that power. In fact, I could control nothing at all.” Didion with daughter Quintana and husband John Gregory Dunne in Malibu, 1976. GETTY/TIMELIFE/JOHNBRYSON