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Just south of Central Park, 57th Street does not look like the site for an epiphany. Fifty-seventh between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is neither famous nor striking; by Manhattan standards it is a drab block. It is ordinary. Yet it was here that Joan Didion, several years ago, witnessed what she calls an apprehension of death. In Magical Thinking she describes “an effect of light: quick sunlight dappling, yellow leaves falling (but from what? were there even trees on West 57th St.?), a shower of gold, spangled, very fast, a falling of the bright.
She believes what she saw is death. “It was so beautiful,” she says now, “and so inexplicable in some way. I assumed that I was having a stroke, but I wasn’t.” A few years before she had had an earlier vision of death: “an island that was all ice, and glittering like a crystal. They were both very beautiful images.”
These apparitions of death did not make her fearful. On the contrary, they provided some measure of assurance. There’s a connection, Didion says, between two common problems: the way we deny death and the way we do not fully appreciate life. Instead of working to pass through the fear found within ourselves and perpetuated by our culture, we try to ignore it, hoping the paradox will go away. “If we didn’t deny death we would know how brief our moment is alive,” she says. “To some extent it would be difficult to function if we really appreciated how brief that moment is. Which is why people don’t do it.”
Only a small minority strive to live fully aware of impermanence. "If you could reach an acceptance of that and not be undone by it, well, that’s where you should be, I guess.”
Seeking clarification, I offer this: we all view life as solid and permanent, and we look at it that way to deny death. But the way to open up and fully embrace life is by accepting that life is transient.
"Yes," she says. "I think that’s absolutely right." It fits with her geological truth. "What I believe in is the permanence of the impermanence."
Most of the time these days Didion is home, and alone. Her apartment is the best place to focus on what she must do now. “Immediately after John died people were always around, and it was a good thing,” she says. “Then I began to feel very strongly the need to have time alone, just to find order—in my own mind. So that's what I'm doing now.”
The events of the past few years have, inevitably, affected Didion’s view of her own death. “It’s made it much more present as a concept. I mean, everything that’s happened in the past few years was terrible, but was also, in some odd way, quite liberating. You know that song, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’—it’s liberating in that sense. You’ve seen the worst and you’ve lived through it. So it’s not going to get worse. It’s liberating to people who have a lot of anxiety and are apprehensive, which I have always been.
“I’m not so apprehensive any more, and not so anxious.”
Sometimes at home she reaches for Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the book she first turned to for comfort almost forty years ago. Only now she is reading it not just to feel good. She is pondering its wisdom, especially what it says about letting go. After decades of missing its meaning, she is opening up to it. “I think now I get the lesson,” she says. Catching herself and chuckling, she adds, “I don't get all of it.”
Getting the lesson, Didion says, is a work in progress. And applying it to life is tricky, too. “I have yet to successfully apply it. I seem to be in a morass of things undone. I don't seem to be able to let go enough to either decide not to do things, or to do them and move on. Part of it is that I'm still grieving, and part of it is that during the past couple of years I got quite seriously behind. If you don't do something every day you tend to become afraid to do it, and to some extent I don't feel quite as capable as I did.
“But that's not a lack of control; it's just a lack of practice. Now I'm putting energy into trying to get back in charge, without being in control. Getting back in charge just means cleaning out my life, simplifying. It doesn't necessarily mean trying to control it.”
Letting go, she says, is necessary throughout life. “You have to. You have to because everything changes. It’s the hardest thing to learn. It’s the hardest thing to do.”
David Swick teaches journalism at King’s College in Halifax and is the author of Thunder and Ocean, a book about Buddhism in Nova Scotia.
Originally published in the January 2007 Shambhala Sun. Photo by David Shankbone.
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