Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is her account of the year when her husband suddenly, just after sitting down to dinner one evening, died of a heart attack while, at that very moment and for months thereafter, her daughter battled life-threatening illness. As a literary journalist, Didion has made her living writing
about what she sees in a style that is up close and alive. Her writing in this book is no different.
The fragmented nature of her experience that year shows in her writing, as she means it to. She revisits the night of her husband’s death repeatedly from several different angles, attempting to capture her experience as best she can, not linearly but in pieces and images and memories because that is how she experienced it. In this way, she makes the experience very real and present for the reader. It is more complex and textured than a summary neatly concluded after the fact.
As I read the book, I relished the unmetabolized feel of her writing. I realize that she had most likely done some processing of this experience – the book isn’t the completely fresh, raw emotional material – but she intentionally refrains from forcing an orderly or conclusive structure on it. She doesn’t try to make something messy – no, earth-shattering – into something clear or overly digested. She lets the fragmented experience be fragmented.
I admire that and aspire to it. As an American, I live in a culture (maybe even, in general, a world?) that worships clarity, conclusions, summaries, linearity, singularity – easily digestible bits. But it is a unique kind of sustenance that comes from allowing messy experiences and emotions to be messy for as long as they need to be. Unclear things to be unclear. Disparate things to be disparate. Forcing conclusion or wholeness is an act of oppression, even violence.
[Psychological polytheism] implies a life that can embrace conflicting directions, one that doesn’t resort to hierarchies and overarching principles to impose order. [It] is accepting and receptive to voices that differ and sometimes breed conflict….We find vitality in tension, learn from paradox, gather wisdom by straddling ambivalence, and gain confidence in trusting the confusion that naturally arises from multiplicity. The sign of a
soulful life is its rich texture and its complexity. (from A Blue Fire, a collection of Hillman’s writings)
I also think of the lines from Walt Whitman‘s poem, “Song of Myself:”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
This is life and self unmetabolized. It can feel unnerving to let it be so, but it also feels more true. More right. We are complex, and our experiences are complex. Our perceiving is not absolute or tidy. We are not cohesive wholes.
Can you and I let our life, experiences, and impressions be unmetabolized a bit longer and more often? Can we sit with fragments without rushing to make them into a neat whole?
© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.