Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.

In late 2003, Joan Didion and John Dunne’s daughter, Quintana, fell ill with what at first seemed to be the flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. The doctors put her into an induced coma and onto life support.

Then a few days before Christmas, just as they were just sitting down to dinner after visiting Quintana in hospital, John suffered a massive and fatal coronary.

This book is about the year after, as Joan tries to make sense of a world without John. Her grief, bewilderment, anger, all come through clearly and painfully. You follow Joan viscerally and vicariously as she, a respected American writer herself, seeks solace and answers in literature - she searches for the hows and whys in medical journals, and in poetry and prose she asks yet more hows and whys.

I picked up a copy at Borders over a year ago now and got a few chapters in but then put it down, not to pick it up again until a few days ago.


I have dealt personally with death and am no stranger to grieving - my father 20 years ago, uncles, aunts, even friends. All were sad, and some truly shocking in their unexpectedness. My own spiritual outlook on life is that death is simply a step to another life.

And yet, I struggled with this book. Joan’s pain was too alive, too clear, like a bleeding cut washed for the first time under running water. It was a pain too sharp.

I eventually pulled my hand away and put the book aside until, as I mentioned, a few days ago.

In March this year, my ex-schoolmate Nicholas lost his wife, Karie. She had, like Quintana, started with a flu, gotten worse but then was gradually improving. An obstruction in her trachea reversed the situation with deadly and tragic effect. From thousands of miles away we read the news by email and were all shocked and saddened. Nick and Karie had a daughter and we heard often about their happy home life, now shattered by grief.

A couple of months ago, my Aunt Helene passed away. She had just come back from dinner, complained of feeling unwell then suddenly slumped over. She was 70 and had until the last moment been bubbly, loud, lively, friendly, caring.

When I got the message early the next morning, I thought it could not be - that the sender had got the details mixed up. Not Helene, she was indestructible. She was too full of life, closer 50 years than 70 - surely not her.

But it was our families, her siblings, and her daughter, Pauline, and husband, Henry, who had to carry on, asking hows and whys.

Then yesterday afternoon, I saw an email from another friend in Australia saying our friend in Singapore, Pritam, had lost his daughter who was studying in Melbourne. The details emerged after some frantic calling, emailing and messaging about. A freak skating accident, she had fallen and failed to regain consciousness.

She was a houseman, embarking on a medical career - like her father before her. And like her brother, who had passed away the year before.

Our friend, Singam, wrote “I cannot begin to fathom why this has to happen to anyone - to first tragically lose a son and then a daughter just as they end their studentship and are about to begin their careers. If life is random, this is utterly cruel. The imbalance defies all odds.”

Singam and I share a commonality of spiritual perspective. In previous discussions we have found that we agree on a number of spiritual concepts, not the least of which is that physical life is impermanent and transient and death is merely a step for life to begin afresh.

And yet… Singam’s words indicate a sort of confusion. One I am feeling all too acutely now too.
In the last year and a half I have lost relatives and friends.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

What did you discover, Joan, at the end of your year of magical thinking? What answers came to you? What enlightenment did you attain? How did you come to deal with your grief?
I think it’s time for me to finish the book now.

Sad to think that shortly after you finished writing it, you had to deal afresh with grief - Quintana too, died.

Find out more about:
The Year of Magical Thinking


Friday, 6 June 2008

The Tipping Point


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

My mind filled with thoughts of ‘Making a Difference’, I stumbled upon this book while killing time in a shopping centre. Written in 2000, I may be a little late coming to this book, but perhaps Gladwell’s thoughts may have meant nothing to me 8 years ago.

As I write this, I am still reading it so perhaps a review is a little premature. Still, for reasons I shall get into in another post, I am not just caught up with thoughts of making a difference, but also with the realisation that achievement doesn’t necessarily follow purpose. At least, not immediately.

People who set out to make change happen, in whatever form, generally start with a huge well of good intention. If that intention is focussed, a sense of purpose, a clarity of vision is usually manifested and energies become more tightly concentrated and results a little more efficaciously attained.

And yet, there is much more to success. A wrong strategy, failure to leverage on the resources at hand, poor strategy, even the lack of the right mix can make the road so much tougher. And that is where ‘hope’ comes into the picture.
The blurb on the cover proclaims that this book explains ‘how little things can make a big difference’. Reading that, I was transported back to my earlier thoughts on ‘gnat bites’. And how millions of Malaysians, together, made change happen on March 8.

How much change can one person, one gnat, create? Or perhaps, we should be asking how much change one person can influence.

The answer appears to be ‘quite a lot indeed’.

Tipping Point is, to me, a book of hope. Gladwell examines the little factors that lead to a tipping point - a moment when an idea or a trend catches on and spreads like wildfire. Citing examples like Hush Puppies shoes (remember when they went out of fashion? And then suddenly caught on again?), he explains that it really is ‘the few’ that create change in the many.

And that is why I think this is a book of hope.

Gladwell goes on to talk about ‘stickiness’, that aspect of an idea that is engaging, captivating, appealing, compelling and I’m currently at this point, about halfway through the book, immersed in ideas why Sesame Street works, and why Blue’s Clues works better.

I’ve been quite busy of late and have not devoured this book in my usual manner. As such, it has been accompanying me everywhere for those few minutes when I do have time. Some have accused Gladwell of over-simplyfying or failing to consider or do justice to some key research. Perhaps, nevertheless, it is an absorbing read and I can’t wait to finish it. I may then have a more complete review.

Have you read this? Tell me what you think.


Forever Falls - a day trip to Selama in Perak

Fishing in Oil Palm Estates It seems this part of Perak is all about waterfalls. We’d seen signboards for so many in our recent travel...